Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Notable Games of 2014

I am listening through the Giant Bomb game of the year awards at the moment. It’s pretty much my favorite time of the year, and I’m noticing that there were more lows than highs in 2014. I definitely felt it in my own experience with games. I want to do a top 10 list, but there weren’t a ton of standouts, however I do want to talk about a few.
The first comeback game that soaked up most of my time this year. Spelunky is probably the purest game experience you can get. Anyone can play Spelunky and it’s just you vs. the game; its risk and reward. I wouldn’t even call it a roguelike, because the tools at your disposal are pretty limited, and all in all not needed to be successful.
I did not get it at first, as most people probably didn’t either. It’s a well-constructed onion, that each run, each death, peels back another layer until you get to the warm center; only then do you realize that the center is really another onion waiting to be explored.
It’s a punishing experience, but each punishment is really just a lesson in disguise. The reason I dropped so many hours into this game is because I’m either just bad at video games, or there are just so many ways to die, I mean learn. The fact that you and you alone are responsible for your success or failure is freeing to me in the new age of in game upgrades, pay/play, and iterative game progression.

Diablo 3:
Speaking of iterative game progression, this was another blindside that hit me this year in a big way. Diablo 3 was a big disappointment when it came out initially. The auction house may have been a good idea on paper, but it tainted the game experience and put a big glass window between you and the game experience. You could see the good loot, but it would always be out of your reach.
Reaper of Souls took everything great about the formula and dumped the rest. The loot mechanics got very interesting with different combinations of items, and some frankly overpowered weapons kept you thinking “Maybe just one more rift.” The reward progression may be formulaic, but Blizzard nailed it so that you could always experiment with different sets and skills to yield more loot, and faster runs.
I’ve come to think that players optimize all the fun out of the games they play, but Diablo kept me guessing what gear or skills became more effective, and I was having fun the whole time.

FTL: iPad:
I’m sensing a theme here. FTL is incredible. I started playing it back in 2012 when it came out for the PC. FTL is the first game I have ever played that was so good, the only way to stop playing it was to uninstall it.
Then they released a free expansion. I resisted.
Then they released it on iPad. I caved.
The cycle began anew and I was up till 3 am playing it the first day I got it.
The iPad version is definitely the best way to play it. I worked a lot of night shifts this summer and it was the perfect time to try to unlock every ship in the game. In doing so, you realize how deep the game is and how many different ways exist to play it. The only real complaint is, that the end boss is static and learning how to defeat him can be frustrating in that while there are many ways to play the game itself, there is only really one good way to defeating the huge wall of end boss that you run into. Still though, it’s rewarding every time you shoot down another ship be it big or small.
Oh, and the music is a treat.

Dark Souls/Dark Souls2:
I came into the Dark Souls game a little late (sensing a theme here) and it was a game I was scared to play. I think it sat in my steam library for a few months before I booted it up. I was right to be afraid.
Dark Souls is unforgiving, and refreshing. There are very real consequences in the game and failure is punished severely. Things that are intuitive and seemingly straightforward are not explained in the slightest; it took me a bit to realize that more armor is not always the right choice. It’s your job to learn how the world works, while the world is trying to murder you at the same time. It literally is a world that is seamless and exploring is the best part.
Bosses are rough. You need to be on top of your game to beat them, and even then you will probably fail a lot before you get it right. There is a reason that people brag about getting through the game naked, or as quickly as possible. There is a reason that games like Dark Souls and Spelunky exist that don’t hold your hand in the slightest, to make you a better video game player. Dark Souls holds the trophy for being the first game to intice me into throwing a controller in frustration, and breaking my headset (now bandaged up with electrical tape).
Dark Souls is a crucible that dedicated video game players should experience. The second one was not as impactful or good as the first, but is still a good game. It just suffers from sequel syndrome.

Shovel Knight:
I’m basically a Mega Man 2 fanboy, so I was required to buy and play this game. It’s fantastic.
Unlike a lot of other retro throwback games, Shovel Knight knew what to keep retro and what to adopt from modern games (though very little). Like all retro games, it’s all about pattern recognition. When to dodge and when to strike. I feel like the developers just decided to make Dark Souls into an 8 bit game. Even the currency in the game has the same use it or lose it feel as the souls games. Where a lot of retro games feel kinda samey and interchangeable, Shovel Knight has a lot of personality and style and takes itself just seriously enough.
The soundtrack makes me feel warm fuzzies all over. It does a great job at not being too chip tuney, while emulating instruments with growls and bleeps.

Destiny should have been game of the year this year.
Bungie did so many things right with this game and so many things wrong at the same time, and it barely averages out in the positive direction. The mere presence of this game affected the whole industry, and anyone who knows Bungie’s track record knew where to place their expectations.
Personal note: Bungie holds a special place in my heart. I have been playing their games from when they came on 3.5” diskettes. Pathways Into Darkness blew my mind at a time when Doom was the standard run and gun. Marathon was immersive and incredibly smart, and some of the best times of my youth were had blowing my family to bits with weapons from the future.
Halo was okay. Multiplayer matches with strangers are not my thing.
Destiny was Bungies foray back into immersive world experiences, and I knew what they were capable of. I was cautiously optimistic. The game sat on my PS3 for a couple days before I had the courage to boot it up. The campaign was adequate, but ultimately not enough. I played most missions on heroic before I just couldn’t keep up with the level difference between me and the enemies.
It was not an immersive experience and I guess that’s the biggest letdown. There is a dissonance that exists in Destiny (and a lot games) where you are a special snowflake, but so is everyone else. It’s hard to deliver an immersive experience, when there are strangers in your game. Right now video games are in mode, and for me a world with all highs, and fidelity is crucial to pull me in. I would have felt a lot happier if you could opt in the leveling up process as a single player experience, and once you completed it, the end game opened up.
Destiny does not do character progression well, and I realize how weak of an argument that sounds like to hold against the game. Your power level in the game comes down to pure, unforgiving math. If you are fighting a monster one level above you, you are at a severe disadvantage. In order to get more powerful, you need to grind. A lot. Sometimes grinding isn’t enough and you hope RNG is kind.
Where the loot game in Diablo felt right (slow and steady, very granular upgrades), Destiny gets it wrong packing so much weight behind your light score, almost to a quantum level. Where Diablo had essentially the same grind, it felt much more varied based on what kinds of elites you were up against, and a new set of randomly generated levels and enemies. Every single time you run each mission or strike in Destiny it is pretty much a carbon copy of the last time you ran it, and it gets old after the 2nd or 3rd time. Once you level up, congrats! Here is a new set of the exact same scenarios to run, but now your numbers match theirs!
The raid was good, but was misplaced. It could have been introduced at a much lower light requirement. I didn’t think the raid was heads and shoulders above the rest of the content of the game, and it certainly didn’t justify sinking as much time as Bungie expected you to in order to prepare for it. The weekly nightfall strikes are my favorite part of the game, as at least there is some variation in terms of which weapons are most effective that week.
Recently my biggest complaint in the game is that getting new loot is not fun. Once you level up your gear to maximum, any new piece of loot is just a distraction. Leveling up a new gun or armor is easily a 6 hour investment, and frankly that is way too much for Bungie to ask of its players. I got a new gun from a nightfall strike and let out an audible sigh, because fuck if I don’t care at all about doing identical content again and again to make a bar go up.
I played a lot of Destiny (and I still might), but unless one of my friends wants an extra gun for a raid or nightfall, I can’t be bothered to turn it on. Any more progression in this game feels like a step backwards.

Still playing/looking forward to:
Crypt of the Necrodancer – My first dipping of my toe into early access games, but so far this gem is great. I’m a sucker for sountracks. This game is evolving splendidly.
Shadow of Mordor – Okay people, I hear this game is good.
Bayonetta 2 -  I didn’t play the first one cause the main character seemed to be aimed at depressed otaku, but I hear the second is really good, and the scale and spectacle are great. I need this to be a super dumb fun game.
Tomb Raider – Heard good things about this one.
Lots of Indie Games – My cup hath overflow because of Steam
A Unicorn – I am sure there will be some game/genre that I detest fall into my lap and be the best thing I ever had.

Not going to play:
Dragon Age Inquisition – Doesn’t grab me. Skyrim was great, and so was Mass Effect. This sounds like a mashup I want to avoid.
Destiny – Maybe it will get the Diablo treatment eventually. Until then.
World of Warcraft – It’s just too much. Everything in that game is a known quantity, and the barrel was scraped a couple expansions ago. Now it’s just a vanity vehicle.
AAA games in general – I feel like EA/Ubisoft/Square/etc have gotten away with too much in 2014 and have been letting shit slide for a while. Time to take a break.

*edit* Wildstar - This game suffered from having an open beta. I might have actually gotten to level cap if I hadn't burned out on the leveling before the game even released. Award for making me nauseous even thinking about doing a quest. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Warlords of Draenor Garrison

I haven’t been very kind about garrisons since they were revealed at Blizzcon last year. My expectation were that it Blizzard was introducing a game within a game, and that the mini game would be required if you wanted to participate in other legacy aspects of WoW.
After playing the game for a month, I can say that my expectations were pretty spot on. Do you like to raid? There’s a building for that. How about PVP? Yep, building for that too. Professions have a building. Every one of them, down to the gathering professions. And yes, naturally you can’t build one of everything, so the player is supposed to tailor their selections based on what perks they want, so that they can compete in the fun aspects of the game.
There is one new element they added to the mix, and that is the missions/followers system. This is the most nefarious piece of the garrison, and one that I thought was fun at first, but have grown to despise. Via questing, dungeons and other activities you recruit followers from out in the world. They can be leveled up, geared up and upgraded so that they can take on missions for better and better rewards. You can get gear for raiding, gold, garrison materials and other stuff.
I’ve maxed out probably about 15 followers and I’m filling out my roster of 25, but after that it seems like this system is intended to dangle gear in front of your nose, so that you slowly and steadily keep leveling them up for better stuff. Same purpose as raids/content, but in a static menu driven, probability adjusted system. This casino is winnable, but the odds are stacked in favor of the house.
My major problem with this minigame is that it’s a distraction that silos players away from each other and the troubling thing is that I think this is probably the smartest thing Blizzard can do. Gamers are caustic, entitled jerks and probably shouldn't be interacted with at all. The garrison is a substitute for doing things in the world traditionally. The garrison is a sterile environment where the developers have absolute control over everything from the economy, to the rate of player progression. They can speed it up and slow it down based on how they feel. It feels dirty to me.
The garrison definitely satisfies the need for the player to log in on a regular basis. I expected it to be a good freemium game, and that expectation seems valid. It’s definitely a tool that takes freedom away from its player base, which to be fair the economy is one aspect that has been taken away by bots and gold farmers for a long time. It’s needed in that fashion I suppose, but Blizzard needs some competition from its own player base.
But why? Why does Blizzard force people into this sterile environment, populated by NPCs and controlled by developer balance? I feel like the entire WoW player base has just been assimilated into the matrix, and their sole purpose is to be a battery in keeping this monstrosity on life support, when I feel like its run its course. I mean, subscriptions I guess.
I’m kinda done with this after a month. The garrison is lame.
The only thing left for me in WoW is to raid with Something Wicked people and play with the friends I’ve made there and to do a little theory crafting where it is needed.