Half Of My Heart Is In Havana – Far Cry 6

far cry 6 Dani in the capital city of Yara, car, high rise apartments and poster of  Antón Castillo
image credit Ubisoft Far Cry 6 fan kit

Set in the fictional Caribbean island of Yara, Ubisoft’s Far Cry 6 is a showcase of adrenaline and breathtaking locale. The series known for its over the top action and darker themes borrows at times from real life events, and like the Camila Cabello song you might hear on a radio in the game referenced in the title of this review, is very much based on a real place.

The richly detailed environments push the limits of even the highest end gaming hardware today, setting a high bar few other games released this year could approach. It flexes first its credentials as an action title, and then sets out to establish a story the player cares about. Or stories, plural, as it plays more like a good show on Netflix. Here in the finer details is where everything could have gone wrong, but turned out to be the best risk they had taken yet.

Dani Rojas, cover image with rifle and red smoke

The return of voiced protagonist to Far Cry is Dani Rojas, a reluctant heroine who at the onset of the game dreams of a better life away from her homeland in Miami. Unlike the previous protagonists in Far Cry games, Dani gets a full part on camera during dialog and in cut scenes. The difference is just the first way the team set this apart from the series before it, and it is not a small detail. The way the character interacts or even comments out loud on the world around her takes this further, even down to the way she occasionally hums or sings along to the radio while in the car. It is through her eyes and experiences the world of Yara comes to life.

Opposite Dani is the villain Antón Castillo, the Yara’s El Presidente played by Giancarlo Esposito. For a series known best for its iconic bad guys, they did not hold back creating a part that seemed made for the actor. The character of Antón steals the scene – commands it – whenever he speaks. It is very effective storytelling.

Antón Castillo , close up of expression as he listens

The narrative and writing teams on Far Cry 6 put their best work into the depth of cast and individual stories told in each of the regions explored in the game. The people Dani meet are the heart of the game, from families impacted by Castillo’s regime to farmers and musicians and artists or resistance fighters ranging from street gangs to veteran guerillas of generations prior wars. The struggles like those of the Montero family or Radio Libertad are the ones that really grabbed hold of me and did not let go. Far Cry does a good job of being both a game for fun and not losing sight of the bigger picture, giving each location the time and attention to detail to do it justice. I never felt in a hurry to leave an area, and fell in love with the characters I met. The stories felt personal. This was no accident.

Ubisoft described some of the work that went into creating the world of Yara, and the real places they visited and people they interviewed, including family of guerillas who lived through similar events that would serve as a backdrop for Dani’s journey. Every writer, artist, musician and actor who worked on it spoke seriously on the inspirations they found that went into the game. Their stories were important to them and the evidence is in the results. The Montero family seemed less like quest NPCs and more like people you might actually know and care about.

By the time the credits rolled I felt like I had been a participant in something extraordinary, and found myself thinking long after on what I had played.

If you had played the previous Far Cry games and are curious, Far Cry 6 does not “end” after the main story and has plenty to do after. I completed the main story in about fifty hours with time spent on most of the side stories, which I felt was a good length for the game. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for comparison was around 110 hours, counting only some of the side content.

I am looking forward to the DLC content for Far Cry 6 which includes stories from three other Far Cry games focusing on the villains Vaas, Pagan Min and The Father.

sun rise in Yara, scenic view from atop a hill. far cry 6
Far Cry 6 screen shot taken on Xbox

“Sable” – Brilliance in simplicity

Sable Game screenshot rider on bike, dust trail and city in the distance

I don’t have a clear memory of how I was recommended to pick up Sable. Whichever games writer it was, I should thank. Developed by Shedworks, Sable quietly upended my gaming nights, challenging the notion that one had to suffer to grow or to fully appreciate the challenge of a video game. It is a masterpiece in simplicity, driven by a curious spirit and subtly. Sable is an exploration dream game that I am happy exists today.

Sable tells the coming of age story of a young girl who must leave home on a journey called The Gliding. Gifted the power of the “Perpetual”, she can hover to glide from one high point to another. Her only other boon is her hover bike, which she shares an almost spiritual connection with. In The Gliding she will discover new places, help others and when she is done, choose her mask.

The symbolism here simultaneously overt and loaded with subtext to ponder. Through the tasks she completes and places she visits, she earns and collects a number of decorative masks that tell a story of how she earned them or an idea they represent.

Featuring virtually no sense of conflict of any kind, danger of dying or punishing loss of progress, Sable sets itself apart in simple expressions of wonder. A detailed room in a ruin, or view cresting a hill and the mere suggestion there may be something to see or find further on. The exploration and climbing puzzles do get progressively more challenging and always assumed some degree of thought to solve, but never felt like tests of patience or frustrating.

sable climbing a difficult slope

The characters are well written and likable, anchoring the lighthearted tale. The beautiful style of art has to be seen in motion to fully appreciate, and makes powerful use of lighting and changing colors to bring the cell animated world to life. The original music score by Japanese Breakfast may be one of my favorite details, redefining what it might mean to actually unwind while enjoying a game. The music is soothing, playful and perfectly matches the setting. One could almost imagine the world built backward to accommodate the sound.

Sable is one of the very few games I played until I had every achievement unlocked. It was worth every moment. I still find myself thinking about the story, the characters and which mask I ended up choosing in the end.

The game is suitable for all ages, kids young and old as they say. At time of writing, it is available on Xbox Gamepass.

sable riding hover bike with light trail in a high contrast forest at night

My review of “Lost in Random”

image credit EA – official store pages for the game

“Lost in Random” is delightful, different in the right ways and drop dead gorgeous. Told in six acts, this puzzle exploration adventure follows Even on a journey to save her sister Odd from the nefarious Queen of the Kingdom of Random. The art style is a triumph of twisted dreamscapes telling a distinct story of each of the areas in the Kingdom. While one may be tempted to compare the trip down the rabbit hole to one or more other popular stories with unusual styles of art, Lost in Random seems quite comfortable being itself instead. Setting itself further apart is the combat gameplay and your adorable companion, Dicey.

Battles in Lost in Random put the player much closer to action than most 3rd person floating camera style games, which is where the zany art and fantastic animations really shine. Collect and draw “at random” one of many ability cards, which Even executes with a bodily toss of her dice friend. Some grant her a sword or bow, heal or shield her or unleash havoc in a number of other creative ways. Even’s voice actress plays a big part in setting the tone for fight sequences as the spoken lines not only pair with direct actions, but also continue the specific scene within the story. Combat never felt like an interruption in the story, and some of the best dialog between Even and the numerous adversaries she faces takes place in the thick of an encounter. The end result is a huge compliment to the voice talent that worked on the game and feels almost like a stage performance in several parts.

I reserved my last compliments for the character and story writers – I felt very engaged in what was easily a storybook come to life from the start. They hit all of the right notes – a lot of laughs, a few tears and many characters that were memorable because they were different.

Lost in Random is not exceptionally difficult but did get tough in a few encounters. I played it in approximately one sitting per act – about a weeks worth of evenings. It would be possible to complete much quicker if you rush through.

Lost in Random, night in Two Town.
Even and Dicey admire a mysterious mural

Bless Unleashed – Tips for dealing with the mid-level advancement wall

If there was an award for “Not the Worst MMO”, Bless Unleashed would certainly qualify. A nice mix of first generation MMO RPG shared world experience and current gen graphics, it has fun combat and a good challenge later in the game. As I mentioned in a previous post, it also has a mountain of bugs and tuning issues that cast shadows on the better parts of the game. Here are a few tips I would give to friends who were considering the game, or who had played previously and quit due to frustration.

Invest in a B Grade Weapon early

The gear that drops from activities falls way short of the advancement curve by the mid-teen levels, until leveling becomes prohibitively difficult due to gear score penalties. Eventually, a red penalty foe has a whopping 66% damage reduction buff that makes facing them almost certain folly. Even in a group you would be a liability to keep alive. B grade weapons and armor with “OK” stats are saturated on the player driven Market Place, and can be found pretty cheap at pretty much any hour of the day. The items may not be keeper gear for end game, but will make the teen and early level twenty content fly by.

When to use Common Enhancement vs Master Enhancement

This same B grade gear can carry you to the “end” of the first major story with some care and upgrades, but herein lies the most immovable part of the advancement wall. Budgeting Gold, Artifact Cores, Star Seeds and Repair tools will challenge even the most resourceful player. It helps to understand the built in risk and cost of each type of enhancement vendor. The Common Enhancement vendor takes Gold and Artifact Cores, the Master Enhancement vendor takes Star Seeds and Cores but does not have a risk of damaging or downgrading your equipment – which happens startlingly often. By that I mean, you will absolutely trash your gear and lose progress. The failure rate is much higher than 50%, so approach with caution.

For gear that is unenhanced for it’s rarity (blue, purple, etc), the first upgrade cannot damage the equipment so should always be done at the Common Enhancement vendor. If you have a repair tool, the second upgrade should also be done at the Common vendor as a failure can be recovered from without risk of further damage, at least to the first bar. The third bar is a gamble, as it will cost a lot less gold than seeds but cannot be recovered without risking a second failure. Remember what I said about failure rate being higher than 50%? Failing twice or more in a row at the common vendor is a regular occurrence. Anticipate disappointment.

Star Seeds are throttled to a daily maximum per character exchange rate from gold, and obtained from limited other activities or season pass rewards. When you first start you may find yourself a surplus of these before you needed them, but eventually you will be bound by the daily cap to get new ones aside from good luck selling loot and resources on the market place. This makes the Master Enhancement vendor very expensive, although safe from risk of damaging and downgrading gear. For any gear I care about, I use the Master vendor for the third through fifth bars and the upgrade to the next tier. Once you are through the surplus of seeds you started with and fixed to the daily allowance of seeds, you will be able to afford to try and upgrade maybe one or twice a day per character. You might have a few days without any success at all. Naturally, if you have a knack for making a profit on selling loot and resources on the market place, you will have a lot less problems budgeting seeds for upgrades.

Eventually your gear score will creep out of the penalty for content in the late twenty range, where you will start seeing better loot to swap out your leveling gear and fine tuning your build for harder content, which will in turn net the gear to keep progressing. You will need approximately 860-900 gear score to complete the last steps of the main story, with end game bosses starting around 1100 gear score and up. It’s a bear, but the dungeons and challenges later are worth the climb. PvP after level 28 introduces several new ways to upgrade gear and is fun, and is a great way to meet competent dungeon mates as well. PvP will also teach you a LOT about which character build you may care to focus on and your overall survivability.

Do Regional Quests

Long before side quest availability tapers off in the late twenty range, you will have always available regional quests that award both XP, trash gear for artifact cores, and a fixed percent of skill experience points. The latter, SXP, is vital to upgrading your blessings to make sure you are doing the most damage you can in dungeons and other challenging content. There is no time too soon to start banking skill points for blessings you have yet to unlock, the later ones need 25 or more points to complete and aren’t viable when acquired (Crescent Moon, etc) without 5-10 points for unlocks upfront. As the number of SXP is fixed per activity and the SXP advancement rate is flat, running all of the available Regional Quests is the fastest way to get skill points by far.

Do the Repeatable Quests

When you first find each region’s repeatable quest NPC, it isn’t clear right away that these activities will eventually be required for one of the stronger blessing unlocks and late game advancement. If you wait until level 25 to start working on the repeatable quests for reputation, you will be days or a week or more off the minimum rep for the prestige quests, which are a fixed block for quest advancement after a certain point in the story. It is a deliberately built in advancement wall to prolong the time it takes to reach the last dungeons and boss encounters. I don’t like this design decision but Elder Scrolls Online had a similar veteran rank advancement wall when it first shipped that was far worse in my opinion, and not even in the same category as the World of Warcraft barriers to end game raiding.

Yes, it’s a grind.

Like pretty much every live-content ongoing game online today, after a point in the story you repeat content to continue advancing. Honestly I don’t think Bless Unleashed is worse than Destiny 2 for “the grind”, nor any other hybrid RPG shooter with character advancement beyond the story. There is a reason this type of post launch content is ubiquitous on consoles today and that is a lot of people enjoy it. Bless Unleashed isn’t a terrible grind and with additional content presumably in the pipes may be worth the time investment.

If you found this article I hope these tips help, or are at least somewhat cathartic to see someone else dealing with the same issues in an otherwise salvageable game. Now to get back to the game and Queue Red Basin 🙂

Bless Unleashed – Unrequited Love of a Damaged MMO

image credit majornelson.com article

It would be a MMO RPG that spurred me to write again, and Bandai Namco’s “Bless Unleashed” was just the mix of three generations of gaming to make it happen. Equal parts first gen EverQuest, early World of Warcraft and current gen free to play titles like Black Desert or Elder Scrolls Online, Bless Unleashed hits all of the high and low notes at once. The combat combo system is attractive and the map is sprawling with locales that can be familiar and new at the same time. It also boasts one of the better character customization systems in the genre, both in comical and heroic proportions. The main story is long and characters are interesting. In many ways it looks like a valiant effort to create an new world that was the best of classic MMO RPG with substantially less load times and modern graphics. In some ways it succeeds, but the survival of the game is at risk from a mountain of bugs and progression tuning problems that eventually break the game completely. It’s down and needs a revive.

I’ve never been overly critical of games that ship with bugs, so issues like inconsistent line of sight and how AI or combat targeting react to it that are common in other titles I can deal with. Spells can hit objects that don’t seem to be in the way or just detach from the active target completely for no effect. Occasionally, the character will not start a new attack without warning until you roll to evade, which can be fatal. You get used to it, but it happens often enough that even well planned fights against multiple opponents can turn due to a glitch that does not reflect the skill of the player. You adapt, but it is a tough learning curve for players and very frustrating in challenging content.

Unfortunately, one of the better features of the game – crafting and upgrading gear – has one of the worst problems in the game. By design, gear upgrades require one of several currencies and various resources that can be limited per day if you do not have a surplus, and mid-to-late game demands you push your equipment to the limit. The problem itself is in the built-in failure rate of upgrade attempts along with the penalty of the failure, can not only downgrade your gear but cost one or more days of work. The rate of failure is definitely higher than 50%, with comments in chat about “six failures in a row” being a normal occurrence. With no way to reduce or eliminate this risk the equipment enhancement and crafting system is a model of unsustainability. There is no way to improve the chance of failure, only ways to shift how much of which currency your next attempt will cost. At current, each of my sessions ends with “can’t try again until tomorrow, no reason to keep playing” in which I will cross my fingers that I can get my gear back to where it was days ago and not worse.

There is no justification, no programmatic resource economy drain or gear advancement curve that could not be better solved by making the upgrade cost the actual expected number of resources, or at least off set by a way to negate the chance of failure (which itself is still a sum of resources).

Third, the problem with gear enhancement is blown into catastrophic proportions by the odd mid-twenties story advancement difficulty scaling relative to available rewards. Players may expect that if they complete all available main story and side quests that they will have at least the minimum gear to continue playing the story as they reach new areas, but in Bless Unleashed this is wildly far from the case. By 22, with plenty of time revisiting older areas, repeating existing dungeons and bosses, and pouring resources into crafting until I have no more on hand than I gather the same day and my hero is killed nearly instantly by common monsters in the area the main story has progressed to. It is possible beta was too short for this to be explored by a wide audience, and is certainly fixable, but currently it will be a hard progression blocker for the majority of players who would try this game.

By that I mean you literally cannot finish the story in this game, at all. Not without unnatural piles of resources like “star seeds” that are bought with gold and available from limited sources in a normal play through. Only the highest level characters can afford to amass them and market imbalance makes the items they sell available only to other players with similar resources. This would be a much different situation if the gear advancement wall was at the last phase of end game content, but as it stands this is a wall fifteen levels too soon and every one of my usual play group, including the person who recruited me to the game, had already given up by level 20.

It would be incomplete to discuss how this being “free to play” contributes to the problem, and how it doesn’t. Aside from “resource gathering boosts”, which can be purchased with real money, there is no tie between the fun cosmetics and and quality of life services available with lumena and the crafting system or progression curve. Most of the mounts or costumes or season pass boosts available for purchase together still do not approach the usual shelf cost of a 60 dollar game. Heck, for that matter most of players I know of Bungie’s “Destiny” spent the shelf cost, full price for each DLC and probably that much again for cosmetics, so Bless Unleashed by comparison is hardly a cash-pit. Still, I’d rather have spent a little on a cool warg mount because I was feeling great about the game, rather than as a conciliatory purchase for hoping an extra alt and more grinding would fix my main character’s broken gear.

It is still a new game. World of Warcraft had issues of its own for the first half year, perhaps a bit later into the progression curve. It would take years before the end game content was available for more than a few percent of the active playerbase, so in that manner Bless Unleashed is in good company.

I just hope that Bandai Namco can come through with that clutch resurrect.

Eight Things Fallout 76 Gets Right

Despite the emergence of a hate click economy, some people are still enjoying their video games. Fallout 76 is the latest to weather the manufactured rage of an increasingly toxic online community, and will be a new measure of a publishers resilience to criticism. While Bethesda games have earned a certain infamy for shipping with a lot of bugs, and Fallout 76 certainly did, I believe most of the criticism leveled against the game is undeserved. There are quite a few innovative ideas pushed in the latest title in the franchise, ideas I hope are not drowned out by malcontent noise. Here are just eight of the reasons I am enjoying Fallout 76 as much as, and in some ways more than Fallout 4.

Everything is a side story. For every player that has ever put off the “main story” in a Bethesda title for as long as possible, or rushed through it, Fallout 76 is a natural leap forward. There is absolutely no camera-stealing main quest or cut scene heavy narrative – only audio tape and written notes hinting at things you can optionally pursue. It errs on the side of next to no direction at all, making every snippit of lore hinting at something to find a bit more interesting. Some of it is just flavor, but most of the time it is very effective at creating a storytelling device in a world in which everyone is dead except for you and the other players. There are a lot of different opinions on how this was executed, but I felt it is a near-perfect survival horror RPG atmosphere; one that is frequently dark, occasionally funny and often sad.

Puzzles you have to read to solve. Some quests are more forgiving than others for auto suggesting the next step hints (or marking an exact location for you), but in a lot of the find-it-yourself exploration puzzles key clues require actually listening to the content of the audio tapes or reading computer files and paper notes.. It has been a while since any RPG game outside the indie circle tasked players with basic deduction or light reading to solve dungeons, which I am thrilled to see in a full release of Fallout. I hope the next Elder Scrolls carries the torch.

The “Dragonborn” trope no more. Not to pick on Skyrim specifically, which I still rate as one of my ten favorite games of all time, but the “savior” trope in so many single player RPG and Action Shooters is so common that the story devices to explain them in later sequels are even tropes themselves. From Halo to Mass Effect and earlier Elder Scrolls titles, the “avatar” essentially becomes legend – occasionally even a literal deity. Some series (looking at you, 343) have yet to resolve this and it begins to drag the character down. You save the world NN times and eventually you are a parody of yourself.. but I digress. Fallout 76 avoids this with grace with their tiptoe into multiplayer, making everyone a survivor of one of the earliest vaults to open after the bombs drop – and each left to their own motivations create a narrative highly resistant to predictability.

Character build feels meaningful. The fresh face of the series S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat advancement lends itself to diverse builds and a proper sense of character ownership. Being able to collect and eventually switch out different sets of ability cards for different play styles takes this further, making the deep spec system of Fallout 4 seem primitive in comparison. In a December update, an additional feature will be added to allow players to respec these points (perhaps at a higher level, when it would make the most sense) to better fit their card collections.

Power Armor is useful again. This was actually one of my biggest complaints about Fallout 4, which was that Power Armor was relatively fragile even with upgrades and a properly outfitted hero with advanced light armor upgrades could match or outperform a suit of Power Armor wearing upgraded civilian attire. Too many times I would collect fusion core fuel for my suit to tackle a difficult area only to carry broken pieces of the armor out with the loot I did get. Worse yet, these sets weren’t all that easy to collect, which means that my top tier set with fancy paint job was more or less just a display piece unless I wanted to ruin it by wearing it once. Fallout 76 is almost the opposite case – I feel safe in my armor, and the wear is slow enough that with care I can collect everything I would need to fix it before it actually breaks. Fusion core fuel is still rare enough to make it feel valuable, but otherwise obtainable enough I can wear my Power Armor all the time.

Crafting. Like a good RPG, crafting evolves with level, and finding new plans and recipes makes for a natural reward system for doing otherwise optional side quests. There are also some plans you can only get by capturing workshops, which dips into potential player vs. player engagement. By blending gear, C.A.M.P., food and water upgrades into your crafting progression makes the time spent working on crafting worth while.

Multiplayer-light is strangely effective. I had more apprehension on how this would work than any other feature ahead of trying the game, and have been pleasantly surprised that it feels exactly like I expect Skyrim might have as a multiplayer title, not worse or better. Interactions are far from mandatory, outside of proximity chat being on by default. If someone attacks you, you can opt to ignore them and they will do next to no damage until you attack back – which you can manage somewhat by using V.A.T.S. to target to help avoid accidentally striking another player unless you mean to. Individual mileage may vary here, and it is open to some troll-ish behavior, but by comparison I would say trolling in Fallout 76 is very mild compared to troll playgrounds like Sea of Thieves (which to be fair, is part of their pitch, after all). Dying in PvP feels well balanced, and cooperative play seems intuitive enough. I’ve probably played 80% solo, but each time I do team up with a few friends we have had a lot of fun no matter what we were working on. Many of the quests or location specific events work best with multiple people, which is a welcome change to puzzles in Fallout.

Playing without saves changes how I play. Every Elder Scrolls and previous Fallout title to date shared in common the need to save frequently and sometimes in multiple save slots in the event of sudden death (or progression-breaking glitch), which intentionally or not lends to a certain sense of safety that you can quickly rewind time if something goes wrong. Moving to a persistent online world trades off this ability, making for a greater sense of caution and thinking ahead, and combined with the added requirement to manage your own food water and general health sets a completely different tone; one more fitting of a survival horror. This feature was actually key to how survival mode in Fallout 4 worked, but was probably only experienced by a small subset of players who saw it as a enticing challenge. Now in Fallout 76, when you get surprised by a pack of Super Mutants and the first sound you hear is “CATCH!” followed by a grenade-close warning, you get the full experience of the ambush rather than just reaching for the quick-load hotkey. Forget to check a sketchy area doorway floor once for a trap wire and you’ll visually check every room you walk into after that – guaranteed. (well, until you don’t and die anyway, but I digress again). This change alone evolves the title into something a lot more engaging in ways previous Fallout weren’t – at least out of the box.

To conclude, I do concede that there are a lot of bugs still to fix in Fallout 76 that should have been fixed before it shipped, but I do not subscribe to the toxicity that thrives in the online gaming community at the release of practically every other game these days. Fallout 76 is a great game and a worthy addition to the franchise, and I hope the same creative minds that made it possible are not discouraged from pushing the envelope in the future by a narrow subset of noisy gaming fans.

Now, back to West Virginia to see what other new friends Rose has for me to meet.

Three Sheets to the Wind – Thoughts on the Sea of Thieves Beta

It is easy to see why there are so many poems about the ocean. “My heart lies in the sea, at anchor”, and so forth. Not many games manage capture this feeling, an intangible, deep enjoyment of sailing. Not only does Rare Ltd pull it off but spectacularly so, crafting an experience so engrossing time slips away, day turns to night as you navigate under starry water-colored skies. But this is no ordinary seafaring simulator – these waters are a veritable nest of knives; a voyage punctuated by completely unhinged PvP hijinks and peril. Sea of Thieves is a masterpiece-in-progress.

Pirates, In Progress

The beta being a slice of early gameplay features just one of the quest-giving characters at the starting island, and most of the character or ship customization has been kept under wraps for now. Your pirate is randomly generated for the beta, and you start with all of the basic equipment you’ll need and a ship appropriate to the size of your crew. If you begin alone or with just one teammate, you have a single mast, two-cannon ship that is smaller, fast and relatively easy to manage. Team up with three friends and you get an impressive warship with three masts and a mouthful of cannons, but have more to manage in terms of keeping sail length and angle ideal for wind conditions. Other tasks aboard include repairing the hull should it be damaged by rocks or cannon fire, bailing water from any number of ways it can get aboard, reloading cannons and keeping a sharp eye out for other ships. Between destinations you can get fall-down drunk, dance and play music together with your crew. Players must communicate to navigate, as the ships map and wheel cannot easily be crewed by the same person – and definitely not when the pressure is on. It is important that everyone on the crew is able to do most of the tasks required to keep the ship off the rocks and in fighting shape, as once combat starts all hell breaks loose.

Salty Dogs

Dying in PvP is worth a brief stay on a ghostly Ferry of the Damned; a short time-out before returning near your last location. Shoot, stab and outwit the opposing crew, steal any treasure they may have had and protect your own. Escape, or for the truly committed: sink their ship. More than likely, a lot of the above with perhaps a pursuit mixed in. The penalties for dying are only relative to the risk of losing the treasure chests, for which the treasure maps may have cost some gold. This dynamic fuels a nothing to lose, winner takes all spirit. As of closed beta there is no strict PvP ranking, scoring, tracking or advancement other than the standard advancement for turning in a treasure chest. As-is, this works great and keeps superfluous concepts of kill-death ratio off the table, and negates some potential for griefing or other bad behavior. That isn’t to say you wouldn’t run the chance of encountering a crew with underhanded intentions or find yourself attacked while vulnerable, but rather that the reward for attacking a smaller crew isn’t measurably better than sailing to find your own treasure, nor is the setback for failure. As the game heads to retail release I hope any system added later to augment or celebrate PvP maintains some code of honor to preserve the current zany feel of ship to ship combat.

In spirit of full disclosure, my very first treasure chest was quickly swiped by a pirate who had trailed me to the island and watched me dig it up. He however had forgot to put anchor down on his own ship. I didn’t get the chest back, but he had a long swim back to that ship, if he ever got there. I think I saw sharks. Lessons, learnt.

Scanning the horizon

Tangle with a few well-coordinated crews and you’ll develop a good habit to mind the horizon. You will also do well to keep good friends. Sailing alone, as well described right in the opening menu of the game is quite dangerous. Crewing your ship solo is difficult enough without a cannon in sight, and truly frightening when you spot the topsail of a triple mast ship… with lanterns dimmed and bow in your direction.

Beta only provides a basic glimpse at how character advancement will work, which appears to follow an intuitive “get maps and find treasure” curve. More advance maps have multiple treasure chests and may also require solving riddles or locating and defeating enemies. As you rank up better gear and more advanced objectives unlock. Presumably this will include ship and character customization in final release.

I really enjoyed every minute of beta, and am excited to see the final work at release. I recorded a few clips of solo game play from one of my return voyages, mostly just sailing, but they show a glimpse of how pretty the game is.

I hope to see you on the high seas!

Star Wars Battlefront II – Not A Trap, Actually

Crush the Rebellion. Commander Iden Versio leads Inferno Squad from the written novel page to a breakout cinematic gaming experience that has to be played to believe. Combining the solid variety of multiplayer and arcade game modes of the first next-gen Battlefront reboot, stunning top shelf graphics and the A+ story mode the series deserves, EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II is the game we were looking for. Or, so the developer had hoped.

With launch week marred by a few wildly out of control fans threatening individual developers over micro-transaction related features, the opening cry of horns and trumpets felt more like a disturbance in the force. I feel this was hugely undeserved and representative of an increasingly toxic culture within gaming that has soured the launch of many titles the last few years, and in this case, it was over mostly bogus information. Even today I see negative comments about the game tied back to an idea that you have to pay real money to unlock certain heroes, which is inaccurate in more than one way.

Edit 11/17 – Huge Update: EA removes micro-transactions, for now

Heroes unlock via in-game credit system, NOT from real-world purchased currency.

Star Wars Battlefront II has two forms of progression, one represented by experience points earned only through multiplayer matches, and another measured by “credits” earned through all activities, including a big handful for story mode and more via tutorials, challenges in all game modes, and based on merit in multiplayer. Game Revolution breaks down specifically how long they estimate it would take to unlock all of the heroes, but not counting the large chunk of credits you’ll have after finishing the story and some arcade (from which you can definitely get your favorite hero), it is reasonable to expect you could unlock a hero in a night or two of regular gaming. Furthermore, none of the “crystal” credits you can purchase with real money can be used to unlock heroes, and the crates you can buy with those crystals will not unlock a hero, so there is literally no way to unlock the hero with cash. This is a far cry better than the “time saver” bundles available to be purchased for other EA shooters, which actually do unlock functionally superior equipment and loadouts other non-pay-to-win players have to earn via advancement.

Edit: As mentioned in a release day statement (11/17/2017), EA has since turned off micro-transactions and disabled use of the “Crystals” credit option, which will be reintroduced at a later date following review of the feature.

As Game Revolution also points out, there are other potentially more valuable things to spend your in-game credits on, like upgrading the loadout for the base troopers and vehicles you are leveling up, which gives players more choices on how to advance and get an edge in fast-paced multiplayer.

My officer is almost level 15

Crates, earned for completing challenges, logging in daily or when purchased via in-game credits or crystals, do contain Star Card upgrades that directly improve your loadout in multiplayer, so there is validity to the idea that you can buy superior gear with cash, but you get these so frequently there is hardly merit to dropping your beer night monies into randomly drawn upgrade cards you already get multiples of in an average gaming night.

Bomber with an astromech repair upgrade Star Card

 

No, seriously, these are the droids we are looking for

I am actively recommending Star Wars Battlefront II to all of my gaming friends. The gameplay is a fantastic mix of the more serious, gritty Battlefield 1 it shares an engine with and the lighter-hearted arcade feel I associate with Star Wars titles. The various maps and game modes draw from at least all seven main movies, and includes additional locations and references to anthology and novel locations including Christie Golden’s “Inferno Squad”. Every aspect of the game from the breathtaking cinematics and rousing story to the frequently cheeky humor in multiplayer and kid-loose-in-a-toy-store flight combat shows the developers share a true passion for Star Wars and for great gaming. The actor capture and performances make it feel like you are in the movie, and I was left stunned at its conclusion.

I hope to see you online in a galaxy far, far away!

 

Five Fortnite Tips I Wish I Had Known

We thought we were prepared for the storm until it got ugly. In the distance, we heard the bellowing roar announcing the arrival of a colossal mutant zombie known best as a Smasher. Down to the last magazines of ammunition and with weapons looking the worse for wear, there was little more than harsh language between the behemoth and the hastily boarded up wall around our objective. Epic Games’ Fortnite is a clever mix of quick thinking, base defense building, exploration and all out combat. Although it can be played alone it is geared towards play with a full team of four players, and the harder the missions the more extreme the challenge. Thankfully the game shines best when the zombies are at their worst.

Fortnite is an “early release” title but plays as well as most released games, although it is not without a few bugs, performance issues and potential imbalances that may be changed later. Below are a few things I learned “the hard way” that I wish I had known when I started.

Green is Good

We’ve been taught in other games with similar loot rarity coloring that grey and green items are generally trash if you have access to better. Although this is technically true in Fortnite, green weapons and traps are particularly useful in that they require only common materials found in abundance on any map. Given that all items break fairly quickly and traps are one time use in every mission outside the storm shield base, knowing when a green weapon is good enough becomes critical to managing rare crafting resources you might not find every mission.

To be more specific, it is unlikely you will find enough “rotating gizmos” to replace 2-3 Epic weapons as fast as those weapons wear out. In some cases I would say this is true of even one Epic weapon – which could require three of these gizmos each, enough for three Rare weapons that are just as durable and almost as powerful. It is business as usual to be completely out of these key materials, and probably when you need them most.

The bottom line is don’t discard, recycle or otherwise lose the only green schematics you have for key traps and weapons. I’d keep at least one for each class of weapon and level up that schematic to make it closer to par with a rare blue of the same sort.

Examine Apparent Duplicate Rare Items and Heroes Twice

Any two items of the same rarity might look identical if you examine only the base stats, but in almost every case the optional stat bonuses for leveling up that schema will be randomly different. This is true to some degree for survivors, defenders and even Heroes. Before cashing in that hero for quick XP or collection book advancement, check the perks, support squad bonuses, and other abilities they would get if you leveled them up. Traps especially have different abilities when leveled that could make a huge difference, like in the case of passive floor and wall spikes.

For heroes, there are both support squad roles they can take and expedition seats to fill even if they aren’t among your favorite to play. In the case of the latter, expeditions become an important source of crafting materials and survivors later but require leveled up heroes – ones you spend XP on but can’t actually play while they are out on expedition. It makes sense to keep a deep bench of talent rather than retiring heroes for this reason alone.

Blue Rare Schematics may be better than Epic ones

Another way that rare crafting materials shapes the economy of the game is when you compare a Blue weapon and a Purple of the same type, and consider the cost of keeping your favorite weapon replaced once it is worn out. In almost every case I have examined, a Rare Blue schematic leveled to 10 is much better than a level 1 Epic Purple, but may cost half or a third the key materials. Sure, the level 10 Epic Purple weapon would do more damage but unless the perks included dramatic reduction in wear and tear, you aren’t getting “three times the weapon” out of it. The comparison gets even more comical if the Rare weapon has the wear rate reduction perk instead, also at the cheaper cost of materials. That blue sword will be more than just “good enough” long after the less durable purple one breaks.

Use the Outlander Pathfinder to gather.

All heroes do almost every task equally as well as one another – specially at the start of the game, with a few exceptions. Soldiers do get bonuses to ranged weapons, and in some cases stacking bonuses to a specific type of ranged weapon, but no one can hold a candle to the gathering mastery of a Outlander Pathfinder. Once you have “focused acquisition”  and “in the zone” perks, along with the ability to create Loot Llama supply drops the Outlander is significantly faster and better at locating and gathering treasure. The difference isn’t slight, even the 6% chance to find double loot is noticeable over the course of a single mission. Level up your Outlander further and you can see loot through walls and floors and even how rare it is. Given how often you will need to restock on materials needed to make ammunition and traps, the speed boost and faster pick-ax of “in the zone” is a welcome ability indeed.

Never overbuild.

Traps and any section of building count towards the build limit objective in almost every mission in the game. The limit and associated penalty for overbuilding is shared by the whole team, and is the highest weight penalty for end of mission scoring next to complete mission failure. Very few other objectives are classified as “gold” objectives, and most are ones you obtain through exceptional effort (rescued all bonus survivors, etc), rather than one you “lose” by being careless. Watch the build limit when you are setting up defenses or using stairs to reach loot and survivors. I try to stay under half the limit just in case zombies create an unexpected route to the objective or additional traps / healing pads have to be made in the heat of a fight. If your teammate looks like they are working on a masterpiece of excess mats, hold off on putting down floors or traps in hopes that they stop before they hit the limit.

Another way to help reduce build time and stay under the limit is to use perimeter walls sparingly – imagine funneling the zombies into a few open sections of the outer fence rather than trying to build a solid barrier. Save your fortress construction passion and skill for the more critical objective walls. Perimeter knee-high walls are easy to shoot over and will usually direct zombie traffic to a different (or less defended) entrance point, which is a great place to put a few key traps without needlessly carpeting the entire area in spikes.

 

Fortnite is a lot of fun, and is quite addictive. The early missions do a good job of introducing key mission concepts like building under a time limit to precise specifications under pressure, customizing structures and dealing with attacks from multiple directions, as well as effective exploration of an area for loot and survivors. The harder missions will test your teamwork, but these are also the best parts of the game. I hope the above tips make a difference in helping to keep you in gear when the hordes descend on your base, and enough ammunition left to drop that Husk Smasher. I hope to see you online!

My picks for best of E3 2017

A Way Out (Hazelight, EA)

My pick for best of show is Hazelight’s “A Way Out”. This story driven tale requires two players, and was designed to play split screen on a couch. It is one thing to create a great single player experience with optional multiplayer, but this flips the assumption entirely when the story is specially crafted to be told from split perspectives simultaneously. Given the variety of gameplay shown and innovative story telling on par with a good movie, I feel this will be the breakout title of 2017.

Anthem (BioWare, EA)

Shrouded in mystery, this new IP from Dragon Age and Mass Effect creator BioWare looks like a solid challenger to the “Destiny-esque” throne when it is released in 2018. There are a few moments in this trailer that remain my favorite from all of E3 – there is something magical about the perspective of putting on power armor and arriving at the jump point prior to heading into the wilderness. The flight mechanics looked like a Iron Man dream come true, but with even cooler heavy weapons.

As a fan observation, I thought a few things here reminded me distantly of Mass Effect 3. The design of the lead narrator’s helmet, a few NPC that appeared to possibly be a familiar non-human race, and ruins of a giant ringed structure and storm that to me resembles a mass relay. No word yet if this world exists in the same universe as the Mass Effect series, or if the art style is just a nod to their prior work.

image credit vg247

Life is Strange: Before the Storm (Square-Enix, Deck Nine Games)

We had heard some chatter from developers that a new content in the Life is Strange setting was in the works, but I didn’t expect to see a trailer for it at E3, nor how soon its first chapter would be released. I was also unprepared for how emotional it would be to see these characters again. The story appears to be told from Chloe’s perspective prior to the events of the original series over the course of three new chapters. I’ve cleared my schedule for the day these come out, and look forward to these more than any cable tv series.

Edit: Corrected development studio to Deck Nine Games.

Ori: Will of the Wisps (Moon Studios)

The debut Ori and the Blind Forest was a masterpiece of difficult precision platform exploration puzzles that hail to an era of gaming I grew up with. Add to it gorgeous graphics, heartwarming story and a breathtaking musical score and you have Ori. Seeing Ori’s return in the 4K “Will of the Wisps” is very exciting news.

image credit vg247

Sea of Thieves (Rare)

Once you’ve seen actual Sea of Thieves gameplay footage from people who aren’t actors you immediately understand why they choose to use a typical gameplay scenario as the E3 trailer. This is a game that demos better than you could explain in as many words. Comedy, ingenuity, exploration and PVP mayhem. Oh, and Pirates, obviously. I can’t wait to play this with friends.

image credit Ubi Blog

Beyond Good and Evil 2 (Ubisoft)

A trailer for the long awaited sequel to Beyond Good and Evil was the big close to Ubisoft’s E3 show and was my favorite from the publisher this year.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Fortnite – Although it did not get a lot of screen time, Fortnite looks like an excellent twist on team survival defense games. It also has very interesting premium bundle pricing, the most expensive comes with two additional full copies of the game to give to friends. Given the team first emphasis of the game, it should do very well.

Forza 7 – It would be a rare show that didn’t have a Forza title to show off, but between the flagship Motorsport series and the openworld racing in Horizon, Forza enjoys a full lap advantage over the competition. Every iteration of the game improves on the last, and there is simply no other racer that compares to it in terms of pure driving enjoyment and vast range of features – nor one that looks half as good in 4K. It’s almost unfair.

Ashen – Beautiful water-color style cell-shaded graphics on what appears to be a co-op (?) dungeon explorer with freakishly awesome bosses not unlike those of Dark Souls. Can’t wait to see more on this.

image credit vg247

Mario Rabbids Kingdom Battle – an unlikely mashup of Nintendo’s Mushroom Kingdom and Ubisoft’s Rabbids, this tactical RPG-ish game packs signature crude humor and characters from both franchises into what looks like a riotous good time. I expect it will be a big hit.