Halo, Anthem and why we don’t need another Destiny clone.

alternate title “A List Of Things I Hope Halo Infinite Is Not”

The Holiday season is looming, and the Halo Infinite launch party Xbox may once have intended to coincide with the release of the Xbox Series X is finally happening a year and many semiconductor and pandemic related delays later. It’s time to thaw Master Chief after an extended break following the 2015 release of Halo 5, in what 343 has once called a spiritual reboot for the flagship title of the Xbox brand. No pressure.

First, a story about why Halo is a bit personal to me. Years back when we were first living together, my wife picked up a copy of Halo: Reach for her Xbox 360 “to see if it was any good”. Neither of us had played a Halo before it, and I was into mostly fantasy RPG games. A weekend later, we had a second Xbox and another copy of Halo: Reach so we could play together. Soon we’d rearrange the living room to accommodate side by side TVs and forever changed what family night in looked like at our house.

Fast forward to present and on any given game night we may be on different games, single player games, watching a show or playing games with different sets of friends but we still play in parallel. There are a few games we still play together, or exclusively together, and Halo is one of them. As this next title nears release and I see features like cooperative play de-prioritized to make an already late release window, I can’t help but think of other titles we have been excited to try that did not turn out as well. Anthem comes to mind.

BioWare’s ill-fated epic multiplayer space opera fell far short of its potential. Anthem otherwise had all of the right ingredients – excellent flight and combat mechanics, innovative design, breathtaking views and top shelf graphics, a great team of writers and a likeable cast of characters. What went wrong? I can name one mistake, broadly, that no publisher is too big to repeat. Please stop trying to make another Destiny-style live service looter shooter.

Destiny itself is riddled with annoyances its player-base tolerates as they turn in each week to participate in what is otherwise an anomaly in the space-time fabric of gaming. Its success is despite of itself. Random loot rolls for the same limited set of weapons and armor is not the part of the game we need to copy. Another game that made this mistake and later course corrected was Assassin’s Creed Odyssey; the maddening, meaningless deluge of loot to be immediately deconstructed was addressed in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (thank you a thousand times).

It isn’t to say that there is no appeal at all in repeating the same content to try and get the ideal roll for your favorite set of gear, it is just that this cycle by itself can quickly become frustrating and lead to fast burnout. Adding in low drop rates or actual technical issues can turn the experience very negative fast for some players who feel like they put in the work but did not get the reward or expected progression credit. Sooner than the designer would hope, the game will get turned off. This is not hyperbole, but rather a recurring observation from my own home.

I liked Anthem. The storytelling and world-building reached straight into the depths of my imagination and did not let go. I trusted the talent behind two of my other favorite games of all time to be able to deliver something fresh and innovative. I even wrote a bit of fan fiction ahead of the release about one mysterious type of enemy character – ones that appeared to be a model of rogue hardware not unlike the heroes own. I feel like BioWare delivered on this much – the flight combat was as good as we hoped. They were just asked to fit it into a persistent world model it did not seem to be built to support. Fort Tarsis did not need to be Destiny’s Last City for us to love it. I could write for another hour what else they could have done differently but I am sure the team who worked on it knows better than anyone else what they wanted to accomplish.

Halo for me wasn’t ever what Destiny turned out to be, nor was it Call of Duty or Battlefield. Or Fortnite or Apex or Titanfall. Where I started with Reach, Halo was always about the fire team. Being an individual in a group working together to accomplish something heroic. I know for a lot of players Halo was first about playing as Spartan 117.

Master Chief. Blasting alien bad guys with a likable woman AI sidekick and delivering great one-liners in that iconic lead guy voice, this time in a giant open world environment. A face on the front of soda cans and bags of chips and boxes of cereal, a brand almost as recognizable as Star Wars. I have reservations and doubts about the character of Master Chief, who for some people is their Luke Skywalker in this story, but other people may wish to see more of themselves represented on screen. I get this is their “spiritual reboot”, but I hope 343 builds on the amazing cast they had assembled for the previous stories and continues to push the idea of Halo as a larger world than just John and Cortana.

I digress. To be fair, I don’t know exactly what an average week will look like in the life of a Halo Infinite player. The Destiny comparisons above might be totally inaccurate. If the Master Chief Collection or Halo 5 were a good indicator, it was a mix of incentives from both replaying story missions and playing various cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes. On paper, this is pretty much any successful game with live seasons today, but I don’t think any publisher is too big to get this wrong.

The genre today is flush with worlds that built on the success of early titles that include Halo, and a publisher may be motivated to make “the next Apex” or successor to the other title I’ve referenced already. No Brand Too Large to fall over itself to copy a new formula, like Battlefield launching the equivalent of straight to VHS (yes I’m old) title, skipping story mode completely in favor of a large format team battle that looks nothing like the ones it pioneered because that apparently worked OK for another recent title. Banking on microtransactions when they have been broadly frowned on as bordering on predatory. Halo is not and never was any of those things. This doesn’t have to be billed as “a return to form” if they just.. not try to be something else.

Halo Infinite may have launched without co-op story mode for valid reasons, one envelope pushed at the expense of another. I just hope the teams working on it were allowed to deliver the Halo they dreamed of working on.

My wife and I will see you on Zeta, in one game mode or another.

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

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.

Reinventing the Iconic – Mass Effect Andromeda

image credit vg247.com

Undaunted by the gravity of their own legacy, BioWare forges a new path forward. The premise of Mass Effect: Andromeda mirrors the new life of the franchise in more ways than one. Putting behind them one of the most epic science fiction sagas in video game history and all of the characters we had come to love is no small feat, a challenge other industry giants have avoided or outright failed at. Despite the rose colored lens through which the original, decade-old Mass Effect is viewed by many, Andromeda does just this.

Enter Sara and Scott Ryder, youthful recruits who along with their father joined the Andromeda Initiative to seek out a new home for humanity in the Heleus Cluster of the Andromeda galaxy. Scientists, unlike the soldier origins of CDR Shepard, the Ryders are a refreshing new look and feel for main characters. The crew and your squad mates include many races familiar to the original trilogy and a few new ones as well, all brilliantly voiced and brought to life in the stunning Frostbite engine – which is also new to the series.  With one of the best team of writers in the industry and more dialog than Mass Effect 2 and 3 combined, Andromeda may be the most ambitious and in-depth story BioWare has attempted yet.

As the experience unfolds and the player is introduced to both new and familiar activities and opportunities for exploration, the more close to home Andromeda feels. It feels like a Mass Effect title should from the outset – wasting no time putting your Ryder twin of choice into action and trusting the player to keep up with the lore and references without letting it get in the way. Returning players will find the new ship, the Tempest, is a fitting tribute to the Normandy, but is also comfortable being itself and has a fresh, elevator free layout. The all-terrain Nomad is even cooler than you remember the Mako being, which is great news because you’ll spend more time than ever behind the wheel in it. It inherits the mining and most of the scanning tasks that used to occur only from orbit in the original trilogy, and has its own tech upgrade tree along with the rest of your gear.

Speaking of upgrade trees, the character advancement and gear research and upgrade paths are an order of magnitude more complex than any of the previous Mass Effect titles. No longer limited to just one “class”, the Ryders can develop multiple combat profiles that cover all of the classic builds like soldier or infiltrator, and now also includes the biotic and tech tree skills once exclusive to the non-playable characters. The build choices are staggering at a glance, but are easy to get the hang of as you go along.

Combat sees a huge update, featuring faster movement, more agility and a bigger emphasis on coordination of abilities between squadmates to defeat difficult encounters. Players looking for a challenge will be pleased to find the harder difficulty settings are a step up from the prior titles, and require a lot more than just cover and ammo management to defeat hard encounters, even for returning veterans. Playing on one setting below “insanity” I died frequently despite a confident hard mode finish in the first three.

My ten hours in the play-first trial of Mass Effect: Andromeda sped by in an instant, just enough time to get my boots dirty and whet my appetite. It is not enough time to judge the story, which I’ve avoided discussing, but from what I have seen so far exceeded my expectations. I had concerns that BioWare would not be able to top what they had completed with closing chapters of Mass Effect 3 – nor fill the boots of an iconic heroine like Jane Shepard. Thankfully, Andromeda is following its own heart and I am looking forward to seeing where it goes.

For Honor – Such Beautiful Flaws

for-honor-standard-edition

Like a spring-loaded boxing glove in a shiny wrapped box, For Honor is the gift that keeps on giving well past your second black eye. Equal parts stunning faux-history medieval brawler and cruel test of patience and temper, Ubisoft’s unconventional arena fighter pits Knights, Samurai and Viking warriors in a cycle of never ending war. As unforgiving as it is breathtaking, it will bring out the worst – and occasionally the best – in any team.

The heart of the game is symmetrical, cinematic 1v1 Duels, 2v2 Brawls and a variety of epic 4v4 melee battle modes. Each of the three factions has four classes loosely categorized into well-rounded Vanguard, armored Heavy, nimble Assassins and wildcard Hybrids. However it would be more accurate to just say there are twelve characters, as you can only draw distant similarities between two of the same class, like the Samurai Hybrid and a Knight Hybrid, despite both using polearms. Each of the twelve has a staggering amount of visual and technical customization to further match a specific playstyle or loadout, with gear appearance and performance customization on par with the highest end RPG and way beyond anything I’ve seen in traditional arena games. The feeling of ownership of a fighter as you raise them, unlock feats and collect gear for different loadouts is only further emphasized when you’re thrown into the fray. Unlike some other competitive games where gear stats only matter in top tier combat, the default PvP mode here has gear stats enabled. Battles are brisk, do-or(and)-die trying pace with zero room for mistakes. The melee combat itself is a masterpiece of exact directional blocking, dodging, parries, strike distance, stamina, footwork and oh, learning to avoid any ledge taller than a street curb. Combine light and heavy attacks into Street-Fighter-esque combination moves that must be memorized per hero, each with situational advantages and potential one hit kill uses, and try to survive for the chance to show off a brutal execution move. The difficulty of the combat also makes it very rewarding when you win. I’d dare say this is the skeleton in the closet – the dirty secret, so to speak. If it were easy, it would probably be a lot less fun.

New players will do well to enjoy the story mode first, which is not too short and teaches most of the class basics along the way. It can be played alone or co-op with a friend. Ratchet up the difficulty and the story mode is also nearly impassible challenge on “realistic” mode, at least towards the last few chapters. The AI in both the story mode and the Player vs. AI versions of the multiplayer modes is often surprisingly clever, although prone to predictable patterns in some situations. I find it fascinating in either case, as the different bots seem to have assigned behaviors. Also as they seem to also have a set of pre-assigned names (a few which are just as ridiculous as some real names I run across), you soon start to recognize some of them from prior battles. Some are notably more aggressive, others will flee a fight to find help, and some are just as cheap as their human counterparts can be. I’d love to chat with the team that worked on the AI to see how they make the magic work. In mixed AI and PvP modes, the game auto tunes the AI bots for the skill ranking average of the teams. In custom modes you can select the difficulty level of the bot AI to better test yourself as you practice for the apex predators of For Honor; the other real players.

Even in game modes like elimination where it is a series of four not-quite-isolated 1v1 duels (4v4 total on the same map), it is more or less guaranteed that as soon after the first body drops, someone will find themselves defending in a 1v2 fight, likely injured. Even though there is a scoring mechanic that gives extra points for honorable 1v1 kills, most matches center around uneven fights. A skilled player can survive being outnumbered, but in an even match the odds are definitely with the mob. This encourages some very bad tactical behaviors, and combined with working knowledge of ledges and natural bottlenecks in a specific map can turn a lot of fights into a slaughter by the better coordinated or plain dirty tricks. Class balance is arguably imperfect, specially in certain modes with characters that have easy-to-perform block breaking or body tossing chains yield a lion-vs-lamb advantage if a ledge or spike wall is nearby. An easy, legitimate counter argument may be to try and squeeze the classes into rock-paper-scissors classifications, which feels super accurate if you are playing paper against a scissors class in a 1v1 duel. Is that balanced? Maybe. For Honor treats the entire concept of dirty fighting and unfair situational advantage as the last rule of the battlefield: victory to the team that wanted it more.

Despite its glitches and numerous flaws, it remains highly engaging to play. It gets under your skin, for the better or worse. You’ll find out for yourself if you are comfortable being the plus one in an unfair fight, or if you can muster the respect to let your ally live or die on their own merit on principal alone, even risking a loss to let your opponent settle his affairs one honorable fight at a time. Or maybe you’ll cackle with glee as you finally behead the ledge kill spamming Heavy at any cost. This is a game for both types.

If I wasn’t clear, this game is a blast to play. It is easy to pick up, difficult to put down and worth hundreds of hours to master. It will definitely be a candidate for Game of the Year and is one of the more ambitious Ubisoft multiplayer games to date. With an optional season pass and another six fighter types coming in future expansions plus an innovative seasonal faction vs. faction persistent score, their intentions for this to be supported for the long haul are well entrenched.

Broken controller replacement not included.

OXENFREE – Delightfully Scary, Clever and Unforgettable

image credit gameinformer
image credit gameinformer

Five teenagers set out to explore a spooky island’s mystery, what could possibly go wrong? Night School Studio’s charming high school horror adventure “OXENFREE” turns out to be more than just a little scary and a whole lot of fun. It’s also one you won’t soon get out of your head. You’ve been warned.

With a running length of “just right” for a not-too-short side-scrolling puzzle adventure, you’ll be tempted to stay up late to finish it in a single sitting… in the dark. In addition to the rich watercolor environments and adorably tiny protagonists, brilliant writing and exceptional voice acting bring this breakout title to life. The believable and complex inter-character dialog is faster paced than some other story-driven tales. It’s no-pausing pace demands quick thinking and reaction from the player to choose how the heroine Alex might respond, or not respond, to a situation. Her choices drive much of how the story unfolds – one that you’ll be left thinking about long after the credits roll.

Blink at your own risk, this clever puzzle has numerous possible endings and a trove of well-guarded secrets. Nearly all of the game’s achievements are at least moderately hard to obtain, to the delight and horror of the completionists among us. The level of detail and thought put into OXENFREE is amazing, cementing its place as one of the best this year.

Thought Provoking, Moving “Life is Strange”

image credit: dontnod / square enix
image credit: dontnod / square enix

As the credits began to roll, I sat stunned. Far more detailed and complex than the choice-driven story games it might be compared to, DONTNOD’s first episode of “Life is Strange” doesn’t hold back. Even as I poured over the myriad of choices and characters I had interacted with I wondered what I may have overlooked, or how differently my conversations might have gone had I gone down a different route, been a little less cautious, or explored more.

Pushing the limits for even the detail obsessed like myself, the lovingly crafted, vibrant world draws you in. As you explore, patience and curiosity are rewarded with new dialog options and choices, not all immediately for the better. Thankfully our protagonist “Max” has an uncanny ability to rewind time, even if just briefly, to relive a moment and retain cognition of what is to come.

Way cooler than just for puzzle solving, Max’s unexpected gift is at the heart of the story and drives much of the masterful character development that unfolds. Many dialog and story options only unlock after you’ve rewound a situation at least once, after which you may second guess yourself anyway. Even after making what seemed to be ideal choices in the majority of situations, I wondered if I had painted myself too narrow of a picture of the characters I had met or if I had missed something critical by playing it safe. Before it was done, I knew I’d need all of my save files to explore the full range of consequences that lay hidden in the incredibly rich story and environments.

Not too long, and not too short, Episode 1 of Life is Strange is a beautiful, fresh take on a “tell tale” style story with excellent writing, a fantastic original music score, and compelling characters. It is evident everywhere that much care and passion went into perfecting each nuance by the team at DONTNOD, and I am thankful that Square Enix gave them the creative room to let it become a title you’d want to rewind, many times.

 

Destiny Beta Debrief: Vintage car muscle, new car smell

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image credit: Bungie

Rally your fireteam, guardians. The creative geniuses behind the first several Halo titles poured their experience and passion for the genre into Destiny, a new IP that would both encompass everything they loved about the original Halo universe and bold new ideas that weren’t possible at the time. The result is far greater than the sum of its parts, and it plays like a dream.

Immersion

Being one of the oldest tricks in the book doesn’t make it any less important. Bungie understands what some developers seem to overlook – user experience is more than just the cool shooting parts, it includes finding a group, being social, choosing a game mode to play, and managing your character and advancement. Rather than defaulting to a polished menu system to find a game to play, Bungie encapsulates the “menu” experience and gameplay selection within the game world itself. The resulting level of immersion makes the competition’s nested menus look decidedly last century. What seems like it could have been a trivial detail turns out to be one of the finest bits of polish on an already outstanding game.

From the opening cinematic sequence, your guardian is on the move. No time is wasted establishing a sense of urgency and impending threat. Completing the new player experience concludes with the escape in a barely flight-worthy spacecraft and a beautiful cutscene arrival at “the tower”, the last safe city. At the tower, the player manages his character and gear and (later) finds missions. Leaving the tower to continue a story mission, embark in open world exploration, a cooperative PVE challenge or competitive PVP arenas is as simple as returning your spacecraft to orbit. The transition between land and orbit includes a stunning low orbit vista and cinematic quality scene of your ship and your friends ships should you form a fireteam. Select your destination from the map, and your ships fly there in spectacular fashion. At no point did the transition between game modes or forming a fireteam feels like leaving the game to a menu or a lobby.

“Goldielocks” Multiplayer

Player population in each region in the game and at the tower is managed by the server to always be at a median “just right” number of players to run into, preventing crowds or unnervingly vacant places. Venture into the wilderness alone and eventually you will encounter another player or group of players. Most of the time they will already be engaged with enemies, and on occasion may be in hot water. The way this dynamic matchmaking occurs is completely invisible to the user; it simply happens. I arrived at the wreckage to discover another player already dispatching foes, but enemy reinforcements are flanking the firefight. Time to jump in.

Public Event Challenges

Emphasis on challenge. Unlike other recent MMO titles to implement “public events”, Destiny’s do not occur only at easily recognizable, purpose-built outdoor locations. Here in the wild, these invasions and timed heavy encounters can occur anywhere. The type of event and method of finding out about it varies from simple communication, an unexpectedly darkened sky, to dramatic screen shaking scene entry. They are also scaled to be almost certain death in difficulty. The well prepared are rewarded with a chance to show off their prowess and earn superior rating and bonus upon completion of the event, which occurs whether the players win or not. As added incentive, players earn further bonus for the first “gold star” public event rating they earn each day in addition to the XP, currency and loot.

Speederbikes

Turning what could have been another trivial detail into something wildly awesome, once you are on the ground getting from one place to another in a hurry is far from boring. “Summon” your speederbike mount and open the throttle boost wide. They are wicked fun to ride. Fully upgradable at the shipwright in the tower, your speederbike will become a staple for getting into and out of trouble fast.

Your favorite shooter, your way

The four main game modes are each well rounded enough to stand alone as games themselves, but are also tightly bound to one another. Unlock new areas by advancing the plot in story mode. Prior story missions can be replayed on higher difficulty for better loot and XP. Once you’ve unlocked an area, you can also opt to return in open world explore mode. When exploring you encounter enemies at a steady rate, earning decent currency, loot and XP without fixed goals. Chests of loot and other secrets lay scattered about waiting to be found. Also available are endless simple “quests” that provide an easy, defined task to earn bonus rewards and faction for one of the five plus factions back at the tower. These tasks are random and self replenishing, and are usually in the form of “Go to Point A”, “Kill N bad guys” , “Collect Y rare things”, “recover item X”, and so forth. They are random enough to avoid tedium and blessedly short, making it a great choice for casual play. The faction reward is also random, and includes the various PVP factions so players have an alternative way to earn the superior gear from those PVP faction vendors.

Back at the tower, players can also select “bounties” that are like personal daily quests for any of the games modes, which also carries faction rewards. They include objectives like “Get 200 precision kills” , “Get 20 melee kills without dying”, and also PVP objectives like “Get first strike in a match 10 times” and “Kill the match MVP 3 times”, etc.

The third game mode is “strike”, which is essentially an instanced dungeon-like area with several boss encounters. From Orbit, once you have set your destination to the Strike zone, your fireteam will fill automatically to the ideal number of players for that encounter and chosen difficulty. The boss fights are much harder than story mode or public event encounters, and the loot rewards scale with the difficulty. If a player drops from your fireteam, another may join dynamically at some point later in the instance story progression. Strike is a great way for an organized fireteam to hone their teamwork and skills to overcome the toughest PVE encounters.

Finally, the various PVP modes tie all of the games areas and factions into a tangible substory that stands as its own game for the competitively minded guardian. It is here that the pillars of Bungie are found: rock solid arena death match. Some PVP events are available only at certain intervals, like the hotly contested “Iron Banner” event, where guardian level advantages are enabled and rewards are much more valuable.

The little details

Bungie knows is audience. These are the same guys who’s games inspired fan creations like Rooster Teeth’s “Red vs Blue”, a phenomenon of its own. Of course, that success was entirely on the talent at Rooster Teeth, but Bungie had created the platform. This comes in part from a passion for attention to detail, dedication to enjoyable multiplayer, and plenty of hidden challenges and easter eggs. Already in beta, at the tower we had discovered a fully usable soccer ball. Yeah, a classic soccer ball. We had fun kicking it around and even managed to kick it into a vendor tent that was shaped vaguely like a soccer goal. Nothing happened, but it begs the question; what is the soccer ball for? What easter egg might it unlock? Plus, impromptu street soccer in post apocalyptic city-scape is fun in its own right.  Secrets are littered everywhere in the open world as well, including some unexpected overworld bosses, tough to reach areas, and more.

On the frontier

In all, by the end of the few day long beta, I had already created memorable characters, made a friend or two, and recorded numerous amazing encounters worth sharing. The ease of the social features reminded me of the best early days of Xbox Live, where meeting new people was fluid and barriers to communication were few. I was hooked – there was no doubt that Bungie’s ambitious Destiny would be their biggest success yet.

My fireteam is ready for September 9. See you on the frontier.

 

 

Xbox One Launch Weekend Review

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Five launch titles, two gamers and one epic launch weekend later; a fan review.

My wife and I received our Xbox One consoles on release day along with five launch titles, including Ryse: Son of Rome, Forza Motorsport 5, Battlefield 4, Assassin’s Creed 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts. Following a remarkable weekend of next generation gaming, here are our first impressions. Spoiler: Xbox One rocks!

“Xbox – ON”

Xbox One endured much criticism since reveal at E3 for many issues including the required Internet Connection, Kinect sensor, DRM changes and higher price compared to the rival PS4 console. Microsoft showed unusual agility in responding to fans, reversing its stance on DRM and the requirement for a persistent internet connection. Users now also have the choice of not using the Kinect sensor – good for them – but from my impressions it is one of the coolest parts of the new system! Gaming is personal, and having the system recognize me or my daughter and instantly customize the view to show just what I am interested in is no small detail – it encapsulates my whole experience, and more.

All weekend could be summed up in three words not used commonly together before November 22: “XBOX, Record that!” Never mind the specific voice command, or that we had plenty of awesome DVR-worthy gaming moments, the breakthrough comes in the value of the voice command shortcuts we can use without taking even a second out of our game. The commercials don’t really do justice to how cool these extra features are. It’s not just the games, folks. This system is built for gamers who wanted more out of their games.

Another detail, one you’ll never see in a commercial, is how the system handles crashes. No game is perfect (any Skyrim player knows even the best games lock up), and on the Xbox 360, a locked game was a locked console. Battlefield 4, for all it’s epicness is also prone to lockup – but on the Xbox One, the running game does not take command of the entire console, which is why switching in and out of games and movies or TV is so quick. When BF4 first locked on my Xbox One, I could just return to the home screen and relaunch it, which may sound trivial but takes some of the pain out of the crash.

I believe the Xbox One delivered on all of its next generation promises and more. The graphics are gorgeous, it’s fast, runs cool and quiet and integrates easily with your cable provider to front end the TV experience. The kinect rounds it out with easy to use commands, accurate face recognition and gestures simple enough for children. The sum nothing less than amazing.

With that said a great system is one thing, but to quote Nintendo execs, “software sells hardware”, and a system’s virtues are for not without killer launch titles.

Forza Motorsport 5

The first game out of its case was Forza 5. It is unfair to compare it feature to feature with the other First Person Adventure/Shooters we played, but graphically it is unmatched and races like a dream. This is the worlds biggest car geeks loose with one of the most graphically capable machines, ever. It’s pure car porn. It wastes no time getting you on the track, either – staying very light on the technical aspects of the game until later. I love the way the new Xbox One controller uses many independent internal motors to provide feedback at the triggers and grips – it is very subtle but highly effective. Even across the room, my wife remarked that the controller vibration even sounded accurate to the feedback from the car. It was as if I could feel the road. Further pushing the envelope, the cloud-powered AI is based entirely on other real players – there are no canned AI bots in the games, only other avatars called “drivatars”, which learn from your driving to represent you on line – the drivers I raced against were very sharp and behaved more like a real opponent, even in “single player” mode (wow, will that become a dated term?). Needless to say, I am highly impressed. Top marks for this hard core racer – it is a poster of what a next gen launch title should look and play like.

Battlefield 4

I am a big fan of Battlefield 2: Bad Company and Battlefield 3, so I had high hopes for Battlefield 4. I played it on Xbox 360, where the graphics were more or less comparable to the previous titles. As for story, shooters usually get the short end of the stick in favor of multiplayer features, although Bad Company and a few of the Halo titles were exceptions. Battlefield 4’s campaign story is fairly tight, coupled with amazing graphics, good voice acting and motion capture. It does well to stick to a core set of characters and a single overarching threat to drive plot – something other titles often fail at.

BF4 Multiplayer mode is a huge success. Dice shows its industry experience and delivers peerless, heart pounding, face melting 64 player action, either on epic sized dynamic maps or in tight indoor arenas. “Levolution”, the feature in which major features in a map can change over the course of a battle, simply cannot be expressed in a commercial. You have to be there to understand how fantastic it is to suddenly have the entire building you’ve been defending begin to crumble and collapse – where you heroically dive out a window to narrowly escape death (or, be heroically crushed…). I’ve clocked many hours into multiplayer mode between the 360 and Xbox One and very few matches were similar, and never got repetitive. Further enhancing the multiplayer experience, the second screen “Battlelog” and game-in-a-game “commander mode” are ahead of the pack in terms of mobile device integration. Any experienced BF4 squad knows the value of having a player in commander mode on your team. As if that all was not enough, the music is explosive and fresh – best of show stuff – adding to already rock-solid shooter game play and fast paced action. I’ve said it before, Battlefield 4 is a shoe-in for GOTY on it’s name alone, and I think the end product deserves it.

Ryse: Son of Rome

Seven years in the making, this roman era epic puts you in the boots of Marius Titus, a fictional hero loosely based on several real roman generals, time periods and legends. Fans will notice some striking similarities to the events in the movie “Gladiator” for good reason as both have common historical inspiration. The combat gameplay could be compared to the melee in Assassin’s Creed – all game controls center around four key melee abilities – dodge, deflect, bash and sword. Individual enemy AI is specific to each enemy type, but handling throngs of them at once is where the real action and strategy begins. While Easy and Normal mode is pretty forgiving, fans desiring a challenge can choose harder “centurion” mode that demands you handle each fight correctly or quickly be overwhelmed. Combat is brutal – limb severing is hardly the most graphic of executions – and it is intense. Fans looking for fast paced visceral combat with depth will not be disappointed. The graphics might be the best of next generation gaming, next to the equally pretty but highly dissimilar Forza.

The story is also strong and very well written, and sports the best human actor capture and performances of any game I’ve ever seen.  It plays like a movie, with gorgeous vistas, memorable characters and great soundtrack. Hat’s off to a solid production that looks closer to the silver screen than your flat screen ever has.

Multiplayer gladiator mode is very fun, although limited to just two players the arena challenges are well thought out and far from just smashing hordes of opponents. In all, my wife and I together put more hours into Ryse than any other title at launch.

Parent warning: Many games earn an M rating, but Ryse is a strong M for both the obvious graphic combat content, nudity and adult situations. This game is not for kids.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

Or as I like to call it, “Riley the Attack Dog Saves the World”. I’ve never been a huge fan of the CoD series, but this was an exception for me. CoD:Ghosts without Riley would be a pale shadow of the finished product. Seriously, this pup saves a potentially pretty-but-just-above-average shooter from the shelf and gives it credibility next to other next generation titles. Like other high-tech, super spec-op titles (cod:mw, cod:bo2, tc:ghost recon, etc), a lot of emphasis is put on gadgets and technology providing situational advantage to forward the plot or solve a crisis. Riley, in that context is one of the new gadgets and not the first case where an animal became an extension of the soldier. However they did such a good job of motion capture and integration of the dogs mannerism and personality that he eclipses both his role and the other characters in the game. At one point in the story where you are briefly separated from the dog and then later get to see him – I was genuinely happy to see the dog, like a real dog. The fact the team at infinity ward were able to pull this off is no small feat. Yeah, sure, at a base level it’s not a far stretch from putting a puppy in a commercial, but it WORKS.

CoD: Ghosts does make good use of next generation graphics, with a story that will not disappoint – it ought to with Emmy winning writer from Syriana and Traffic behind it. Action is solid, also consistent with prior titles. Enemy AI is more complex than BF4 – guy gets shot in the leg, goes prone in a position and movement accurate to the situation (he’s dragging and nursing his leg) but is still firing a hand gun defiantly. Enemies make smart use of cover, and will try to out maneuver you. The run and slide move is great, as is the improved intelligent obstacle jump.

I have yet to play multiplayer, but previews online ahead of next generation launch looked really good, and is popular with many BF4 squadmates.

Assassin’s Creed 4

This swashbuckling title saddles the launch of next generation, and was already near-perfect on Xbox 360, which I wrote about in my prior blog entry. On Xbox One it does inherit improved graphics – they were already outstanding – as well as the dynamic achievements and fantastic ocean physics just not possible on prior generation hardware. The story is much what fans of the AC series come to love, although I feel it suffers from a lack of a common villain or single plot driver to tie the many characters and locations together, and many characters with only small parts in a long game. This is of course in part due to it being loosely based on actual historical events and people – with a crazy high science fiction backstory that ties otherwise distant times and people to one another. I’m not a fan of the story, but am a huge fan of the immersion into the historical places, the music and ambiance, exploration and of course – the action. AC4 is my favorite in the series yet, not for the characters or graphics, but the actual sailing gameplay. I was relieved when the main story concluded so I could get back to what I enjoyed most: commanding the Brig named Jackdaw. The Jackdaw in it’s own way could be the real lead character. It carries the story, both literally and figuratively. It’s the Millenium Falcon if Starwars were set in the Caribbean.

In all, Microsoft hit it home with both a killer console and great titles. I can’t compare it to Playstation 4 yet – we may get one next year to upgrade our PS3. Either way, it’s a great year to be a gamer. See you online!

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