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gkscotty
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Game Reviews

Post by gkscotty » Tue Mar 15, 2016 4:02 pm

Think I'll start throwing up game reviews here! Feel free to add your own.


XCOM 2

I never played the original X-COM games, beyond following LPs starring the likes of Otto Xander, so XCOM: ENEMY UNKNOWN was my first real brush with the series, and it was a revelation. I've always been a fan of turn-based tactics ever since the days back on the Spectrum, where I played Chaos and Rebelstar 2, early games by the original X-COM's lead designer Julian Gollop. Enemy Unknown's mix of base planning and tactical gunfights spoke to me immediately. It was a tense game full of hard decisions, careful planning, and sudden, uncompromising failure, but it was not without its flaws.

It did suffer from something of an inverted difficulty curve, with the aliens causing the majority of your soldiers deaths at the beginning when you're mainly staffed with incompetent rookies, and the much tougher enemies at the end of the game being snapped over the knees of your hypercompetent Colonels. Moving slowly and overwatching every turn was too powerful a tactic, and not an incredibly interesting one either. Maps quickly became predictable, with every UFO you encounter having the same basic layout, and significant repetition in cityscapes and farmhouses alike. But overall, it was a great game, and XCOM 2 had a lot to live up to.

It succeeds by turning everything on its head.

Story

It's been twenty years since your first playthrough. Not the one where you had a dozen invincible colonels, not the one where you killed two Sectopods in one turn, not the one where 6 MECs swarmed over the battlefield punching every alien off buildings. Your first playthrough, where you picked Snap Shot instead of Squadsight, carried Medkits on every soldier instead of grenades, (because my weapon fragments!) got the VIPs sniped by overwatching Thin Men, and your ass was handed to you by Floaters. The one where the Council gave up before the end of May.

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THAT one. Yes, I know you tried to forget. Yes, I know you did better. It's still canon.


So, it's been twenty years. The human governments have capitulated and formed the ADVENT Coalition, and under the guidance of their Alien Elders, have
  • solved world hunger (ADVENT burgers are apparently delicious, but when was the last time you saw a cow?)
  • cured all diseases short of death (the medical statistics are helped along by many patients inexplicably never returning)
  • Promoted peace and civil harmony (by encouraging humans to report their non-compliant neighbors, parents and children)
  • Developed a plan for the rapid processing of all non-essential human life (oops how did this get here)
XCOM is not what it once was. A scrappy resistance cell, operating out of a fantastic stolen UFO called the Avenger, XCOM is mobile, underfunded, and hopelessly outgunned. It has no official support, no equipment, no sympathetic public, and no truly safe haven. It's main hope lies in ingenuity, determination, and the hubris of its foes. It's time to unite what resistance remains, subvert the Aliens' own systems of control, and expose the truth about their plans.

... in short, XCOM 2 is XCOM inverted. Once, we were the defenders, reacting to alien attacks. Now we plan guerrilla ops to strike Alien targets from the shadows. Once we swept the world with satellites looking for UFOs, now it's us in the hidden spacecraft. And while once victory or defeat depended on managing the various Council member's willingness to fight, now... well, Alien victory is assured given enough time if we can't set it back.

Gameplay

XCOM 2 supports this in gameplay by both increasing the pace of missions and placing a greater emphasis on stealth.

Most missions start with your soldiers Concealed. At this point the Aliens are unaware of your presence, and you can move freely so long as you are not spotted. This is a perfect time to get to advantageous positions and set up an ambush that, hopefully, obliterates the first enemy group you encounter. Of course, Concealment can go very wrong should your soldier blunder into an Alien's point of view that they were not aware of, but them's the risks. Concealment is a fantastic gameplay addition that makes for some tense moments, especially since those Aliens you're trying to take out are still patrolling and will have the advantage if they spot you on their turn.

Concealment sounds like it should slow the game down, but in a significant break from XCOM 1 the majority of missions are timed. XCOM has no hope of providing air superiority, and the limited window they have before Alien interceptors arrive to blow the Skyranger out of the air means that most missions are timed, or have implied time limits. (Retaliation missions for example require XCOM to rescue civilians. There are about 14 on the map, you must rescue 6 to succeed, and the aliens will try to kill one each turn. The math is simple) These time limits, which are often quite strict (rescuing or escorting VIPs always seems to come down to the last turn for me!) really up the pace and require you to commit to less ideal moves. The pace has also been increased by both aliens and XCOM having access to more potent weapons and skills than before. For example, the XCOM 2 Sectoid is far more potent than its XCOM sibling despite being introduced at a similar section of the game. Mind Control is a dangerous enemy ability you wouldn't see until halfway through the game in XCOM 1, which is possible from the second mission in in XCOM 2. Everything feels higher risk and a faster pace is enforced but without being, IMO, obnoxious or too hard.

And then there's the tactical map, which is very well reworked with a new lose condition. Contacting resistance cells and building relay towers replaces launching satellites, and does a better job of not being the single overbearing focus of the first part of the game. Cells won't leave your side without failing a mission, and choosing not to help a cell when you're given a choice of many does not raise panic but instead puts you at risk of a variety of interesting disadvantages, such as additional enemies on missions, higher Intel costs, or being hunted by an enemy UFO. You can scan for hidden caches at various points on the map (when prompted...) in a way that reminds me a little of Civ's goodie huts. However there's always direction for which way you should expand on the world map, as the Avatar Project is constantly nearing completion, and reaching and destroying Alien facilities on the map is the only way to set it back and prevent Game Over.

Classes

The soldier classes have gone through an overhaul to tidy up overpowered abilities and provide new options.

Ranger - roughly analogous to the Assault from XCOM EU, this shotgun wielding class now carries a sword too. Unfortunately the sword is a little underpowered, but it's always welcome to have a weapon that requires no ammo and can even be used after dashing. It's skill tree is similar to the Assault's, though key abilities like Run and Gun and Double Tap come much later and Lightning Reflexes has been renamed Shadowstep and heavily nerfed.
Grenadier - like the Heavy, but fires Grenades from a grenade launcher instead of rockets. This makes it far more flexible, since it can carry a larger variety of grenades than the Heavy ever had rockets for, and they have a longer range and deal more damage than thrown grenades. Enemies also frequently have Armour now that provides a large amount of damage resistance, and the Grenadier is a key component of shredding that armour before your other characters attack.
Sharpshooter - like the Sniper, but Firaxis has given up and just given them Squadsight by default instead of making you choose between that and poor Snap Shot. They've also dramatically increased their aptitude with Pistols, giving Sharpshooters a wide variety of really good abilities with the sidearms.
Specialist - like the Support, but with a very useful drone called a Gremlin. It allows the Specialist to heal, taze and hack remotely - it's pretty great hacking an enemy MEC and taking it over temporarily.

... and the less said about PSI Specialists the better. They're a lot of fun.

Modding

Another very welcome change from XCOM EU is official support and tools for modding, which is bringing a lot of great stuff out. While some of it is obvious cheating, there are a plethora of useful interface tweaks, additional customisation options, new soldier classes, new alien types, new weapons... lots of good stuff. Including a Bob Ross voice pack.

But unfortunately...

While the game is great, there are a few things really bringing it down.

Performance is primary among them. The game really struggles, even on good hardware, and suffers from extremely long load times. Be sure to buy the game from a retailer that will give you a refund if it doesn't work. There's been a patch to improve mattes but I've not seen much difference on my PC. Be sure of have a meaty rig if you want this to look as good as it could.
Some problems still persist from XCOM EU. The camera in particular can really be a problem, especially since multi-level buildings are far more common in this game than in EU. There's always something a little terrifying about aiming grenades.
Line of Sight bugs still occur, and there are animation problems with some enemies. One in particular that grabs and constricts one of your soldiers moves forward a little when it does so, occasionally giving the impression that it's in front of a wall when it's actually behind it.
And the story is a little damp, lacking some of the really imposing moments from EU/EW, like the Alien Base Assault, or Ashes and Temples. For the most part the story missions look a lot like regular missions.

But still, I thoroughly enjoyed this in my first playthrough and are keen to go through again and again. If XCOM 2 seems like it may be your thing, definitely give it a shot.
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It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do bad things. - Jingo, Terry Pratchett
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by c_nordlander » Tue Mar 15, 2016 4:16 pm

What an excellent idea for a thread! Really enjoyed this review (I love how the backstory makes your first awful playthrough canon).

It's probably my thing. No telling whether it would be my computer's thing, though.
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by Nidotamer » Tue Mar 15, 2016 7:15 pm

Oooh, yeah, great review!

Just wished I played anything recent to review, really.:P Pretty sure literally everyone knows about Pokemon Blue.
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by SirMustapha » Tue Mar 15, 2016 7:55 pm

Neat! Matter of fact, I had thought of doing a thread like this a while ago, but I just indefinitely postponed it.

I did play the original XCOM years ago, and no matter how hard I tried to get into that game, I was never able to. For me, the game was just constantly patting itself on the back because of how hard it was. I mean, when you have three soldiers shoot at an alien, have all of them miss, and then have the alien instantly kill two of the soldiers and disappear into the shadows, that doesn't make the game "scary" and "unforgiving" to me. It just feels like a random stranger knocking on your door in the middle of the afternoon, showing a coin on his palm, saying "Heads! I won!" and then leaving. But then again, maybe this is just a sore spot I have. I never liked a game of "tactics" that, ultimately, relies on luck and random numbers, and I always felt that's a bit of a rip off. There a reason why chess doesn't use dice.

But anyway, I did enjoy watching your streams of the game, so it can't be all that bad. I might try it out eventually and see if my complaints are sound, but for now, my gaming habits are halted. But that doesn't stop me from writing my own reviews, and I'm going to start out with high stakes:

Half-Life

I played this game more out of frustration with my own ignorance. It was becoming unfathomable for me to enjoy PC gaming and never having had a hands-on experience with that game. And since I already had a bit of a retro experience with Doom and Doom II a couple of months ago, I felt the time was right. So I bought all the games in the series in a Steam Sale, and started out.

For those who don't know, Half-Life is the first game developed by Valve. It's a first-person shooter released in 1999. For the sake of perspective, that is 6 years after Doom, and 2 years after Duke Nukem 3D and Quake. In fact, Half-Life runs on the Quake engine, except with loads of modifications.

I admit that I stepped into the game already expecting an exceptional experience. I didn't hold my expectations down, and in fact, I inflated them a bit. I mean, this was the game that set the rules for an entire genre, and gave birth to an empire. I can't play this game with a "let's check it out!" mentality. This is living history.

Indeed, the first thing that struck me in the game was how impressive it looks, sounds and feels. This game is a technological marvel, and it's just hard to believe it came out just two years after Duke Nukem 3D. The environments don't feel like mere replicas, but like actual places where actual people could exist. As the game keeps progressing, the level of technical achievement just grows bigger, so I can only applaud them for that. But of course that's not enough to make a game. One of the major things that made this game stand out is how it tried to create a cohesive experience for the player: there are no proper "levels" in the game, like previous FPS games, and even though all the individual maps are loaded separately, they still all feel like a single unbroken sequence, and the "chapters" usually don't really make much of a difference. Also, there are no proper cutscenes in the game, and all dialogue and exposition is made by the characters while the player is in control of the main character. Though this does make a philosophical difference on how the player interacts with the game, for me, this just meant that I was able to look around while waiting.

So, the story. The story is bullshit. Yesterday, I watched the Lazy Game Reviews video about Corridor 7, a relatively obscure FPS from 1994 built on the Wolf 3D engine. IT'S THE SAME FUCKING STORY. I'm not even exaggerating this: scientists discover a mysterious artefact, conduct experiments with it, the experiment goes bust, opening an inter-dimensional gateway, aliens invade and kill everyone, and it's up to you to singlehandedly escape and be a hero. No, that's not Half-Life: that's Corridor 7. And that's also Half-Life. I also really appreciate the subtlety in the design of the main character: you're a man fighting for your freedom. Your name? Gordon Freeman. Even Michael fucking Bay would look at that and say "seriously, guys, don't push it".

I admit, I may be taking a cheap shot here by questioning the artistic merit in the plot of a 90's FPS, but hey: Valve was already boasting about how hard they work in creating an "EXPERIENCE" for the player, that goes beyond just gaming, and what their influences were. So no, I'm not being cheap. I'm okay with Doom's absurd plot because the game is absurd. I'm okay with Duke Nukem's absurd plot and main character because the game is a parody. Half-Life is SRS BSNS. It's not made for laughs, it's not made for us to maul aliens with a chainsaw: it's a SCARY story about a man's DESPERATE struggle to SURVIVE, not only against aliens, but against MILITARY forces that are trying to COVER UP the whole story. If you can't appreciate the DEPTH of the DRAMA in that scenario, go read some DOSTOYEVSKY.

... okay, so, the game play. The gameplay started out equal parts "great" and "what the hell". The game launches you headfirst into the plot, putting you in Gordon Freeman's shows as he's arriving for work in the Black Mesa compound. You're given no tutorial, no explanation, nothing. I had no idea what I should do, so I just kept walking through corridors and doors, hoping the game would sort this out, never sure if I was doing things right. After I follow all the obligatory triggers and hear all the necessary dialogue, and all hell breaks loose, the game "proper" starts. It's... well, standard FPS fare, but while the game feels and looks more real and tangible than, say, Duke Nukem 3D, killing aliens also feels a heck of a lot less satisfying. I think this is mainly due to the game's emphasis on being scary: you're supposed to feel powerless and desperate, under constant threat... even though you're instantly able to operate pistols, shotguns and machine guns perfectly. You're all the time seeing helpless scientists being dragged to their instant death... while perfectly comforted by the fact that none of that could happen to you.

On the other hand, the level design is excellent. The game is brutally linear, but it's still peppered with maze-like sections that aren't infuriatingly confusing, and puzzles that are decently thought out. I was having a lot of fun through the first hours of gameplay, and the only thing that bothered me were those mazes of vents that were pitch black. Only after being angry about being forced to navigate in the dark that I found out, by complete accident, that I had a flashlight. Yeah, your bio-suit or whatever it's called contains a flashlight, which is vital in many parts of the game, but it never tells you. Sheesh, I know this was 1998 and I was supposed to read the manual beforehand, but an on-screen reminder wouldn't hurt, and it certainly wouldn't hurt the "EXPERIENCE". But, oh well, I was still enjoying the game. It was fun, and it even becomes pretty exhausting as it goes, especially as I hit the "On a Rail" chapter, in which it becomes clear how hard Valve was trying to break the mould of a 3D shooter. The chapter is a mix between standard FPS action with puzzling and "minecart" levels from games like Donkey Kong Country: shoot a little mechanism in an intersection, and you change the direction in which the cart will go. Go one way, open a path somewhere else, backtrack, find a new location, open a new path somewhere else, backtrack some more, etc. It was getting quite exhausting, but at least I was making some progress... that is, until I hit a complete dead end. I had found a place where there was nowhere to go. A passageway was blocked by some crates, that looked like I could climb them, but climbing didn't work. I was stuck, and had to look up a guide.

That's when I found out that, to climb in this game, you have to jump, then CROUCH IN MID AIR, and then JUMP AGAIN. Even right now, writing this, I'm scratching my head, wondering how the hell did Valve manage to come up with such a convoluted, nonsensical mechanic. In other words, I would have never made it through that segment without looking up a guide.
And that was also when I found out, with creeping horror, that I was less than one third into the game.

I won't lie: the game was excruciating to play after this. For one, I hated using a single key to choose between multiple weapons, especially considering many of those weapons were useless. The levels just kept going and going and going, the puzzles just got more and more mundane, and the "platforming" bits of the game were unbelievable. It just kept climbing and climbing the unholy mountain of "trying too hard", and the only thing that somehow kept me going were, 1. the awareness of how mindblowing this game must have been for its age, and 2. the occasional cool bits in between the mundane repetition and padding. Finally, at the end, when you're thrown into the alien dimension for the last few chapters, the game completely falls apart. The design is mundane, boring and cheap, and you have to depend on the "long jump", a mechanic that is unreliable and finicky. And after the extremely dumb final boss, what do we get? An anticlimactic non-ending that's supposed to be DISTURBING and 2deep4u.

Maybe my expectations were just too high. Maybe I just didn't relax and enjoy the game, but honestly, the game never invited me to relax and enjoy. For me, that is its biggest flaw. It tries too hard to be serious and hardcore, while relying on silly mechanics and clichéd storytelling. It's too impressed with itself. Honestly, I would only recommend this game for its huge historic interest. When it comes to fun 90's FPS, I'd still stick to Duke 3D, Doom, Shadow Warrior, Blood and others. As for more "story oriented" games, I think I enjoyed Red Faction more than this.

Still, I wasn't done with this series, and just as I was finished with this game, I went straight into...

Half-Life 2

If I didn't hold back my expectations with Half-Life, with this one, I deliberately blew them out of proportion. I pretty much demanded a masterpiece out of it, and I would not be pleased if I didn't get a worthy experience.

Right off the bat, I had no idea what was going on. I knew nothing about the plot, nothing about what I should do, but the game was even more unforgiving than the first one: in just a few minutes, things were already going wrong. All I knew is that I was still Gordon Freeman, this time arriving in City 17, a generic technological dystopia, and they are after me. Who are "they", I had no fucking clue. But before I could ask too many questions, the actions had started, and from the first few minutes, I could see they addressed most, if not all, of the issues I had with the original. Somehow they game felt a lot more satisfying and responsive, the action was fast-paced without being overbearing, and I think most of this is due to the change in setting: instead of SCARY corridors and dark tunnels, I'm in a city, in broad daylight, fighting among train wagons, sewers, abandoned buildings and whatever else. Everything about the level design seemed carefully constructed to be fun.

Also, the "critically acclaimed" physics engine really helped make the game feel alive and responsive. ... well, except for the utterly ridiculous "physics puzzles", and often looked like they were pulled straight from a Looney Tunes cartoon. But when the physics acted naturally, or when you were allowed to use it at your own leisure, it did make a great difference. Quickly I realised I didn't give a crap about the story, and I had to read a walkthrough to even understand what the plot was.

Quickly enough, I was thrown into a driving section, and it was amazing. It really did make me feel like an awe-inspiring, kickass action hero. After another section on foot, there's another driving section, which just made me realise how much the developers had completely given up the "spooky" atmosphere of the original, which for me was a surprising advantage. I mean, I enjoyed the claustrophobia of Alien a lot more than the high-budget non-stop action of Aliens, but when it comes to Half-Life, my opinion is completely inverted.

I did have a few qualms with the gameplay (specifically when it came to destroying those damn aircraft with missiles, as I didn't realise you could control the missiles by aiming -- after all, who needs on screen instructions when you have muffled, confusing dialogue without subtitles?), but other than that, playing this game was a blast. Even on its more challenging moments, there's a sense of grandeur and importance in what I'm doing, and a natural necessity to carry on. At the final chapters, I do think the game gets a bit too outlandish, and the moments when you're just passively led across the levels, without being able to control the player, are ABSURDLY long and pointless. Still, the gameplay was immensely satisfying, and not even the gratuitously "hey, more of the same!" ending could change my feeling.

Indeed, this is legitimately the masterpiece that it's touted to be. Half-Life 2 is vibrant and urgent, the gameplay is responsive and satisfying, and other than the occasional dumb puzzles, it's quite damn close to perfection. I'm still yet to play the two chapters, but I'll definitely check them out as soon as I can spare some free time to mindlessly kill.

And FUCK Portal.
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by c_nordlander » Tue Mar 15, 2016 8:44 pm

Nidotamer wrote:Just wished I played anything recent to review, really.:P Pretty sure literally everyone knows about Pokemon Blue.
I don't!

Nice reviews, Fernie. You make some very good points about powerlessness and horror in videogames. It's a very tricky thing to pull off: after all, the player is supposed to be in control of their character, when a huge part of horror is *not* being in control.
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by SirMustapha » Tue Mar 15, 2016 9:50 pm

If you ask me, I don't see how a game can achieve anything even remotely close to "horror". Horror comes inherently from the fear of losing something, of being irreparably harmed. This immediately goes to waste in a game, in which the player can simply reset and try again at any time. And doing things like limiting save games is just a cheap shot, because you're just forcing the player to replay more of the game before he can have a second shot. No damage is truly irreparable in a game, unless we're talking about games that randomly delete files in your hard drive when you screw up (yes, this exists). The most you can achieve is to create a sense of threat and caution, that makes the player more alert, and aware of his actions. This ain't really horror. Suspense, perhaps, but that's as far as we can get, I think.

About the player having control, I think that's a different aspect. Limiting the player's actions and conditioning him to things that are beyond his control is an effective way of demanding more attention and effort, but at the same time, the player must feel that the rules of the game are minimally fair. It's not about being easy, but about making sense. There must be an inner logic to the things that happen, no matter how unexpected they are. As a practical example, in one of Steve's streams of XCOM 2, he had that incident in which he accidentally destroyed the evac point for the theme with just a few turns remaining, and the game spawned a new evac point IN THE OPPOSITE CORNER OF THE MAP. Being forced to try again, the evac point was again destroyed, and this time it spawned just a few tiles away. There's no logic to this kind of randomness, and it feels like 1. the developers are lazy, or 2. the developers are sadistic, or 3. both. My bet is on 1, as I think they're too lazy to be sadistic.

I think a decent rules is that, the player may be afraid of whatever enemies and adversities there are in the game, but he should not lost his trust in the game. The game is, at the same time, the adversary and the referee, and the division between both must be explicit. If a game relies on randomness, for example, this randomness must be within reason. It may seem obvious, but often it feels like game developers forget that random numbers are unpredictable. Just because something is unlikely doesn't mean it won't happen, and one bizarre incident can be enough to break the trust between the player and the game-as-referee.
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by gkscotty » Tue Mar 15, 2016 10:35 pm

I will grant you that relocating the Evac point to be on the opposite side of the map was somewhat bullshit, but also something of an extreme edge case I think. And when you have a game this complex, you're going to get extreme edge cases. I've certainly not had any other events of similar severity. It was the confluence of a few rules that I misunderstood and another I ignored.

1) I didn't realize that destroying half of the floor of the evac point would force it to relocate. (realistically, anyone who could have got into the remaining five squares of the evac point should have been able to evac)

2) I didn't realize that the acid I dumped there would cause the roof to collapse several turns after it was first laid, though this is reasonable and logical.

3) On the other hand, the "randomness" of the evac point's placement would have been a non-issue if I hadn't repeatedly save-scummed. As in we wouldn't have noticed that it was random at all. It would have sucked, but it may not have been the end of the world, I had a healthy roster of backbench soldiers by that point.

While it would be generous to make sure the new evac point was close to the old, I go into XCOM with the understanding that it's not a very generous game. For me, the lesson to take away was that the integrity of evac points is to be respected, not that the RNG is out to get me. And while it would suck to lose some of my best troops due to a random number, some of the best times I've had in Ironman games of XCOM EU were strugging back to full strength after a devastating teamwipe. (let me tell you about the time an assault run&gun'd into the fog to kill a guy, only to uncover an Etherial and a Sectopad and a bunch of Elite Mutons and... oy) Besides, troops that are captured due to running out of time can be rescued later (as happened with the one guy I did lose at the end of that mission)

As for the use of random numbers at all... well, they say that no plan survives contact with the enemy, but many don't survive contact with your allies either. I find the system XCOM and other similar games use to determine if you hit or not to be quite fair, because the same rules apply to the aliens too. (and there are mods out there that can show you, yes, the aliens miss 90% shots too. Even a 99% chance to hit does not mean missing is impossible.)

Ever heard someone say that games like Street Fighter aren't about punching mans, but are about controlling space? XCOM isn't about shooting aliens, it's about managing risk, and when that risk is worth the reward. At least that's the way I see it.

Things that make me lose trust in the game are line of sight bugs, things like that. I try not to sweat the RNG. If it were cheating on the alien's behalf, (and many games DO cheat on the enemies behalf, primarily action games) I'm positive the modders would have found out by now.


... yeah I'm playing the game on Ironman mode now. No more save-scumming now that I understand the rules, and no more grenades around evac points.
Image

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do bad things. - Jingo, Terry Pratchett
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by SirMustapha » Tue Mar 15, 2016 11:27 pm

I used the evac example specifically because it's not about the game not being generous, but not making sense. There's no possible excuse, however farfetched, that could make that mechanic sound reasonable. I mean, if the mechanic was to always respawn the evac point far from the player as a form of "punishment", then that would make sense from a game design standpoint, but that's not even the case. That's my gripe: a game can be as hard or as easy as it wants as long as it maintains some kind of logic. I mean, a game can also shoot its own foot by being too easy, due to leaving its own randomness unleashed.

Also, I wouldn't argue that you only noticed that mechanic because you saved the game; the same situation could happen in a future mission, and you'd notice the inconsistency. I disagree with that illegitimacy of using save games as a form of "dishonour"; this argument, for me, has been obsolete since at least the 80's, when games first started using password systems. Of course it's impressive to play a perfect game from start to finish without backing up to a save file, but such perfection only comes from practice, and practice involves a lot of retrying, studying, understanding your mistakes (and the game's lazy design decisions, :P ) and having another shot. I find it perfectly legitimate. It's a form of learning, and it's part of the fun.

Other than that specific example, I won't argue against XCOM 1 or 2 until I actually play it. But once I play it, I won't feel at all ashamed of saving often. If the game can be arbitrary, so can I.
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by gkscotty » Wed Mar 16, 2016 12:07 am

I guess this is just a difference of opinion and taste. And for what it's worth, I'm quite shameless about reloading saves during my initial playthrough. The major advantage the game has over me in that playthrough is that it knows all the rules and I don't, so a bit of reloading while I learn them is fine by me.

But at the same time, once I know the game, I do think there's a bit of a covenant between the game and me where we both have to stick to the rules. If I trust the game not to cheat with the randomness, and I do, then I can't keep reloading and trying different things until I get the result I want. Because in the end, the risk of failure is part of the fun for me, and I think this is why Ironman modes etc exist - to remove the temptation. That may just be me though.


I may have to come back to the topic of having choices that stick, if I decide to review That Game. A major part of it is the question of what happens when you save and load a game, and there are permanent choices you can't take back without diving into regedit. But that's a story for another day.



Also, belated Good Review for Half Life and Half Life 2. I am in agreement about HL1, while I found it fun to play it wasn't that scary and I never actually finished it. HL2 however was a joy to experience.

have this pic from my current save to tie it together
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It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do bad things. - Jingo, Terry Pratchett
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by c_nordlander » Wed Mar 16, 2016 12:39 am

Nice one!

@Fernie: regarding games and horror, you make interesting points, though I'm not sure I agree with them. This is the kind of thing we could go on discussing forever.
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by SirMustapha » Wed Mar 16, 2016 1:25 am

gkscotty wrote: But at the same time, once I know the game, I do think there's a bit of a covenant between the game and me where we both have to stick to the rules. If I trust the game not to cheat with the randomness, and I do, then I can't keep reloading and trying different things until I get the result I want. Because in the end, the risk of failure is part of the fun for me, and I think this is why Ironman modes etc exist - to remove the temptation. That may just be me though.
That's something I can get fully behind, and I admire a player that has the dedication to deal with risk and loss without reservation and has fun with it, as long as it's a conscious choice and not due to some silly honour system (filthy casuals!). And it's definitely a matter for taste; for me, generally, I'm more of a fan of experiencing game rather than really mastering it. I've never really wanted to play a game over and over with the sole purpose of getting super good at it. I actually tried with MDK (that's one I could review some time), but it got old quickly, and I freaking love that game.
Just Chris wrote:This is the kind of thing we could go on discussing forever.
I don't take issue with that, as I'm crazy about knowing how other people think (especially when they're intelligent) and seeing what I can learn from it. But I wouldn't want to singlehandedly derail this entire thread, so I promise I'll stay away from endless rabbit holes and circular discussions. And I'd like to read other reviews too. :)
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by Nidotamer » Wed Mar 16, 2016 1:51 pm

Funny enough, I always found horror in games to be more effective than in movies and such myself. Maybe it's because they put agency on the 'viewer'. Like, with a movie there's often little suspense with moments of supposed dread. You pretty much know by conventions that the side character is going to die or that the (almost invariably female) lead is just going to get a cheap jumpscare from someone yelling at them at random or something.

On the other hand, did get a review idea. Again some people may already know all about this but...

EARTHBOUND

Fun fact, I live in Europe, that and a lack of a SNES meant I never got to play the original release. Like the majority of Nintendo franchises like Kirby, Starfox and even LOZ, my introduction to EB was having the main character show up suddenly in Super Smash Bros... pretty sure I originally mistook Link for a woman too but hey, I was young and dumb(er).

Anyway. Earthbound. This was a little unusual back in the day. A good deal of RPGs worked on things like random encounters and took place in fantastical environments. In Earthbound, most enemies can be seen on the overworld and a good chunk of it is spent in towns and cities in a more modern (at the time) setting. That and the overall quirkiness helped shape an identity for it despite less than great sales in the US.

The Story

As a Nintendo game, it's more about the journey and blah blah blah. Basically it's pretty simple yet ironically confusing without context. You take the role of a young boy by the name of Ness who was just minding their own business and sleeping when a meteorite (no, not that one) crashes into the nearby hills. Ness goes to investigate and... goes home afterwards. But he gets pulled back into it when his troublesome neighbor, Pokey (or Porky... he's referred to as the former in game but pretty sure it should have been the latter since that's what he's called in any other games he's appeared in. So I'll call him Porky) passive-aggressively begs for your help since his brother's gone missing.

Going back to the meteorite you find Porky's bro and something comes out of the meteorite... a talking bee. Though it claims not to be a bee despite introducing itself as 'Buzz-Buzz' and constantly making bee buzzing noises. He explains the gist of what's going on: in the future an evil alien entity known as Giygas (does ANYONE know how that's actually pronounced?) has destroyed everything, so Buzz-Buzz came back into the past when Giygas wasn't quite invincible. He lets Ness know that he and three others have to save the world before Giygas can rise to power. This doesn't go unnoticed and Giygas quickly send a space-assassin to dispatch you... and it cant lay a tentacle on you since Buzz-Buzz negates all of its psychic skills and hands the Starman Jr it's shiny metal ass. Okay maybe he's not just a bee after all.

A few other things happen, Buzz-Buzz gets swatted which actually proves fatal and he hands you a Sound Stone. Since Ness needs to find eight certain points known as the "Your sanctuary" locations and add their melodies to the Sound Stone and with all eight he can unlock his true potential and destroy Giygas.

So you set off to do just that. Along the way you meet the other heroes; Paula, Jeff and Poo (stop sniggering!) who I'll get into more in a bit. Along the way you deal with all sorts of incidents tied to both Porky and a strange evil statue. Oh, and while Giygas is in the future (at full power at least) it's extended it's influence into the past, possessing animals, people and even inanimate objects to try and put a stop to Ness and co.

Gameplay

Like one would expect from an RPG, Earthbound takes place in an overworld where the party can move around and interact with stuff. They've got eight-directional movement but no running so it CAN be a bit tedious getting from one end of a location to another since the maps are pretty big. You can use Hotels to heal health, Hospitals to revive fallen party members or status aliments and shops to get items and gear. Unlike most RPGs this isn't 'armour and swords' gear but more 'clothes and baseball bats/yo-yos/ect'.

Enemies can actually be seen on the overworld, they usually move around until they spot the player and charge at them... or inch slowly or whatever. Battles start when you touch an enemy, of course, but any surrounding foes may also approach during the transition and will fight alongside the others. Not only is it convenient to see encounters coming but there's several extra helpful things about it. If you can touch an enemy from behind, you get a free turn although the enemy can also get the same bonus if it hits you from behind. If you're at a certain level higher or beat a "Your Sanctuary" dungeon they reside in, enemies will actually run away from you. Best of all, if you are strong enough, you can just automatically win battles. With all of these in mind, backtracking is much less of a pain than in most rpgs.

In battles, it's turn based as usual. With some of the usual features too like straight up attacking or using skills. Not with magic but psychic powers in this case. There's a number of status effects such as crying (affects accuracy) or 'feeling strange' (it's basically 'confusion'). One of the neater things is a rolling HP meter. At first this won't affect much but as you progress you get more health and more enemies to deplete it faster. The actual damage doesn't stick until the meter's rolled down. In other words, if you have a lot of HP and an enemy still lands a one-hit-kill, you can still heal it off if you're fast enough (or it stops rolling down if the fight ends). So there's an added element of fairness that means cheap one-hit kills don't have to be so as long as you have enough health and act fast enough. Additionally, when you level up you can occasionally get random bonuses that increase stats beyond how much they would usually increase.

The characters

You get four of them. At least as main characters. Sometimes they might temporarily leave or something else might join for a bit but these four have actual stats and you can decide what they do.

Paula: Local celebrity in her town. While in the original she's portrayed as kindly yet weak, she was revised in the localisation to be a bit more strong-willed and willing to destroy... though she still gets kidnapped twice, uses frying pans as weapons and has the defences of a wet sheet of paper so... yeah. On the bright side, she somewhat makes for the offensive core of the team, being able to use several elemental psychic attacks that pack a hell of a punch.

Jeff: Local nerd in his boarding school. His dad forgets he exists despite living just down the road. He doesn't get critical hits nor psychic powers, instead he can repair things based on the IQ stat and there's many useful objects like bottle rockets and bazookas that only he can use. He can also be used to find out any elemental or status vulnerabilities in an enemy. He's a bit of a niche character but still holds up with several exclusive items.

Poo: Local Prince in his country. And has an unfortunate name of course. He gets some of Ness' abilities and some of Paulas' but he's awkward with recovery items and equips. Most weapons will actually serve to make his stats worse. And the only ones that help him are hard to find and easy to miss forever.

Opinion Stuff

Heck, I love it. It really helps that Earthbound can carve out its own identity. You're not fighting orks, goblins or dragons, you're going toe-to-toe with runaway dogs, possessed traffic signs and new-age-retro-hippies. There's lots of silly moments and parts where the game playfully screws with you, but it doesn't feel like being cheated as much as having a harmless little prank played on you. For instance in the second town you can get a bicycle... that's barely faster than walking and is unusable with more than one party member. But you didn't pay for it so it's not infuriating or anything there's a few things like that in game.

As for negatives... well, like I mentioned, you basically only have one walking speed. You CAN teleport later but that's only to specific spots. That and the difficulty can be inconsistent. There might be areas where you smack everything around with no effort and in the very next area, everything can just kick you up the keister very easily.

That and the best parts really are in the early game. You get to deal with all sorts of silly things like hippies, cultists obsessed with blue and a band of five moles that all consider themselves the third strongest. Then later in the game it feels a little... lonely. When you get to Scarabia, you go through a (second) desert, through a pyramid, into someone that turned themselves into a dungeon (long story) and so on. Most of the charm in the early game was the towns and cities that had a fair few things you needed to do to get through them and various events and get to interact with a number of npcs. Then at Scarabia onwards it's more about getting though point A to point B without all that much in between. Guess it helps avoid burnout to have some change of locations but the fact that this change lasts the rest of the game is kinda noticeable. Especially since the second-to-last Your Sanctuary dungeon is a point A to point B on the way to the next area... the Sanctuary itself is pretty cool and it's a shame to see it be treated as almost an afterthought.

Still, in spite of all that it's a fun and quirky little adventure. It's probably not 'Final Fantasy' in terms of length or complexity or such but it still has some feel of epicness and the battle system is mostly nice and fair with a feature or few I'm surprised never made it into any other games barring Mother 3... which I might try reviewing some time though I feel I'd need to replay it first.

---

Uh, well... I tried. :P
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by SirMustapha » Wed Mar 16, 2016 2:23 pm

Earthbound! Nice choice. I first played it on an emulator back in the early 2000's, I think, and I was... not instantly hooked, but alternately strangely fascinated and annoyed by it. I think the setting and the sense of humour is a huge breath of fresh air for the RPG scene. I like the idea of withdrawing money in an ATM, calling dad to save the game, eating burgers to heal, and so on. Also, the mechanic of getting or receiving surprise attacks and instantly winning easy fights are excellent additions. The "rolling HP" I found just plain weird, though, but it does make things a little more fair.

One thing that fascinated me is how they managed to make the characters so uncharismatic. I think the only characters I liked were the Runaway Five, and as for the others, I think I hated the guts of all of them. The excessive quirkiness kinda gets the best of it at times, but the gameplay is excellent. And nice review, too.
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by gkscotty » Wed Mar 16, 2016 2:26 pm

Excellent review, Earthbound is an absolute favorite of mine. It's chock full of imaginative and memorable locations, characters and dialogue. It also has one of the most memorable final bosses of all time but I'm not going to say any more about that.
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It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do bad things. - Jingo, Terry Pratchett
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Re: Game Reviews

Post by SirMustapha » Wed Mar 16, 2016 6:00 pm

Since I mentioned it earlier, I thought I'd do this sooner than later, and give some more meat to this thread.

MDK

Released in 1997 by Shiny Entertainment, famous for the Earthworm Jim series, MDK is a 3D action shooter, and it's been a huge part of my gaming life. For a very long time, this game represented the apex of gaming, the culmination of everything cool and exciting about sitting before the computer screen to play a game. I admit I'm extremely sentimental, and maybe even nostalgic about this game, and a big reason for this is that, back in the day, my PC couldn't run this game. I could only see it and play it in other people's houses, who could actually afford a decent PC, while my computer was hacked together with whatever cheap, used parts my dad could afford with whatever little money he could spare.

Back in the day, I couldn't avoid comparing this game to Tomb Raider: both of them featured the main character seen from behind, running around 3D levels, jumping from platform to platform and shooting enemies. However, Tomb Raider always looked and felt sluggish and choppy (of course, it ran less than smoothly in my computer), while MDK felt smooth, fast and agile, and its levels and enemies felt huge and wondrous, like nothing else I had seen. Of course, today I understand that MDK was quite a technical marvel, and many tricks were used to optimise the game for slow computers. For example, even though all the levels are fully 3D rendered, the actual player is a 2D sprite, that remains fixed relative to the camera. For this reason, the character looks smooth and beautiful, yet somehow fully integrated into the rest of the level. And all the limitations of PCs back in 1997 didn't stop the designers from doing some really impressive stuff, like surfaces that reflect the sky, creating stunning visuals. It's not a massive leap forward like, say, Half-Life, but it was an impressive achievement nonetheless.

The story is deliberately silly, and reveals much of Shiny's off-the-wall sense of humour. The main character is Kurt Hectic, a janitor who works for a scientist in a space station. One day, aliens invade Earth with huge Minecrawlers, machines that roam the surface of the Earth destroying entire cities as they go. The scientist decides to use Kurt to test a special fighting suit, and sends him to destroy the Minecrawlers. That's it. You don't even need to know the story beforehand, since the game already starts out inside the action, and it quickly shows you the way to go and how to do stuff.

There are six levels in total, and the first five start out with Kurt skydiving towards the minecrawler, avoiding the radar beam and, in case he's spotted, homing missiles. Aside from that, he can also pick up upgrades that are dropped from the space station. These sections are short, and you usually don't win or lose much either way. The levels are arranged as big arenas tied together by corridors. The arenas vary in their challenges and demands, sometimes focusing more on shooting, sometimes on platforming, and sometimes on simple puzzles. The first few arenas on the first level work as a tutorial, introducing Kurt to he built-in machine gun in his arm, which has unlimited ammo, the weird wireframe parachute that allows him to glide gently after jumping, and the sniper visor, which allows him to zoom in and shoot with precision, and use alternate ammo such as mortars and homing grenades. Having both a 3rd person run-and-shoot and a 1st person sniper mode integrated in the game, with the ability to freely change between them, makes the gameplay quite versatile. Some sections demand you to go into sniper mode, but in other places, you're free to choose to headshot enemies at a distance or to kill them up close. You can also pick up and use hand grenades and weird powerups, like the "Stomper" and the "Tornado", which distribute massive damage around an area. In many places, you're supposed to unlock doors; instead of using keys, like in any regular game, you're supposed to find the World's Smallest Nuclear Bomb and destroy the radioactive-symbol locks on the doors. This kind of quirkiness is very usual in the game.

The arenas all have an intense aura of creativity and humour behind them. Essentially, you never know what to expect from them, and they range from "interesting" to downright wacky. It's not quite Earthworm Jim, but it's funny and unpredictable nonetheless. And the action is just all around fun. You can rush through the entire game killing almost nothing, but it's just neat to hunt down enemies and destroy everything in sight. Every level ends with a final boss, and while some of them are quite anticlimactic, they don't really spoil the experience. After defeating each boss, the minecrawler is disintegrated and sucked back into the alien dimension, and he has a chance to pick up a health upgrade in a sort of bonus level before Max, the six-legged dog, rescues him. The last level is an exception in this aspect: you end up chasing the final boss back into the alien planet, and face off with him in a fittingly cartoony fashion.

What's surprising is that I think this game holds up well today. In spite of its limitations, and its short length, it's still massively fun, and I do recommend it for fans of action shooters. I purchased it on Steam, and though I had to install a custom patch available on the forums to fix the graphics and textures, it runs fine on my PC (it did crash a few times, unfortunately, but the gameplay itself is unharmed). I don't know how the GOG version is, but I'm happy with the Steam release. Grab it if you can get it cheap.
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