Nintendo Switch: Unavailable Near You

This is kind of a rant about Nintendo as a company and how it treats consumers. Under a different banner, it can also be an open ended question about why people still like and defend a company that treats its consumer base so poorly time and again.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a large gaming industry week long event aptly called the “Game Developers Conference”, or GDC for short. There, I was surprised to see the company Nintendo teaming up with various developer platforms, primarily Unity3D, to demonstrate some of the Indie games running on their new Nintendo Switch console. I had a great time with some of their demonstrations and wished to learn more about the Switch console, but time is limited and they had many other people to demo for.

RELATED ~ 8Bits: Talking About the Nintendo Switch

So this brings us to today. I went all around town here in Kansas City looking for, not the actual console to purchase, but a demo. A small setup with the console and a television to play for fifteen or twenty minutes just to test the waters and feel out the console more thoroughly. Not only did I find out that such demo stations did not exist (as they do for every other major console), but new shipments of Switch consoles for purchasing isn’t expected until mid-April. Which is really awkward since Nintendo’s own website states that the system is “Available now at these retailers” and every single clickable option returns “unavailable. Something odd that I saw in every single store I visited was that retail store’s shelves had tons of extra controllers and accessories in stock, collecting dust on shelves… because nobody will buy an extra controller for a system they can’t even get.

RELATED ~ Nintendo Announces Its New Console and It’s a SWITCH!

On one hand, we should always see this coming every time Nintendo does, well, anything in these modern times. They did this limited supply tactic with their game altering plastic figurines called Amiibos. They did it again with a more recent venture, the super rare NES Classic nostalgia system, and now here we are again with the Nintendo Switch.

This all runs into a theory that I like to call “Nintendo hates their customers and is allergic to money”. The availability crisis Nintendo seems to be refusing to learn from, let alone fix, isn’t a new tactic, but it seems to add to the overall outlook of the company when it comes to consumers. Even with some of the games that come out from Nintendo in the not too distant past seem to be at odds with what players want.

I’m still burned on their ruination of Star Fox, a franchise that I hold dear to my early gaming days. Not because it broke with canon, but because it featured broken and impossible controls for no reason other than a vain attempt to justify the Wii U’s awkward tablet. Or the unnecessary dumbing down of Mario Party 10 for the Wii U because competitive board games are “too spoopy” for younger audiences.  It’s hard to not wonder if the gaming company just holds its player base in contempt or is some how self loathing.

There’s just these little things Nintendo seems to do that add up to the company not actually wanting players to enjoy their games. For example, not making a new Mario Kart for the switch, but re-releasing the same version from the Wii U with an added map and a couple of extra cross-over promotional characters (Birdo is still missing, however). Even the new Zelda game has good chunks of fun buried under a mountain of uniquely non-fun experiences.

I think Jim Sterling from The Jimquisition sums up the whole ordeal quite accurately (caution strong language):

https://youtu.be/cRicuKHmjZA

There is a little bit of good news that comes from the time that we are all forced to wait for the next wave of shipments… Maybe in the next few months, Nintendo will acknowledge the controller issues, dead pixel problems, and other problems the early adopters are having… but I know those are tall orders that Nintendo may never feel the need to do anything about.

 




XCom 2: A Game of Bug Eyed Freaks

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Developer: Fraxis Games
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4
Disclosure: Copy Purchased

The XCom series is a science fiction turn-based strategy game where aliens have invaded and taken over the Earth, and it’s up to you, a member of the underground human resistance, to fight for humanity… or what’s left it.  In XCom 2, the latest installation of the series, humanity has just about had it and the evil aliens have successfully infiltrated the media, making most of the public side with their cause, even to their own detriment.  Soylent Green is people, after all.

xcom2_map

XCom 2 follows in the same systems of the previous XCom titles, most of which are turn based strategies.  The players and missions take turns in each mission.  You have a base that you can upgrade and expand by adding new rooms over time.  However, unlike the most recent previous title, Alien Unknown, where your base expansion was incredibly limited and the player is given very little information about what buildings do what, you are somewhat guided in what rooms you “need” to build for story and have plenty of expansion slots (maybe even a couple extra).  Still, in both games, there’s no take backs.  Once an expansion slot is used, that’s what it is.  The only way to change a mistake (say, building too many power conduits) is to restart your entire game.

xcom2_hotzone

XCom 2’s combat is fairly straight forward.  All the player’s units take a turn doing all the things they need to do such as attacking, moving, hacking, and opening doors.  And once you expend all of your unit’s actions, the enemy AI does the same with all the enemy units.  There is a lot of interesting tactical choices you can make and the maps that you play around in are rather expansive with plenty of strange and fantastic places to hide and shoot from.  Units are well varied giving you a wide variety of combat and ability combinations between units to keep your small strike team rather fresh rather than monotonous.

What I liked

In short, what I liked most was the downloaded content and the fan-made mods.  Excluding the mostly lack-luster cosmetic DLC packs, the two extra content packs that added additional missions, enemies, and units were pretty OK.  Both content packs were quite short and didn’t add as big of an impact the price tag should demand, but the changes were nice and notable nonetheless.  One of the DLC packs, specifically the one that added the S.P.A.R.K. unit which is a big hulking robot that kicks some serious can (that is similar to but not as overwhelmingly impressive as the mech units from XCom: Enemies Unknowns), seems like it should have been in the game from the start.  The robot’s gun shreds armor which becomes extremely necessary as every mid to late game missions feature armored foes and very few normal units have the armor shredding ability.  Armor being a rather tough obstacle to overcome if your units are unable to counter it by shredding it.

I was surprised to find XCom 2 open to player modification or, if It did, would be like most strategy games and be extremely limited in function and content through a dedicated editor.  To my surprise, on PC, XCom was linked to Steam’s Workshop system.  And through that, modders have taken the time to fix some of the issues built in XCom 2’s release, issues such as a lack of items and crafting mid to late game.

xcom2_team

Between the DLC and the mods, XCom 2 became not just playable, but actually enjoyable.  There’s a good deal of issues that the game had on launch, which in turn is responsible for the “Mixed” review rating on Steam.  But enough tweaking of the system from the players have gotten it into a pretty great state.  In general, as the trend of releasing unfinished games as “early access” and “features to be added later” and then expecting the players to mod the games to working states, it a rather undue burden on players that are unpaid to do such work.

What I did not like

For starters, let’s talk difficulty curve.  The thing is, difficulty should be a curve that wavers between two axes: the time the player has been playing and the player’s skill level.  The longer the player has been playing a game, it’s safe to assume the more the player has learned and the more skill the player has obtained.  There is kind of a “sweet spot” in between those two axes where the game’s skill is not too hard to leave a player frustrated or too easy leaving the player bored.  Kind of like Goldilocks, it has to be just right to keep the player’s playing and satisfied.

This chart from an article on Gamasutra on cognition and game difficulty displays the difficulty curve as it relates to player skill and the game's inherent difficulty. It also shows the states of cognition for each point within the chart.
This chart from an article on Gamasutra about cognition and game difficulty displays the difficulty curve as it relates to player skill and the game’s inherent difficulty. It also shows the states of cognition for each point within the chart.

 

There were aspects of the canon DLC that were pretty game breaking.  The new characters seemed to be a necessary addition that should have been included with the original launch.  For instance, mid- to late-game all enemies have various stacks of armor.  Armor negates damage based on how many stacks a unit has. More armor stacks, the less damage you can do to that unit.  And nearly all enemies have it in the higher levels.

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Getting rid of an enemy’s armor is a top priority and only certain units can do that.  The DLC adds a unit called “S.P.A.R.K.” which has attacks that destroy armor.  For that fact alone, this unit is a stark necessity.   It seemed to me to be an odd aspect of the game to save for “extra paid for content”.

Then there is the DLC that nearly ruined the game for me.  In concept it is an interesting take on the turn-based style of the game.  The DLC adds three different bosses; they are various “upgrades” of three current units, and these bosses are super dangerous.  What makes them dangerous is that they get an action after every player action plus full actions on the enemy’s turn.  They can kill several of your units at a time while you can only move to cover one unit at a time.

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What makes this game breaking is the timing.  If you start a game with the DLC, chances are that you will stumble upon the activating missions at the very beginning of the game, which is what happened to my play.   From that first mission, the bosses will randomly spawn during any mission there after until you kill them.  The good thing is the damage you do to them is persistent and that they run away after getting hit so many times.  But the damage they wreak and the time they take up to handle is overwhelming for a beginner who lacks the equipment and sustainability available in mid to late game.

 

Is it worth playing?

There are a good number of issues in XCom 2, especially if you don’t have access to a Steam community workshop filled with player created modifications and downloads.  The game’s official DLC seems to be walled off featured content instead of true expansions.   The game lacks balance, especially in the beginning as the difficulty curve starts out incredibly high.

https://youtu.be/F2KVjktGePY

These problems aside, the game is pretty enjoyable.  With a story that pits a rag-tag group of human resistance fighters against an evil alien insurgency, the game really nails the underdog fantasy fighting against impossible odds.  It also does a great job keeping the action in the gameplay flowing even while still handling the turn based system.  It does a good job bridging the gap between hard core turn based strategy games and a more broad general audience.

It could have used a few more mission types to add more variation to the objectives given in each mission.  For the most part it was enjoyable and the story made coherent sense even though the main story was a little short.

 

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Review: OVERWATCH – Are You With Us?

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[All images courtesy Blizzard Entertainment]

Overwatch_cover_art_(PC)Overwatch
Developed by Blizzard Entertainment
Available on XBox One, PS4, and Windows 

Reviewed on PC
Released on May 24, 2016

Disclosure: Game Purchased

The moment my side iron drew from my holster as the clock struck twelve and a lonely tumbleweed rumbled by, I was immediately addicted. This is rather strange for me, really. I don’t generally gravitate towards first-person shooters nor do I tend to enjoy player vs player interactions.  I’m, on the whole, a player(s) versus environment gamer. But there is something special to Overwatch.

The more I researched the making of the game (listening to lectures  and presentations by the game’s artists and developers), the more I started to understand exactly what it is that brings me back into the fray match after match.

It feels like you are playing in a graphic novel or an extremely well-made animated Disney or DreamWorks movie where “Heroes never die … for a price”.

I’d like to preface this article a little bit by stating I’m terrible at first-person shooters and PVP based games. I really am. And generally, I get burnt out on the genre rather quickly. You can only be ground into the dirt by so many heels before it starts getting a little old. In many cases it’s the extremely toxic and hostile communities that tend to be full of griefers and trolls.

 

Other times in games — for example, Titanfall — I tend to spend a much greater time being dead than I do actually playing the game. I remember one match in Titanfall where I had only thirty seconds of time spent alive to around five minutes of time spent dead sitting in the re-spawn waiting room. Not my idea of fun. I paid to play these games, not sit in a lobby watching a timer.

Related: Titanfall Review
Related: Titanfall 2 announced

There is something about Overwatch that is different than other games in the same genre, such as Team Fortress 2. Most of the time, these types games are marketed towards a single demographic of gamers. In Bartle’s Taxonomy of players, this player archetype is known as Killers.

https://youtu.be/yxpW2ltDNow

In brief, killers are players that enjoy disrupting the actions and agency of other players. Examples of killer-focused games are Counter Strike: Go, Call of Duty, Battle Field, and even battle arena games such as League of Legends and DotA2. These games really know their audience and how to captivate them into hours upon hours of game play through their player vs player designs. But for those of us that are outside of the killer spectrum, these games can be incredibly hard to enter and even more difficult to stay into and excited about for the long term.

To be honest, I don’t quite know exactly what Overwatch is doing differently to lower the entry fee for non-killer archetype players. I can only imagine how hard it must be to keep Overwatch open to everyone and not just the die hard player vs player fans. I know that the game has both achievements and cosmetic items (like skins, sprays, and the like) that would appeal to the achiever type (collect and do all the things) and social type (fashion through skins), but it’s hard to pinpoint what else there is for the rest of the orthogonal spectrum. The game does a great job of putting a focus on teamwork while emphasizing mixing chance and skill based gameplay (that mixture is aimed at leveling the field between players of all skill levels).

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Lore is definitely something that one could point at as an outreach to the explorer based players. Though, like other non-story telling games — particularly Destiny and to a lesser extent, DOOM — the story of the game lays far and removed from actual gameplay. However, where games like Destiny fall short, Blizzard offers extremely beautiful cinematic short films (as well as comics, story boards, and other promotional materials) to bring players into the lore and history of Overwatch.

Related: Destiny Review

As reported on by Kotaku, officials at Blizzard have stated that there will not be a single player story campaign. (Though I would absolutely love a separate co-op story driven Overwatch game). But this doesn’t mean that the game “feels” like it is devoid of story.

Unlike in Destiny, where the player feels left out a story that should be rich and deeply immersive, the Ovewratch story feels like it has a lot of impact. It feels deep and well fleshed out. Granted, it sometimes is predictable (Hanzo will fight his brother Genji, Junkrat and Roadhog will wreak havoc, Winston and Reaper fight, Tracer and Widowmaker will fight), but even still, the Pixar-level short films with the emotion rich environments and characters are enthralling. I still want Blizzard’s cinematics department to make a full feature length film.

Even more, the story becomes further immersive inside the actual game as the characters will share dialogue lines between each other and the maps are altered to reflect the events that unfold in the short films (for example, arrows and damage can be seen inside the castle at Hanamura, a statue to the omnic religious figure that is assassinated by Widowmaker is found in the London map).

https://youtu.be/oJ09xdxzIJQ

One of the major aspects of Ovewratch that really appeals to me, though, is the art found within the game. Overwatch, more so than most modern ‘AAA’ games — especially of this genre — really pops. Everything from the art style in the maps and level designs to the character artwork is colorful and and thrilling.

This is during a time where other games in the FPS PVP genre are stuck in drab pallets ranging from rust to more rust. (The new Doom’s environment design and Battlefield 1 may be rare exceptions.) Overwatch feels engaging and well crafted. It feels like you are playing in a graphic novel or an extremely well made animated Disney or DreamWorks movie where “Heroes never die … for a price.”

Related: Another game full of color, Fallout 4

What really catches my eye, though, is the animation. This game is probably one of the best animated games I have ever seen. From the Game Developers Conference 2016 talk “Animation Bootcamp: How a Hero is Mei-d” (video of the lecture below), I got to see a behind the scenes look at a few of the animation and modeling techniques animators use, as well as a workflow pipeline for modeling and animation at Blizzard, and it was absolutely captivating.

I was astounded to find out that Overwatch was using a system called “noodle bones” to move the models, which is usually a technique reserved for cinema, not games. It allows for extreme control of character animations that follow the art technique of squash and stretch within a range of movement between frames.

https://youtu.be/lHevkQIZL2M

Audio is also an integral part of Overwatch. Every single fine detail has it’s own audio cues and distinct sounds. From hitting an enemy with your attack to sleeping bombs that quietly tick their way to detonation, Overwatch is rife with sound. The game’s audio is even linked to the fast paced gameplay mechanics as characters will shout out special abilities they unleash. If you aren’t paying attention (or are playing the game on mute), you can easily be caught unaware by a tire-bomb or a trick sixshooter.

As much as I gush in overflowing love for the bright and shiny gameplay, it does have some flaws. Not big flaws mind you, it is just me nit picking, but the flaws are there.  

Really, the entry fee and micro-transaction fest is Overwatch’s largest glaring flaw.
The first flaw is something that will smooth out over time. There’s a lack of play modes and maps. Blizzard does promise new maps and heroes for free as they become available. (Currently a new character, Ana, can be played on the Public Test Servers).

That isn’t to say what available currently is insufficient: the maps are incredibly well made and tweaked to perfection. The level of strategy in every location node is fine tuned for the super fast paced game play. On top of that, the maps themselves are things of beauty. They are all visually stunning and incredibly distinct. You can visually tell that you are in Nepal or Mumbai.

In other PVP arena games, if they have more than one map, you generally can’t distinguish between each one because they are all the same color pallets of rust, dirt, and more rust. There are about twelve maps. And that is a lot. But in a game that constantly plays map after map with no prolonged exploration or story mission to drive you through different sections to keep it fresh, the maps in this genre get stale and overplayed very quickly.

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There exist four distinct modes: capture the point, push the payload, king of the hill, and hybrid capture the point then push the payload. My favorite maps are the king of the hill map, where both teams are tasked with capturing and holding the same objective location as it tends to somewhat avoid the war of arbitration that the other modes seem subject to. I’m really hoping that the future of Overwatch includes more objective driven maps rather than mindless skirmish style gameplay.

There are some interesting choices in the departments of marketing and progression that are a slight bit odd and somewhat off putting. The first of these is the game’s market strategy. The biggest drawback to Overwatch is the fact that the game is both a premium priced game (ranging from $39.99 – $59.99 for the base copy) with microtransactions sprinkled in the mix of it. Yes, there is an entry fee at the door and additional fees once you are inside.

Granted, these additional microtransaction fees are completely optional, but as it is linked to the cosmetic progression system, every time you reach a new notch on the progression track, you are teased with the option to spend more cash.

So  lets talk progression as it relates to the game’s microtransactions. One of the good things about this system is that it is entirely cosmetic. Overwatch has no meta game, one of the saving graces in Blizzard’s take of the genre. In other games, microtransactions are linked to the best game-breaking instant win weapons or randomly selected throws of bonus points to make you better and stronger than those players that don’t pay the extra fees for the extra points. Keeping both progression and microtransaction content to cosmetic changes was an extremely smart move on Blizzard’s part. Smart, because it keeps the entry bar level so players with money don’t stomp all over on the players without.

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But with this in mind, the microtransaction system has some malicious design baked into the system to entice players to shell out those little chunks of cash. Because it’s linked to progression, the game follows the “first taste is free” business model.

Breaking Down the Loot Box Cycle:

This system is in place to make the cosmetics a valuable commodity. Players want to play these games and they want to look cool doing it. When you look at your team, you can’t help but gawk at Mercy’s devil horns or Roadhog’s shark costume and think, “Wow, those are awesome, I want those.” Even in the beta, I played a mountain of matches for Hanzo’s okami skin (a wolf costume, and it also replaces all his dragon moves with wolf equivalents).

A side note on skins

So wrapping it all up, the game incentives players to spend money on the in game purchases with a carrot and stick.

The carrot is the shiny skins, animations, and voice lines that other players have unlocked. You want those items.

The stick is the terrible probabilities of actually getting what you want with the loot box’s low drop rates and the pittance of trash rewards that trickle your way, all the while making the “pay money” option look like the best route for those special shiny unlocks…. But even if you do pay money, it still is the same random crapshoot you get without spending money, just a great deal more of it.  A recent episode of the Jimquisition explores Overwatch’s payment system in greater depth.

(Caution: strong language)

https://youtu.be/LWTsJZD3YFQ

Really, the entry fee and microtransaction fest is Overwatch’s largest glaring flaw. Overall, gameplay is incredibly smooth and streamlined. This is true not only for a Blizzard title, but also for a game with this high octane twitch happy competitive mettle. The mechanics of the game are well balanced. The developers take time to talk to the community both on the game’s forums and in videos, listening to the players and making fixes that Blizzard’s own data backs up. The animations are crisp and fresh and free of lag. Character design, although nothing dramatically original mechanically speaking (yet), still feels vibrant and fresh. It is a highly-polished game that was witness to Blizzard’s smoothest launch in the company’s history.

https://youtu.be/vTH2ZPgYujQ

Related: Diablo 3 Squashes the Bug

In conclusion, even though the game isn’t the genre that I typically enjoy, I can’t put it down. I’m stunned by the fantastically smooth animation in Overwatch. The fact that it uses the best techniques of squash and stretch create a glorious visual experience.

Even though the game world is set in an dystopian future, the colors are bright and vibrant. These colors convey more a world of hope and virtue than the cliche decay and disrepair.

The servers are clean and latency is relatively low for a game of this speed. The community is (for the most part) welcoming and the gameplay is as fantastic as it is frantic. The gun battles are intense and never quite predictable. I have been enjoying this game thoroughly since the closed beta to current.

Rating: 8.5. Heroes never die … for a price.

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It will be very interesting to see what Blizzard does with the game from here. With the promise free updates of characters and maps, I am quite excited for Overwatch‘s future. I also hope Blizzard continues to make the fantastic film shorts, comics, and other story lore building elements. They have been sprinkling these about during their pre-launch marketing campaign, and I’ve been rather enjoying them.

Since writing this article, Blizzard has just launched Overwatch‘s competitive play mode. As stated above, I’m particularly not great with first-person shooters. Nor player vs player games, for that matter. Competitive mode currently doesn’t really hold much interest in me, although I did dabble a little with the competitive play mode. It needs a great deal of improvement to be viable to a more general audience.

It feels like it favors only victors. Only the top echelon of the competitive players can actually use the system. There is very little (or nothing at all) for those of us who are mediocre or below. However, since the mode is so new, it’s hard to get a full read on situation. It will be interesting to see how Overwatch evolves over time.

https://youtu.be/pwFu8kEsUW4

Are you playing Overwatch? Have any highlights or “Play of the Game”s to share? Any opinions on Blizzard’s newest IP? We’d like to know! Leave a comment below. For more information about the game, visit the Blizzard Entertainment website.

 

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FALLOUT 4 Review: Vault-Tec Never Changes

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Game: Fallout 4
Developer: Bethesda
Platform Reviewed: PC
Disclosure: Copy purchased

The biggest thing about Fallout 4, is that it is unequivocally Fallout (post v.3, of course).  Every facet of the game, from the atomic bombed out crap-sack world’s landscapes and crumbling skyscrapers to the futuristic gun battles against raiders and radiation crazed zombies feels like that classic Fallout style first person shooter.  The major difference that surprised me with this new iteration on the Fallout series, is the vibrancy that is illustrated in the world.  

Although the overall game is rather decent, there’s some glaring missteps in the game’s design that hold it back.
Where general sci-fi dystopia style worlds usually filled with color pallets ranging from rust to dark rust.  Fallout 4‘s world is colorful. Large swaths of vivid reds, blues, and yellows dot the terrifying landscape, much like the world you’d find today.  And really, this makes sense.

 

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Just look at that detail!

If you look at pictures of real life nuclear disaster sites, none of them are completely devoid of any colors other than mud and green glows.  Life still flourishes, even amidst the most dreadful of conditions.  Hell, even Chernobyl has green forests, blue skies, and a mostly well-preserved city/township with a full fair ground.  The visuals of Fallout 4 take this to heart and it really brings the world to life in new and surprising ways.  Where Fallout 4 excels is immersion both visually and audibly.   From enemy models to even the bumbling nervous radio personality, the world feels like Fallout.  And yes, as a former student disk jockey at the University of Kansas, I kind of feel a connection to the “Diamond City Radio” host.  I’ve been there.  On the air with no guidance, just a stack of records and a microphone.  His rambling and strange antics make him more believable as a post-apocalyptic radio personality.  His lack of refinement makes him feel genuine and it gets the point across that some random person just happened to “find” a radio antenna and started broadcasting.

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Monster bears are fairly common in the wasteland.

Combat also is very Fallout.  The game allows you to choose your own style of how to approach conflict based on how you attribute points into your character.  Your options span the gambit from mighty melee attacks to computer assisted devastation through your handy smart-watch’s V.A.T.S. equipment.  A large variety of weapons assist you in your journey and the staggering amount of crafting options let you customize your arsenal and armor on the fly.  But this is where things get a little hairy for Fallout 4.  Although the overall game is rather decent, there’s some glaring missteps in the game’s design that hold it back.

Crafting:

While ambitious in its implementation, the crafting system itself has its flaws.  Nearly every gun and scrap of armor can be taken apart and refitted with what ever means of destruction you like within the confines of what is allowable within the crafting system.  There’s a harsh limit to the system.  Guns and armor can only be tinkered with so much.  Damage output can only increase so far.  Which means that as enemies get stronger and have more health as you level, guns and combat in general becomes less and less effective.  The crafting system is finite while the enemy strength is practically limitless.

This equates to a bell curve of viable combat options.  Where I am at in the game currently (around level 75 or so), most weapons in the game are trash, including the legendary weapons.  I have a no-reload “Never-Ending” fat man (a giant mini-nuke bomb launcher) that handles almost every situation (save for indoors or cramped spaces) and all other guns do next to no damage to the heavily armored sacks of meat and health that are my opponents.

Armor also has stark limitations, but whereas the weapons take time to become obsolete, armor starts out that way.  This problem is two-fold.  The first is that armor is collected piece by piece.  Two arms, a torso, a head, and two legs are all pieces whose sum creates your armor.  These pieces can be worn over other clothing, but instead of letting you choose what fun and interesting clothing to wear (out of Fallout 4‘s impressive lineup of styles and fashions) you are limited to an extremely small selection of underwear.  Most clothing forces you to unequip your armor in order to wear them, which is a shame.  I don’t know why it should be so much harder to wear metal plates over a dress than over a jump suit.  It is as if they flaunt this massive customization system in front of you saying you can wear whatever you want, but keep in mind a stray bullet catching you naked can take off a limb.  So just only wear the armor and we’ll all be happy.

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Super Style’n

The other problem is the same as the guns.  Armor crafting upgrades are static.  They don’t increase with level.  So after a time, all armor becomes obsolete in the world.  Even in power armor, if I’m not quick enough on the draw to sneak attack with my fat man nuke launcher, the claws of a death claw will tear through my power armor like tissue paper.  The game’s difficulty increases, not because of skill and challenge, but because the raw statistics on the armor and guns stops matching up to the challenges of the ever-changing world.  As I level up, the armor and weapons theoretically should be increasing in value on their statistics.

If I find a gun at level 70 it should do more damage than finding a gun at level.  This makes every piece of armor and every weapon inherently more valuable the longer I play, making me weigh my options each time I come across new items of these types.  Armor and weapons should be a source of endogenous value.  Something the player should covet as they run from loot crate to loot crate.  However, because of the hard statistics on the armor and weapons, they end up being worthless after a point.

Workshops:

I do really like the idea of workshops and home bases in Fallout 4.  It makes sense for the player to start-up settlements and it’s actually pretty fun taking the time to build them and create little dwellings and buildings for your settlers to live in.  Although the concept is nice and its execution is pretty decent, it needs a lot of quality of life improvements make it really pop.  I’ve spent a great deal of time making crazy buildings and turret traps.  Even the wiring and lighting system can cook up some pretty spectacular systems (like colored light boxes, signs, turrets, booby traps, and the much more).

For starters, having a grid on the ground that placed items could snap to would be fantastic.  Building pieces do snap to each other, but laying down the first one or lining up multiples is always awkward and strange since it is completely free form.  So when you are trying to line a building up with a sidewalk that already exists as part of the ground you want to build on, it’s really hard to get it straight on.  With this, being able to completely clear your workshop space of all foliage, debris, tires, piles of discarded metals, houses, cars, trees, and other items that a lot of times can’t even be targeted, would be nice, too.

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The colors!

It also needs a better camera view. Especially a camera that isn’t your character’s first person view.  Building things is a chore when you can’t see what you are doing… which happens often as the terrain or whatever it is you are trying to build gets in the way of your sight.  Some sort of free-flowing camera would do better than your first person view.

The settlers at your workshop are annoying and can’t do anything for themselves.  Randomly, and fairly often, you’ll get quest pop-ups that tell you when a settlement is under attack or monsters are killing villagers.  It’s up to you to save them (even though you lined the perimeter with over a hundred automated turrets equipped with high powered rocket launchers).  This would be fine if you had nothing else going on, but if you are in the middle of a major story quest or in a DLC area that is not in the same zone as your settlement, you can either choose to take the consequences of letting your settlement die or stop everything you are currently doing to go help on the pointless nearly non-rewarding side quest.   And after a while, when you get so many settlements, you start getting bombarded with requests from all of them.  Everyone needs the player’s help.  No, Roman.  I don’t want to “go play darts” every five damn seconds (Grand Theft Auto IV is a stark reminder of this awful annoying “friend activity” side quest mechanic is).

Getting side quests from your settlement workshops is fine.  But hampering the player’s agency by giving consequences for ignoring those quests is not fine.  The constant annoyances of being called into action by every settlement has worn me down.  It’s gotten to the point where I just ignore them, completely.

Game Engine:

Bethesda’s game engine is showing its age.  The same bugs that plagued Skyrim (Caution: link contains strong language) can be found in Fallout 4, although to a much lesser extent.  Rag-doll bodies fly through the air, NPCs spawn in floors.  Models bug out flailing their limbs about and get stuck on geometry.  In my game, I have a suit of power armor where the ends of the bolts (the large hex part) are floating around as I move about.  They are attached to the fore-arms instead of the shoulders where they are located on my character model.  It’s the same game engine Bethesda has been using for its previous titles and seeing the same bugs and issues game after game, it gets pretty old.

https://youtu.be/XX9Xo9EnKbA

Another, but extremely minor, complaint I have is the game’s UI.  It seems overly simplified and not stylized for a fully developed game.  It feels rushed and slapped on at the last minuet.  I mainly say this because it is missing some important channels of communication.  As a player, I have no idea how much breath I have when I go swimming underwater.  I actually though it was infinite for a while because there was no display or indication on the level of breath I had while swimming in that filthy irradiated sludge Fallout calls “water”.

AI:

Bethesda’s AI has always been an interesting and quirky system.  Having Non Player Characters worry about things such as food and sleep in addition to what actions the player is currently taking, gives a fine level of detail to a great deal of the world.  However, some combat AI actions leave for instant restarts of my game.  Specifically, if an NPC finds a fat man nuke launcher while I’m trying to fight my way through a subway tunnel.

I remember approaching my first raider encampment at level 2, only to find myself underneath a mushroom cloud and having to restart from the closest auto-save, character creation.  What had happened was that there was a fat man nuke launcher left on a shelf for the player to discover.  The enemy raider became under attack.  Decided his level 2 10mm pistol was not as good as the nuclear bomb thrower, so they picked it up, and fired it with computerized pin-point accuracy for a perfect head-shot.

Every combat with humans, and to a lesser extent super mutants, is a gamble depending on what items are scattered around the level in which they populate.  Was there a rocket launcher left on a couch? A fat man in a long forgotten bathtub? You’ll find out soon enough as you’re suddenly blown to shreds!  Where I’m at now, it’s not as big of a problem with my high tech power armor shell, but in the early game, every combat situation was a nail biter of survival.  This random chance of an NPC picking up some high explosive ordinance makes combat based not on skill, but random chance.

(caution: game trailer contains strong language and animated violence.  Rated M for Mature)

https://youtu.be/D5esyZPt5Jo?t=29m7s

Story:

The story is what ruined Fallout 4 for me.  The narration starts out out fine enough, a little drab and predictable but not terrible.  It has some interesting twists and turns for sure and some pretty good characters.  Characters have a range between being multi-faceted and single dimensional.  But the ending, or rather the near ending, is awful.  The non-spoiler version is that the game removes player agency, forcing you to make stupid single decision choices.

Even though your character’s kills and narrative situations clearly show that you should be making some sort of choice outside of the binary black and white ones presented, you are still only given the choice between option A or option B.  It’s bad narrative design and it should not exist within a title such as Fallout since previous versions have given the player different options based on the player’s stat levels.

Fallout 4 Story Spoiler

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Because of the lack of a better option than the ones that are provided, I created my own option.  I chose neither.  My Fallout 4 game will have no main story conclusion.  Although this is a testament to player created agency, it’s also short sighted design since there is no outcome or resolution.  It will forever feel “unfinished” due to the sour options presented.  And just to be clear, it’s not because the decision is hard (the choice you are forced to make is a basic “Which do you prefer.  Flavor A or flavor B”), but because I was shoehorned into making a binary choice that lacks other opportunities that have been presented previously throughout the game to my character.  Previous Fallouts (3 and New Vegas, to a lesser extent) had these options.  If your stats were high enough, you could choose new endings that were previously unavailable.  But in this Fallout, it’s completely one or the other, no middle ground, no ground at all.

Dialogue:

Tying in with the story issue above, the dialogue is another aspect of flawed game design.  Voicing lines is tough and expensive in games, and Fallout 4 has an enormous amount of voice acted lines. Bethesda even touted at E3 2015 that your robot butler would have over one thousand recorded names that he could say.  The actual list was kind of strange because things that you would expect to be in that list, like common names, would be missing.  Yet things you wouldn’t expect to be there, like odd slang words, strangely were.  Polygon magazine made a video of some test cases they came up with (caution: strong language).

https://youtu.be/TpoQgaTazmc

However, some issues arise when the voice acted dialogue is coupled with the “select what to say” menu.  The menu itself was overly simplified, but didn’t make clear what choices were what.  Generally, the bottom choice was “good” and the choice on the right was “angry/rude/bad”, but the other two choices were a wild card.  So you may not get what you want to say because what you selected through the menu wasn’t what you meant for your character to say.

For instance, the option you select says “yes” but for some reason your character threatens to shoot the friendly old lady who was just seeking help finding her lost cat.  On top of that, but many conversations are gated when all you want is more information.  Which means that once you say something, the conversation is over.  You can either say “who are you” or “why did you do this” but not both for some strange reason.

One good thing is that you can quick save mid conversation.  The sad thing is, to hear all the dialogue recorded in for the NPC interactions, you have to quick save every step through the dialogue trees so you can hear the different options play out.  To be honest, I really like that my character talks.  I like that some of the more witty and sarcastic choices are actually pretty funny and entertaining.  I just wish the dialogue option selections wasn’t so convoluted, and had more than four options per choice.  More than anything else, I want more skill based choices like in previous Fallout 4 games.

In conclusion, Fallout 4 is a pretty decent game.  Although it lacks a lot of the polish I was expecting in the areas above, it plays really well.  It’s pretty, it screams Fallout 4, it is everything we love about Fallout.  I just kind of wish it was better written, had better UI and AI elements, the leveling system was conjoined with the crafting system, and that settlements had better in game creation tools.  If you are a fan of role playing games or just love the idea of retro-sixty’s dystopian futures, this game is very much worth a play through.

Rating: 

7/10 A regular pint-sized atom bomb.

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Review: STAR FOX ZERO Needs Better Control


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Game: Star Fox Zero
Developer(s):
Nintendo EPD
PlatinumGames
Publisher: Nintendo
System: Wii U

https://youtu.be/kexWqX34E7w

There is a lot of things that Nintendo has done right with the new Star Fox title released last week, Star Fox Zero.  Visually, it lives and breathes all that is Star Fox.  That retro space fighter plane shoot-em-up in space.  Hopping planet to planet blowing up geometrically shaped bad guys in a far away galaxy.  This incarnation is exactly what the Star Fox IP needs since the last version of it came out in 1997 (no, Star Fox Adventures and Assault do not count.  Granted, they were decent games, but they weren’t Star Fox).

The big gigantic boss fights look unique yet retro.
The big gigantic boss fights look unique yet retro.

However, other than visual accouterments and the overall feel of the game, it has a great deal of problems.  The largest glaring problem area of Star Fox Zero is it’s terrible controls.  As Arthur Gies, of Polygon, masterfully illustrates the major issues in his article, what prevents Star Fox Zero from being a great, and at most even playable, game are a couple of points considering the control schematic technology of the Wii U’s Game Pad:

First and foremost, controls.  The controls are abysmal.  Completely unusable.  After playing the tutorial and some of the training missions, I assumed I had an “OK” handle on the controls to bumble around the levels.  Boy, was I wrong!  I was so very, very wrong. I spent the first five minuets of Corneria nose first in the dirt, grinding out some brand new trench based landscaping for the city, before I exploded.

Among the flaws of Star Fox Zero, is the absolute reliance on the game pad.  This oversight is profound.  You are forced to use the terrible peripheral gimmick of the Wii U that makes the controls of any game extremely loose and sloppy.  The imprecision of gyroscopic controls makes the simplest tasks a chore for nearly every game.  And in the case of Star Fox Zero, this chore is a nightmare.  Not only does the crazy over-sensitive tilt controls move your reticle (and forcibly inverted in both UP/DOWN and LEFT/RIGHT directions) but your tilt overrides your flight direction.  It doesn’t matter what you do on the directional sticks, if your hands are not in the exact same position, your vehicle is going to drift towards whatever axis holds your tilt.

Flying, something that should be intuitive is made neigh impossible due to the terrible controls of the game pad.
Flying, something that should be intuitive is made nigh impossible due to the terrible controls of the game pad.

One of the major things that made Star Fox and Star Fox 64 such great games was the tight and responsive control schematics.  Easy to learn, hard to master.  Intuitive and full of depth.  In Star Fox Zero, the controls are loose, unresponsive, overly sensitive, counter-intuitive, and are basically trash.  Even worse, there are no settings that change how the game is played.  No reversing the inverted motion detection, no switching to thumb sticks only, no switching to any other controller other than the game-pad, no turning off tilt-a-whirl-o-vision (or as I like to refer to the cock-pit view of the game “The Vomit Comet”).

Which brings me to another point: humans do not multi-task.  This includes looking at two screens at once.  We, the humans, can only look at one thing to focus on at a time.  We can track objects in our peripheral vision, but as far as being able to focus our undivided attention completely on two different and separate screens at the same time, nope.  But to play Star Fox Zero, that’s exactly what you have to do.  Look at two distinct screens at the same time.  One to fly and one to shoot.  The two screens are constantly fighting for your attention and won’t let you dedicate any time to just one.  Nintendo even made it impossible to just ditch one screen or another.  The TV screen is shot at a camera angle as to make shooting too inaccurate for it to be viable and the game pad’s view point is laser focused at whatever shiny object the gyroscopic sensor feels lackadaisical about.  To be honest, I really wish they wouldn’t have touched the old Star Fox system of flying, shooting, and watching one single TV screen, and that’s it.

As much as Nintendo wants it to be a "thing", the design just is not good.
As much as Nintendo wants it to be a “thing”, the design just is not good.

If they were going to do the whole cockpit view, previous cockpit fighter pilot games such as Star Lancer or Tie Fighter should have been the “go to” for hashing out the system and feel of it.  Not this bowl filled with water and cornstarch for a feel that is quite unpleasant as the accelerometer oozes between your fingers as you try to do the absolute basic functions (fly forward as an example).

The only word I can think about when I play the game is “sloppy”.  The dual screen added to the wibbly wobbly controls is just sloppy game design.  Game design is an iterative process where if something isn’t working, it’s scrapped and re-designed to something better.  

I spent the first five minuets of Corneria nose first in the dirt, grinding out some brand new trench based landscaping for the city, before I exploded.
How the controls and the dual screen junk didn’t get scrapped in the first sprint (games are developed in a series of rounds called “sprints“), is a feat and what ultimately sunk this game.  Which is sad and hurts my soul, because it seemed to have so much promise.  It really had the chance to be something truly epic.  Nintendo had the opportunity to give us the next generation light heated space fighter pilot experience that a lot of us gamers are hungry for.

The first indication that I had when playing Star Fox Zero that the controls were less than optimal was that it hurt my wrists holding the game pad in a way that would allow me to fly forward.  “Stable” is not a relaxed position.  In fact, because the accelerometers in the Wii U game pad and how they translate position into digital signals, no position is relaxed.  I couldn’t even sit back in my couch.  I was forced to be hunched forward with my arms sticking out, frantically twisting about with the game pad trying to find the exact angular degree to not drift into the nearest killer object.  The ground is my greatest most difficult foe.

The game pad is also a host of another one of Star Fox Zero‘s missteps.  Audio.  You know what would be better than my massive television’s Bose 5.1 surround system? The lousy tiny cheap barely audible mono speaker in the Wii U game pad.  Let us put full character dialogue and mission critical information on the extremely tiny speaker.  Sure, it’s subtitled, but if you put all that work and money into voice acting in a video game, why would you run all those voices through the worst possible speaker?

So if your TV is too loud, you can’t hear anything that you need to hear to play the game and complete the level.   There is no option to switch audio to your television’s default and automatically superior sound quality (unless your TV is analog and not digital… then why haven’t you switched yet?).

This. This is what I wanted from Star Fox Zero.
This. This is what I wanted in a Star Fox title.

These glaring defects are so appalling and obvious from the moment you press “play” on the disk (even the tutorial won’t let you continue until you’ve turned up the volume on the game pad.  Yes, I have it turned off for a reason, Nintendo) I’m almost wondering if Nintendo, as a publisher, maliciously put such things in the game’s development milestones (how games get their money through achieving marks of progress called “milestones”), knowing full well that they would negatively impact sales.

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I’m not sad I bought Star Fox Zero.  I am willing to buy this game in hopes that more Star Fox titles will be created in the future.  But I am sad that I am not able to play Star Fox Zero.  The controls are too loose and impossible to get down.  My only saving grace that probably won’t ever happen, is that they release a patch to phase out the Wii U game pad (or at least add the option to use a Wii Mote + Nun-chuck for thumb-stick only control).  The game looks great; it feels like it has the potential to be a truly epic space fighter pilot game that the video game sphere desperately needs.  It’s a niche that just doesn’t have any game catering to it.

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Visually it’s fantastic.  The overall feel of the game as the ships zip about shooting lasers and giant bombs feels good and feels like Star Fox.  This game should be re-defining what it means to be a space fighter pilot game.  But Nintendo’s insistence on using the game pad… it took something very simple and made it as complicated and unusable as they possibly could.  The audio is absolutely abhorrent, especially when players have access to bigger and better speaker systems that can even come standard in most HD televisions.

What was Nintendo thinking?

 

UPDATE: the newest Jimquisition is out today making the same points as pretty much everyone else about this game.  However, he does have some interesting points on Nintendo as a company as a whole, pointing out that they sacrifice everything in the name of innovation, including working and functional games.

Go get ’em Jim! (Caution: Strong language but incredibly on point)

https://youtu.be/9w2RMBrmTsk

 

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New Doom Old Doom: A New Mod for an Old Classic

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With the rise of hype of Bethesda Softworks’s and id Software’s necromancy work on the DOOM Franchise, it’s interesting to see more and more lights shone on the remnants of DOOM’S past.  Just as a reminder, we aren’t talking about any of those awful Saturday night mock horror movies.  What we are talking about is the rabid and thriving fan-base that is still playing and modding the original DOOM games.

https://youtu.be/9-yT1l_4QZs

DOOM revivals and reboots have been circulating around for a while now.  One mod in particular is a rather fantastic modification to DOOM or DOOM II called Brutal DOOM.  From their website:

In development since 2010, the 18th Cacoward winner and Moddb 2012 MOTY Editors Choice of Creativity Award Brütal Doom takes Doom into a whole new level. It makes the game much more violent than before. There’s much more blood, plus it adds unique gibs, death animations, dismemberments, headshots, executions, fire and explosion particles, flares, shadows over all objects, and much more.

The whole world becomes more real and interactive.You can kick severed limbs and heads (and sometimes, use it to activate some traps in the map earlier, or even kick them against enemies to do some damage), you can shoot enemies’ heads to deal more damage (and cause more gruesome deaths) you can destroy most things in the the scenario (trees, lamps, hanging bodies, etc), you can paint the floor, the walls, and even the ceiling with blood, you can push the explosive barrels to make traps, or grab them and use like an explosive weapon, you can silently take down enemies from behind and perform stealth kills, the chainsaw actually cuts the enemies in two. When you find the berserk pack and get super strength, you can perform cinematic executions and RIP AND TEAR your foes with your bare hands. Some enemies will scream in anguish and try to crawl away when near death, and they can be used as human shields, and much, much moreModdb

https://youtu.be/NW8AHt5dgpw

Interestingly enough, this sort of fan dedication is something that the new DOOM by Bethesda-id wants to capture with their DOOM SnapMap modding system.  If the new mod system can speak to players and the overall DOOM modding community of the older games in the same ways as the original editing tools do, the new DOOM can be something rather special indeed.  However, accomplishing this feat will be rather difficult due to the extremely high expectations that players of the original DOOMs have with any DOOM title.

Most of all, those high expectations revolve not only around the fast paced grizzly action based gameplay that is a staple of DOOM, but it mostly revolves around supporting a robust modding community.  These communities are essential to the success of DOOM and other games such as Unreal Tournament by Epic Games, the game’s lifeblood, if you will.  According to an interview with Game-Trailers.com and Game Informer with Bethesda Softworks’s Pete Hines at this past year’s Quake Con (a convention that celebrates video games), the new DOOM won’t support mods that are created outside of the tools offered in their own proprietary modding system, SnapMap.

https://youtu.be/lgUB8aH9eZI?t=11m6s

Now, on the surface, this sounds pretty extreme.  No mods outside of the proprietary software.  But to be fair, that is the story with most modern games, including those made by Bethesda (specifically Oblivion and Skyrim).  There is a long list of games that live or die by their mod editor (which include games like Blizzard’s Starcraft and Warcraft, BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights, and an the ill fated editor of another of BioWare’s games: DragonAge: Origins) and DOOM will be no exception. What will and won’t be allowed is yet to be seen, though.  If Fallout 4‘s workshop system is any indication, there will definitely be some surprises hidden about in the SnapMap editor.

Related: Bethesda Announces New Doom at E3 2015

Moving on, something that is a little fun happened at the end of last week.  On Friday, one of the original designers of the original id Software’s DOOM, John Romero, created a level mod for the original game.  He released the news and a download link on his Twitter which is attached below.

According to a brief from Gamasutra:

Veteran game developer John Romero took to Twitter today to spread the word that he’s made a new Doom level, something he says he hasn’t done in over twenty years.

Romero’s return to the game that jumpstarted his career in game development is a fun little Friday surprise for developers, especially Doom enthusiasts, some of whom are thanked in the readme file accompanying the level.Alex Wawro

 

This is the sort of thing is what I was hoping we’d see from Mr. Romero, as far as DOOM news was concerned, even though he is no longer with id Software.  Since he’s the creator of DOOM, I’ve been wondering if we would hear any DOOM related news from Mr. Romero.  And this is probably some of the best news we could have gotten.

I’m still curious to see if Mr. Romero will enjoy the new DOOM from Bethesda Softworks and his old company, and if, in his eyes, the new game will do the old title the justice it so seems like it should receive.  For now, all we can  do is wait for the new DOOM to come out and see if it and its SnapMap mod system is of any worth.  But until then, mods for the old version save the day… like always.

AJ6TEaV

Have you played the new E1M8 map by John Romero?  Have any good memories from past DOOM experiences?  Looking forward to the new DOOM and are excited by anything you’ve heard or seen so far?  Let us know in the comments below!

 

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Review: POKÉMON Y is Nintendo’s Return to Good Storytelling

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Pokemon X BoxartPokémon Y
Written by Toshinobu Matsumiya, Masafumi Nukita, and Suguru Nakatsui
Developed by Game Freak
Published by The Pokémon Company
Distributed by Nintendo
Available on Nintendo 3DS
Released on October 12, 2013

Now here’s something I thought I was done with.

I had punched in my time with Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow/white/black/diamond/pearl back around when I was in middle school and high school. I stopped playing the franchise around Pokémon Diamond for the DS. For me, the franchise seemed too large and diluted with merchandise, card games, television, and film. So large that it lost focus somewhere between the merchandise and the trading card game and the Pokémon stores in Japan that they forgot that they had a game to make.

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After I had put down the series, several iterations had gone by and I was pretty sure that the target market was now only vying for young children, generally of the middle/high school age. I did my hard time, I was a free man.

And then a 3DS lands in my lap with Pokémon Y. How wrong my assumption was. As it turns out, Pokémon, specifically X/Y, is marketing itself in a way that many recent cartoons are doing these days. The marketing is aimed primarily at young children while the game itself is marketed at a much older audience.

For instance, one of the main non-spoiler themes of Pokémon Y is genocide, a theme that many of the franchise’s games and some of their movies touch upon quite often. The nuance of genocide is not something I would expect a young 7 or 9 year old to really understand. Sure, the little cartoon critters are cute and everyone knows the iconic smiling yellow marshmallow Pikachu mascot, but there’s a lot of high level strategy needed to play an 18-way game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. With the innovations in the game’s mechanics and the intricate story telling, I don’t think a young kid would really grasp the full gravity of the game.

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With that all said, I’ve never understood why companies like Nintendo don’t capitalize on the market that actually plays games like this: college students. For many Nintendo games, the college market is never really reached with any of their marketing campaigns. While I was at the University of Kansas, nearly every student had a 3DS. Now that I’m a couple towns over picking up yet another degree at Johnson County Community College, once again, it’s the same story: nearly every student has a 3DS.

My Street Pass function on my 3Ds constantly procs with the Pokémon Street Pass tag meaning that, like my own, these other DS’s have a recent playing of Pokémon in their software list. I saw a joke meme with this same notion about this and another game: Call of Duty. The image read “target audience: college students, actual players: twelve-year-olds”. It makes me wonder what the disconnect in the focus group for marketing actually is to produce this massive of a gap.

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Moving on to game play, as far as Pokémon Y goes, the aspect of 3D was not something I was expecting to add anything to the game play, but once again, I was quite wrong. There were many good visuals and instances where having the game portrayed in the 3DS’s innovated 3D technology enhanced the experience a great deal. The level design is modern and makes a lot of sense. Characters are all modeled out in 3D and have pretty decent animations to them.

And the building models; when the Pokémon devs wanted you to notice “Hey, this building is important”, man do they make you take NOTICE! The architecture is wild and over the top like you would expect in any RPG that comes from Japan.

But even more noticeable is the fact that they put a camera “photo opportunity” function in front of all the special buildings. When you click on a sign, you then use the 3DS like a Polaroid camera, even taking your hand motions into account with positioning, to take a picture of your character in the game in front of a photo opportunity in front of some structure, like the awe-inspiring swirling orrery style building that shoots lasers out of it’s roof, so you can then go and tell your friends “Going to attack the top 5 now, brb, #beatDown, #Charizard, #MegaLucario”.

The mechanics of the game are pretty traditional to the series. The turn-based combat was still a little trite yet still true to the original Pokémon”battle system”, but what was there made sense. It sort of lacked depth. You choose from several options then they choose, rinse and repeat. Moves lists are limited to 4 per Pokémon so it can get crazy repetitive after a time.

Leveling can be a chore as well, especially if you need a certain type for the Rock-Paper-Scissors (the next gym I’m on is all fire and my level 50 grass line up won’t cut it … gotta go level my level 1 water types for the next 3 hours to get them to level 30 to proceed…).

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One thing that I really liked was the level of player customization. The game has clothing shops dotted throughout many of the towns where you could buy clothing and stylize your character. I do, however, wish there were more extravagant costumes for your character, but was there is nice.

Minor Plot Spoiler

The story was long and multi-layered. I rather enjoyed frantically waiving my arms in panic going from one crisis to another. The writers did a great job in escalating the scale of crisis in good proportions making the game feel like it was progressing at a very acceptable and pleasing pace.

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The structure of the game was set up to be kind of a mix between nostalgia, a throwback to the original Pokémon adventures (collect badges by beating up important people, then go beat up the most important people to bite and claw your way to the top), but mixed in with quite a great deal of new ideas and innovations in the Pokémon world. One thing that they did really well with the story though, is that they made the bad guy relatable.

What he is doing is wrong and obviously evil, but at the same time, it makes sense and it’s for all the right reasons. Sadly, you don’t have any sort of “choice” in the game, but it does create a fun little scenario of ambivalence towards the antagonist. That, and it made me always feel a little bad for mopping the floor with the Team Flair mooks ….

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If you have a 3DS, or a “New 3DS”, I would recommend picking up a copy of Pokémon X/Y. It’s been out for about a little while now and a new one has come out, so you should be able to find it cheap on sale or used. This game is quite worth it, even at full price. Plus, if you get Pokémon Bank, a $5/year app on the 3DS market place, any Pokémon you get from previous or later Pokémon games (down to White/Black to the future on) you can pass along to this or any new title.

I have recently picked up the newest Pokémon game since I enjoyed Pokémon Y… so far, I’m a little disappointed. While with Pokémon Y, I wasn’t able to put it down due tot he wonderful and captivating story, Pokémon Ruby (Nintendo’s re-release) is… kind of hard to swallow. There’s a lot of innovation in Y that is severely lacking in Ruby, and the roll-back is pretty devastating.

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I’m starting to wonder if the company, Nintendo, just doesn’t have any new ideas left due to the massive up-swell of re-releases in the recent years. All in all, Pokémon games (non-card) are alive and well, and Pokémon X/Y is a clear cut direction that I hope all new pocket monster games run with and build upon it’s ideas.

Be sure to check out our review of Nintendo’s re-release of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.

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SciFi4Me Game Review: Edge of Space

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Disclosure: SciFi4Me was given a free copy to review from the developer.

Game: Edge of Space
Platform: PC
Distribution: Steam

Giant robots with guns, the only way to travel.
Giant robots with guns, the only way to travel.

From Minecraft to its two-dimensional counterpart, Terraria, the “build your own procedural-generated world” style games have been becoming surprisingly common.  Much like how “rouge likes”, “MOBA” (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas), and “survival horror” genres have started to flood the indy developer pipelines, so too are these “craft-centric” genre games.

Edge of Space is one of these two dimensional procedural-generated craft system games that promotes building and crafting ever increasing crazy scales of buildings, space ships, armor, weapons, space dinosaur mounts, and a whole host of other “things”.  Coming out of Steam’s Early Access program to be officially now launched, Edge of Space comes with a lot of bells and whistles, including your very own jet-pack, to aid in your adventure in their floating island space paradise.

After playing it for a few hours, I feel like this game is best broken up into two categories.  The categories being “What I liked” and “What I really didn’t like”.

Let’s start with the good things in the game with the first category

What I liked

Flying rocket sharks, check.
Flying rocket sharks, check.

The Theme

Like Starbound, another extremely similar space themed “build it yourself” game that had been (mostly) released before (though I think it might still be in Steam’s Early Access Program for continual development), Edge of Space is a multi-world exploration game that focuses on mining, building, and fighting monsters… in space.  Everything within the world is procedural generated and you must adapt and build things, including weapons, armor, and structures to survive.  What’s not to like about that?  I did notice that there was some semblance of a story within the game… though it was a little hard to follow with the massive onslaught of the other tutorial “read me” screens.

Some sort of distinct visual separation of “how to play” and “this is the story” would be nice.  I did, however, like that the sprite for the first quest giving NPC was a flying shark… though the super high pitched dog-toy squeak every time it dropped a text box at your feet got pretty annoying pretty quickly… to the point where I just started to ignore the shark all together and just explore.

Movement

There are a lot of different ways to get around in Edge of Space.  You even start with a jet-pack, which you can constantly upgrade into bigger and better rocket powered flight devices, that lets you zip about this way and that as you dangle precariously between the floating island chunks.  And boy, will you have to hope that there’s another island near you each time you take a leap of faith to get to a new area.  Your jet pack runs out of fuel quickly, and if there’s nothing below you, you’ll splat or go to the “radiation zone” and be poisoned to death in moments.

Other ways you can get around is by catching a ride on dinosaurs covered in armor and guns, and you can even make big missile launching robots that you can fight in.  As long as you are on a flat plane or a large swath of land, you can move about quite freely.  It’s once you run out of ground that you start to have great deal of trouble… which happens exceedingly often with the nature of procedural generated environments.

Speaking of procedural generation, my fellow game design students have a fun little saying about “R.N.Jesus” and hoping that you stay within his graces.  “May R.N.Jesus be in your favor”.  This is a play on the term R.N.G. or “random number generator”, an algorithm that selects a random number out of a range and type of numbers (example would be all rational numbers from a range of 0 to 1).  Most procedural generators are based on Random Number Generators where a system generates a large array of random numbers and the numbers dictate what is placed where.

 

LASERS!!!
LASERS!!!

Depth

There is a ton of content and things to do that are stuffed into Edge of Space.  Exploring the “help information” and the level up system of the game gave a great deal of insight into just how much there is to discover… and even then, it’s really only scratching the surface.  To be honest, I felt kind of lost when the breadth of it really hit me.  I didn’t really know what to do first or where to start to get to do what I wanted.  I still kind of have no idea how to go about getting raptors with machine guns.  One of the hardest part of these kinds of exploratory games is how much knowledge and choice do you give to your players.  Judging just how much a player needs to understand and know to really get into a game like this is very difficult.  To little, and players become lost.  Too much as they get overwhelmed and bored and they get frustrated and stop playing.

A good article to read about giving players choices and the impact choice has on player agency comes from GD Mag (Game Developer’s Magazine).

…because game designers hold choice as such an ideal—with phrases like “enabling player agency” and “abdicating authorship” — its downside is often ignored during development, hiding in a designer’s blind spot. In fact, every time a designer adds more choices to a game, they make a tradeoff.

With every new option added, your game will gain a degree of player engagement, but at the cost of something else. These costs — too much time, too much complexity, or too much repetition — all can far outweigh the positive qualities of the extra choiceSoren Johnson, GD Magazine

Within the three hours of play that I have been able to devote to the game, I had barely scratched the surface of all the interesting things to do. Content is blocked by a progression tree… though the layout is rather annoying with the 10 or so tabs of stuff you have to scroll through making finding out what you should do next difficult.  You are given this massive brochure that displays all of your level up and unlocks at once.  Trying to figure out “what I qualify for” vs “what comes later” takes a great deal of time.

Making a plan for leveling up is tough as well, as each new level in a subject comes with unlocks and perks that aren’t really well described in the UI tooltips.  Every time I’d level up, I’d have to make sure I was in a safe location, open up my leveling manual, and spend the next 3-5 min trying to figure out “where am I going” and “what do I put points in when to do what I want to do”.

You unlock builds, weapons, and blueprints by spending chunks of experience that you use as kind of a level currency.  You gain experience by doing pretty much anything in the game, so content is unlocked as you go at a pretty steady rate.  How much experience you can have at one time is capped at 5,000 points at a time… meaning that if you are saving up for a few unlocks and you hit your limit, everything else you do in the game is wasted time until you can stop and spend the saved up 5,000 to make room for more.

Looking through the “skill trees” there a ton of things that are built into the game, and a lot more content that seems to be left up to “emergence” (or how the players will manipulate the game through playing in ways that the developer had not predicted).

Visuals

The animations of the character sprites for nearly everything, from enemies to your main character are pretty well drawn.  Pixel art, in general, can be pretty grueling, and it is an art in and of itself.  Particle effects are spectacular, absolutely stunning in some cases when it comes to weapon firing patterns.  The worlds have a large variety of backdrops and themes.  Mounts, weapons, items, base building objects, crafting stations, anything that requires some sort of visual is done quite well.  UI and text boxes do fall to the wayside, however, and we’ll get to that in the second category.

There is a great differentiation between sets of items and themes.  Everything from your leveling system guns, armor, and buildings to special scenery items (a zombie infection zone is one that I came across quite often) would have it’s own look and feel to them.  The amount of art in the game is quite amazing and is very distinguishable visually.

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Although the “what I didn’t like” category is going to be quite hefty in this review, the shear depth of the game and the amount of content included is what kept me coming back.  I yearned to keep seeing “what’s new?” or “what could I do with x?” and my favorite “What will I see next?”.

On to the second category…

What I didn’t like

It’s been done before and done better

Sadly, Edge of Space takes an old (by today’s gaming standards) idea and does worse with it.  The general play experience is nothing “new” and what it borrows from other games, the original games have done better by degrees.  It’s still the same old mine this material, use that material to craft X, place X in the world and go mine some more material.  Get and make better and better guns/weapons, and everything else these games exactly like this do.  Or as a line from the game reviewer Yhatzee says about Ori and the Blind Forest “you have your standard jump, double jump, large double bacon and fries jump” referring to a lack of innovation.  Edge of Space lacks an innovative vision needed to take this “mine and craft” genre in any different or interesting new direction.

Shoot all the things!
Shoot all the things!

The Grid

In this genre of gameplay, grids are very important.  Everything is on a grid system and how that grid interacts between objects, the world, and the player must be taken into account or spacial errors occur.  Edge of Space has a slight grid error built in that becomes increasingly annoying as you zip around with your jet pack and try to navigate from place to place.  It turns out that your character is half a grid length too tall.  So instead of being three grid blocks, you are three point five grid blocks tall.  The grid itself does not do anything but whole numbers, so what that means is that if you are standing in a space that is three grid blocks high and you have a ceiling above you, your head will get stuck in the ceiling making you have to stop everything you are doing and dig/mine your way out.  It makes you dread the world and enclosed levels much more than enemies because every few seconds, you will get stuck underneath ceilings and overhangs.  It impedes movement quite a bit whenever there are objects above you.

There are other objects that include this half grid size too, though they pose very little problems since they are not trying to move about, like your character.

Controls

Of which there are too many and none of them at all are really all that intuitive.  There are a ton of different inputs that you, the player, need to be aware of when playing.  For me, to just simply play the game, I had to scroll down several wiki pages to figure out how to do very basic things in the game, including how to pick up and place objects.  Turns out, instead of being one streamlined control, pick up and put down are two completely different “guns” you have to equip between to do those two actions.  Sure there’s your standard ‘WSAD’ for move and space to jump as well as left click for “action” and mouse move for aim but that’s as far as the intuitiveness goes.

To pick up objects you have to mash and hold down the x button.  You have different “guns” for different specific actions.  A gun for mining that doesn’t affect anything else.  A gun for sawing trees that doesn’t effect anything else.  A gun that puts objects down in the world and nothing else. You have to press tab each time you want to switch between foreground and background objects to affect.  Even the guns for monsters don’t effect the world other than the enemies themselves.  It gets very confusing switching between all the different guns and the complexity of the control scheme (especially when trying to do simple tasks such as “pick an object up”) breaks the immersion.

Procedural Generation

While good in concept and very good in creating vast landscapes… it has its follies.  Especially if it never stops generating.  In Edge of Space, anything that isn’t on your screen is subject to the nefarious procedural generation engine.

Enemies constantly spawn.  They are legion and they are everywhere and they are never ending.  Usually it’s just a grab bag of jellyfish, crabs, snails, and frogs, all of which have full collision and all of them want a hug (even if they are not hostile or do damage to you).  By full collision, I simply mean that if they bump into your character, they physically push you.  So if you are trying to build, mine, chop down the never ending sea of trees that sprout up in vast forests as soon as you look away… you are constantly being jostled about, which moves your cursor away from anything you are trying to manipulate that is based on extreme precision.  The enemies that are always pushing on your character make doing anything in the game a chore.  Or even worse, sometimes the snails get under you and start taxiing your character away to unknown destinations…

Because things are constantly spawning, there are no “safe” zones.  Even your own home base is subject to enemies spawning within your walls and trees spawning anywhere they please inside and outside as soon as the area is out of the camera’s view.  The game becomes very frustrating and tedious when you have to clear out all the stupid jellyfish and forests from your base… again… for the thousandth time.  In other similar games, like Terraria and Starbound they have a system that can tell the difference between outdoor zones and buildings.  This allows them to set up “safe zones” where monsters and trees don’t spawn, making it worth while to build a base of operations in a location.

 

Unlimited floating islands.
Unlimited floating islands.

Experience

Doing nearly anything in the game gets you experience.  Mining, killing enemies, exploring, nearly everything.  You then spend that experience to unlock more crafting recipes that allow you to build new guns, HQ furniture, mounts, and a host of other stuffs.  All of that is fine and good… but for some strange reason there’s a cap on your experience pool.  Once you hit that cap, you can no longer gain experience and progression stops dead until you make room for more.

I’m left trying to figure out why you are barred from holding more than 5,000 points of experience at one time.  Once you start getting around, you start generating experience pretty quickly and can hit that cap every couple of minuets.  Even worse, the 8-page “knowledge” menu where you spend experience points does not pause the game while you spend all your points.  It takes several minuets to spend points, leaving you extremely vulnerable to attack.  If you find yourself in the heat of combat or are focused on mining and you get to a spot where you don’t have five to ten minuets of menu scrolling and tool-tip reading to spend out your points, you hit the cap pretty easily and anything else you do that gains points is wasted.

Even more strange is that the cap doesn’t seem to increase as you go along.  It’s a hard limit of five thousand experience, and that’s it.  It just seems like an unnecessary barrier to player progression.

Character Customization

There really isn’t any.  You get a human male or female, you change hair color, and that’s about it.  There are tons of armors in the game that do change your character’s appearance, but they are all progression based.  So once you are on an armor track, you are simply just a character on whatever crafting level you currently have materials for.  That and if you have an armor visual you like, unless it’s top tier, you pretty much have to ditch it when you upgrade to something better.  There may be a system which lets you change the visual of your costume and keep the stats of the currently worn gear, but I wasn’t able to gain enough costume pieces to test the system.

While other games have multiple races with their own custom visual feel to them, this game doesn’t really have any of that amount of whimsy.  To be honest, I’d be more interested in playing one of their gun wielding dinosaurs than the comparatively boring human character.

Bugs

There weren’t many bugs in the game, though what was there were things that involved the menu.  I was not able to get the game to run on my laptop due to a lack of ability to change resolution.  While there is a menu option for resolution changes, the game seemed to ignore any change made to that menu.

Conclusion

This is a “Play at your own risk” kind of game.  For those that are looking for a game with an extreme amount of content to explore and discover, Edge of Space has a wealth of surprise and mystery to keep players enchanted.

You are in for a rough ride, however.  It’s a game that seems like it “was most likely made by a pure programmer”.  It works and seems to be well coded for the most part… but it lacks the streamlined touch of a game designer.  Edge of Space could use a lot of tweaking and redesign in a lot of areas to smooth out gameplay and clean up of the mess the procedural generator pumps out.  Edge of Space lacks nuance and finesse and misses the opportunity to innovate.  In film, we would call this a lack of ‘auteurship’.  The touch of an individual, usually the director, that adds an artistic vision to a project.  In game design, this would be someone that would make sure that the game not only works, but is smooth and flows well.

There are many things in the game which break player immersion, such as these awkward and gigantic text boxes.
There are many things in the game which break player immersion, such as these awkward and gigantic text boxes.

Like the rest of the Steam community’s meta score, my review stands as “mixed”.

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TenCent Makes A Shift in the League

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league-of-legends
Riot Game’s most popular property is League of Legends.

Gaming headlines this week are in a little bit of a tizzy. Riot Games, most well known for their ever increasingly popular game, League of Legends, is now owned by a larger company in China named, TenCent.  TenCent is mostly a software company that makes utility smartphone apps like chat programs and taxi hailing services.  The Chinese company has had some experience in developing games, though strictly for the Chinese market.

Although various news agencies are treating this as major news… it really isn’t.  Most of Riot’s stock has been owned by TenCent for several years now, and TenCent has just purchased the rest of the Riot’s remaining stock.  This does give TenCent a majority of ownership of Riot Games, but they weren’t that far off from that goal to begin with.

Major_League_Gaming_(logo).svg
The official unofficial sports league of gamers in eSports

TenCent, as a company, has been gaining small portions of valuable stock in quite a few leading game development and software studios such as Epic, which is most well known for their game Unreal Tournament and the game development software engine, Unreal Engine, and Activision Blizzard, known for Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.  Really, all of this isn’t much of a surprise that Riot is now primarily owned by TenCent due to their history of buying stocks in other American game studios.

SciFi4Me looks at Hearthstone‘s Launch

How this affects Riot is a little unknown, but chances are, from the player perspective, it really won’t (mainly because as stated above, most of the company’s shares have been owned by TenCent already).

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Digital card games, like Blizzard’s Hearthstone are also seeing large gains in popularity.

Apparently, the biggest change will be to how Riot as a company pays its employees and the benefits that they receive for working at Riot.  Already, the company is ranked 13th in Fortune magazine’s top 100 places to work in 2015 (while Activision Blizzard, the only other game studio that made that list, is ranked 96th), so the changes proposed might make them an even better company to work for, as far as benefits and compensation are concerned..

According to Riot’s blog post:

As a result of our continued growth and changing circumstances, we’re shifting to a new structure to recognize and reward Rioters’ contributions – and that first involves a big change to our existing equity program. As part of this effort, our majority investor, Tencent, recently purchased the remaining equity of Riot Games. This allows us to move away from a Riot equity program towards a cash based incentive program that allows Rioters to share in Riot’s success. This program comes in addition to our highly competitive salaries, open PTO, learning and development programs, 401K match, subsidized medical plans, and kitchens stocked with snax (poro and otherwise) all full-time Rioters get.Riot Games

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Much like Riot’s League of Legends, Valve’s DOTA2 also has massively viewed international championship tournaments.

ESports, in general and as a whole, is rising in popularity and rising exponentially.  Both the number of people playing eSports and those tuning in to watch eSports are growing in swelling numbers.  On live television, broadcasts from League of Legends and the DOTA2 international championship tournaments were even picked up by ESPN (Note: this other article from ESPN also has some data on the size of the eSport realm).

Valve’s Innovation: DOTA2

Though, I want to be clear at this point. When I mention “E-Sports” I’m not talking about gambling and betting games like “Fantasy Football” by companies such as Draft Kings and Fandeul.  “E-Sports” in our definition actually have user input, team work, and active players and are not just “betting on statistics and analysis” (So… unless it has wizards and dragons… I’m not talking about fantasy football when I talk about “e-sports”.  Sorry, bros).

League of Legends World Championship 2015 Finals

https://youtu.be/QiUj-LU5AHE

 

According to Gamasutra:

A new report by L.A.-based creative agency Sparks & Honey predicts that by 2017, eSports will be attracting more viewers than the most popular sports event in North America, the Super Bowl. That prediction is based on data compiled from ESPN, Riot Games, Valve, Wargaming, Blizzard, Hi-Rez Studios, Newzoo and SuperData showing viewership figures that continue to surge year-over-year.Gamasutra

With the increasing popularity of eSports and the games that facilitate them, a change in practice that hampers the actual gaming experience for the players can end up to be rather volatile.  Also, with the breadth of competitive games on today’s market and a large swarm of companies all vying for player’s attentions, if players no longer like one experience a game is selling, they will migrate to the next game of their fancy.

SuperData-eSports-HD
This info-graphic from 2013, although outdated, still shows a grand upward swell in eSport popularity

All in all, I don’t really think TenCent will be changing much of the game itself, other than what’s already in Riot’s pipeline.

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Review: These Turtles are Bigger, Badder, and no Michael Bay

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Broadcast on Nickelodeon

There have been many, and I mean tons, of Teenage Ninja Turtles iterations in the past 30 or so years. From their first appearance in comic books to 80’s Saturday morning cartoons and even MC Hammer hip-hop songs, there have even been a couple of terrible live action films both out in the early 90’s and and the new one that came out some time later in 2014. We have to come to a harsh realization that this is a comic series that is difficult to translate from the still and highly stylized art pages of comic books to a fluid realm of animation. It does not convert well at all, and it probably never will. Live action seems to be the worst criminal case of bad translations. However, in pure cut unadulterated spite of this sentiment, the 3D animated series from Nickelodeon is purely fantastic in a giddy carnal nature in the purest form.

"Rise of the Turtles" is a two part season 1 opening that's simply fantastic.
“Rise of the Turtles” is a two part season 1 opening that’s simply fantastic.

It is probably the most accurate portrayal of the Ninja Turtles that I have ever seen. And in a rabid, foaming at the mouth kind of fan that I am (hell, I even have a LEGO rendition of Hamato Yoshi on a key chain), that says a lot! The show keeps the feel of the genre going in a very delightful, and a very youthful, manner. One of the ways they do this is that they carry over a lot of comic book visual elements into the TV show itself. Even though the medium is a CGI 3D landscape, they have incorporated a large amount of sudden flashes of 2D art to make sudden expression changes a stark contrast to the rest of the animated world.

On top of that, to enunciate the comic book feel of the entire show, every episode ends with a comic book style drawn splash page of the last frame the animation ends on. Such as an evil villain getting away secretly or the turtles giving a high five after a job well done. In a way, it’s a little innovative to show a splash page as an ending rather than a beginning in a television cartoon.

The action scenes are carefully drawn out and well choreographed into the animation.
The action scenes are carefully drawn out and well choreographed into the animation.

Some of these design changes take interesting directions that force a rather new and very entertaining art and story directions on what is generally a rather old and over used story line.

For example: a common character duo, April O’Neil, who was previously a rather busty jump-suited red-headed TV news reporter, and Casey Jones, a gruff rock’m’sock’m vigilante, now take on the roles of teenagers at a high school and are the same age as the turtles, instead of 30 year old adults running amok with much younger mutants.

With this, the focus of the show is more on the turtles than it is on the humans involved in their world, which is a change in media perspective that has changed over time. Also, the famous and classic villains “Be-Bop” and “Rock Steady” are missing and have been replaced with “Bradford”, a parody characterchure of karate actor Chuck Norris, and Syven, a new character just for the this iteration.

Some things they kept the same, as the overlying story is unavoidable, include the rivalry between Hamato Yoshi, Master Splinter, and Oroku Saki, The Shredder. They do, however, go in much more depth and details for the reason such a rivalry exists, something that is severely lacking in previous animated and live-action mediums. In the previous telling of the turtles, you never really get the sense of “why” Shredder is after the turtles other than the fact that he just simply “is”.

They did do something very … strange. And it is something that I think has to do with character licensing. There is a separate comic of a spin-off character that is an old friend of Hamato Yoshi, and that is of the ronin “mutant” rabbit, Usagi Yojimbo, who is missing from the cartoon. The production studio Nickelodeon has specifically mentioned that Yojimbo will not be in this iteration of TMNT. And here is the strange part: they merged the back story of Usagi Yojimbo into that of Hamato Yoshi, and by doing so, the grudge between Splinter and Shredder has become that more… gruesome and meaningful. The design of Shredder has always been difficult to produce without it coming out silly. This version of the design makes Master Shredder quite an imposing figure!

Probably one of the best Master Splinter designs to date. Plus the character adds quite a bit of comic relief in many clever ways throughout the series.
Probably one of the best Master Splinter designs to date. Plus the character adds quite a bit of comic relief in many clever ways throughout the series.

Along with Shredder, Splinter has also had a much needed face-lift. He looks both wizened with age and modern. And the best part of the Master Splinter visual character revamp, gone is the strangely placed and awkward partially open bathrobe to make room for a well fitted and wonderfully styled Kimono. Something that is another improvement from previous retelling of Master Splinter, his martial arts prowess is now that of an almost mystic Kung Fu master. In the episodes where he winds up fighting either by himself or along side the turtles, it is always a colossal jaw dropping spectacle … and as a fan of such animated Kung Fu shows such as Kung Fu Panda and One Piece, Master Splinter’s fantastic beat-downs are not something to miss.

When you already have a well made fantastic product, why make something completely separate that tarnishes the image of your brand? Wouldn’t it just be better to fund what you already know is awesome and works? The movie has been out for a little bit, but I just don’t have the heart to actually watch it. These kinds of human focused live action movies have earned their terrible reputations. I just hope that shaky blurry and poorly developed action scenes aren’t used instead of proper action film choreography. I have low expectations for story, so if Bay does his style of bad action film direction … well … I just really have low expectations for the live-action film.

The design of Shredder has always been difficult to produce without it coming out silly. This is version of the design makes Master Shredder quite an imposing figure!
The design of Shredder has always been difficult to produce without it coming out silly. This is version of the design makes Master Shredder quite an imposing figure!

 

The animation combines both 3D characters and world with 2D expressions and surprises that give the allusion of watching an animated comic book.
The animation combines both 3D characters and world with 2D expressions and surprises that give the allusion of watching an animated comic book.

I would highly recommend this Nickelodeon animation to anyone who is a fan of the Ninja Turtles. Even those who haven’t even heard of them, this would probably be a wonderful platform to get to know them. The animation is very fluid and well produced. The voice acting is spot on. From the character design to the fight scenes, the written dialog to over arching story, everything flows together very nicely. The characters fit together and progress nicely in an almost a Joss Whedon style of group story telling. This telling of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is just brilliant.

-N00basaurus

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Game Review: THE FINAL SPECIMEN Needs More Lab Work

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A game got floated by our Scifi4me’s editor’s desk recently by an indie game company, going by the moniker of GigantoRaptor Games, asking us to give a review to their recently released title The Final Specimen in an exchange for a free copy of said title.  On behalf of the video game division at SciFi4me, I would like to say, “Thank you.” I highly approve of, and recommend, companies — especially indie as well as full publication outfits — doing this sort of practice as a way to get websites, like our humble science fiction magazine here, to review games both new and up and coming, as well as established titles.

To be honest, this is the sort of the thing that happens in the film industry all the time, where a film company will give a free screening to a critic and allow them to have a review of the film ready before the film’s release, or at least very close to said release.  So let me extend a hand from us here at Scifi4Me to the game developer community.  We review all things entertainment, film, comics, books, television, and yes, even video games.  I would like to once again thank GigantoRaptor Games for sending us their game to be reviewed.

Next I would like to establish some things about myself.  We have a few people working in the video game division here in the underground cold war mad scientist SciFi4Me laboratory, and I would like to take this time to elaborate on why I felt that I had the appropriate background to review this particular game.  My name is Casey Shreve, and I, like most gamers, have been playing games my whole life.  I’ve been absolutely obsessed, not just with the games and how they play, but the deconstruction of games and their inner workings, finding out what makes up their composition and experiences.  The intricacies of their stories married with the visuals and mechanics behind them.  It is as fascinating of a field as it is an endless search of knowledge.

After obtaining a general Liberal Arts degree focusing on film, art, animation, and psychology, at the University of Kansas, I am now currently pursuing a degree in game design itself.  I am one year away from graduating and have been studying heavily, pumping out prototypes, essays, mechanics tests, and all sorts of material, getting ready to build a team project that is dubbed “the capstone” in my major.  Yes to graduate, you have to build a game by teaming up with 4 different departments at the school (animation, programming, art, and design).

Over this summer, the honors department at my college has just informed me that I have made the presidential honors list for my college, which is to say that I am now in the top 2% of students at of my school.  I am expected to graduate with my degree in game design here this next spring.  As Jim Sterling from the Jimquisition would say, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Hurrah for me.”

As per the major, I started off learning how to use GameMaker Studio to understand the basics of what games are and what is the mercurial substance that makes up a game.  I then learned about code and java script (required in entry level classes, let alone my studies of C++ at the University of Kansas).  Through my studies I’ve made pen and paper games, board games, and even card games on top of the digital video game medium.  I then transitioned into using higher level programs such as my (current) go to software, Unity3D, and the much more unforgiving game engine, the Unreal Engine.  I’ve studied many aspects of game design including things such as level design and mechanics as well as the never ending existential question of “what is fun”.

With this background and wealth of education into the field of game design, I felt that my qualifications matched well for giving critiques of the following nature.

Now that my background and information is out of the way, onto the review.

The Final Specimen

Bottomless pits, one of the many apocalyptic bosses you can encounter.
Bottomless pits, one of the many apocalyptic hell difficulty bosses you can encounter.

The Basics:

According to the studio’s website:

THE FINAL SPECIMEN is a 2D sci-fi/adventure game in the style of the classic platformers of the late 80’s/early 90’s. Packed with whimsical settings and eccentric characters, this energetic, challenging title brings a humorous and exciting take to old-school gaming. Its colorful, crazy world comes alive as you run, jump, and swing your way across a plethora of visually unique and thematically distinctive levels.

THE FINAL SPECIMEN is a game like no other. Each of its levels has a life of its own, each of its enemies a personality. The terrain ranges from the grassy to the mountainous to the aquatic to the mechanical. From rope swings to grappling hooks, there is no shortage of new tools you can discover to aid you in your progress. And if the ability to punch your enemies’ lights out isn’t enough, you can also collect ammunition – your own personal arsenal of pocket bombs.

The game begins when a young earthling is transported to a distant planet. After facing sudden assault from the world’s inhabitants, he soon finds out that his arrival is no coincidence. What he learns sets him off on a mission to prevent the annihilation of the planet – and the subsequent conquest of earth by a nefarious alien mastermind. You are the only human who has the power. You are the culmination of years of alien experimentation. You are THE FINAL SPECIMEN.Gigantoraptor Games

Just from the website alone, you get the feel that there is a little bit of story going on, and even though the art isn’t well developed and far from polished, there is a mostly uniform aesthetic to the whole composition.  I won’t spend much time on the art, which is amateurish, at best.  My biggest critique is in the form of education.  As you will find throughout this article, education is kind of the solution to many a problem in the massive field of game design.  Education and practice.

The characters in the game move unnaturally and the animation for each sprite is choppy and erratic.  The hit boxes on the sprite are not very exact in many instances, causes a disconnect between what we see happening on the screen and what the system knows is happening.  Visually, there is little distinction between characters in the game and the enemy encounters are very repetitive.  There is also some camouflaging (in art, that means that the colors in a section of a piece of art are so similar between two adjacent objects that they blend in to each other, unable to tell them apart.  The whole “polar bear in a snow storm” art gag when it’s just a blank white piece of paper.) That happens quite often in each scene as well, something that you need to think about when choosing colors and how those colors interact with the space that you put them in.  For instance, a black bomb up against a black door or street texture.

Basic drawing classes that focus on still lifes (most classically known for being a bowl of fruit), and most importantly, life drawings (the study of the human figure in poses and motion) are paramount to any artist both professional and amateur.  Decoding how the world puts shapes together to form organic matter that interacts with the inorganic takes a lot of time and it is scary how much harder it is than it sounds.  I would highly suggest to the artist of the game to start taking life drawing classes at a local art supply store/community center/community museum/ or anywhere they are available.

Taking these classes will show the artist how the body moves, where the joints are located on the body, and how this interacts in space.  It will also help with proportion and perspective when you create characters and put them in worlds.  A solid foundation in art will help games develop a clean and clear visual spectacle for the player.

1.3
Um…. wat?

From the game’s website, one of the first things that I noticed right off the bat was the strange method of distribution.  The company is selling the game for $10 per copy and are using Square to handle sales.

There’s kind of a good thing/bad thing happening with this idea to use a basic money processor to handle sales of your game instead of going out of a third party game distribution website like Steam, Kongregate, GoG, or Itch.io.  One of the good things about it is that you can manage your own distribution fairly handily and cheaply.  For a small studio with little to no recognition, where a producer and publisher (the people that fund game developers to develop games through loans and advances) will be impossible to find, finding your own funding is kind of paramount and a bit of a daunting task.  Although sometimes, just like in the film industry, bypassing the need for producers or publishers can be a great way to unshackle a lot of game ruining micromanaging (or snubbing producers that think that there isn’t a market for X game, when there clearly is) as some larger video game designer names have done on crowd sourcing websites like Kickstarter.

The bad side of not using some sort of digital distribution is that your studio does not get access to long standing price data from games that are very close to yours.  This information is invaluable to game developer companies.  Staying competitive is a major key, and if you overcharge for your product, people simply won’t buy your content.  Especially in a world where you have to launch a massive television advertisement campaign just to justify a $0.99 phone app.  Even games that are free have a huge endless ocean of competition to just get played let alone marketed.

With that all said, for a company’s first ever video game, $10 is a pretty shameless price point.  If you go on Steam and search for games that cost between $16-10, you’ll find remarkable games such as (if you haven’t played any of these, for the love of all that is holy, pick up these games!) Cave Story+, Shovel Knight, Rogue Legacy, Dust: An Elysian Tail (and another review Dust got from us back in 2012 can be found on this link), and a massive host of big name indie games, and a handful of AAA titles, that are tried and true both new and old staples of the video game industry.  The games listed above are amazingly refined and polished video games.  The premium price of $10 a copy is an insane price for a company’s first game, such as The Last Specimen.

This is Dust.  Another side scroller that demonstrates wonderful Ui elements, animation, particle effects, and everything else a polished title deserving of it's price of $14.99 has to offer.
This is Dust: An Elysian Tail.  It is another side scroller that demonstrates how wonderful UI elements, animation, particle effects, mechanics, and everything else make this small studio game a polished title well deserving of of its $14.99 price tag.

 

To be frank and honest, I did not download the full game.  I played the demo to see if it was something I should review or not, let alone install the full version on my machine.  What I discovered in the demo was… well, to put it bluntly, a game that needs a massive amount of work before it’s ready to be sold anywhere.  It felt more like one of the quick-fire three week prototypes that my peers would come up with in my rapid prototyping class.  If anything, this game is a good proof of concept, but little, if anything, more than that.

Breaking it down:

2.1
“Dude… what… what are you doing? Why are you touching me?”

One of the major issues the game has, is conveyance.  Conveyance, as it relates to game design, is the ability to express an idea to someone (other than yourself) in a coherent fashion.  After playing the demo, I still have absolutely no idea what was happening moment to moment in the game.  Controls were not intuitive nor explained and even though they are written down in the very brief manual, for the most part, the controls didn’t react very well when the buttons were pressed.  They were sluggish at times with a slight delay between button press and character controller reaction, especially if there were a lot of things happening at once on the screen.  Playing the game reminded me a great deal of a video that was made a long time ago from a famous animator who used to post glorious animations to a flash based website called Newgrounds, about the subject of conveyance and level design.

The video below has strong language, but I can not emphasize enough how important the topics are inside this video.  The creator of the video is a well known animator that goes by Egoraptor, so yes, extremely explicit and strong language.  But if you are learning how to develop games, this video should be a prerequisite before anyone even touches a computer keyboard.  It is on point and nobody has ever really covered the subject so eloquently and completely as this video.

One of the major challenges of making a game is teaching the player new things about your game.  The Last Specimen puts you in their world, and then pretty much ignores the player entirely after that.  In other words, it doesn’t teach the player anything about itself.  You can take it or leave it.  Even the manual is more of a sales pitch than an “about our game” explanation of mechanics.  The other end of the spectrum, that many AAA studios have done to their games (as discussed in the video) is using tutorial levels and hand holding to tell people how to play their game, which is a major insult to a player’s intelligence.  Doing too much to the point of annoying the player or not doing anything, both strategies are absolutely terrible design choices.  Egoraptor gives probably the best argument about conveyance about eleven minuets into the discussion on game design where he talks about an old Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde game.  You can see what I’m talking about in the video above or by clicking here to be taken to the exact point in time.

Moving on we get to the AI of the game.  Enemies in the game had an wealth of problems.  The first problem is that they didn’t have any weight or had any impact on the world itself, so the player can simply ignore nearly all encounters.  Bosses didn’t really have any differentiation between themselves and the normal wash of enemy types, so the only way you could tell that there was a boss in front of you is that you couldn’t move the camera to the right any longer.  Enemy programming was simply “notice the player > approach the player > attack the player” with only slight variations to that formula.  Some enemies were simple hazard avoidance objects  (don’t get hit by a car, for example) and those would move in an overly predictable linear direction towards the player without any deviation or surprise.  These very basic AI systems, combined with extremely long levels create a rather bland gaming experience.

The camera itself had its own host of issues.  Parts of the level were too tall for the camera to follow the player as the player went ever higher to progress forward.  Enemies spawned in these locations went unseen and could damage you without anything displaying that you had been damaged or where that damage was coming from.  As discussed above, there wasn’t any sort of scene transition when “bosses” were introduced, so it was incredibly hard to figure out the difference between a “boss” part of a level or any other area on the screen.

The UI (User Interface) was severely minimal.  You have a bomb amount counter, a heart counter which displays how many hits you can take before you “die” (but so many things simply kill you in one hit that the hearts as a health mechanic are a little pointless), and some sort of “T” counter, whatever “T” is.  I’m still not sure.  It could be lives or maybe some sort of special attack… I have no idea.  But as far as UI, that’s it. The images and count numbers are printed directly to the screen without any sort of well defined border, fan fare, or actual design mechanic other than the little symbol images and a number.  Black text is used for the UI, as well is used for the bombs your character throws, which both blend into the levels and background, as dark colors are chosen for the levels with no separation between the game and the vague UI graphics.

1.1
A good reference for “how people move through tubes” would be to watch and study Futurama animations.

Character controller is clunky at best.  The code that defines movement is not very clean so activities such as jumping and fighting enemies becomes frustratingly difficult.  There’s a lot of different “things” in the character controller that stand in conflict with each other.  If you run up to an object that is classified as a ledge, you instantly stick to the ledge, even if you were just wanting to continue to travel forward, and the ledge is both not defined visually in any way on the screen nor is it placed in a height proportionate to the player’s height.  “Animations” between player controller states (jump vs punch vs throw vs ledge cling vs walk) seem to constantly fight between each other and freeze constantly, often resulting in your character choosing the “stand still” animation quite often for nearly every task and activity.

Level design.  Side scroller games, such as The Last Specimen, are entirely dependent on good level design.  Level design will make or break your game, because in the end, that’s the only way for this type of genre to tell it’s story.  Not to keep kicking the same example around, but the above video, with its in-depth look into the Mega Man franchise, takes a very detailed look into this exact style of scrolling video game story telling, both old and new (time relative to Mega Man games of that particular era).

The levels in The Last Specimen are not very well planned out.  Levels themselves are impossibly long.  There is no other paths for a player to take other than the golden path (the critically important and quickest path to get through and complete the level).  The levels reminded me of an old cynical comedy game from Adult Swim that came out many a year ago called “Worst Game Ever“. They are long, bland, and highly repetitive with nothing really going on moment to moment.  As I mentioned above, enemy encounters can mostly be ignored so the game quickly turns into “Press right arrow until you can’t go right any more, then push some other button”.  With the character controller not having smooth controls, simple tasks such as jumping becomes a bit of a chore.  Combined with the bad jump mechanics, the levels are designed with many instant kill pit-falls, so the game becomes frustrating to play very quickly.

General art hint: Don't use dark text on dark image backgrounds.
General art hint: Don’t use dark text on dark image backgrounds.

Objectively, this game is far from a finished product, let alone something that should be up on the open market, asking for a price other than play time.  As I said near the beginning, this is a proof of concept.  A prototype of an idea, but the idea isn’t quite implemented just yet.  The scope of the game is extremely large for the design of the product being sold, which results in the sort of discombobulated play experience we are given.  A common phrase for that is “Running before you can walk.”

For the developers, and for all aspiring game designers, please remember that education is key.  Learning how all of these different systems come together to make a play experience is essential to making these unique experiences that we call video games.  I highly recommend anyone wanting to start designing video games to take some classes at a community college or find some other form of accredited course work.  MIT has a free online audio lecture series (a microphone accidentally left on in one of their classes, no doubt).  I do caution that there are scammers for game design education (including anything that has “Art International” at the end of the title or “Phoenix” somewhere in it… basically anything that’s the usual education scam of “online courses”).

Moving forward with The Last Specimen and games far after that, I have some suggestions that can better improve game design skills by leaps and bounds.

There are a great deal of textbooks you can buy to help you understand “what makes a good game”.  One that I suggest is The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell.  That’s one of the books that I’ve used in my current game design classes and it hits a lot of key points when thinking of the design process as an iterative loop.  There’s also some great ideas on how to brainstorm ideas and how to think about risk mitigation.  Or for animation there’s this amazing text book:  The Animator’s Survival Kit: A Manual of Methods, Primciples and Formulas for Classical, Computer, Games, Stop Motion and Internet Animators by Richard Williams.  The animation survival kit is an indispensable tool for both student and professional animators.  Even if you are not an animator, it is a good study into form and movement in general.

As far as distribution, putting your game up for peer review can be absolutely essential.  Getting as many people to play it and leave constructive criticism is extremely important.  My suggestions would be to put your game up on such websites as Tigsource or GameJolt for free.  Those websites are for developers to share their creations with other developers to get feedback and help on their designs.  Improving them from iteration, which is a majorly important word in the gaming industry as a whole.

Documentation, documentation, documentation.  Or as I like to call it “Learn from your past mistakes and your favorite games”.  Something that is very good to do is to keep a large design document that records everything from your designs.  From level design to the mechanics, story, art, everything, write it down and keep track of it.  That will make things like creating a good game manual very easy.  But more so, it allows other people coming into your company to figure out how and what your company is doing in terms of game design.  It also gives you a chance to step back from your computer screen, allowing you to think about what decisions your designers are making and how they are impacting your game.

Something you should start doing immediately is reading postmortems.  The industry news website Gamasutra has deep immersive archives of postmortems from everywhere in the industry.  From small studios to large AAA companies, postmortems are essential to good game design.  Postmortems catalog things that went right, went wrong, and ways to improve design in the future for every single video game title, attempt, and design.  Writing and reading these can greatly improve decisions one makes when making a game.

GDC.  The Game Developers Conference is another very important tool for all game designers, both amateur and pro.  Not so much the convention itself, though if you have the opportunity and the capital to go (and it’s probably one of the most expensive conventions I’ve ever seen), by all means go.  But the videos of the convention panels, which is called the GDC VAult, are extremely good resources for learning about game design.  A free open list of all the videos GDC offers, a rating system for them, and a metric of “is the video worth watching” can be found here.

My final thoughts on The Last Specimen are that it’s a good first step into the world of game design, but it’s not worth $10, let alone being sold anywhere.  The developers have a long and winding road that they need to travel before they get to the point to where they can be ready to sell a game, but with some hard work, good education, research, and practice, who knows what the future might hold.

The study of perspective and layering could help flesh a scene like this out instead of it looking impossibly flat.
The study of perspective and layering could help flesh a scene like this out instead of it looking impossibly flat.

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Gaming at Kansas City Comic Con

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Comic Cons, by and large, are purely print and video entertainment entities.  Oddly enough, there was a bit of a gaming presence at this year’s Kansas City Comic Con.

First off: There were three dedicated gaming booths on the main dealer floor.  There were representatives from the Tapcade, a local arcade themed bar and grill, who had a small little arcade set-up (comprised of about 4 old-school arcade cabinets) to let convention attendees play classic titles such as Mario Bros and Galaga. There was a large booth set up by a traveling video gaming rental company letting attendees play more modern titles such as Minecraft. And the other major booth was a home-brew pen and paper company selling their Kickstarter Acclaimed pen and paper RPG, Numenera and The Strange.  There was also a small “game store” booth set up, but it was just simply a subset of a larger comic book store vendor.

Unlike other conventions in Kansas City that I have attended over this summer, Kansas City Comic Con didn’t have a room dedicated to video gaming.  Though at this other convention, the room was part of a traveling 3rd party company that sets up these sorts of video gaming rooms and focus on games with lots of competition such as DOTA2 and Smite.

However, at Kansas City Comic Con, there was a board game room (which is rather standard for most conventions by now), and there was also a gaming convention staple, a pen and paper RPG room. While the time I was in that room was brief, I saw that it was mostly empty save for a several tables of players adamantly storming through dungeons, drinking in taverns, and taking on a star cruiser or two.

The two rooms, board games and RPG, were also linked side by side and only separated by a partially closed wall that gave both sides privacy from the other but also let wandering gamers float between the two rooms.  As much as I would have liked to sit down, roll some dice, and play with some of these teams, I didn’t quite have the four to six hours to spare that pen and paper requires.  What was good to see was that one of the gaming panelists, Sterling Hershey, was running a game with the Star Wars RPG that he had written content for.  Whether or not the other panelist I met ran games, I wasn’t around long enough to see, but I was only in the gaming rooms for a brief time.

 

The Panel

A quick note on panels.  Kansas City Comic Con did itself a large disservice when it came to panels.  Under the guise of “going paperless” to avoid wasting paper by printing out con books and guides for all attendees, they failed pretty spectacularly at moving guests to places and events like panels.  To find out when a panel was, you had to go to their website and look at “Panels” under the events tab.  That would tell you the time, tentative room  number, and title of every single panel for all days.

In theory that’s pretty OK, but in practice, when you have hundreds of people trying to look at the website at once, several panels going on at the same time, the fact that you have to stop everything you are doing to navigate their website, room numbers written on chalkboards with extremely faint and impossible to see further than 5 feet away chalk (in the future it would be better to use sidewalk chalk), no wi-fi for devices without a cell network, and my biggest complaint, no calendar block layout (a simple PDF time chart).  It was a mess and it resulted in some pretty poor panel turnouts.

The panels, however, trudged on despite turnout.  One of these panels, early on after the con’s opening, was the Breaking Into Gaming panel with Sterling Hershy, who has written for the popular Star Wars RPG as well as a few stories for Dungeons and Dragons, and sadly enough the other guest at the panel isn’t listed on the Kansas City Comic Con website and whose name was not picked up by my limited film equipment’s audio, but the gentleman had worked a great deal on the Call of Cthulhu pen and paper RPG.

The panel was about how to “break in” to the world of writing for pen and paper RPGs.  Much of the information was aligned with what I am learning in school for video game design.  The first step is to write and to write a lot.  The second is to get your writing out there.  The panelists stressed about submitting your works to contests and open calls and using blank RPGs, like Savage Worlds, to create your own works then submit it to those companies when those companies host a contest, sweepstakes, or open call for works.  Look at self publishing and Kickstarter when you start having a following of readers/players.  That sort of thing.

It is very much along the lines of “If you want to design games, first you have to design games”.  Most of the panel was comprised of places to try and get published or noticed, but the take-away was mostly boiled down to: “Write a lot, find what you are passionate about, find companies that are hosting contest or submissions for that content, and then submit your works”.

The other important lesson was that writing doesn’t pay well.  It never really does for anyone.  Both of the panelists had full time jobs and then wrote for their respective RPG companies on the side as a hobby.  Money isn’t why you would do this, as most places only pay a few cents a word if you’re lucky to even be paid; it’s mostly done for the love of the game and creating content for players.

The panelists were very knowledgeable about the publishing field as both have had the standard trials and tribulations of getting works out through publishing companies.  They talked briefly on what someone would have to do to be published and the ups and downs of the newer self publishing options.  The difference turned out to be “audience”.  If you have enough of a following to get people excited about your works, then self publishing through something like Kickstarter is a good option.  However, if you are not very well known, you can start by taking your content to places like gaming conventions such as Gen con to show off to the various publishing sponsors at those conventions.

One of the things that I hadn’t thought much about that the panel discussed was formatting.  Specifically how a pen and paper RPG company commissions a writer.  I knew the obvious transaction between a company and a writer, where a company would have a theme that they would give to the writer to write about, but what I didn’t know is that some companies would have it boiled down to the exact word count or page number.  Or that the rules for the game and the story of the game are written as separate entities.  Writing with such constraints would be a pretty difficult task to complete on a tight deadline, for sure. However, you can practice that sort of writing constraints with some of the writing contests for RPG writing, such as One Page Dungeon, that was mentioned in the panel.  Another good but more generally open contest is by the makers of Pathfinder, Pazio, with RPG Superstar contest.

In all, the panel was more “where to go to get started” that it was about any specific topic in the realm of game writing.  And that wasn’t bad at all.  It was pretty fitting for the limited number of people that showed up.

 

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N00basaurus Inspects E3 Part 6: PC Game Show is a Good Idea

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This year, 2015, was the first year that the PC had an individual platform showcase courtesy of PC Gaming Magazine and sponsored by graphics card company AMD.  Like many things at this year’s Electronic Gaming Expo, I had mixed feelings about the whole ordeal.  Let’s hit the points that I didn’t like about the PC Gaming Show first.  The first thing I really disliked was the format they chose for displaying PC games.

This strange talk show style interview was a poor mechanic to frame the talks about gaming.  There’s a reason that talk and interview shows (particularly late night shows, as this panel chose with the classic “desk’n’couch” approach) are hosted primarily by comedians.  There’s a flow to conversation that some comedians grasp more easily than other members of entertainment do.  The host for the PC Gaming Show, Sean Plott, an E-sports commentator, felt awkward and not very engaging with the audience or the guests.  His “interviews” were very wooden and felt very and overly rehearsed instead of natural.  I constantly felt like he just asked too many questions and didn’t give some of the developers enough time to talk on their own.

The next thing I really didn’t like, was the AMD sponsorship deal.  My qualm isn’t that they sponsored the PC Gaming Show, my issue is that they prevented any sort of competition from presenting their tributes and devices to the PC gaming world.  AMD is only a slice in a very large pie when it comes to graphics cards, peripherals, and other PC devices.  Using the sponsorship as a way to push out any competing businesses, such as NVidia/EVGA, is pretty shallow.  As a company, you should have enough confidence in your products to let everyone present in a fair and open forum; such is the nature of the Electronic Gaming Expo.  It would have been good to see more hardware previews, such as interesting oddities from the PC modding community, but then again, that’s also AMD competition.

On top of that, the PC Gaming Show doesn’t have any sort of “easy” web access.  Through experience, the major contenders at E3, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, and pretty much everyone else, do a lot of work to quickly to set up a website and recorded video, as well as a web presence for easy access to their press conferences and information during and after the expo.  The PC gaming showcase, mostly due to the inexperience with this presentation being the first year this sort of thing has ever happened for the PC landscape.  But even still, there’s no central core for information. You have to rely on third-party reporting to even see the presentation, let alone boil out the information buried within.  Though, it does seem strange that PC Magazine, as an actual physical publication, wouldn’t have a more robust sources for their own presentation.

Something that I did like was the massive amount of games that the PC Game Show covered.  Including games that don’t have a console chained to them.  The ones that you rarely get a chance to really see at an Expo like this.  In a way, I’m a little saddened that Steam doesn’t do this at E3 since Steam is so prominent for PC game distribution.  Even for the games that have already been presented in other talks during other presentations (Microsoft, EA, and the like), this forum allowed for a more in-depth explanation of the games shown than what you got in the brief glimpses in previous presentations.  Though, I do wish that a little bit more research was done by the host on some games to improve some of the questions and elaborate on a lot of his overly simplified answers.

I won’t spend a lot of time on all of the games, as the number of them that the PC Gaming Show covered was pretty staggering.  I will include the playlist from PC Gaming Magazine that shows all the studio interviews.

One thing that surprised me was that Blizzard Entertainment Studios made an appearance on the PC Gaming Show to talk about some of the things Blizzard has in store.  Usually, Blizzard doesn’t show their wares in a large presentation at E3.  Most of their big releases are done during Blizzard’s proprietary convention, Blizzcon.

We even got a lot of information from the interview about Heroes of the Storm and Star Craft.  They talked about the current development for Heroes of the Storm, which is currently in its first expansion phase, dubbed The Eternal Conflict.  In the new expansion they are unveiling several new characters, one of which — The Butcher — launched with the expansion earlier this month.  The next will be The Skeleton King, Leoric and following Leoric will be the monk (So excited for monk, as that’s my go-to main in Diablo III).  The new information that we gained was about the Monk is very interesting indeed.  Apparently his abilities and moves are not pre-set like all the other characters.  Instead, you use his upgrades and leveling system to choose your abilities.  That way you can choose how he plays as the game goes on.  Will he focus healing? Will he focus damage? I am a little sad that they aren’t including the alternate gender looks for their Diablo III player character choices, since the female monk looks quite spectacular, at least as a skin option.

As Blizzard talked about Star Craft II, the new expansion Legacy of the Void, and ending the long 17-year story that they started with the first Star Craft.  They announced that later this month in July that they are going use a series of missions to link the last expansion, Heart of the Swarm, to the next and that the missions will be available for pre-purchase with Legacy of the Void.  Those missions will be available for everyone, regardless if you own Star Craft II or not, however, pre-purchasing Legacy of the Void gives you early access to that content before everyone else.

However, I think one of the biggest news drops of the PC Gaming Show is that the highly anticipated game, No Man’s Sky, is going to be for both PS4 and PC.  All hail the PC Master Race!

My final thoughts on the PC Gaming Show are that for future E3s, the only direction it has to go is up.  The two and a half hour length was really good and it did chug through a great deal of good gaming information.  There were a lot of studios of all sizes presented, not just the massive heavyweights, which were pretty fantastic, but the smaller indie studios as well.  The vetting must have been quite difficult.

The format of the show itself needs a good deal of work.  The stage itself was a little bit too small, yet overly decorated.  Having larger (or just multiple) projection screens would be much more beneficial than “late night talk show” style background set pieces.  The interview process needs to be worked on to become more fluid and dynamic.  I think it would be more beneficial to have someone that is more in the business of making games, a designer themselves, asking questions that it would be an E-Sports commentator.

Many of the questions asked were not as informative or deeply probing as I would have liked. Also, some of the questions asked to studios and designers need to be better researched and thought of ahead of time.  Another thing is that there really needs to be more outreach to companies that deliver hardware for the PC verse, including graphics cards, processors, displays, and motherboards as they relate to gaming.  Letting a hardware sponsor use that sponsorship to deny competition is a terrible way to go about representing the world of PC gaming.  Although the move is literally representative of the actual cut-throat market practices these hardware makers participate in, which is toxic to consumers as a whole.

The future is bright for the PC world at E3, even if opening the doors were a little difficult.

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N00basaurus Inspects E3 Part 5: Nintendo Soars Into Battle

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Even though I don’t really like Nintendo’s overuse of their current and aging IPs in lieu of making new experiences and substantial innovations, I will admit that they have done a great job of branding themselves as a company of pure whimsy.  While the other companies present themselves as corporate entities, suits and jackets, Nintendo has always embodied a feeling of silliness that is ingrained in its public persona.  And for a game company, that has always been quite interesting to me.

If you  haven’t seen it yet… Nintendo’s E3 presentation (from their Digital Direct news delivery platform) had puppets!  Below is a video compilation of all the crazy puppet antics.  Apparently, Jim Henson Studios made all of it possible.  And to be honest, I would absolutely love to see more of the Star Fox team do more things in the puppetverse.

What I think is most interesting about this, isn’t the fact that Nintendo went the puppet route.  What I find strange is that nearly all the different companies had some sort of mascot moment.  Microsoft had an expensive sports car lowered down from the ceiling, EA had a mascot dance around the stage for their Plants vs Zombies game, Square Enix had one of their studio execs dressed in character to give a short presentation.  This year was truly the year of sideshows at E3, and I welcome the more playful atmosphere to a generally over-stuffy business atmosphere, especially when Nintendo has now raised the bar so high for it.  Even if it was a series TV show, Star Fox and the Nintendo Executives Puppet Show, I’d be all for it!

The best E3 side show ever.
Jim Henson Studios helped make one of the best E3 sideshow spots ever.

Let’s talk Star Fox Zero:

The level of detail is inline with what a "new gen" console is all about.
The level of detail in Star Fox Zero is in line with what a “new gen” console is all about.

Not only is Star Fox one of those iconic IPs that sits in Nintendo’s back pocket ever since the Super NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), but it is a game that is in great conflict with itself.  The first two Star Fox games were fantastic.  Star Fox for the Super NES and the one thereafter for the N64 were probably the absolute best in the series.  Star Fox: Adventures, developed by Rare, was an interesting take on the series, but it just didn’t feel like it was a full-fledged Star Fox title.  It was more of a spinoff than anything else.  From there, the title lost its way and meandered a bit with a handful of third-party developer titles for the Game Cube and the DS.  The franchise has been sleeping while bigger names like Mario take to the stage over and over again.

Now, now we get a new Star Fox game, and from the E3 trailers, it looks glorious.  Almost to the point where it might make me pick up a Wii U.  I’m still not sold on the dual screen aspect as I’m wondering how switching a player’s gaze between the two so constantly might be an issue due to the time that gesture would take up… but other than that, the game looks like a return to its pure fighter pilot roots, which is exactly what Star Fox desperately needs.  From this stage in development, the game looks great.  I just hope that this new iteration does the title justice, especially since they have multiple studios working on the project.

It's visually both stunning and reminiscent of the old polygonal N64 aesthetic.
It’s visually both stunning and reminiscent of that old polygonal N64 aesthetic.

Beyond Star Fox Zero:

There really wasn’t that much in the terms of “games” for Nintendo this round of E3, but really that’s OK for once.  This year, for Nintendo, the press conference was more focused on the future “direction” of the company as a whole.  Most of what was announced were DLC and updates to existing titles.  From the titles that they did talk about, they are going to be focusing more on the multiplayer experience, especially that of local multiplayer (playing with your buddies on a couch, for example) instead of the anonymous online multiplayer that all the other companies have already shifted to.  You can really see Nintendo thinking creatively about how to use Multi-player games in very unique ways with Legend of Zelda: Triforce Heroes.

They are also focusing on “small” titles.  Small as in world scale, mostly.  From Yoshi’s Woolly World to Metroid Prime: Federation Force, titles are becoming more and more cutesy and child friendly than ever before.  In a way, I really don’t like this shift as a hardcore gamer, especially when it comes to what they did to Metroid.  Moving the focus away from a lone survivor fighting tooth and arm blaster for life while everything, including the universe itself, roots against your very existence, and instead making the game about a bunch of… I don’t know, police guys? Hooting and hollering around the galaxy as they shoot stuff and do sports (quite literally)… It’s just an odd twist for that property.  It’s distinctively not Metroid.  But it is distinctively going after the market of short, squat, humanoid heroes that cartoons have started to target.  I’m all for them using different characters and refreshing the Metroid series… but I wonder if they could do a better job if they sucked it back to 2D and got back to those old wonderfully made original Metroid titles.  The ones that took a great deal of thought and planning to make every little detail…

The game that caught my attention the most, isn’t even a game at all.  It’s a level editor.  Nintendo is releasing a full-fledged level editor for their original Mario side-scrolling platformer.  This is something that I wish more games really did.  Intelligent level design is something that is severely lacking in today’s game industry.  Mostly because 3D level design is difficult to to plan out exactly how the player is going to approach any one specific object.  I loved how the executives of Nintendo talked about the level editor, Super Mario Maker.  While they were talking, they pulled out some of their old maps of the original NES Mario title, and started to talk about what makes good level design.  You could feel the joy that they expressed while reminiscing about their earlier works, but you could also hear their trials and tribulations, as level design is a difficult art process.  I hope that when Super Mario Maker comes out, they also release some of that early design artwork too, as well as explanations of how they came across to different level design decisions.  Publishing a book of art that shows the grid layouts of the original Mario levels would be fantastic.

If you would like to see all of what Nintendo covered during the expo: Nintendo made a very handy E3 recap website for all of their E3 2015 information spots.  You can visit it here for inside looks into their games and plans for the future.

As a Side Note:

Even as I write this, amidst the news reports of the death of a legend, I find myself reflecting on all the times Nintendo, as a company, has made an impact upon me in my youth up through my current ambition to be a game designer myself.  The worlds and stories that I have bared witness to over the years all courtesy of this pretty wonderful company is rather astounding.  I may not be a die-hard Nintendo fan, and I have not always agreed with its design decisions (starting from the Game Cube on), many of my favorite games of all time have been because of Nintendo.

The recent passing of Mr. Iwata will surely have a deep impact on the Nintendo company as well as all of us gamers. From all the tubes I have dropped down to every raccoon suit I have worn, from every spin attack I have unleashed to every castle I have stormed, from every enemy I have devoured to every space battle I have flown, from every sword I’ve pulled from a stone to every random roll of the dice, from every village where I have lived among the animals to every blinking glowing star: Thank you Satouru Iwata, for making video gaming a true place of whimsy and wonder.  You will be surely missed.

Here's A Bunch Of GIFs Of Nintendo Puppets
“Please Understand”.

 

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N00basaurus Inspects E3 Part 4: Sony and Square Enix

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Overall, with Sony’s Playstation 4, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed.  Many of the “big games” were games that we already knew were coming down the pipeline.  A new Assassin’s Creed, a new Call of Duty, a remake of Final Fantasy 7, a new Shenmue, yet another Street Fighter V.  You could even measure the room from the lack of surprise from the crowd.  So many awkwardly wasted applause lines.  There were a couple of moments of large cheers, but many times, you could count the number of people applauding on one hand.  Unlike Microsoft’s, EA’s, and especially Bethesda’s conference, this year’s E3 was very disappointing in the realm of the Playstation.

There Were Some Games That Stood Out, But Not By Much:

The Last Guardian

This game opened up the Sony conference, and though it was visually impressive, the mechanics of the game seemed clunky and unresponsive. Animations, especially of the main character, were a little nonsensical at times (look at the strange way he pushes objects).  I think what we saw, or at least I hope what we saw, was a very early development build where it’s not all smoothed out yet.  However, once they work out the kinks, this game looks very mysterious and intriguing.

Final Fantasy VII

Although it’s a remake, it will be interesting to see how different the game is from the original.  Especially graphics-wise.  Even though I don’t want much of the story to change, I do hope, however, that they make the game a little more approachable in its combat system.  I just remember that there was a great deal of time wasted grinding.  Sooooo much grinding.  But now the graphics look awesome, so there’s that.  Hello again, Red XIII!

Horizon Zero Dawn

When I first saw this game… to be honest, I thought it was yet another Turok.  Primitive human hunter in a technologically advanced wilderness.  You have guns and a bow and arrow.  You fight dinosaur robots.  Yeah, Turok!  I did like that the main character was female and scary in her incredible might and calmness in battle.  though to be honest, I’d rather play a game where I played as one of those robot dinosaurs.  They look absolutely stunning… if not a lot like the cartoon, Zoids

Firewatch

I frankly don’t know what to think about Firewatch.  Its core principles have been done to death before.  The whole “survive in the wild” games are currently plaguing the early access boat on Steam.  What is new, is the premise.  The fact that you are a park ranger on duty and that you investigate things like rowdy teenage campers and missing persons.  The trailer seems to indicate that the world might be a much darker and mystical place that it appears… and if that’s the case, I really really hope it’s anything else other than zombies.  Survival horror zombie games are now a penny a dozen.  They are all terrible and parodies of themselves.  We do not need more.  If it’s not zombies, hurrah! The game might be that much more interesting!

Dreams

Dreams is another experiment from the beloved Media Molecule game studio.  You may remember them from their previous smash hit, Little Big Planet and the other iterations of that franchise.  Dreams is a continuation of their strong core belief in creator made content that comes entirely from their fan base.  This new game gives an interesting motion based sculpting tool and allows you to create animations through the art of puppetry.  They then, somehow, let you create games with those two mechanics and share them online through a cloud computed database of content.  It’s very ambitious, but if they pull it off, it could be something entirely new and organic in the gaming sphere.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3

I never, ever, thought I would say something like this, but the new Call of Duty actually looks pretty good.  From the trailer and the gameplay of what we see, there’s a great deal more depth put into just the presentation model than there has ever been before.  However, we won’t really know if they are just following their capitalist formula of “how to extract money from Call of Duty players” or if they are really focusing on the actual design of the game and innovating to push the title to new heights.  Art vs Money.  Even though it’s set in the future, will we still have to press “F” to pay respects?  From the multiplayer, I can already tell that I will stay far far away from that mess.

It just looks confusing as all get out.  I’m not totally averse to PVP, but I am averse to only getting a few seconds of play time followed by two or three minuets of death induced wait time.  I like games where I have time to enjoy them.  Time to explore and get to know them.  The super quick deaths of the multiplayer trailer… I’m just not about that at all.  I will also say, that since in-game gun design is always something that I wag my finger at in most first person shooter games, the guns in this new Call of Duty do look futuristic.  However, it would be a lot nicer to see some extremely futuristic weapons other than your mundane common standard today guns: the assault rifle, machine gun, machine pistol, knife, bow and arrow, shot gun, and Gatling mini-gun, all of which are so blasé.  So in the end: Call of Duty Black Ops 3 doesn’t look terrible, but who knows? There’s still time for them to ruin it like they have all the others.

No Man’s Sky

This is probably one of the largest open world sandbox games to date.  This game, if successful, will be one of most in depth space exploration games ever made.  It’s artsy, there’s space combat, planet exploration, and it is impossibly massive.  If they can pull it off (and release the game in a working fashion with very few bugs) it will be something to behold.  It’s not very well known about in detail, but it looks like it’s going to be something to watch for sure.  And according to the E3 PC Gaming Show, it’s also coming out for PC!

Shifting a Little Bit to the Square Enix Press Conference:

There ares a lot of games that I’m not going to really touch here.  Many of them are JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games) that are always at the core of the Square Enix platform.  There are a few Final Fantasy-esque games here and there, another Just Cause and another Hitman.  Square Enix just didn’t really have any teeth outside of their die hard fans for specific titles.

Kingdom Hearts 3

I never was much of a Kingdom Hearts fan.  It has indeed had some interesting story elements, but the game mechanics were always a major turn off for me.  Especially the strange building block spaceship battles… it was just too… I don’t know… it was like a Final Fantasy marketed to an audience way to young for my enjoyment.  In the past, the stories of Kingdom Hearts tries to go a little dark, like it does in a Final Fantasy, but then they have to add spoon fulls of cuteness to jam down your throat.  This one looks like it’s a little deeper and the complex battle mechanics look pretty solid.  I’m not too sold on the Walt Disney World Theme Park ride summon spells… though the teacups looks kinda funny… It’s yet another “we just have to wait to see what happens when the game comes out” moments like most of this year’s E3.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

This game could be great.  The last Deus Ex: Human Evolved, was great… but only after they had fixed the launch title some time after it was on the market.  The last Deus Ex that came out was half made for the first part of its lifespan.  They had to release a “director’s cut” DLC to add missions and, even more importantly, fill your character’s points based skills tree with more points so that players could actually fill out their skills tree and progress through the later stages of the game.  It was a mad scramble to put the whole game together after launch.  With all the fixes, however, it was a really good science fiction game.  My only one complaint, looking at the new version, is that I wish we could exchange our character’s robot body parts for different robot parts.  Like, if we wanted a gun arm instead of a left hand, or we wanted faster running and higher jumping legs we could swap durability for speed and agility.  That kind of thing.  Let people see their characters visually evolve and allow us to evolve with the main character as we play through the game.  Some players could choose all stealth robot body parts while others could focus on combat, that sort of thing.  But who knows.  From the demos, the game looks very pretty.

Final Thoughts:

I was severally underwhelmed by the Sony and Square Enix presentations.  They just didn’t really hold any sort of impact, and most of the games shown had been previously announced elsewhere in the media months before the expo.  It just seems strange that Sony would take a step back after dominating E3’s in the very recent past.  Though I’m sure next year’s will be an interesting comeback.

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