Sunday, February 14, 2016

Man Up or Manual - Comparing Diablo-clones

As I've been on a streak of playing Diablo-clones, purely coincidentally as I often install games on random, I've also come to think of the subtle differences that make or break a game. What makes a good game? It's a question almost as difficult to answer as the big one about the meaning of life, especially since it often comes down to subjective ideas of fun. It just really popped into my head when playing these Diablo-clones specifically because they're somehow so comparable. Often the core mechanics are pretty much the same and the differences are too subtle to explain in a good way.

I never played Diablo or Diablo 2 much when they were released, but once I got around to it I loved them. I never beat Diablo, but went through Diablo 2 a couple of times. I was quite thrilled when Diablo 3 was announced but got bored with it after some months, I gave it another chance a while after but never could get into it. I've filed it under the list of "unsuccessful Diablo-clones" (although technically not a Diablo-clone), along with a whole bunch of others. Din's Curse (2010), Torchlight (2009) and FATE: The Cursed King (2011) joined that list pretty quickly. Eventhough I had fun with all of those games initially, since I am quite a fan of the core mechanic, I ended up losing interest fairly quickly. I even bought Torchlight 2, having heard it was better than the first one, over two years ago. I still haven't played it.

FATE is pretty much Torchlight -

Then I started playing Darkstone (released 1999) and something changed. The interesting thing was that all of the abovementioned boring games were simple to get the hang of. They either had tutorials that explained what you needed to know, or game mechanics easy enough to figure out on the run. But they lacked something that made it fun to stick around in the world. To me, Din's Curse, FATE and Torchlight all suffered from the same feeling of meaninglessness, the way all that killing never felt like it was leading anywhere or at least nowhere I wanted to go. Diablo 3 had the same problem of repetitiveness and sense that I was bashing my head against a wall even when I was making progress. But I had so much trouble figuring out how it differed from Diablo 2. What made the one fun and the other one not?

Torchlight -

Darkstone did things differently than the other games. It has a tutorial, if you can call it that - a dude tells you where the vendors are and you get to test some different weapons and that's it. Quests are given to you by random people walking up and telling you "good luck finding the Holy Shield! You're going to need it!". I am paraphrasing, but that is literally all the information you get. Not a word about where the item is, which seems like pretty essential information. It took me 2 hours to figure out how to make my companion use spells. Or how to lock spells into my spellbar. Or what the different skills you can buy actually do. All thanks to me digging up the actual manual of the game. Apparently you have to hold in shift while clicking a spell to make it stick to your spellbar. Apparently you have to tell your companion how much mana they can use by marking their mana bar before they start using skills. Apparently the Language skill is completely useless in single player.

Needless to say I was frustrated as hell the first couple of hours of playing, which wasn't the case with the other Diablo-clones. Diablo was released several years before this game so I was desperately trying to find the key that would show me all the loot at my feet, but alas. You have to use your eyes and try to see that tiny ass pixelated ring somewhere among all the cracked urn pieces. Trying to open a chest I often end up circling it because targeting is wonky as hell. There is no pet to conveniently run off and vendor your things. Eventhough you're a team your characters control as two different people, which means if you want to sell or buy stuff from the vendor you have to do it individually. Swapping between characters is also unintuitive (especially since there is no key for it) so I've already died a couple of times from freaking out when in the wrong character, using the wrong skills. But somehow, rather than making me angry, it made me all the happier when I got it right.

Closer to the style of Diablo -

But it was fun. I kept trying, I kept playing - eventhough all the game mechanics told me I should've given up long ago. I kept thinking "what the hell is wrong with this game" but I didn't close it down. When I finally ended up reading the manual to be able to actually do simple stuff, I even got a bit sentimental. I can't explain it. I don't think it's a bad thing at all that games nowadays come with tooltips and explain basic game mechanics from the start. There are even old games that do this without it feeling like the game is holding your hand, like Geneforge or Planescape: Torment. And I don't think it's the handholding alone that makes a game more or less fun, Darkstone also has a more interesting world and manages to make dungeon crawling feel like an adventure and not a chore, just like the original Diablo did. I passed a lake and a fairy in it told me to "blow the reeds from the smallest to the biggest". "What reeds?" I thought. There were no reeds anywhere and she didn't tell me where to find them or why (to play the song of snakes, whatever that was good for). After some clicking around I decided to just leave it. Venturing into the next dungeon, I happen to find some reeds in various locations. Now I am curious.

Worst graphics, best game? -

There was just something about the ruthlessness of getting thrown in at the deep end, the feeling of the game developers thinking "they'll get this, they're not stupid" (although clearly I was) that felt refreshing. If done right, and that's obviously easier said than done, saying "we don't need to tell you, you'll figure it out" really adds to the sense of achievement. You need a lot of faith in your game to think people will stick around for it. A lot of upcoming games will add this as an optional feature (like the new Hitman, and I believe the new Thief had this as well) where you can choose to get more or less information. I think that is a brilliant idea. If the popularity of Dark Souls is anything to go by, people enjoy good trial & error. And for the rest of us, there is always the manual.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sunday Thoughts - Mass Set Up Effect

So I just finished Mass Effect for the first time and I thought it was... pretty meh to be honest with you. I heard the second one is far better, and admittedly the last couple of hours were a lot better than the first 90%, but I was still a bit disappointed considering I had heard so many good things about it. Oh, and there will be some spoilers here in case you haven't played it yourself yet.

This happens every now and then. Something gets praised to the sky and back and I just don't understand why. It's not just a matter of something being good, but just not for me (like the Godfather movies) but sometimes I am starting to wonder if I've just played/watched/read the same thing as everyone else?

Without starting any major arguments, here are a couple of examples of so called awesome experiences that just were lost on me;

  • The Avengers - What a boring movie.
  • Steins;Gate - What is interesting about this anime?
  • SW:The Force Awakens - Not bad, but I have so many issues with this movie.
  • Half-Life - Not enough action and wonky platforming forced into an fps.
Also meh -

And then we have games like Mass Effect, where I'm not entirely sure if I'm just missing the point or if it is actually not that good, people just thought it was at the time for different reasons. The same way some shit movies win Best Movie Oscar, games can be praised when they're first released, only for people to realize that they somehow duped themselves into liking it. Some things just don't age that well, or only perform in the specific context of when they were released.

So what is my problem with Mass Effect? For one thing, it failed to make me care about anyone. The squad members are not so bad (except for the human ones which are gratingly boring). Some feel sorely cliché, like Joker, written straight out of a text-book "pilot-guy" model and most others fail to convey any kind of feeling, like Captain Anderson. Saren had potential to be interesting, but doesn't get enough screen time or character build up. When I was supposed to choose who was going to die out of Ashley and Kaidan it was basically just a coin toss to me. These kind of choices normally come really difficult for me, I almost struggle with choosing which Lemming should die for the greater good, but I did not manage to feel a drop of emotion pretty much throughout the game. I was also disappointed at the voice work, having heard that Jennifer Hale (who does FemShep) was supposed to be so good. I didn't feel like she was noteworthy at all (which could just as well be bad writing).

I chose Kaidan -

Interestingly enough, eventhough the people in the universe didn't interest me, the universe itself did. Especially towards the end, when you walk around the Prothean areas, and get to hear a bit more about the story (which I assume will expand even more in coming games), I was feeling like I was finally really getting into it. Before then however, it felt like the story was just one anonymous planet-area after another fighting the Geth.

Combat was one thing I really enjoyed about Mass Effect, which only led to the issue that there wasn't enough of it. I thought difficulty was fairly well balanced and I definitely couldn't just spray and pray my way through things. I had, unknowingly, chosen the Soldier class and decided to go with Tali and Liara to compensate for my lack of powers. They did so splendidly, tossing enemies through the air while I was shooting them down Duck Hunt style, and those moments were the definite highlight of the game.

I didn't feel like the story managed to pick up much momentum until the last couple of hours, as mentioned. This might've been in part due to me checking out the side-quests, most of which were alright entertainment-wise but badly implemented. It just felt so wrong to head off on some quest to find this and that guy for whatever reason, when the fate of the Universe was in my hands and humanity (and most other species) on the brink of destruction. I couldn't help but thinking "I don't have time for this crap!" whenever someone asked me to do something that wasn't directly linked to the main quest. I only did them because I knew the game allowed me to do so, the story didn't and it never felt right.

Mo mining, mo problems -

Because of this every side quest felt unhinged and unimportant in comparison to what was at stake in the main story. For every one I completed I just ended up thinking "What's the point anyway, we'll all die soon". This way it didn't feel like the side quests tied into the universe in a good way, but more like they were thrown in to give you something to do. And no wonder, since the main story is actually fairly short, or so it felt. Maybe if you take your time to do everything before you finish the story, it would feel more coherent - I will never know as I accidentally continued the story instead of going on a side quest, so there were many I never finished. I will forever wonder what that fan guy was up to...

I never managed to figure out what the mining on planets was good for either, but hopefully that will play a more important or completely different role in subsequent games because it felt pointless in this one.

All in all I can say it seems Mass Effect suffers from a fate common of the first part of a trilogy - the set-up effect (Force Awakens has the same problem imo). The game has got this entire Universe and massive story to set up, it doesn't gain any momentum until the end of it, where it is time for part 2 to pick up the stick leaving the first part feeling a bit bland. It makes perfect sense for Mass Effect 2 to be the best part, because story wise this is where the most action will take place (part 3 suffering from the wrap-up effect instead). I haven't played the other parts yet so we'll see if I still feel this assessment is correct at the end of it.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

High Expectations - Games I Am Looking Forward To 2016

'Tis the habit of video game magazines to dedicate the first issue of the year to games we should all be looking forward to. And I thought to myself, hey I can do that just as good as anyone, I'm a pro at looking forward to things. There are actually a couple of games I am thrilled about but the last time I played something on day 1 release was Pokémon X&Y, so just because I am hoping some of these entries will turn out as cool as they sound, I probably won't get around to playing them until next-next year, at best. Be that as it may, here are the games I will be keeping an extra close watch on;

From the developers of Gone Home, Fullbright delivers Tacoma which could be said to be Gone Home in space - sort of. I actually quite liked Gone Home and eventhough I didn't think it was worth the money (20 euro for 2 hours of gameplay, those 2 hours would have to be life-alteringly good. And it's not that good) I still think it's one of the better interactive stories I've played (way better than To the Moon for example). Add to that my affinity for all things space and you've got a recipe for something I am bound to find tasty. Wait, are we talking about food or games, I am getting confused.

You can tell they have people that worked on Bioshock 2 -

Pokémon Go
Anything with the word "Pokémon" in it will have my interest, but not always manage to make me develop a crush (I am looking at you Pokémon Snap). Pokémon Go however mixes my intense love of Pokémon with my albeit lukewarm fondness of the concept of Ingress. I have been Ingressing, you could sort of say I am still Ingressing seeing as I still have the app installed and do it every once in a month when I happen to remember. My problem with Ingress was that the portals didn't particularly engage me. But if you could just call them, say, Pokémon instead - color me engaged. Yes, I am not ashamed to say I am that simple.

As far as I've understood it, Pokémon Go is really basically Ingress but in Pokémon terms and eventhough I will probably get bored of that too eventually, I am still really looking forward to trying it out. Too bad for the bf who has a Windows phone though.

I can't even motivate in a logical way why this would interest me to any special degree, considering the first Doom scared the begees out of me and I kind of stuck with Quake 2 after that. Then I kind of dropped shooters like this all together and I can't say I've picked it up since. But reading about Doom really got me into the whole thing again. I mean, shooter are fun after all, and what better than the one that made it into a phenomenon?

FFVII Remake
This is one of the games I want to play at release, but since I don't own a ps4 and probably won't get one for this game alone, I'll just sit on my hands and wait for the PC release. There's going to be a PC release right? Admittedly, playing any FF game on the PC feels a bit blasphemous, but I justify it by telling myself that the line between consoles (except anything Nintendo) and computers has been sufficiently blurred for those concerns not to matter.

FFVII was the first game I played that had a deep, engaging story and more than three hours of gameplay (pretty sure Yoshi's Story doesn't fit the description). As such it showed me a whole new world of video gaming, one where I think I thought to myself for the first time "you know what, this isn't just a game!". No time before had I fallen in love with the story, characters and music as much as with FFVII, and I have been longing for a remake since the concept of remakes. I could barely believe it when I first read about it and I cross all my fingers and toes it will end up being one of the good ones, rather than one of the disappointing ones. But if it turns out it's horrible, I can always drown my sorrows in the old FFVII.

Torment: Tides of Numenera
I was late to the party with Planescape: Torment, finishing it for the first (and so far only) time some two years ago. I loved it. I can't even imagine what someone who loved it when it was released must be feeling upon hearing that it was going to be made. Considering it was funded on Kickstarter within hours, they probably shit a brick. Now, this isn't a remake and frankly I don't think Planescape: Torment needs one. Instead it is a continuation of sorts so it can turn out to be awesome or not so awesome. But I guess that goes for any sort of game nowadays.

Every guy seemed to have that hair in late 90's -

No Mans Sky
This game is so ambitious you could almost say it's impossible for it not to disappoint. And my expectations of this game are suitably ambivalent. On the one hand I do love the concept and potential of this game. Again with the space and exploration, two things that in combination are probably my favorite thing ever in terms of entertainment. On the other hand, how do you keep it fun? When there is so much to explore, most of it is bound to be (or at least to quickly become) repetitive and dull? I thought so of Skyrim, a game infinitely smaller than No Mans Sky (as I understood it, NMS aims to be endlessly big). It will probably, hopefully, be one of those "it's what you make it" kind of games and with the right tools it could be amazing.

Yo-kai Watch
A Pokémon game that isn't Pokémon? Need I say more, really? It's huge in Japan (but then again, so are a whole lot of things I am not very interested in) and apparently we're only just getting in on the whole phenomenon that is Yo-kai Watch. I don't really know that much about it, except I think you kind of battle with ghosts (hence Yo-kai) and you know, it's sort of like Pokémon. I don't need to know more. I want it.

Copyright infringement from Pokémon next -

So that's it for the games I am looking forward to this year, there are probably more I couldn't think of when writing this but I guess you could argue that in that case they weren't very interesting. What games have you going antsy this year?