14 July 2015

Kirby and Mario in the Palm of My Hand, in Glorious 3D!

I remained sceptical about portable consoles for a long time, but earlier this year I finally caved in and bought myself a New Nintendo 3DS XL. There were multiple reasons for this. My phone's pretty old and not great for games, and I've disliked the touch screen controls in most phone games I've tried. My laptop is equally not great for games. I wanted something I could play with away from home, as well as something to be a light-weight time-killer I could easily pick up (at home or away) and start playing, with a little less effort than booting up a console game.

The 3DS is a pretty nifty little device, I have to concede. Obviously it's somewhat lacking in power compared to the PlayStation Vita (let alone regular consoles), and particularly suffers from a rather low resolution, but the games still look fine. The 3D screen feels surprisingly natural and adds a nice touch to the visuals. It can be glitchy and blurry if you don't look at it just right, but these are fairly minor complaints. Of course it feels clunkier in my hands than a proper controller, but the controls work fine for most games I've tried.

The first game I actually beat with it was the '3D Classics' version of Kirby's Adventure. This is a port of the NES original that makes use of the 3DS's 3D screen, which doesn't actually affect gameplay in any way, but manages to revitalize the look of the game somewhat. I never actually played this game back in the NES days. It's one of the later NES titles, and looks and feels fairly advanced, by NES standards. The ability to save, as well as unlimited continues, makes it a little easier than many other NES platformers, although some of the bosses in particular still required some effort. All in all, a fun little game. It's a shame that there aren't too many interesting games in the 3D Classics line. You'd think enhanced ports of, say, Mario or Zelda games would sell...

Seeing as how this was the first Nintendo device I've owned in a long time, and having played and enjoyed the Super Mario Galaxy games on my parents' Wii a couple years back, I naturally wanted a new Mario game for the 3DS. So I bought Super Mario 3D Land, and... I think the word 'Mario' sums up everything I could possibly say about it. I don't think it's quite as fun as the Galaxy games were, but a competent, polished platformer nonetheless. It felt a little more lacking in character and story (even by Mario standards), drawing heavily from classic Mario games, but with 3D controls.

The 8 worlds of the 'main' game often felt a little on the easy side (dying a number of times in a level grants you a power-up that makes you invulnerable—which made many bosses, in particular, a joke), and fairly fast to play through. However, once you beat the game, you unlock 'special worlds', another 8 worlds of remixed levels with new challenges, so I can't really complain about lack of content or challenges... The Galaxy games I never could 100% complete, we'll see how far I get in this one...

I'm writing this just a couple days after the world learned of the passing of Nintendo's president, Satoru Iwata. He worked as a producer on Kirby's Adventure before joining Nintendo—and modern Nintendo consoles, including the DS line, were of course developed under his rule—so the news hit a little closer to home for me than it might have at some other point in time. While for many years Nintendo was somewhat at the periphery of the gaming world for me, I must say their products have a unique feel—not to mention many iconic characters, like Mario and Kirby. That feel may be partly rooted in nostalgia, of course, but I'm nevertheless happy to be the owner of a Nintendo console once again, and hope they continue making interesting, and most of all fun, games in the future.

23 June 2015

One Solstice Night, Pt 6

It has been my tradition for several years to stay up till dawn on the night of the summer solstice—the shortest night of the year—while having a few drinks and blogging my activities. Well, as it happens, the solstice was actually yesterday, but I had a much too tiring weekend to stay up last night. So I figure a day here or there won't make much difference... (There's no real practical difference in the length of the night yet, anyway.)

Last year at this time I was watching Mario Marathon 7. Alas, there is no Mario Marathon this summer, mostly due to (I assume) the crew being too busy with their personal lives. I hope we haven't seen the last of them, but for now, I'll have to make do with other entertainment...

For company I have some sweets, a Pringles tube, and a chilled bottle of Minttu, a peppermint flavoured drink described on the label as 'the legendary mint shot from the Finnish Himalayas'... (I haven't had this stuff in a long while, I'm rather looking forward to it.)

22:51 - Sunset!

23:00 - Each Monday around this time I usually watch LoadingReadyRun's CheckPoint Plus stream on Twitch. This stream normally consists of a humorous news show about video game news (which is also recorded and posted on YouTube), followed by a more freeform discussion about video game news. The show wraps up with LRR's Kathleen DeVere welcoming some of the channel's new subscribers with bits of zany improv based on their usernames—all in all a fun, relaxed way to end my Monday.

23:05 - The show's running a little late, as is usual, so I'll take this opportunity to have my first drink of the nigh. Aaaah, that hits the spot. The trouble with a bottle that's spent several hours in the freezer, though, is that it's a) cold to handle, and b) after a while wet with condensation...

23:20 - As they say on the show, the week after E3, kind of a slow news day... Not much there of personal relevance. But the LRR crew is still always fun to watch.

00:30 - Show's over, now I have to think of something else to do... There's a few clouds around, so the night's actually fairly dark right now. If it was clear, the sky would probably be a pale blue, fading into orange near the horizon...

1:10 (Really? What happened to the last half hour?) - I finally decided to watch Return of the Jedi! Whee! I recently re-watched the first two movies, and I've been meaning to get around to this, might as well do it now.

2:30 - Already so much lighter outside! But boy do my eyes feel heavy, I hope I can survive till dawn... Movie's great, snacks are great, drink is great, but I guess I'm just not used to staying up quite so late, lately...

3:30 - Movie's over, still one of the greatest classics of all time (even if I was almost nodding off for a fair amount of it). It is almost full daylight outside already. Birds are singing, fairly loud.

3:40 - OMFG, there's a spider crawling on my shot glass. Like, wtf? Where the hell did it come from? Was it attracted maybe by the sweetness of the drink, or the alcohol? Sorry, buddy, but you're going outside...

3:53 - Teeth brushed, all ready for bed, just waiting for...

3:56 - Sunrise! See you again next year, maybe...

8 June 2015

Mortal Kombat!

I came late to fighting games, long after their golden age in the mid-90s. Once I finally discovered them, I thought they were fascinating and cool. But I also soon discovered that I did not have a talent for them, and, not feeling like I was getting any better, my interest gradually waned. Skullgirls was cool enough to bring me back for a bit, but it didn't last.

Even at the height of my interest in the genre, I never really paid much attention to the Mortal Kombat series. Perhaps partly because at the time I was still heavily into Japanese video games, and rather sceptical of a western fighting game... But recently some of the good folks at LoadingReadyRun decided to stream the newest title in the series, Mortal Kombat X. And, only about 23 years late, I caught the bug...

I spent some time digging into the Mortal Kombat universe. I watched both the mid-90s movies. (The first was fun, in a cheesy way. The second... not quite so much.) I re-watched the web series Mortal Kombat: Legacy. And I finally decided I needed to buy this game.

Let's be honest, Mortal Kombat X is pretty ridiculous. But it's ridiculous in a way I really like. The violence is so over-the-top you can't help but laugh sometimes. The story is like a cheesy action movie. The graphics look good. But, importantly, it is also fun to play.

The game has a roster of over 20 cool characters. And each character has three variants you can choose from, with slightly different moves. So there's a ton of variety in potential play styles. The special moves are fairly easy if you know any 2D fighting game basics. But of course, as always, there's a lot of depth with combos and stuff. Which I absolutely suck at... Like I said, I'm not good at fighting games. But the game's not very tough at easier settings, so even a scrub like me can have fun with it.

A cool thing about this game that I've never really seen other fighting games do quite like this (though other NetherRealm games have this too, I believe), is its 'story mode'. It's like watching through an action movie, several hours long, with interspersed fights. In each chapter you control a different character (going through about half of the roster), so you get a feel for different play styles. The story's hardly very deep or original, but I don't think it really needs to be... It carries on from the previous game—which itself was something of a reboot—so it could be a mite hard to follow for someone who knows nothing about the series. (I checked out the cutscenes from the previous game on YouTube before playing, which probably helped some...)

Once you're through with the story, there's naturally a bunch of different arcade and versus modes to play with, and a lot of stuff to unlock (including new finishing moves, concept art etc)... So I do feel I'm getting my money's worth here, as much or more as with any fighting game I've played in the past.

Any complaints I have about Mortal Kombat X are largely about the slight feel of monetization, in certain aspects of the game. There's a few DLC only characters. No big surprise there, obviously. But the thing that feels most bizarre is the way you can buy easy fatalities. Now, as anyone familiar with the Mortal Kombat series will know, a 'fatality' is a bloody kill move you can perform after winning a battle, by inputting a specific button sequence that varies with each character/move. The easy fatalities allow you to pull them off with a much simpler button press... but they are single use items you can buy for real money. It's not like they really affect the game or make it in any way 'pay-to-win', but still... it feels weird and unnecessary.

Overall, though, Mortal Kombat X managed to get me excited about fighting games again, at least for a little while. That is not nothing. I imagine it's not a game to everyone's taste, with its gory violence and cheesy action movie style, but that's certainly up my alley... For a newcomer to the series like me it seems like a good, solid point to jump in.

10 April 2015

Bloodborne! Bloodborne! Bloodborne!

My, it's been a while since I blogged. Guess just nothing much going on in my life, as usual. But, as people who follow video game news at all may know, there's a new game out that everybody's talking about.

First let's talk about the past for a second, though. It was about a year ago when I finally played Dark Souls, inspired by streams (by LoadingReadyRun) I was watching. I blogged about the experience extensively back then. Suffice to say, it was a very rewarding experience, and I really enjoyed the game's atmosphere and level design, the way it built a fascinating dark fantasy world that felt cohesive and connected. Now, I never got around to playing Dark Souls II. However, based on parts of it I saw streamed, and comments from people who's opinions I respect, it just... didn't look as good, particularly in the aesthetics and level design department. It was also developed by a different team at From Software, I believe, with less direct involvement by Demon's Souls and Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki.

Now, when the new game Miyazaki was working on was announced last year, I was... cautiously curious. But seeing as it was a new franchise with a new setting and new gameplay elements, I had no idea what to expect. I pretty much had no expectations up to the release a couple weeks ago, and initially planned to wait a while before possibly buying it. But, the same factors that deterred me from Dark Souls II—seeing bits of the game and opinions from people I respect—made me actually want to try it.

And when I say 'try', it quickly turned into 'devour'. Bloodborne, in a nutshell, turned out to be the perfect Dark Souls successor I never knew I wanted.

Where Dark Souls was primarily medieval fantasy, about a land infested by the undead, Bloodborne draws influence from Victorian Gothic horror aesthetics, mixing in themes of lycanthropy and hints of Lovecraftian horrors. As in Dark Souls, the narrative is subtle and unfolds through hints in snippets of dialogue, item descriptions etc. The atmosphere and feel of the world is much more important than the plot, as such. The game begins as you arrive in the city of Yharnam, ravaged by a disease turning people into beasts. It is the night of the Hunt, when the good people stay behind locked doors, and strange creatures roam the streets. To escape this nightmarish realm, you have to get to the bottom of what's happening to the city...

The game looks gorgeous. Like I said, the atmosphere and level design was one of the major pulls of Dark Souls for me, and Bloodborne managed to capture me once again in much the same way. Everything connects together nicely, yet there's a nice amount of variety as well, from the alleyways of Yharnam to its wild outskirts. From fairly early on you also have a fair bit of choice in the order you explore areas in.

The heritage of the game, from Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, is obvious. The action and interface are immediately familiar to any who've played those games. There are some significant differences, though. Where the previous games featured mostly medieval weaponry, the weapons in Bloodborne are much more exotic. Most can transform between two distinct shapes with different attacks. Also, instead of a shield in your left hand, you carry a firearm. There is no blocking as such, the gameplay is intended to be faster and more mobile. While many of the firearms aren't particularly effective on their own, a well timed shot can stagger an enemy, allowing a powerful follow-up attack, not unlike parrying in the earlier games. It seemed a little easier than parrying was, and while I didn't exactly master it, I could at least occasionally pull it off—something I never really learned to do in Dark Souls.

While the stat and levelling system are basically the same, many aspects of the game have been somewhat streamlined. For instance, there's no encumbrance to worry about. You move and dodge the same regardless of your equipment. Upgrading weapons is also more straightforward. Instead of branching into different varieties with different upgrade materials, you can now attach gems to weapons to boost or change their properties (not unlike, say, Diablo III). The total number of weapons and outfits also seems to be smaller. There's no magic as such, although you can find items that appear to function like spells and require a high 'arcane' stat to use (which I didn't have, so I can't really comment on that).

Like its predecessors, Bloodborne is a challenging game. Some of the bosses in particular gave me a hard time. The game relies on precise timing and fast reactions—things I am not particularly good at. But I usually had other areas to explore, so I could level up a little more, and eventually managed to beat every boss. Like Dark Souls, Bloodborne gives you relatively little information about many things. However, unlike my Dark Souls playthrough, in which I relied heavily on guides, I found myself playing the vast majority of Bloodborne blind. I guess my experience with Dark Souls was helpful there. There were one or two optional areas I would have missed entirely, though, had I not read up on things before I wrapped up the game, as well as some NPC encounters and quest lines I totally missed out on.

One of the more annoying features in Dark Souls were the occasional 'invasions' by other players. PvP still exists in Bloodborne, but it seems to be more limited and less random. As far as I can tell, you can only be invaded in certain areas, and even in those killing a certain enemy will disable invasions—which seems like a welcome change. Also the game actually gives you the option to play offline (though then of course you'd miss out on the notes left by other players).

A masterpiece can still have a few flaws, of course. Many people have commented on the long loading times, which can be a little annoying in a game where death can be relatively frequent, and where you fast travel to earlier locations by teleporting into a hub and then out again, resulting in multiple loading times... Graphical (and other) glitches, slowdown etc. are by no means common, but you might still run into a few. As far as gameplay is concerned, there were one or two areas I didn't like a whole lot, because they were full of very hard enemies and the best strategy seemed to be to run through them, whereas I'd prefer to take things slow, explore and enjoy the atmosphere.

It took me a little over 40 hours to beat the game. I recall it took me over 60 to beat Dark Souls. It's hard to say whether Bloodborne has less content, or whether I was just better at it after my experience with Dark Souls. The slightly streamlined mechanics might also be a factor—I feel like I spent a little less time grinding for upgrade materials etc., which is probably not a bad thing. (My Dark Souls playthrough of course included DLC content as well, which I imagine Bloodborne might get at some point...) There are also optional semi-randomized 'chalice dungeons' you can explore, that add a significant amount of content. I never really got into these, though, as they seemed a little more bland than the 'proper' levels.

I will probably play this game again, seeing as how there's still some stuff I missed out on, playing without guides, and multiple endings as well. The game obviously has plenty of replay value, although I'm not sure if there is quite as much variety for character builds as Dark Souls had, considering the more limited amount of equipment and streamlined mechanics.

So yes, it should be obvious by now that I really liked Bloodborne. I liked the atmosphere and aesthetics. The gameplay was rewarding and exhilarating. Like Dark Souls, it is obviously not a game for everybody's taste. For me, though, I think it might be the best new game I've played since, well, since I played Dark Souls... It's a shame it's only available on PS4. While it doesn't affect me personally (I obviously have a PS4), I know many PC gamers are a little upset about that. But now... I have to decide whether I want to try new game plus, or an entirely new character build, or take a breather with something else entirely... Such hard decisions!

19 February 2015

Transistor (Game Review)

I just finished Transistor. And I usually write a little blog post when I finish a game, so here I am. However, I'm finding this game surprisingly difficult to describe. The game was created by indie studio Supergiant Games, whose first title, Bastion, got a lot of praise. I've had it for a while—courtesy of a Humble Indie Bundle—but haven't gotten around to playing it, as I don't play much on PC. Transistor, however, was recently offered as a PlayStation Plus monthly game for the PS4, so I immediately downloaded it.

The story of Transistor begins 'in medias res', explaining little about what is happening. You play Red, a singer in a city called Cloudbank, who has lost her voice. You acquire a strange sword called Transistor, which speaks to you. And you're under attack from strange creatures called the 'Process'. You set on a quest to find those responsible for the Process attack which is laying waste to the city. The setting is strange and mysterious, with a slightly Art Deco feel, but obviously highly advanced—a lot of the game's themes are quite... 'computer-y'. The game has a very nice aesthetic, presented in 2D isometric style. The music is also quite good.

I might describe Transistor as a tactical action game with RPG elements. At any point you can pause the game and input a series of action, which are then rapidly played out. There is a short cooldown after you use this feature. As you level up you gain more abilities, or 'functions', that you can equip. All your abilities can be equipped either as primary actions, modifiers to other actions, or as passive abilities, which is pretty cool and allows for a variety of different strategies. Instead of a difficulty setting, as you level up you unlock new 'limiters' that you can enable or disable individually, which make aspects of the game more difficult, but also grant a small bonus to experience. Which is also a neat idea.

Transistor is not a long game. It didn't have a clock anywhere that I could see (and anyone who reads my posts would know how much I hate that), but I played through it over the course of just a few days. There is a 'new game plus' mode once you complete the game, but I've never had a whole lot of interest in those things. Yes, the gameplay in Transistor is interesting and fun, but I feel it's the type of game I experience once and then move on to other things.

So, overall, Transistor features nice aesthetics, an interestingly presented narrative and original setting, and interesting mechanics. A nice little experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. And that's about all I can think of to say about it. I don't know if it's very helpful, I seem to be pretty bad at writing 'reviews', really—but, you know, whatever...

3 February 2015

An Infamous Post, feat. Delsin and Fetch

I played the original Infamous—or inFAMOUS, however you want to spell it—several years ago, when Sony offered it free after the big PSN outage. I had fun playing it, but never got around to playing the sequels. Recently, though, Infamous First Light for PS4 was a PlayStation Plus monthly game, so I decided to give it a shot. And I had enough fun playing it that I soon bought the previous PS4 title, Infamous Second Son. (My brain would want to insert a colon in those titles, but that's how I always see them written...)

Even though I played First Light first, I should probably start with Second Son. It's been a while since I played the original Infamous—and I never played Infamous 2—so I didn't remember the story too well, but basically all you need to know is that several years ago something happened that 'caused people with super powers, called 'conduits', to appear. Second Son features a new protagonist, Delsin Rowe, a young man of Native American heritage with a penchant for street art. A draconian government agency called the Department of Unified Protection (really, writers, you couldn't think of a more generic name?) is now in charge of containing conduits, branded 'bio-terrorists'.

When Delsin encounters a group of escaping conduits, he discovers he's a conduit himself, with the power to copy the powers of other conduits he comes in contact with. After the D.U.P. and its leader, Brooke Augustine—a conduit herself—wreak havoc in Delsin's reservation trying to recapture the escapees, Delsin and his sheriff brother set out to nearby Seattle, now under D.U.P. lockdown, to find Augustine so Delsin can obtain her power and use it to heal people in the reservation injured by her...

The story and characters are fine, but the meat of the game is the open world action. You mostly have free reign over the game's Seattle (which I don't believe is a very accurate representation, but does of course feature some notable landmarks, like the Space Needle—which you'll naturally have to climb at one point in the game). Freedom of mobility was an important element in the original Infamous, and this hasn't changed. You'll spend much of the game climbing buildings and running around rooftops. Over the course of the game you'll meet several other conduits and acquire their powers. In gameplay terms this means that you have access to several discrete sets of super powers that you can switch between. Which adds a nice bit of variety to the game.

Infamous does a good job at inspiring a certain completionist mindset. In addition to the story missions, there are numerous little side missions and collectibles you need to complete to 'clear' each region of the city. The game didn't have a clock anywhere I could find, which annoys me somewhat, but it felt a decent length when played to 100% completion...

There's also an additional bonus mission called Paper Trail, which I believe was originally released as free DLC content. The mission requires you to sync your PSN account with a website—you follow leads in the game, but have to use a web browser to examine clues you find and solve puzzles, before you can continue the mission on the console. It's kind of a neat idea, and some of the browser content is interesting enough, but some of the puzzles are kinda obtuse (I had to resort to using a walkthrough on a couple occasions), and having to keep switching between browser and console is somewhat annoying. Still, it's a nice little addition to the game.

Infamous First Light is a 'standalone expansion' for Second Son, sold at a lower price, based around the same city map. It's a prequel to Second Son, telling the backstory of Abigail 'Fetch' Walker, one of the conduits Delsin meets during his adventure. Fetch's powers are similar to what Delsin acquires after meeting her, though there are some differences, and perhaps a little more variety and depth, seeing as she only has the one set of powers. The game's considerably shorter—I played through it over the course of just a few days (though not quite 100%)—but of course is is cheaper, as I said, and it was still a lot of fun.

I quite like Fetch as a character, not least because she's a cool, bad-ass female character who looks like a real person rather than a model. Delsin isn't bad either, though honestly I didn't find him quite as interesting. I do appreciate the way they handled the Native American bit—not making a huge deal out of it and avoiding clichés.

So yeah, the Infamous series overall features fun, fast-paced open world action, and I have enjoyed all the games of the series I've played. Simple fun with relatively few issues I can think of off the top of my head. I'm sure there are many more aspects of the games I could go into more detail about, but I think that pretty much sums up all I wanted to say about them. So, till next time then!

21 January 2015

The Last of Us

Naughty Dog's The Last of Us was one of the more talked about and generally respected video game releases of recent years. I never really paid it that much attention back when it was originally released, but now that I have a PS4 and the 'Remastered' version had been out for a while and I could get it for a fair price, I figured I'd finally give it a shot.

The Last of Us is a third person action-adventure game set 20 years from now in what's basically a fairly typical 'zombie apocalypse' setting. The monsters aren't called zombies, but 'infected', and have strange fungal growths and stuff, but basically it's still your average zombie apocalypse. Humanity's remnants are held up in quarantine zones under martial law, or loot the ruined cities in lawless gangs. Joel is cynical, middle-aged smuggler, who gets tasked with escorting a teenaged girl, Ellie, who's apparently immune to the infection and could thus be the key to humanity's survival...

Honestly, it all sounds terribly clichéd. It took me a while to really get into it. But it turns out the story is more about the characters than anything else, and the characters are pretty good, as is the dialogue and voice acting. The game succumbs to some video game tropes occasionally, but I mostly enjoyed its style of storytelling. Joel and Ellie's mission turns into an epic journey across America, with many twists and turns. You'll visit a nice variety of different environments, too, and fight your way through many tough scrapes... The game is also obviously targeted to a mature audience. It is very gritty and violent, and the story is not without tragic moments.

The Last of Us plays much like many modern third person action-adventure titles. There's an emphasis on stealth, facilitated by some neat features, like the ability to focus on listening, which allows you to practically 'see' through walls. There's a decent variety of different weapons at your disposal, too, of course. You'll face both infected monsters and regular human enemies, which'll require different strategies.

I played on normal difficulty and found some of the action sequences surprisingly challenging (though I should note that I'm generally pretty bad at action games). Sneaking past multiple enemies isn't always easy, and you can die pretty fast if you get swarmed by enemies. Also, while the game is fairly linear, it doesn't always do the best job of telling you what you're supposed to be doing. Especially in the earlier parts of the game I felt almost frustrated at times, but the action got more fun later with more weapons and tools to choose from. For those much better at this type of gameplay there are multiple harder difficulty settings as well. (I have no interest in trying those, though...)

Originally released for PS3, the 'Remastered' PS4 version presumably has at least a better resolution, though I cannot say how much it differs. The game looked fine to my eyes, anyway. Some of the outdoor locations especially were quite pretty, and the art direction and level design in general wasn't bad, nor was the audio.

The PS4 version also includes the DLC Left Behind, which delves deeper into Ellie's backstory. It was pretty decent for DLC content, though not hugely long. All in all I spent some 20 hours on The Last of Us Remastered, which is a pretty decent length for an action-adventure title.

So yeah, both in terms of story and gameplay, it took me a little while to really warm up to The Last of Us, but in the end I quite enjoyed it. It doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel in any way and it has its problems, but it's a fairly well put together action-adventure title, with nice atmosphere and storytelling. Will I ever replay it? It's one those games I think I could well replay some day, but in practise I know I rarely get around to... I'm glad I played it, in any case.

31 December 2014

The 2014 Post

So, it's New Year's Eve, and I guess it's traditional to take a look back at the past year. I'm not going to pretend 2014 was the greatest of years for me. My creative and social energies have been pretty low and I haven't accomplished much. (And, looking at my blog, I see I've only posted about half the number of posts I've written in an average year.) But let's talk about some of the highlights of the year, rather than mope around!

As anyone following my blog would know, video games have always been one of my greatest passions. I think I managed to play a reasonable number of games this year, by my standards. Finally getting a PlayStation Plus membership allowed me to try out several interesting games I might not have played otherwise. But I think two games really stand out when I look back.

The first was Dark Souls. I spent many an hour playing it last spring (and wrote several blog posts). This dark, challenging action RPG that I'd been somewhat sceptical about for many years turned out to be very much to my taste. And then there's the last game I played this year, another that surprised me with its addictive quality—Destiny. I've never been a huge fan of FPSs, but, as I wrote before, I think I've had more fun with Destiny than with any FPS I've tried since Doom.

I realise that both of these games have an appeal that is not necessarily easy to explain to others, and also not the types of games I've traditionally played most (being less narrative and more grindy experiences). They aren't perfect creations, but I've still greatly enjoyed them.

Tangentially related to gaming, discovering LoadingReadyRun was an important part of my year. This Canadian group produces a large variety of online comedy videos and also streams games live on Twitch. Their works have provided me with a lot of entertainment over the last year. They're also known for their charity gaming marathon Desert Bus for Hope, which I watched for the first time this year, and it was a blast. Speaking of charity marathons, Mario Marathon was another highlight of the year, as it has been for several years running.

The music year was a little slow for me, to be honest. I've been a little lazier than before in my listening, and I haven't really made many interesting new discoveries. I got to see Within Temptation live, which was fun. (And their new album was decent as well.) The highlight of the year for me, though, was probably the new Toehider album, What Kind of Creature Am I, which I backed in a crowdfunding campaign, on a whim, based on the recommendation of Arjen Lucassen. And I'm very glad I did—Toehider was a much needed breath of fresh air in my otherwise slightly stagnant year.

And I guess that pretty much wraps up 2014 for me. Hopefully 2015 will continue to bring interesting games and entertainment my way. And maybe, just maybe, I'll even manage to accomplish something sometime...

23 December 2014

The Destiny Post Part 2, featuring The Dark Below

I'm honestly a little surprised that almost a month after my previous post about Destiny, I'm still actually playing it. Having played through the story missions just before that post, I was momentarily unsure about what I wanted to do next. Usually I get bored with games around that point and move on to something new. But I fought through my hesitation and popped the game into the console again, and, lo and behold, I've been enjoying it ever since, even with all its repetitiveness and lack of obvious goals beyond improving my character.

So what I've been doing is pretty much just grinding. There are 'bounties' in the game that refresh daily, so I wander the planets, killing things and doing little missions, occasionally replaying story missions on harder settings etc. And I've managed to grind to level 30 doing pretty much just that. (The progression is much slower after level 20, which is where I was at when I finished the story missions almost a month ago.)

There are still aspects of the game I haven't really delved into, specifically the multiplayer content. I've only tried doing strikes (the slightly more demanding three player missions) a handful of times. It's been fun and I probably should be doing more of it, but I'm always very nervous about playing with strangers. (It's not like I even have to communicate with the other players, the missions are fairly straightforward, but still...) As for the Crucible, which is what the game's PvP portion is called, I tried it once recently, and soon discovered that fighting human players is very different than fighting AI. I failed about as miserably as it is possible to fail, and I don't really have any desire to try that again. Yeah, what can I say, I'm a scrub. (Which is a shame, since some of the better weapons in the game can only be obtained by playing Crucible...)

Also, a couple weeks back Destiny's first expansion was released, titled The Dark Below. Being heavily into the game at the time, I bought it, of course. Well, actually I bought the expansion pass that includes both The Dark Below and the next expansion when it's released. Something I've never done before—I've never really been in a huge fan of DLC in general, and rarely in a great hurry to obtain them...

The Dark Below adds a couple new story missions and a bunch of smaller objectives called 'quests', as well as two new strikes and a new raid, new bounties, plus new equipment (which I believe is available even if you don't buy the expansion). It also increases the level cap to 32. While playing through the missions as such won't take a huge amount of time, when you consider that the 'meat' of Destiny is largely in the repetition and grinding, any bit of added variety is obviously important. If it was a one time playthrough, the price of the expansion would seem a little bit steep, I think, but Destiny's nature probably makes it more worth it...

Anyway, the new material was pretty fun to play through, overall. The new missions are obviously higher level than the original story missions, with lots of enemies to plough through and keep that adrenaline pumping. The story's no deeper than the rest of Destiny—an old alien threat is about to rise again and you must stop it, etc. etc. But it builds on lore established in the original content, which is important. I'm already looking forward to seeing what the next expansion brings to the setting.

Now it's hard, as always, to say how long my interest in the game will last. I do have other games waiting to be played. But so far I've been enjoying Destiny... Even if I do take a break before too long, I'll obviously return to it eventually, since I've already bought the next expansion...

26 November 2014

The Destiny Post

Not being a huge fan of either FPS games or online multiplayer games, I wasn't initially particularly interested in Bungie's new game, Destiny. But after recently getting a PS4 and watching the game streamed by members of LoadingReadyRun (who have previously inspired me to try several other games, like Dark Souls, that I've quite enjoyed), I figured I might as well give it a shot and bought a second hand copy. I ended up playing a not insignificant amount of hours of it over the last week or so.

Destiny was initially released to somewhat mixed reviews, but I think this was largely due to the fact that it had generated a lot of hype before its release. So it might not have been quite as ground-breaking as some might have hoped, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily a bad game. I've heard more than one person I respect comment that the criticisms the game received can't really be argued with, but it's still a fun game to play. As I write this, I've finished playing through the game's main story missions, but there are still aspects, namely the game's multiplayer elements, that I haven't tried. I may return to those in a future post, if I ever get around to playing them...

So what exactly is Destiny? It's actually a little hard to sum up in just a few words. Destiny is a sci-fi first person shooter with RPG elements. It's set in a distant, apocalyptic future. A long time ago, a vast alien entity known as the Traveler came to earth, bringing about an era of prosperity across the solar system. But eventually the Traveler's old enemy, a mysterious force known only as the Darkness, came and caused society to collapse. Humanity's last survivors now live in a single city on Earth, while the rest of the solar system is overrun by hostile aliens. You play as a Guardian, a warrior brought back from the dead by the Traveler's power, who must venture out into the world to fight these alien invaders...

While the game was obviously designed with multiplayer in mind, there is plenty to do on your own as well. A series of story missions introduces you to the game's locations and enemy factions. The story's not exactly very deep or complex, but that's fine. Destiny is clearly more about gameplay than it is about narrative, and I think its storytelling went well with the game's style and pace. Graham Stark of LoadingReadyRun once commented while streaming the game that it's not so much a game with story as it is a game with lore. And the setting is, indeed, pretty cool.

Which brings me to one of the game's features that caused some controversy. As you play, you unlock 'Grimoire Cards', little snippets of lore concerning many aspects of the game and its setting. However, you can't read these in the game, only by logging into Bungie's website or using the game's official mobile phone app. The possibility to read this background information online or on my phone, in and of itself, is a pretty neat idea, I think. But not being able to access it through the game doesn't really make any sense. It's not like we're talking about a huge amount of data...

But let's get on to the game itself! Destiny controls much like any FPS. The action is fairly fast and fluid, and pretty fun. There's a significant RPG element to the game as well, though. You pick one of three classes and three races. The latter choice is only cosmetic, but each class has slightly different abilities. As you play you level up and gain more abilities, and find or buy better gear. Loot is important, and items come in a range of different rarities. Once you hit level 20 you can only increase your level by acquiring better gear, up to an overall maximum of 30.

The game has four major areas (Earth, Moon, Venus and Mars), each of which features a fairly large, open public area and locations for several missions. Multiplayer is woven through the entire game. Each mission will usually see you travelling through a public area populated by other players as well, to the actual mission area, where you'll be alone—or with your 'fire team', if you're playing co-op—not unlike an instance dungeon in a MMORPG. Or you can patrol the public areas doing little side-quests and bounties and participating in random 'public events' that will have you engage a particular enemy or defend a location with any players that are around... Destiny's not really a MMO game, however, since you'll only ever be in a level with a handful of randomly selected other players.

Like I said, there's plenty to do on your own as well. Playing through the story missions, maybe doing a few patrols and bounties on the side, should get you close to level 20. According to the stats in the phone app I've spent some 16 hours doing just this (although I'm not entirely sure if this includes everything or just time spent in missions). Which is already a decent amount of content for an action game.

If you're interested in multiplayer, there are additional missions, called 'strikes', intended primarily for three player teams (and of course you can play any of the regular story missions and patrols with a team as well), as well as a lengthier 'raid' for a six player team. (More strikes and raids are to be added in DLCs, I believe.) And of course there are PvP modes as well—a fairly decent variety of content, all in all, catering to different tastes. (It should be noted that multiplayer content is not cross-platform, as far as I know.)

Destiny looks and sounds pretty good, in my opinion. The soundtrack has a lot of variety, ranging from epic orchestrals to fast electronic segments, all of which fit the game pretty well. (And I recently learned Paul McCartney himself worked on some of the tracks, which is pretty interesting.) I'm not the best at evaluating the graphics of modern games—I don't feel like Destiny is especially ground-breaking in that department, but I certainly had no complaints. Performance (on PS4) was always pretty smooth. The only technical complaint I had was that, because of the online elements, Internet connection hiccups might cause the game to kick you out, making you restart at the last checkpoint. This happened to me a few times, but overall it's a relatively minor annoyance.

Admittedly I haven't played a ton of FPS games, but, honestly, I think I had more fun playing through Destiny's story missions than I've had with any FPS since, well, Doom (though of course the RPG elements and level structure make it pretty different from most typical FPS games). It may not be the deepest gaming experience I've ever had, but it's a fun game with a cool setting. What more would I want?

With its multiplayer elements it's a game one could theoretically keep playing indefinitely, although the number of missions is somewhat limited and I imagine they could get pretty repetitive after a while... Like I said, I haven't really tried the multiplayer at all yet. I honestly don't know at this point if I will. This tends to be the point in many games when I lose interest and move on to new things... We'll just have to see whether Destiny repeats this pattern—though even if it does, I feel I've gotten my money's worth from the game already.