Saturday, 12 September 2015

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

When I started playing The Witcher 3 I didn't expect to have a new favourite RPG. I like it so much that it's toppled Mass Effect 2 from that position in my list of favourite games. A brilliant melding of fantasy, action, story and character progression, The Witcher has completely changed how I look at characters and their stories in games. I'll preface everything else here by saying: I'm no where near the end of the game. With the move, being distracted by Rocket League, game crashes, and various other real life things happening over the last few months, I have not had as much time to sink into the game as I would normally like. Despite this, I do feel that I have a good enough hold on the game to write up my thoughts on it.

To begin, I confess that I never played the first Witcher game, and only briefly played the second. While I liked the concepts behind the second game, it never grabbed me like this one has. Perhaps that's something to do with the open world nature of Wild Hunt. In a time where everyone is talking about how the new Mad Max game is "just another open world game", The Witcher succeeds in being more than that in my mind. Everywhere you go throughout Temeria, there are interesting things to see, loot and fight, and the best part is that none of it feels forced, something most recent open world games fail to do.

You play as Geralt, the titular Witcher, a kind of monster hunter for hire. Not entirely human, Geralt has undergone witcher mutations, a series of procedures that greatly increase his agility, durability and stamina. Because of these mutations however, Geralt and his fellow witchers are regarded with disdain by the general population, occasionally drawing insults or even violent reactions when attention is drawn to them. However, when the townsfolk are attacked by monsters, they call upon the witchers to hunt down and kill them, usually with the secondary silver sword that witchers are known for carrying.

At a glance, the Witcher's combat could seem overly simple. You have a fast and heavy attack with a sword, some magical abilities called signs, and two different types of dodge (a roll and a sidestep) that move you different distances and have different recovery times. Combine this with the fact that enemies take off massive chunks of health, and combat will often turn into you using your superior agility to try and avoid damage, then dart back in to deal the killing blow. As you progress through the game however, you start to gain access to potions, oils that increase damage to certain enemy types, bombs with different effects and a crossbow that can help interrupt attacks, or bring flying enemies crashing down to earth, adding to the depth of the combat. The game does a fantastic job of making you feel powerful against normal human enemies or some monsters, but a lot weaker against the larger and more scary monsters.

At release, not everything was rosy for me with The Witcher 3. The game would hard crash after about 20 minutes of play, with no error messages or any indication as to what was causing the issue. I updated drivers, scoured the net for solutions, but nothing worked. However, CD Projekt RED has been very active with releasing patches, and finally the game is in a state where I feel I can recommend it to other people. On top of bug fixes, CD Projekt have also kept on top of feedback from players, going so far as to implement an optional alternate movement mode for people who originally found that Geralt's movements felt floaty and disconnected. They have done a great job of acting like a company that actually cares about the experience people have with their product, and implementing features that help with those experiences.

Not the kind of griffin found in high fantasy right?
The Witcher is a decidedly adult aimed game. Monsters are not "high fantasy" style, more of a dark faerie tale style, with everything looking as though it could kill you just by breathing on you. There is frequent gore, occasional nudity, and stories about themes that definitely aren't aimed at kids. That said, I mentioned in the outset that the Witcher has redefined how I think about story telling and characters in video games, especially when it comes to these themes, and I'd like to expand on that a little here: 

Warning: Spoilers for one story arc early in the game are ahead in the next paragraph. Skip ahead to avoid.

There is a character who initially appears to be nothing else but a drunk and a bully. When you meet them, his wife and daughter have disappeared, and there is some evidence that this character is involved. You eventually find that his drinking lead to an argument with his pregnant wife that got physical, leading to the miscarriage of his unborn child. At this stage you, as a player, can simply dismiss the character as nothing but an evil man and carry on. If you choose to progress through the storyline however, you get options in conversation with them to hear their side of the story. At no point does this character try to justify his bad actions, and he knows he has done wrong. He knows that his actions have lead to losing his wife and daughter, and he is making changes to try and fix his life. The game doesn't condone those actions, but still manages to discuss it in a way that is very mature and engages you with the characters. It lends an amazing level of humanity and depth to them, without making them simple one dimensional "hero or villain" characters. 

Everything about the characters in The Witcher shows a level of thought that I haven't really experienced in any other game. Characters are expressive, the voice acting is top notch, and the stories are varied. I find myself looking forward to conversations because I might learn something about characters that I didn't know before, something I've honestly never experienced with any game. It really does a fantastic job of immersing you in this fantasy world, making you feel as though you are the witcher Geralt. Choices you make can also come back to haunt you. Ridicule someone who has some sway in the community, and you might find yourself attacked in the street. Make a choice to go out of your way to rescue someone, and that persons relative might give you something as a reward because they want to.

The Witcher 3 is a huge game, and I haven't come close to touching on all aspects of the game in this post. Needless to say, I highly recommend it, even for the story telling alone. You can find it here on Steam, or here direct from CD Projekt on GOG

As always,


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Moving House!

Just a quick post to let you all know that I'll be moving house over the next two weeks, and as such may miss posts about any major events that come up during that time. However, when I get back online, I will more than likely have my thoughts on the Witcher 3 all typed up and ready to post. As a preview, I will just say that the game is brilliant, but massive, making it hard to write a review earlier. In any case, I will update as I get the chance.

As always,


Friday, 21 August 2015

Rocket League

Four small cars barrel around an arena, using boosters and jump jets to chase after a large ball. The two orange ones manage to get the ball past the two blue ones, lining up a shot at a blue coloured goal. The ball flies through the air, and passes through a sensor exploding and knocking everyone flying into the air, as the crowd goes wild. Team Orange has won again!

Rocket League is a game where you play soccer with cars. That's it. It's so simple in fact that you could be forgiven for thinking the game has no depth to it. But that's where you'd be wrong. You see, unlike Fifa, where you control an entire team of soccer players, in Rocket League you directly control one car. There are no predetermined button presses to pass, shoot for goal, or tackle.

The controls are deceptively simple, one button to throttle, one to brake, a boost, a jump, and a slide or drift button. Learning to control your car takes a moment, but learning to master the controls and make your car race around the arena is a matter of practice. From simple kicks by jumping and rotating your car a certain direction, to flying halfway across the field using boost and scoring a goal. It's not easy, but when it all comes together, skilled play in Rocket League is beautiful to behold. Take a look:

In single player, Rocket League offers an exhibition mode, where you play one off matches, a season mode, where you can play through a season with your team, and lastly training, where you can hone your skills. Honestly, single player in Rocket League is great to learn, but poor AI can sometimes leave you feeling angry, as it seems like your team mates don't adapt to what you are doing. They rarely set you up for shots, and when you set them up, they won't take them. I've actually seen AI players run the ball directly into their own goal, which is great when they are on the other team, but rage inducing when they are on your team.

Where Rocket League shines however is in multiplayer. Playing with friends online, especially while on some form of voice chat is some of the best fun I've had in some time. The closest way I can describe it is like playing Super Smash Bros on a couch. The game is simple enough that literally anyone can pick it up and play, so you can get people who normally wouldn't be interested in that kind of game to play as well.

Something else I am extremely impressed with is the business model that the developers have decided to go with. They release updates that contain maps for free, meaning that the player base isn't split by updates, and then DLC packs with new cars, and cosmetic upgrades. At this stage, the cars all handle fairly similarly, with bigger cars having a slightly larger hitbox making for great defenders, and smaller cars having a flatter hitbox, meaning you can aim shots a little easier for better attack, so even the DLC cars have no advantages besides looking cool.

In fact, Rocket League is so good that the one criticism I have with the game is a minor one that I'm sure they already have plans to change. The maps in Rocket League are literally all the same. They look different visually, but the same basic layout is used. While I understand the reasoning behind this, especially with how the game is being treated competitively, I feel a mode with more varied maps for more casual players would definitely increase the fun factor of the game. I also highly recommend a controller for the game. It's playable with a keyboard and mouse, but feels right at home on a controller.

For a $20 game that you could be excused for not knowing anything about before release, Rocket League has really taken a hold among the gaming community. And it's no wonder. Rocket League is just a good, maybe even great, game. I know I keep saying this, but it really is beautiful in its simplicity, and addictive in its challenge. I highly recommend it.

As always,


Thursday, 16 July 2015

Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment: Kings of DLC and Pre-Order Culture

At the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con last weekend, Warner Bros. showed the trailer for the upcoming Suicide Squad movie. As usual, the trailer was immediately leaked to the internet, and for the next 24 hours WB's "anti-piracy team" tried endlessly to stop it getting out. After dismally failing to do so, they eventually just uploaded the trailer to Youtube, with a super passive aggressive message about how they wanted this trailer to be a "unique experience for Comic-Con". Now, none of this has anything to do with gaming, so why am I bringing all of this up? Well this attitude extends into Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, their game publishing arm.

You might have gathered from my extremely moody post about Arkham Knight and its PC port, I'm not super happy with Warner. Holders to the rights of some of my favorite franchises, such as DC Comics, Scribblenauts and Lord of the Rings, WB have a hit and miss record when it comes to games they produce. As a fan of Batman, seeing that my preferred platform to play these games on was treated as a second class citizen behind the consoles hurt me more than I'd like to admit.

Arkham Knight is just the tip of the iceberg however. WB has a history of shady practices, ranging from poor ports to slicing parts of the game out to offer as DLC or pre-order bonuses. When Arkham City first came out, they put codes in all of the boxes to access the Catwoman missions, content that was already on the disk, but locked to try and stop people buying the game preowned instead of new. If you did buy the game second hand, the Catwoman missions had to be purchased, ensuring WB got their little slice of the pie. I actually initially bought Arkham City on the Xbox 360, because they delayed the PC release, and in my brand new, sealed copy of the game, my code for the Catwoman missions failed to work, meaning if I wanted to access the content I had paid for, I would have to purchase it again. That copy was returned immediately, and I decided to wait for the PC version.

Not pictured: the rage this bug caused me.
Every one of Warner's games I've played has adverts for season passes and DLC right there in the main menu. Exclusive pre-order bonuses from certain retailers ensure that to get the complete game you would need to order the game multiple times, or more commonly in Australia, that you just can't get access to them without paying for it later. The very first trailer for Arkham Knight ever released included an advert for the Harley Quinn missions, but only if you pre-ordered. It always seemed to me like WB treats games as more of a platform to sell more DLC. After all, this is the company that straight up said they weren't going to fix bugs in Arkham Origins because "the team is currently working hard on the upcoming story DLC." They did eventually fix the game breaking bugs, but to this day there are still non game breaking ones all throughout Origins.

Even games that are completely worthy of praise aren't immune to controversy due to decisions made by WB marketing executives. Shadow of Mordor, my game of the year in 2014 and possibly one of my top games of all time, faced some poor publicity after they offered Youtube personalities early access to the game in return for only positive coverage of the game. Jim Sterling, then at the Escapist, got his hands on a copy of the contract and revealed just how strict it was. With messages like "persuade viewers to purchase the game", "videos will promote positive sentiment of the game" and "videos must not show bugs or glitches", and giving Warner the final say on if a video can be put out, the contract reveals just how strongly WB wants to control the messages about its games. Oddly enough, the contract also forbade mentions of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies, characters and books, arguably hamstringing anyone who actually likes the Tolkien universe from being able to compare to them, even in a positive light.

The ridiculous thing about this contract was that the game was good in the first place. Had WB not tried to control the message so hard, all of the news surrounding Shadow of Mordor on launch would have been overwhelmingly positive. The PC port was amazing, the story was strong for fans of the established lore, and the Nemesis system is a mechanic I really hope to see implemented in future games. As it stands, Shadow of Mordor will always have that black mark in its history, and WB will always be remembered as trying to control a message that didn't need controlling.

Even when Warner eventually did the right thing and pulled Arkham Knight from sale on Steam and other digital distributors, they had to spin it to sound like they weren't doing it to stop the flood of refunds they were no doubt getting. Rather than just saying, "yeah we messed up, and are going to fix it," they had to say that a significant amount of players were enjoying the game on PC, just to twist the knife to those who were having problems.

Realistically, Warner are probably worse than EA and Ubisoft, both of whom have copped a lot of flak over the years, and rightfully so. But where EA and Ubisoft at least make efforts to try and fix things, the message we get from Warner is "lololol too busy making more stuff to sell you suckers". I can pretty much guarantee that the only reason they pulled Arkham Knight from sale on Steam was because of the recent addition of the refund option by Valve, and they saw the number of people who weren't going to put up with their crap. Had the option been there with Arkham Origins, I'm convinced that the message wouldn't have been "we're too busy making DLC", it would have been "we're going to fix those bugs".

All of this has been stated before, many times, and by people with far larger audiences than me, and still Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment show us that they don't understand why we dislike the stunts they pull. I've never been one to complain about the commercialization of video games, but I'm done with way WB treats us, especially those of us who prefer the PC platform. And really, in my mind, it comes back to how they reacted to the inevitable leaks of the Suicide Squad trailer. Warner is old media, trying to hold onto that sliver of tenuous control they have over their message, being dragged kicking and screaming into the new age of the internet, where people can share information faster than Warner can suppress it. Get with the times WB, and maybe I'll play your games again.

As always,


Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Star Citizen and My Thoughts on Derek Smart's Blog Post

There's something about all of the marketing for Star Citizen that never fails to excite me. The Freelancer and Constellation commercials both make me tingle with excitement. Whoever is doing the marketing for Cloud Imperium Games is doing a stellar job of hyping the concepts of Star Citizen (pun completely intended). But as time goes on, I find myself doubting if Star Citizen will ever actually happen, and if it does, if it will live up to the expectations that Chris Roberts and his team have created for the game.

Derek Smart - litigious game dev &
self confessed troll.
Small disclaimer: I at no stage have put any money toward Star Citizen. My wish for the game to succeed is not from a financial standpoint of wanting my 'investment' to pay off, but a general love of space sim games.

This whole post started because of a blog post I recently read by Derek Smart, the president and lead developer at 3000AD Games. Derek's games have always been controversial (putting it politely), and unfortunately, his response to criticism usually involves bans and threats of lawyers. Smart has also said in the past that he will occasionally "post just to piss these guys off", and "go in there (forums) and start trouble", essentially describing himself as an internet troll. However, despite his history of poorly made games, litigious nature and generally toxic personality, I still feel like Derek raises some valid criticism of CIG and Star Citizen, even if I disagree with his message of wanting everyone who backed the game to demand refunds or sue CIG.

When Star Citizen was Kickstarted back in 2012, the features they listed were reasonably humble: a 'rich universe' with single player (online co-op available), persistent online multiplayer, the option to create modded servers (not hosted by CIG) and submit player created ships to CIG for implementation into the main game. Where Elite Dangerous promised, and delivered, a massive universe, Chris and his team promised a smaller universe with far more depth to individual systems. All of this was slated to be released in November 2014, and the game eventually raised $2.1 million on Kickstarter.

We're now in July of 2015, and at the time of writing Cloud Imperium Games has raised just over $85 million from just under 925,000 people. You can actually watch in real time how much they have raised here. That page also contains all of the stretch goals they have hit. They are no longer adding stretch goals, giving the reason for this move as they don't want the game to have too much feature creep. However, I would argue that the game already has some pretty severe feature creep.

Today the list of features has grown to immense levels including:

  • 100 star systems (handcrafted)
  • Professional motion capture, including facial capture
  • Orchestral score
  • A single player campaign, Squadron 42, that has at least 50 missions (although further stretch goals hint at more than that)
  • Ship boarding
  • Immersive capital ship gameplay (putting out fires, repairing systems, etc)
  • Ship modularity, the ability to completely customize any aspect of your ships performance and features
  • Pets
  • Fully fleshed out AI characters on planets
  • Real alien languages created by linguists
  • And much, much more
Chris Roberts - has his baby gotten too
big for its own good?
It's starting to look more and more like something Peter Molyneux would put together as his list of "features that are totally in my next game guys, please trust me please I need money". It's also not unlike Freelancer, where Chris Roberts promised a dynamic economy and world that would change around the player based on actions of other players and even AI factions. Freelancer was eventually released, and while regarded as one of the best space sim games, fell very short of these promises due to technical limitations. And here we are again, with Chris promising a lot and perhaps not able to deliver as much as he would love to. The game pitched in 2012, while not as grandiose as the game presented now, was at least achievable in a reasonable amount of time.

Another point of criticism CIG comes under is the "pledge system" they have used to continue crowdfunding. You can buy ships that grant access to the games packages with prices ranging from $30 to $325 for individual ship packages that include other in game goodies (most of which don't exist yet). There are also multi-ship combo packages that range from the $1,100 "Battle Pack" that contains every fighter sized ship currently available, to the $15,000 "Completionist" pack that contains almost every single ship. 

The stretch goals page that I linked to earlier has an auto update function. Just for fun I left it running while I wrote this post: around $1200 from 11 people over about 3 hours. In the last 6 months, they have made more than $2 million every month. The hype around Star Citizen, and the amount of money that some fans have spent on the game has also created a culture where any criticism is shot down in flames. Because they feel the need to justify their investment, these hyper fans go out of their way to defend any aspect of the game, including legitimate concerns about the direction the game is going, how long it is taking, and that CIG might be in over its head with what has been promised.

Even if Star Citizen fails, the Redeemer will remain one of my favourite
ship designs. Props to CIG for running the Next Great Spaceship competition.
Yet, despite all my misgivings, and as I mentioned in the start of this post, I really do want Star Citizen to succeed. Something about the idea of piloting a ship with friends in a persistent universe has captured my imagination. I want to explore a universe with a crew just like in the Constellation trailer. I want to ship cargo and fight off pirates like in the Freelancer trailer. There is no doubt in my mind that if Star Citizen actually somehow manages to live up to the hype, it will be remembered as one of the greatest games in history.

However, if it fails... if they don't deliver the product they've promised... it'll go down as the biggest internet scam in history.

As always,


Monday, 6 July 2015

CCP Rise Comments on Eve's New Player Experience

Earlier this week, CCP Rise posted some interesting ideas regarding the new player experience of Eve Online on both Reddit and the Eve forums. In these posts, he posts an answer regarding the amount of skill points that a new player to Eve would start with:
Q: 'Starting skills are a huge barrier, can we give a lot more to new players'
A: Yes. But this is not a simple change. You guys seem fairly agreed that the small amount of starting skills, combined with a high amount of 'must have' support and requirement skills, leads to some really icky barriers to participation for new players. We are inclined to agree and we are in the process of laying out a plan to address the problem. Nothing is set in stone yet but it seems likely that we will try and move new players towards starting with significantly more SP. Maybe between 1 and 2 million. It also seems likely that we will probably avoid any major skill reworks or skill removals. As this plan solidifies you will hear more from us.
Finally, CCP is actually looking at doing something about the NPE that makes sense. Here's why I'm in love with this idea, and I genuinely believe it will make an impact to retaining new players in Eve.

Skills in Eve are all trained in real time, and depending on who you ask, this is either the best way to handle progression in an MMO, or the worst. Each skill has 5 levels, with each level taking more and more skill points to obtain, and thus more time. As a new player coming into Eve, you are confronted with a lot of choice, and freedom to do any number of things. However, nearly everyone agrees that there are a core set of skills that are extremely important to train:

  • CPU Management: Gives a bonus 5% CPU per level
  • Power Grid Management: Gives a bonus 5% power grid per level
  • Capacitor Management: 5% bonus capacitor capacity per level
  • Capacitor Systems Operation: 5% reduction in capacitor recharge time per level
Then you need skills to suit what type of tank your ship has, either Shield Management, Shield Compensation and Shield Operation, or Hull Upgrades, Mechanics and Repair Systems. In this time, nothing exciting, like guns, missiles or drones have been even thought about.

Granted, these skill trains are reasonably short, but I know from personal experience, during this time most new players will quit the game because they don't see any pay off for the time spent training these 'must have' skills. To put it frankly, it's boring to have to wait for all of this to train when all you want to do is blow stuff up because you're new to the game and lack the patience that veteran Eve players have developed.

The figure that CCP Rise gives of 1 - 2 million skill points would cut off around 2 months of training time, allowing for people to more quickly jump into the action. New players would no longer have to only be "hero tackle", essentially ships that dive in to hold other ships and then die because they can't handle the damage output of the enemy. They don't need to have the skills trained to 5, giving them even more skill points to play with, to make mistakes with.

To wrap all of this up, I honestly hope that CCP goes ahead with some variation of this plan, because I can only see this working in favour of new players, without giving older players advantages. Ignore the people who are saying that because they had to train skills, new players should have to as well. Do it!

As always,


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Batman Arkham Knight

Warner Bros, why did you have to outsource development of the PC port of Arkham Knight away from Rocksteady? You saw what happened to Arkham Origins right?

Arkham Knight was released yesterday on PC, and almost immediately users reported that the port was, to put it simply, terrible. Capped to 30 FPS and buggy to boot. Users also reported that you could uncap the frame lock with an edit to the config ini. However the game does not like running about 30 FPS, and would crash even more frequently after the change was made.

This isn't the first time an Arkham game has run terribly on PC. Arkham Origins had some massive issues on release, including one gameplay breaking bug that I encountered where you could not leave a room, forcing you to reload an earlier save. That port was made by Iron Galaxy Studios. Take a look at that list, and note the most recent entry. Sigh. I shouldn't be surprised, but I am. Rocksteady, who made the previous core Arkham games (including the PC ports), have generally released great products for PC gamers.

So as a PSA for anyone who reads this, don't buy Arkham Knight right now. If you did fall into the preorder trap, remember that Steam now has a refund option, and this is the exact sort of situation where using that option is the best course of action. Don't support publishers and devs who treat our platform like this. If they fix the game, then look at picking it up. I'll keep my eye on the situation as it develops.

EDIT 1: Apparently the port was developed by just 12 people from Iron Galaxy Studios.

EDIT 2: Further news points to the PC port almost being deliberately downgraded. An image showing the differences in rain textures between the PC port and the PS4 edition shows a crazy amount of difference. Rock Paper Shotgun also posted this video showing the PC version in all it's "glory".

I'm still showing restraint on the crazy theories about WB Games deliberately doing this. That said however, I doubt I'll be purchasing this game at all.

EDIT 3: There is a theory that Iron Galaxy Studios only had 8 weeks to port the game. It's only a theory, but could definitely explain where the issue started.

EDIT 4: Rocksteady have suspended future sales of the game on Steam, and made a post regarding the issues here.

As always,