Apex Legends Impressions

My relationship with battle royale games has been turbulent. I adored Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds because it created adrenaline fueled feelings of anxiety and dread unlike any multiplayer game I’ve ever played. There was nothing like looting the second floor of a house, only to hear a door swing open downstairs, followed by the careless stomps of another player’s boots. It’d cause me to freeze, hold my breath, and prepare for confrontation.

But I began to sour on battle royale after Fortnite’s release. The game does a number of things right, don’t get me wrong. I think the developers do an amazing job of keeping their product relevant. What kills the experience for me is the building mechanic. Not because I suck at it (which I do), but because allowing people to throw defensive walls up removes that oh, so vital element of fear. I know that Fortnite is actively aiming for a more laid back approach, but that just doesn’t feel like battle royale to me.

Call of Duty’s Blackout mode is alright, but it basically feels like a first-person PUBG with small pockets of zombies here and there. Battlefield… well, we’re still waiting for its offering to drop, despite the game being released in November.

And then reporters caught wind that a battle royale experience from the Titanfall universe was about to drop, and boy, was I excited. The Titanfall games are some of the finest FPS titles this generation has seen, but I scratched my head when that rumor was followed by, “… but there isn’t going to be any titans in it.” Just… why? Why would Respawn Entertainment make a Titanfall battle royale without titans? I couldn’t fathom a feasible explanation. But, you know… the game was free so the only thing I had to waste in trying it was my time.

To my surprise though, Apex Legends was good. Like, really good, and right from the first in-game drop.

The bane of my existence, at least when it comes to battle royal games, is the initial approach. You’re freefalling and feeling pretty good about yourself… until that damn parachute/hang glider comes out. What comes next is the groan inducing process of circling your desired landing spot and then shitting your pants when other people, who were behind you in the sky, land before you do.

Apex Legends, on the other hand, begins each match by getting straight to business. You fly towards the ground with rocket thrusters and don’t stop until you land. Why couldn’t some developer have thought of this before? Was everyone so concerned with stealing PUBG’s formula that they couldn’t fix the worst part of each match? I am eternally grateful to Respawn Entertainment for this ‘fix’ alone.

I’m not a fan of how certain battle royale games bog you down with inventory management, but Apex Legends does a great job of mitigating this. The system in this game falls somewhere between PUBG and Fortnite. The amount of items you can carry can increase by finding backpacks, but you really won’t have to manage it unless you’re picking up things you’ll never use. You’re allowed to carry a primary and secondary weapon, so as long as you stick with hoarding the ammo they’ll use, all you really need to focus on collecting are items that refill your health and shield. There are projectiles, but movement is lightning fast in this game, so you’re better off either engaging directly or taking cover (although I know everyone plays differently, but this is what works best for me). If your inventory is full, all it takes to swap something out is click on the item you no longer want/need. It’s that simple.

The game is just full of otherwise smart decisions. Using a cast of characters, similar to what Blizzard did in Overwatch, goes a long way. Each one has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to you to decide which one fits your playstyle. One helps to keep threats identified in your immediate vicinity, another one can call a painful strike down from the sky, a character can create a portal for their team to escape immediate danger, and more. You’ll play in squads of three, so you’ll want to familiarize yourself with each character to ensure your team remains balanced. If someone on your team goes down quickly, you’ll get a chance to revive them… as long as you survive long enough.

The ping system is a revelation. The ability to point to something and click to set a waypoint for your squad, tell your teammates where enemies are, and advertise where useful items are, is the handiest tool a team based FPS game has ever seen. In fact, it’s so effective, that Fortnite has quickly stolen the idea for implementation in the latest season of its battle royale mode.

But while that stuff is great, I think this game’s biggest strength is its sense of speed. As mentioned before, you begin each match by hitting the ground running. You can slide down hills, cross large gaps by using ziplines, and even use ropes that go up in the sky to fly to new parts of the map when the ‘death circle’ is closing in.

It also helps that the FPS mechanics are top-notch.

Of course, the real question is if this game has legs. People are adoring it now, but Fortnite changes the look of its map and offers new character skins every ten weeks, and they’re knocking it out of the park. I’m not a fan of Fortnite, but even I’m tempted by their seasonal offerings. I mean, one update added a desert, another a winter wonderland, and the latest season has pirate stuff. Still, I hope Apex Legends doesn’t go down such a fantastical path, but it will need to give players more incentive to hang in there for the long haul.

Coincidentally, Apex Legends launched its first season just yesterday, March 19th. For $10, you’ll have access to a bunch of cosmetics and a new character. You can level up to 100 by gaining XP in-game (unlocking even more cosmetics), but if you spend $30 on a battle pass, you’ll start at level 25. I’m not the ‘battle pass’ type, but a lot of people are underwhelmed by what it offers. It’s seemingly and inherently bogged down by its character selection, because in order to ensure they remain recognizable, the cosmetics that can be applied to them can only go so far. I’m fine with that, honestly, because I think it’s a bit silly that Fortnite has a dancing banana skin and someone that has a fish for a head, but I can also see why people wouldn’t feel comfortable ponying up $10 (or $30) in Apex just yet.

My only real complaint is gating characters behind a pay wall. Stop that shit. Fortnite doesn’t do it, and they’re the wiser for it.

But it’s worth keeping in mind that this is only the beginning for Apex Legends, and I imagine they’ll find more creative ways to make the battle pass seem worth it later down the road. As long as they can either tweak their current map or provide new ones, I’d say this game is here to stay for quite some time.

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Sea of Thieves – Life As A Pirate Legend

To me, Sea of Thieves is as interesting a game as they come. Not because it’s fun to play – which it totally is, by the way – but because of its trajectory.

At launch, the core gameplay loop was great but it lacked variety. You were tasked with doing voyages for three unique trading companies, but catching animals for the Merchant was dull and uninspired, rendering nearly one-third of what the game had to offer a disappointment. Skeleton forts were a nice way to spice things up, but they were only active once every four hours. There was also a kraken, but it rarely spawned. As a result, most of the fun came from playing with people you knew and engaging with (sinking and robbing) other players.

But that wasn’t enough to tether people, myself included, over the long term.

I gave Sea of Thieves another chance about six months later though, and honestly, I haven’t been able to put it down. There’s now an element of danger behind every wave, be it from megalodons, skeleton ships, or the retooled kraken which now has a higher spawn rate. There’s almost always an active skeleton fort now. They’ve also added better merchant voyages and a section of the map with earthquakes, active volcanoes, and dangerous geysers that blast you into the sky. Even the simple addition of a rowboat has added a multitude of options.

These changes propelled me to keep playing until I hit pirate legend status. which, if you’ve played the game, you know is one hell of a grind. I’d wager it took at least 120 hours to accomplish.

And let me tell you, being a pirate legend feels good. Only 0.81% of players have unlocked the prestigious rank thus far, so strutting across the ocean with that title under my name instills a bit of pride. Now, it doesn’t mean that I’m better than you. It doesn’t mean that I have more powerful gear or weapons. It means.

Well, what does it mean, actually?

If you’re someone that will never put in the time to reach this pinnacle of seafaring badassery and want to know what it brings to the game…

I hate to break it to all the starry eyed dreamers out there, but not much, honestly.

The perks are mostly feel-good. People will comment on your title and compliment your success. Sometimes they’ll even invite you to play with their crew or shoot you a friend request. After all, it’s a safe bet that you’re at least semi-competent at the game, and that’s a welcome addition considering most randoms will needlessly use all of your supplies and sink your ship as a goof. You can’t buy that kind of respect in Sea of Thieves, but it can certainly be earned.

Being a Pirate Legend can also spice things up, as others may see your title and decide they’d like to challenge themselves by going head-to-head against a veteran. They could very well win, too, because it all comes down to strategy and skill.

You do come across annoying leeches from time-to-time though. Pirate Legends have access to buy Athena’s voyages exclusively, so as soon as someone finds out you’re one of the gatekeepers, so to speak, they’ll beg you to join their game so you can drop a voyage on their quest table. I understand why they ask, because it’s guaranteed to have valuable loot and the final chest will earn them some Athena’s rep. but if you have to ask, I ain’t droppin’. If we play for a solid session and you’ve been cool, then fine. but don’t just ask me out of the blue.

Once in a while I like to play Santa Claus, joining random crews and leaving Athena’s behind for them to do. Whether they succeed or not is none of my business. Their fate is their own.

Everything else just comes down to cosmetics. You can buy pirate legend stuff to wear and dress your ship with, but the real golden geese people want are the ghost items. Nothing says ‘I’m a badass’ like black threads which are torn and have green light shining through!

Of course, in order to reach said cosmetics you need to do a lot more grinding. As mentioned before, once you hit Pirate Legend you’re supposed to grind Athena’s levels, and what a slog that is. The best way to gain rep is to turn in an Athena’s chest, but you’ll need to do eight things on your voyage wheel before having the chance. and pvp is still a thing so there’s a good chance a poacher will try to walk away with it. To reach Athena level 10, you need turn in around 100 of these chests. On average, an Athena voyage can take anywhere from 2 to 3 hours. That’s. a lot. You’ve already invested well over 100 hours to reach Pirate Legend, and now you need to grind at least double that in order to get to the tippy top of the ladder. Just. yikes.

You can gain Athena rep by doing other things though, but unfortunately, they aren’t super-secret things that only Pirate Legends can do. It’s just a lot more of the stuff you’ve been doing all along. Destroy more skeleton ships, turn in more merchant stuff, turn in more captain’s skulls and chests, and so on and so forth.

So in contrast to grinding for Pirate Legend, going for Athena 10 doesn’t get the blood pumping as much. That’s because I’m no longer sweating every piece of treasure.

On the plus side, that means I’m finding excitement via other means. I’m now willing to run entire Athena voyages without turning loot in until the end, which is extremely dangerous. I’ll engage with enemy ships whenever, even if it’s my sloop against their galleon. I’ll chase a ship across the map for two hours if I think they have any sort of meaningful loot. Being a pirate legend has taught me that the greater the risk, the greater the reward. and I mean that in a ‘it feels good’ sense. Getting 5,000 gold from thieving feels better than earning 20,000 from an uncontested fort, because it’s way more fun. Is it a bit more crushing when you spin the wheel of chance and lose? Sure. But honestly, as long as the other crew proves that they’re worth the salt they’re sailing on, I’m fine with taking an L.    

So here’s my advice to anyone looking to hit Pirate Legend as soon as possible: Slow down and let it occur naturally. Just do what you want in the game. If you feel like you’re grinding and you’re not having much fun, then what’s the point? Put in enough time and you’ll get there in due time.

If you’re already a pirate legend but feel like your gameplay is now unrewarded, then look for new and exciting ways to have fun. Take some chances. Embrace the element of risk. Without having to rely on every piece of loot to get you to a certain status, you can be more carefree in your actions. This will undoubtedly prove to be quite fun. at least for you. Other crews on the sea may feel differently about your tactics. but it is a pirate game, after all! Nobody owns the loot on their ship until it’s handed in!

Happy pirating, everyone!

GOG Lays Off 10 Percent Of Its Staff

Well, that was unexpected.

GOG have just let go of at least a dozen staff members. That may not sound like much compared to the 800 or so that were blown out by Activision Blizzard, but really, they’re close percentage wise (this is 10% compared to Acti-Blizz’s 8%).

How could this be? Isn’t GOG the darling of PC gamers everywhere? Doesn’t CD Projekt practically print their own money?

Apparently not. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier was told by someone on the inside that the company’s revenue wasn’t able to keep up with growth, so they were dangerously close to being in the red over the last few months. As a result, a tough financial decision had to be made and here we are.

It’s also come to light that GOG’s Fair Price Package program is coming to a close at the end of March. For those out of the loop, this package:

“…is a form of store credit, which we give back when you buy a regionally priced game that is more expensive in your region, compared to most other regions.

“So, if you buy a game for 40 Euro (so roughly 45 USD), but the same game costs 40 USD in the United States and most other regions, we give you the 4 USD difference back, in store credit.”

It’s great that GOG were making up the difference themselves, but now that they’re giving developers a larger cut of each sale, they needed to ensure they could still turn a profit. Something had to give.  

I hope more information comes to light, because we know next to nothing. Only one source that we know of has stepped forward with nitty gritty details. That source painted a doom and gloom scenario, but I’m not entirely sold on it, not yet. I want to see more ‘confirmation’ of the company being in dire straits, because they could lay people off for a number of reasons. Maybe they’re changing direction? With the way the market is changing, it’s a possibility. Despite the 8% cut in staff, the company still has 20 open positions. Why?

Anyway, the knee-jerk reaction online is that this was inevitable. There are people who believe it’s stupid to sell DRM-free games, because all it takes is a single person to add those game files to a torrent and then nobody will be incentivized to pay for it. I believe this has to impact sales at least a little, but studies have shown that piracy doesn’t really hurt a studio’s bottom line. Basically, the people who pirate a game were never going to buy it in the first place, so no harm, no foul. Again, I take issue with this, but I’m not going to argue against research.

GOG believe that best way to combat piracy is by earning good will. The company once told Fraghero.com:

“… our closest digital competitor is piracy. And they’re even bigger than Steam.

“We’re not necessarily a competitor for Steam. We’re an alternative. We provide things they don’t – namely, a DRM-free experience, flat pricing world-wide, and goodies and attention to our games and gamers. They provide things that we don’t. Many of the games that we sell are available on Steam as well, and the fact that we do as well as we have in the last year proves that some people find what we’re doing a valuable alternative to Steam.” “So with that said, the fact that we’ve taken the no-DRM approach makes a lot of sense if you think about who it is that we consider as the largest ‘digital distributor’ in the market: pirates. We’ve deliberately designed our signup, purchase, and download process to be as quick and painless as possible, because if you compare the process of buying a game with DRM to downloading the game from a torrent, the stark difference in simplicity and user-friendliness is boggling,” Trevor Longino, PR Head of GOG.com (at the time) explained.

And this wasn’t just GOG slinging bullshit, either. When CD Projekt RED released The Witcher 3, the company put their money where their mouth is, and it paid off handsomely .

“We released [The Witcher 3] without any copy protection. So, on day one, you could download the game from GOG, and give it to a friend (enemy as well)… and still we sold near to 10 million units across all 3 platforms.”

“We don’t like when people steal our product, but we are not going to chase them and put them in prison. But we’ll think hard what to make to convince them. And uh, convince them in a positive way, so that they’ll buy the product next time, they’ll be happy with our game, and they’ll tell their friends not to pirate it.” -Marcin Iwinski (2016, per Kotaku)

So if piracy isn’t impacting their bottom line, why is this company letting go of people and ending one of the greatest good will assets they’ve had (the Fair Price Package program)?

Well, the industry is changing.

While selling DRM-free games is awesome, that ideology only serves a niche market. People are content using Steam because it hosts virtually everything and it’s where everyone has always bought their games from. Sure, it’s ideal to actually own the products you spend money on, but GOG isn’t an attractive option. That may sound like blasphemy to some, but it is what it is.

Downloading installers and storing them on a hard drive is a tough sell these days. Your personal library in Steam allows you to download and uninstall games whenever you want and will store your save files in the cloud. Redownloading a game means you won’t start over from scratch. Yes, you can hold on to your save files in a folder on the PC, but there’s something to be said about convenience. “But managing your files is as simple as clicking and dragging,” you might say, but keep in mind that the average consumer merely wants a ‘plug and play’ experience. If you just go with individual installer packages for each game, you won’t get that. You can rectify the problem by using GOG’s launcher, but if you’re going to do that, then again, you already have Steam and probably want to keep your library there.

Steam also has an achievements system and automatic updates. GOG’s launcher incorporates similar features, but there’s other reasons why people are dissuaded from buying stuff through their store.

GOG doesn’t offer all the games that people want. If you’re looking for a brand spankin’ new AAA title, chances are that GOG won’t have it. Publishers want to protect their investments, so they very much want DRM attached to their games. For the games GOG does have, post-launch support does have a tendency to lack. Game features have had, at times, to be removed from the GOG version (when Steamworks is involved, sometimes publishers don’t want to waste resources for parity on other digital platforms). There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing patches get released on platforms like Steam, only to wonder when, if ever, you’ll see it show up on GOG. That’s more on the developer/publisher, but still, it’s something consumers have to take into consideration.

That’s not to say that everything about GOG is a horror show, because things can also work the other way. There are times where games on GOG have included patches, even ones produced my members of the gaming community, in order to sell the best possible product. Steam, on the other hand, requires you to find and install said fixes on your own.

Still, all things considered, when compared to Steam, GOG isn’t what most people are looking for. That, ultimately, is the crux of their problem.

And now that they’ve dropped the Fair Price Package plan, even less people will be inclined to go there. Why’d they do this in the first place? Because they have little choice with the competition out there. The Epic Games Store has made a decent splash by promising developers a larger percentage of game sales than Steam will provide. GOG probably felt they had little choice but to head down the same path, and it’s going to hurt them.

I wouldn’t freak out and start downloading everything you’ve purchased from GOG anytime soon, but it’ll be interesting to see how the company plans to remain relevant moving forward. DRM-free gaming is an awesome thing to have in the marketplace, but again, it’s rather niche, and with digital platforms being easier than ever to use (like Steam), the whole ‘it’s easier than pirating’ shtick isn’t unique.

The only thing GOG really has going for it in 2019, is that you can buy many of yesteryear’s best games, and with a launcher that ensures it’ll run on your modern operating system without (much) issue… but will that be enough? Only time will tell.

Electronic Arts, Clueless Again

Electronic Arts have been floundering these last few years. I have appreciated some of their output – PvZ: Garden Warfare, Star Wars Battlefront, and Battlefield 1 come to mind – but there’s no denying that they are completely oblivious to how they should be conducting business. Their tactics have proven to be some of the most aggressive in the industry, and no matter how many times gamers have told them they aren’t interested in being fleeced, the publisher has flat out refused to listen.

Madden continually wrecks its brand with heavier implementation of ultimate cards. Star Wars: Battlefront required a season pass to feel like a complete game. In response, the sequel didn’t have a season pass, but planned to feature a heavy enough grind to entice you to spend money via microtransactions. Battlefield V followed the same path, but had a lot of missing content at the time of launch.

More than that, they take third party development companies under their wing until they’re smothered to the point of closure. They’re also really poor at planning in general, as they’ve set some pretty horrendous and damning launch windows for notable titles (Titanfall 2 was wedged smack dab in the middle of two monstrous releases, for example).

So it’s been no surprise to standers by that EA’s stock has dropped substantially on a year-to-date basis. At the time of writing, the company’s stock is heading towards the largest single-day percentage decline since December of 1999 (information from MarketWatch), and how do they respond?

By blaming the prioritization of Battlefield V’s single-player campaign as opposed to the as-yet unreleased battle royale mode.

That’s right, they believe this game sold one million copies below expectation because they didn’t have battle royale available at launch.

As usual, EA just don’t get it. I mean, they SAY they do, but it’s all lip-service to satisfy their investors:

“A combination of a poor start in our marketing campaign together with what I think was a longer development cycle that put us into a more competitive window and the amplification that competitive window against of those underperformance factors is how we resulted in ‘Battlefield’,” said EA president Andrew Wilson during their most recent conference call.

Come on, Andrew. It’s not like this is coming out of left field. Your company has been on a downward slope for a while. This ‘oh, we know what we did wrong and will change in the future’ shtick clearly isn’t fooling your backers.

Now personally, I do believe there’s a little room for a battle royale experience gated behind a $60 price tag… as long as other content is included to justify it, but Call of Duty had already scratched that itch. Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is still a thing and costs substantially less, but free-to-play is unquestionably where it’s at… you know, because it’s free. Fortnite has become a real monster in this industry as result (credit is also due for being genuinely fun and nice to look at), and better yet, all the items you’d unlock with real world money are cosmetic.

‘Free’ and ‘no pay-to-win’ is music to the ears of gamers everywhere.

But do you know what’s really confusing in the grand scheme of things?

Despite hedging so much on Battlefield V’s last-man-standing mode, EA were planning to launch their own free-to-play battle royale all along, as evidenced by the surprise release of Apex Legends (developed by the Titanfall crew).

How would DICE’s game have ever competed?

It was never going to, is the short and thick of it.

Sure, maybe including battle royale on day one would have sold a few more copies, but it wouldn’t have come close to filling the million copy deficit EA are scratching their heads over.

Why they’re scratching their heads anyway, I have no idea. The gaming community at large knows EXACTLY what happened, so why don’t they?

What really affected sales was poor marketing, PR, and their release strategy.

The early trailers didn’t capture the essence of Battlefield in any way, shape, or form.

Electronic Arts also alienated prospective buyers by telling them if they were upset with the inclusion of female soldiers to ‘just not buy the game.’ Personally, I’m fine with that message, but from a business perspective, if you tell irrational idiots to not buy your product, you can’t look for a scapegoat when they decide to, you know, actually listen to you.

Also, Electronic Arts should really move competitive shooters out of that October-to-November window anyway. Call of Duty dominates it each and every year, and that’s not going to change. So basically, stop trying to beat them at their own game. I know the holidays are a prime sales period and they want as much of that pie as possible, but asking people to commit to two major FPS franchises in a short time frame is a lot.

And most of important of all:

Maybe, just maybe, they should treat their customers with respect. Don’t say ‘we hear you’ and then blatantly continue to screw people over (this isn’t unique to EA, but they’re definitely one of the worst offenders). Thanks to Electronic Arts, governments across the globe are evaluating their business models to see if they’re even legal… and spoiler alert, it hasn’t been going particularly well for them, as they’ve been forced to remove loot boxes from FIFA in Belgium.

EA aren’t in danger of going extinct or anything, but they clearly need to listen to feedback the gaming community has been providing them if they want to be on an upswing again. That means stopping the lip service and actually showing people – consumers and investors alike – that they’ll use a combination of good games AND good will to create a loyal fan base. I doubt it’ll happen, but only time will tell.

Epic Games Store’s Metro Exo-Duh – How Bad Is It

You may have heard that Epic Games – yeah, the Fortnite company – has launched its own storefront and is looking to compete directly against Valve. Good news, right?

Well, it depends who you ask.

People have been collecting games on Steam for what feels like an eternity, so to them, it feels like home. That’s where most my PC games are stored, by the way, so I understand the sentiment. To have all of your games collected under a single launcher means there’s no fuss, so people who have more games than they could ever play in a single lifetime – courtesy of those lovely Steam sales, no doubt – will want to see that platform thrive for decades to come.

But anyone who’s being honest with themselves will admit that Steam isn’t what it used to be.

Steam was once heralded for being as consumer friendly as a company could get. Valve was a development studio that knew how to sell games to gamers and they’ve built an empire around that. Steam sales used to feature prices so low that people would practically empty their bank accounts. Taking advantage of those insanely good prices was well worth it, even if it meant living off dehydrated noodles for the next three months.

But along the way, things have changed.

Every time there’s a Steam sale these days, all I see is a swath of people complaining about the selection of titles and the not-so-great pricing (personally, I think sales prices are fine, but I know they don’t hold a candle to the Steam sales of yore). So naturally, people have wished some competition would come along and force Valve to react accordingly, which is understandable because nobody loves a monopoly.

Well, Epic Games seems to be the first real contender… and now people are revolting?

To be fair, there’s more to this story than ‘some company is finally trying to give Valve a run for their money.’ Epic Games understood that the only way they’d make a splash in an era dominated by Steam is if they spent a lot of money upfront. As a result, they’ve opened their platform by offering a variety of free games – Subnautica, Super Meat Boy, and Axiom Verge kicked things off admirably – giving developers a larger cut of sales revenue, and by spending money on exclusive games.

That latter point is where things begin to get a little crazy.

Metro Exodus is one of the hottest anticipated titles in Q1 of 2019, but less than a month prior to its release, it was announced that it would be an Epic Games Store exclusive – only on PC, as the console launch will go as planned – for one year. Steam pre-orders will still be honored – meaning it will be available for download on that platform for those that bought the game ahead of time – but anyone who missed out will need to get it on the Epic Games Store. Because of the devs larger slice in the sales pie, the game will only cost $50 as opposed to the usual $60.

The gaming community is largely split on the matter.

The primary complaint I’ve seen is that it isn’t fair for certain games to be kept off Steam.

Personally, I’m a strong supporter of businesses doing what they want, because consumers are ultimately going to decide if their tactics were viable or not.

But why are gamers pretending like they’ve never had a supplemental launcher to install? If you want to play Overwatch, Diablo III, or the upcoming Warcraft III remaster/reimagining, you’ll need Blizzard’s launcher. If you like EA games, Origin is mandatory. GoG hosts a veritable wealth of classic games that aren’t available anywhere else, so that’s yet another platform to download (this one is optional though, as GoG also allows you to download game installation packs on their own, as their sales model supports DRM free gaming first and foremost). Anyone who feels like the Epic Games Store is the first affront on having every game they’ll ever own on Steam, they’re kidding themselves.

Granted, there is a difference; the above mentioned launchers are not competing against Steam directly, whereas Epic is. Is that distinction meaningful enough though? If the core complaint is ‘it’s not fair and I want my entire library in one place,’ then I’d say not. Things haven’t been that way for a very long time.  

And besides, Steam allows you to link games from other platforms to your library anyway, so everything can still be on one tidy list. The other game’s launcher will still come into play, but as previously noted, that’s been a non-issue for most. I mean, how many people opted out of getting GTA V on PC just because Rockstar have their own launcher for it? Not many, because that game has been its own money press and continues to be to this day.

For some, it’s not a matter of convenience but more about not wanting to waste ‘valuable’ hard drive space and system resources. Why have five launchers when the gaming industry could just have everything on one, you know?

Fact of the matter is that most, if not all of the available platforms won’t impact game performance unless your hardware is extremely outdated. If running the Epic Store is going to be a burden, that’s not the fault of the program but the limitations of your PC.

Other gamers don’t want the Epic Games Store just on principle. One common concern is that the ‘snatch up exclusives’ mentality is bringing a console-wars-like battle to a community that has largely managed to avoid it.

But have they, really?

People have been arguing over Nvidia and AMD for years. Intel vs AMD. Windows vs Linux. And yet, PC gamers believe that they have isolated themselves from the woes of console gaming, even though they’ve been neck deep in similar problems all along. It’s selective (with a dash of elitist) memory at its finest.

The only real issue I see with the Epic Games Store is that the $10 discount only applies to the United States. Not only that, but reports indicate that the game actually costs more than it should in other regions. That’s a problem, and Epic really need to hammer that out if they don’t want their platform to become a niche market that ultimately fades into obscurity.

I have lingering questions about that $50 price tag anyway. Is that discount really the result of the larger cut that go to the devs, or is it just a PR move that Epic paid additional money for? Unless all platform exclusives adopt a similar pricing model moving forward, I don’t see this as a long-term win. This is just to get people on the platform, period… but Epic now have a mountain to climb in ensuring they grow and maintain a loyal consumer base.

That’ll be quite some burden to bear, I’m sure.

There’s also been some chatter about how Epic has had some data breaches in the past so people won’t trust them. But Valve has had data breaches too. And Microsoft. And Sony. If you’re going to hold one company’s feet to the fire for this, you’ll have to do it for all. It’s 2019, and data breaches are just a part of our day-to-day lives. Your information can be compromised at hotels, gas stations, restaurants, retail shops, and more.

Everything taken into account, I think people are just unhappy with seeing another platform pull games away from Steam. They feel it’s underhanded for Epic to pony up money for exclusivity, and that they should earn customers by being a better platform with better features.

That’s how things would be in an ideal world, but let’s be realistic: The Epic Games Store would have never had a chance if it didn’t make big moves out of the gate to grab people’s attention. I understand if you don’t care for console-like business models infiltrating the PC landscape – I can’t say I’m crazy about it either – but it was inevitable. Anyone with an internet connection can have a digital storefront these days, so major publishers were always going to offer their own… it’s just that Epic are the first ones to set their sights as high as Valve.

I’m not saying you should just give all your money to the Epic Store from here on out though. I still like Steam and that’s going to be my (PC) platform of choice for now and probably forever.

I’m just saying that on a surface level, what Epic are doing isn’t a big deal. You could argue that they should have used their money to create a new and fresh IP, but I’d counter that by saying, “What’s going to turn more heads? A game that people would potentially have no interest in, or a well-established IP?” The latter, clearly. And besides, they already have a good thing going with Fortnite.

So I don’t think the question should be if their tactics are fair or not – because I think they are, even if we don’t like them – but if those tactics will serve them well in the long run.

Through that lens, I’m not sure Epic knows what they’re doing. They’ve clearly been blinded by all the Fortnite money.

In my opinion, they should have stopped at, “Hey, Metro Exodus will be $10 cheaper on our store!” That would have drawn a number of people to their platform AND gain them a bit of good will. Instead, they opted to forcefully swing Metro fans to their side of the table. That’s… not very smart. This industry is loaded with companies that say, “We’re doing this because we can,” and people are fed up with that attitude. It’s why Electronic Arts are walking a tightrope, balancing the act of marrying monetization with consumer friendly business models (and thus far, have largely failed).

Pissing people off may work for financial gain in the here-and-now, but it’s not sustainable. Not forever.

These are the real issues that plague the Epic Games Store and Metro Exodus fiasco… not that ‘it isn’t fair’ stuff. It’s a shame that they’re souring so many people on their platform so early on, because we really do need a company that will be the anti-Valve. Again, I like Steam, but its curator hasn’t really tried to excite its user base for quite some time. Only time will tell, but here’s to hoping that Epic has learned a lesson from all this and will cultivate good will first and foremost.

2018 – Favorite Games, Biggest Disappointments

I couldn’t let 2018 slip away without informing you of what my favorite games of the year were, and although I’m sure everyone is tired of seeing this type of article by now, maybe I can tantalize you with a huge spoiler: Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War didn’t make the cut! Shocking, right?

My Favorite Games of 2018

5 – Gris: Gris’ art style had immediately arrested me, but I was even more intrigued when I heard the game was about dealing with loss and the stages of grieving. Gris won’t take but three or four hours of your time, and while that play time may dissuade some, I found this to be a worthwhile ‘quality over quantity’ title. I’m a bit biased because, well, this came around at the right time in my life. I spent a fair chunk of 2018 grieving, and to see that process transformed into playable art was precisely what I needed, especially since it’s not just about the emotional descent, but the prospect of coming back from it.

Gris is a 2D platformer of sorts, but the gameplay is simple. There isn’t much challenge, just some light puzzles and a few interesting encounters. I’d say this is more akin to playing an experience like Journey, meaning you have to appreciate the ride for its art, music, and the way it makes you feel. If that’s not what you’re looking for, you can probably avoid Gris. but in my opinion, that’d be a mistake.

4 – Dead Cells: Games like Atlas lead people to believe that early access is about studios taking your money in exchange for a broken (or recycled) product. Dead Cells, on the other hand, is the rare example where early access was done right.

I actually played the early access version in the spring of 2017, and even then the game seemed polished enough receive an official release. Still, the developer used all the feedback from early adopters to continually improve their product. This included tweaking the balance of difficulty, ensuring that gameplay would suit multiple play styles, and that players could move through each level without confusion. With the final product now in our hands, I’m happy to say that all the love and attention that went into Dead Cells is apparent.

You’re a warrior with no head, and your goal is to continually collect cells so that you can restore your body. To that end, you’ll run off into the unknown, die, and then start from the beginning again… and again, and again, and again. Level generation is random each time, but as you grow accustomed to the characteristics of each stage and earn more abilities, things get easier with each successive run. Once you beat the final boss, the difficulty ramps up and you’re able to continue that climb to greatness.

I’m typically not a fan of the ‘start over every time you die’ sort of thing, but Dead Cells just makes it work. The pace is quick, the enemy encounters are interesting (even if certain foes tail you for far too long) and the controls feel great. Every step closer to that endgame is just as rewarding as the last, so all in all, I highly recommend this game to anyone who appreciates 2D hack-and-slash action.

3 – Assassin’s Creed Odyssey: I’m sort of a junkie when it comes to ancient Egypt, so when AC: Origins threw us in the most gorgeously rendered version of that place and era to date, I thought it, for sure, had to be the franchise’s peak.

But I was wrong.

I still prefer the sand, shrubs and palms of Egypt overall, but there’s no denying that Odyssey’s take on Greece is jaw-dropping. It’s a highly detailed world with things to do at every turn, and the fact that Black Flag’s naval combat system has returned in full is a solid win for everyone involved. You can spend dozens of hours just roaming around and causing trouble in this game, and when taking both main and side quests into consideration, there’s at least sixty hours’ worth of gameplay here (maybe even close to a hundred).

What I really appreciate about this game is that its main character, or at least the female lead (you’re able to choose between a man and woman), is the most interesting and likeable protagonist in the series to date. There’s also some great quality of life improvements in regards to hunting (you don’t have to go out of your way to hunt for hours at a time) and resource collection (it isn’t as vital to spend a great deal of time hunting these down). This is a much more polished version of the new Assassin’s Creed formula, and the ability to choose branching dialogue options is also a welcome inclusion.

All of this would be for nothing if the gameplay didn’t feel great, but this is probably the best controlling AC title I’ve played thus far. and I’ve played my fair share of them!

2 – Tetris Effect: Anyone who looks at this and says, “It’s just Tetris,” doesn’t get the point.

You may have the heard people call Tetris the perfect video game, and honestly, I find it hard to argue with that. I don’t know anyone who’s never enjoyed SOME iteration of the game, eventually getting glued to their screens for hours on end because clearing lines is addicting in the best way possible. Hell, even my wife loves Tetris, and she’s the furthest thing from a gamer there is.

There have been formula changes since the OG release (yes, I’m old enough to have played them on the PC and NES when those versions were still relevant), and some of them have made the game better while others. well, not so much. After decades of experimentation, one thing has been consistently true: The best Tetris games stay true to the core experience without much additional tweaking. To that end, I’d say Tetris DS is probably the best version of the game I’ve ever played (although I have a great deal of nostalgia for the original puke-green and black Game Boy version).

But I think Tetris Effect is the new champion.

Gameplay wise, it’s typical Tetris. But there is a new mechanic which allows you to, when in trouble (and after building up a meter, because you can’t just activate this any time you want), slow down time and clear lines at the top of your Tetris grid. All the lines cleared before time runs out will move to the bottom of your stack, so there’s potential to wipe away more lines at once than ever before. It’s an interesting mechanic to play around with, because there’s some major risk versus reward going on. You can try to stack your Tetris grid up high and then bang a bunch of them out in one fell swoop, but if you miscalculate, you could put yourself in a bad situation. This sort of thing actually feels like a natural extension of the game as opposed to something that’s been merely tacked on.

And of course, it’s visually the most stunning Tetris game of all time. There are numerous themes that promote every element of our world, instilling a sense of harmony and connectivity that you’ll feel throughout your tetrimino infused journey. The sound of your puzzle pieces turning and dropping become part of the beat thumping music that plays, further instilling that theme of connectivity. It’s worth noting that this game is even better in VR.

If you’re a Tetris fan and have a PS4, I know the $40 asking price may be steep, but it’s already been on sale for half that. Either way, the price is worth it.

1 – Sea of Thieves: It’s really interesting how this game has changed over the course of year. I had fun with it at launch, but felt the core gameplay loop wasn’t enough to keep players engaged for the long haul. It was a repetitive drive of, ‘go there, do this thing, bring me back the loot and I’ll give you gold’. I figured I’d give it another shot later down the line, but I wasn’t sure the developers would ever bring the game up to an appreciable state. I eventually learned Rare’s plan for future updates involved timed events, and that worried me a great deal. That tends to be a euphemism for ‘we’re going to randomly change the game, and if you like a particular game mode along the way, you’ll soon be disappointed once we pull it because it’ll be gone forever’. I wanted nothing to do with that.

So a couple of events came and went, but in keeping tabs with the what the community was saying about the content, I came to realize that Rare understood how timed events should actually work.

When a timed event was over, the newer stuff had either stayed in the game, or had been reincorporated later down the line. Nine months later, Sea of Thieves, while still sporting the same core it had at launch, has so much more to keep players engaged. and there’s much more to come.

Whenever leaving port, you never know how player ships on your server will react to your presence. The ability to form alliances with other crews adds a ‘will they, or won’t they’ ambiguity that wasn’t present at launch, and goes a long way in providing agency to each player. You no longer have to merely go to an island, grab the loot, and return to an outpost; you’ll pick up messages in bottles along the way, providing you more to do while you’re out and about. As a matter of fact, you don’t even have to pick up an official voyage to get started. most outposts at the start will have a message in a bottle somewhere, and you can just keep that running for the rest of your play session. Skeleton fortresses and skeleton ship raids are fun and rewarding challenges, and now that there are skeleton ships, megalodons, and even a kraken roaming the map on a regular basis, to say ‘anything could happen’ would be an understatement.

Sea of Thieves still isn’t for everyone because it’s only as fun as you are willing to make it. The real fun comes from playing with friends, or at least a competent crew you can game with regularly, and a certain willingness to roleplay.

Objectively speaking, this isn’t the best made game of 2018, but as far as entertainment value is concerned, nothing gave me more fun and joy throughout the year than Sea of Thieves. I play it almost every night with the same crew, and have stayed up way too late on far too many occasions. And when I say ‘crew’, I mean we have our ships named and special pirate names to boot. that’s how much fun we’ve been having with it.

Overall, I find myself foregoing watching films, shows, and playing other games in favor of sailing the seas. Is it any wonder I consider this my favorite game of the year?

The Best Games I Played In 2018 That Weren’t From 2018 (In No Particular Order)

Oxenfree: I always wanted to give Oxenfree a go, but when GOG gave it away during the 2017 holiday season, I no longer had an excuse to wait. It’s developed by some old Telltale employees, so the gameplay predictably consists of walking around and talking to people, with your dialogue choices affecting how things play out.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, so was pleasantly surprised to find some of the best dialogue and in-game voice acting I’ve heard in a while. It’s all wrapped around an experience that begins with an air of funny quirk, but slowly descends to a mix of sci-fi horror and Groundhog Day. I won’t say more than that because I don’t want to give much away, but this is easily one of the most memorable games I’ve played in recent memory, and I plan to replay this one again soon since it’s only three or four hours long. Night School Studios has another game coming out this year, and I’m excited to see what they’ve come up with!

Hollow Knight: I’m sorry I waited so long to climb aboard the Hollow Knight train. I’m a sucker for metroidvania games, but most of the clones that come along just can’t hold a candle to the games of yesteryear. Even Axiom Verge, which is excellent in its own right, felt like it was missing something. Hollow Knight is different though. For me, it’s the best title the genre has seen since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The controls are incredibly responsive, combat is challenging but fair, the upgrade path is satisfying, and boss encounters are interesting. The art style is both simplistic and masterful at the same time, and makes this dark and dreary world an intriguing one to explore. I could have technically put this on my ‘best of 2018’ list since that’s when it released for the Nintendo Switch, but that would have felt like cheating!

Call of Duty: World War II: I’m just as surprised as you are to see this on my list, but I bought this game in 2018 at a deep discount and haven’t regretted it. Bringing back World War II complete with boots on the ground gameplay has been a welcome change of pace (or return to form, depending on how you want to look at it). I won’t go into too much detail since ‘Call of Duty’ is explanation in-and-of itself, but the core mechanics feel better than they have in years and the map designs kept me coming back for more. Even with Black Ops 4 out, this iteration of the franchise is still my go-to.

Sonic Mania Plus: This is technically a new release for 2018, adding a bit more to the base game and finally getting a physical release. To be perfectly blunt, old-school Sonic games are a bit of a chore. The stage-design and stiff controls coupled with the ability to move fast rarely worked in tandem. but Sonic Mania changes all that. Each level is extremely reminiscent of classic Sonic, but the layouts complemented the controls and rarely left me frustrated. This is probably the best Sonic game I’ve ever played and would recommend this title to anyone who’s a fan of platformers.

Blossom Tales: There have been many attempts by small studios to replicate old-school, top-down Zelda games, but almost all of the ones I’ve touched have been underwhelming. Blossom Tales, on the other hand, is great. It isn’t very difficult, but everything from its storytelling, characters, and gameplay have kept me engaged and thoroughly entertained. If you’ve been impatiently waiting for the next top-down Zelda since Link Between Worlds, give this a try and I guarantee you won’t walk away disappointed.  

Biggest Disappointments (In No Particular Order):

Vampyr: This game hurts my heart. It’s story and characters are written well, and the artistic design delivers aesthetic and mood better than most games out there. Unfortunately, there’s a couple of things that kept me from really enjoying this one.

To begin, I don’t think it paces character introduction/interaction very well. Every time you enter a new area, you have to spend a considerable amount of time introducing yourself to everyone. That’s fine, but the dialogue options are always the same until you get to know a person better, and that makes for a bit of a slog. But the worst thing about this game, hands down, is the combat. It tries to play like Bloodborne but it’s clunky and extremely unbalanced. Enemy reach is always much greater than your own, evading attacks is iffy at best, and it’s easy to get cornered with no chance of bouncing back. Not exactly a winning combination.

The developers did eventually provide an update which allows frustrated players to focus more on story and less on combat, but I had already tapped out by then.

God of War: Oh, this game did make the list in a way, didn’t it?

To be clear, I don’t think God of War is a bad game, but I do think it’s a bit too long considering the lack of variety. It’s twenty-five to thirty hours of fighting the same enemies and smashing the same rune-etched vases over and over again. The combat system does improve throughout the game, but even that doesn’t do much to offset its weaker components. I guess the best word I’d use to describe this game is ‘chore’, and that’s really the last thing you want a game to feel like, isn’t it?

State of Decay 2: This is another title which had brimmed with potential, but ultimately collapsed under the weight of its own intentions.

I hate to make comparisons to The Walking Dead, but there are a lot of similarities (and not in a bad way). After a zombie apocalypse, it’s up to you to manage a base, meet new people, scavenge supplies and craft items. However, every choice you make is going to come with a consequence. When you help someone out it’s going to make another person upset. When you decide to craft supplies you’re likely making the choice to go without something else. I love this from a conceptual standpoint, but the game throws way too much into the mix for a single player to handle. The game is a bit easier when you’re playing with friends, but even then the micromanagement makes this almost infuriating to play.

Kirby Star Allies: Kirby is something of an acquired taste, but me, I love the little pink fluff ball. I think the Wii games were brilliant and that track record continued with the 3DS. Unfortunately, Rainbow Curse on the Wii-U was a disappointment, and I’m sorry to say that Star Allies also failed to leave a lasting impression. It’s back to classic Kirby gameplay, sure, but this time around there are four protagonists on the screen at once. It doesn’t work very well in single player or even for couch co-op, because things get too hectic on-screen to tell what’s going on. And yet, this is a core part of the game. As a result, this is the least impressive Kirby title I’ve played in some time.

Battlefield V: I love me some Battlefield, but the latest iteration isn’t doing it for me. The map designs seem too uneven, but more than that, there’s been a lot of drama over the game’s balance in general. A lot of players complained that they felt they were getting bumped off too fast, so the developers tried to fix the issue by making them bullet sponges (to a certain degree). This was met with even more backlash, so things were reverted back to the way they were at launch. There was an alpha and a beta for this game, and yet this is the state it released in.

It’s sad, but it looks like Dice are finally beginning to lose it. I know, I know: “But what about Star Wars Battlefront? Isn’t that when they began to forsake their audience?!” I actually like those games and think they play extremely well, but Battlefield V isn’t quite there. It’s a shame, because I got many, many hours of enjoyment out of Battlefield 1.

Time to Leave Physical Behind

img_7340Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

I’ve long been a staunch supporter of physical media, because when I make a purchase I want it to be accessible for the rest of time. So when games became prominently available through digital means, I planted my feet firmly on the ground, shook my head and said, “Nope. I’m not giving in!”

Why was I so stubborn? Because I’ve always seen digital purchases as a gamble. If a distributor goes belly-up, you’d lose access to your library unless a third party took over and honored your purchases (which isn’t impossible, but certainly not guaranteed). Even if a distributor merely decided to stop supporting a legacy platform, your purchases would essentially be forfeit the moment your device’s hard drive failed.

The latter scenario is actually happening with the Nintendo Wii just this month, by the way. Pretty wild considering how much money they’re making these days, isn’t it?

Anyway, it’s worth pointing out that I’ve only felt this way with consoles. I’ve been buying digital games on PC for eons now, but that’s because I trust that companies like Steam aren’t going anywhere. There’s also GOG, who allow you to download DRM free copies of all the games they sell (which I admittedly don’t take advantage of as much as I should). But Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo haven’t instilled the same sort of confidence. Sony would rather sell you streamable games than honor legacy generation purchases, and until just recently, Nintendo tied games to consoles instead of accounts… meaning if your console died and you bought another one, your purchases would be gone.

That said, the landscape of console marketplaces are changing and I feel it’s time to embrace the dark side.

I know. I can’t believe I’m saying it either.

img_7343-1Still, I’m at a point where I feel one-hundred percent comfortable buying digital games from Microsoft. They’ve shown a considerable amount of dedication to ensuring titles across all their platforms are compatible with the latest hardware. If you have old game discs, simply load them into the Xbox One and you’ll be able to play. If you don’t feel like tracking down a copy of an old game, they’ve available to buy digitally.

Nintendo have also begun to correct the mistakes of generations past (while introducing some new ones, of course). With the release of the Nintendo Switch, games are now tied to accounts, so if your console dies you can download them on a new machine.

Sony… well, they’re still the same old arrogant Sony. They’d rather sell you digital copies of PS1 and PS2 games you already own. As a result, I buy all third party titles for the Xbox One.

Regardless of who we’re talking about in the ‘your old purchases matter’ race, it’s clear that we’re moving towards a future where consoles stop being brackets of segregated time blocks and merge into one. It’s the way it always should have been.

Microsoft have earned a lot of good will over the course of this generation, so it’d be wise for Sony to follow suit with backwards compatibility on the PS5. I think it’d be unrealistic to expect the PS5 to play PS1, PS2 or even PS3 games, but at the very least it needs to be fully backwards compatible with the PS4. I still own all the old consoles, but I no longer have any tolerance for keeping multiple generations hooked up to my home theater at once. I believe they have little choice but to incorporate at least the current console’s library, and while that’s not everything I’d want from a PS5, it’s a step in the right direction.

Still, there’s a part of my brain that still shouts, “If you want to be able to play these games in thirty years, you better pick up physical copies!” I don’t know if that comes from a lifetime of buying physical games or if it’s because there’s still trepidation over the longevity of digital libraries though. Maybe it’s a combination of both. Either way, it’s what’s kept me buying physical copies throughout the entirety of this generation… until now, at least.

img_7342-1I’ve also known this for a long time but would never allow myself to admit it: Physical copies are worthless.

Don’t get me wrong, because I’ll hold on to my NES, SNES, N64, Game Boy and DS cartridges until I die. But as far as this generation is concerned, discs are worthless. Sure, they’ll be around in thirty years, but the games that are stored on them are largely riddled with bugs or missing content. The Spyro remastered trilogy doesn’t have all the games on disc. Wolfenstein: The New Order isn’t nearly as fun without its day one patch. Bethesda games have always required updates for the best stability. Assassin’s Creed: Unity was, at times, a slideshow without subsequent patches. At launch, Battlefield 4’s single player campaign saves often corrupted and forced players to start over.

And these are only the examples that immediately come to mind. They’re the most extreme, yes, but every game has patches that roll out on day one and beyond. That means that virtually none of the games you’ve played, even at launch, are the same product as what’s on the disc. The pieces of plastic they’re pressed on are pretty much drink coasters.

It hurts my heart to say that, but it’s true: All a disc is good for in 2018 is verifying that you have a license to play a game.

A lot of people complain that they don’t want to get off the couch to switch discs, but that’s never bothered me. What does bother me is switching discs when I know I’m not even playing the content that’s on it in them first place. With that being the sad reality, why even bother? Why not just make the switch to all-digital and save myself from having to switch those coasters out?

Last but certainly not least, I have been burned by an old PS3 that went belly up after just two years. Not the internal GPU or CPU or anything, but the disc drive. A disc drive has moving parts, so it’s the most likely piece of a console to fail. Going digital means I won’t have to worry about that. That’s not to say a cooling fan won’t go or that a console won’t overheat to death, but it’s one less thing to worry about.

Digital distribution still has a way to go, but I believe it’s a viable solution moving forward as long as we, consumers, don’t allow the companies holding the digital keys to get sloppy.