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.

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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.

PSVR Impressions

new-psvr

I was never compelled to give PSVR a whirl. It was an expensive peripheral with demo-like software, and with that in mind, I thought four hundred dollars was a steep asking price. There weren’t any kiosks around me to try it out, and none of my local friends had purchased it. What was perhaps the final nail in the coffin was that I had an industry friend telling me horror stories about how this platform wasn’t real VR anyway, and that Shuhei Yoshida himself got motion sick while playing Driveclub VR. That has ‘yikes’ written all over it!

The immediate question I asked had been, “Well, why isn’t it real VR?” Well, there’s a couple of things that VR needs in order to provide total immersion: fantastic graphical fidelity and a steadily high frame rate. The PS4, which the PSVR is meant for, has trouble pushing 1080p at thirty frames-per-second, let alone 60 (or even 90), and that’s with only a single video stream. Virtual reality sends video to each eye, so concessions are made to hit performance targets… meaning the resolution is lowered and the graphics are compromised. That’s not to say that a game tailored for PSVR can’t look good, but you’ll never experience the same crisp visuals that you’re used to seeing on your flat screen television.

It was a reasonable enough explanation.

But one year I bought one of those stupid ‘slide your phone inside this headset’ things. Its primary purpose was to be used in conjunction with my Ghostbusters costume a couple of Halloweens ago, but curiosity got the best of me and I tried some of those VR experiences on YouTube. The novelty was cool, but I thought it’d be better if I could do something proper in VR one day.

Well, with all the cool titles available for the headset in 2018, I was beginning to feel like it was time to give Sony’s hardware a chance. There were bundles that came with the headset, the camera, two move controllers and even a couple of games, but at $350, I still wasn’t willing to bite. Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know? Well, when the holidays dropped the price down to $250, I was finally ready to open my wallet.

As a longtime skeptic, I’ve got to hand it to Sony: PSVR isn’t perfect, but it’s addictingly fun and makes me wish every game had VR capabilities.

psvr-front-and-back-usb-cable

Setting up the hardware is a drag. If you’re adamant about using the Move controllers, they have to be charged a while. You have to connect the PS camera to the back of your console and put it in a suitable spot. The PSVR headset comes with its own external box which has cables out the wazoo: The headset has two cables that plug into the front, two HDMI cables plug into the back (one to the TV and one to the PS4), and then there’s one for the power cord. It’s crazy to see so many cables running for a single device in 2018, so here’s to hoping that the next wave of virtual reality hardware is wireless across the board (with the option of plugging the headset into an outlet if need-be).

Once everything was charged and connected, I figured I’d ‘test drive’ the unit with Driveclub VR.

driveclub-vr-screen-01-ps4-eu-08aug16

The first thing I noticed was the lower resolution of the PSVR ‘screen’. Because of the lower resolution, there’s definitely a bit of ‘screen door’ effect. In practice, things look immaculate up close, but distant objects are somewhat blocky. This isn’t an issue when you’re just looking around prior to a race, but when your car is going well over one hundred miles per hour, it can be difficult to discern which way a turn is going to bend, meaning you’ll have to, at times, rely on your memory.

Outside of that, my initial impression of VR content was quite good. The car’s cockpit was in my face as it should have been, and depth was immaculate across the board. I truly felt immersed in that world. You can stand on the side of the road and view your car from a variety of angles before a race, and looking around made my jaw drop. Seeing little details, like a plastic bag flitting in the wind, really helped to sell that this wasn’t just a virtual world.

For racing, VR introduced a substantial quality of life improvement. In most 2D racers, you never know how close another vehicle is unless you’ve positioned the camera behind the car. In VR though, the ability to turn your head in the cockpit makes this a non-issue.

Despite loafing about on a sofa, the sense of speed you get from barreling down the road is incredible. Taking turns at breakneck speeds as you’re millimeters away from crashing into the car next to you is exhilarating.

The only real downside to the Driveclub VR experience was when the in-game movement didn’t precisely track with what my head was doing. If you made a quick jerk of the wheel, for example, the game would sort of jerk your vision for you, and that produces a brief feeling of dizziness. Not enough to make me feel nauseous, but it didn’t feel good. This caveat aside, Driveclub VR was enough to get me hooked and I simply did not want to stop playing.

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Next up was Skyrim VR. It was the first game I played using the Move controllers. It takes a little getting used to, because while the wands are intuitive when it comes to attacking and blocking, the rest of the controls can be a bit cumbersome. On the plus side, the game gives you plenty of options. You can teleport over short distances by holding a button, pointing it on the ground a short distance away and then releasing. You can also opt to hold a button down for walking. Both methods of control have their pros and cons. The teleportation method means you don’t have as much control as you’d like, and walking around means you’re going to deal with some funky head stuff. When you’re standing on a ledge and looking down, it can be dizzying. Turning while you walk is also disorienting, but a few PSVR games have a ‘fix’ for that: snapping. Instead of having the camera spin you around, you can push a button that will ‘snap’ your vision around 30 degrees. This definitely helps with VR ‘motion sickness’, but it’s immersion breaking. The major draw for a game like Skyrim is its immersion, but I guess this is what happens when you retrofit an older game for VR.

Another thing I noticed was that Skyrim doesn’t sport the Special Edition’s graphical improvements. It’s a bummer, but I’m not surprised. Bethesda’s engine has never been the most optimized, and VR requires 90 frames-per-second. Still, if you’re a fan of this game, the VR experience is well worth playing. I pump at least fifty hours into this game each year, so being able to ‘live’ in its world is nothing short of a dream come true. The game looks extremely dated in 3D, but Skyrim’s open world is still a marvelous sight to behold.

beat-saber-gameplay

Beat Saber was the next game I tried, and I already knew what it was about. It’s basically Guitar Hero, but you’re slashing blocks with light sabers. That sounds fun enough, but it’s even more so in practice. There are obstacles that come at your head, which requires you to physically dodge out of the way. Each block requires to be slashed from a specific direction, so the difficulty can ramp up pretty quickly. I experienced some tracking issues though. My in-game vision slowly veered off to the left, but I figured out the culprit. Because this game requires you to flail your arms around, it would cover the VR headset from the camera on occasion. Moving the camera up higher seemed to resolve the problem.

Tetris.Effect.effect

Tetris Effect was already one of my favorite games of 2018 in flat screen mode, but in VR it’s even better. The Tetris grid itself is still mostly flat, but you can control how close you are to it. Either watch the blocks fall from a distance or get up close and personal, having to look up a bit to get a complete look. Either way, the real treat comes from the backdrop that envelops you. This game is loaded with particle effects, and to see them all around and even blast at your face when you finish a level is nifty. What I really appreciate is that they didn’t turn this into the Virtual Boy’s 3D-Tetris, which turned the flat, rectangular grid into a cube. Keeping the core ‘fit the blocks’ gameplay was a wise decision, and I can’t wait to see what a sequel could bring to the table.

I still have to try Borderlands 2 VR, Astro Bot Rescue Mission, Moss, and that VR mission that came with Star Wars Battlefront… but all in all, I’m satisfied with my purchase.

Overall

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There’s no denying that PSVR very much feels like a ‘best bang for your buck’ entry level VR headset. The growing pains are apparent. It does not deliver the clarity or fine detail that we’ve grown accustomed to in gaming, and it’s clear that developers are still trying to find ways to keep people from feeling dizzy during normal play. It doesn’t help that control solutions are still rather archaic. The Dualshock 4 works well enough when it’s an option, but it’s painfully obvious that the Move controllers were never designed for VR. It was existing tech that Sony felt they could utilize, so they did.

But all in all, PSVR is good enough. As an introductory device to virtual reality, it’s mind blowing. I’m already wishing for future iterations to refine the experience with higher resolution and better solutions for curbing motion sickness, but stepping into virtual worlds is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before, and I mean that in the best way possible. Yeah, PC VR headsets undoubtedly does better, but they’re also pricier and you need a good enough rig to run games optimally in the first place. For the asking price, PSVR is absolutely worth the money.

Is God Of War As Good As People Say?

When God of War (2018) had finally been delivered to the masses, it was smothered with 9’s and 10’s out of adoration by virtually every respectable review outlet known to man. The praise was due to a culmination of the game’s great graphics, an in-game camera that never cuts away, a more measured approach to combat, its story, side-quests, and open world design. Just like that, any and all concerns associated with the studio’s decision to change the franchise so drastically had melted away overnight.

But is God of War really one of the best games of all time?

For those unfamiliar with God of War’s previous story, it was about a man turned demigod by the name of Kratos. He pledged his life on the battlefield to Ares, the original god of war, for victory in return. As a result, Kratos was granted great power and had a pair of blades permanently chained to his forearms. He used these to carry out the god’s bidding time and time again, but his thirst for blood was redirected when his wife and daughter were killed by his own hands. He destroyed Ares and became the new god of war, but was then forsaken by the remaining pantheon up on Mount Olympus. Needless to say, this didn’t go over well and Kratos went on his most destructive rampage yet, not stopping until Zeus was reduced to little more than a bloody pulp. This was the end of the main trilogy, leaving Kratos’ fate ambiguous to the audience.

2018’s God of War picks up many years later. Kratos has aged, settled in to the world of Norse mythology, had seemingly found a new love and had a son. The woman of his life recently deceased, to respect her wishes, he and the boy are tasked with releasing her ashes from atop the highest mountain in all the land. But before they’re able to set off proper, a mysterious stranger appears with an ominous message, something along the lines of, “We know who you are and you’re not welcome here.” With nowhere to hide, the demigod and his boy – a mere survivalist in training (you can’t quite call him a warrior, not yet) – decide to push forward with the task at hand before something worse catches up with them.

It’s a straightforward premise to be sure, but the heart and soul of this adventure is the relationship between Kratos and Atreus. It’s clear that Kratos was too busy providing for his family to be much of a father, and when he was around, the pressure he put on his son had strained their relationship. Kratos was all business and no play, and unlike his actions in Greece, we can sort of understand why. He knows the world is full of unsavory beasts and beings, and if his boy is to survive, he needs tough love.

Some of the more critical fans out there don’t care for Atreus’ inclusion, because he’s not just there at the beginning, but stays by Kratos’ side throughout. This isn’t unlike Ellie from The Last of Us, but she, wittier and wiser than her years let on, was a far compelling companion.

Personally, I don’t love Atreus but I don’t hate him. I appreciate Atreus because he’s roughly my son’s age and acts the part. When it comes to exploring the world he’s quite green but also acts like he knows everything. So, when the game wants you to explore every nook and cranny to find all the hidden goodies, Atreus attempts to pull you off the path… and I can’t understand why. Is it to remind us how to get back to the main quest? I’ve yet to get lost in God of War and certainly don’t need Atreus’ help. This game may be open world, but it’s not Skyrim. In fact, I question the ‘open world’ claim in the first place (more on that in a bit). We really don’t need Atreus to mimic Ocarina of Time’s Navi – “Hey, LISTEN!” – and that’s something that every developer should do their best to avoid.

Atreus is a handy extension during battle though… eventually. He’s useless at the beginning, but the more he learns (and the more you upgrade his skillset), the more he’s able to help. Halfway through the game the kid is a bonafide life saver. He’ll unleash arrows (at your command) that either stun or deal damage to foes, so he’s viable for reducing their health and managing crowd control. As he strengthens and grows, Kratos will acknowledge his child’s improvements and thus improves their bond. They still have their issues though. Kratos clearly wants to comfort his son but feels he can’t. Atreus wants a father figure but resents the one he has. This plays out in interesting ways.

Now, I’ve seen people say that the secondary characters are great, and they are… but only to a certain extent. They’re written and acted quite well, but God of War relies too much on recycling the few it has as opposed to presenting new ones. The two you’ll see time and time again are a pair of estranged dwarven brothers, and while they’re entertaining, you almost feel like they’re the only two characters you meet throughout the game. There are others, sure, but none as prominent as they are. The game does a good job of explaining how they manage to pop up in each location before Kratos and Atreus are even able to get there, but without an expansive cast to back them up, their inclusion makes God of War feel a bit hollow. You could certainly argue the previous games lacked in the same area, but they also weren’t nearly as story driven.

It’s worth noting that the story, by the way, is barely there. The writers do a decent job at exploring the world’s lore and providing some back information on its characters, but God of War never feels, at least narratively, as epic as its visuals. There’s some surprises, yes, but considering the slogging ‘slow burn’ technique employed – which I’m usually a fan of – those payoffs come way too late in the campaign.

But let’s get away from the narrative and cast and talk about design.

There’s been a lot of buzz about God of War’s open world and how you’re able to return to old areas to unlock things that were previously forecasted as late game content.

Personally, I don’t see it.

You could technically call this an open world, but it’s not, at least not in the strictest sense. It’s more like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (two references in one article… niiiiice). They N64 classic used Hyrule as a central hub area with each unique area branching off of that. God of War is quite similar as it uses a large lake as its central hub. Once you branch off to chase the story or side quests, things get extremely linear. The backdrops along the way are breathtaking and make your environment feel expansive, but from a travel perspective, you’re basically dealing with a bunch of corridors that are occasionally broken up by small battle arenas and puzzle rooms. This illusion of an open world mixed with the reality of linearity makes God of War feel like it has something of an identity crisis.

And by the way, even those linear paths can be a chore to traverse. Nearly every time you turn around, there’s a new chest just begging to be unlocked. There’s a few ways of doing this: by finding and smashing three vases with runes etched on them, by doing the same but with a strict time limit, or by rotating runic columns until you find the right combination. I applaud the developers for wanting to add more content to the game, but this is virtually all they offer until you’re at least halfway through the game. At that point, you have the option of going back to certain areas and engaging in battle with corrupted Valkyries, but the ‘open the chest’ variants are what make a good portion of this game’s ‘things to do’ list. You could blow past these time wasters to carry on with the main story, but then you have to live with knowing you probably passed up something that could have permanently increased your health.

Lack of variety also rears an ugly head with the adversaries you face. You pretty much go up against the same enemies over and over again, and that includes the mini-boss trolls. The surprising thing is that God of War seems to space out the major bosses few and far between. In my first fifteen hours or so, I think I’ve had three actual boss fights. Otherwise, the developers have said, “More trolls!” I believe Cory Barlog himself had stated that the reason there weren’t more epic boss battles is that they simply didn’t have time to include any. That’s a pretty big omission, considering the most memorable moments from previous installments had been going up against the Colossus of Rhodes, Poseidon, etc.

The combat itself feels pretty good, although it takes a bit of time before it finally gets to an appreciable state. The early game leaves Kratos with few moves and skills at his disposal, so it gets tiresome doing the same combination over and over again. But once you’re able to string more things together and can actually count on Atreus to help you out, it’s extremely fun to unleash upon the hordes of enemies that come your way. You can throw your axe, use it for melee, or drop it altogether and pound someone with your fists. The variety of ways in which you can approach your adversaries isn’t vast, but boy, does it feel good. But the fact that it takes some hours before combat feels fun is definitely a problem.

That’s really the running theme here, isn’t it? This game’s pacing feels off, mainly because while the game boasts about 30 hours of content (if you’re looking to do everything along the way), very little of what’s offered outside the main quest feels substantial. Instead, it’s just the same rigmarole on repeat ad nauseum. This game would have been much leaner, and for the better, if the developers stopped looking for excuses to pad things out. But they probably didn’t because despite what you’re led to feel with the ‘open world’ and all that ‘content’, most of the given areas in God of War aren’t very big… they just appear that way. These pacing issues are what caused me to take a break halfway through the game and come back a couple of months later, because I just got to a point where I felt like it wasn’t respecting my time.

That’s not to say that God of War isn’t a good game, because it most certainly is. It does plenty of things right, but for so many reviewers to overlook its flaws sort of baffles me. Some people say that God of War is the greatest game of all time. Some have said it’s the greatest game this generation. Others have said it’s the best game on the Playstation 4. I know my opinion is subjective, but I postulate that it’s neither of these things. I think what we’ve got is a game that didn’t have enough time in the proverbial oven to become fully realized, and that the studio was pretty darn lucky that everything shaped up as well as it did. With another year or maybe two, God of War probably could have reached the upper echelons of greatness that people already claim it’s at, but as of now, I think it’s just ‘pretty good’ with occasional flashes of greatness.

A 9 out of 10, in my opinion, it is not.

Generation Without Definition

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In preparation for the 2016 in review conversation we’ll be having on the podcast in about a week, I decided to write down a list of all the games I’ve played.  Not just the games from this past year, mind you, but ALL of them.  Didn’t matter if it’s a game from 2002 I was playing for the first time, or if it was an old favorite I was revisiting for the 18th time.  Old games are just as much a part of our ‘gaming makeup’ each year as the new stuff we play, so here’s what I came up with:

Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures

Assassin’s Creed: Rogue

Far Cry 4

Absolute Drift

Batman: Akrham Knight

The Witness

The Division

Doom

Uncharted 4

No Man’s Sky

Final Fantasy XV

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Battlefield 1

Dark Souls

Dying Light

Life Is Strange

The Witcher 3 (restarted)

Dark Souls 3

Forza Horizon 3

Gear of War 4

Dead Rising 4

Kirby: Planet Robobot

PvZ: Garden Warfare 2

Mafia III

Street Fighter V

Inside

Grim Dawn (official release date)

Pokken Tournament

Overwatch

Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Pokemon Go

Super Mario Run

Skyrim Special Edition

Dragon Quest VII

Earth Defense Force 4.1

Super Mario 3D Land

Contra 4

Grand Theft Auto Online

Grand Theft Auto 4

Super Mario 64

Super Scribblenauts

Mega Man 2

Mega Man 3

I obviously didn’t play all of these games from start to finish.  Some I may have only played for a couple of hours.  But even so, that’s one hell of a list, isn’t it?  Great titles, alright ones, and even a few stinkers, but overall, I’d say 2016 was rather enjoyable.  Still, this list presents a bit of a problem, namely the inadequacies of the gaming industry as a whole.  Forty-three games, and you know what I noticed about them?  Thirty-two are either sequels or stem iteratively from existing IP’s.  Mmhmm.  Thirty.  Two.  That’s insane.  Even if we take older games off my list, we’re still talking close to 20.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with sequels or reboots.  Doom makes a compelling argument for being my favorite game of the year.  Hell, Dark Souls III is up there, too.  Oh, and surprisingly, Gears of War 4 has proven to be quite memorable, as well.  I also don’t care how many times Nintendo throws Mario at me, because he always amounts to a good time.  Point is, I don’t personally mind when studios lean on formulas that’s proven to work them.  No, it’s when they cross that line… when they insist on using that mindset as a crutch, that’s when I get worried.

And I’m worried now.

Gamers routinely say this is the best generation of gaming to date.  Sure, they’ve conveniently overlooked the unnecessary iterative consoles and the sea of unfinished games that’s been released… but vidyagames, right?!

But seriously, I can’t deny there’s been some titles genuinely worth swooning over, but that’s not unique to the here and now.  There have always been great video games, and there always will be.

But from a first party perspective, Sony and Microsoft have been playing things far too safe.  They’ve relied once again on the likes of Killzone, Infamous, Gears of War, God of War, Forza, Halo, Ratchet and Clank, Little Big Planet, Uncharted, The Last of Us, and a handful of others.  These are franchises that also defined the LAST generation of gaming, and while I understand the desire for studios to milk a cow’s supple teats until they’re coughing up powder, they’re leaving the PS4 and Xbox One without identities of their own.

The Xbox 360 was defined by Forza, Fable, and Gears of War.  But what does the Xbox One have?  Sunset Overdrive was largely overlooked, and Quantum Break was disappointing.

The Playstation 3 had Infamous, Uncharted and The Last of Us.  But PS4?  Well, it has Bloodborne… but that’s about it.  Nobody cared about Knack, and while Until Dawn is great, it isn’t a title that’s going to sell systems.  Driveclub has its fans, but still hasn’t managed to evade the stink left behind by its troubled launch.  And it’s not even worth mentioning The Order: 1886 (I didn’t think it was terrible, but it’s certainly frowned upon by most of the gaming community).

So, if video games aren’t giving this generation a definitive voice, what is?

Well, the struggle over resolution and frame-rate, for one.  But outside of that, this generation will likely be remembered for the releases of the PS4 Pro and Xbox Scorpio.  I mean, their very existence could very well change the way consoles are developed and sold from here on out.  I don’t have a crystal ball or anything, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we never saw a Playstation 5.  If each console is only somewhat better than the version before it, a new naming convention could take over:  Playstation Nitro, Playstation Beyond, Playstation Zen, etc.  All only somewhat better than the previous iteration, and yet still years behind what PC hardware brings to the table.

And if I were Sony and Microsoft, I’d start thinking about how big a problem that might be.

This isn’t rocket science.  GAMES should define how we feel about any given generation.  Sure, we’ll also develop an attachment to hardware designs, but games are what matter most.  Unfortunately, the gaming industry has lost sight of that, and that could very well bite console developers in the end.  If Microsoft and Sony want to continue down the path of pushing consoles more than first party exclusives, they’ll eventually be perceived as third-party machines.  If that happens, it leaves the door WIDE open for Steam machines to make another push, and with Steam having almost any third party title you can dream of, and for less money, that platform could finally become a contender in the living room.

And speaking of third-party, it’s pretty clear the AAA heavies have gotten lazy, too.  They’re just too afraid to let go of moneymaking franchises.  People often complain about being bored of the same old crap, but how do these companies respond?

“We’ll make our games look better.  Cool?”

But people aren’t complaining about graphics anymore.  That narrative just isn’t driving the industry as much as it used to… at least from the perspective of consumers.  Gamers want better writing, character depth, enemy AI, etc.  But nooooo… all anyone has done is say, “Better volumetric fog, god rays, and particle effects!  That’ll revolutionize everything!”

Ugh.

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Shadow of Mordor had the right idea with the Nemesis System.  It was basic, yes, but I was convinced it was the first baby-step in this industry’s journey to develop better AI… and yet nobody has tried to emulate, let alone best that system since.  Nope, every other game still features enemies that either stand against a single guard post, or walk in the same L-shaped pattern over and over.

So let me ask:  Is this truly the best that AAA developers could pull off in 2016?  Is this REALLY the best generation of gaming ever?  I don’t think so, and furthermore, I think the industry CAN do better.  Not only CAN it do better, but there’s nothing wrong with EXPECTING better, either.  But with so many people literally buying products before they’re finalized, what incentive does this industry have to change its unfriendly business tactics?

Well, consumers have to realize that more powerful hardware isn’t going to solve a damn thing.  If you want better quality products, you have to stop pre-ordering games.  Stop telling studios you’re willing to buy their crap sight unseen.  Also, if you’re not having much fun playing the games being released on the PS4 or Xbox One, playing them on a PS4 Pro or Xbox One S (or even the Xbox Scorpio) isn’t going to change that.  Your gameplay will be enhanced, but enhancement of non-enjoyment is still just that… non-enjoyment.

If you want newer, better IP’s, and advancement in storytelling and AI, then all you need to do is keep those conversations in the public eye.  Keep those narratives strong so AAA publishers and developers can see that they’re no longer going to get away with repackaging the same two or three gameplay formats time and time again.  Make damn sure they know you want more than just:  FPS – The Game / Blasting From Behind Cover – The Game / Stealthily Wipe-Out Poor Enemy AI – The Game / Detective Mode – The Game.

Not that AAA games should be villainized, though.  Again, I still find them to be quite enjoyable.  I’m just disappointed that the industry refuses to broaden its horizons in the ways that are most needed.

The good news?  As long as you’re willing to wander outside the AAA scene, there’s plenty of great games being released by smaller and/or independent studios.  Ori and the Blind Forest, The Witness, Inside, Limbo, Absolute Drift, Stardew Valley, Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge, Grow Home, Child of Light, Never Alone, Outlast, Trine, Braid, Undertale, Owlboy, Soma… and these are only some of the most notable choices.  And hey, if none of these pique your curiosity, there’s still decades worth of games for you to go back and enjoy.

It’s easy to forget that gaming isn’t a ‘box’, but an art form that we can enjoy… well, pretty much whenever.  Games take a bit longer to digest than music albums, movies, and even a number of books, and as a result, people always feel like they have to play the newest stuff and never look back on the old… and that’s just simply not true.  If you find yourself in a rut, just look at your back catalog or start working on games that you may have missed.  Sure, there are some titles that may not have aged as gracefully as others, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that most hold their own quite well.

 

 

Greatness Delayed Podcast 027 – Slick Mother Effers

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Mike and Gabe are joined by special guest Slcmof of Youtube, and discuss PSX 2016, and more about the upcoming Batman game.

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SLCMOF’s Youtube Channel