Category Archives: Video Games

Dark Souls 3 colon The Podcast

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Dark Souls fanboys Deprava and Sagramore have gathered to salivate over the recently released Dark Souls 3. How do we feel about it? Only one way to find out: click play!

*Warning: bad, bad language in this one.

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Let’s Play DARK SOULS

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Deprava and Sagramore are trying something new, and doing a Let’s Play video series on Dark Souls. One of all time’s top 5 games ever. You can see the videos on youtube, starting with:

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ISuk32dyAk

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuatJs_XIT0

Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XriyRUC1Zgg&feature=youtu.be

Part 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6v94dwVzy0k&feature=youtu.be

Enjoy,

Sagramore

Second Opinions: Why You Need To Play Tomb Raider Immediately

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So I read my significant podcasting other’s Tomb Raider review, and summarily dismissed the game. Deprava came down pretty negatively on it, as you can read here. Now, the problem with rainy weekends is there ain’t s$$t to do, and Steam makes buying games easy. Long story short, I ended up getting Tomb Raider. I basically agree with everything Deprava said about the game, except I kind of don’t, because he made the game sound derivative and skip-worthy, but it’s actually kind of amazing in the way only transcendent camp can be. Think Fast Five in video game form. Anyway, before you read anymore, please understand I want you to buy this game right now. Don’t wait for it to be reduced price; buy it now and play it now. I’d say “rent it,” but even Blockbuster shareholders don’t rent anymore.

Crystal Dynamics, whom Wikipedia revealed designed the game, mixed together Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted, and Assassin’s Creed III, then multiplied them by tits, and raised everything to the power of shaky cam. The result can only be described as a HOT mess, with all capitals in “HOT” because it completely makes up for the mess. The game is frantic as hell; I’ve put in 3 hours into the game, and still have no idea what I’m doing where or why. By the way, that was 3 hours straight. And I have ADD, so that’s impressive. I could not put the game down. I only did so to write this review. So far, it’s just been shaky cam chasing Lara’s tits as she slides down waterfalls and gets shoved down caves on fire. I don’t know how rock burns, but basically everything in the game environment can and will burn. Little hint windows keep popping up all game long, just in case you forgot your torch can burn s$$t 4 hours in. I’d criticize the game for this, but anyone with an attention span longer than a squirrel’s probably won’t find the experience enjoyable, and those hints are likely useful to those people and me.

Continue reading Second Opinions: Why You Need To Play Tomb Raider Immediately

Queen of Pastiche: A Tomb Raider Review

TombRaider2013The new Tomb Raider is a time capsule masquerading as a game. In the future, there will be a college professor who will teach a class on video game history and design. He will make a syllabus that has a unit called, “Game Design, 2005-2015.” When the day comes for him to teach this unit to his class, he will assign them only this game, and say, “This pretty much covers all of it.”

Tomb Raider is aggressively hostile to originality in game design. When I try to write a description of what it is and how it plays, it reads like deliberate hyperbole.

For example: this game is a laundry list of every gameplay mechanic popular in the last ten years. Now, you read that, and think I mean that the game is chock full of mechanics, really too many for its own good, and that some of the mechanics feel underused and out of place. And you’d be correct to interpret my statement in that way, but you’re reading too deep into what I’m saying. My statement is simply true on its face: this game is a laundry list of popular gameplay mechanics. A mechanic is introduced, you do one thing with it, and then it is never mentioned again. It’s a checklist for AAA game developmet in playable form. It’s as if the devs created a tech demo showing off, one after another, all of the possible game mechanics they had thought up while brainstorming. “These are the ideas we came up with that we could put in the new Tomb Raider,” they say in their presentation to the producers. “If you don’t like any of them, we can start over, but we think we can build a really fun game out of two or three of these.” Imagine the looks on their faces when a clueless executive turned to them and said, “Yes, this looks good. Add a few more levels, stick in a final boss fight, and ship it.”

Continue reading Queen of Pastiche: A Tomb Raider Review

Error 3004: Diablo III Open Beta Impressions

Late to the party, but I still made it! A huge gaming event sort of snuck under everyone’s radar this weekend (the lack of sarcasm font is crippling to my writing!). Not sure if anyone heard, but the Diablo III Beta went public for 72 hours. Guess who’s got 2 thumbs, and managed to sneak in a couple hours of demon slaying in between server crashes and busy messages? Me! I also have a blog, so I figured I’d write about it. The problem is I think pretty much anyone with a computer and an internet connection also played it, so this may not be news…

Continue reading Error 3004: Diablo III Open Beta Impressions

How Deus Ex: Human Revolution Fails in its Storytelling, Part 2

Last time we ended on a high point, with DXHR presenting deep and complex questions about the ethical limits of human augmentation and the use of technology as the next step in human evolution. We saw the streets of Detroit and what a world with augmentation would look like, both the good and the bad. We met Adam Jensen, a man who has had augmentation thrust upon him in order to save his life, and whose past is one big question mark. We tracked down the terrorists who attacked Sarif Industries to their temporary base in an underground FEMA concentration camp. And it is at that point that we pick up the story once again: our very first boss battle.

Continue reading How Deus Ex: Human Revolution Fails in its Storytelling, Part 2

How Deus Ex: Human Evolution Fails in its Storytelling, Part 1

Deus Ex: Human Revolution begins with a terrific premise, a richly developed world, and intriguing themes.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution ends with none of its plot threads resolved, nonsensical conspiracies, and trite sermonizing.

When I began the game, I marveled at its world-building, its intelligence, and the questions it raised about technology, ethics, and the price of progress.

When I ended the game, I marveled at how the cliches had consumed the narrative, how base and moronic the story had become, and how the questions had given way to indictments and ham-fisted moralization.

So it is not a consistent game, to say the least. The question, therefore, is not “Is this a good game?” but rather, “Do the good parts of the game outweigh the bad parts enough to even the keel?”

Continue reading How Deus Ex: Human Evolution Fails in its Storytelling, Part 1

The Not So Silent Partner – The New Age of WoW, part 2

One of the reasons I try to avoid dividing my posts into multiple parts is because I always find it difficult to get my train of thought back on the rails and out of the station. When I first write about a topic, the idea is fresh and the words flow easily because my mind is hard at work organizing and refining my thoughts. When I stop and then try to begin again, the initial novelty of the topic is gone, the necessity of continuing the general theme curtails creativity, and my grasp on my Muse is much more tenuous. I feel obligated to supply the follow-up post, and obligation does not breed quality writing.

So it is with much drudgery and hand-wringing that I return to the topic of World of Warcraft and the question of the causation. In the first post I laid the groundwork by articulating the changes in WoW’s game design, and how those changes can have an effect on the WoW community. I left off my hypotheses as to the cause of these changes, both because I thought the post was running long and because I had not yet developed a satisfactory answer.

The difficulty is that, upon reflection, the interrelation between game design and community is very complex, and complexity does not lend itself to simple analysis and axiomatic declaration. The argument proposed by a fair portion of the community is, “Blizzard (and/or Activision) cares only about profits. They eschew appeasing their longtime supporters in favor of dumbing down the game in order to bring in as many players as possible to generate subscription fees.” I concede that this characterization walks a very fine line, and is about two steps to the right of a strawman argument, but a cursory search of the official forums and WoW Insider comments should provide enough evidence to show that I am not misrepresenting the argument. That is in fact what players think.

The biggest problem I have with this claim is how much it simplifies the issue. It assigns one trait to Activision Blizzard (greed), implies that the game design in 2005 was superior, and that the game design today, by virtue of appealing to a wider market, is objectively damaging to the game. In essence, the argument attempts to couch the opinion, “It’s different and I don’t like it,” in the trappings of a factual conclusion.

My observations, on the other hand, are informed by logic rather than self-serving emotion, but a side effect of complexity is the inability to distill my conclusion into a simple sentence.

First, we must do away with the concept of “good” game design versus “bad” game design as it applies to WoW. I agree that if a game is riddled with bugs, has a control scheme that renders it nearly unplayable, and uses mechanics that are obtuse to the point of interfering with gameplay, one can say it is “bad game design.” But that is not what most people are referring to when they use the term for WoW. In a discussion about WoW game design, the central points are usually 1) difficulty, 2) heroic dungeon and raid design philosophy, 3) player interaction and social activity, and 4) balance and parity between classes. Of course there are debates about mechanics and whether ability X should have Y effect, but the vast majority of forum complaints center around one of those four facets. And yet, all four are extremely subjective topics. Personal taste determines whether you prefer the current raid philosophy over the Vanilla raid philosophy; and whether you prefer the BC era closed server PVE community versus the current cross-server dungeons and focus on guild interaction. It is impossible to quantify whether one is “better” than the other, therefore one cannot argue that Blizzard is “ruining WoW” by implementing changes. The design philosophy in Vanilla was the not the Ur-philosophy of MMO design.

In fact, most of the changes that have occurred in the last six years have been in response to player feedback. In the original beta, players did not like that there was a penalty for playing for long periods (the “anti-rested” effect), so Blizzard eliminated it. One of the premiere alterations to the MMO formula at launch was that quests continued all the way to max level, rather than disappearing early on in favor of mindless grinding (a la Everquest); this breakthrough came directly from player feedback. Blizzard reduced the raid size in BC from 40 to 10/25 because a significant number of players complained that 40 was too many. Likewise in Wrath Blizzard implemented scaling 10/25 man raids when BC players complained that their guild could not cope with the transition from 10 man Kara into 25 man Gruul and Magtheridon. In later Wrath Blizzard created heroic raid difficulty in order to appease the hardcore raid crowd that wanted a challenge. From the beginning through two expansions players bemoaned the existence of group quests in leveling zones, and many players chose to skip them rather than try to create a group; so when Cataclysm launched group quests were nowhere to be found. Players begged for cross-server dungeons and a more robust instance queue system, and Blizzard delivered the Dungeon Finder. Even now players are clamoring for a cross-server Raid Finder, which would only further diminish the separation between the servers and the insular server community.

To claim that Blizzard does not listen to its players, and that they develop and change the game based on their own whims, is so patently false as to be laughable.

Even when they do make design decisions that are not directly influenced by player feedback, they still do so with an eye to provide more for the players. One of Blizzards design goals, (one that I suspect has been a cornerstone of their philosophy since day one), is to make a game that appeals to as many people as possible, provides as much content as possible to players, and can be enjoyed in a wide variety of ways. At the end of BC, Blizzard found that an incredibly small number of players ever set foot in Sunwell Plateau, and similarly at the end of Vanilla very few guilds made it into the original Naxxramas. Therefore in Wrath they tuned raid difficulty down, and brought Naxx back, as a way to let a larger proportion of their player base experience raiding. They implemented the badge/emblem system so that players could obtain gear outside of raiding and jump into the current raiding tier without farming the previous tier. They spread essential buffs and abilities around to multiple classes so that players would not lose raid spots just because of a choice they made during character creation. The oft-quoted mantra “bring the player, not the class,” is the perfect distillation of Blizzard’s design philosophy in the wake of BC: if a player wants to experience X, he or she should be able to do so.

WoW has changed since December 2004, of that there can be no doubt. But the reasons for its changes are not so simple as “corporate greed” and “to attract the facebook crowd.” Change has come about by way of the complex interaction of player desires/feedback and Blizzard’s over-arching design philosophy.

Once again, this has run extremely long, and I have yet to even touch on the changes in the WoW community and how the community has responded and adapted to design changes. I guess now there’s going to be a part 3. We’ll see if I can get it published in less than a week.

Single Player Mode – The New Age of WoW, part 1

Coming in patch 4.2
World of Warcraft has always been a fluid game. The WoW that currently inhabits the live servers is not the WoW that shipped in 2004, nor is it the WoW that existed the day Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King launched. The basic gameplay is largely the same, in that the player gains XP by completing quests and killing mobs, but even those mechanics have changed and been refined over the game’s six year life-span. Entire features have been integrated or deleted. Character abilities and combat formulae only vaguely resemble what they were in the days of Molten Core. If Blizzard’s development philosophy can be distilled down to one observation, it is that Blizzard is not afraid to change the game, and will do so when it believes that change is best for the game. (Whether the players think a change is for the better is a different issue, but we’ll get to that.)

So I do not think I am breaking new ground when I say that the current WoW, the game according to Cataclysm, is not the same game that we played back in the Vanilla days. As the game has changed, so too has the WoW community. The causal relationship between these two aspects (design and community) has been the topic of much discussion for the past year or so in the WoW blogoverse and tweetosphere. In the wake of Wrath and the LFG tool, much digital ink has been spilled in the documentation of the change in the WoW community. Most analysts blame the change in the community on the change in design direction. Some have said that Blizzard, because it controls the mechanics of WoW, is directly and solely responsible for the change in the community, and that the community is blameless because it cannot but react to the changes in the game.

I do not agree with that interpretation, nor do I agree with the converse. I perceive the relationship between design and community to be much more complex, such that a simple model of cause and effect is insufficient to describe it.

I do not want to lean on anecdotal evidence about what things were like back in Vanilla and BC, because anecdotal proof, while very persuasive, is not a valid basis for extrapolating the character of the WoW community. Rather I will try to stick to facts and draw logical conclusions.

During Vanilla and BC, the servers were more or less isolated from one another. The PVP Battlegroups existed, which did allow for cross-server PVP, but the majority of player activity: leveling, instances, and raiding, were server-side only. In order to form a group for an instance, the players had to form one manually by spamming a “Looking For More” message in chat, or later by placing their names in a rudimentary LFG channel, which basically just advertised to other people that they were open to run an instance. If, in an instance, a player trolled, ninja’d loot, or otherwise disrespected the other players, that player could develop a reputation on the server, which might impede his or her ability to get into other instance groups. Actions, therefore, potentially impacted a player’s reputation server wide, for good or for ill. (I do not, of course, imply that trolling did not exist, or that people never got away with trolling. Rather I am saying that the possibility of repercussions for conduct was greater than it is now.)

One of the other facets of WoW gameplay during the Vanilla days was the prevalence of group quests. As a player progressed through a leveling zone, that player was sure to encounter at least half a dozen quests that required more than one player to complete. Some might need two or three, others might need a full group of five. These quests forced player interaction and spontaneous grouping, and provided a teaching experience to prepare the player for instance group dynamics.

Now we turn to the changes in design philosophy begun in Wrath and perfected in Cataclysm. Group quests (aside from the Ring of Blood type arena chain) are almost completely removed. The leveling process in zones has become extremely linear, sending the player down a predetermined path that forwards the story of the zone. The leveling zones now resemble a single player game more than a multiplayer game. The experience is akin to God of War or Bayonetta, in which the player runs down a corridor, meets a locked door, and fights a series of enemies to unlock that door. The game has almost completely abandoned the Everquest model of “go out into the open world and kill stuff.”

With the implementation of the Dungeon Finder, the server’s PVE community lost its isolation from the rest of the player base. Now one’s instance party members can be from any server, and one may never see them again after the completion of the dungeon. The actions of a player do not attach to that player after the instance is finished. If a player ninjas or otherwise acts inappropriate, there is very little possibility that those actions will affect that player’s reputation, and such actions will never permanently impinge on that player’s ability to queue in the Dungeon Finder. The tool, in effect, grants full anonymity and full exoneration to all participants for the duration of the dungeon.

Dungeons may likewise be considered something of a single player affair. A player may queue in the Dungeon Finder, perform in the instance without interacting with the other players, and leave at once when the run is complete. From the perspective of a solo queue player in the dungeon, the four other players are equivalent to bots or henchmen, akin to the party members one acquires in Mass Effect: necessary due to game balance but not under the direct control of the main player. A couple of bloggers have talked about Blizzard implementing bots in instances, so that solo players can run them without having to deal with other players. I submit that such a thing has already happened, save that rather than use AI programming, the bots are controlled by other solo players.

The only activity that still necessitates direct social interaction is raiding, which requires a player to go through the old fashioned song and dance of trawling for players in Trade chat or setting up a guild run. Raiding in Cataclysm does not materially demand greater individual skill than heroics, but does demand greater coordination among the group, because synchronizing the actions of ten or twenty-five people is more complex than doing so with five.

In the era of Cataclysm, WoW’s gameplay, outside of PVP and raiding, is comparable to The Bioware Game. The single player goes through a linear storyline, assisted by a party of NPCs when necessary, and sometimes does sidequest dungeons to collect loot. Even the crafting and auction house aspects are largely single player activities. Players with trade skills may as well be vendors that you have to track down and who charge varying prices based on your stock of raw materials.

So what do we make of this change in game design? Is it the product of greed? Is it a slow but methodical erosion of MMO gameplay in order to attract as large a player-base as possible? Is it detrimental to the game and to the genre as a whole? Can we blame Blizzard for doing this to the game?

The answer to all of those questions is No, but because I have spent so many words laying the groundwork, the actual argument will have to wait until next time.

“Clarification” and Rift Impressions

Don't look at me.  They put that in their own trailers!

I downloaded the beta for Rift back in late February after reading several gushing accounts of it from disenfranchised WoW bloggers. From the way most of them talked, I expected Rift to be something fresh, something new, something magical. Instead my character awoke in an Abbey, wherein I talked to an NPC with a floating exclamation point over his head who gave me a quest to kill 10 whatevers. I then ventured out, to find that there were several whatevers to kill, and when I killed them I could right click their corpses to loot them for vendor trash.

This is the innovative game that’s snatching people from WoW?

Let’s not bandy words: the game is WoW. The interface is the same, the mechanics are the same, the quests are the same, the factions are the same. The only difference is that you are not, in fact, in Azeroth anymore.

As for the vaunted soul system, I was likewise underwhelmed. The game has four classes: warrior, rogue, mage, and cleric (which means the game is also cribbing from First Edition Dungeons & Dragons), but each class has access to eight soul trees, which are talent trees from WoW. The “customization” comes from the fact that you can mix and match any three soul trees you wish on your character. So in theory, you can have a mage that has a fire magic tree, a demonology tree, and cleric tree with attacks attacks that also heal allies.

But this doesn’t really add anything new to the system. It just means instead of mage, warlock, elemental shaman, or boomkin, you have “caster.” The ability to cherry pick talent trees that suit your play style and have good synergy with each other is interesting, but I don’t see how this is a ground-breaking dynamic. (Plus there seems to be some overlap on trees. On my rogue character I picked two different trees, and the first two abilities unlocked from both were identical.)

In all fairness, I played the beta for about twenty minutes, and started a character with both factions. I didn’t play past twenty minutes because I saw nothing original at any point, and certainly nothing that interested me enough to keep playing. The whole package was uninspired. The gameplay felt bereft of new ideas or twists on old ideas; it just felt like old ideas. The lore is the best part, but it’s not good enough to make me want to play to uncover more of the story.

I will give it credit that it looked polished, and that the graphics and art style were pretty, but the bankruptcy of original gameplay ideas was too overwhelming. If you like WoW, but don’t want to play WoW itself, this is an acceptable stand-in, by virtue of being a carbon copy, but if you’re looking for something actually new, I’d advise you give this one a pass.