Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Monday, February 26, 2018

Reductive Assembly

The long running Total War series has always been unique among the strategy gaming genre in that it is a hybrid of RTS tactical battles and turn-based strategic planning.  I've played the majority of the entries in the franchise starting with the big three; Shogun: Total War, Medieval: Total War and Rome: Total War.  In addition to that I've also played many of the sequels and expansions.  However, I've stayed away from more recent titles partially because I'm not fond of Warhammer (or 40k), but more so because there are a number of long standing issues with the I.P.  (which I've already covered on an old blogpost here).

Enter Thrones of Britannia, visually it comes across as a fairly obvious attempt to capitalize on the popularity of TV shows like Game of Thrones and Vikings.  Of course that's just my take.  Going by the comments posted in various places around the internet it's actually a reskin of Attila.  That might be true for the rendering engine, but given the time period and setting calling Thrones of Britannia a remake of Medieval: Total War - Viking Invasion is probably more accurate statement.  Then again that stand-alone expansion (rebranded recently as "Total War Sagas") came out way back in 2003 which means it's more ancient than the Dark Ages by video game standards.

On a more positive note, I'm glad to see the developers take a few cues from Crusader Kings and try to inject a bit more verisimilitude into their feudal simulations (especially when it comes to army recruitment/deployment).  It has been a long-lasting dream of mine to see Creative Assembly and Paradox Interactive join forces to create a truly epic historical war game.  Alas, I suppose this is the most I can realistically expect.  Another thing I'd like to mention is the period art.  Namely, I don't have a problem with it and think it contributes to the clean looking U.I.  My suspicion is that no small part of the fan griping stems from an inability to see the dichotomy of playing video games and wanting to be taken seriously.  In case that isn't clear, let me bring out a straw man for a moment...*ahem*... "I'm engaging in a hardcore piece of interactive history and not a crude approximation made purely for entertainment value."  In that sense the art, which is abstract and yet reminiscent of the era, is actually spot-on in terms of what Thrones of Britannia really represents.

As much as I have come to dislike the developers of Total War (Creative Assembly) and their current publisher (Sega), I have to admit that the fan base around this series is five flavors of toxic.  One kind I've already mentioned.  Other than that there are passive/aggressive types who complain incessantly then rush to pre-order the next installment only to repeat the entire process over and over.  There are armchair historians/generals who think their subjective opinions are infallible, apologists that claim that the modders will fix all, and the worst of the bunch - ultranationalists.  Hang on...I'll bring out the straw man again..."The faction I associate most with in real life should be the strongest in the game, and while I'm at it I demand that genocidal extermination be implemented so I can use it on ethnic groups I'm biased against."  Sadly, as repugnant as that second request is I can't claim it is ahistorical.  That said, it still reeks of wrong-headed thinking.  Now, I don't want to generalize too much here.  I'm certain that the majority of Total War enthusiasts are introspective enough to refrain from such foolishness or when they do express their opinions it's in the form of legitimate grievances/concerns.  Unfortunately, more often than not, said fans are drowned out by one or more forms of the awfulness I previously mentioned.

It's a shame because at its core, Total War is an interesting concept.  If the devs had adopted a more aggressive policy of improving on gameplay mechanics, paying proper lip-service to actual history, and working on creating something better than brain-dead A.I. behavior then it could have been one of the all time greats of the strategy genre.  As is though it has gone the way of the mediocre click fests wherein everyone plays too far zoomed out to notice any nuance or detail.   

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Duped by the Masters

I've always enjoyed the work Extra Credits has done over the years.  Way back when they were at the Escapist, I remember thinking that it was nice to see video based content that wasn't just going for some cheap laughs.  After becoming a Youtube channel, I was glad to see them expand their coverage into the realm of history and literature.  While not necessarily related to video games, they new how to spin an interesting yarn.  Sadily, I can't get behind some of their most recent content.  I suppose this falling out can only be expected.  Everyone rubs someone else the wrong way sooner or later...or as they say in Japan, "Even monkeys fall from trees."

The couple of videos I'm referring to here are all about the rising costs of triple AAA game developments and the need to increase prices to compensate.  The former is an issue I've addressed recently here.  As for the price tag...well, that's an issue Jim Sterling has got covered far better than I ever could.  That said, I would like to bring up one thing that he never really mentioned - why did they do that?

Why would Extra Credits feel compelled to defend these giants of the industry?  I think in part it's because they are freelancers for said businesses.  Although, I should say that just because they sometimes work in the "big money" sector of the industry doesn't necessarily mean they are subservient to it.  The problem, I believe, is a vulnerability that comes with being receptive to worm tongues.

Extra Credits are idea guys.  They're always looking for new ways to solve industry related issues.  To do that they need to be open-minded and listen to what others have to say.  The problem here is spending lots of time in corporate boardrooms with executives can lead to a very skewed perspective.  Businesses executives always want more money.  In fact the entire point of the occupation is to charm, smooth-talk, persuade, and deceive others for the express purpose of increasing revenue (and by extension their own personal wealth) in publicly traded companies.  If door-to-door salesmen are amature sportsment, then these guys are the professional athletes of their field.  Coming from that angle, it's not hard to see how a normally well meaning bunch of guys like Extra Credits were manipulated into becoming spokesmen for corporate interests.

Either that, or they're a bunch of sellouts.  Regardless, I hope they see the error of their ways.  Also, I don't really buy their excuse that people are reading to much into what they are saying.  It's more like a case of filling in the blanks.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Best of the Bunch

 Perhaps it's because of the competitive nature of video game, but I often see discussions about which game is better (particularly within a given series).  "What's the best Final Fantasy?" or "Which Legend of Zelda do you like the most?" are questions that have come up fairly regularly on video game message boards for many years now.  As far as I can tell people keep asking the same kind of questions; only the games they discuss change.  One that I've heard a lot recently is "Which Soulsborne game is the best in the series?"  I think the only correct response to that question is to ask "What do you mean by 'best'?"

Do you mean best level design?  If so, the original Dark Souls wins by that metric.  A large variety of environments interconnected in interesting ways is the biggest reason for recommending that entry over others in the series.  From the Asylum in the beginning to the Kiln at the end, pretty much every zone in the game is a feast for the senses.  My personal favorite is Ash Lake which, incidentally, is an entirely optional area that can be easily missed given the fact that the only entrance is secret hidden within a secret.

Do you mean best combat?  If so, Bloodborne is the most satisfying.  Unlike other other action-RPGs made by From Software, Bloodborne doesn't allow players to take cover behind a sturdy shield.  As such players must react dynamically and take the initiative.  The stat and upgrade systems are also less complex than those used in the Souls series meaning players need not spend large amounts of time fiddling with numbers, and instead can focus on doing battle.

Do you mean best story?  If so, then Demon's Souls is the most compelling in that department.  Bloodborne suffers from a clouding of dreams and reality, leaving the player to wonder if anything they do (or that happens) really matters within the fiction of that world.  Meanwhile, Dark Souls has time travel and some pretty convoluted lore to the point that really understanding what's going on requires a fair amount of online research.  On the other hand, Demon's Souls is a lot more straightforward.  Carefully reading item descriptions and listening to NPC dialogues are still necessary to get all the little details, but one not need become an amature detective to grasp the main storyline.

So which is the best overall then?  It depends on your priorities...or to put it more generally, they're all good from a technical standpoint so it comes down to (largely subjective) personal tastes.  Some folks swear Dark Souls II has the best PvP so if that's your thing then maybe that's the best one.  Personally, I never got into invading so I don't have much to say about that.  The same goes for Dark Souls 3, which up until recently was still a work in progress and, as such, makes it really hard to say where it stands in comparison to the rest.  Regardless of it all, Hidetaka Miyazaki has yet to make an objectively bad game, so I say let the good times roll...or block...or parry and repost...

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Meta Games

In the indie space it's fairly common to see developers experimenting with the limits of what video games can achieve.  One direction I've seen being pushed increasingly the last couple years is in a meta direction.  "What is game?" is a question that was first brought to my attention with the Stanley Parabola about four years ago and is one which I'd like to address here by pointing out three specific examples.

What starts out as a VR adaptation of Duck Hunt on a pseudo-NES, turns more sinister the longer you play.  I won't get into the story details, but I would like to mention that the game uses the virtual reality headset to allow the player to see through the eyes of a child (complete with a 1980s home built around playing one of those third generation video game consoles).  It's all rather immersive in that the player can swap out cartridges to try out different games, stick in a VHS tape and watch live-action video on an old CRT, or even interact with various objects in the house.  Although you're limited movement-wise the weather outside the house seems to imply a hot sunny afternoon.  Perhaps the environment was crafted based on one or more of the developers' childhood memories from a leisurely summer school break.  Funnily enough when you pop in the Duck Season game cartridge the player is quite literally drawn into the TV set and a version of the game that feels much more consistent with a modern adaptation of Duck Hunt rather than the 8-bit version it's supposed to be based on.  Oh and that hound has a Donnie Darko thing going on...just replace Frank the Rabbit with the Dog from Duck Hunt.

Advertised as a text-based adventure game it actually has more in common with an old television series like Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone.  The story is broken into three seemingly unrelated episodes and a fourth info-dump that ties everything up into a big metatextual ball.  This is one of those games that sets up players with a series of extraordinary events and then hits them with an ending twist that's actually very mundane.  If you've played The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Firewatch or Gone Home you probably know exactly what I'm talking about.  If not, then let's just say it's not my cup of tea.  Performing medical/scientific procedures on an unknown specimen is intriguing.  Relaying weapon deployment codes from a remote base somewhere in the frozen wastes of Greenland?  Riveting!  Even the first episode which features the double layer of the player using his or her computer to manipulate an in-game character to play a text-based game on their computer (which in turn seems to affect that reality) is trippy and bizzare in interesting ways...alas, learning that it's actually just a daydream fantasy made up by an ordinary loser who made some questionable life choices is kind of a let down.

Billed as an educational game, the demo version of PC Building Simulator has been freely available for download off the internet for the better part of a year now.  However, a more fully realized version of the game is set for a January 2018 release.  From the perspective of trying to teach people how to build PC desktops without make costly time consuming mistakes, I can see why this piece of software might have a degree of widespread appeal.  That said, the whole notion of using your computer to build another computer in a simulated environment is more than a little weird when you take a step back and look at it objectively.  When we're done building a simulation of a PC are we going to use that PC to run a simulated version of PC Building Simulator and build another PC in that one?  If so, things are starting to look a lot like one of the endless series of reflections you get by placing two mirrors face to face.  I suppose this sort of game coming out was inevitable considering that there are over 200 unique pieces of software for sale on Steam (not counting DLC) that have the world "Simulator" in the title.  Maybe a better name for PC Building Simulator would be Simulation Simulator...or is that too meta?