Project Wingman

Project Wingman is the game made by people who thought VR Ace Combat would be so cool but Project Aces kept blocking their number, so they made it themselves. Its main selling point is VR, a thing I do not have, but it also works on regular monitors and I like Ace Combat games. So how is Project Wingman at being an Ace Combat game?

Well, I can’t speak to Ace Combat 7. But earlier installments in the series have a Hell of a place in my heart. Air Combat, the US title for the first Ace Combat, is one of the first video games I ever played as a tiny baby Chamomile. When an elementary school friend offered to play Ace Combat 4 in co-op together a few years later, I realized that this series had gotten away from me, and throughout high school and college I scrounged for old Ace Combat games to play on my PS2 during the era when I couldn’t afford the PS3 and series’ like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry and even the newer Ace Combat installments were passing me by, and I dived through GameStop bargain bins to find Ace Combat 4, 5, and Zero going for $7 and it became such a staple of my library that I at one point played it and nothing else for over a month, completing it multiple times in a row and unlocking absolutely everything. There is maybe one video game franchise that would be harder to compete with here on my blog where stacking yourself up against the games of my childhood is a serious handicap, and that is Kingdom Hearts (even Hollow Knight has to stand on actually being good – I played it long after the nostalgia window closed, and if Silksong is a bomb, I doubt I’ll have much trouble letting go of the series).

This was my specific experience, but pretty much the entire target demographic for this game had some kind of history with Ace Combat like that. I lead with this, because there’s no way to review Project Wingman without comparing it to Ace Combat, and it wouldn’t be fair to Wingman to admit up front that I am not exactly an unbiased perspective on that comparison. At the same time, Wingman’s aiming itself square at people with very similar bias, so there’s a very valid perspective that it doesn’t matter that my vision of the comparison is clouded by nostalgia a bit – because that is also true, in one way or another, for most people who will play this game.

Continue reading “Project Wingman”

Raji

Raji is a mid-powered game from 2020, not AAA but not indie pixel art either, and yet it’s straining the limits of what my machine can handle. Now, my machine is a 2021 rig, but graphics card prices being what they were at the time, I splurged on a beastly processor and skimped on a pathetic graphics card and hoped my processor would carry the load. For the vast majority of video games, this has worked out, but some more recent video games expect you to have a graphics card that isn’t made out of moldy cardboard as well as a good processor, and Raji has sort of been one of those. I am beset by processor lag and crashes and I had to turn down the resolution and the graphics quality to get past them. The thing is, this game’s graphics are pitiful compared to something like Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate or Far Cry 2, which run just fine on my computer. There’s never more than a dozen or so moving characters on the screen at once, whereas AC:Syndicate would have to contend with five or even ten times that many, and the quality of individual models is comparable in detail. Raji has better art direction, but I don’t know why that’s putting more pressure on my processor.

My tentative conclusion, though I am no expert, is that devs are taking for granted that their users will have at minimum mid-tier equipment for the year of release and get sloppy with optimization past that level. This is probably a fair assumption, but since my PC is much harder to upgrade than anticipated (turns out the power supply unit is basically impossible to replace because of some kind of proprietary plug so only a small selection of Dell PSUs will connect to the motherboard, and Dell is out of stock for anything stronger than 180W with no word on when they’ll have the 300W back in stock or make anything bulkier than that), but it’s still frustrating when a game that doesn’t look any better (in terms of pure detail and power) than 2015 games my computer breezes through will cause the machine to lag or even crash.

But okay, what’s Raji like besides the way it interacts with my bizarrely min-maxed rig? Raji tells the story of the titular Raji, an Indian (dot, not feather) twelve-ish year old circus acrobat who has the misfortune of being in town when demons invade and kidnap her little brother Golu. Raji has exactly one half of the skillset needed to be the Hindu Prince of Persia, and video games being what they are, she acquires the second half pretty much the second she touches a spear. It is a divine superspear sent by Durga, the Hindu goddess of motherhood, war, and being totally metal (though it should be noted that like half of all Hindu gods are the god of being totally metal), but I’m not sure how much of the explanation is that the spear imbues its wielder with fighting prowess and how much is that we’re letting Raji’s acrobatic expertise carry over seamlessly into combat because this is a video game and we don’t want to wait until act 3 to be competent at fighting demons.

Either way, the game’s combat is very good compared to its most obvious predecessor, the Prince of Persia series. Like Prince of Persia, Raji includes acrobatic wall running and pillar leaping connecting together combat arenas where you fight spooky monsters. Unlike Prince of Persia, the part where you fight spooky monsters is actually fun, which is good, because it happens a lot more often. Raji is a master of the most important of all circus acrobatics, invincibility frames, which is good because the demons she’s fighting do not spend any time fucking around. While the combat is perfectly manageable on Normal difficulty mode, there is not a single enemy in this game that you can facetank. The game offers both an Easy mode and a Story mode (as well as some harder options) and clearly expects anyone who picked Normal mode over those other options to be ready to tackle a proper challenge immediately.

I really like this decision. In many video games, you’re thrown against some kind of weakling goblin enemy early on to build up your confidence, establish familiarity with the controls, and get you having fun before they throw a real challenge at you. In Raji, you have a thirty-second combat tutorial against some training dummies, and the instant you finish it an ogre of a demon spawns in to start swinging his club at you, and he will absolutely win a straight fight, so you have to start doing flips and shit immediately. He’s slow, and if you hit the X (on PS configuration) button your i-frames begin immediately, even if you’re in the middle of an attack animation and don’t actually start the dodge animation for another half-second, so the gameplay is not at all punishing, but despite being easy enough, it sells the idea that Raji is a twelve-year old circus acrobat fighting for her life against much bigger, much stronger enemies by skipping the warm-up.

And Raji looks great in a fight. She cartwheels and flips around when dodging, you can stun enemies by spinning around a pillar and hitting them with Durga’s divine lightning and you can run up a wall to jump off of it for a powerful dragoon strike from above. Prince of Persia had similar acrobatic attacks, but they didn’t offer much reward for how tricky they were to set up. Raji makes these attacks noticeably more powerful than your standard, thus encouraging you to actually use them. Each of the four weapons in the game have different finishers for different enemies, which often involve using the enemies themselves for wall runs or jumping points for flips before stabbing or shooting them mid-air. I doubt this game will hold my attention long enough to bother getting good enough at it for the no-hit difficulty option, which is kind of too bad, because its animations definitely sell me on the idea of being faster and cleverer than my stronger and more durable enemies, exactly the kind of mood where no-hit runs make you feel like a legend.

Unfortunately, a lack of polish does mar the game’s last few levels. Enemies are tanky to the point of tedium in the mystic ruins stage, and the final level in the desert of Thar has basically no opposition at all until you hit the final boss, who is also a hit point sponge of a slog. It doesn’t help that the plot’s pacing is so dreadful that there’s absolutely no story momentum going into this final confrontation. You bounce around different locations from Hindu legend pretty much at random and then when you’ve run out the bad guy turns up for a final confrontation. And then in the ending cut scene, I guess the world is destroyed or something? The good guys seem to fail their objectives, at least, but the protagonist and the little brother she’s been trying to protect the whole time both survive, though they seem stranded in a desert. If we take the image in the end credits as diagetic, they find a camel and make their way back to civilization, which has survived, so I guess the bad guy completing his doom ritual had no effect on anything?

Continue reading “Raji”

Hades Has A Good Opening

In Hades, you are Zagreus, an extremely obscure figure from Greek mythology who was the son of Hades and also somehow secretly Dionysus. Except, in the game Hades they drop the second half, you’re just Hades’ son, and you’ve decided to bust out of Hell and into the surface world to find your mother Persephone, who’s departed the underworld. Presumably bringing eternal spring to the surface, I guess? I dunno, I haven’t actually beaten the game and met Persephone yet, and I don’t know if the game addresses it.

Hades is a Roguelike, where every time you die, you are washed down the River Styx back into the House of Hades. Since you’re Hades’ son, from there you can walk into your old bedroom, jump out the window, and bam, you’re back where you were at the start of the game, at the very beginning of the long road out of the underworld.

I’ve talked a lot about good vs. bad openings, mainly in relation to Assassin’s Creed games, which are miserably long to get going. They’re lucky they hooked me in the first game when I didn’t have this problem, or I never would’ve developed the attachment to their open world games that’s compelled me to seek closure on their stagnant quality rather than just walking away immediately. Hades is an example of an opening done right. When you first boot up the game, you probably have a vague idea of what it’s about from osmosis, so odds are you know the basic premise, which the game tosses you into immediately and without explanation. If you don’t, your very first pickup comes with a message from Athena saying that the Olympian gods are gonna help you bust outta there, which establishes in under thirty seconds the setting and your goal. It’s not until you die for the first time (or maybe until you reach the first boss, if you’re able to get that far on your first run) that you get tossed back to the House of Hades to talk with Hypnos, Achilles, Nyx, and Hades himself.

Imagine if the Assassin’s Creed guys were put in charge of this game (specifically Assassin’s Creed, too, WATCH_DOGS and Far Cry aren’t as streamlined as Hades, but they usually contain themselves to just the one prologue like a regular video game, not like Assassin’s Creed, which regularly indulges in two and has had four in the past). The flashback scenes you unlock later in the game where you get fired from your miserable job in Hades’ accounting department and then go snooping through his files at night to discover your mother is Persephone, and not, as Zagreus had been told, Nyx, the goddess of the night, those two scenes would be at the beginning of the game, in order. There would be a scene where Achilles does some sparring with you to establish how Zagreus learned to fight, and a conversation with Nyx that establishes that she is using her powers to keep Zagreus’ movements hidden from Hades. There would be at least one scene with both Thanatos, god of death, and Megaera, the least insane of the three furies, to establish Zagreus’ romantic history with both of them. The sparring with Achilles would probably include a combat tutorial to keep the player awake, and there might be a fight with Megaera at some point while establishing her history with Zagreus, for the same reason, but it would be like two hours before you got to the actual Roguelike gameplay where you’re busting out of Tartarus.

The D&D Six Are Bad

D&D’s 3rd edition had, as part of their development process, a mission to find out what things were so core to D&D that the audience would revolt if they were changed, and which they could overhaul as completely as they pleased. For example, there had to be some use for all the funny shaped dice, because D&D players like their funny shaped dice, so you can’t switch everything over to standard six-siders even though that makes it easier for new players to get started. It was determined that numerical bonuses on magic weapons and armor were too beloved by too much of the playerbase to be dispensed with, so instead the game’s power curve was built to accommodate +2 longswords and such.

And they decided that they could not change the six D&D stats: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. This is too bad, because those stats are bad. They do a poor job of describing characters and a poor job of defining what parts of a character are expected to be under the player’s control and which are expected to be abstracted away by dice.

The need for some kind of perception-based roll is obvious. The GM can’t very well just declare that the monsters have surprised the party because they prepared an ambush – clearly, there is some chance the party might spot the ambush using their eyes and ears in a way the players at their tables cannot do, on account of the thing to be spotted being imaginary. Equally clearly, certain character archetypes, like the elf or the ranger, are much better at noticing these ambushes than, say, the fighter or the wizard. So your stats definitely need to cover spotting things like clues and ambushes, and definitely need to vary from one character to another.

But why is the associated stat Wisdom? You wouldn’t necessarily expect a perceptive thief sort to necessarily be extremely wise (though you wouldn’t expect them to be extremely foolish, either), but you would expect them to be very good at spotting ambushes and traps. Why is Survival associated with Wisdom? While that specific skill is from the 5e skill list, earlier editions also associated similar skills with the Wisdom stat, despite the fact that “impulsive barbarian who is nevertheless very good at hunting deer” is an obvious archetype (I have a fanboy compulsion to point out that this does not describe Conan the Barbarian as originally written by Robert E Howard, but it’s been a long time since Conan was the only or even primary inspiration for the Barbarian class and archetype). You can hack your way into it by giving the barbarian proficiency/skill points/whatever your specific edition uses to make skills improve with level, but a Cleric trained in Survival (or equivalent) will always be better. Characters with strong willpower are automatically better at working with animals, despite “easily startled animal lover” being a pretty straightforward Druid concept. You would expect someone’s Wisdom score to either increase or plateau with age (old fools exist aplenty, but they were fools when they were young, too), and yet eyesight and hearing get worse the older you get, starting almost immediately – few people can hear the “teen buzz” by the age of twenty, which is why it’s called that.

The division between stats is inconsistent. STR and CON are split apart, which leaves the conceptual space for the two stretched so thin that CON has no skills associated with it at all, and STR only gets one. CON gives HP and is a common save against nasty effects, but STR only contributes to attack and damage – DEX does that, and it has three skills (plus Thieves’ Tools, the rogue skill which has cunningly disguised itself as a tool proficiency) associated with it, and it’s associated with a common save, and it increases your AC in most armor. And there’s an obvious point of division between full-body agility and manual dexterity. Sleight of Hand, Thieves’ Tools, and ranged/finesse attack and damage would be covered by Dexterity, while Agility would cover the AC bonus, Acrobatics and Stealth proficiency, and get the saves against area attacks. Alternatively, combine STR and CON together to bring it up to par with DEX, which is probably better balanced with the other abilities (although as we’ve already discussed, WIS is a dog’s breakfast of concepts already).

Plus, while the mechanical function of Intelligence is fine, both it and Wisdom are named after things which should be coming from the player, not the character. A lot of Wisdom’s problems as a stat come from trying to tie together several unrelated mechanical functions, but also the basic concept of being too wise to fall for a trick is something the player can and should be doing themselves. Likewise, being smart enough to out-maneuver an enemy in a fight or politically or whatever should be based on player decisions. These kinds of decisions are the core of the player’s input into the game, strip them away and what game do you even have left? Roll an INT check to see if flanking that enemy is a good idea? Roll a WIS check to know if the princess is trustworthy (Insight already gets close to this)? At some point you’ve automated every choice a player can make and are playing a particularly cumbersome idle game.

The things covered by the INT stat – a collection of skills, casting for the Wizard and some wizard-flavored sub-classes, and a very rare save – would be much better represented by an Education stat. WIS needs to be redesigned entirely, either renamed to something like Perception (the skill would be cut and its functions turned over to Perception saves) or else cut entirely and its functions split up between other stats. Either STR and CON need to be combined, or else DEX and AGI need to be split (depending upon the balance considerations, which vary depending on exactly what edition you’re talking about – DEX is much stronger in 5e than in 3e, for example).

And also we need to move away from stats going from 1 to 20 with 10 being the average which gives you +0 and instead have a system that goes from 1 to 10 with 5 being the average which gives you +5, and then increase all DCs by 5 to compensate. This is the kind of thing that would break backwards compatibility so it’s a very bad idea at this exact moment, but whenever we’re breaking backwards compatibility anyway, please cast off this final remnant of the jank era of the 70s and 80s when people were still figuring out how roleplaying games worked and the resulting systems were overly complex and showed the scars of being on their twelfth revision when the creator finally said “fuck it” and pushed it out the door, ready or not.

Stronghold’s Invasion Missions Are Terrible

Stronghold is an RTS from the early 2000s about building and defending a castle. The economy is modeled very closely building-for-building, so you have wheat farms that have to be placed on arable land (often, in motte and bailey fashion, less defensible than non-arable land atop hills or the like), who bring the wheat to mills that grind wheat into flour, which goes to bakers who bake bread that your peasants can eat. To make swordsmen, you need iron mines placed on iron deposits, which are different from stone quarries, and then an armorer to make plate armor and a blacksmith who’s switched to making swords, not maces. This means that the vast majority of buildings in and around your castle are economic buildings.

The details of the economy are totally ahistorical, as the example of full plate armored swordsmen as a staple unit of high-tier lategame armies shows, but the zoomed out vibe is very accurate to building and defending a castle. You want to get as much economic activity as possible inside the walls of the castle, but because certain buildings, especially farms, can only be placed on certain terrain and are also very large, you probably won’t be able to wall them in completely. So you compromise by putting them in the shadow of your walls, within bowshot of nearby towers stuffed with archers or crossbowmen to prevent attacking armies from doing too much damage from them.

And then a fifth of the singleplayer campaign ditches all of that, giving you a big old army and telling you to use it to storm an enemy castle. You have no way to replace lost units, almost nothing to do with any resources you’re given (and you may not be given any), and in one of these invasion missions you’re up against a castle that’s sufficiently well-garrisoned that you cannot hope to win except by exploiting the AI. The missions are both very hard and throw about 80% of the game mecahnics in the garbage. At least when Iron Harvest did this, they had the decency to give me a skip mission button.

Worst of all, two of these missions are used for the two most climactic moments in the game’s story: When you kill Duc Truffe, the thug who murdered your mentor figure halfway through the plot, and when you kill Duc Volpe, the tyrant who killed your father as part of a plot to overthrow the kingdom clear back in the backstory. And they already had a perfectly good solution final showdowns with major villains! You defeat Duc Beauregard in a castle-vs-castle map where you have a castle and he has a castle and you have to defend against attacking armies while building up one of your own to take his castle. This is how Stronghold’s multiplayer works, and the only time they feature it in the singleplayer campaign is in one mission against a middlingly important villain, giving the most narratively important villains much worse confrontations.

While the standalone expansion Stronghold Crusader is very well regarded and adds several very welcome tweaks and rebalances, Stronghold 2 and 3 and Legends and Warlords were all flops. Between the poor performance of the sequels and the baffling lack of focus on their own core gameplay for the climactic moments of their campaign (which has a fair bit of attention paid to it, so I don’t think it’s because the whole singleplayer game was an afterthought), I have to wonder, did the Stronghold devs have any idea how to make a good video game, or did they just get super lucky on the first one, had the community holding their hand for Crusader, and then everything after that was a cavalcade of tears and failure? I got all the Stronghold games together in some bundle or something, so I guess I’ll see at some point.

November Humble Choice

It’s the first Tuesday of the month as I write this (November 1st this month), so what’s in the box?

Hell Let Loose is a multiplayer FPS set in WW2 that focuses on simulating large-scale battles. Fifty-players to a side with things like tanks and logistics modeled with more accuracy, with the goal of making the frontline fighting feel more like the massive engagements of WW2 and less like the tight-focused team battles of Halo with a WW2 skin. There’s an emphasis on realism, but in service to an experience at the frontlines rather than on crippling over-simulation. The game’s pitch is rock solid, but it’s a multiplayer game, so it isn’t going on the backlog. I might try it out sometime, but there’s no way to really play it to completion.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning is famously the video game that plays like an MMO that saw all the skulls piled up outside World of WarCraft’s cave and decided to be a singleplayer game instead. The devs have denied this, although there was an MMO planned for the same setting, so maybe that’s a technically true denial where the real story is “we were going to recycle a ton of this code into the MMO but never got that far.” Or maybe it’s a flat-out lie. It’s not like it’s a crime to lie about your intentions regarding a piece of media you produced or something, so there’s not a ton of incentive not to do so.

In any case, I like MMOs, but mainly because I find it fun to be alone in a crowd. It’s fun to go to a nightclub with a small handful of friends and ignore everyone else but each other, and it’s fun to play an MMORPG alone while huge crowds of players surge around me in the safe zones and there’s a few stray encounters in the wilderness or dungeons (dungeons are usually instanced and for good reason, but if they’re not, and I bump into just one or two players down there, that can be fun). I meet people, we help each other briefly or just wave, and then we leave.

Still, I’ve always wanted to see what the singleplayer MMO would play like, so I’m tossing it on the list even though I expect it’s going to end up in Regrets and not Complete. I’m pretty stubborn about these things sometimes, though, so it might end up being a long term project where I play a few hours a month for half a year and get it to the end? We’ll see.

Shadow Tactics: Aiko’s Choice is a tactics game about being a ninja that’s a standalone expansion to some other tactics game about being a ninja. Tactics games are good when they have a good strategic layer tying the tactical battles together and I don’t see one of those here. Looks like it’s more one of those games that throws one tactical battle after another at you, without anything carrying over from one battle to the next, although it only looks like that because I can’t find anything saying otherwise and that’s what I assume by default, under the grounds that if they had a strategic layer they’d probably tell me about it. Plus it’s a spin-off to a game I’ve never heard of. Pass.

Roboquest is a Roguelike FPS where the gun drops are randomized. I’m not a huge fan of Roguelikes, they’re a huge timesink and rarely have the gameplay to back it up. I’ll make exceptions for things like Hades because Supergiant Games don’t miss, but not for Roboquest.

Eldest Souls sounds like a joke. You might write the name off as people being unaware of other genres, but no, it’s a Soulslike, so it’s definitely named by smashing Elden Ring and Dark Souls together. You might then expect that it’s a parody, but no sign of that in the summary. It’s got 16-bit pixel art that’s quite well done, but I’m remembering how I never actually played Banner Saga 2 because I bought it for the art and realized that I could just look at screenshots on Google if I wanted that. If I want to play a game whose main and only selling point is its similarlity to Dark Souls, I can play Dark Souls.

Unmetal is a copyrights-filed-off remake of Metal Gear for the SNES, updated with all the lessons learned in the past 30 years of gaming history. I endorse these kinds of projects in general, there’s nothing wrong with revisiting classics and giving them a glow-up using the lessons learned from not only their own legacy, but also decades of general-purpose game design evolution. I don’t really care about the Metal Gear series, though, so I’m giving this a pass.

Raji is about a little girl with a bow who needs to kill an army of invading demons. The description on Humble Choice is very short, and mainly focuses on how pretty the game is. The game is pretty. So there’s Banner Saga 2 looming in the back of my head again, but on the other hand, this might be more like Journey, a game that is exclusively about traveling through wondrous landscapes with just enough gameplay sprinkled on to make it feel like a quest rather than a slideshow. I’m on the fence, but I’m going to keep it, just in case it ends up being something beautiful.

Morbid: The Seven Acolytes is a top-down RPG of some description, where you are a demon hunter and you have to fight seven particularly troublesome demons called the Seven Acolytes. It dedicates a surprising amount of its description to listing basic gameplay mechanics it has, like “looting.” Doesn’t really say anything about what they’re trying to accomplish with the looting. I have bad vibes about this one, but I’ll give it a try.

That’s three pickups – every single one of which is something I was on the fence about and might quickly toss into Regrets. Not a great month for the Humble Choice. Earlier in October, however, there was a Humble Bundle with Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment. Pretty much the whole golden age of D&D CRPGs in one package, so that’s five new games on the backlog.

Even with a couple of games getting chucked into Regrets due to technical difficulties (the entire King Arthur: The Roleplaying Wargame series is plagued with technical difficulties that come from my hardware being too recent, which means it’s only going to be worse if I circle back around after an upgrade), I’m struggling to keep this list under 170. I probably will get the list back under 170, because it’s at 172 right now and two of the new additions have single-digit playtimes (and may get tossed into Regrets before then). Plus, in theory I could wrap up Hollow Knight with probably a single-digit number of hours, but all I have left to get 112% completion is the Godhome boss rushes, and that’s not usually the kind of thing I can sit down for four hours straight of on a weekend.

WATCH_DOGS 2

I’m not sure I have anything new to say about WATCH_DOGS 2. The critical consensus I’ve stumbled across on YouTube (as exemplified by Noah Caldwell-Gervais) basically reflects my opinion. WATCH_DOGS 2 has a very similar mechanical basis as the original, but ditches the drab interpretation of Chicago for a vibrant and colorful Bay Area. The melee attack goes from a tacticool extendable billy club to a combat yo-yo, which is generally emblematic of the protagonist’s shift in tone from broody and grimdark to fun and lighthearted, and while I wouldn’t have minded broody and grimdark if it had been done well, Aiden Pearce was bland and uninteresting where Marcus Halloway is chill and fun to watch.

The original game shouted “digital surveillance!” and then ran away, while the sequel portrays digital surveillance as a Bad Thing with the main plot revolving around opposing it. The original game portrayed ctOS as basically omniscient and perfectly accurate, with its crime predictions never turning out wrong (admittedly, this was mainly for gameplay reasons), while the sequel’s very first mission involves the black protagonist Marcus Halloway hacking into ctOS 2.0 and discovering that he’s been flagged as a criminal erroneously, with later side missions that draw attention to how these algorithms target black people in particular.

The reputation system has been completely excised, which on the one hand does mean there’s no consequence for killing pedestrians, but on the other hand it’s probably better to just quietly ignore the vehicular homicide rather than give a specific and shockingly high number of vehicular homicides you can get away with before anyone notices or cares. They even dropped the vestigial “liberate the districts” mechanic from the original by removing ctOS towers completely, and while my complaints about side missions being annoying to find remain, at least they no longer stamp my map with districts centered around towers that don’t really do anything.

WATCH_DOGS 2 does have a few mechanical steps backward from its predecessor. Well, really only one that I can think of: The way you can only unlock certain high-tier upgrades by finding “key data” in various places around the map, except you don’t know where exactly. So in order to buy the upgrade that lets you crash communications nearby to stop baddies from calling for reinforcements, you have to wander around a specific neighborhood of the map (at least they tell you what neighborhood) until you stumble into a key data badge, then solve whatever jumping puzzle is between you and the collectible. Ordinarily, a collectible side quest like that is one that I would quickly realize I don’t much like and decide not to worry about, but all the best abilities in the game are locked behind it. Often I’ll just look up on the internet how to find and solve the puzzle, because dammit I just want my reduced scope sway on sniper rifles or whatever.

And while the new tone is very well executed in cut scenes and certainly an improvement over the original’s, it’s a terrible mismatch with the gameplay. There’s a mission early on where a Blume (the corporation behind ctOS) executive brags about how DedSec (who have been promoted from kinda shady mostly-allies in the first game to unambiguous hacker superhero protagonists in the second) has played right into his hands, scaring all the other tech companies into adopting ctOS 2.0 for protection despite all the cyberterrorism Aiden and his rival hacker Damien got up to in Chicago, 1.0’s flagship city. The executive does this in person, right in front of Marcus Halloway. The result is that Marcus punches him in the mouth, but is forced to run away as the police are rapidly closing in. Then gameplay!Marcus takes over and kills the SWAT team to a man. You can play WATCH_DOGS 2 as a sneaky hacker spy, using little drones and camera-hacking and good old-fashioned cover stealth to accomplish your objectives (the game’s upgrades even push you towards one of three different playstyles, “ghost,” “trickster,” and “aggressor,” although I’m not sure what “trickster” is supposed to be), but one of my favorite things about this series is how much better cover shooting feels in an open world where the arenas aren’t telegraphed, so that, uh, is not how I play, despite the fact that the game’s plot kind of assumes that Marcus is almost totally non-violent until at least the second half of the game (“aggressor” upgrades aren’t even deeper in the upgrade tree compared to others, and even if they were, acquiring and shooting an assault rifle requires no upgrades at all).

But regardless of some minor flaws, WATCH_DOGS 2 is a much better game than the original. It has something to say about hacktivism and surveillance, and while it’s not exactly setting the world ablaze with its bold speaking of truth to power, having a clear theme carried by a likeable protagonist solves the first game’s biggest flaws, while retaining the cyberpunk-is-now hacker open world gameplay that got me interested in the series in the first place. I’ve heard WATCH_DOGS Legion is bad, so I’m going to call the series here, but unlike Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry (though in fairness, I’m not done with the Far Cry backlog yet), I could see myself playing a future WATCH_DOGS game not to find closure on the things I wanted but could not have from the era of my life when I didn’t have enough money to buy gaming PCs or consoles, but because a game like WATCH_DOGS 2 is actually fun to play.

Was WATCH_DOGS 2’s Ensemble Originally Supposed To Be Fully Playable?

WATCH_DOGS 2 stars an ensemble cast of five characters: The social media artist Sitara, the destructive semi-psycho wrench, the autistic hacker whiz Josh, the tactical and logistics guy Ratio, and the protagonist Marcus (alias Retr0, but that codename gets used pretty sparsely) who, as Player One, is good at everything. They also eventually pick up an aging hacker Raymond Kenney at a Burning Man knock-off. During the finale, you play as Sitara and Wrench briefly before resuming control of Marcus for the finale’s finale.

And I wonder: Was this originally supposed to be more of a thing? The game’s upgrades are split into three different tags, “Aggressor,” “Trickster,” and “Ghost.” And these map pretty well to the three most prominent non-Marcus characters: Wrench to Aggressor is a super obvious connection to make, and Sitara as Trickster and Josh as Ghost also line up pretty well (admittedly, I’ have no idea’m not confident what the Trickster playstyle is supposed to actually be, like, mechanically – its upgrades revolve around hacking vehicles and drones, but that doesn’t add up to a fully functional playstyle unless you have most of the upgrades unlocked). Ratio (spoiler warning) dies halfway through the game, which means he doesn’t appear in any of the side missions which can occur before or after the story mission that kills him, which means he’s by far the least developed of the group.

And other Ubisoft games in development before and after used a similar concept. In Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, released the year before, the two protagonists have some max-level abilities only available ot one or the other of them, not both, with Evie having some max-level sneaking powers while Jacob has some max-level combat powers. In Watch Dogs: Legion, different procedurally generated characters have different procedurally selected traits, abilities, and gear. Maybe there was a version of WATCH_DOGS 2 where Marcus was the Mario, with broad access to all skills but no top-tier abilities, and Wrench, Sitara, and Josh were locked out of most or all of each other’s skillsets but had access to high-end abilities in exchange. Ratio would’ve been the voice with an internet connection giving briefings and such, a position the game as it exists rotates around all the ensemble cast instead, and Raymond Kenney would’ve taken over the briefing role after Ratio was killed (or this might’ve been a version of the plot where Ratio isn’t killed – his death is an unskippable main story mission, but narratively it’s episodic and could be removed entirely without affecting anything else). I could even see Raymond Kenney, as a late addition to the group who’s considerably more experienced, potentially having been at some stage of development an unlockable super-character with access to all skills.

Siege Survival: Gloria Victis

I had a real nasty run with Regrets in September, and I’m pleased to report that my first and so far only Regret of October has been relatively tame. Siege Survival: Gloria Victis just isn’t fun, and I figured that out after just a few hours of play. I often don’t have a ton of fun early on in a game I end up loving – I need some time to settle into it, to understand how the game works and what it’s about. This is true even if the game has a perfectly effective opening, as Siege Survival does.

But I’m comfortable in saying that Siege Survival is just not a game I like. It’s This War Of Mine transposed into the medieval era and with all the emotional greys sucked out. Turns out, the scavenging and crafting/survival mechanics of This War Of Mine are pretty boring without the context of being civilians trapped in a wartorn city desperately trying to survive, confronted with options to do things like rob a helpless old couple blind because you need food dammit, delivered in gameplay so you don’t just click the “rob helpless old people” option, you actually have to walk through the house and click on stuff to put in your inventory while the old man is following you around begging you to stop.

Siege Survival trades that out for a goodies versus baddies set up. I mean, it’s medieval warfare, so probably our team is just as despicable on the offensive, but I’m playing as a couple of peasants in a town under siege, so the villainy of the invaders is on full display and the villainy of the defenders is weakly implied by the fact that this is a realistic-ish medieval setting so we can extrapolate some things that are otherwise not hinted at, let alone depicted, by the game. And while you play as a couple of peasants huddling in the courtyard of the castle, scavenging supplies from the city at night to build stuff to get you through the siege by day, some of the things you build are weapons and armor for the soldiers holed up in the castle’s bastion. You are unambiguously on their side and yet for some reason none of those guys ever go on dangerous night-time expeditions to retrieve stone and timber from the half-demolished remains of the town.

And while that town does have a few story vignettes, none of them are especially compelling. The goal with them seems more to depict the grit and brutality of a medieval siege – but not in such a way that asks any of the compelling moral questions that This War Of Mine did. TWOM’s great accomplishment was in applying such intense resource pressure to the player that you are sorely tempted to do terrible things to alleviate that pressure, and may indeed die if you do not, and Siege Survival has the resource pressure but doesn’t give you any questionable or blatantly evil options (and yet in such a mundane way – you don’t arm soldiers committing war crimes or sell your neighbors out to the invaders or anything as dramatic as that, you just walk into a house and put the soup cans in your backpack while the house’s helpless owner tells you to stop).

Siege Survival also has the problem that, as a resource management game about outlasting a siege, it’s possible to make crucial mistakes very early on that can jeopardize your ability to hold on at the very end. In the first few days of the siege, I managed resources very poorly and my pigs died of starvation. Looking at some guides online, this looks like it will make the entire rest of the game much harder. I’m glad I looked that up in a guide, because if I’d gotten eight hours deep into the game and found my situation was pretty much untenable because I lost my pigs in hour one, I would’ve been way more frustrated. And unless I play the game while following a guide through the whole time, I might bump into a walking-dead situation like that at any time. This is the kind of pace some games have, but if they do, they need to be really good to justify potentially having to replay 5+ hours of a scenario to avoid a mistake made very early on that became crippling only in the endgame, and Siege Survival is quite boring.

Gamedec

Gamedec is an adventure game where you are a game detective, that is, a private detctive who specializes in cases taking place in full dive virtual worlds. You visit a bunch of different virtual worlds for various cases, and it turns out the future-cyberpunk internet’s a small place, apparently, because you run into a surprising number of recurring characters despite going into a new game every time. The game is driven almost entirely by dialogue, without any of your old school bullshit adventure game puzzles where you have to rub every item in your inventory on every interactable object until plot progress pops out.

I don’t want to discuss the plot in detail because it mostly all works and is pretty well written, and I don’t want to spoil it. It’s a mystery game, so of course any discussion of the plot is going to be spoiling the solution to all of the mysteries, and even discussing the premise for some of the later mysteries gives away the ending to some of the earlier ones.

This is not to say the game has no flaws, just that those flaws are all mechanical. Some of these are intentional decisions that I think were bad ideas, most notably, that you can’t see which dialogue options give you XP and of what type. The game has a skill tree, and having skills on the tree unlocks dialogue options. Unlocking skills requires the right combination of four different flavors of XP, each associated with a loosely related set of personality traits. Whenever you pick a dialogue option that favors one of these personality traits in particular, you get XP. This is a perfectly good system except for one thing: The game never indicates which dialogue options give you XP or of what type. Since you know the XP flavors are tied to different personality types, and since you need XP of all flavors (though in varying amounts) to unlock most of the skills, you’re incentivized to shift your dialogue choices based on what kind of XP you need right now. Picking one flavor and sticking to it isn’t viable – no path on the skill tree can be unlocked without getting at least a few points in all 4 XP types. And not every dialogue option has XP associated with it, so frequently I’d pick a dialogue option hoping to get a specific type of XP to unlock a skill, only to find that it doesn’t actually do that. The end result is that XP comes in basically at random unless you look up a guide that tells you which options give you what.

Other flaws are outright bugs. The game originally had a default male protagonist with a customizable name (apparently this is not true, contrary to an online discussion I’d read about the game, which makes the sloppy implementation of the protagonist’s pronouns even more egregious), which later expanded to a protagonist with customizable appearance and pronouns, but the implementation of the gender-swapped pronouns is badly broken, with code fragments like “(gender!female” showing up (I can’t remember the exact example, but it was clearly a bit of code for the variable pronouns that hadn’t been closed properly). A particularly annoying one actually affected what ending I could get. According to guides online, it should be impossible to be locked into just one of the game’s six endings. One ending is always available no matter what, but also there’s a boolean variable that you can flip with certain choices in the game which unlocks two endings in one state and one ending in another. This means there should always be a minimum of two endings available. I got locked into just one ending, though, because the game seemed to think I had simultaneously done and not done the thing that affects the other three endings (and I legitimately didn’t qualify for the other two).

Particularly annoying since I played the recently released so-called “Definitive Edition,” so you’d think that’d be the one where they fix bugs as critical as being locked out of endings you’re supposed to have qualified for. Or alternatively, fixing the dialogue so that it’s not extremely misleading about how you qualify for the endings (the dialogue for the ending I got does imply that it’s the leftover for people who didn’t stick to any of the other paths hard enough – but then the dialogue for several of the other endings implies I definitely should’ve qualified for those, so one of these is misleading).

And the mechanical flaws – intentional or otherwise – stack up more the deeper into the game you get, which has the unfortunate side effect of making the ending of the game the weakest part of the whole thing. In the final few scenes, properly investigating becomes a chore as you get swept forward in the plot without warning, leaving me with insufficient information to make what seems like critical decisions in the final case, only to learn at the end that none of those decisions were ever intended to affect what ending I get, and the endings are broken anyway. A disappointing ending to a game that’s 80% good.