Titanfall 2

 Immersive Shooters, Reflex Platformers, Short Take  Comments Off on Titanfall 2
Feb 282017

Status: Campaign complete

Most Intriguing Idea: Mirror’s Edge actually would have been better with more guns.

Best Design Decision: Enemies that can’t aim quickly.

Worst Design Decision: Sluggish, timer-based combat in Titans.


So look, I’m a sucker for immersive shooters where you’re meant to run around like a maniac. That affinity is why I loved DOOM so much and why I gave BioShock Infinite a higher score than it deserved. That’s the bias, and Titanfall 2 gave me what I wanted, so I enjoyed it.

One of the key principles of this shooter approach is that movement is defense. Classically this was achieved with slow bullets and melee-based enemies so that both projectiles and foes could be evaded to escape damage. Titanfall 2 instead uses a palette of enemies more typical for a modern first-person shooter and seemingly handicaps the aim of their ray-trace weapons proportionally to the player’s movement speed. It’s possible to crank through a fight without stopping and never get hit, and easily 90% of my combat deaths came while I was standing still or moving slowly, like an idiot.

Of course this system has its limitations. The need to allow relatively free movement forces most of the game to take place in arenas that are absurdly, illogically expansive. This is a game without cramped terrain, in which every human-built structure is vast and has copious free floor space. Within these arenas the total enemy number has to be low in order to give the movement-as-defense space to work. One way to deal with this is to make enemies arrive in waves—DOOM used this a lot—but Titanfall 2 is typically happy to serve up a brief firefight in a space that seems a bit too large for it and then move along. That keeps the pace brisk and, combined with some well made (though not particularly challenging) first-person platforming it allows for a snappy, diverse campaign.

Two things, I felt, mitigated the fun. The first was the arsenal, which was subpar for a sci-fi shooter. None of the guns were truly interesting or had much feel, and the only moment of actual shooting that felt memorable was the smart-gun bit in the final chapter. An even sharper disappointment was the combat in the Titans themselves, which felt sluggish and punchless in comparison to the freewheeling human-scale combat. Fighting as a mech wasn’t bad, really; it just felt sharply less dynamic than on foot. Now, obviously the giant metal titans won’t allow for much grace or speed, but dynamics could have been enhanced in another way, perhaps by forcing the player to grab weapons and loadouts from fallen enemies rather than giving the mechs unlimited ammo and cooldown timers.

Story-wise the game is… okay, I guess? It’s standard salty popcorn action fare, but honestly that feels a bit like a breath of fresh air in comparison to the bloody nihilism of CoD: Infinite Warfare. The plot is fairly rote journey-setback-triumph stuff that feels so off-the-shelf it sucks all the life out of the wild stuff (time travel! a colossal factory fabricating neighborhoods for combat training scenarios! ancient alien technology!) that happens in it. That’s not helped by the fact that Titanfall’s setting and characters are so generic I can barely remember anything about them. I played the game all weekend and I only know the protagonist’s name is Jack Cooper because I looked it up just now. The game doesn’t bother to give him a background, a personality, or even an interesting scar. The game’s talking Titan, BT-7274, is a more memorable character, even though he’s little more than a serviceable recapitulation of every robot-not-understanding-an-idiom conversation Star Trek: The Next Generation put Data through. The story’s struggles are not made any less severe by the obvious sequel-bait involved: the player doesn’t get to fight, much less defeat, either the primary antagonist or the shadowy figure pulling his strings.

All that said, I had a blast with the run-and-gun combat and first-person platforming, and even the generic story doesn’t seem so bad in comparison to the actively miserable stuff last fall’s other big AAA shooters put up. I won’t remember Jack whatsisface past next week but I’ll remember blowing away dudes while power-sliding and wall-running around a giant house factory for a long time to come.

Verdict: Recommended

Feb 062017

Summary: Campaign complete

Most Intriguing Idea: Playing as a unit, rather than an individual

Best Design Decision: Character-swapping in the first mission

Worst Design Decision: Stealth everywhere


I was very excited by Battlefield 1‘s prologue mission. The mission activities themselves weren’t anything remarkable by Battlefield standards: hold this point, shoot these dudes, drive this tank. What set the scenario apart was that when I died I didn’t just reboot in the same body at a checkpoint. Instead, the person I was playing was dead, and I switched into the body of another guy in the same general vicinity. This seemed to me like an almost perfect way to capture the bloody action of World War I, and also to ground a shooter in the reality of war, rather than resorting to absurd “one man” heroics as the default. I couldn’t wait to play a full game like that, embodying the action of a full unit as they fought and died in the futility of a bloody, brutal, and unnecessary war.

Well, technically I could wait—am still waiting, in fact—because that’s not what Battlefield 1 turned out to be. It turned out to be a stealth game, and not a good one. Stealth missions and mission segments show up constantly throughout the campaign (one sub-story consists of nothing but), even when the focus is on tanks or planes. It’s rudimentary line-of-sight stuff with vision indicators and see-through-walls tagging. Uniquely, enemies can also see the player-character through walls, as happened when an enemy sniper saw me through a giant rock AND a tent. Naturally, whenever spotted by anyone, every enemy in the area however far away instantly knew my location no matter where I moved to.

Even the dogfighting doesn’t perk up the game. The controls felt too limited and the mission objectives were dull and rote; I found myself longing to play Wings again (maybe I’ll pick up the reboot). The only real respite from crap stealth and shoddy level design is a pair of raucous levels focusing on an Italian dude with a big gun. The whole campaign feels like a colossal misfire and outside of the prologue and the Italian missions I can’t think of one moment of it I’d ever consider playing again.

Verdict: Avoid

Feb 032017

Status: Campaign complete

Most Intriguing Idea: Evil people are right

Best Design Decision: Lock-on follow in the dogfighting segments

Worst Design Decision: Stealth missions


Infinite Warfare is a dark, nihilistic game in which a hungry Earth that aims to exert authority over every world in the system and extract all their resources is “good” and the evil militaristic colonies are actually right about warfare. Nothing that happens in the game stands up to much scrutiny, least of all the story of its protagonist. Nick Reyes is somehow absurdly proficient at flying space jets and carrying out secret missions on space ships and fighting space wars with space guns, and also is the captain of a capital ship where he never spends any combat time on the bridge. Incredibly, nobody points out that this man, who kills literally thousands of enemy soldiers in a single day (the whole game takes place in one day!), is clearly Earth’s most valuable weapon and the most important mission objective at all times is to ensure his survival at any cost.

Reyes’ ridiculous talents allow the game to put together a few missions where he goes from his space fighter jet thing into ground combat or vice versa, but the advantages pale against how incredibly silly this plot point makes everything feel. The fact that the SDF or whoever the bad space colonists are continually get their asses handed to them in spectacular fashion by this one guy really makes them seem incompetent and silly as a threat. The former multiple-protagonists motif of previous Call of Duty games would have worked wonders in solving both the absurdity of Nick Reyes and the neutering of the enemy.

As far as the gameplay goes, it was kind of a yawn. I genuinely enjoyed the space dogfights for the most part, although those segments ground to a painful halt every time Nick had to take down a full-size ship. The space gunfights, alas, were not all that interesting or unique and the effort to implement an extra tactical layer with two distinct kinds of damage was a dud. None of the cool things that could and arguably should be going on in cool space fights ever really seemed to; guns didn’t impart momentum, gravity didn’t seem to fluctuate all that much based on location, in dogfights you couldn’t flip around backward to fire at the guy on your 6 without losing momentum. The stealth, thankfully rarely employed, was pretty much trash. I wouldn’t mind if Activision pushed out a game built around a more developed version of the dogfighting. As for the rest, Call of Duty would be better off returning to the 20th century.

Verdict: Not recommended

The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine

 Open World Action Games, Role Playing Games, Short Take  Comments Off on The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine
Aug 152016

Status: Complete

Most Intriguing Idea: Contrasting Geralt’s ideals directly with chivalry

Best Design Decision: Colors! Colors everywhere!

Worst Design Decision: Grandmaster gear


If you notice nothing else about Blood and Wine, the final expansion for The Witcher 3, you will likely notice the colors. I had replayed the bulk of the main game before heading there and that experience really emphasized how washed-out the base game looks. Everything in the North seems ever so slightly gray, but nothing like that is happening in Toussaint. Beauclair is also the game’s best town, capturing to the fullest that Old World feeling of going around a corner and finding a delightful little square nobody but the locals seems to know about. This is definitely the most pleasant region of the game, and it suffers only a little from the game’s characteristic affliction of its regions being too large.

It’s a shame, then, that a lot of what happens here is pretty miserable. One of the biggest blunders is the “Grandmaster” Witcher gear upgrades that Geralt can find designs for. Unfortunately many of these require a major effort to find and a tremendous quantity of very expensive resources to craft. By the time one has gathered everything required, that gear will be too low-level (40, which is well beneath even the minimum level to finish the area’s main quest) to be relevant. I eventually made one set as a curiosity but it was not “worth it” in any sense, not even for the nigh-useless bonus applied for wearing multiple pieces. The alchemy system’s expansions are similarly pointless. None of the new monsters have any associated decoctions and the mutagen transmutation and dye-making allowed by the new formulae have no use. The additional “mutagens” added to the character page don’t do much to rescue the game’s worst system.

The quests, too, leave a lot to be desired. To its credit, Blood and Wine shows some dedication to giving the game’s isolated question marks more of a local story. From the “vintner contracts” for clearing would-be cellars, to the more detailed investigations that go with the “Big Feet to Fill” locations, to the epic fights at the Hanse bases and their associated peripheral sites, a significant proportion of these places now feel like a spot where something interesting is happening, not just a chest that fell out of the sky and a grave hag decided to guard. It is still not a good idea to try to frankenstein 13 or so of these story-lite encounters into a sidequest; I found that equally irritating here as when I encountered it in Saints Row IV.

The main questline in the region didn’t hold my attention at all. Its focus on vampires didn’t play into any of its potentially interesting ethical contrasts; the main game’s vampire-associated quest in Novigrad was more thematically interesting. The characters, with the exception of Regis, felt thinly conceived, and all were irritating gits though at least they were not as loathsome as the key players in Hearts of Stone. The quests also exerted a lot of control they didn’t do anything story-wise to deserve, especially in the back half where Geralt is whipped from one quest to another to another with no place for the player to opt out. A fun trip to a land of off-kilter recreations of fables aside, I didn’t find much to enjoy in these quests, and particularly disliked the final boss battle and its incredibly terrible checkpoint.

Still, I had a good bit of fun gallivanting about the region and beating knights at their own games. Anyone hungry to experience more of the life of a witcher will certainly not regret exploring Toussaint, but don’t get it expecting a miraculous reversal of the base game’s troubles.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended