Jun 072016
 

Status: Completed. Unlike Billy Joel, I lit the fire.

Most Intriguing Idea: Armor doesn’t really work anymore.

Best Design Decision: Really, just the main idea of the way souls still work

Worst Design Decision: Armor doesn’t really work anymore.

Summary:

As I mentioned in the previous post, Bloodborne fosters an aggressive, hit-and-run combat style by a push-pull approach. The push is that there’s no real way to block attacks and almost any enemy can stunlock the player. The pull is that the player has considerable capacity to interrupt enemy attacks, can dodge at low stamina cost, and can regain lost health by aggressively attacking after sustaining injury. Dark Souls 3 tries to push its players into a similar style of combat but fails to pull, and feels much like a lesser game as a result.

The key here is the behavior of “Poise”, a stat that is built by wearing heavy armor. Heavier armor makes dodging (the keystone of Bloodborne‘s combat) considerably slower, and in past Souls games this was compensated by improved damage absorption and Poise, which prevented enemy attacks from interrupting player actions. This is essentially gone in DS3—the developers have argued that poise is now “contextual” but there is no context in which it stops even pathetically weak enemies from interrupting me. Even if Poise really does somehow prevent staggering during attacks, that’s still useless because >90% of what happens in boss fights (and 50% of other encounters) is just ordinary movement. If Poise doesn’t even partially protect the player from stagger while walking around, that significantly disadvantages heavy armor builds that can’t effectively dodge-roll out of danger.

That’s not great, because it sacrifices a lot of the flexibility of builds that makes tinkering around with Souls games fun, but it’s not a disaster. Adapting to the game’s preferences, however, makes it a bit too easy overall. I found several of the bosses to be a challenge in DS3, but I never felt any doubt as to whether I could eventually take down a boss or finish a level that was on the main path. I just grabbed my uchigatana (I cheesed an NPC and got this right at the start) and longbow and dodged or shot my way out of trouble.

I also couldn’t avoid the feeling that this series has worn itself out creatively. So many of the levels felt like callbacks to ones I’d played in Dark Souls / Demon’s Souls that the whole game felt familiar almost to the point of being comforting. None of the NPCs have a really interesting arc and most of them are nothing but vendors. The atmosphere still works and the carefully-written flavor text legitimately adds a lot to the experience but I never escaped the feeling I had seen it all before. Dark Souls 3 is a perfectly good game but it feels like the magic, and to a large degree the series’ admirable flexibility, is gone.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended

Jun 072016
 

Status: Finished DLC up to Maria, got tired of it, completed main game (Moon Presence ending)

Most Intriguing Idea: Guns don’t kill people, they stun them.

Best Design Decision: The health-regain mechanic

Worst Design Decision: Vast, overwhelming grayness

Summary:

I bounced right off of Bloodborne‘s introductory segment—a textbook case of tedious bullshit passing as difficulty—the first time I tried it, but I returned to the game after Dark Souls 3 because the games seemed to be communicating on a mechanical level (seemingly to DS3‘s detriment). Bloodborne favors pairing conservative strategies of engagement with aggressive tactics of combat, and playing DS3 that way made it, if not a cakewalk, at least substantially less difficult.

In Bloodborne this approach is fostered by a group of advantages and vulnerabilities. The stamina cost of dodging is very low, and if a player fails to dodge e can regain health by attacking immediately. Poise barely exists, so both the player and enemies can interrupt each other, making it critical to get in the first strike. However, the player has essentially no long-range attack and no ability to block enemy blows. This pushes the player to close, attack, and withdraw as quickly as possible, while using range and terrain to manage enemy aggro and numbers. This is important because almost any three enemies, unless they are very low level, can stunlock the player character to death.

If you can grok this it makes Bloodborne almost easy at times: this is the first of From’s Souls-style games where I killed multiple bosses on the first try, usually a time when I’m just trying to figure out tells and attacks. That’s not to say the game is trivial: Logarius and Ebrietas, for example, both gave me fits. Also, certain parts of the game, notably the snake-filled portion of the Forbidden Woods and the bits of Yahar’gul with the chime maidens, gave me that old Souls sense of trepidation. That feeling of wondering whether I dared risk pressing forward or if I was even capable of advancing in a level was largely missing from DS3.

However, Bloodborne also has some of the most awkward examples of From’s efforts to manage that feeling, with its plethora of elevators and doors that only open from one side and make levels coil in on and around themselves. Now, in certain spots this tendency pays off; it makes Yharnam seem appropriately labyrinthine. However, an area like the Forbidden Woods that could (and arguably should) feel expansive instead comes across absurdly constricted, even though it’s a case where even the shortcuts leave a huge swath of the level to fight through or run past to get from savepoint to boss. Opening a shortcut always offers a sense of relief and safety, but it also turns the levels into a kind of structural anticlimax, where the real triumph is getting back to where you started.

Aesthetically I have to say I don’t much care for much of what went on here. The world tended to be a bit monochromatic, with a palette overwhelmed by blacks and grays with all other colors aggressively desaturated, and the enemies were often gray too. I can’t even count the number of times I saw a player echo running around and dove out of the way thinking it was one of the enemies I’d failed to account for. The DLC levels had a few spots that majorly improved on this, and as enemies got freakier late in the game it became more interesting to look at, but I never grew to love it, even though its Victorian gothic aesthetic in general appeals to me.

All that said, Bloodborne has some levels I’m glad I played and bosses I’m glad I fought, and anyone who’s a fan of demanding 3rd-person action games would get a lot out of it.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended

May 312016
 

Status: Campaign complete

Most Intriguing Idea: Don’t stop can’t stop gotta go fast

Best Design Decision: Enemies drop health when you snap their necks

Worst Design Decision: Mistaking itself for Dark Souls in the boss fights

Summary:

The fundamental effect of automatic health regeneration in a shooter is to encourage the player to turtle up. In these systems defensive play, centered around finding appropriate cover and only exposing one’s self judiciously to attack or move to new cover, becomes dominant. DOOM hearkens back to the shooters of the ’90s by using low-cover level design, non-regenerating health, dangerous melee-range enemy units, and slow bullets to encourage mobile, aggressive play. That last component is the real key to fostering the desired play style, but the “glory kills”, where the player staggers an enemy and then performs a melee finishing move, are also very important. That’s not because the moves are so ostentatiously gory they’re hilarious, though that’s certainly an attraction. The real benefit here is that these melee kills ensure the enemy will drop healing items, giving the player a strong incentive to set up these situations and also stay on the move even when injured.

The commitment to the ’90s shooter aesthetic extends to the weapon system, which allows the player to carry something like 10 different firearms, none of which ever need to be reloaded. The game’s palette of gun mods is also OK, though at most one of the two available mods is worth getting.  Assuming one has chosen the appropriate mods, then each weapon has a context in which it is The Right Choice, although I found myself using the Combat Shotgun a good 60% of the time and never touching the pistol again after the first few minutes of the game.

DOOM does have its shortcomings. In particular, it shoots its wad (WAD?) too early: every “normal” enemy in the game shows up by about the halfway point and after that the encounters start to get a bit repetitive. This feels worst in some of the late levels set in Hell, in which open arenas connected directly or by small hallways force the game into a boring rhythm. As a misstep, this is exceeded only by the boss encounters, which drag on way too long and often rely on precision dodging and pattern recognition that feels totally out of place with respect to the rest of the game. The boss fight against the three hell guards is the greatest offender, but none of the bosses are praiseworthy or experiences I’d care to repeat.

Acknowledging those negatives, DOOM is still worth trying out for its commitment to fostering a style of FPS play that has really fallen out of vogue in the past decade or so. I circle-strafed a Hell Baron in 2016 and I fucking loved it, so there you are.

Verdict: Recommended

Apr 182016
 

Status: complete / platinum

Most Intriguing Idea: Taking the open-world shooter away from actual shooting

Best Design Decision: Well-chosen achievements

Worst Design Decision: Bullet… er, arrow-sponging bosses

Summary:

After the combat bow was one of the better parts of Far Cry 3, 4 and Blood Dragon, we finally get a game where it’s the star. Far Cry Primal rolls the series setting back to Europe 10,000 years ago so there are no guns, only arrows, spears, clubs, and flint knives. There’s no camera either, so the main character Takkar quickly gains the ability to summon an owl that can “tag” enemies so their movements can be tracked in the world or on the minimap (turning off the minimap improves the game significantly). As an added bonus, he can “tame” predators to do some murdering for him.

Primal is mostly notable for the fact that although it’s fun, almost nothing in it really works. There’s an effort to model an ecosystem, but predators just constantly attack prey animals without ever settling down to eat any of their kills. The game tries to use a day/night cycle to create a sense of danger but doesn’t create a good risk/reward balance for night-time because it just streams an absurd number of predators into most areas.  Animals (and people) are supposed to have a fear of fire, but following the pattern of FC3 and FC4, fire doesn’t spread aggressively enough or look threatening enough to be actually frightening. Additionally, animals of all kinds will just happily run into any camp no matter how many fires (controlled or not) are burning. The stone-age setting makes melee fighting a necessity, but the game’s first-person melee is basically junk. Primal tries to tell a story through assembling a village, but the individual stories of the characters Takkar finds never really connect. Worse, his building of the village never really contributes to the conflict against his antagonists.

This was most noticeable in the game’s absurdly terrible boss battles, where Takkar has to fight gimmicky chieftain enemies that have giant life bars and continually summon dozens and dozens of adds. If I wanted to deal with this kind of bullshit I would still be playing Destiny, but at least that game can explain, via sci-fantasy voodoo, why a fairly ordinary-looking foe can shrug off ten full mags of machine-gun ammo. It’s much more difficult to understand why a near-naked neanderthal can ignore a spear hurled into its eye-socket. If Takkar could have summoned any of his hundreds of tribesmen for these climactic battles they could have been cool and interesting but instead they devolved into running around, looking for new spears while slinging meat at my bear to keep it alive. The boss fights in Primal represent everything I hate about the current direction of shooter design and cast a negative pall over the whole game for me.

That said, how did it happen that I ended up with a platinum for this game, something I almost never do? Well, it has to do with some really good trophy/achievement design. It turns out you don’t have to “complete” the game or its various collect-a-thons to get all the achievements. Most of the achievements were built around making the player really explore all of the game’s systems. So, there are trophies for using each of the weapons a certain (non-excessive) number of times, for trying out stuff like riding on an animal to fight, for attempting to kill enemies at long distance, and so on. I didn’t like all of this stuff, but grabbing the achievements was a low enough bar that it encouraged me to get away from my default pattern of only switching between the bow and spear and occasionally flinging a beehive “grenade” at powerful enemies. Encouraging the player to try new ways of playing the game is the best use of achievements, in my opinion, so I appreciated that.

Primal isn’t a great game, and in a lot of senses isn’t even a good one. Enemies come to be too strong towards the end of the game, and the progression system can’t compensate. The experience system still tilts way too strongly towards stealth (although the limitations of the weapons here make long-range sniping somewhat less viable). The crafting and upgrade system is a silly, ill-designed timesink that nonetheless gets exhausted long before the game ends. Also, Ubisoft still can’t make the Dunia engine pause the damn game when the controller battery dies. This is a decent time-filler, but despite the adversity Takkar faces, that true Far Cry feeling of disaster and improvisation is still missing.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended