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


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


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


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

Mar 072016

Status: Story complete, all Endless modes unlocked

Most Intriguing Idea: Time stops moving when you do

Best Design Decision: The throwing / grabbing interactions

Worst Design Decision: Lack of embodiment


The elevator pitch is this: SuperHot is a first-person Hotline Miami spliced with Matrix-like slow-mo. Time moves quickly only when the player does, allowing for incredible precision of action. The game balances against this incredible power by making the player’s other resources very finite. Any gun the player picks up can only be fired a few times, most melee weapons break apart in a swing or two, enemies enter the map unexpectedly and with random loadouts. Consequently the player must constantly be checking every angle, dodging bullets, and throwing punches and breakable objects to disarm enemies. While some levels are as puzzle-like and almost calm as the setup suggests, most are a whirlwind of improvisational violence.

When this works well this is amazing, which is the only word that can describe a sequence where I smacked a dude in a face with a painting, snatched his katana out of the air, cut him in half with it, hurled it through a guy that was shooting at me, took over the body of the guy next to him, caught that same katana in midair and hurled it through another guy. When my attempts at those sequences don’t work out, well, at least the levels are very short and you can restart them almost instantly by tapping ‘R’ (another Hotline Miami-style touch).

I didn’t care for SuperHot‘s narrative, which leaned on flavors of cyber-paranoia and fourth-wall breaking I’ve started to find more tiresome than intriguing. I can’t deny, though, that the game goes the extra mile to build a coherent presentation around that idea, which ultimately ties everything from the menus to the techno-brutalist aesthetic into the story. The effort and execution are there, even if the core concept is lackluster.

The campaign is very short but for me the meat of SuperHot is in the Endless modes (and somewhat less so in the Challenges). It’s unfortunate that the first level in the list for Endless mode is the laboratory, which is either the worst or the second-worst one. The Endless levels are at their best when they are either small or large and have broken sight lines with one good post or wall to strafe around. The lab is precisely the wrong size to pace encounters nicely and it has too much unbroken space at gun level. The Challenges, equally, suffer from the fact that the levels aren’t really tuned for them. I can’t help but feel that the story-centric overall design of the game makes it harder to understand that these are the main body of the game and primes players to complain about the apparent brevity.

In gameplay terms, the one thing that really felt like it held SuperHot back was that I never had a sense of the body I was in. I never had a good grip on what nearby bullet would hit me, and of course the game has nothing like the balletic dodging of The Matrix. Also, I never really gained a solid feel for what jumps I could make or when I should leap. It’s a small thing, but it detracted from the physicality of the game.

Nonetheless, I think SuperHot is excellent and you should play it.

Verdict: Highly recommended