Friday, September 22, 2017

Monaco - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine is a single player or co-op heist game. Assemble a crack team of thieves, case the joint, and pull off the perfect heist.

The Locksmith: Blue-collar infiltration expert
The Lookout: She can see and hear everything... a natural leader
The Pickpocket: A hobo with a monkey and a penchant for crime
The Cleaner: A silent psychopath... Jack The Ripper in pink
The Mole: Big and dumb... likes to tunnel
The Gentleman: He doesn't always wear a disguise, but when he does, he looks fantastic
The Hacker: Armies of viruses shut down security... a modern day warlock
The Redhead: Manipulative and murderous... a lady always gets what she wants

Play with up to four people online or on the same screen. Compete with others via daily leaderboards. Find out why it won the 2010 IGF and has been described by PCGamer as "one of the best co-op games of all time."

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I bought this during the 2014 Steam Winter sale, and as I recall, it was a time in my life when I felt invincible, and was just buying video games speculatively, because of course I was going to play them, I have a blog now. Monaco wasn't something I was specifically interested in, but I'd heard of it, and a lot of my friends already owned it, so I figured it was worth a shot.

Expectations and Prior Experience

This is another game I'm going into blind. From the screenshots it looks like a cute top-down adventure game, but also there's stealth? Once again, I'm put in the position where I'll probably like it if it's easy and not like it if it's hard.

Also, I'm not sure how well a co-op game like this is going to play as a single-player experience. I like the description of all the different classes in the store page write-up, but how many of them will I get to control?

I can foresee the potential for a very bad time, if it turns out I have to split my focus in several directions at once while carefully navigating a maze and avoiding enemies that can instantly ruin my day. But that's a worst-case scenario. It will probably be fine.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - 20/20 hours

If Shadow of Mordor were a generic fantasy game, its plot would be perfectly serviceable. However, it's so at odds, thematically, with The Lord of the Rings that it feels like it's set in a different universe.

The backstory to the game is a little complicated (there's this ranger guy who, due to unfortunate legal circumstances, had to take his family to the border of Mordor, where they were killed as part of a blood sacrifice, and as he lay dying of his own sacrifice wound, he met up with the wraith of an ancient elf who somehow spiritually bonded with him and keeps bringing him back from the dead), but the plot is pretty simple - get revenge on the high-ranking officers in Sauron's army for all the bad shit they did, both to the ranger Talion, and in the past, generally.

However, the way they go about this is through a campaign of terror that leads to them wielding the weapons of the enemy in an effort to bring him down, which is kind of the opposite of what The Lord of the Rings said they should do. I suppose it's possible that this will all go horribly sideways in the last two story missions and we'll learn that the plan was flawed from the start, but the game is going to get a sequel soon, and so . . .

Although, I actually think the most fundamental flaw in the game's plot is that it's a revenge story. Talion's wife and son were killed, as were the wraith's, all those thousands of years ago. And while that kind of loss is understandably very motivating, it kind of stifles any sort of robust characterization. The pain of losing a loved one is something everyone can relate too, so having it as the driving force behind your main character says basically nothing about them. At the very least, it would be nice if the grizzled male main character lost a friend, or a father, or a cheerful next-door neighbor as the inciting incident for their vigilantism. Those sorts of relationships are uncommon enough in revenge fiction that they'd almost have to be rooted in specificity by default.

Even with the bland protagonist, I'm tempted to keep playing Shadow of Mordor, just to see how it ends, but I think I'll have to pass for now. The mission I'm currently on involves brainwashing the five orc warchiefs in order to raise an army to attack Sauron's loyalists. And it's nice that it is presented as a freeform exercise in tinkering with the Nemesis system, but the flipside of that is that it requires a lot of effort to plan and execute the dozen or so assassinations/stronghold invasions (when I'm in control, there's not much of a difference) that are required to climb the ranks. It could easily be another 5-10 hours before I even touch another main story mission.

I'm definitely coming back, though. I enjoyed how dynamic the open world felt, and while I could do without the stealth, having it as an option did make me feel like I was making a significant choice in how to approach the game. And it may not have been the Tolkien nerdfest I was hoping for, it was clearly made with a love for, if not especially great understanding of, the source material.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - 10/20 hours

I had a pretty amazing moment while playing this game. I was fighting a large gang of orcs when suddenly control cut away and there was a brief cutscene introducing an orc captain, and my first thought upon seeing this was, "oh great, not you again." It was an orc who had previously killed me, got promoted to captain, killed me again when I tried to get revenge, and got a power boost, and who I eventually tracked down and assassinated - only he survived the attempt, got a metal plate in his head, and then showed up randomly at an otherwise unremarkable brawl. And I recognized him by his name and appearance.

In that instant, I had a genuine emotional reaction to the game. Not like with Star Wars Starfighter, where I was frustrated with the game itself, and not like in any number of other games, where the prearranged story layer does all of the emotional heavy lifting, but rather I was engaging with an actual game mechanic. The system for generating recurring adversaries caused me to have an authentic and spontaneous feeling that mirrored what my game character was currently going through. The nemesis system is, like, 75% of the reason I bought the game, and I still wasn't expecting it to hit me like that. That single moment was probably worth the four dollars all by itself.

The only thing that is even remotely comparable is the last scene in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, but I almost think that shouldn't count, because the whole game as clearly building up to that moment. This was incidental and part of the general fabric of the game. It didn't pack quite the emotional punch, but it does make the game world seem that much more alive.

Unfortunately, I've gotten a lot more efficient at killing orcs in the last 8 hours, so there's only been a couple of times where I've had that same sense of recognition, but it's been great every time.

I've only advanced something like two missions into the story, having gotten distracted by collectibles, side missions, and all that other open-world rigamarole, so I'm not ready to talk about it just yet. A couple of observations, though - Gollum is here, which fits the timeline (I think), but kind of makes the story feel a little fan-fictiony, and both of the story missions I've played so far have been semi-tutorials, which have explained and unlocked new mechanics, so maybe I shouldn't have waited so long to play them. Oops.

But I am officially out of side-quests for now. I'm pretty sure there's a second area that contains precisely as many as I've played so far (because in my progress screen, all the different collectible types and major side missions are sitting at 50%), but I won't know for sure until I complete more main missions. I'm also looking forward to unlocking the rest of the mechanics. I've gathered that it will be possible, later, to mind control some of the orcs and pit them against each other for some ill-defined profit. That ought to be fun.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - 2/20 hours

I think I started worrying prematurely. In Shadow of Mordor, you can run while in stealth, and you can sneak attack orcs in the face. Never mind how that's supposed to work, I can deal with it.

So far, the worst consequence of failing at stealth has been getting forced into a battle against unfavorable odds, leading, eventually, to my death. Which I'm okay with for two reasons - first, death in this game is pretty cheap. You respawn at the nearest tower and can go again right away. And second, the fight, despite the odds, was winnable. What it boils down to is that I can use stealth opportunistically and sporadically, and even then like a reckless idiot, so I'm fine.

Although, I haven't actually played any of the story missions yet. It's possible there's at least one where you have to crawl through at a snail's pace, worrying about lines of sight and the noise of your footsteps, where one wrong move will force you to start over (and, indeed, in the forum thread, someone confirmed that there is), but since there are a lot of open world activities to get distracted by, I should have plenty to do, even if I hit a roadblock.

Overall, my first impressions are favorable. I like fighting orcs, leveling up my weapons, and finding collectibles, and while I've had only brief contact with the Nemesis system, hunting down the orc that killed me was pretty fun. I can definitely see how it could become an enjoyable mini-game on its own, provided it gets a little more complexity down the line.

The only real flaw that I've noticed so far is that it doesn't really feel like a Tolkien story. I won't go into more detail just yet, because I'll probably want to write a whole post about the plot later on, but there have been moments where I'd look at the screen and say, "wait, am I a wraith?"

I don't think continuing this game is going to be a problem for me. So long as there isn't a sudden difficulty spike down the line, I can continue with the way things have been going indefinitely.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Fight through Mordor and uncover the truth of the spirit that compels you, discover the origins of the Rings of Power, build your legend and ultimately confront the evil of Sauron in this new chronicle of Middle-earth.

Previous Playtime

18 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This 

Well, it was on sale for silly cheap, like four dollars for the game plus all the DLC. Now, that alone is enough to get me to buy a game (hell, I'll buy just about anything for 80 percent off), but by that time in my life, I'd been through enough Steam sales to know that the same four dollars could have bought me any number of excellent games. So why Shadow of Mordor, specifically?

It really came down to a combination of things. I heard that it had a really neat system where it procedurally generates recurring enemies that you will grow to know by name. Also, I've long been both intrigued and intimidated by Tolkein's expanded universe, and while I have no idea if this game is based off stuff like The Silmarillion, the idea of a professionally crafted story set in Middle Earth was pretty appealing.

Expectations and Prior Experience

First things first - this is a stealth game, at least in part, and that worries me. I don't care for stealth in video games, and every time I've tried it, I've always been like, "ach, why can't I just kill these guys and sneak past their corpses?" On the bright side, I've been assured that the stealth in this game is fairly optional, and I'll usually be able to brawl with orcs as a fall-back position.

Basically, my line is Assassin's Creed 2. If this game has less stealth than that, I'll be fine. If it has more, I may have a problem.

I'm optimistic, though. When I first got the game, I fired it up to see if it would even run on my computer, and I have to say, nothing in the first 18 minutes made me think I was in any danger of having to creep around like a jackass rather than fight. That may change as enemies get tougher, but at least I know this an action/stealth game, and thus I can hold out hope that there will be a lot more action than stealth.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Galactic Civilizations III - 20/20 hours

In the course of finishing Galactic Civilizations III, I was forced to do something I didn't want to do - I won the game.

Oh, I didn't object to it in principle, it just snuck up on me, though. I was tottering along, micromanaging my planets when all of a sudden - defeat! It took me awhile to figure out what happened. I'd been exploring the galaxy, looking through the mostly-empty map to find the NPC empires, for trading purposes mostly. I'd long since had contact with the Altarians, and we'd been allies for about 100 turns, but the Iconians were tucked away in a distant cluster with a lot of dark space between them and me. My persistence paid off, though. After settling a forward base to extend the range of my ships, I was finally able to get a purpose-built exploratory vessel through.

And then ten turns later, I lost. It turns out that the disadvantage to stacking your AI opponents with all the benevolent factions is that they can go from strangers to allies in less than a year. The Altarians wound up winning a diplomatic victory. Which wouldn't bug me so much, except that you can't keep playing afterwards, and I was having too much fun upgrading my planets. So I loaded an old autosave, bribed the Altarians into hitting the Iconians with a Trade Embargo, then went and allied with the Iconians myself, a couple of turns later. Because you can keep playing after you win the game.

I'd go into more detail about why these machinations were worth it to me, but I'm sure they would be impossibly tedious. I like clicking buttons and seeing numbers go up.

Overall, I would not say that Galactic Civilizations III won me over to the series. It's a fine game, but it didn't actually solve any of the problems I had with its predecessor. Still too much warfare and expansion, and it still isn't as slick as its contemporary competition. That said, I had fun for almost the entire time I was playing it, and were something to happen to make me unable to play the rest of my 4X games, I would find this one to be a worthy consolation prize.

I know that sounds kind of back-handed, and I don't really mean it like that. It's just that the problem I have with the Galactic Civilizations series, and it's not really a problem, per se, more like an "issue," is that it's a game that confuses "size" with "scope." Progress is usually in the form of bigger numbers - more planets, longer ship ranges, higher credit and research totals. There's nothing that really comes along and changes the way you approach the game. It's not like the Space Empires games, where the end of the tech tree brings you radical new powers. What you're doing at the end of the game is a lot like what you're doing at the beginning.

Which is fine. I like most of the stuff you have to do. And except for contesting territory, I like it more the more of it you have to do. It's just that as your empire expands, it feels less like you are growing in power and more like you are growing in the number of repetitive chores you have to do.

I'm actually pretty sure that's the case for all 4Xs, though. It's just GalCiv doesn't even pretend to balance small empires against big ones. So for a guy like me who always plays "tall," even when I'm forced to go "wide," it just seems like work shoveled upon work. Not something I object to in principle, but just enough to put this game at the middle of my list, rather than the top.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Galactic Civilizations III - 11/20 hours

I finally found the correct map settings to get the AI to leave me alone. It doesn't feel entirely fair, because they really can't seem to deal with the isolated star clusters, but that's what they get for crossing me on a more economically balanced map.

If I'm being completely honest, this is not a new "strategy" from me. I first started doing it back in my Alpha Centauri days when I realized that the AI was completely unequipped for "Arid and Rocky" map settings. It was a handicap applied to all the factions equally, but only I, the human player, had the mental flexibility to adjust my strategy accordingly. I eventually grew out of needing that boost, but a large part of the reason I was able to outgrow it is because I was able to use the peace it bought me to learn the game's tech tree inside and out.

I feel that starting to happen with Galactic Civilizations III, though the process now, like then, is slow. I'm pretty sure I won't even finish my current game by the end of the 20 hours, and it will probably take me a dozen at least to get an effective early game worked out. It's exactly the sort of challenge that I used to love back when I was playing games like a normal human being.

My plan for the short-term is to stay the course. I love playing the degenerate version of the game as a type of tile-filling solitaire, and I could probably do that indefinitely. Nine more hours will be nothing.