Thursday, September 29, 2016

Star Wars: Dark Forces - 10/20 hours

I've cleared another couple of levels and I think I'm about halfway through. It's hard to say because the story doesn't seem to have much of a build. You are this guy, Kyle Katarn, and you are working with the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire. And while there's this overarching arc with the Dark Trooper project, your quest to stop this sinister research is mostly just a matter of going from one place to another and finding the arbitrary point in each level that triggers the end of level message.

I'm not sure how I feel about this Kyle Katarn fellow. The game is trying its best to sell me on him, but I'm not really buying it. When you have Darth Vader toss off a casual line about how resourceful and dangerous your main character is, it kind of comes off like you're trying to borrow some unearned coolness.

Of course, the first-person perspective and sparse storytelling may have something to do with it. Aside from a couple of animated cutscenes, most everything I've learned about the Dark Forces storyline has been in the form of between-mission text briefings, and these tend to focus more on plot than characterization or worldbuilding. And I can't really get any sort of read on the character from his incredible feats of martial prowess or cunning infiltration because I never see him directly. My view of the action is limited to the barrel of his gun.

I kind of wound up thinking of Kyle Katarn as a doofus who gets lost in a maze of corridors and who blunders his way from one puzzle to the next, but I have to acknowledge that that's all on me and my poor gameplay skill. Then again, it's supposed to be a major advantage of the first-person silent protagonist that the player may easily project themselves onto the character . . .

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Star Wars: Dark Forces - 5/20 hours

Playing Dark Forces has gotten me thinking about the value of playing older games. Because on a purely immediate level, Dark Forces is not what I'd call "fun."

I'm actually not sure what to call it. The interest I have in this game is almost purely archaeological, and that makes it difficult for me to express an opinion of its "let's drop the player in a homogeneously-colored maze and let them figure it out" gameplay.

If Dark Forces were a new game, I'd know exactly what to say - the levels are confusing as fuck, the gunplay is not diverse or exciting enough to justify its existence, and the game as a whole simply isn't very player-friendly. But that's because the standard by which I judge a new game is "am I enjoying myself and does the game manage to avoid doing anything blatantly offensive and/or annoying?" If the answers to those two questions are both "yes," I tend consider it a "good" game and if either of the answers is "no" I tend to consider it a "bad" game.

However, with older games, I feel like I need to consider its historical context . . . when my visceral reaction is to dislike the game. I have no compunction about not qualifying my praise of Super Mario World, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, or Chrono Trigger with "for its time period." Perhaps this is a mental flaw on my part. Maybe I should be considering context for both "good" games and "bad," old games and new. The only reason I can give special treatment to the timeless classics that are still massively entertaining even decades after their release is because I have the benefit of perspective. I am certain that if, in 1995 I had said "In 20 years, Super Mario World 2 is going to knock people out with its incredible art direction and finely-tuned gameplay whereas Star Wars: Dark Forces is going to be painful to look at and almost unplayably primitive in its controls and user interface" I would have been unlikey to have been believed. And it's likely that I would have been mocked for defending a "baby's game on a kiddie system," regardless of the particular merits of my argument.

But why bother? The only reason to be consistent in the application of perspective is to establish a credible critical voice. Since I have no particular need or desire to be a "real" critic, it shouldn't matter. I can react to a game however I want to react to a game.

But then that raises the question - why not be consistent in my lack of perspective? Why not just judge every game based on how it makes me feel today? I guess it's because I don't want to be a total philistine. Video games are a cultural artifact and I don't want to discard an old game simply because it does not follow contemporary fashions or styles.  I need to remind myself that technological advancement has transformed the medium over the course of its history, so older games labor under substantial limitations that newer games have overcome.

I'd liken it to movies, where you can divide the history of film into pre-cgi, pre-color, pre-sound (and others, I'm sure) and watching the old stuff can be awkward and off-putting. The acting in silent movies is usually over-exaggerated and stylized. Black and white films can lose a lot of the texture and detail of the real world. And before cgi, a lot of the more fantastical elements of various genre films looked cheesy and fake. Yet the very best movies made their limitations into advantages, and would be diminished if they had to use more modern technology (see, for example, the controversy over colorization).

And I think that's the way you have to look at old games. You can't go in expecting something modern to exist in a more primitive technological context. The trick is to find the ways the medium shaped the work. If you're lucky, you'll see connections that give you greater insight into and appreciation for games as whole.

And if you're really lucky, you'll discover one of those gems that is elevated by its medium, and which makes its flaws into a virtue.

Unfortunately, I don't think Dark Forces is one of those games. It was the first FPS that allowed you to crouch or look up and down, but I simply cannot connect emotionally with the idea that this is a big deal (especially since the looking is mapped to such inconvenient keys that it plays no real part in the gameplay). And I don't think early 3D ever found art direction that made up for its inherent blockiness and muddiness (and I can say as an old fogy that this was an attitude that was around even back then - as amazing as, say Ocarina of Time or Super Mario 64 might have been, at least some of us knew that nothing on the N64 was ever going to look as good as Donkey Kong Country).

So as much as I have to give props to Dark Forces for adding a vertical element to its levels and thus avoiding the stultifying claustrophobia of its contemporary, Elder Scrolls Arena, it doesn't really offer much else in the way of clever construction or historical significance. I'll play it for the blog, but I think that in terms of both naive enjoyment and critical analysis, I've already seen everything I need to see.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Star Wars: Dark Forces - 2/20 hours

First things first, allow me to vent a little:

What the hell, a fucking sewer level! What is this shit?

Thank you. It feels good to get that off my chest.

I don't want to complain too much about Dark Forces, because I can recognize that, given its limitations (being an FPS from 1995), it's actually a well-put-together game. Movement is smooth and the controls do what they're supposed to do. There's some good voice acting and animation in the cutscenes, even if the plot is your typical Star Wars expanded universe folderol.

The main problems I have with it stem almost entirely from its age. You can't look up or down. There's no minimap. The hallways look really similar to each other and it can be hard to navigate through them. All stuff I was expecting before I started.

The only complaint I have that is particular to Dark Forces is about the damned infrared visor. I don't know what was going on in the 90s that caused game developers to experiment with low light conditions in games (perhaps the invention of new lighting models), but Deus Ex did the same thing - subject you to darkness and then make your vision dependent on a limited power source. Maybe it's just one of those things that only seems obvious in retrospect, but video games are a visual medium (it's right there in the name), so a game mechanic that takes away a player's sight is already on shaky ground (though one of my favorite Donkey Kong Country levels toggles the lights off and on at period intervals, requiring you to do half your platforming by instinct and memory), but when you tie it to something that can run out, you're basically giving the player a second, less-interesting health bar. I wound up quitting the game when I exhausted all my infrared visor batteries and could no longer navigate through the dark parts of the sewer level.

Aside from that, Dark Forces is fine. It's not how I would ordinarily choose to spend a week, but I'm not in agony or anything. It's interesting from a historical perspective and so far, except for me getting hopeless lost in the sewers, it's been pretty easy. I think if I can get past this hump, I may enjoy myself . . . provided this is not the sort of game that thinks its clever to make its players get lost in a maze.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Star Wars: Dark Forces - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From The Steam Store Page)

Behind a veil of secrecy the evil Empire is creating a doomsday army - one that, if finished, will become the final cog in the Empire's arsenal of terror and domination.

Your Mission? Join the Rebel Alliance's covert operations division, infiltrate the Empire, then battle every man and machine the Imperial Forces can muster. Search a vast galaxy for clues, attack enemy bases-all in a desperate attempt to stop the activation of this fearsome new weapon. 

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This Game

This was a part of that massive Star Wars bundle I bought last year. I didn't know anything about it and it didn't factor into my decision to buy the bundle one way or another. I have heard of its sequel, but given the bizarre way this series is titled, I had no idea they were related.

Expectations and Prior Experience

 I'm about to dive into an FPS from 1995. I'm pretty nervous about it. I might be unfairly maligning the past, but in my experience, games from that era, especially in the more "hardcore" genres, did not necessarily care about presenting a pleasant or comfortable play experience. And since this is before shooter controls became standardized, I'll probably have to have some awkward key bindings to deal with.

The upside is that Dark Forces seems to be pretty well-regarded, so it's unlikely to be a pure slog. And I do love Star Wars, so at the very worst, I'll learn something about the expanded universe that has since been stricken from canon.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Fallen Enchantress - 20/20 hours

I'm kind of at a loss for what to say about Fallen Enchantress. It isn't a very good game, but it has a lot of individual elements that I like, so I'm reluctant to be too hard on it. The worst thing I'm willing to say about it is that it feels undercooked, like its elements don't quite fit together in a cohesive whole. The character-driven rpg is genuinely good, but then there's this strategy element that doesn't really do anything. In theory, you could build up armies in order to conquer the world, but the AI never forced my hand, so I more or less ignored it the entire time.

The question at hand is "did I learn anything or have any notable experiences during the past twenty hours?" There was that dragon - that was pretty cool. And one of the great things that Fallen Enchantress does is set apart areas of the map as "wildlands" which have unique terrain that spawns monsters and which give you valuable resources when you defeat their boss-monsters. Finding a new wildland and storming through with an invincible dragon was pretty satisfying.

Other than that, Fallen Enchantress was pretty boring, mostly just clicking "next turn" and making decisions about which order to build and research. It's the sort of tedium that I find easy to engage with and as a result I blew through it in three days, but it was so uneventful that it took me almost a day to write this post.

Final verdict - get the standalone expansion. This game is a footnote and knows it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fallen Enchantress - 12/20 hours.

I have a dragon!

It was pretty easy to get, but it wasn't inevitable. You need the last technology in the "Civilization" branch of the tree and you need to have an empty dragon lair inside your territory. It basically comes down to luck and once you get one, it's a game-changer.

Fallen Enchantress dragons aren't invincible, but they do have as many hit points as a full military unit by themselves and at the beginning of each battle they hit the entire opposing force with a fear effect that paralyzes enemy units until they manage to resist and they have an AoE breath weapon that can one-shot virtually everything in the game (actually, up to nine such "virtually anythings" to be precise).

The biggest drawback is that once you get a dragon, it completely deforms your entire combat strategy around it. Now, instead of my champions going after the enemy with sword and spell, they instead use their powers to buff the dragon so it can solo all of the opponents. Having a hasted, giant-form, stone-skinned dragon tends to make the battles pretty one-sided. It's not very heroic, but it works.

The other unfortunate part of getting a dragon is that by the time it happens, it is almost trivial to win with the Wonder victory. That's more of a general balance problem, though. You get the necessary tech way too early and the four magical towers you have to build only take a few turns. It's the easiest way to end the game and short-circuits so much content that I usually disable it at the start of the game (but it's been such a long time since I've played that I forgot this time).

I don't really have an objective for the next eight hours. This really is a less polished version of a game I played to 100% completion so I'm in this awkward position where I want to explore, but I know that there's a bunch of cool stuff I couldn't possibly find until I play the expansion. I think I'm just going to have ignore those feelings until my time is up and then forget about this game forever.

Sounds fun.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Fallen Enchantress - 3/20 hours

At three hours, I've played the tutorial, a bit of the campaign mode, and a little bit of a regular game. The big thing I'm noticing is that combat got a serious upgrade in the expansion. In Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes your different combat units got special abilities based on their equipment, making unit composition and placement much more important.  Also, the way you level your champion units is more robust in the expansion, which only makes sense.

However, the core of the two games is essentially identical. It's got the typical 4X trappings - cities gather resources from the countryside and build improvements to increase those resource yields, becoming more powerful as the population increases and allowing you to build improvements and units faster while you research technologies to give you ever more improvements and units to build. But where Fallen Enchantress differs from most 4X games is in its focus on champion units.

Champions are unique characters with individual names and backstories who wear equipment you find in ruins (or buy from stores) and advance along an rpg-progression. These Champions are the backbone of a turn-based tactical combat minigame (well, technically, your generic units are more powerful in the middle-game, once your starting champion gear is obsoleted but before you start getting end-game gear and spells that leaves them in the dust) where you fight a variety of fantasy monsters in order to gain experience and loot.

Other games have done something similar (notably Endless Legend, which is a better game overall), but Fallen Enchantress really does have a knack for making its champions feel like significant characters. Exploring the map, completing quests, and gaining treasure is like an rpg inside the larger 4X. It's pretty satisfying, especially when you go for the epic quest victory (although this particular observation comes from my memories of Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes and not from my current playthrough - this could get awkward).

I probably won't go back to the campaign mode, just because the normal mode goes by pretty fast and I'm eager to get to Legendary Heroes so I can play the game for real (sorry, original version of Fallen Enchantress).

Monday, September 19, 2016

Fallen Enchantress - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

A World to Build… or Destroy.

“A war is coming… a war between East and West - between Kingdoms and Empires, between man and Fallen. A future of blood and death, of chaos and destruction.” – the Oracle Ceresa

Design your sovereign with unique talents and weapons for the trials ahead. Learn powerful spells to enchant units, summon elementals, or destroy those who oppose you. Found cities and research technologies to expand your influence. Send your champions on quests to recover ancient artifacts, gain allies, or obtain the great wealth lost during the Cataclysm.

The land is not simply waiting to be claimed; it must be conquered. Darkling camps, ogre lairs and caves waiting to be explored dot the landscape. In remote corners of the world, tireless butchermen, fell demons and legendary locations are waiting to be found. Explore Varda, a pre-Cataclysm city defended by golems that have turned on the citizens and made the city into a prison. Defeat Sarog to claim the Temple of the Dragon and recruit Ashwake Dragons to your cause. Claim the Flooded Graveyard or the Pit of Sarpah to harness the powerful magical energy of those locations.

Previous Playtime

14.3 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I have a pretty low threshold for persuasion when it comes to 4X games. I heard that Fallen Enchantress was an improved version of Elemental and somehow my brain translated "improved" into "good," so I jumped into it without reservation. Then, two weeks later, the standalone expansion was released and I was like fuuuuck!

Expectations And Prior Experience

Truthfully, my memories of this game are entirely eclipsed by Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes. I remember that when I started playing the later game there were some balance changes that I was initially confused by, but which I eventually concluded were improvements, but I couldn't tell you what those changes actually were.

Still, it's turn-based fantasy with city management and technological research, and I liked it well enough that I bought a standalone expansion within two weeks of getting the original, so the chances that are good that this is going to be an easy one for me. I don't foresee running into any problems, but in the unlikely event that I do, I'll probably just tough them out. I've not yet run into a 4X that simply repelled me. Even the worst of them manage to distract me, at the very least.

FORCED - 20/20 hours

At around nineteen and a half hours I beat the final boss. It was rough, but it didn't go down according to either of my scenarios. I neither devolved into an animalistic rage of heightened awareness and reflexes nor did I achieve a placid inner peace that allowed me to play with studied precision. I just sort of muddled through, doing a little better on average in a two-steps-forward-one-step back sort of way until I just so happened to win. There was no grand design. I simply wound up surprising myself with victory.

I may sometimes go overboard with these grand, romantic narratives of mine.

Looking back at FORCED, I'd say my biggest problem with it was that there wasn't enough "cool-down" material, places I could go when I was overwhelmed by my latest challenge in order to regain my composure. In a lot of other action-rpgs, you can grind for xp or equipment, play pointless minigames, or hunt for collectible doodads in the time between dungeons, but there is absolutely no fat in FORCED. You could go back to previous levels to try and beat the time or get the extra challenge conditions, but these were often more difficult than the level you were trying to beat in the first place.

I think part of the reason I gave FORCED such a hard time while I was playing it is because of its irreversible difficulty ratchet. There was no real character power curve and no point going back to easier levels, so it felt like it was always requiring me to play at my optimal level. Not a great recipe for relaxation. Which is why I took so many more breaks than with other games.

Though in retrospect, this game probably wasn't quite as difficult as I initially thought. After all, I managed to beat the final boss. Sure, it took me about three hours of repeated failures, but it was a finite amount of time. I never reached an insurmountable barrier. Although it certainly felt like it after my first couple of failed attempts.

Anyway, my final verdict is that FORCED is best played with the sort of friends who will stay your friends after you repeatedly cause the group to fail with your unforgivable screw-ups. Playing solo, it is a demanding rpg-brawler that doesn't really have the story or world-building to sustain an interest separate from its mechanics. And I'm not sure that I can comment usefully on whether those mechanics are "good" or not, because when I play the sort of game that FORCED initially appears to be, I like to brawl through mobs with little regard for my personal safety, collect massive amounts of loot, and occasionally pound on a boss that is tough enough to be credible, but ultimately just jobbing for the sake of creating a break in the game's pace.

My intuition is that FORCED is a very good game for people who enjoy the technical side of action games, but that it is poison to button-mashers such as myself. Play it if you want to up your game, otherwise something more casual (which is probably just about any other action game) would be a better choice.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

FORCED - 15/20 hours

I've made some progress in the last five hours. I now have only one boss to defeat before I can unlock the final level. My star total is 39, which isn't too terrible, after my previous dry spell. I'm not confident about getting over that last hump, but then again, I wasn't confident about any part of the game leading up to this point, so maybe I'm overthinking things.

I suspect that there will come a time when I mellow to the game, taking its unforgiving difficulty as just another individual quirk, something to distinguish it from other, similar titles but which holds no particular emotional weight. Much like I feel when looking back at Darks Souls - "well, golly, that was tough, the people who play it must be pretty adventurous."

However, the time of reconciliation is not now. I need to be on edge when I tackle a difficult video game. I need an adrenaline-fueled alertness that forces me to pay attention every single second of the fight. I need my heart to pound when the boss has a sliver of health left and I'm surrounded by minions and only a perfectly-timed series of blocks and dodges will save me. I need to feel cheated out victory so I'll redouble my efforts when I inevitably fail.

Or maybe I'm confusing correlation with causality, and I'm just listing the things that happen when I win. I sometimes try to break my pattern and play the game mindfully and with a calm heart. I have a mantra I repeat to myself - "if you can do it twice in a row, you can do it four times in a row, if you can do it four times in a row, you can do it eight times in row, if you can do it eight times in a row, you can do it ias often as you need to." Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't. This leads me to believe that life is a cruel game of chance and nothing we do makes the slightest bit of sense.

Or, you know, a reaction that is proportionate with playing a video game.

It was probably a mistake to try and do a single-player run on a game balanced for multiplayer. If only I had three friends with the time and commitment to play FORCED with me for hours on end, maybe I'd be in a more objective position right now. Still, objectivity is overrated. I'll probably wind up saying nice things about FORCED when I'm all done with it and ready to move on, but for now, I still need to hate it a little.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

FORCED - 10/20 hours

These last few hours have been pretty rough on me. I believe the term is "exercise in futility." It's not that I've made no progress. I've earned five crystals (you get one crystal for completing a level, a second crystal for doing an optional challenge inside the level, and a third crystal for finishing the level faster than its target time) in the past five hours. But let that sink in for a moment. One crystal an hour, when the levels themselves take between 5 and 10 minutes to complete.

When I was younger, before I got my driver's license, I used to walk everywhere. And since the town I live in is one of those western-US automobile-centered towns with tons of sprawl, the distance of these walks was often very long (something like 2 miles to the nearest library, and 5 miles to the main branch where they had all the good books). And since the town I live in is on the very eastern edge of the Great Basin, these long walks in the height of summer (obviously, I didn't have the free time to do this during the school year) were in blisteringly hot desert conditions. That's what playing this game reminds me of, those long walks along the asphalt of I-70, with no shade and no water (I may have been something of a stubborn idiot), under the noonday sun.

More specifically, FORCED reminds me of a moment that would often come near the halfway point of such walks, when I would recognize that I was probably in over my head and that leaving the house was a mistake, but also that I was at a point in my journey where it would be just as hard to go back as to go forward. It was then that I was forced to tap into my deep reserves of stubborn pig-headedness and march myself to my destination, whereupon I would inevitably collapse in a chair and take about a hundred trips to the water fountain.

I'm in the desert right now. And the only way I'm getting through is by ignoring my common sense, pushing through the pain, and allowing my innate stubbornness to take control. It will be strange, like a zombie playing the game, but it has to be done.

Funnily enough, when I started this game, I was worried that the puzzles might be a roadblock to advancement, but it turns out there are just too many enemies that do too much damage and which take too long to die. I've not yet had any trouble figuring out what I had to do next, but this knowledge hasn't helped me get through FORCED's brick wall of difficulty.

I think the intro text to the random arena says it best "This fight totally isn't fair. Blame the terrible game designers."

I know it's ironic self-deprecation, but if the shoe fits . . .

Nah, I'm just being bitter. I'm sure the designers aren't terrible. I'm sure they simply designed the game they want to play, and it turns out they have terrible taste.

Just kidding. They just have different taste. Some people like playing the same levels dozens of times in a row, eking out incremental advantages as they learn the nuances of each challenge, until they finally manage to squeeze by with the barest of margins and subsequently move on to a new round of punishingly difficult action-rpg gameplay. I just so happen to not be one of those people.

So it's one foot in front of the other for me. Push myself forward because going back is not an option. I just have to remind myself how good it's going to feel when I'm finally done.

Monday, September 12, 2016

FORCED - 5/20 hours

I got a chance to play this game with my friend the day before yesterday. The experience is dramatically different than single player. It opens up all sorts of options to more efficiently finish the levels, if you coordinate your characters' actions and have a strong enough understanding of the levels to capitalize on your extra set of hands.

I like the back-and-forth, and I think the extra resources, properly used, can make the challenges a lot easier. However, multiplayer presents one big obstacle to advancing in the campaign - the fundamental structure of the game encourages socially awkward behavior.

In the simplest possible terms, the levels are too hard. It is virtually impossible to get them on the first try, and clearing them in two or three attempts is unlikely. If you want to beat a level, you have to commit to doing it as many times as it takes, even past the point where it ceases to become fun and starts to seem like an attack on your personal pride.

Which is something you do with a teammate and not necessarily a friend. Maybe I'm too socially timorous, but "join me in this emotional hothouse and maybe after we inevitably lose for the fifth time in a row we can start trying to figure out who to blame" is not a pitch I'm particularly inclined to make.  I'd rather just hang out doing something fun.

I suppose you could, technically, decide to play the game casually, without cultivating any sort of driving creative tension, but I'm pretty sure if you did that, you'd never get past certain levels that require precise coordination and split-second timing.  That's the curse of being great. You have to, at least at times, act like an asshole, because pushing past your limits isn't comfortable and making people do things that make them uncomfortable is a total asshole move.

So I have to be content with failing at FORCED's multiplayer by playing it as a normal human being who doesn't take games too seriously and not as an obsessed fanatic who will push himself to the very brink of reason to attain perfection.

But then again, there's still single player . . .

Saturday, September 10, 2016

FORCED - 2/20 hours

I have a confession to make - my first reaction to this game was neither measured, useful, or wise. About five minutes into it, I started to feel an intense, irrational loathing, all out of proportion with the game's merits or flaws. It's weird, because I remember enjoying myself when I played co-op with my friends. In retrospect, I probably just enjoyed hanging out with my friends, and the game itself was immaterial.

I can't exactly pin down what it is about FORCED that rubs me the wrong way. It has some fun and fast-paced action gameplay, the puzzles are clever, and its art design is distinct and attractive. But I can't shake the feeling that the game and I are enemies.That it wants to defeat and humiliate me.

It's paranoid, I know, but I have my reasons. There's the plot, where your character is victim of ritualized exploitation and with the exception of your spirit guide, every single NPC treats you with absolute contempt. Which I get is just a way to establish our antagonistic relationship and motivate me to get through the levels, but so far it's been working a bit too well. Then there's the load screen that warns me the game is meant to be difficult and suggests I find a co-op partner, which strikes me as good advice, but delivered in an unnecessarily smug way. Although, to be fair, this is probably my own hang-up because I never quite clicked with the whole "games should make you suffer for victory" ideal that so many people seem to prefer.

I'm sure that these feelings will pass. FORCED is a decent game. In time, it will grow on me. It's just right now I kind of want to punch it in its metaphorical face.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Forced - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Forced is a challenging one- to four-player co-op arcade action RPG with puzzle and tactical elements. You are cast as slaves in the toughest fantasy gladiator school of them all, condemned to fight to the death, all the while attempting to win your freedom. You will face deadly trials and huge creatures, but Balfus, your Spirit Mentor will guide you in your quest to break the chains of oppression.

Previous Playtime

3.5 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

My friend Daniel and I will often play co-op games on the weekend, and since we have a scant few games in common, he bought me this one so we could go through the co-op campaign together. That didn't last very long. We'd gotten to near the end of the second level and the difficulty proved to be too much for us, so we moved on to other things.

I liked the game well enough, except for the part where I was forced to do things for these mysterious spirits. But that's just a story-level thing. The real game is all about manipulating switches and fighting puzzle-based boss battles, and that was fun when we were winning (what can I say, I'm not a very complicated person).

My big worry about this game is that it's going to be too difficult. It was hard enough on co-op, I can't even imagine how things will play out on single-player. Then again, it is supposed to scale with the number of players, so maybe the low-end of the scaling will be more my speed.

Puzzle games in general are tricky for me because I love to solve puzzles, but I hate to fail to solve puzzles. Whether I have a good time with Forced is going to depend a lot on whether or not it can mollify my hypocritical whimsy.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon - 20/20 hours

I think, given a long enough time span, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a game I might have played twice. It's got a distinctive artistic sensibility and is both funny and easy to play. It's not a bad way to occupy a long evening alone. However, playing it two and a half times in the space of a week is probably not the best way to enjoy the game.

It wasn't bad, but I simply had no interest in rehashing the story so soon after finishing it the first time. There's only really one central joke - that this incredibly corny story is being told dead seriously - and while it's a good joke, it doesn't gain anything by repetition. And since the rest of the game was similarly shallow, with no alternate paths, varied character builds, and only a minimum of hidden lore, there was really no choice for me but to put it into easy mode and berserk my way through (I suppose I could have tried hard mode and stated taking the stealth seriously, but I don't think I'd have enjoyed that).

My final verdict is that Blood Dragon is probably an excellent DLC (I can't say for sure because I never played the base game). It's a fast and furious romp through an intriguing, if underdeveloped fantasy world. However, it never quite grows out of feeling like a DLC. This game is a diversion. Something you sink a few hours into and then forget about. It's good that such things exist, but I don't think they can necessarily stand on their own.

Of course, part of this assessment comes from the fact that I am biased towards epics. If it's a game I like, then by six hours, I feel like I'm just getting started. I know that a lot of indie games try to deliberately break from this paradigm and embrace shorter, more tightly constructed stories, but Blood Dragon doesn't really feel like one of those. Its pacing is off. You can get advanced weapons, but have no time to actually use them. The difficulty curve doesn't really ramp up over the course of the game. There are only seven story missions, so the later ones don't feel that much more difficult than the earlier ones. It wasn't like Portal, where every subsequent chunk of its two-hour runtime was used to introduce a more elaborate puzzle than the ones that came before.

Judging a game purely by its length is ridiculous, but you can't ignore the fact that padding, grinding, and side-stories are historically important tools in the game-maker's arsenal. Used poorly, they can stretch a game out way past what its minimal ideas are capable of maintaining. Used well, those things are the game, creating a sense of scale and progress in character power and making the world feel more alive. I'm not sure exactly how much Blood Dragon could or should have been stretched, but I do think it could have endured at least a little more. (At least enough to make sure that I didn't spend the last hour of each playthrough grinding money for my last few gun enhancements for absolutely no reason but the thrill of 100% completion).

In the end, Blood Dragon was a series of fun, but not too deep shooting/stealth (ha!) mission that served as a platform for watching a series of hilariously cheesy cutscenes, and it's probably not the sort of game that you should play two and a half times in a row, but the first time was pretty great and the subsequent times were entertaining enough to not be a terribly onerous burden. Maybe I'll have to pick up a main-line Far Cry game some time and see if it stacks up.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon - 9/20 hours

It turns out I greatly underestimated how much Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon there actually was. I don't quite have 100% completion - I still have a few weapon upgrades I haven't bought yet - but I have completed all the story and side missions, collected all the televisions, vhs tapes, and secret research files, hunted all the animals, and liberated all the bases. I could dither around the map for awhile, grinding for the thousands of credits necessary to trick out my sniper rifle, but sources of money are increasingly rare and I wouldn't have anything to shoot with that rifle besides. On the other hand, it would kill some time.

The last mission was the most on-point as a movie parody, featuring a training montage set to a generically upbeat rock anthem and a gratuitous and oddly explicit sex scene, but then you find a robotic dinosaur with a laser cannon on its head and the game once again becomes a celebration of excess.

Which is fine. I like the explosions and cheesy puns (and the way Rex quips with grade-school word-play whenever he makes a kill is a hilarious running joke) and I think I could easily have played in this world for another thirty or forty hours and not have gotten bored. So it's kind of disappointing that it's ended so soon.

I'm not sure what I'd have added to stretch things out. Maybe some vehicle missions, just to get some more use out of what seems like a vestigial mechanic from Far Cry 3. Or something to flesh out the backstory of all these scientist-type people who seem to be your allies. And it probably would have been nice to have some foreshadowing of the mysterious extra-dimensional temple that forced me to fight waves of zombies before it gave me the ultimate weapon. I mean really, what was up with that place?

Oh, and I probably would have given the game a final boss battle instead of killing off Colonel Sloan in a cutscene.

I guess what I'll do next is start a new save file from the very beginning and see if there's any nuance or subtext I missed on the first time round. My guess is that there's not going to be much of that. Nothing about Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon suggests it's a "nuance" or "subtext" type of game, but you never know.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon - 5/20 hours

Right now I'm doing that open-world thing. You know, the one where you faff about in the wilderness searching for collectable doodads instead of pursuing the main quest. It's going fairly well, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this game is much smaller than the open worlds I'm used to. I'm already about halfway through the collectibles and side-missions and I've done three of the seven main story missions. I don't think I'll get 100% completion by hour 10, but I'd be surprised if I didn't get it by hour 15.

That's probably going to be pretty awkward. Oh well, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

My "stealth is for chumps" play-style seems to be working thus far. Some of the side mission require you to rescue a hostage by eliminating a group of enemies who will attack their captive if your stealth fails, and those can be frustrating, but they are loose enough in execution that I've been able to beat them all through a combination of minor stealth and interposing myself between the enemies and the hostage before letting loose with all my big-ass guns. I'll rate that as "fine." Not berserker-friendly enough for my tastes, but really it's only harsh enough to remind me that I'm playing like an idiot.

As far as everything that isn't a timed rescue mission is concerned, I'm really enjoying myself. I got the laser upgrade to my assault rifle and I'm cutting through villains like they're not even there. The blood dragons are pretty beastly, but they're easy to avoid. Colonel Sloan continues to be an asshole, but he has not yet done anything to distinguish himself from the run-of-the-mill video game villain. I'll probably enjoy killing him, but it doesn't seem urgent that he needs to die.

Which is just fine. I've still got a half-dozen VHS tapes to find.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon - 2/20 hours

This game is aggressively dumb. I haven't decided yet whether this is a strength or a weakness. Like, there's a point in the game where Rex and his partner are cornered by Omega Squadron cyborgs and the says "tell [my wife] I died defending our country" and Rex replies with "tell her yourself" and, for me, there was a moment where I stopped to reassess the choices that had brought me to this point. I concluded that the makers of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon had to know what they were doing. I had to trust that none of this was an accident.

It was still pretty damned stupid, though.

Maybe that's all right, though. The game doesn't really work as a parody, per se, because there's nothing that it's really parodying. Yes, big, splashy 80s action movies had some of the same elements of uncritical machismo, nuclear anxiety, and pessimistic moralism, but the game's titular blood dragons are neon-painted dinosaurs. What is that a reference to? Look at the great action movies of the time - Terminator, Die Hard, Aliens, Robocop, etc - and you'll notice that one thing they have in common is a striking visual design that makes very sparse use of hot pink. In fact, all that stuff with the spandex and bright colors and whatnot was considered a little silly and frivolous even its decade of origin. Every generation thinks it invented being too cool for fashion.

I guess Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is really just riffing off the idea of the 80s. It's a big, swirling maelstrom of machismo and excess and the kind of corny earnestness that one always associates with the past (I guarantee that the "winners don't use drugs" line would have been cringe-inducing even 30 years ago). The result would have been unrecognizable to people from the real 80s, who would probably have just taken its ironic crumminess as genuine crumminess. I, however, have the advantage of several decades worth of detachment, so I'll pronounce it "amusingly goofy."

As far as the game itself goes, there are stealth elements, which is normally enough to earn a "grrr" from me, but they've been pretty forgiving so far (mostly serving to set up a series of implausibly acrobatic chain stealth kills) so I'm warily optimistic. As long as playing like a reckless idiot is a viable strategy, going forward, it's not going to matter to me if "badass cybercommando, striking from the shadows" is strictly optimal.

My one real complaint, thus far, is that the save system is kind of deceptive. I've actually played the first 45 minutes of the game twice, thanks to the fact that the "autosaves" the game makes in the middle of missions don't actually save progress if you quit in the middle of a mission, and since I didn't realize at first that this was an open-world game, the first time I played it, I quit about halfway through the first mission. Lesson learned. You can only save in between missions, and I should have played an hour-and-a-half straight in my first session.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the next 18 hours of the game. I'm sure that I won't be surprised at all by the antics of Col. Sloan, the villainous renegade cyborg, nor by my ally, the beautiful and mysterious Dr Elizabeth Veronica Darling, but I will get to shoot a lot of quasi-futuristic neon-colored guns and trick glow-in-the-dark dinosaurs into mauling people, and maybe that's good enough.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Far Cry® 3: Blood Dragon is THE Kick-Ass Cyber Shooter.
Welcome to an 80’s vision of the future. The year is 2007 and you are Sargent Rex Colt, a Mark IV Cyber Commando. Your mission: get the girl, kill the baddies, and save the world.

Experience every cliché of a VHS era vision of a nuclear future, where cyborgs, blood dragons, mutants, and Michael Biehn (Terminator, Aliens, Navy Seals) collide. 

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've got nothing but the trailers on the store page to go on, but it looks like it's going to be self-consciously weird. That's not necessarily a problem, unless the game is so bad that it's over-the-top 80s-sci-fi-pastiche feels like a glossy neon-colored coat of paint over a rotten core.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon looks like a modern FPS, but it's impossible to tell the balance and pace just by looking at some screenshots. If it's a casual blast-fest like Borderlands, I'll probably like it. If it's a meticulous tactical shooter like Takedown: Red Sabre, I'll probably have a pretty rough time. I'm pretty confident, though because why would you make a game with cyborgs and aliens, name your main character "Rex Power Colt," and then be a total stick in the mud about realism in your shooter mechanics?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hyperrogue - 20/20 hours

I played the last five hours of this game in one long marathon session. That was probably a mistake. By the time it was done, my brain was complete mush. It's not so much that I was driven mad by the demon-haunted reaches of infinite space . . . but it didn't help.

The thing I admire most about this game is that it does something video games have always had the potential to do, but rarely attempt - it created a world that operates on fundamentally different rules than the real one. Okay, so all games do this to an extent, what with eating a mushroom to make you big or wandering into people's houses and clearing out their huge, conspicuous treasure chests with no legal or social consequences, but a simplified or fantastic world isn't really in the same league of unreality as a world where all parallel lines diverge and triangles have fewer than 180 degrees. Hyperrogue is more like a Rubik's Tesseract, something that can only exist in a digital form (the 4D Rubik's cube is a real thing, but the way). I like that a lot. Taking something that is well-defined mathematically, but completely impossible for the human brain to imagine, and then making it into a toy.

The thing I like least about Hyperrogue is the rest of the game. I know that sounds pretty harsh, but I don't mean it as an indictment of Hyperrogue so much as a statement of my own preferences and biases. The main thrust of the game is exploration, which I like, but then it puts you back at the beginning whenever you make a mistake, which I hate. Then there's the geometry-based puzzle that is navigating around the map, which is something I tell myself I should like, but in practice wind up hating.

Ultimately, it is a well-put together turn-based strategy game with an inventively designed world and heavy random elements. I can't fault it for not being exactly what I want from a game, but I'm glad that I never have to play it again.