Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II - 2/20 hours

I really don't like this Starkiller guy. He's like if someone wanted to design Luke Skywalker, but hated his innocence, enthusiasm, and earnestness. I guess the Starkiller in this game is a clone of the original, but because both of them are so strong in the Force, the new Starkiller is picking up the old one's memories and personality, which kind of makes sense in that goofy, sci-fi way where the space magic has never done anything like this before, but the sort of things it has done before are similar enough that it doesn't feel entirely like a cheat. If young Anakin Skywalker can come back as a ghost (or, for that matter, old Anakin Skywalker can appear as a ghost in a purely hypothetical, non-cybernetic form) then a clone being possessed by the memories of the dead original is not so much a stretch.

It does raise all sorts of ethical questions that I'm not sure the game is going to go into, though. Like, what sort of culpability does new-Starkiller have for old-Starkiller's many crimes. The original Starkiller was an unrepentant murderer. It's one of the things that frustrated me about the first game.

He was kidnapped and brainwashed by Darth Vader at a very young age, so him becoming a Sith assassin doesn't necessarily make him irredeemable. He too, was a victim of the Dark Side. And yet, at every point in the story where it would have made sense for him to come to terms with his past, it's completely elided, as if the game itself didn't realize that there were some unresolved issues that needed to be addressed.

He just sort of conscripts ex-General Kota and insinuates himself into his life, and never once do we see anything remotely resembling a "hey, sorry about blinding you and throwing you out of a space station." Which is important, because it leaves me completely at sea when it comes to interpreting the cutscene at the end of level 2, where they have a tense argument in which Kota dresses Starkiller down for wanting to meditate and recover his memories instead of immediately joining the rebellion. Which, you know, is a pretty intense conversation to have with the clone of the guy who maimed you. What if new-Starkiller randomly gets back the part of old-Starkiller that was a heartless killing machine, hunting down Jedi with a single-minded obsession?

I should probably give it some time, though. The Force Unleashed II does seem more interested in exploring new-Starkiller's inner state, and thus is more likely to deliver a nuanced interpretation of the character. I'm not hopeful, however, because even in this incarnation, the game doesn't seem to realize that there is something problematic about him, and if I'm being perfectly honest, I'm expecting a half-baked romance plot with Juno Eclipse to take up most of the game's running time.

On the gameplay front, The Force Unleashed II is a worthy successor to the first game. The levels are prettier, but with less scope for exploration (not that the first game was great about this), and there are fewer Force powers, but the missing ones were mostly cruft and the controls are all-around smoother. I have no real complaints on that score.

I do, however, expect to finish the game in less than 10 hours, which makes me wonder if this is another case where I should have bundled a game with its sequel.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The Star Wars® Saga continues with Star Wars®: The Force Unleashed™ II, the highly anticipated sequel to the fastest-selling Star Wars game ever created. In Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the world was introduced to Darth Vader’s now fugitive apprentice, Starkiller—the unlikely hero who would ignite the flames of rebellion in a galaxy so desperately in need of a champion.

In the sequel, Starkiller returns with over-the-top Force powers and embarks on a journey to discover his own identity and to reunite with his one true love, Juno Eclipse. In Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, Starkiller is once again the pawn of Darth Vader—but instead of training his protégé as a ruthless assassin, the dark lord is attempting to clone his former apprentice in an attempt to create the Ultimate Sith warrior. The chase is on – Starkiller is in pursuit of Juno and Darth Vader is hunting for Starkiller.

With all-new devastating Force powers and the ability to dual-wield lightsabers, Starkiller cuts a swath through deadly new enemies across exciting worlds from the Star Wars films - all in his desperate search for answers to his past.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

It was a slick-looking action game that cost me about $1.50 when part of a massive bundle. I had a vague memory of liking the first game (though I must not have paid too much attention to the plot the first time around) and I will confess - I love buying whole series of games all at once.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've only played The Force Unleashed, so all of my expectations are going to be informed by that. I think it will probably be a competently executed action game that will be diverting enough that my 20 hours will be relatively painless (provided I can pull myself away from No Man's Sky long enough to give it a chance).

However, the fact that a sequel exists at all is kind of baffling to me. Starkiller died at the end of the first game. How the hell is he running around in the second? According to the store page, it involves cloning somehow, but that's not really how cloning works. Not even in the Star Wars universe, where the mechanics of cloning are actually pretty well established - for example, the clone troopers have always been portrayed as being separate individuals from both each other and Jango Fett.

Of course, the store page also describes Juno Eclipse as Starkiller's "true love," which is . . . not well supported by the text. I imagine I'll be rolling my eyes at the story quite a bit before this is all over.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Ultimate Sith Edition - 20/20 hours

I almost had 100% completion. I just needed to get all the holcrons from the final level. I probably would have gone past 20 hours just for the sake of the last few collectibles, but the game kept crashing. In the end, I decided it wasn't worth the frustration. I'm just going to remove it from my hard drive anyway.

Overall, I'd say I liked the parts of the game that were not plot. Even the boss battles got less frustrating when I had all my Force Powers pumped up to maximum level. Tossing around Storm Troopers like ragdolls never got old, and even when that tactic didn't quite work (several enemies were immune to being picked up by the Force), the game was fast-paced enough that it never really dragged.

In fact, I would have had this game completely in the bag three days ago, if I hadn't gotten sucked into playing No Man's Sky again.

I don't think I'll ever play this game again, though. I don't think I've ever played a game with more satisfying telekinesis, but that's not really enough of a reason to go out of my way to play it, and the goofy and off-putting story is something I actively want to avoid (at one point, he was ruminating about a Jedi falling to the dark side, when she was the apprentice of a woman he murdered in cold blood . . . and if I get into this again, I'm not going to get out.)

I still have the second game to play, and I'm sure I'll enjoy it well enough. And hey, the story couldn't possibly be any worse . . .

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Ultimate Sith Edition - 9/20 hours

I've said before that story is not strictly necessary to video games, but nonetheless enhances the experience, making it richer and more satisfying. I think I've found the exception.

Aside from the occasional bullshit boss fight, the numerous QTEs, and the inexplicable sequence where you have to use the Force to pull a Star Destroyer out of orbit, The Force Unleashed is a pretty fun game. You run around throwing enemies hither and yon, blasting them with lightning, and then using your light saber to chop up any that still survive. It's a fast-paced action game that occasionally rewards strategic thinking as well as frantic button mashing.

And it works fine, until you stop to think about what all that action means. The main character is Darth Vader's apprentice, who goes by the name of "Starkiller." Already, we are off to a bad start. Goofy name aside, the idea of a game as starring Darth Vader's apprentice is extremely problematic. I suppose it could be done, but you'd either have to make it a nuanced psychological thriller, or a gleefully amoral and over-the-top comedy. The Force Unleashed's approach of making the main character a sullen and unlikable asshole who doesn't seem to register anything going on around him is an unworkable compromise.

I don't want to get too scathing here, because I know the game's script is the product of someone who really cared about Star Wars and who probably put a lot of love into it (and it apparently won the 2008 Writer's Guild of America award for best video game writing, which, um, okay). However, there were times where I'd be watching a cutscene and literally groaning out loud.

Look, in order to have a character arc, your character has to make decisions, or at least express emotions. And it doesn't count as a romance just because two characters of the opposite sex are in close proximity to one another and then kiss right before the final mission - Starkiller had better chemistry with the robot for crying out loud! And you don't set up established characters to job for the new guy, especially if the new guy is a black hole of charisma and the established characters include one of cinema's most iconic villains!

But I get ahead of myself. Starkiller starts the game out as a flat-out murderer. Darth Vader tells him to murder people and he does, without hesitation or complaint. Why he does this is hard to say, but it appears that he just doesn't care about human life and is in the habit of doing what he's told. The closest he has to a motivation is assisting in Darth Vader's plan to kill the Emperor. Since he was taken from his home as an infant, he might be in it for revenge, but if so, it never comes up.

Then, after killing a few Jedi, Vader takes him to meet the Emperor, but instead of going ahead with the assassination plan, Vader stabs him in the back (literally) and tosses him out an window into the vacuum of space. But he's not dead! Instead, he revives in a hidden medical facility and Vader tells him that he faked his death in order to surprise the Emperor, and that his new mission is gather the Emperor's enemies and form some kind of "rebel alliance" (aghh!).

And then he does that, but only after defying orders and rescuing his lady pilot friend, so they can proceed to barely talk to each other and share no kind of personal connection or sexual tension. I guess in the second half of the game he's some kind of double agent, doing exactly as he's instructed by Vader and gathering the rebels as a distraction, but also secretly hoping that by following his orders to the letter (love interest rescue aside) the fake rebellion will become real. Or maybe he just doesn't have any agency whatsoever and that's why he never informed any of his allies about his secret communications with their deadliest enemy. Though that doesn't explain why, when he was discovered by his lady friend, who had apparently bought into the whole "rebel alliance" (arghh!) thing on account of being unjustly imprisoned for ferrying his ass around on the orders of Darth Vader, they didn't have any sort of serious heart-to-heart where he's forced to explain his apparent betrayal.

Anyway, Starkiller winds up founding the rebel alliance, because why not have the most pivotal moment in the franchise's history be orchestrated by an emotionless dork with no connection to anyone or anything we've previously given two shits about, and then seconds later Darth Vader arrives in order to arrest the rebels. Starkiller feels betrayed because the mission he was pretending(?) to do was not the one he was pretending(?) to accept, but rather Vader was pretending the whole time, and I don't know, there was clearly some goal he had, which was thwarted here, but they never say what it was.

At this point, Starkiller has no choice but to storm the still under construction Death Star and stage a daring rescue of the rebel leaders (because what the hell does "canon" even mean any more). He does so, defeating both Darth Vader and the Emperor in the process (arghh!), and then when he has the Emperor at his mercy, his Jedi mentor warns him not to strike him down in anger . . . despite the fact that the whole goddamned point of the fucking Rebel Alliance that you just formed is to overthrow this exact guy, and what the hell were you even planning on doing with and evil space wizard anyway, and fuck you Starkiller, you cannot steal Luke Skywalker's best scene without ever struggling with your murderous past in any way or doing anything to redeem yourself, and no, feeling "love" for the sexy lady pilot with no discernible personality doesn't count because even sociopaths get boners!

GRRRRR!!!!!

And then the Emperor uses this moment of moral confusion to regain his powers and temporarily incapacitate Starkiller so Darth Vader can kill him, the Rebels somehow escape, and that's the end of the game.

Okay, it looks like I wound up being pretty scathing after all. I guess I liked the shapeshifting robot that was always humorously threatening to kill the main character. It was cool seeing Shaak-ti, one of the distinctive looking background Jedi from the prequels, in action, though some asshole killed her before she could do anything really interesting.

Despite my grumbling here, playing the game was not a non-stop ragefest, however. Mostly I just tuned the story out and focused on the gameplay. In truth, it was more like a groan-worthy fanfiction than anything really upsetting. I still have 11 hours to go with this game, and I'm not terribly worried about having to play it again. Who knows, maybe after seeing the plot a second time, it will come to grow on me.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Ultimate Sith Edition - 2/20 hours

I was surprised when I saw the copyright date for this game. 2008. Nearly 10 years ago. On the one hand, that explains why my memories of The Force Unleashed are so dim. On the other, damn, I'm getting old. 

It really does seem like recent history to me, though I'd somehow forgotten the comedy-relief assassin/training droid and the sexy female shuttle pilot in the undoubtedly non-regulation uniform. I'd somehow gotten it into my head that The Force Unleashed was a grimmer, more self-serious story than your usual Star Wars fare. I guess I remembered that the main plot involved hunting down and murdering Jedi and just assumed that the main character was a brooding loner.

The game itself is all right, for the most part. The best way to describe it is that it does that thing that games do when they're designed for a brand new console, where it goes overboard with the console's novel capabilities, but then neglects the basics of game design, and graphically, it somehow manages to look uglier than a late release from the previous generation while still being unambiguously more sophisticated, graphically.

The gimmick for the Wii version of the game was motion controls (which I do miss, by the way), but for this version it's physics. No Star Wars game before or since has made the Force such an active presence in the world. You can lift a crate with the Force, hurl it at an enemy, send your target flying into another enemy, and then possibly that enemy will crash into a stack of crates (there are a lot of crates in this game) and knock it over, crushing anyone who happened to take shelter behind it.

It can get pretty wild, and the parts of the levels where you have to face a horde of enemies armed with nothing but your lightsaber, the Force, and your wits are pretty fun. What is not fun are the boss battles. Those are some serious bullshit, mostly because the saber dueling is sloppy and the Force controls lack precision (which is fine for mooks, but a total pain when you're facing an equal and every move counts). It's not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the game, but it is something I expect I'll come to dread.

I'm optimistic, though. The boss battles will likely never get better, but it is fun to romp through these Star Wars locations (despite what I said about the graphics, there are a few visually striking moments scattered throughout), and cutting loose with the Force is a hell of a lot of fun. I expect the rest of this game to go quickly.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Ultimate Sith Edition - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The story and action of Star Wars®: The Force Unleashed™ expands with the release of Star Wars The Force Unleashed: Ultimate Sith Edition, a special new version of the game that will show gamers the deepest, darkest side of the Force in a story that puts them on a collision course with Luke Skywalker himself. The Ultimate Sith Edition includes all of the original missions found in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed as well as content previously only available via download and an all-new exclusive bonus level.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed completely re-imagines the scope and scale of the Force and casts players as Darth Vader’s "Secret Apprentice," unveiling new revelations about the Star Wars galaxy seen through the eyes of a mysterious new character armed with unprecedented powers. 

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This game was part of the now-infamous Star Wars bundle I bought a couple of years back. However, rather than being an afterthought, this was one of the games that sold me on the bundle as a whole. I'd played the original game back on the Wii, and so the PC port, with DLC, bundled with the sequel, was a pretty tempting proposition.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Something that hasn't come up on the blog, and would probably get me shamed out of "real" gamer circles, is the fact that I love motion controls. To me, the loss of precision is absolutely worth it for the sheer physical joy of moving my arms and my body in time with the game (although, ironically, as much as I love crafting games, I would not want to play them with motion controls, because it is possible to have too much of a good thing).

So when I heard news of a Star Wars game coming out for the Wii, I knew I at least had to try it. Motion controlled Jedi was too beautiful a dream. Although, when The Force Unleashed finally came out, it garnered middling reviews, and thus I did the sensible, cautious thing and rented it.

I have a vague recollection of enjoying the game, though the only part that really sticks in my memory is the opening mission where you get to play a badass version of Darth Vader. Considering that I only paid about $1.50 for this game, that will be worth the price of admission on its own, I'm sure.

My real worry is that I've heard some negative things about the PC port of the game. It's already going to be a blow to lose the motion controls I previously enjoyed so much, to also have to deal with bugs and crashes is discouraging.

Nonetheless, I have high hopes for this game. I just want to wander through Star Wars-themed corridors,  slicing through fools with my lightsaber and flinging around Force powers like no one's business. If it gives me that in even a moderately functional way, I'll be good.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Fractured Space - 20/20 hours

At times this game felt like a test of endurance. Playing the same, not-too-interesting mission over and over again tasked me more than I'd care to admit. At times, grinding was the only thing keeping me going. Getting credits for new ships, earning drop pods for daily rewards, and upgrading my crew with new implants were my favorite parts of the game. I probably spread my play time out over more days than was strictly necessary, just to reset the limited daily rewards.

A lot of the time, though, I was playing this game with an emotional detachment, going through the motions of directing my ship, but not being entirely present, mentally. I feel bad for my human teammates in these matches, because I was definitely not bringing my 100%, but not too bad because at my skill level, the difference between full and 75% efficiency was probably not enough to change the course of a match. Still, I feel like I was at least marginally more useful than a bot, and thus a net benefit to my team, regardless of my lack of personal investment in the outcome of the match. I probably shouldn't have been playing multiplayer, but I don't think I was bad enough for it to count as a crime.

At least that's what I'm telling myself. Truthfully, I'm relieved to be done with this game. It's not that it was bad. In fact, after I got a couple of ships in my hangar, I came to appreciate its free-to-play model. You can unlock all of the game's content through grinding, but it doesn't really matter since it is best to simply pick two or three ships and master those, rather than dabbling in a dozen or more (in fact, it's likely that no small part of my multiplayer suckiness is down to me playing each of my new ships as soon as I unlocked them). So what you've got is a game that is about developing skill in a kind of abstract way. The narrative context of your battles doesn't matter, because it's all about learning to use your selected ships' abilities to optimal effect.

If that's your sort of thing, Fractured Space gives you a slick looking arena, responsive controls, and a surprising amount of tactical depth.

It's the sort of thing that is startling to get for free, because it has a lot of polish to it, and, if you want a game that just gets right to the space combat without any sort of narrative pretext, then it's pretty great. It's easily worth 5-10 dollars, depending on how many ships a paid version would unlock at the start. So, you know, zero dollars feels like a great deal . . .

Except that I don't think that I, personally, would be willing to pay anything for it. Nothing against the game, it's just that what I love about space games is their sense of scope and scale. I like flying my space ships through a seemingly endless void, worrying about fuel and oxygen and power, all for the reward of landing on a potentially barren planet and getting nothing more than a pretty view for all my trouble. To put my opinion in perspective, I've complained about this game being too repetitive . . . by throwing me into one exciting action set piece after another and not forcing me to experience long stretches of tedium in between.

That's just the way it is, though. Final Fractured Space verdict - it's great for people who like thrilling space battles and poor for people who like banal space logistics.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Fractured Space - 12/20 hours

Finished my goal of playing through a single skirmish with each of the various ships. It may be that I only played them once each and thus didn't get much of a handle on their nuances, but none of them really seemed all that better than the basic three. That speaks well for the game's balance, though I'm not sure how I'm supposed to decide which one to unlock next. Chance, maybe? Or perhaps I'm supposed to play a lot of single-player games with some of the more obscure support ships in order to get used to their peculiar play styles. In all likelihood, simply buying the ships with real money is the most efficient way to do it.

I'm not really at the point where I'm tempted, though. There's a delicate negotiation when it comes to free-to-play games. Even with Fractured Space's serious limitations, it's the sort of thing that I can receive for free and feel like I'm better off than I was before. I guess that means it has some positive value, but I don't know what exact price I'd pay for it. What's especially frustrating is that, while the whole thing may have value, I wouldn't actually want to buy any of the particular things it charges money for. As weird as it sounds, I've come to terms with the idea of spending real money to buy a digital game that exists only as a file on the internet, but to spend money on an imaginary object that is only a few lines of code within that file feels weird to me.

Although it's likely that Fractured Space itself is the problem. I once bought a virtual hat for Path of Exile, and while I felt a little silly doing so, I have no regrets because Path of Exile felt like I was getting a full game for free. As fun as it is to smash spaceships with lasers, Fractured Space does not feel like a full game. It feels like ten minutes of a game looped around itself in the hopes that the players find their own motivation.  I've noticed that there are technically multiple maps, but they're simply reskins of the same basic asteroid field.

It's not really a problem, though. I've gotten into the rhythms of this game, at least enough to pass the hours without trouble. All I've got to do is keep blowing up space ships, ten minutes at a time.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Fractured Space - 5/20 hours

I've been dragging my feet with this game, mostly because I was under the mistaken impression that you could only use the three starter ships in single-player mode. It was an easy mistake to make, however, seeing as how the icons to select the ships had a tiny, closed padlock in the corner, which is the universal symbol for "you cannot use this thing yet." I had real mixed feelings when I found that one out - yes, there was relief that I wouldn't have to play with the same three ships for 20 hours (possibly getting a fourth or fifth ship with my earned credits), but also annoyance that it had taken me so long to figure that out.

It's not that piloting the starter ships is unpleasant, exactly. It's just that, at least when it came to facing off against the AI bots, I knew everything I need to know about them by the end of my first two hours. Obviously, there's still a lot of skill involved in knowing when to use my abilities and how to track targets while still avoiding fire, and so on, but I have a 100% win percentage against the AI, and I've become confident that nothing would ever disturb that.

And while I don't mind grinding towards some particular purpose, the thought of playing 37 matches to be able to unlock a single new ship, without having any clear idea about whether the new ship would be fun or powerful or offer a novel tactical challenge, was one that did not thrill me. I more or less wrote off my potential future unlocks as a non-issue.

Fortunately, I don't have to do that anymore. I can try all of the ships over the course of the next few hours. At about ten minutes per match, with 34 possible ships means that I have about 6 hours of pure experimentation, before I have to decide on another course of action. That will take me to about the halfway point on the blog. Then, I'll probably have no choice but to try . . . multiplayer!

That's in the future, though. In the meantime, I'll be playing around with a wide variety of fancy spaceship designs, which is really the best part of playing a science-fiction game that his been stripped of all exploration and plot.