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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Why Elex is Better than Skyrim and The Witcher 3

Skyrim and The Witcher 3 are two of the biggest, most popular open-world action-RPGs ever created. Both of these games set a new standard for the genre when they were released in 2011 and 2015, with absurdly high metascores clocking in at 94 and 93, respectively. I was not as enamored with either of these games as the general public was, despite having a strong affinity for and appreciation of open-world RPGs; I had a lot of negative criticism to level against Skyrim, and even while praising The Witcher 3 rather extensively, I felt like it, too, had a lot of issues that seriously diluted and detracted from the experience. Both top-notch AAA productions with excellent presentation and smooth, accessible gameplay, that ultimately felt lacking in meaningful depth.

Enter Elex, the latest open-world action-RPG from Piranha Bytes, the small German studio behind the Gothic and Risen series. On a surface level it's actually much worse than either Skyrim or The Witcher 3, largely due to production limitations of being a much smaller studio (about 30 people, as opposed to hundreds) with a much smaller budget (about two million dollars versus 80 million plus). There's a distinct lack of polish across almost every aspect of the game, which on first impression can make it seem like a thoroughly mediocre, undesirable experience, but if you can get past these surface-layer blemishes there's a surprisingly deep, rich, and rewarding gameplay experience. By no means is Elex a perfect game, but I honestly feel like it's better than both Skyrim and The Witcher 3 in some of the areas that matter most when it comes to open-world action-RPGs.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Things Gothic 1 and 2 (Still) Do Better Than Elex

Piranha Bytes have been making open-world action-RPGs for nearly 20 years, starting with the first Gothic in 2001, and now with their most recent game, Elex, released a few weeks ago. All of their games (including the Risen series, released between Gothic and Elex) follow the same general formula with the same components; a big open world full of really tough enemies, where you have to explore, complete quests, and learn new skills to work your way up the food chain so that you can survive and complete the main quest. They've basically been making the same game for almost two decades, with a fresh coat of paint and a handful of tweaks and twists each time, and yet their newer games have never quite reached the level of success that the original Gothic games achieved, in terms of their gameplay design and execution.

Elex is a surprisingly strong effort that I'd say is almost as good as Gothic 2. It has a lot more modern polish, including much more accessible controls, and an actual tutorial to teach you how to play the game (but that's to be expected in this day and age), plus a much bigger world that still contains Piranha Bytes' signature detailed density, and improved quest design that gives you more options and more consequences for how you choose to resolve quests. It's actually better than Gothic and Gothic 2 in a lot of ways, and yet, surprisingly, there's a lot of good stuff about Gothic and Gothic 2 that have somehow never made it into subsequent Piranha Bytes games, and which are sorely missing in Elex. They had a pretty solid formula with those early games, and so it's weird, disappointing, and somewhat frustrating that, about 15 years later, some of the things that made Gothic and Gothic 2 so great still haven't found their way into Piranha Bytes' newer games.

My intention with this article is not to disparage Elex, because it really exceeded my expectations, even though it's still a little rough around the edges, in some ways. Rather, I want to celebrate Gothic and Gothic 2, and also use this as an opportunity to remind Piranha Bytes (if they're reading this) of some things that were great in those games, that really need to make a return in Elex 2

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Beginner's Guide to Elex: Tips and Advice

Helping you get the most enjoyment out of Elex's sometimes rough and daunting beginning.

Elex is a third-person open-world action-RPG from Piranha Bytes, a small German studio, that blends traditional fantasy, science fiction, and post-apocalypse themes. Set on a world 200 years after a comet wipes out nearly all life on the planet, the survivors have split into three factions that use elex, a mysterious substance that appeared with the comet, in their own unique way to fulfill their own goals and agendas. You can be a Dungeons & Dragons-style berserker who wields swords and casts fireballs, or a Mass Effect-style cleric who uses plasma rifles and psionic mind control, or a Mad Max-style outlaw who makes their own gear from scrap and enhances their abilities with powerful stims. It's got a huge world full of diverse environments, tons of quests, lasting consequences for decisions you make, and three different factions you can join, all of which radically alter your gameplay experience by offering unique equipment and skills.

It's surprisingly good, but like other Piranha Bytes games, it has a lot of quirks and idiosyncrasies that can make it difficult for unseasoned initiates to figure out how the game actually works, what you should be doing, and so on, combined with a really steep difficulty curve that makes no effort to hold your hand. For many players, this can lead to a lot of confusion and frustration right at the start of the game, which is never a good thing, obviously, but is especially unfortunate because Elex offers an extremely compelling, rich, and rewarding experience for those who can get into it. As a long-time Piranha Bytes veteran, I still struggled with a few things in my first playthrough, and had some of my expectations subverted when I realized, dozens of hours into it, that I wished I had done things a little differently.

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to help new (or prospective) players with general tips and advice about how the game works and what you should expect, with a few basic, spoiler-free strategies to facilitate a better gameplay experience. A large part of the fun in these games is the satisfaction and reward that comes from exploring the world and discovering things on your own, so I won't be going into specific detail about "go here and get this item, then do this quest as soon as possible, build your character exactly like this, etc," because I want to leave you that room to figure things out for yourself. But some things are tough to figure out without doing a lot of trial-and-error and seeing how things pan out over the course of a 50-100 hour playthrough. So, here are some of my thoughts and observations after pouring 143 hours (and counting) into multiple playthroughs, which I think should be helpful to other new players.

Friday, November 3, 2017

What I'm Playing: Elex

Regular readers may know, by this point, that I have a fondness for Piranha Bytes, the small German studio responsible for the Gothic and Risen series, with Gothic and Gothic 2 (released back in 2001 and 2003, respectively) being two of my favorite games of all time. Sadly, none of their other games have ever lived up to the legacy of Gothic and Gothic 2, with each new release being a case of "one step forward, two steps backward." Though I've enjoyed each and every subsequent game from Piranha Bytes, each one was marred by some critical design or technical problem that made them feel like definitively inferior games, and therefore tough to recommend to anyone but die-hard fans. Their latest game, Elex (released two weeks ago), is without a doubt head and shoulders above anything they've released recently. I've been so enamored by it that I've poured nearly 100 hours into it over the past two weeks en route to finishing a single playthrough.

I could write a full review on it at this point, but I want to save that until I've spent more time in a second playthrough trying different things to see how gameplay changes depending on your faction choice, and how much of an impact certain decisions actually have on the outcome of the story and gameplay progression. I feel confident enough that I could make some pretty reasonable deductions without needing to replay it, but really, I just enjoyed the game so much that I want to run through it again with a different playstyle. So, that's what I'll be doing. I also have a few other articles lined up, that I'm thinking of writing, detailing more direct comparisons to other games in the genre (ie, how it stacks up to Gothic 2, The Witcher 3, Skyrim, etc), so while I'm brainstorming all of that I just wanted to drop a quick update about what I'm up to. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

This War of Mine - Review

This War of Mine (2014) is a point-and-click resource-management survival-simulator in which you play as a group of civilians attempting to survive as long as possible in a city that's under siege as part of an active civil war. The original hype surrounding this game centered entirely on how starkly it contrasted with typical military shooters (which tend to glorify war and murder) by putting you in the shoes of regular people -- not soldiers -- who have to suffer all of the hellish effects of war, despite being innocent bystanders. Although the game is decently engaging from a mechanical standpoint, it's really just a simple, run-of-the-mill survival-simulator; the real reason to play This War of Mine is to explore its theme of what it might be like to be a random civilian trying to survive a war, and to see a completely different wartime perspective than what's usually on offer in video games.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mass Effect 2 Sucks

The first game I ever reviewed on this blog was the original Mass Effect, back in 2011. You can go back and read the review if you desire, but the whole thing is crudely written and doesn't really capture the nuance of how I felt about the game. It's been so long at this point that I can't elaborate on those thoughts any further, because I simply can't remember much of anything from ME1, except to say that I remember generally enjoying the game despite being constantly annoyed by simple, repetitive gameplay and obnoxious enemy-scaling and loot-scaling.

For years I've been hearing about how Mass Effect 2 was supposedly better than the original. A quick scan of google search results shows hundreds of articles and forum posts from 2010 heralding it as one of the greatest RPGs -- nay, greatest games, period -- of all time, while more recent articles with years of hindsight continue to sing its praises and laud its place in the pantheon of video game history. Apparently these people have never played good RPGs -- or good games, for that matter -- or else they all have wildly different definitions than I do as to what constitutes a "good" game, because there's virtually nothing about Mass Effect 2 that I can actually praise apart from its slick presentation and general aesthetic.