Friday, September 14, 2018

Prey's "Mooncrash" DLC Perfects the Immersive-Sim Gameplay Formula of the Base Game in a Unique Roguelite Mode

Arkane Studios’ Prey (2017) was a surprise hit for me, mostly because it was such a great experience but also because it seemed to come out of nowhere with no real hype. I had barely heard anything about it when it was released, but the promise of it being a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 (one of my all-time favorite FPS games and one of the most highly regarded immersive sims ever created) immediately caught my interest. I figured it would be a good game, knowing Arkane’s pedigree (I’ve enjoyed every game of theirs that I’ve played) but I wasn’t expecting to be so thoroughly enamored with it or to have my mind blown by its creative twists and clever open-ended design. Sadly, I don’t think it sold very well, and so I was fully expecting it to be considered done and over with by publisher Bethesda, which then made the sudden Mooncrash DLC announcement even more shocking. After about a year of radio silence from Arkane and Bethesda, they began vaguely teasing something Prey-releated and then a few weeks later made the official announcement the very same day the DLC launched.

Mooncrash is a quasi-roguelite game mode featuring a new protagonist on a new level, the Pytheas moon base operated by TransStar rival Kasma Corp. You play as Some Guy in a small one-man satellite orbiting the moon, running through simulations as various characters trying to escape from a Typhon outbreak on the moon base. As a roguelite game mode, death is permanent and you can't save, while a lot of elements like item spawns, enemy placement, environmental hazards, and so on get randomized every time you start a new run, although the level layouts and the general objectives you’re trying to complete remain the same. The twist, compared to other roguelite games, is that you play multiple characters successively in a shared, persistent world -- what you do as one character affects how things will play out for another character, since someone else has already gone through and changed things by the time the next character’s run begins. Each of the five characters has their own unique skill trees, stats, and abilities which affect how you play the game as each character. Your goal is to find a way to escape with all five characters in one run, but you’ll have to run the simulation multiple times to unlock each of them, as well as to complete their story missions and to figure out a good strategy to ensure successful escape attempts.

This DLC is a very different experience than the base game. While they share similar settings and have a lot of the exact same gameplay mechanics, the base game focused more on slow-burn atmosphere and exploration with a lot of carefully scripted events, a linear main story, and a wealth of side characters, side stories, and side missions to flesh out the rest of the world. Mooncrash focuses less on the story and plays more like an immersive-sim sandbox; you’re dropped into four adjoining maps (which are themselves fairly spacious and open) with a bunch of randomized variables and given a single primary objective -- escape. There’s still a backstory that you can gleam from assorted emails, audio logs, notes, and even the five main characters’ personal story missions, but there’s no “main story” to speak of, since it doesn’t play like a straightforward campaign -- it’s a mashup of gameplay mechanics meant to bring out the best elements of emergent gameplay and fast-paced, improvisational thinking. In essence, Mooncrash takes the gameplay elements of the base game and cranks them up to eleven.

Friday, July 6, 2018

DreadOut -- An Indie Horror Game That's Actually (Surprisingly) Good

DreadOut (2014) is an indie horror game in which you play as Linda, a school girl on a field trip that takes a wrong turn and gets her (along with her teacher and classmates) trapped in a literal ghost town where seemingly every spirit is out to kill or possess you. As the rest of your classmates are picked off one by one, your goal is to find a way to rescue your friend Ira and, eventually, a way to escape the ghost town without succumbing to the ghosts' malicious intentions.

In practice, it plays a bit like a cross between Silent Hill (you're wandering around a creepy abandoned town) and Fatal Frame (taking pictures of ghosts to vanquish them), but without any sort of survival-horror health systems or resource management. Although it has a quasi sort of combat system vaguely reminiscent of a first-person shooter (if you substitute your camera for a gun, it's kind of the same principle), this is more of what you'd consider a "pure" horror game where it's not at all about the action -- it's more about the atmosphere and the scares, with hints of light puzzle solving sprinkled into the equation.

The game is split into three chapters; an introductory dream sequence that acts as kind of a prologue or teaser for the full game, and two full chapters where you're trapped in a location (one is set in a school, the other in a mansion) and trying to find a way out. Each chapter has some kind of vague over-arching goal you're trying to accomplish, but it's really just a matter of "try to find the next thing you have to do to advance the game" while dodging ghosts or taking pictures of them in the right way to vanquish them, solving puzzles (sometimes by finding and using inventory items like keys, or by taking pictures of things from the correct angle), and facing a sort of boss encounter at the end of each chapter.

As a low-budget indie game, it definitely looks the part -- low-resolution textures, blocky models, stiff animations, flat voice acting, weird user interface, stiff and sometimes unresponsive controls, random poor design choices, etc -- but it actually works surprisingly well as a horror game, not just aesthetically but mechanically as well. I went into DreadOut with no real expectations, other than my own desire to enjoy it since I like horror games so much and am always looking forward to finding horror games that are actually scary (or at least entertaining), and came away really pleased with the experience. It's not perfect, mind you -- even in terms of its horror elements, it has some rough spots -- but if you like horror games then this is one I can absolutely recommend.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Get Even: A Uniquely Fascinating Game With a Generically Uninteresting Name

Get Even (2017) is a first-person psychological thriller with elements of FPS action, stealth, and puzzle-solving wrapped up in a science-fiction detective theme, in which you play as a mercenary named Black being sent into people's memories through a virtual reality machine to try to figure out who's behind the kidnapping of a high school girl named Grace, who was being held for ransom with a bomb strapped to her chest. You wake up in a run-down asylum with no memory except that you were sent to rescue Grace, but failed. The last thing you remember is the bomb exploding as you tried to defuse it. With a VR headset permanently strapped to your head, you find yourself guided through the asylum by a man named Red, who communicates with you remotely through computer screens. The rest of the game alternates between progressing through the asylum while the inmates run amok, and going into memories related to the kidnapping, which act as more conventional "levels" that you can replay searching for more evidence you may have missed, or changing your approach to achieve a different ending.

Developed by The Farm 51, the company behind Necrovision, Painkiller: Hell & Damnation, and Deadfall AdventuresGet Even is predominantly a "story game," the type of thing where narrative presentation takes priority over gameplay systems, as you're mostly there to take part in the story. There's plenty enough gameplay elements involved as you periodically sneak or fight your way past enemies, solve puzzles, and search for hidden evidence, that it doesn't garner the pejorative "walking simulator" label, but you do spend a lot of time simply walking around and watching scenes play out, or reading emails and listening to phone conversations, as you try to piece together the story and solve the mystery. While the gameplay is perfectly fine and serviceable (it even has a few innovative features, like the "corner gun" that lets you aim around corners or use it like a periscope), the story and the atmosphere it creates are the real reasons to play this game; these elements are absolutely top notch, and they work together to create a pretty unique and memorable experience.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

On Role-Playing Games: How I Define "RPG" and What I Expect From RPGs

The term "role-playing game" has become somewhat nebulous and unhelpful these days when it comes to categorizing video games, in large part because so many games have started implementing RPG elements in their gameplay designs, causing the line between "RPG" and "not-RPG" to blur. Sometimes the distinction is easy to make, if the RPG elements are obviously secondary to some greater gameplay emphasis, but the advent and popularity of hybrid games (like the Mass Effect series, for instance, which are equal parts RPG and action-shooter) have raised serious questions about how we should classify RPGs, since nearly every RPG these days now falls on a wide spectrum based on "how much an RPG" it actually is. When thinking of what games I'd put in a "Top 10 Favorite RPGs" list, for instance, I struggle with deciding whether certain games should even be on the list; for example, is Deus Ex actually an RPG? What about Dark Souls? In both cases, my gut says "no," but you could make an argument for both games, based on how you actually define what constitutes a role-playing game.

A key issue with this debate is that different people have different definitions; for some, the simple presence of a leveling system makes any game an RPG, while others insist that it's more about choice and consequences, while still more people would say that it's about being able to make a character (or an entire party) and explore a large open world, playing the game however you want. In truth, there are a lot of specific mechanisms and general concepts that go into making an RPG, but it's probably not appropriate to draw a hard line in the sand and declare that "if a game doesn't have have these specific elements, then it's not an RPG." As the folks at Extra Credits have pointed out, mechanics don't define genres; why we play them, or what we're looking to get out of them, does. And as the classic Potter Stewart quote goes, "[I can't define it], but I know it when I see it." Which is to say, there's an inherently subjective logic about how we perceive and classify these games, and it's not always easy to put into words. But I'm going to try.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Fallout 4: A Case of Simultaneously Being Pretty Good and also Sucking Hard

It's no secret that I harbor a great deal of contempt for Bethesda Softworks. Every game of theirs that I've played (Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Skyrim) has majorly disappointed me, usually feeling like a soulless shell of some better game that might've been (or in some cases, that actually is/was). That disappointment stems generally from a combination of their shallow world designs and repetitive gameplay, both of which tend to feel lacking in meaningful depth or interesting systems, all in worlds that are so big they wear out their welcome well before their playtime runs out. A chief criticism of mine, especially lately, is that they just don't feel like very good RPGs, and yet ironically they've been generally improving by progressively devaluing the RPG side of things.

Fallout 4 is, to this point, the pinnacle of Bethesda taking a step back and essentially deciding that they're not even going to try to make role-playing games anymore -- they're just going to make open-world action-adventure games. As such, Fallout 4 is by far the most "dumbed-down" (ie, "streamlined") game Bethesda has ever made, but that's a good thing I feel. These were already pretty simple, mindless games to begin with, and so now it's easier to appreciate these games for what they actually are, instead of pretending they're something they're not and then feeling disappointed about it. As a result, I actually kind of liked Fallout 4 and sunk an unfathomable amount of time into it (235 hours, to be exact).

And yet, despite all the time I put into it, and despite saying that I "kind of liked" it, there's still a lot that's critically wrong with Fallout 4, to the point that I honestly can't say it's a good game. Sure, it's pretty good for what it is (a Bethesda game, and certainly not a Fallout game), but the bar is so low with these games that being "pretty good for a Bethesda game" isn't really much of a compliment. It still has all the inherent problems of a Bethesda game, and somehow, some of those problems are actually worse than they've ever been. It's hard to believe that, while Bethesda's games have steadily gotten a little more polished and a little bit fancier with each release, they've never really evolved when it comes to the core game design (you could even argue they've actually devolved over time), while Fallout 4 stands strong as an iconic example of just how questionable and misguided Bethesda's design decisions can actually be.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Fallout 4: My New Favorite Game of This Decade

It's no secret that I harbor a great deal of contempt for Bethesda Softworks. Every game of theirs that I've played (Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Skyrim) has majorly disappointed me, usually feeling like a soulless shell of some better game that might've been (or in some cases, that actually is/was). That disappointment stems generally from a combination of their shallow world designs and repetitive gameplay, both of which tend to feel lacking in meaningful depth or interesting systems, all in worlds that are so big they wear out their welcome well before their playtime runs out. A chief criticism of mine, especially lately, is that they just don't feel like very good RPGs, and yet ironically they've been generally improving by progressively devaluing the RPG side of things.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I decided to give Fallout 4 a chance (only because it was on a free weekend event -- I wasn't about to pay Bethesda for the opportunity to play another one of their disappointing games), and actually liked it. Like, really, really liked it. I get that some people might not like it because it's technically a step back from Fallout 3 and New Vegas, at least from an RPG standpoint, but I honestly didn't care. The first-person action is absolutely on point in this game -- the best it's ever been in a Bethesda game -- and the world was so much fun to explore, with so much to see and do. I also, surprisingly, liked how the voiced protagonist offered your character a lot more personality, and the dialogue system itself, meanwhile, flows really nicely. There's a much more cinematic feel to this game, which makes it look simply gorgeous to play, and as we all know, visual presentation is one of the most important things when it comes to game design.

There's a lot more I could talk about, of course, which I'll get into in the full article, but to sum up the teaser section before getting into the more detailed section of things: I was not expecting to like Fallout 4, and was blown away by just how good it actually is. Bethesda have out-done themselves, and I truly feel like this represents a new major step forward for what they're capable of accomplishing. It's so good that I think I can safely say that it's my new favorite game of this decade, easily bumping Prey 2017 out of the top spot. Anyway, on to the actual review.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fallout 4 Mod Guide: Recommendations and Mini-Reviews

I've been playing Fallout 4 lately, and as always seems to be the case with Bethesda games, it practically requires a bunch of user-created mods to spruce up and polish the overall experience. That statement, of course, is meant to be a somewhat disdainful commentary on the way Bethesda designs their games, but I don't want to get into a long rant about why that's the case. (Maybe that'll be part of another article, later.) Rather, I just want to take a moment to showcase some of the many mods I've been running in my lengthy playthrough, with descriptions and mini-reviews for why I'm using them and what I think of them, plus recommendations for how essential I think a mod is and when it should be installed.

According to the Nexus Mod Manager, I currently have over 150 mods installed, though that number is misleading because some of the mods use multiple optional, modular plugins which count as separate mods (the item sorting mod that I'm using, for instance, accounts for 12 different plugins) or require compatibility patches to work with other mods, which again count as separate mods. I played about 30 hours of unmodded "Vanilla" Fallout 4 before I started installing mods, and from there it was a cascading effect. It started with basic "quality of life" improvements in the gameplay to fix minor/major annoyances, and then shifted to atmospheric overhauls with the visuals and audio to make the game look and feel more pleasant to play, and then towards the end became a matter of adding in all new content to keep things fresh and interesting.

This article is meant to be a recommendation guide for which mods I think are worth installing if you're planning to play Fallout 4, but it's by no means a comprehensive, exhaustive guide of everything. There are a lot of highly-rated, super-popular mods that I chose to pass on for my own personal reasons, one of the main ones being that I wanted to stay pretty close to "Vanilla" for the bulk of my playthrough (ruling out massive overhauls like Horizon), or had to pass on because I lacked the required DLC (ruling out the unofficial patch and revamped user interfaces), while other mods affected things that I just didn't care about (like Sim Settlements or any of the other settlement mods). This article is simply a look at some of the mods I'm actually using; use it as a basis to start your own research, and then go from there.