Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Prey: My Favorite Game of This Decade

Prey is a science-fiction-themed first-person shooter from 2006, in which you play as a Cherokee named Tommy running loose on an alien spaceship as he tries to rescue his girlfriend, Jen, after they're both abducted in an alien invasion. Built on the Doom 3 engine, it plays pretty much like a standard Doom-style corridor-crawler of that era. What makes it noteworthy, besides its convoluted 11-year development cycle and infamously-canceled sequel, is its implementation of mind-bending alien technology that allows you to move through dimensional portals, change gravity, and shrink to minuscule sizes, in addition to its array of strange alien weaponry. I pre-ordered the "Limited Collector's Edition" back in the day and enjoyed the game well enough (it's still on my shelf), but never felt a fanatical attachment to it.

Prey is also a science-fiction-themed first-person immersive-simulator from 2017, in which you play as Morgan Yu making his (or her -- you choose your gender) inaugural trip to the moon-orbiting research station Talos I. Once you arrive, you discover that the station has been attacked by a strange alien lifeform; most of its crew is dead, many of its systems are out of operation, and you have seemingly no way off the station. The rest of the game sees Morgan piecing the history together of what happened to Talos I and its crew while combining stealth, combat, hacking, and alien abilities (among many other skills and options) in an open-ended system that gives you a lot of freedom about how you complete objectives and how you play your character. This new Prey, in fact, bears no resemblance to the original Prey, having absolutely no connection except for the name.

Conceived by developer Arkane Studios (Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Dishonored) as a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, the name Prey was given to the game by publisher Bethesda, who owned the trademark ever since they picked up the publishing rights to Prey 2, which they canceled several years ago. With no official work being done on Prey 2, I guess they wanted to get some kind of use out of the name that they'd already bought, and since Arkane's pitch of surviving an alien attack on a space station vaguely matched the theme and basic concepts of the Prey license (in addition to making linguistic sense -- the aliens prey on human life), they decided to go with it. Hence Prey (2017) having the same name as the 2006 cult hit, even though it is, essentially, System Shock 3.

None of that really matters, though, because the game is great. I'm a big fan of the style of games pioneered by Looking Glass Studios (and similar developers, some of them borne directly from Looking Glass survivors) in the late 90s and early 2000s like Thief, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Vampire Bloodlines, and so on, and I've enjoyed every game that Arkane has ever created. Putting Arkane in charge of a System Shock-like game is like a match made in heaven, and they pulled it off with near-perfect mastery. Prey is what I wanted BioShock to be, since it's a much more faithful adaptation of the System Shock 2 formula, and plays a lot like those games I mentioned previously, except with the added benefit of modern production values. It ticks every box for things I enjoy in video games; it's one of the most enjoyable games I've ever played, and it's my favorite game to have come out in this decade.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Nocturnal Rambler is Now on Patreon!

Some more news to go with the other minor changes I've made to the blog: I've decided to launch on Patreon. I've been running this blog long enough (nearly seven years) that I figure it's time I start trying to capitalize on the work I put into it. The advantage of Patreon is that it creates a direct avenue between content creators and their fans, allowing me to get paid for my work while also giving back to you all with extra rewards and content for supporting me.

My reviews have always been free to read, and that's not going to change; I'll continue to post reviews and articles here on the blog as usual, and you'll be able to continue reading them as normal. For those of you who choose to support me on Patreon, I'll be posting more frequent thoughts, opinions, and observations (over on Patreon) in the form of "Random Ramblings" and "Early Impressions," while also keeping you more informed with status updates about what games I'm playing and what articles I'm planning. I'll also be setting up polls to let you vote for what games I play next, and I may even take special requests on occasion. These extras are split into separate reward tiers so you can choose how much you want to give based on what extras you'd like to gain access to.

All of the money you contribute will go directly back into the blog by helping me pay for the games I play and review. With enough support, I could buy (and review) new releases more frequently, and I could look into doing other things besides written reviews like live streams, let's plays, and/or video reviews. Patreon is, essentially, a way for everyone to get more out of the work I do; Patrons gain access to extra content, I get paid for my work, and everyone benefits from me being able to produce more and better content. There's more information over on Patreon, so I encourage you to check out my page there to read more on the subject. 

I also want to thank you all for all the support and appreciation you've shown through comments and emails over the years; it's meant a lot to me, and has been a primary motivating factor in keeping the blog running for so many years. If you like the work I do and want to help this blog grow into something more substantial, then I hope you'll consider also supporting me on Patreon. Thanks again for your consideration; I look forward to seeing where this blog can go in the future.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

New Nav Pages and Other Site Changes

I just wanted to take a moment to point out a few minor tweaks I've made to the blog layout. If you've visited any time in the last few days you may have noticed some of the changes already. 

First up is the new banner image at the top of every page. The original banner was something I made way before realizing that this blog would be entirely video game related; the new banner is a little bigger and more colorful, plus it pops a bit better, and has some video game imagery built right into it to allow newcomers to more quickly realize that the blog centers mostly around video games. I don't play a lot of retro 8-bit games, so that part may be a little misleading, but I liked the contrast that those images provided against the nebulous background.

Next up are the new main pages on the top navigation bar. The "About the Rambler" page is a more thorough biography, of sorts, going into a bit more detail about my history and background as a gamer, with a brief description of what I do when I'm not playing video games, and also explaining my thoughts on the blog itself. The "List of Games Played" page is a full list of virtually every game I've played, in chronological order, since October 30th, 2006. The entire posting history of this blog is contained in that list, but it goes back several years before I started doing reviews here. It's literally just a list, but I thought it would be fun to share, so you could see a little bit more info on what games I've played in the past.

Finally, this change is much less significant, but I changed the "Random Posts" widget in the side bar to show a preview of the article text, and reduced the number of displayed posts in the side bar from five down to four. I also tweaked the overall dimensions of the blog, making each of the side bars 20 pixels wider to allow for a slightly longer line of text before hitting a line break. This, to me, just looks more pleasing to the eye, since it prevents a single long word from dominating an entire line of space and forcing a tag (on the left) or a headline (on the right) from being displayed one word at a time down a long column.

None of these changes are very significant, of course -- I'm sure some people may not have even noticed -- but I wanted to point them out all the same (especially those two pages in the nav bar) since they kind of blend in with the basic layout. There's still one more change I want to make that I haven't done yet; I'll be detailing that in a separate post in a day or two, once it's ready to launch. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Gothic 3 Sucks -- A Critique From a Longtime Gothic Fan

Gothic and Gothic 2 are two of my favorite games of all time, being two of the games that had the most influence on my young and developing mind when I first played them in the early 2000s. And yet I harbor virtually no love for Gothic 3. I've barely mentioned it in any of my Gothic articles because I don't even like to consider it part of the series; it doesn't connect to Gothic 2 very well, and the whole gameplay formula is a radical departure from what made Gothic and Gothic 2 so great. Even though it was made by the same developer, Piranha Bytes, Gothic 3 feels like a different game by a different group of people who had only a vague understanding of what the Gothic games were, and who were told to make everything "bigger and more epic" in order to compete with the likes of Morrowind and Oblivion. Spoiler alert: they failed miserably.

Gothic 3 is a classic case of a game being ruined by ambition, of a developer trying to reach beyond their own means and biting off more than they could chew. The game, besides being unfinished and under-developed, was a buggy mess upon its release, and it took years of fan-made patches to supposedly "fix" the game and make it functional. The community patch is now 1.5GB of files (the whole "vanilla" version is only 4.6GB, total) and contains numerous bug fixes and stability tweaks, and also attempts to completely redesign and rebalance the combat system. I played the game at launch (late 2006) before the community patch even existed, and again a few years later with it, and while the patch truly does a lot to improve the game's overall playability, it doesn't (and simply cannot) fix the core gameplay design and story problems, which are the real reasons Gothic 3 sucks -- not just the bugs and broken combat that the patch supposedly fixes.

Normally I'd be content to dismiss the issue and move on with life (the game's over a decade old, after all, and I haven't even played it in about eight or nine years), but I find it surprising that, even today, people still speak highly of Gothic 3. With the recent release of Elex, newcomers to Piranha Bytes games frequently ask about their previous games and which ones are worth playing, and people readily leap to defend (or even recommend) Gothic 3, usually with the caveat that you need to play with the community patch. That's sound advice, of course, but I just can't justify recommending Gothic 3 to anyone because of how bad of a Gothic game it is, and how mediocre it is, just as a game in general. So in this article I'll be explaining my opinion on Gothic 3 and why I think it sucks.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Resident Evil 7 DLC Review: "Not A Hero" and "End of Zoe"

December 12th saw the release of what might be the final pieces of DLC for Resident Evil 7 -- the free Not A Hero scenario in which you play as Chris Redfield trying to find Lucas in the moments immediately following the base game's conclusion, and the $14.99 End of Zoe (part of the season pass) in which you play as Joe Baker (Jack's brother) trying to find a cure for Zoe after she starts being crystallized by the mold, as seen in the base game. Each scenario lasts roughly two hours and provides closure for some loose end of the main story. This final (?) round of DLC feels like a nice coda for a game that I absolutely loved, the final bit of content to round everything out into a full and complete experience, and yet I also feel somewhat underwhelmed by them, and perhaps in the case of one of them, outright disappointed. See the full review for my thoughts on each one.

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