DOOM (2016)

Revisiting old-school shooters isn’t something I have a passion for–you can look at, for instance, what I said about Hard Reset–but it’s good for a change. I didn’t play the original Doom until I was a little older (and even then not all the way through), but it does take me back to Quake 3 Arena. Stepping onto a boost-jump pad, leading a target with the rocket launcher while I fly through the air… the mechanical core of this game was there. DOOM is also not so different from Metroid Prime, though it’s more action-oriented. Each could probably learn a thing or two from the other.

There’s a robust multiplayer mode, but I played a few rounds and it felt a bit dated. I found myself thinking I would be much better off spending the time in Overwatch, so I don’t have too much else to say there.

The different systems are really cool and cohesive–chainsaw kills, glory kills, runes, weapon upgrades with challenge-based unlocks, and so on. Whether your options are balanced is a whole other story: once I discovered the rune to make grenades siphon armor, and paired that with infinite ammo at 75+ armor, things got easy. The weapon challenges were also pretty easily cheesed, but I prefer that to frustration.

The aforementioned glory kills–the melee animation finishers–are something that I’d hate in other games, like the canned stealth takedowns I was made to watch over and over in Human Revolution. But not only are they pretty fast here, you can make them even faster with a certain upgrade, and one can easily avoid doing them when they need to keep moving. It’s probably the most effective example of their mission to blend new and old-school game design.

Some of the earlier levels, like the foundry, are actually among my favorites; later on there’s a bit too much of fighting hordes in giant arena rooms. It’s the natural way to hike up the challenge factor as you progress, but when you clear out a room and then more enemies just start teleporting in, it definitely feels like it’s dragging.

I also liked the levels set in Hell a little less, but that may have more to do with the natural themes of human settings, where variety is endless and yet familiar. It’s like how humanoid enemies with arms and legs are more fun to fight than giant floating heads, something which in my experience remains true whether you’re playing a Doom game or a Castlevania.

Some of the levels have points of no return, perhaps because you have to fall a ways, or a door locks behind you, or they don’t have a consistent visual language for marking the end of a level. (One level even ends in the middle of a fight with a pack of enemies.) It’s not the best way to incentivize hunting down secrets for yourself. The level replay feature is pretty cool–you can redo an old level and have the collectibles you miss count toward your totals and achievements–though I still would’ve preferred not needing it.

DOOM uses checkpoint-only saving, which I generally dislike. I always notice it influencing my behavior: “If I touch this switch it’ll replace my checkpoint, so I should avoid it and grab this thing first, so I won’t have to do it again if I die.” It seems arbitrary and limiting, and I’d generally prefer to have a say in when the save happens, but it’s at least good about letting your secrets and challenges remain separate from your checkpointing… with the exception that map icons for lore entries annoyingly seem to appear uncollected again, despite being in your collection database.

One of the things the game does best is its self-aware tone. There’s a documentary about the game on youtube that touches upon a lot of this stuff: the demons with jetpacks, the metal soundtrack, the security systems that tell you that demonic presence is at “unsafe levels”. It seems like an obvious fit in hindsight, but so many games have some rigid story that avoids asking what it is that the player signed up for: look at the shooters where you think “Why can’t I just shoot this guy?” at basically any point where someone is talking. DOOM itself isn’t fully resistant to that: it does still occasionally lock you in a room for some exposition, sometimes with the lame old trick of putting the villain on the other side of bulletproof glass.

At least these parts are segregated from gameplay, and you never have to do an escort mission or whatever just because the story calls for it. Still, frankly, these scenes should have been skippable, if we’re really taking the best of old-school games with immense replay value. Instead, they seem to have added Arcade Mode precisely for this, though it doesn’t help with getting all those collectibles on your main file. Though the part about some of the later levels dragging on a bit would remain true, this game actually might unexpectedly be worth another playthrough some day.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die

I think D4 was worth a day’s laugh, but even paying $10 (specifically for it) in a bundle feels a bit steep now. Though it’s called “Season One”, it’s like a third of the length I’d expect from a modern graphic adventure game, at just two episodes. This took me completely by surprise while playing. It seems that things were prematurely cut short; Swery left the studio and there’s no more coming.

The ridiculous characters would fit in well with an Ace Attorney episode, and the same stand-out Swery style is here, but the small cast on D4’s airplane didn’t pull me in like Deadly Premonition’s warm town, which had some of the most relaxing pacing of any game. It’s unfair of me as a reviewer to expect to bond with an incomplete experience, I suppose, but it’s also unfair to be sold one, so, here we are. I’m sorry if things fell apart for the studio, though–I don’t really know the details at all.

Sadly, the actual mode of interaction is gimmicky and unenjoyable; you do little unnecessary “tilt the control stick” QTEs whenever you want to open a door or whatever, and you do longer, annoying scored sequences of QTEs when the action heats up. Life Is Strange did amazing things just on the basis of exploration and interaction and a simple time control mechanic as well, but where in its case it didn’t feel the need to throw pointless tests in to distract you from the story, D4 doubly overcompensates. There are also a few timed interaction challenges and a bad minigame where you touch objects that fall from the top of the screen before they reach the bottom–the latter of which just feels pathetic as ideas go. I’m trying to imagine this game if you just walked around like a normal person and looked at things, and it seems nice.

There’s a million collectible objectives, and I do think it’s kind of cool to have characters commenting on your outfit or saying they don’t like your beard or whatever. The Tales From The Borderlands model of this stuff, which also put currency and items in a graphic adventure, was certainly better. I’d prefer fewer missable items and associated achievements, but it seems they had some bigger ideas they couldn’t quite deliver on. We see hints of the game as a New Game Plus-minded thing, including one quest that can’t be solved unless you replay the chapter with an item from later in the game. I found it tedious getting past the content I’d already played even just to do that one sidequest, though: I could skip dialogue, but the mission structure was still pretty locked up and there were still various little motions you had to go through. This chapter-select replay for scores and other junk is far better suited to games like Resident Evil 5; graphic adventures like D4 are better off keeping their eyes straight ahead.

It’s not all bad. The mechanic that lets me shove people at any time is extremely good. Some parts are really funny, like the crazy passenger making a scene about how the plane is going to crash and who needs calming down. Or the overtly stupid sidequests–like travelling through time just so the player can check a shelf in their house and find out which James Bond movies Timothy Dalton was in, simply because the question was bugging somebody. That’s the kind of game this is, and I can definitely appreciate that.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Life Is Strange

I think this one was a very beautiful game. The drama and its characters are extremely well executed and acted, and I think what surprised me most was seeing the specifics of the medium used remarkably well at times to convey things beyond what could be done with the traditional storytelling. In one scene Max is just lying in bed and it becomes clear as it exits a cutscene that it’s one of those times where you can press a button to actually get moving, but Max is reluctant to move and I actually found myself reluctant to move her… it’s not something that can be easily described, but I thought it was particularly special.

But the execution of the time travel and the game’s themes of choice, and loss of control, and feelings of regret over trying to play God (awfully like the movie Project Almanac if you’ve ever seen it) don’t always appropriately deliver. It’s an incredibly hard thing to get right in a game, but it’s one of those works of fiction that will tend to frame things in a limited fashion to make an argument that only sort of works on its own incredibly specific terms. You see a few false dichotomies, lacking the agency to take actions or make arguments that should be there, because the absence of choice is a contrivance that creates more dilemmas. Sometimes choices you might not want to make are made for you, which is ludically unfortunate, although it might make for the best story in the end. And narratively speaking, the limits on your rewind power–being unable to use it during a cutscene, or after leaving a room–can feel sometimes arbitrary. These things were often forgivable but just as often worked against what I feel were the story’s best interests as a work of interactive fiction.

Sometimes it’s a classic Inadequate Telltale Argument situation, not even related to the time travel: like when you’re trying to talk the religious girl down from suicide and eventually you’re lead to three options that all involve appealing to her religion, despite that Max doesn’t even share the religious views at all. To me that seemed like three incredibly fucking condescending choices when I just wanted to make an earnest appeal to a suicidal girl to just slow down, because the rest of her life was worth a few minutes of reasoning if nothing else.

But I think what bothered me most was when our favorite girl Chloe was doing target practice and hit herself with the fucking ricochet: your only choice is to rewind time and tell her to pick a new target, causing them to keep at it right up until the drug dealer enters the scene–unavoidable–and the situation gets worse. I badly wanted to give Chloe a smack in the head and to tell her that it was time to stop playing with guns, that it’s not fun anymore after something like that; to say if the ricochet had hit me instead of her, it all would have been over, because there’s no rewinding that.

Like a lot of fun time-travel films that don’t quite get their logic right, Life Is Strange messes up. Putting aside the other method of time travel that gets introduced later on, Steins;Gate style–in which case I have so many questions and assumptions to challenge that I don’t even know where to start–Max is supposed to be retaining her position in space when she rewinds, which means that when she gets up from her seat at 9 AM, walks out of the room and stands by her locker at 9:02 AM, and then rewinds the clock back two minutes… to any outside observer, for all intents and purposes, she teleported from her seat to her locker. But nobody notices that, and the game is inconsistent with how this works in cutscenes. But… apart from wanting to yell at the game sometimes, I have to admit that the errors didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the story in the end. And I liked Project Almanac more than Primer anyway.

I found the time travel most thrilling when it allowed me to put something I learned to use in conversation thirty seconds before learning it, such as making people like me by saying the things they hadn’t said yet. And before Max’s klutziness got played out a few episodes in and they stopped doing it, it was nice wish-fulfillment to get to undo the occasional error. But I didn’t find myself rewinding much as a result of equivocating on major choices: unless Max said something I hadn’t intended for her to say from a dialogue option (thankfully not such a big problem in this game, for obvious reasons), I basically knew what I wanted the first time around. If there were ever more games based around this premise–and I’d be thrilled to have them–I think the most obvious place to really get more out of the rewind would be in the joys of optimization; speedrunning by virtue of rewinding until everything is done. Entering a building at exactly noon and having teased every bit of info out of every NPC and having all the nearby objects in your pocket before 12:01 PM. Put a clock in the UI and make it matter.

The last episode did drag a bit with the extended nightmare scenarios–I felt like it had all been done before–though the first conversation with the teacher pulls a Hatoful Boyfriend trick with your dialogue options that I was pretty delighted to see again.

Ultimately, and especially with the big (and evidently divisive) choice at the end, for me it was an Orpheus and Eurydice love story. There’s beauty and poignance in petulantly fighting for one person at the cost of everything, even if you have to use your fingernails to dig straight to hell, and even if it’s ultimately greedy or fundamentally self-centered and misguided, like the original Orpheus probably was. But if you already know all your uncomfortable priorities… if you really have your trolley problem shit figured out–like, would Lee drown a baby to save Clementine or whatever?–you can always live with the hard choices you’ve made.

I think the Dontnod team managed to match Telltale at their best on this one. (And there are no QTEs, which was even better.) In all seriousness I was hit pretty hard by this game, and I would have very likely given it a 5 if it had done better in just one area between its occasional weak choice options, the pacing of its final act, and the low level of mechanical ambition. It’s still, I think, a must-play title.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

The Witness

The Braid Guy came back with another game for the suckers at IGN to take too seriously. Braid had a decent Prince of Persia-esque mechanic where you never run out of the going-back-in-time potion. It also had some walls of text that people gave far too much credit to. In The Witness, you solve line puzzles. That’s the whole game. It kind of reminds me of the circuit-board routing puzzles I saw in System’s Twilight as a kid–they were quite a bit different, but mostly because they were just one small part of a diverse game that didn’t cost 6 million dollars to make, wasn’t sold for $40 (it was shareware), and never made me want to vomit.

The motion sickness is a real problem. People have blamed all kinds of things, some of which was adjusted in post-release patches, and obviously didn’t stop me from feeling it, a year late to the party. I think most of the so-called causes were harmless; when you’re starting to feel ill, every little thing you sense just exacerbates that. So, while the annoying humming sounds coming from every object in the world aren’t going to cause anyone to throw up, they’re especially unwelcome when your head’s already spinning. One interesting root cause I heard suggested was that the camera pivots on the face of an imaginary sphere when you turn, instead of on a point. It could also just be the the coasty way you move that calls the original Half-Life to mind. What I can say is that this revolution in motion sickness is certainly the most obvious thing to show for the immense costs of the new game engine. God forbid Blow could’ve made this game in Unity and saved me a few helpings of Dramamine.

The most charitable thing I can say is that some of those line puzzles are very cleverly set up. Often, though, it doesn’t even feel like a good puzzle game, in the manner of Portal, where you feel like you’re a genius for solving something. Often my reaction to figuring out how to do something was, “Are you fucking kidding me?”Some puzzle mechanics are just awful, like the sunlight-glare puzzles where you have to look up from an incredibly small area to know that there’s even anything to see. Even worse are the ones where trees cast shadows on a line puzzle and you have to incorporate the shadows into the solution, or the silhouettes of other objects. And a lot of the game’s difficulty is just keeping arbitary color and shape rules straight in your head. Okay, so the different colors of asterisks are allowed to share space, as long as they remain in sets of two of their own color, but if colored dots are in the same space, then…

I can offer up no substantive reason for this to be a big open-world 3D perspective-changing game when its best puzzles would work as well stripped of their context and used in a bargain game for phones. You’d never have to squint at some Piccassoesque interpretation of a path, frustrated and unsure if you were tracing it correctly even after finding the hints, and you’d always encounter puzzles in the best order, instead of tripping over the advanced combo-forms of something you’ve never seen before.

And what a load of shit Blow’s idea of interactive storytelling is. Even Braid seems earnest and true after the absolute nonsense here. The audio logs, talented voice actors aside, are just the most Blow-esque drivel imaginable if the couple I found were an accurate sample of the whole, which I can be reasonably sure of. Then there are the film clips and other little easter eggs, like that embarrassing ego trip of a secret ending. The less said on that, the better.

But is it art? Are games art now? I think it’s funny to suggest that we could ever be boldly treading new ground with a line puzzle game where you walk past pretty sculptures and architecture. Games where you’re endlessly shoved around by people trying to reduce your hitpoints, where you never speak a word, or where a couple of loosely-defined systems interact, things break, and hijinks ensue–these can be a hundred times more boldly creative, useful, inspiring, thought-provoking, and so on. But I’ve probably said this stuff a thousand times by now.

The reviewer strongly discourages spending time or money on this game–it is bad. It could still have a good point or two. But whether it’s a short piece of shovelware or a long, high-profile game where each hour feels like some kind of dubious psychological trap, expect a torturous experience where none of the good even begins to make up for the bad. It is the antithesis of what the reviewer looks for in a game.

Watch Dogs 2

It’s always a bit striking how these Ubisoft games seem to spend more than enough money but feel shallow and fail to really execute on their ideas. There’s some good stuff here: the cheery young black Oakland hacker protagonist is way different from the usual design-by-committee junk they took a whipping for with Watch Dogs 1, and while I roll my eyes at their execution on a lot of the “hacker culture” stuff, I have to admit it’s at least not a totally overused aesthetic.

The weirdest thing about the game has to be the killing. You aren’t a gangster, an undercover cop, or a space marine or anything–I can’t see any reason to think that Marcus here is supposed to be someone who has ever held a gun in his life at all. And your typical objective isn’t “get payback on the cartels”–though they certainly shoehorned that kind of standard fare in there in places–but “sneak into the Google offices and put a virus on their computers”. And, yeah, like, I get it–murdering everybody who works at Google with a grenade launcher doesn’t technically mean you can no longer plug in the USB stick. But what the hell’s the point anymore? How doesn’t that immediately become the way bigger story than the evil data you liberated or whatever? Nobody mentions your body count at all and it’s way more fucked and narratively unsettling than some silly moment in GTA4 where they suddenly pretend life is sacred and that you didn’t mow down 10 people on the sidewalk minutes before the cutscene started.

A part of me wonders if there had been a point in development where guns weren’t planned at all, until some focus group said they wanted to shoot people, but either way it’s weird. WD2’s combat is unfulfilling and frustrating. When you melee a guard in a room while others are around, you can get locked into a hour-long takedown animation where you’re still hitting the guy like six more times after the other guards have seen you and started shooting you. You also die after about two seconds’ exposure to bullet fire, which would support the whole “stealth is the intended way to go” theory, except that the stealth is no better.

Putting aside that a “clean hands” run is more or less taken off the table by the decision to have your stealth takedowns count as kills, it gets in the way of even violent stealth. You can’t move bodies around or hide by any means other than velcroing to cover opposite the guards. You can’t shut off alarms and they go off constantly on their own as objectives during the story missions. These are the sorts of things we wouldn’t accept in a proper, dedicated stealth game. And I think proper stealth really would’ve made the game something else. Make the takedowns non-lethal. Tell me when I’ve killed. Don’t alert the whole building when I stungun somebody head-on: just because the guard got to look me in the eyes before he went down doesn’t mean he radioed in, unless he’s wearing some kind of special Silicon Valley camera contact lens I wasn’t told about. And though the occasional quirk in detection logic may be inevitable, communicate to me what the consequences of these quirks are: tell me conclusively when the rest of the building has started freaking out. That’d be a good start.

So: shooting and stealth both are poor, but it’s the combination of both, combined with ample hacking, that can actually make these infiltrations enjoyable. Usually this means whipping out the remote control hopper and whizzing past guards while they’re staring intently at goatse or whatever the heck it is you send to them when you hack their phones. Carpet-bombing groups of enemies from the quadrotor drone also works pretty well. Even so, the balance between infiltration strategies is nonexistent: you can sprint right past a guard in the middle of the most secure server room on the planet if he’s just been texted a jpg. In the final mission I would die if I poked my head out for more than a second, but a bit of feedback blasted into everyone’s headsets and I sprinted right past several dozen heavily armored dudes with assault rifles.

The remote control toys are generally executed better than most of the other stuff, and aren’t seen as often in other games. You could make a whole game out of puzzles where you have to position yourself and other objects in order to get your hopper to unlock a door for you, and if they had, it would’ve been a better game than WD2. In practice, it feels a little contrived sometimes how you can never borrow a helicopter or pick up tiny objects with the quadrotor, because most of the time the challenge is just about scouting out the circuitous route up to a rooftop where a collectible is. And trying to find a way up onto something only to discover that you were supposed to use a scissor lift or a crane always sucks. But they could’ve done tons by setting up puzzles where, say, Marcus has to be actively standing on some kind of pressure plate to keep a grate held open for the hopper. And they could’ve made the hopper smaller, so there might be passages it could move through but the drone couldn’t. Maybe the quadrotor could even be made to pick up the hopper. Probably the coolest one actually implemented was when I remote-hacked a scissor-lift on the second floor of a parking garage from the hopper cam, and drove the lift off a ledge so I could use it to raise Marcus up from the ground floor. But it’s clear they could’ve gone much further.

They might have done more with those puzzles where you rotate nodes to bridge a connection, too: the best ones already in the game have you think outside of the digital space by making you do something physical, like moving a car out of the way. But they might’ve had these connections go longer, but be less tangled and mazelike, and require you to physically interact with different types of nodes in the way, tying whole buildings together. You might interact with these nodes through an app on Marcus’ phone instead of craning your neck around and overlaying them on physical space: once you bridged a connection to the elevator icon in the phone app, you’d be able to use that elevator in physical space (and gain access to a new set of nodes on the new floor that became available). And things should definitely, definitely be left unlocked for good if you already poked around a building long before doing a story mission there while hunting for collectibles.

The tasks where you hack into a camera feed and switch between other cameras you have line-of-sight on are boring. There was one on a cargo ship where you could hack into some guy’s bodycam from a stationary camera he would walk by, and you had to follow him until he moved to an otherwise-inaccessible part of the room where you could hack another guy’s keycard, and I thought, hey, maybe there’s something here. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough to get interesting, and these segments are much too partitioned from the rest of your activities. If you could remote-hack a bodycam and then close doors in peoples’ faces and otherwise distract them, in order to get two patrolling guards to fall fully out of sync from each other–so you could knock them out while they were isolated from one another–that would be really cool.

There’s also a short series of missions where you use camera data to find out exactly where a bunch of people routinely park their cars and stand guard, so you can show up early and drive forklifts full of explosives right where everyone’s going to stand, and then find some nearby cover to wait in until the appointed time. I thought that was a really fun twist, and it just goes to show how many clever ideas really were used in the game, but only ever shallowly.

The Dark Souls-esque always-active multiplayer was good. The hack invasions were tense and unique, and the co-op wasn’t half-bad either: it doesn’t beat being able to do a full playthrough with a co-op partner, but I had some memorable encounters. I dance-emoted while ghost-riding the whip, took some selfies with the randos whose games I joined, and even had some cool gameplay moments, like one where my partner distracted a guard by hacking their phone while I climbed a ladder up to said guard and silently knocked them out. When that happened, I did a cheer emote across the building to where my partner was crouched, and ended up drawing the attention of another guard… beautiful.

There’s a lot of little, annoying things in the game. The gamepad controls suck and I died several times because I hit the wrong direction on the D-pad and got shot to death while my character was locked in the animation of pulling out his laptop to control the quadrotor. My thumb got sore pushing down the left stick to sprint all the time, and god knows why they couldn’t just put that on the A button. Putting the cars I summoned 300 meters away sure as hell didn’t help either. The radio controls have you hold the select button, but this is also what you do to skip a transmission of story dialogue, and also what you use to warp to a multiplayer activity–god knows that backfired a few times. I also died or got hit by a car or something with bad timing at least once and ended up having the game skip a story-mission phone call altogether. This felt especially sloppy.

You gather botnet resources to recharge your hacking meter by focusing on somebody for a hack with LB and pressing A, but it only provides resources for some people, whereas for others, it steals a few pitiful dollars from their bank accounts, or starts spying on their phone call or text message. Botnet recovery absolutely needed its own fixed place on the command wheel, because whenever I ran low on hack power during a police chase or whatever, all I could do was drive by while rapidly tapping A at every pedestrian until I found some, and this would mean constantly putting text messages I didn’t want to see overtop my UI, and listening to the first second of countless phone calls before interrupting each one with another press or driving out of range. It was a terrible way of handling it.

Menus take too long to open, and loops of loads and warps get pretty annoying, which makes me wonder if Ubisoft even learns anything over the decades about game design: I remember getting annoyed by the way restarting a mission in some early Assassin’s Creed game would jerk me out and back in with two separate load screens. Imagine the scene in WD2: I’d be working as the equivalent of an Uber driver, I’d ding up my car, restart to get a better driver rating, and it would load to the “pick up your client” stage of the mission, but drop me where I already was, meaning, nowhere near the starting point of the drive. So I’d go to quicktravel to the start of the drive, but it would tell me quick travel was disabled during a mission. So I’d go back into the main menu, cancel the mission, wait out another load, and then quicktravel and load that before finding a new nearby and viable car and getting the rest of the way back to the start of the mission. I was playing on an SSD and all, but Christ–Ubi needs to have a long conversation with the CD Projeckt RED guys.

Finally, there’s another subject I wanted to talk about: WD2 has eye-tracking functionality. As it so happens, I have a Tobii EyeX. And there’s some interesting stuff going on there. The EyeX doesn’t support head-tracking like the newer 4C, and it doesn’t have nearly what you’d call pixel-perfect accuracy, especially toward the edges of the screen. It’s early-adopter hardware, and can be awkward, but if an application uses it intelligently, it’s an amazing input device that requires no effort on the part of the user to accommodate it–unlike, say, learning how to hold or waggle a Wii remote. You already use your eyes–it’s just a matter of having hardware that doesn’t waste that valuable data. So I’m a huge fan of the idea.

The WD2 eye-tracking is pretty neat, and pretty close to the ideal when it comes to tech at this stage. I think the rule to follow here is: when you can’t do what I want you to do, don’t be worse than nothing at all.

A good example is Aim At Gaze: your gun’s aim doesn’t actually follow your gaze as you hold and adjust it, but only determines the initial place you’re aiming at when you first press LT and the gun is raised. Because the resolution isn’t pixel-perfect, this can’t reliably snap your aim right to the enemy’s face unless it cheats and picks a head for you, but it points you much closer to the headshot than you otherwise would be if you had no secondary input and your crosshair started off dead-ahead. It’s up to you to fine-tune the shot, but this is much less of a maneuver than panning across the whole screen with the control stick would be. Even if you’ve leaned too far forward in the heat of the moment and your eye tracker has lost your gaze–which happens just a little too often with my generation of eye-trackers, admittedly–it’s no real setback, because if it doesn’t find you and you bring up your gun without the eye-tracker taking you close to where you want to be, it doesn’t take even a second to realize that you have to aim fully by the old-fashioned method.

Hack At Gaze was similar. It worked well, but I found that it typically prioritize focus on other cars instead of pedestrians while driving, so I’d have to manually center the screen on someone to hack their phones during the aforementioned efforts to use the botnets to recharge my hack power. I was really reluctant to believe that this would have been my only way to aim a hack at all if I didn’t have the eye-tracker but used a gamepad anyway, which means that, A, the eye-tracker must be working its magic if I couldn’t imagine playing without it, and B, the gamepad controls really are crap.

The eye-tracker’s “extended view” option for the game is a bit more annoying, because your camera will pan down as you look to the UI at the bottom of the screen, read subtitles, or whatever. If it were a little smarter it’d disable itself during those safehouse conversations where you can’t move around, at the very least. Luckily, you can turn each setting off individually, and adjust sensitivity, so I ended up leaving this one on, but limiting the sensitivity and reducing the maximum angle that the eye-tracker was allowed to pan by.

All in all? Loads of promise in this series, but I don’t see Ubi fulfilling that promise. It would basically take another stealth-hacking IP stealing its ideas, or the license switching hands in the manner of Fallout: New Vegas. There’s a good thought for a laugh and little more, but I’m far more hopeful that eye-tracking will really take off, because it’s dope as hell even if it’s not totally there yet.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Stardew Valley

Acknowledging that the last one I played was Friends of Mineral Town on the GBA and that there have been probably thirty new ones since then, this is probably the best Harvest Moon game that the Harvest Moon people never made, seeing as this is an unrelated indie title made by just some guy. It does some pretty satisfying things–I wish the SNES Harvest Moon had the inventory options, fishing mechanics, control over building placement, and other things seen here.

It’s impressive that one person made this, but not entirely unbelievable–the art’s not really to my liking and the writing is worse. The characters are flat and boring, and the romance system is awful–you are a Nice Guy; nobody likes you, but showering them in gifts and saying sycophantic things to appeal to a their existing worldviews will change that. It’s an old-fashioned video game thing, of course, but coming from a Witcher 3 playthrough, where all the characters felt so deeply real, it feels especially pathetic. Ultimately I married Abigail–a girl too manic-pixie and probably too young. (Or are they all children, making Harvey the one of a deeply unsettling age?) I still was somewhat fond of her, at least, and the part where you co-op an NES game in her house was one of the only things I did with anybody that seemed authentic.

Given how much I like games with scheduled NPC life stuff, where each character has some routine where they walk to the store every Thursday at 2PM in the Fall season unless it’s raining, Stardew isn’t the sort of game that would generally be forced to win me over from a starting point of zero hearts, so to speak. But without really sympathizing much with the cast or otherwise showing a ton of depth outside of the different methods I could choose to get extremely rich, I found myself using this game to form my own conclusions about what the Harvest Moon franchise has most critically lacked.

The setting brings an expectation of a kind of idyllic and casual, pastoral, rosy-life-riding vibe, but the emphasis on time communicates the opposite. Much of the gameplay loop is about planning things out–not necessarily because you need them done by a certain date, but so you don’t miss the recipe that’s only available on the 21st day of summer or whatever. It’s telling that I found Persona 3–a supposedly hardcore Dungeon crawler that constantly clocked your actions–far more chill and forgiving than this farm game. But I found myself with little to hurry for in Stardew Valley. Was I supposed to be trying to rush into a marriage after knowing a girl for three months for the sake of some evaluation score? Why? Instead, what held my interest longer was the sense of progression in pointlessly upgrading my watering can and having more resources to put toward the structures on my farm, nice-looking footpaths and other details of customization that didn’t really feel like they were the developer’s central focus.

I was probably starting to see the gameplay as unwanted busywork before the end of the first year. As I neared my evaluation at the end of year two, I was just sleeping through whole weeks. Postgame, as it turns out, is about making absurd amounts of money to buy things you only needed in the beginning of the game anyway, like a warp item to reach the beach once you’ve already caught all the fish, or a statue that generates gifts for villagers who have already been reconditioned to love you.

The combat is overly simple, and made worse by the weird mouse controls that influence the player’s facing direction up to a certain arbitrary distance. It certainly doesn’t bring what Recettear brought to the table, which is a shame. There’s also some unfortunate RNG. For one thing, killing hundreds of bats in the hope that a scroll will drop just isn’t fun.

Now, just having my crop quality be random is fine–although I admit I’d probably prefer it if it were solely determined by my Farming skill level and fertilizer used–but when I spend a whole year waiting for my duck to drop a stupid feather I need that I can’t simply pluck off the little fucker for some stupid reason–in other words, when RNG is the gatekeeper of progression–that’s bad. Why not just say that a feather is dropped every 4 weeks if the duck is at 2 hearts, and every 3 weeks if at 3 hearts, or whatever? All of the final three artifacts I was missing in the museum also came down to RNG. The only reason I even got out of bed in the latter parts of the second year was to look for artifact dig spots around the map each day, and this was about as satisfying as repeatedly losing at the slot machines in the casino. I have to say, though, that I do like the way the game already has these things determined at the time of the daily autosave, so you aren’t incentivized to reload your game repeatedly to get the good drops from your animals in record time.

It’s really not a bad game at all–I liked trying out some of the many alternative approaches to making money. It has one of the best fishing minigames I’ve seen, despite being a simple challenge of pushing a bar up and down to line up with an icon, and not having nearly as much charm as the one in Breath of Fire 2. And as long as I was able to plan out the collection of bundle items, bundles were a great form of progression, with some pretty interesting rewards.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3 is in many respects the best game in an incredible series, but it’s funny to think that The Witcher 2 was more to my liking in some respects, because I thought the same thing about W1 when I played W2. For all its relative shortcomings, I found myself enamored with W1’s pacing–or lack thereof. And likewise some of W2’s questionable decisions seem somehow endearing in the face of some cynically AAA-standard design strategies in the third game.

Some aspects are nearly perfect. The amazingly nuanced morality and questing that makes fools of its competitors, the subverting of white-knighting and Mass Effect-esque busybodying. Players are accused and interrogated over their biases and emotions. I love it.

Geralt is his own person; he isn’t given the freedom to “be evil” just to allow the game to pretend that it has more freedom. And W3 understands that the weight of the world on its characters’ shoulders has a direct relationship to your immersion: it’s not too easy to get rich or kill your way through the town guard, and as a consequence, poverty seems more real and Geralt is sensibly not so above-the-law in the narrative itself. How many games have you played where you were chomping at the bit in some cutscene that seemed completely limiting and at odds with your mastery of the mid-gameplay world? I can think of several.

It brilliantly improves over its predeccessors in both scale and mechanics, for example in avoiding burdensome potion-hoarding in favor of a system in which potions automatically replenish themselves, which masterfully incentivizes their use. And it’s just a visually stunning game, both in terms of an island’s flora and the dynamic way Geralt might bisect a Drowner from shoulder-to-hip with his silver sword, which is all the more shocking when you’re accustomed to only seeing Gamebryo Engine People pop apart like dolls at the joints.

But the “cynically AAA-standard” remark is a real criticism. One way to call attention to it is my 223 hour playtime on Steam, compared to the 120 hours it took me to beat W2 twice. I didn’t entirely want to spend over 200 hours on the game to get 100% completion. Length comes at the expense of reactive depth, and length also means hours diving to pull up randomly generated smuggler’s cache loot in the North Sea around Skellige just to get some markers cleared from the map. It means bad horseback riding quests.

And it means Gwent–okay, fine, Gwent is really good. I played a lot of Gwent. It’s not balanced well–I don’t think anything is ever going to beat a Nilfgaard spy deck–but the mechanics and card collecting are really nice, and I think Gwent is the exception to the “less is more” argument, because they did a good job of making sure they really had something before shoving their card game down players’ throats. It’s an obvious step up from developers shoving full Texas Hold’em mechanics into Far Cry 3 or Watch Dogs or whatever just to give players something to do and make their game seem like it was worth more money.

I do think it gets a bit cutscene-heavy toward the end, and despite being very invested in the story, I would have preferred something minimalistic in presentation where I’m responsible for more of what’s happening; in dealing with the Wild Hunt and White Frost, I’d truly be thinking, “Hurry up and end this grand spectacle of a cutscene and get back to making me regret my choices.” I saw a few too many “You cannot do that now” messages for my liking. Scenes where I just run along behind someone. Fist fights where I don’t choose whether I’m aiming to kill. In some ways it does feel like it’s lost some of that extremely reactive, extremely agency-friendly CD Projeckt style. The nuanced morality and intelligent writing is better than ever, but otherwise is it really outplaying Mass Effect or Assassin’s Creed at their own game? The expansions definitely felt better about this, and by the time I was wrapping up Blood & Wine, I was actually thinking once more about what I would do in a hypothetical second playthrough. Very hypothetical at this point, given the sizable time investment, but maybe next year… and, hell, maybe just the expansions alone.

Perhaps from how grown-up the writing feels, it really is the game Ubisoft Montreal or Bioware could only ever vainly wish to catch up to. There was some fantastic dungeoneering that I really enjoyed, though this might’ve peaked early-in while crawling through the muck with Keira along, complaining the whole time. There were also parts where I thought they were just ripping off some other AAA game with some idea. This is partly why I wish CD Projeckt tried less to be these other companies this time around.

The story is incredibly solid, for what it’s worth, and the character writing in particular may be the best I’ve seen in games. Despite not having read all the books yet and having had much more time to get to know Triss, I deferred to the Yen route, and I did think she was a tremendously interesting person–standoffish and unfriendly but deeply considerate in her own way, revealed through little things. When she keeps it a secret from Geralt that she’d be mutilating a sacred grove with dark magic in order to find Ciri, she’s saving him from the responsibility for that decision, not to avoid him going against her decision, but because she knew and trusted him well enough to understand that he would have done far worse things for Ciri if he had to, and chose to take on all the guilt and blame herself. I really liked that.

I had a great time of not knowing where I stood with characters, particularly in the expansions, sympathizing with them and thinking they’d crossed one line or another, but ultimately I think it was the Bloody Baron of Crow’s Perch who felt more real than just about any video game character to date, between his down-to-earth and relatable terrible shit of alcoholism and domestic violence, his guilt, his relationships with his family, and more. So many characters were brought to life.

There’s also some great music, of course. I even enjoyed going over the soundtracks on youtube, seeking out things like Priscilla’s song in Russian, and other curiosities. There’s some great sound design as there is great graphics, and I don’t know where CD Projeckt RED snatches up their talent, but it’s certainly working for them.

Ultimately, purely as it works as a game, I don’t feel at all prepared to say “Move over, Dark Souls,” or any such thing. It’s hugely ambitious, and I respect that. Its central combat mechanics are in very good shape but the state of its other features, in exploration and item management and questing, don’t really stand out, and these invariably occupy a lot of any player’s time. It does do some things with a little more nuance than your typical Elder Scrolls, and in rare instances there will even be some divergence in a quest that can’t be dealt with just by mindlessly following a map marker in the corner of your screen. Though, also, unfortunately, most (but not nearly all) of your choices in dialogue are more about allowing players to skip some secondary questions than they are about truly providing players with different approaches.

There’s not much else that isn’t in every other big modern CRPG. A lot of quests revolve around using Geralt’s witcher senses to identify clues and track footprints, but for a central mechanic, it’s not that interesting. You follow the indicators and Geralt says “Ah, these are Nekker tracks,” or “This blood is about a day old,” and there’s not much in the way of questionable LA Noire-esque solutions to really make attention to detail matter.

★☆★

We could really put an end to the review here, but since I can do whatever I want, what I’d really like to do is get into the minutiae of design. Here are some further notes on the things I’d change, were it all up to me:

Get rid of “combat mode” as an automatic adjustment that changes the controls. Being unable to disengage is bad. Whenever I have to think about “what the game thinks”, this is a sign of bad controls. And if the game thinks I’d rather fisticuffs the enemies who can one-shot me rather than break into a full run with my sword sheathed, it’s not working out. When Geralt decides to engage with a harpy in the sky whom I can’t reach, while I’m jumping from one rock to another, so my jump turns into a roll and I plummet 10 meters, it’s really not working out. I’d associate engagement with drawing weapons–fists only if no sword is equipped at all, still allowing the game to override equipped items if a combat encounter is understood to be “non-lethal”, as in a tavern brawl. To deal with potential issues arising from this change, I’d also make it so Geralt would be unwilling to loot containers while enemies were nearby at all. And I’d make Geralt take critical hits–attacks of opportunity–if struck while sprinting past foes without manually “engaging” in this manner.

Reduce container looting. Players are incentivized to loot through the drawers in every village for old pelts and busted fishing rods. It’s just not fun, though–cleverly hide a chest or two in each village with non-randomized loot that always feels worthwhile–up on a high roof or some gamey place like that, even–and the time investment would feel much better. And while I respect the game for not biting off more than it could chew with awkward stealth mechanics, they might as well’ve not had guards pay attention to looting at all, because villagers don’t call for them and you end up with this backwards and arbitary distinction that looting the outsides of houses is a crime but the insides are fair game. In the meantime, AutoLoot Configurable All-in-One and Alternate Lightsources Interaction are some good mods for reducing frustration or tedium, though AutoLoot sometimes loots containers it shouldn’t, spoiling some chests that may have been inside a locked basement or whatever because you walked past them on the floor above. Luckily, it knows better than to open quest-related chests in this way.

I’d add more stash access points, or better yet, use a Dark Souls-esque (or Darklands-esque) equipment weight system where only equipped items affect the player’s burden, and carried space is infinite–the stash would only function as a means to declutter. Decoctions related to carry-weight, like Fiend and Arachas, as well as Roach’s saddlebags, could always have their purposes adjusted.

I’d make horse trophies a little more interesting, as their effects are typically reused by several species, and usually go unnoticed during gameplay.

The game is terrible at explaining itself–not unlike Dark Souls, really. While this clearly doesn’t hurt the appeal of cult-followings, it’s not a good thing. Instead of confusing toxicity offset and toxicity level, rename toxicity offset to something else, like “immunosuppressive damage”, maybe? The way they compliment each other tactically in gameplay is clever–the way they’re communicated to the player is not. I don’t think it’s explained how toxicity isn’t necessarily bad apart from imposing a limit–unlike overdose, which is actively harmful. I don’t think it’s ever said that toxicity ticks down in seconds even while still under the potion’s effects, whereas offset, this “immunosuppressive damage”, lasts for hours without ticking down at all, either.

Remove the often-necessary mid-combat pausing, and make oils and potions take a full second to be used if consumed while an enemy’s nearby. Have the player find them in the menu without stopping time for them, like in Dark Souls. Time could still come to a stop in the settings menu where you also adjust your Gwent deck, or while meditating and doing alchemy. Oils should last forever, as putting a use limit on them only encourages more pausing. To make it a little more interesting, force Geralt to do an oiling animation if you oil your weapons in mid-combat, so you might do something like setting down Yrden to slow and distract enemies while you take the few seconds to do it.

Drop the unnessary horse racing quests. It might be nice if the game made better use of the game’s broader mechanics while you rode, such as by dropping caltrop bombs or using Axii on other people’s horses to befuddle them. Personally, I think the game is better off without the horse-racing at all. How does it fit, aside from as AAA gamedev bloat? At least in a couple races without horses, like when Geralt gets into a rock-climbing contest with Cerys, there’s ostensibly some pride to be found on the line–he didn’t go through all those mutations as a kid so he’d lose to some brat in a personal athletics contest. But who cares about his horse mastery? He’s not supposed to be some Skyrim-esque simultaneous thief-lord and dean of the magic school–he’s Geralt of Rivia.

The water parts need work, both in terms of what’s to be done on boats and the swimming controls themselves. Despite assigning two buttons permanently to rising/sinking in the water, Geralt’s “Swim Forward” button also aims toward the camera–be it pointed up or down, rather than swimming at level height. Somehow he’d sink back down sometimes as I tried to make it to the surface for air. And combined with shifts in the combat-engagement control scheme, I ended up having Wind Waker flashbacks of loops of getting knocked out of my boat by monsters… so, ultimately, I wasn’t a huge fan of the water parts. Of course, one ought to get rid of the very “Ubisoft Montreal” smuggler’s caches, too. It’s the ocean; it doesn’t have to be full of anything other than fish and water. Given that swimming combat is mercifully just one-shot crossbow kills, CD Projeckt probably realized that it was far too terrible otherwise and didn’t have time to impliment a nicer solution, but in a perfect world it would’ve been nice to have a Geralt who could really fight in the water, and could interact with some unsunken boats, different kinds of sea creatures, or best of all: gnarly tidal waves.

Adjust character skill-speccing–either entirely toward or entirely away from the numbers. I find it unfortunate when one choice gives me something interesting, like a new gimmick ability, and another gives me +25% damage all the time or whatever. There may even be a possible best scenario where skill builds are removed from the game entirely, and all of Geralt’s customization comes from better armor set bonuses, more unique weapon properties, your chosen armor weight class, runewords, decoctions used, and better horse trophy passives. I think Geralt should always be encouraged to use his whole arsenal–signs, bombs, potions, swords. W3 smartened up over W2 when it came to the exclusion of mandatory abilities–like “rolling” and “parrying”–from the skill trees, but it should’ve gone further.

Show a little more care to quest items–where they’re sorted, whether they still remain unsellable after their quests are done. I had old keys and masquerade ball masks cluttering up one of my tabs through to the end of the game, and while their combined weight was probably about a single pound, that they had weight at all and couldn’t be dropped was somewhat annoying.

Make the crossbow more useful, and more fun. Blood & Wine does make it a little more viable, but really getting the most out of it does come at the cost of some other useful abilities. Most importantly, I think having a separate button to reload from the button used to shoot would have been really nice. If that’s left up to Geralt, the player is robbed of a good tactical choice.

Disable the storybook loading screens, at least as an option, or allow you to tap the skip button to go straight to a silent loading screen. I eventually opted for a mod called Disable Intro and storybook videos to remove them, as the repetition was pretty annoying–and frustrating, when I was failing at some Gwent game or whatever and had to keep reloading. Ever since I did, it felt like I was blowing through loads in a fraction of the former time, but it’s sad that a person needs to turn to mods at all for such a thing.

Now let’s look at some things that would really help in the UI:

  • See how many of something I already have when looking at it in a shopkeep’s inventory.
  • Pin specific missing ingredients, and from multiple incomplete items.
  • Buy missing ingredients directly from an alchemy supplier’s crafting screen the same way one can with blacksmiths. (I do think I saw a mod for this.)
  • List potion effects I’m under in greater detail on the character screen; for example, Basilisk Decoction bonus.
  • Don’t put a badge on the icon of new items if it’s just an increase in quantity of something you already have, thereby improving the signal-to-noise ratio.
  • Subsort items alphabetically under type, so all your stacks of white myrtle petals or whatever are kept together. (The Sort Everything mod helped a lot here.)
  • Have a same-cost buyback option in stores when accidentally selling something.
  • List items with text instead of simple icons that are impossible to remember, especially given that all the wraith decoctions (and so on) share the same icon. (In the meantime, the Better Icons mod helps a lot.) When using a keyboard, allow you to start to type somewhere to filter this list, including keywords–let someone find their White Raffard potion by typing “Whit”, or “Vit” for the vitality it restores.
  • Add sorting for books. And sort finished quests, by level, location, or most recently completed first. Sometimes I need to read the descriptions to refresh myself on some detail.
  • Turn minimap directions to quests off by default, and don’t automatically choose a new quest to have active on the UI when the active quest is finished. Let me have nothing active.
  • When an ingredient is tagged, highlight junk items in your own inventory that would give you those ingredients when dismantled. This would make dismantling a little more useful, as you wouldn’t need to manually check if there’s actually some need to spend money dismantling an item when you could just sell it instead–as a consequence, I only ever dismantled to get runestones back from an obsolescent sword. You could also simplify some blueprints so you only need to provide metals and magical/specialty ingredients, to reduce the need for junk items, such as no longer needing to buy a cloth shirt to make light armor.
  • Have an option to pathfind to custom markers or nearest quicktravel signs, instead of just active quests (when enabled). I’d sometimes set a quest in another region as my active one just to get it to point me to the nearest quicktravel sign, so why not make this an option all the time?
  • Split decoctions and potions, to better illustrate their distinctive use cases.
  • Mark levelled-up potions with ☆ to ☆☆☆ ratings, instead of giving them the same rarity as decoctions when maxed and putting “Enhanced” or “Superior” in their names. Do the same for weapons and armor. This is just about conveying information as simply and clearly as possible.
  • Mark stairs or points of elevation changes on the minimap, as these things often currently look like dead ends. Add a view of whole cave structures on the world map, at least while you’re in them.

For now I remain a loyal acolyte of CD Projeckt RED and hope for the best from their next big game–Cyberpunk 2077 or whatever it will be. (And here’s hoping standalone-Gwent becomes at least as F2P-friendly as Hearthstone.)

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.