Dishonored

I’m really fond of Dishonored, even though, as a stealth game, it does a lot of the same things wrong that DXHR & DXMD did. Apparently I was fond enough to play it again in 2017, setting silly rules for myself, and picking up all the achievements I missed last time.

You can screw up a Dishonored no-kills run in the most baffling circumstances; maybe the physics engine decided to get creative, and an unconscious guard you left on a rooftop jittered off the edge and fell to his death when you had your back turned. Or maybe a swarm of rats came by and ate that guy you left in an alley. (From a rules-of-stealth point of view, rats are the most bullshit thing in the game.) Sometimes NPCs kill each other, or die in scripted events. These shouldn’t count, but do they? I can’t say I know for sure, because I had no way of figuring out where I went wrong. It would be incredible if the game could do a simple thing like flashing the words “FIRST KILL” on the screen, so you’d know when the time came to hit the quickload key.

A run in which you’re never fully detected by an enemy is harder to do, but usually comes with fewer uncertainties, given the loud musical sting that plays, and the red alert marks above a guard’s head. Usually. I still managed to surprise myself with failure by the end of a couple missions. I don’t think it’s a problem if bodies are spotted, but in one of the missions in the first expansion, if you linger around too long, enemies spawn in around a corpse and start talking about how they need to find whoever did it. Only thing is, I never left a corpse there. The corpse had been spawned in too, as part of the same event. There should be an understanding between the game and I, but if it narratively pretends I slipped up when I obviously didn’t? That’s the kind of thing people would replace their dungeon master over.

The painted art style is real cool, and I remember thinking at the time that we’d reached a point with video game graphics where we finally had enough power and could start to boldly experiment instead of just pushing for deeper, boring photorealism. After five years, though, the game does show its age: the visual style is still notable, but the character models aren’t the best. And after taking down around six guards, some of the bodies start to vanish. This limitation is probably a bigger setback than the shallow issue of Good Graphix. After all, half the fun I had in DXMD was putting 25 unconscious men in a big pile.

Most of the time, the game is delightful. The blink power–short range teleportation–was a revolution for stealth games. (I’m grateful that DXMD stole it.) There are only about 9 missions, and 6 more from the two expansions combined, and none of it is a drag to replay. You can do each mission in maybe five minutes each while blinking around like a maniac, even without exploiting glitches or being a speedrunning god. Or you can spend an hour choking out each guard from behind and dragging each of them to a big dumpster. Apart from the occasional unskippable bit of dialogue, the game doesn’t waste your time; you only elect to waste it yourself, as a part of your preferred play style.

Some of my favorite missions include infiltrating Lady Boyle’s masked ball and figuring out which of the masked sisters is your target, or the one in the first expansion where you target the City Barrister and can pop in and out of his four-story manor from various balcony doors. Partly I think the estates of nobles are more appealing locales for stealth and robbery than sewers and prisons and magical mazes–something that also really worked to Thief 2’s advantage–but these missions also have some interesting options and variations. The non-lethal approach to taking out Lady Boyle is quite creepy, insinuating that while you might be able to keep the blood literally off your hands, there’s no way to achieve your goals with purely moral behavior. And with the barrister pacing around between the floors of his house, one approach is to find a way to get close and swap the items in his pockets without him even figuring out that you exist. This is fun stuff; it’s more pure and (I think) to the point of why you’re playing than some of the pretentious nonsense you get up to in the Deus Ex games.

As with other games that give you the option of being non-lethal, or the option of remaining silent and undetected, a lot of the tools you’re given will never be used. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I suppose it would be better if you were given a mine casing and got to decide whether to make a lethal or nonlethal tool out of it, which is something DXMD handled pretty well, apart from the tradeoff of its irritating inventory management. Nonlethal mines and grenades didn’t even exist until Dishonored’s expansions, though, sort of like how DXMD revisited DXHR’s Typhoon augment by adding a nonlethal version. The expansions also add numerous passive runes that would have allowed for some cool gimmick play styles if not for the fact that you were basically done with the game by the time you obtained them. Without the ability to do a New Game Plus where you can play the original campaign again with the expansions’ choke grenades, or with the runes that took away your mana recovery but let you gain mana by drinking water and made you invisible while standing still, it’s really a lost opportunity.

Dishonored’s guards aren’t terribly bright, but at least they aren’t easily lured away into a dark corner, away from the eyes of the other guards. In truth, most of Dishonored’s guard innovations are in making them speak like magic 8-balls to each other. But they will sometimes wonder why another guard you’ve already dragged away isn’t patrolling where they’re supposed to be. At most they change their patrol route slightly when this happens, but in a more perfect game I think this should make them become a lot more panicky, especially when they finally notice that they seem to have become the only human being left in the entire complex. As always, I want to see stealth games become more difficult, but only in the fairest ways. (And I’d like to see the return of a Thief-style UI that communicates how well hidden I am, instead of dealing mostly in direct lines of sight.) I still haven’t played Dishonored 2 yet, and I have no reason to expect AI miracles from it. But I have heard that you can see how many people you’ve killed so far from the pause menu. For that alone, I’m itching to play it.

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.
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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

The gameplay of DXHR didn’t see a whole lot of change in DXMD. The XP system still incentivizes nonsense like hacking doors you have the codes for–if it were up to me, I’d only award XP for reaching new areas and finishing quests–and hacking is still the same RNG-heavy minigame that falls far short of its potential. I wanted more: a system where you give yourself wireless access to a building’s network after physically interacting with machines once, and gradually increase your privileges with a combination of both digital and physical intrusions. Maybe you knock out the security personnel to steal a phone, because there’s two-factor authentication on the turret system. Or maybe you can hack the phone itself from a few meters away, without touching anybody. I liked some of the new stuff where you used someone’s instant messenger app to try and casually ask their coworkers for a password, and I think that’s a start as far as digital intrusions go, but I still want to see more in the manner of Uplink.

The energy system is slightly different now, but I would argue it needed a deeper overhaul. Previously, any energy consumed above your minimum charge would not be returned at all; you’d always be refunded just enough to execute a melee takedown, and wouldn’t get any more energy than that until you used a consumable. In the sequel, your maximum charge is only lowered to a new slightly lower cap each time a skill is activated, which has the same result after several skills have been used, but before then it allows you to do things like keeping a cloak active until all your energy is drained, because you already paid the true cost as soon as you turned the cloak on.

But if anything really makes it less annoying than the older version of the system, it’s that you can lug around an absurd number of biocells, you can earn more money than you know what to do with in the first act, and you can always craft more biocells (or other consumables) on the fly with scrap metal. This makes the game far too easy, really, as you can completely cheese your way through any encounter if you’re willing to eat a few biocells and silent-cloak-sprint past literally anything, but assuming you still have an instinct to hoard those resources, you’ll still usually tend to scrimp on energy costs by sticking with the minimum bar. It’s still the most cost effect strategy to just throw a crate at the wall and then take out anybody who comes to investigate the sound, because the guards are still dumber than shit and will never notice that their friend who went to investigate a noise never came back. It feels patronizing when you’re this well-equipped and they’re unwilling to even send guards at you in pairs.

There are all kinds of things they might have dabbled with: individual skill cooldowns, for instance, or the reworking of skills. What if instead of having a silent-running aug you can turn on or off at will, it always only activates for 4 seconds, and then cannot be reactivated for another 10? What if you can’t cloak and move at the same time, unless you get a mod for the Icarus Dash, and only move with it? And while I couldn’t say for sure what would and wouldn’t work, I think there are possibilities with dynamic energy recharge rates, where you have to make do with a non-recharging bar until the player shuts down some kind of emitter or whatever. And it would be nice to have full energy with fast recharges when you aren’t trespassing and have no real reason to be delayed by a recharge.

The game still commits a cardinal stealth sin in not really being too clear about alarm levels. I pulled off no-kills without screwing up, but the dialogue sometimes made it sound like I killed some people when I put everyone in the level to sleep, and I always considered the terrible possibility that I had dropped a crate on some guard a little too hard and didn’t notice. And I did fail my no-alarms challenge without being too clear on where I went astray. Was it okay to be seen by those guys in the prologue? Otherwise, I was pretty sure I reloaded any time someone so much as fired their weapon. Was it when a camera saw a broken wall in a store, while I wasn’t in a story mission, and the store’s bodyguard came to investigate? It’s far too nebulous for my liking. I badly wanted a stats page in the pause menu to tell me how many times I’d been spotted in my current run, but there was nothing, and it sucked.

The game’s underlying systems felt too crude for stealth in a sandbox world where I’m not already plainly in a mission at all times. If you stand next to some civilian and throw a case of beer at the wall beside his head, he’ll do nothing, but if you slip through the door across from him into a restricted area, and throw the same beer case at the same spot, he’ll suddenly think the noise is something that needs to be investigated. Is this the best we can do in a 2016 game? Prague is a well-built city, not too big and with lots of stuff to meander around and climb over, but the shallow mechanics work against it. When you can build a Foolproof Mobile Stealth Unit by surrounding a cop with vending machines and kicking his ass five meters away from his partner without him finding out, the world feels emptier for it, although to be fair it’s also funny as hell.

I was satisfied with the length of the game, but I felt that too much of that time was misspent in the sandbox parts, which felt padded. I mean, I dug through a lot of trash in vacant buildings in the hopes of finding a praxis kit, and buildings without people tend to be boring. Of course, guards who are dumber than cameras are a little boring, too. Their sandbox focus here reminds me of some of Thief 3’s missteps, but then I also remember the time a Thief 3 guard said “Maybe he’s hiding behind that chair,” before actually checking the chair out. In the intervening dozen years, we may have regressed, if anything.

Like most AAA games, the design is sloppy, but the things that can be made better just by throwing a lot of labor at them are very impressive: the people at Eidos who designed the architecture and decorated the apartments clearly weren’t phoning it in, and I’m sure that every time I walked past a cluttered office bulletin board without reading it, I was walking past a day’s work for somebody on the development team. But advanced decorating skills aren’t going to save a mediocre experience. I also gave up on reading all the ebooks and emails: it just wasn’t rewarding.

I think the game definitely made some strides over its predecessor when it comes to lethal firearms, ammunition types, modifications et cetera, and I suppose I’ll play with those some more if I ever convince myself to do another full playthrough, seeing as I already got the no-kills run out of the way. There were also a handful of new non-lethal options, which is always great to see, but I never really bothered with “loud” non-lethal options like the Typhoon or PEPS. I think the best thing for non-lethal variety is just that I think you now get as much XP by tranqing a guy in the head as you do with a melee takedown, which I don’t think was the case in DXHR. I didn’t watch nearly as many long, canned kung-fu moves this time around. But it would’ve been so much better to not have to deal with XP micromanagement at all.

The debate showdowns are still cool, but still stubbornly refuse to let you skip lines of text for people replaying the game, or just reloading to see what the other outcomes were. Luckily, I tended to get the result I wanted the first time around, although the CASIE aug felt a bit like one might when predicting the weather by tossing animal bones around. I have no idea if there’s still an element of RNG in terms of people accepting or rejecting your arguments. I totally missed out on Otar’s conversation though, ostensibly because I didn’t enter the room through the door I was supposed to, so I just hit him with a stun gun and missed out on his sidequests. This might be why, throughout the game, Radich Nikoladze never really seemed to amount to anything, but I don’t know.

The story was… well, once again I found the overall premise hamfisted and requiring frequent suspension of disbelief. People look at the Six Million Dollar Man with contempt, because augmentation is associated with a poor lower class–and when you consider that migrant worker slaves and prostitutes are sometimes forcibly augmented and then made to spend what little they earn on neuropozyne, this doesn’t come completely out of left field, but looking at the bigger picture, it’s still insane. People are also afraid that these cyborgs are vulnerable to security risks and might go on a killing spree at any given moment, which is justifiable, but strangely they don’t extend this same fear to the militarized police officers who walk around in powered exoskeletons. Nevermind that there’s no need for a robotic leg to be connected to the internet, or to otherwise have any component vulnerable to malware.

I don’t want to get carried away writing about the themes, but as with DXHR, I found its dystopian messaging and by extension its politics to be shallow and uninformed. It touched upon adversarial journalism and activist hacking in a very gormless, middle-of-the-road way, and portrayed collective action as inherently cultish or unpalatable. None of this is terribly surprising for a $70 million spectacle game.

I did come away appreciating a lot of people in the cast, and women stole the show in particular, including Alex Vega, Delara, and Daria, who would’ve felt right at home in an Ace Attorney game. I did find it unfortunate that Malik didn’t make a return appearance, as she was a favorite from the last game–we get Chikane shuttling us around instead, who can go fuck himself–but Eliza does return, which is cool.

Apart from the encore of some of DXHR’s most irritating design choices, my biggest problem was with gameplay bugs. On the DirectX 12 version, objects were constantly godtrashing, but when I switched to DirectX 11, I had my controls frequently locking up for 2 to 5 seconds at a time, a problem I learned to live with instead of actually fixing.

The game has eye-tracking support, and it went largely the way my experience with it in Watch Dogs 2 did. I enjoyed messing with it, although it was gimmicky and didn’t make me a better player. Getting the Icarus Dash to send you to the ledge or cover you were aiming at is hard enough when you do it with a mouse you have no trouble keeping still, so that particular functionality was quickly turned off in the eye-tracking menu. I left Aim At Gaze on, which probably would’ve frustrated me if I ever allowed myself to get into a firefight, and I also used it for the Tesla aug, which pretty much always had me starting my aim in the wrong place. That said, considering that you have to hold down the F4 key to aim the Tesla while still moving about with WASD and mouse controls, I think the game’s default control scheme was a bigger impediment than my eye-tracker ever was. Having UI elements go transparent when I wasn’t looking at them was probably the coolest trick the game had, and also probably the simplest one.

I haven’t played the expansions. I might pick them up down the road, at a discount, but to sell DLC without fixing some pretty rough bugs in your game doesn’t please me at all. Also, the way the DLC item packs are handled is staggeringly greedy: it pulls them off a server when you claim them, so you can never claim them again–if you erase your save file or start a fresh game, you’ll have to make do without them, unless you buy the damned things again with microtransactions. Frankly, this disgusts me, so it’s a good thing it has no bearing on the expansions, and their actual new mission content.

I haven’t messed around all that much with the Breach mode, and I didn’t download the useless-seeming mobile companion app. Breach might be an interesting way to expand the game with more pure challenge for those who want it, but with the game stripped of many of its assets–the characters and story and beautiful city environments–I doubt I could stay interested in sneaking around polygonal Tron-looking platforms for long. I wish they had invested the Breach development time into the main campaign instead.

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.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

Apart from some decent environments, The Pre-Sequel feels incredibly phoned-in. You have an air tank with a jump boost and ground slam now in place of your old relic slot. These don’t do nearly enough to make the game feel different. Everything else is the same, including everything I didn’t like about Borderlands 2. A number of quests are recycled: Help the guy put up the flag again. Safeguard another freight container for the moonshot cannon again. The postgame “raid boss” is just the end boss again with more health and damage, which is particularly insulting. With the game as empty as it is, I couldn’t imagine buying DLC to raise the level cap for NG+, or to add more characters to play the game with, but those are things that shamefully exist.

There are some legitimately funny lines, but the success rate is probably about 10% or less. A lot of the humor is referential–THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT STAR WARS–and a lot of it is just people shouting and being goddamn wacky. It’s not all bad, and there are some likeable people, like Janey and Pickle. Jack still has some of the best dialogue as well. But this doesn’t nearly carry the game. It also doesn’t bother to do anything funny from the perspective of gameplay–I’m not a fan of the direction the Saints Row games have taken, but those were probably most effective when they had you do something ridiculous, rather than just having you listen to ridiculous things. Borderlands mostly talks at you, and it does so in a format that often gets in your way. Audio tapes get interrupted by quest dialogue, and quest dialogue interrupts itself.

As with previous games in the series, it often does a poor job formatting itself best for cooperative play or repetition. You’re made to listen to repeat dialogue even more so than in Diablo 3 (and Borderlands doesn’t share Deebs’ non-campaign game mode). Even on your first playthrough you’ll find yourself standing around at doors waiting for characters to finish their wacky unskippable exposition so you can move on, as if you’ve listened to it three times already. Story shouldn’t ever be an obstacle to the player, but there’s also just nothing especially engaging here. You go deliver a parting message from Zarpedon to her daughter, and I find myself trying and failing to imagine someone who has possibly found enough in this character to give a shit. This game may be closely tied to the Telltale one, but they’re miles apart.

The combat itself does offer a fair number of diverse and enjoyable enemy mechanics, damage types, skill builds, and so on, but it’s far from perfect. Game feel is a hard thing to express, but the best example is probably the awkward collision detection, which makes every moment of jumping up rocks or walking up a steep slope or whatever feel like you’re trying stupidly to break the game, even when you’re taking the only path available to you. An object you’re standing on starts to move, and you just sort of vibrate until you’ve fallen off. Characters in Overwatch are similarly cartoonish and attacks are also expressed in that game in terms of hitpoints and damage values–you bounce off roofs and generally feel awkward trying to parkour around there, too–but The Pre-Sequel, and the Borderlands games before it, just feel a lot less right.

There’s also a lot of the old dated MMO mechanics kicking around–the game can’t even cope with the thought of communicating the details of two quests at the same time–and these are of course incredibly shallow experiences in single player. I did not (and would never think to) solo this game.

If I were to spend any more time in The Pre-Sequel, it would only be as something mindless and dull to occupy myself with while listening to a podcast. Getting even a couple friends together at the same time to play something is difficult enough already when the game is good.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

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.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Director’s Cut

I’m way into stealth, moral choices, non-lethality challenges, and even ideological debate can be pretty fun, so Human Revolution is the sort of game I wouldn’t miss. Unfortunately, none of the things DXHR tried to do were handled perfectly, and the Director’s Cut hardly improves things. Maybe it’s exceptionally difficult in most cases to make deep changes to an existing game. Maybe they team has gotten too close and cross-eyed to see what hadn’t worked. Or, more likely, maybe it’s just typical to put a small team to work on it with a toothless pittance of a budget compared to what the actual sequel was afforded. In any case, I have a number of suggestions that would have made DXHR more to my liking.

Energy is the best change of the Director’s Cut, but it’s a band-aid fix, and it remains an issue. The original game allowed only one energy bar to recover after use without the aid of consumable items, which incentivized terribly boring strategies, like standing behind a corner and throwing a crate at the wall, so that when a solitary guard turned the corner to investigate the sound, you could knock him out without anyone seeing, and then stand still for fifteen seconds while your energy recovered from the takedown. The AI hasn’t gotten much smarter since the original version, and this still remains an effective strategy for creating piles of comatose guards away from the cameras, but now at least there are two recovering energy bars by default, so you don’t have to burn through consumables like a chump in order to do anything complicated, like using two quick takedowns in sequence, or employing a cloaking device to get in closer.

But upgrading beyond the default two energy bars is still a waste of experience points. Why does the game treat energy bars beyond the second one differently? I’m sure there are a number of ways to cheese things if the player constantly has a pool of energy that large, but you could try all sorts of tweaks to keep things interesting. Change the rate of energy recovery, so it shoots back up when Jensen is stationary, but doesn’t recover at all if guards are alert. Change the way the cloaking device functions, so you have to be stationary to remain cloaked.

It would always be satisfying to see guards and security systems get smarter. Laser grids and passcodes are so easily bypassed as to appear condescending, and guards will go very far out of their way to investigate noises by themselves, even when two or more heard the same sound. The game could also be a lot better about communicating their states of alertness, which is particularly troublesome when going for a no-alarms achievement, when some levels trigger unavoidable states of alarm just as part of the story. No-kill progress is also very difficult to keep track of, and a statistics menu to show how many kills or alarms have happened so far in the game would’ve been extremely helpful, if for achievement-gathering only.

I’d also love to see the canned stealth takedown animations disappear, replaced with abilities equipped to some kind of melee augmentation slot. By default, perhaps you could put a guard in some kind of sleeper hold from behind, but from in front the guard might need to take a few noisy punches. Maybe equip Jensen’s fingers with some kind of knockout drug syringe ability to do things with less fuss, or just get messy. Having a melee attack to break glass would be useful too. More useful would be a proper guard-carrying state that you could go into right out of a takedown, instead of just awkwardly pulling their ragdolls around.

DXHR seems to have no understanding of how its mechanics incentivize player behaviors, as the best rewards in terms of experience points are also the most tedious ways to get a job done, like hacking a console the player already has the access code for, or crawling across the room to use a melee takedown when a tranquilizer dart would have worked just fine. Hacking is a lot better than it has been in many games like Mass Effect 2 and Fallout 3, to say nothing of lockpicking mechanics found across countless CRPGs, but it’s also unsatisfyingly RNG-based, as are, surprisingly, the game’s conversational showdowns, in which the correct answers to convince a person are partly randomized.

There was a game called Uplink that would have been a great source of inspiration for a puzzle-oriented approach to DXHR’s hacking mechanics. Particularly the way LANs were handled, where the player could infiltrate a network from different machines with different starting coordinates and access privileges. Rather than rolling dice and reloading until big numbers beat smaller ones, Jensen could potentially rehack into each computer as many times as he likes, trying to find the machine that can directly unlock a door or disable a nearby alarm panel without having to get through some kind of firewall first, and might buy upgrades that help him circumvent a variety of new digital obstacles.

The boss fights went from being frustrating to merely disappointing in the Director’s Cut. While it was neat to see the arenas get extended, all the sneaking and hacking added in still takes place mid-fight, rather than being something that could be used to ghost the whole game. I found that hacking a turret to shoot the bullets at the boss so I didn’t have to do it myself wasn’t any more fulfilling. The mandatory boss fights are still just soldier pawns that aren’t important to the story, and there was little reason the player couldn’t have dragged them onto his escape chopper in cuffs or allowed them to retreat forever in disgrace–at least, not when compared with the contrivances the game’s story routinely did afford itself. With the new changes, it might be harder now for a player to meet an unsurpassable wall with their non-combat build, but the sequences didn’t suddenly become fun or interesting.

As a story-heavy game (with often-unskippable dialogue) it’s important to spend the time looking at what that story offers, too. It’s enjoyably absurd at times, but just as often contrived and obtuse. While it’s obviously trying to paint over conventional ideas of futurism with a morally grey, nuanced, and potentially bleak picture, it misses nearly every good point it could have made, such as drawing parallels with real-world detrimental effects of narrow-minded Silicon Valley tech bros and anybody who ever gave a TED talk about how to solve Africa. Manufacturer exploitation to the point of slavery. Environmental damage and conflict minerals. Gentrification. And so on.

Instead DXHR pins crimes on “unchecked scientific experimentation”, which, for the most part, seems a bit more like a 20th-century problem to me, and for counterpoint we’re asked to believe in the merits and likelihood of a religious organization which posits that nature knows best and having a robot arm pollutes your soul. Never mind that Nature Is The Worst Thing and social darwinism is the opposite of what society needs, I couldn’t care less if some Southern Baptist one day invoked God against the prospective of me having a shiny prosthetic arm with my wallet and MP3 player inside of it. Neither would anybody else I’ve ever met. We’re even expected to believe Jensen is a real person as he laments the awesome billion-dollar body he was given but “never asked for”. In the first place, any player who’d sympathize with that viewpoint wouldn’t have bought a game with a badass cyborg on the cover.

Essentially, much like a media network which puts a climate change denier in the room, the game seems to congratulate itself in its attempts to show an honest picture, by adding extreme and insane points of view to an open-and-shut case while avoiding the harder problems.

Their grim anti-futurist take is only truly successful when it’s introducing us to neuropozyne: a drug used to prevent the body from rejecting augmentations, which is expensive and must be taken regularly. Without requiring a deliberate scheme on the part of anybody, this exacerbates the already stark line between the rich and poor, and soon creates new twisted models for forced prostitution and indentured servitude in a capitalist system. But even this problem is shown to be an obsolescent one with the very plot point that the game uses as a starting block, so why would the audience be anticipated to hold back in this world?

These aren’t the only places where the story shows weaknesses, either. Notably, I still have no idea why Sarif needed a backdoor in his company’s security network just to communicate with a private investigator about a potential hire. I suspect it was some contrivance to try and get the audience smoothly from “investigating the attack on the company” to “learning about the hero’s backstory”, but they could’ve done better.

Now, I don’t mean to say that every idea and piece of writing in the game is bad. Augmentation is also shown to make people vulnerable to having their own bodies “hacked”, which is frightening (though, I might argue, probably not as much as a number of diseases a cyborg body could also prevent). Naturally building the player’s suspicion against the biochip recall was very well-handled. And the Harvesters–an organized Chinese street gang whose muggings leave people in alleyways bleeding out from the stumps where their augmented legs used to be–are also a creative and scary notion. Malik is a wonderful character and I couldn’t imagine leaving her to die in any playthrough. While I couldn’t say the same for too many others, I did come around to liking Pritchard, as I was supposed to.

As is often a problem in spectacle games like Tomb Raider, DXHR uses cutscenes to railroad its protagonist into doing things nobody would do, and while it’s pretty annoying when Jensen doesn’t punch Zhao’s lights out as soon as he meets her for the first time, thus allowing her to cause trouble for him, it’s far more frustrating the second and third times it happens and he shows that outside of player control, he doesn’t learn his lesson at all. This one stands out for me among the story’s problems, because it’s a clear problem unique to games, and yet games obstinately refuse to stop doing it.

I really wanted to like the conversational debate system. Certainly, it stands out, and they recorded a lot of voice acting to segue into different arguments and respond in multiple ways to the same player input. But I already mentioned the unskippable dialogue and randomized elements, and combining these together, this can mean actually being forced reload and listen to five minutes of dialogue again even if you know exactly what you’re doing (I suppose you’re supposed to roll with the punches and not succeed in each playthrough, but this is the wrong way to go about it). I was amazed that it functioned this way in the first place, let alone that the Director’s Cut did nothing about it. Once combined with the game’s generally weak ethical positioning that becomes the source of these debates, they’re just another creative idea that fails in execution.

That’s Human Revolution in a nutshell. It’s a little fun. Really, it’s not bad–there are some very cool environments and great visual design, memorable sidequests and interesting characters. But it wears out, and I’d be surprised if many people got to the endgame without feeling that it was becoming a traipse, crawling through vents and incapacitating guards with the same canned animations they were using in the beginning. The over-the-top story could’ve been fun if it took itself less seriously, but it would’ve been even better to keep certain outlandish aesthetic elements while writing something that was socially aware on a less superficial level. I wish the Director’s Cut had been bolder, but I’ve seen enough “enhanced” rereleases of games to have realistic expectations by now. And while it’s harder to say where my expectations should be for the sequel, I’m still very interested to see what that game brings.

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.

Payday 2

Payday 2 is a unique and ambitious co-op shooter, but often frustrating, and heavy on the grind. Given some of those keywords, I might’ve expected something more like Diablo 3: a simple game where I’d be permitted to lose focus while I levelled up or collected weapon mods. Essentially, a game for multitasking–a “podcast game”. But even though it’s a grind, it requires meticulous play and also communication, at least until each of the players understands the best practices for a particular heist and knows their division of labor without being explicitly told. That’s a mixed bag, since I don’t want the gameplay to be trivial, but I also don’t want to spend days levelling up and not even be allowed to blow through some podcasts while I do it. At least the music is pretty ballin’.

The emphasis on cooperative play also makes it troublesome to play with random amateurs in public lobbies. It’s also not great to be on the other end, feeling the guilt of screwing up a bank heist for three other people. It’s an interesting game, and it’s best for an adaptable crowd: gamers who are tolerant of mistakes and aren’t abusive to inexperienced players. Play with friends if you can. Don’t delay in disconnecting from cheaters and easily-exasperated children and you’ll generally come out alright, though it might take a while to find a game. The mechanics usually aren’t self-explanatory, so part of stepping away with a positive opinion is contingent on having someone show you the ropes.

The biggest problems are probably the crashes and faulty netcode. Sometimes you click on games for five or ten minutes before finally getting beyond the lobby on a heist you’re willing to do, only for your game to crash, or for the host to crash. Sometimes you play for an hour and the host’s internet connection drops on the last day of a three-day heist, so you get nothing. My suggestion for how this should work is to restart to the beginning of the current day, attempt to connect the other players together for a minute or so, and choose a new host–or fork it, so that each player becomes the host of separate games. It would also be nice if the host could set flags like “Stealth only” or “Loud preferred” so that people would know what they were getting into before they joined.  And it would be nice if the host could specify the need for a saw, or C4, or some other specialty on a player slot before it was filled. And it would be nice if there were heist filters for joining players, so they could hit “deselect all” from a list of maps and then select the two or three heists they were willing to do. And it would be nice if someone could load a preset in two clicks from the planning phase, rather than individually replacing each spotter cam every time they failed.

There are also design issues, and these have more to do with esoterism and randomization. As for the former, the Hotline Miami crossover heist is a good example: if the player is told to trace a location in the Downtown area, they need to find a shipping crate containing cigars. To cook meth, it’s muriatic acid, then caustic soda. There are hints for these things on the walls, but they’re easily overlooked when on the clock and getting shot at in a multiplayer game. A number of heists are based around elements of memorization or wiki-lookup like this. I acknowledge that the game exists in an ambitious, uncontested territory, and that designing these heists is a trickier job than building deathmatch arenas in any other shooter, but the need for improvement is still undeniable. It’s good to be complicated, but not needlessly inimical to newer players. It isn’t just an issue with the levels, either: it’s pretty esoteric information that you can always answer four guard pagers, and difficult to go twenty minutes in stealth without forgetting whether you’ve answered two, or three. It’s harder still to keep track of how many the other players have answered. This is a good reason why I couldn’t imagine playing without the UI changes of mods like Hoxhud or Pocohud now, as it throws those numbers right on the screen, among other desperately-needed improvements.

As for the issues with randomization, it may be true that the game is most exciting when something goes wrong and players are scrambling to pick up the pieces of their action plan, rushing loot into the van as fast as possible. But on higher difficulties, stealth attempts tend to be all-or-nothing, and once the police have arrived, it’s time to hit the restart button. Some of the RNG-based heist variations are good for keeping players on their toes, like not knowing where to find a security room or keycard. But if an item is inaccessible without a perk that the team lacks, or if extra security guards arrive early, or if guards have chosen a particularly irritating patrol route and never isolate themselves, it can mean quick and obvious failure. Sometimes you just have to choose one of two possible trucks on the Election Day heist and all you have to do is peek into one crate along the way. Sometimes there are four or five trucks that could be the right one, and you have to avoid guards for fifteen minutes to figure it out (or cheese it with multiple players’ ECMs). You have to strike a good middle ground, and the game doesn’t always pull that off.

I think of Diamond Store as an example of a well-designed heist that relatively new players can learn to tackle reliably with a clear game plan, apart from a very rare variant where the camera room is only accessible from the inside of the store. Variants where there’s a camera near the outer door are fine, although someone might have to use an ECM while getting the door open. They’re also kept on their toes by the variable location of the silent alarm keypad, but not in a way that should make an attempt ridiculously harder. If players had a distaste for restarting when an error was made, loud-spec heisters could still hang out in the back alley to take care of roaming pedestrians, or use the cameras once the operator was taken out. The couple players doing the stealth work could also hopefully survive when it goes loud by using a dodge build, deferring damage to the tanking players. It’s an easy level with a low payout, but other levels could try to emulate that flexibility. It’s not perfect: for example, it’s weird that you have to lockpick the camera room’s doors from the inside, but it’s pretty tight for the most part.

It’d also be great if a mission’s loud objectives were always alleviated when some of the objectives were completed first in stealth, as this would encourage the “Plan B” mentality of rolling with the punches. Getting the vault open first before messing up in GO Bank is an example of this. The final day of Framing Frame, where you can sneak most of the way through and then get a completely new set of objectives when things go loud, is a lot more frustrating: at best, your stealth can earn you a little money, or get the door to a server room unlocked, which is nice, but not useful enough to validate going into the assault with a garbage high-concealment silenced weapon and a suit.

Loud missions invariably involve standing your ground and shooting a few hundred people while throwing loot around or protecting a drill or circuit breaker. This is alright, as shooting people is a draw in itself for most players and is varied by skill trees, but a few more mechanics would go a long way. For example, players could man turrets, activate existing defense systems, blow up entry points (already possible with shaped charges in Hoxton Breakout), and countless other things, I’m sure. I’d rather see tweaks to what’s already in the game, but that said, it was a huge and surprising change to see driving mechanics get added in through a new heist–a big thing to add, especially 18+ months after the game was released–and direct control over an escape van could be a cool thing to do in a loud mission in the future.

But it’s the stealth half of the gameplay experience that is in more desperate need of change. For one thing, the player’s concealment level could be better as a variable represented by a UI meter: a value that decreased while crouching in shadows and increased while jumping around on the street, or having guns visible. Reworking some of the arbitrary divisions like Casing Mode, by being able to re-conceal a weapon, could be cool if they could make it work. Casing could be hybridized with the pre-mission planning, such as by placing the planning maps in the escape vehicle parked nearby, and letting players come back to the map to circle guard positions and so on.

Guards are a little too likely to blindside the player when sneaking around, given that you can only kill four of them per heist, but the game was designed as a cooperative experience, and it’s good that it’s tricky to play from the perspective of solo stealth games: it becomes all the more important that players have several means to spot guards for each other. Considering the numerous ways to do this with perks, like spotting while in casing mode, or placing laser tripwires that highlight any guards that move through them, it’s clear that this was the intent, though it could be implemented in more fun ways. A recent heist had a drone flying overhead with a camera feed that could be hijacked, and if such a drone could actually be deployed and piloted around, maybe even aiming a laser at cameras to temporarily blind them for other players, I think the idea of cooperative stealth could be even better realized.

Making deep fixes to the stealth system would require changes to each heist, but that would come near the top of the changes I’d like to see, and could be doable if some older heists could continue to use the old system in the meantime. I think it would be best with no limit to guards killed, as long as the guards are blissfully ignorant until they’re stabbed in the back. Players could hijack these guards’ coms through some new mechanic, toggling a radio to the correct guard’s frequency to say “All clear over here!” every ten minutes or so. But when players are detected (red exclamation mark overheard), guards should signal their panic buttons immediately, and if players were able to kill the guard quickly enough after that, they could call in on the guard’s pager to report a false alarm. Some guards might always keep an eye on each other or move in pairs, which would require two players to stealth-kill those guards simultaneously, or else kill one right after the other and answer only the second guard’s pager. On the second-highest difficulty level, players might get a half-second of guard alertness without having to do answer a pager, and maybe a full second on the difficulty below that. Yet with this system, four answerable pagers wouldn’t be a sure thing either–they might get just one, or none at all on the highest difficulty. It could even vary depending on how close together the pagers were flagged, like one pager every five minutes for a maximum of three.

Payday 2 has done some interesting things with its business model, and at times I’ve viewed its pay model optimistically. It’s seemingly increased the life cycle of the game, sustainably, while at the same time allowing people to access most of this new content without buying it (DLC heists can be freely accessed by joining public games, but not soloed unless purchased). There’s certainly nothing wrong with $20 cosmetic packages that let superfans feel like Kickstarter backers, at least not as long as the developers continue to meaningfully update a game that was released two years ago. And some of the new heists have been pretty cool (the aforementioned surprise driving mechanic, for instance).

But it’s also failed to live up to certain promises, such as with a recent upgrade to the infamy tree that added nothing but some masks and more experience levels for the sake of making numbers go higher: a classic behavioral trap common enough in MMORPGs. The developers have pledged to take a look at revising this system in the coming months, but it remains to be seen if that quote is worth anything.

There is a good chance that the game will never see a deep stealth overhaul or any of these other wished-for changes, despite its pioneering pay model. As countless Early Access titles and games with significant post-release updates (like Wasteland 2) have shown, updates can be fantastic, but it almost never happens that a game sees deep structural change after reaching players’ hands. To be clear, Payday 2 has already held my interest longer than any other multiplayer FPS I’ve played in several years, and certain updates (like the Fugitive skill tree) have been great. But as long as the game drains wallets on a higher level, it seems fair to hold the post-release content to a higher standard as well. Spend wisely, Overkill, and speak frankly with your audience. It would be the easiest thing to revise this review if the game saw a successful revision of its own.

MMMV. 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.

Far Cry 3

Far Cry 3 is decent game in the genre of stealth murder, but it gets tiresome. I didn’t bother getting even half of the collectibles. I snagged all the skill & inventory upgrades, unlocked the quick-travel locations, and then decided that I didn’t need a few hundred figurines of sharks and boars. I felt a little sorry for my protagonist leaving the island with a permanently unfinished tattoo, but what did he really do to earn my sympathy, anyway?

The story is a bit embarrassing to sit through at times. Long before playing it, I had read talk about how it was a story with unreliable narration, the main character’s white male Avatar fantasy and so on, and I expected to see signs of this as I played. But it felt indistinguishable from just being an uncritical fantasy for the gamers. Hearing that the writers were rolling their eyes while writing it doesn’t really make something good satire, or a good commentary on other games. And they did definitely make a game primarily to waste peoples’ time, whether they wanted to or not.

The jokes were also pretty insufferable. The item descriptions were like a stereotypical hack’s stand-up routine idea of comedy: imagine a hundred jokes like “This gun is cheap and loud! Like my ex-wife!” but with less irony or deliberate heavy-handedness. The DLC mission dialogue consisted largely of the protagonist saying internet memes. At least it can be said that the cinematic presentation is several steps above Far Cry 2, where it sounded like the voice actors were instructed to talk as fast as possible. Maybe they wanted to reduce disk space for the audio files. Oh, what a time to be alive.

Climbable Viewpoints were lifted from the Assassin’s Creed team, although not such a great fit in an FPS. Driving is too awkward for real challenges, so the supply drop racing quests are usually simple, easy, and unfulfilling. At times they would give me a minute to run over a few hills and I’d finish with more than twenty seconds to spare. I wasn’t even particularly good at it.

I missed the hand-held maps from Far Cry 2 that I didn’t have to wait a couple seconds to open or pause the action for. There’s a minimap, useful for getting a sense of the immediate surroundings, but not for following the roads. No road signs, either.

I was glad to see the return of a few Far Cry 2 features, like snapping bones back into place and guard stations, which are the best time to put the stealth mechanics into practice. But the stealth-killing skills are almost never the most feasible way to achieve a goal. Throwing rocks to distract guards is interesting for a bit, but it’s almost always more effective to get somewhere high with a silenced sniper rifle and just shoot everybody before they find you. As I noted with Saints Row IV, there comes a time where you stop trying to do things the fun way because it’s so much easier and better-rewarded to do things the simple way.

The game manages to be playable without the option of quicksaving, but I found that the huge experience bonus and comparative painlessness of ghosting an outpost were significant enough that I often just suicided by throwing grenades at my feet to reload from an autosave if I was ever seen. I think eliminating the experience bonus would have been wise, as that might have alleviated some of that pressure. Enemies also should have hit the alarm if they saw a dead body, perhaps two, regardless of whether they saw the person who killed them. That would’ve eliminated the long-distance sniper rifle cheesing. To balance this out, stealth would have been better if the player had the freedom to scale all sorts of walls, not just ones with vines or ropes dangling off the sides. The player also should have been able to move enemy corpses after shooting them.

The animals are a fun addition, particularly when you hear some off-screen enemy shouting “Holy shit! It’s a komodo dragon!” and then dying before you ever even see them. They’re honestly more often the player’s ally than enemy, and they ultimately contribute to the unfortunate feeling that the game is reluctant to seriously challenge its players. Sometimes a tiger jumps on your face, though, and that’s pretty cool.

Overall, the game is more enjoyable to play than Far Cry 2, but not much better of a game. I liked Vaas, and I liked playing Poker with Hoyt. There wasn’t much else. The hallucinations and various other sequences seem incredibly unoriginal at this point in the history of AAA games. I felt like I had more control than I did in Tomb Raider, but just barely. I especially didn’t like the game saying I “failed” and then reloading because I strayed too far from the bounds of a quest marker, which didn’t seem especially urgent. I also had to listen to repeat dialogue after loading a save or failing a QTE sequence. It’s that sort of game.

Blood Dragon
The Blood Dragon standalone expansion plays largely the same as the original Far Cry 3, but it’s cheaper and shorter, which made it less likely to overstay its welcome. But its cutscenes drag on a little long without being very funny. Lampshade hanging isn’t funny either, and it does that quite a bit. Instead of making your character say “I want to kill whoever thought this would be fun,” maybe don’t put that thing in your game. It’s much funnier in its random guard dialogue and the text on mission descriptions, loading screens and so on. But it doesn’t improve on Far Cry 3 much, and its streamlining in skills and weapons ends up making the game feel a little too simple. I’ve reviewed the games together because I’ve decided they deserve the same score, which is the same score I gave Far Cry 2.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.