Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

Dark Arisen is a very unique take on the open world action-RPG formula, and I was glad I got to play it. It’s deep in some atypical aspects and shallower than its competitors in others. Compared to Skyrim, it actually has fun combat, for one thing — I don’t remember if I’ve ever played as an archer in an action game before and actually thought things felt right in a sense the melee classes would take for granted. It’s as if the industry collectively decided that bows were these weapons that were supposed to just plink away at enemies from a safe but unsatisfying distance, but then Dragon’s Dogma came along and you were shooting ten arrows at the same time without having to stop moving, and you’re ripping through packs of wolves and harpies just as well as a sword guy doing a big spin move. I love that. It even borrows from those Yasumi Matsuno tactics games I love so much: you can change your class after learning some passive abilities, and equip the warrior’s passive augmentations on a sorcerer and so on. It’s cool as hell, even if your viable options are typically narrow.

It also forces no terrible level scaling in its open world. If you make a run out to the far end of the map at the start of the game, you can get some great gear if you can survive long enough to reach it. And when night falls, that means something in a way I haven’t felt apart from maybe Minecraft, or encountering the ghosts of Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field when I was nine years old or whatever and still shit at the game. One of the first things I actually didn’t like about Dark Arisen’s combat was the lack of a standard Zelda/Dark Souls lock-on feature, but then I went through a scary night with something circling around me that I couldn’t keep up with, and really had to look closely in my fading lantern light and strain my ears, and it just finally clicked how good of an idea it was to make me do that manually. It’s that much harder to know how many wolves are in a pack when you aren’t keeping a lock on one until it’s dead. Sometimes that wyvern sweeps over your head and you can only stumble around trying to see where it went before it charges at you. It wouldn’t work in every game, but it works here.

But to the other half of what I was saying, some of the other standard CRPG mechanics (like theft and crime) are basically absent. The statute of limitations applied to your brutality is such that if you leave the map and come back, nobody’s trying to attack you anymore. It’s closer to Ganbare Goemon on the SNES than Skyrim here, and Skyrim’s criminal logic already felt too crude for its purposes. But if Dark Arisen tried to compete in the complexity of its systems and the size of its sandbox, it would have failed. Its quests don’t tend to weave together different NPC relationships with the player into a complicated flow chart; they tend to be “Kill The Thing”. The best thing to do is to just play the game it wants you to be playing, instead of trying to be a bastard as part of some misguided and pointless celebration of free will.

The game’s original ideas, of which there are many, are more aptly described as “creative” rather than “unfathomably deep”. For example, climbing is a big part of combat; you climb directly onto anything bigger than a human, stabbing onto the weak spots on their head, the straps of their armor, whatever. I might have enjoyed a robust code of law and guard AI, but you know, I’ll take crawling on an cyclopes’ back like a little bug, too.

In one quest I cleared out a mine that linked two areas on the world map, and when I revisited later to use it as a shortcut, not only did the enemies not respawn, but I gained the ability to sprint there without using up stamina, as if I were in town. I could even pay a merchant there to open up new mining tunnels for my personal use. That kind of colonization of a space is one of my favorite things to see in games, and I often feel I don’t see nearly enough of it.

In character creation, you can literally just make a child, which was just about the only thing I knew about the game going in. There will be cutscenes where you’re in a room full of adults talking about the dragon you’re supposed to kill or whatever, and you’re in the frame like 140 cm tall, the height of a ten-year-old. The game doesn’t care at all, and that’s hilarious. I later bought an item in-game that let me edit my appearance, and just made my character gradually older and taller as I progressed through Bitterblack Isle. By the time I finished, I was an adult.

Here’s another great thing: there’s a forger in the seedy part of town who will make forgeries of whatever you bring him — keys, magical rings, a letter that you’ve been asked to deliver — and apart from losing their magical properties, they’re duplicated perfectly. It plays ingeniously into several quest outcomes; this guy wants a magical grimoire, so you can give it to him or give him a fake and keep the real one for yourself. What’s great is he comes back and tries to use it in front of you in a later quest, which is a real funny way to get hoisted by your own petard, or relieved that you did the nice thing. (But again, most of the quests are comparatively simple.)

The pawn system, in which you create an NPC to follow you around at all times, has to be the deepest of Dragon’s Dogma’s unique ideas. Your pawn learns from everything you do. If you find a secret passage during a quest, your pawn learns about that passage. If you discover the element a monster is weak to, your pawn learns that. Then other players hire out your pawn and if they do that quest or fight that monster, they tell the player who hired them. It’s brilliant in principle, and it gives you a cool goal of trying to make this personal NPC of yours a walking encyclopedia of the whole game world.

In practice, however, it doesn’t always work well. There are two voice actors for pawns and they like to repeat stuff a lot. You don’t command them directly, so there’s no telling if they’ll enchant your weapon with the element you want (or if they’ll do it at all), which gets frustrating. They’re also, well… slaves. Unequivocally. They literally go around calling you “master” as they carry all your shit, and it just feels shocking how obtuse the developers were about it. In fleshing out the world, they try to make it seem alright: they tell us that these aren’t human beings like the player character, and they aren’t doing this against their will, as they basically don’t have a will. But it’s these weird excuses, this sanitizing of the concept of a slave race, that actually calls it into such sharp relief. The thing is, half the CRPGs out there have some weird indentured servitude thing where you amass “followers” who hold what you tell them to hold and otherwise do what you say, and we’re used to it, as just another “gaming” quirk rather than an explicitly narrative thing. In video games you tell a companion, “Wait here,” and they stand there until their bones turn to dust without a thought to their own wishes and needs, and that’s fine, because fuck it. But when you invent “pawns,” these funny people who lack the higher cognition of humans, who are better off this way, and who wouldn’t know what to do with freedom even if they had it? The parallels with actual slavery apologia in the real world have to sink in.

There are a lot of annoying quirks when you get into the nitty-gritty parts of the game design, although I think these are mostly forgivable. The worst is probably that chests have large pools of potential items, and you’re incentivized and all but expected to stand there killing yourself over and over until the chest loads with the thing you want in it. Your endgame quest reward is actually a dagger that you can kill yourself with, seemingly for this exact purpose: there’s no quick way to load a save if you’re still alive. How sad does that sound? Although it was standard in RPGs for decades to put a certain rare item in the fancy chest at the end of the secret tunnel or whatever, Dragon’s Dogma reinvents the wheel in the worst way. One of my favorite things about exploration is getting rewarded with unique items; you may never be sent to a small bandit camp as part of a quest, but it’s there, and you can find a cool bandit mask to wear if you conquer it. Fallout New Vegas was especially good about this with its scattered unique variants on all the guns. Dragon’s Dogma has some cool things like this, but the treasure pool RNG takes half the fun right out of it.

There’s also permanent class-based level scaling. It’s not significant enough to ruin anything if you don’t obsessively plan out which classes you need to be at which levels, but if you ignore stat growth and decide in post-game that you’d like to try being a sorcerer, you’ll be a garbage sorcerer with low magic attack. And frankly, I did mess it up a little; your starting classes have worse level scaling but you’re forced to stick with them until level 10. I didn’t find the inn where you can switch vocations until level 11, which meant I had one bad level right off the bat. I think this kind of thing is bad design; it only serves to make players feel bad for being what they want to be, when they want to be it.

I like when a game’s mechanics give me the freedom to break the balance somewhat, but I don’t like it when a game is already given to me broken, especially when the reasoning is that real-world capitalism is leaking into the fantasy space and they want to encourage people to spend money on a new version. The thought of rebalancing the early parts of Dragon’s Dogma, given the new Dark Arisen starting gifts, was apparently met with a shrug. You’re given an infinite warp stone at the start just for playing the Dark Arisen version of the game, but then you still find consumable versions of that item, as if you’d care. It takes a long time to outgrow the “DLC” gear they throw you, too: some players are likely still wearing it when they beat the main campaign’s dragon boss. Sometimes the poor balance doesn’t even have anything to do with DLC gifts, though. I tried using other gear in my jewelry slot, but I found myself wearing Barbed Nails all the way to the end. If you rolled a Master Ring in super-late postgame with the same two bonuses and the very best possible numbers, it still wouldn’t even be half as good. Sure, a Master Ring can be many other things as well, but it just seems wrong to me.

Worse, the game has a pretty insensible approach to its numbers. If an enemy has 1000 defense and you have 1001 attack, your first 1000 attack gets through that defense and you do 1 damage. If you equip just a slightly different weapon, boosting your attack by roughly 10% to 1100, you’ll then do one hundred times more damage to the same enemy. While it’s usually not quite that stark, it still puts way too much emphasis on getting better gear and worrying about the breakpoints you have to meet for the combat to be fun. With the added Dark Arisen super-boss, Daimon, I went straight from doing no damage against him — quickly giving up, as there was no point to trying — to being so strong that the fight was disappointing when I finally returned. I had made a new bow, and learned that you could stack the effects of four Tagilus’ Miracles. And now that I remember the Tagilus Miracle, Barbed Nails hardly seem broken at all.

It’s far too easy to miss entire quests when not checking in on certain parts of town before progressing through the main storyline. Inventory management is absolutely tedious, as is mining ores or slowly scrounging through sacks on the ground for crafting materials, which I wish the game could have just skipped making me do. But I felt the same way about picking up bits of twine and broom handles in Witcher 3. It’s everywhere now, and I don’t know why.

The “Beloved” system is a mess: you usually end up finding out at the end of the game that your character romanced someone you don’t give a shit about, because you accidentally maxed your affection with a half-dozen NPCs and it just picked one for you. I went for Mercedes the first time and got Quina. On my second playthrough I went for Selene and got Aelinore, even after reading up on all the stuff about how it works. I finally got Mercedes when playing Speed Run mode, and that came as a surprise to me. They might have at least introduced a point in the main questline where the game asks you which of the top five characters comes to mind, and tagged that one. But when I hear that literally anyone apart from two or three key NPCs can be the player’s beloved — including Feste or Simone — I think I got off easy.

I loved all the little Berserk references, though it felt kind of shoehorned when I was getting thrown in the dungeons for being in Aelinore’s room. As (A) a female character who was (B) way too overpowered for the town guards, acting out that scene made me briefly feel like the world was a lot smaller than the setting of Berserk, especially considering the dungeon Griffith was thrown in, built over the old site of Wyndham.

But there were also the cool nods to the “witch of the forest” stuff, as well as more general European fantasy elements that have been much more poorly executed on by games actually made in the West. Like the enemies: cauterizing the heads of a hydra after chopping them off, hunting a griffin by luring it to the ground, evading the petrifying breath of a cockatrice, or targeting the different body parts of a chimera, where the snake, goat, and lion heads each have their own skills and health bars. You can see that the designers really cared about portraying this part of the adventure just as they imagined it in their minds.

And I can’t forget the experience of dragging myself through a windy canyon at night, surrounded by tunnels filled with bandits who were still powerful enough to kill me, and disturbing a giant golem with brightly-lit magical charms on its body, essentially the only thing I could even see in the pitch-black darkness. That whole expedition felt far more memorable than any encounter I can think of in a number of other open world RPGs, and ultimately, I think it’s because the designers nailed this aspect so well that I have such a highly positive impression of this game.

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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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

MGSV has the best mechanics I’ve seen in any game to come out in the past couple years. They’re so robust and varied that I don’t even really mind invading the same outposts several dozen times each — which I am expected to do — given that I can have an entirely new experience by changing a few items in my loadout, or by bringing a different buddy along. Still, this is a big part of the game’s weakness: its failure at times to build a larger package around its better qualities. It particularly falls short when these core mechanics aren’t in play at all, such as when you’re forced to fight a gunship or a giant robot, when suddenly there’s no stealth, no fulton extraction; just a rocket launcher and a demand.

Those annoying parts aside, it’s staggering how much work this game puts into your toolkit. I suspect the cardboard box is more sophisticated than the mechanics of certain other stealth games in their entirety. You can slip out of the box and leave it behind as a decoy, you can pop out like a jack-in-the-box, slide down hills, add camo patterns to match your environment. You can slap posters on it, some of which are oriented for when you’re standing vertically, while others are horizontal, meaning they continue to work after you leave the box behind. These can also change the behaviors of guards, who can actually try to open the box instead of shooting it once they’re a couple meters away, or stop and turn around because they hilariously mistake the poster on the box for another guard. The results might change based on the time of day and the distance you attempt this from. The box has durability, and might lose one of its cover flaps, compromising the camouflage from some angles. There are waterproof boxes and ones that release smoke. Depending on the level of alertness in the base, the Command Post might laugh off reports of a moving cardboard box, or you might be shot on sight. It’s a complex system.

Again: that’s just the cardboard box! Something you can play the whole game without using! This is to say nothing about D-Walker’s drift mechanics or how you can pair him with a shield on your back slot. I could talk about the crazy stuff you can do with decoys or fulton devices, too, but frankly, it’s unnecessary.

As ridiculously deep as the mechanics can be, the game is not commensurately good at explaining itself, leaving players perhaps never finding out that they can ride a shipping container back to base, or keep a guard on the ground with their hands behind their head indefinitely, or add your own MP3s to Snake’s cassette tape collection and set them to be blasted from your helicopter’s loudspeakers, so all your foes know that the Vengabus is coming when the chopper arrives to extract you.

Not only is MGSV so open as to allow you to break it — which any diehard Morrowind fan will tell you is your divine right in gaming — but it even sometimes anticipates this breakage and gives you a nod for it. In missions where you’re told to tail somebody until they lead you to some commanding officer or prisoner, there’s really nothing stopping you from going off-road at the start of the level and taking a straight line to their ultimate destination. The adviser talking to Snake on comms will say something like “How did you know he’d be there? Do you have psychic powers or something?” but the game does absolutely nothing to stop you and even rewards you with an S-rank for beating the level so fast. (It’s rare to see Japanese devs tackle this kind of Assassin’s Creed sandbox gameplay, and here it’s exactly the opposite of what I remember being forced to do in Assassin’s Creed 2, the last one I played.) S-ranks tend to always be pretty easy to get: apart from cloaking devices and other things that always automatically disqualify you from an S-rank, missions do not restrict you by the level of gear available to the player at the time, which means you can rescue prisoners with wormholes and insta-kill bosses with the upgraded rocket launcher. I wouldn’t have thought it unfair if they had limited you further by gear level — and the fact that all items come with a numerical rank in the first place might mean this was originally intended — but I quite like just being able to do what I want, and letting hardcore players self-police themselves if they want a greater challenge.

I’m not a fan of the checkpoint system. The game doesn’t restrict you from walking back out to the outskirts of an enemy outpost to give yourself a checkpoint after silently taking out five or ten of the twenty guards posted there, and it doesn’t keep you from screwing yourself if you cross that threshold a split-second before a mission-critical target leaves the area or before a prisoner is executed, either. And if you had to use a toilet or something for a checkpoint, it’d be one thing, but the weird way checkpoints occur at a semi-random radius around outposts incentivizes weird player behaviors. If you’re not near a guard post and you’ve just extracted some S-rank guard you really like, you might run around for five minutes looking for a checkpoint, all the while hoping you don’t walk over a landmine or fall to your death or something, losing him.

And there are too many arbitrary rules involved with when things are saved, whether it’s events at Mother Base (which exists in a sort of non-linear time), mission tasks (which can be saved without a checkpoint by opening certain menus and then aborting the mission, but aren’t if you die without a checkpoint), or your ammunition (D-Walker gets its equipment refreshed, but the state of your own equipment is preserved). Extracted guards are sent to your base at a checkpoint, but reloading the checkpoint respawns the guards if (and only if) they’re mission-critical, which means that every player learns how to clone tanks and reroll the stats of human beings, once they grasp the weird logic of the game. It’s quite strange already that if you take out 8/9 side-op targets and go hit a checkpoint, all 9 targets will be back on the field again, forcing you to take them all out in one stretch, which doesn’t seem to happen in main missions. But it’s even stranger that you can repeatedly extract 8 of them, as long as you never turn in the last one and finish. Some of this feels like oversights that there wasn’t enough development time to straighten out, especially D-Walker, which can also be deployed at the start of a mission for 5,000 GMP and then swapped on the field to its 50,000 GMP loadout for free.

The game’s story has a lot of interesting ideas that are executed a bit poorly. Everything’s insanely convoluted, and while there tends to be an explanation hammered out for why every situation has to be so outlandish, the explanations themselves are unconvincing or silly. I thought that the game’s convoluted central twist was entirely pointless and unnecessary in terms of what it actually accomplishes for people who reexamine the entire narrative through that lens. You find out that Bruce Willis is a ghost in The Sixth Sense, and while maybe this forces some contrivances along the way, these are justified because the payoff is big, and changes the viewer’s perception of everything else that happened in the movie, right? Now, I’m not saying Snake is a ghost, but I am saying I saw no payoff, and nothing really changed.

I have to note: I since talked to a friend of mine who knows more about the series, and he told me that the twist explains something that happened in the original NES game. So as it turns out, there is a payoff, but it’s like having to watch five other Shyamalan movies to appreciate The Sixth Sense. Isn’t that something?

The character called Quiet, a woman who reveals a lot of skin and doesn’t talk, got a ton of pushback, and most of it was deserved. Quiet was unmistakably an object, whose primary character trait and motive was loving Snake, but her storyline was probably one of the more effective parts of the narrative — she doesn’t entirely need to speak when she can communicate with her actions, which is refreshing in an otherwise-overwritten (read: Japanese) game where everyone else talks in cutscenes and on audio tapes for ten hours about Weapons To Surpass Metal Gear. But there’s also very little justification for some of Quiet’s plot points, like her not getting the Wolbachia treatment, or even being forced into it back at Mother Base. It mainly serves to keep the gimmick going.

Quiet also has one of the most memorable parts of the game: the boss fight against her. It’s not good in the Dark Souls sense of what makes a good boss fight, where everything is really tight and you gradually gain intimate knowledge of what can and can’t be done in your situation. In fact, the cover system is kind of shit, and I constantly had trouble attaching myself to walls and looking over them to scope out Quiet’s location. But it comes as such a surprise and is so different even from the other forced boss fights. My first time doing it, I was nervously belly-crawling large distances and taking forever; the sun went down and came up again before I finally took her down. But that adds to the drama of it; no music playing in the background, just two snipers playing out this long-range duel, patching up wounds behind cover and trying to find the other by the sounds they make. I thought it was brilliant… although I also never thought to just air-drop an armored personnel carrier on her head.

What probably worked best about the story was a more ludonarrative performance involving the training of soldiers back at Mother Base and their expendability. When my soldiers were being made to die off, I felt a real anguish and discomfort that was successfully tied into the story the game was intending to tell. But this is all tied into a base management mechanic that plays a huge role in your ability to research new gear, quickly request supplies on the field, gain intel about unseen enemies on your map, make money, and several other things. I’ve seen other sandbox games do base and resource management, but never to such good effect.

A game like The Witcher 3 tells a profoundly better story overall, in a much cleaner package; the ending of Blood & Wine still has its hooks in me. But that was also an incredibly by-the-book sandbox by many other respects, to the point of sometimes feeling boring. And remarkably, the point-of-interest checklist stuff that I found tedious in The Witcher 3 actually tended to feel rewarding in MGSV. For one thing, you always want fifty times more money and resources than you have. You incur so many operating costs just getting around on your helicopter, keeping weapons stocked and maintained, presumably feeding your dog, and so on. You don’t get your grenade budget refunded if you don’t use up the ones you bring, which is the perfect incentive design both when it’s time to decide whether to bring those grenades, and when you feel like being thrifty about actually throwing them.

On the other hand, there’s not a lot of incentive to ever use more than a couple of the guns you have, even after spending 800 billion dollars researching hundreds of them. Some of this research leads to good weaponsmithing parts for the gun you will use, but most doesn’t.

Many ideas were cooler in theory than in execution, like the way 90% of your cash is stored online, where it’s vulnerable to theft by other players. But it doesn’t sync nearly often enough, and you can find yourself running your offline reserves into the red while still having millions online, risking morale drops and not being able to buy anything else. The servers or netcode or both are terrible, as you can get locked in menus for minutes just waiting for some online communication.

Despite so many systems being executed well, the package is unfinished. The story isn’t fully resolved — there are bits on youtube of cut content from Mission 51 — and it goes on long enough to have justified a third sandbox region, but instead you’re asked to endlessly repeat the same rescue and elimination side-ops in only slightly different configurations. And while the game is fun broken, there are some areas where the game feels so crude that even a bastard like me felt a need to police myself, like when driving tanks around in side-ops and finding that guards had no idea what to do when I drove right into the middle of their base and started opening fire on everything. I don’t mean that they weren’t equipped to fight a tank. I mean they literally could not conceive of the tank. They ran around in circles, wondering how their radar dishes were being destroyed, as if I’d planted C4 on each of them earlier, and was blowing them up from far away.

The game needed a deeper system for replaying missions with imposed restrictions and rewards, but instead, it just tacked on new instances of a handful of missions. As a consequence, if you’re trying to do all the mission tasks, you have to senselessly repeat even ones like listening to guard conversations again. It can take a few minutes just to skip through all the cutscenes at the end of a mission you were only replaying to knock off that one last task. One repeat mission even has you redo the shitty prologue, where you basically just limp around on the floor for twenty minutes while Kiefer Sutherland makes Moby Dick references, all for the reward of an extra cutscene at the end. Because I have no life, I played through this three times. It would’ve been four if I hadn’t looked up what the hidden tasks were in advance of playing the “Truth” version.

Naturally, spreading the objectives over more outposts or a third sandbox region would have made it feel less repetitive. Side-ops should have been at least as diverse as some of the objectives provided in bonus mission tasks, if not more so. And the animal-collection system should not have relied on RNG or had players waste time catching creatures that didn’t even have an in-game model. But these are useless criticisms, all solved with “more time” and “more money”. Maybe if they had tried to build a robust PC modding scene instead of creating Metal Gear Online, fans might have filled in the gaps. But most mods never go very far, and it’s not something I propose with any real conviction.

Apart from the need to have made Kojima subordinate to a no-nonsense editor who could also keep the game focused on its strengths, and maybe putting more thought into the checkpoint system and a couple other little things, there’s really very little that might have been done better with the resources they had. As it stands, it’s still pretty amazing.

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.

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.

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.

Bully: Scholarship Edition

Bully is like a GTA game in a smaller sandbox, with no ability to drive cars or listen to the radio. You dominate various school cliques in missions much like you would conquer Saints Row gangs. The game shows its age. I had crashes that made me have to redo entire missions again, and I couldn’t tell you why it doesn’t autosave mission progress or update collectibles when you pick them up. Maybe autosave was a fringe belief in 2008.

It was nice to see Rockstar try a different setting, and the game has some endearing qualities, but they could have tried harder. It still adheres too closely to the GTA mission-and-minigame formula. (I should put a little disclaimer that I haven’t played GTA V yet, so I can’t speak to how it might or might not differ.) It would’ve been good to see some choice in quests, allowing you to take on school in a way that appeals to you. The protagonist is kind of bland and unlikable, and I didn’t especially appreciate initiating some awkward 10-second wish-fulfillment kiss through the lips of that short-ass Bobby Hill motherfucker every time I wanted to restore my health. The Rockstar character humor also felt a bit formulaic within their South Parkish comfort zone, and while I didn’t by any means hate the dialogue, it didn’t have me barking out loud.

I had been excited to see what the classroom stuff was like, as that was the major component of the game that was particularly not Grand, Theft, or Auto, but it mostly consists of QTEs, other janky minigames, or being tested on whether you already know where a country is on an unlabelled map. I would have liked to see influence from something like Persona 3 here, which really did a lot of cool stuff with with classrooms, scheduling, and its classmate characters, though even its classroom gameplay was still ultimately nothing other than choosing dialogue options. GTA IV incorporated entire stand-up comedian routines that you could go watch, so if they had given Bully as much polish, it might’ve been cool to listen to humorous takes on class lectures while actually sitting at a desk and choosing either to participate, or to be a shitty kid who shoots spitballs at the nerds in front of him. Maybe actually learn something. Balance your academic success on one side, and your classmate respect in not being a teacher’s pet on the other! Throw a paper airplane at a kid’s neck right when he’s about to raise his hand, and steal his opportunity to answer! Choose to answer questions correctly, sarcastically, or just plain wrong, with an Alpha Protocol dialogue choice system! This would be a completely different and far more interesting game that I’m describing, I think.

They spent a lot of effort incorporating various activities–racing games, skateboarding and BMX riding (one of the most fun things to do is hop around on a bike, but there’s no grinding or challenges to do a 1080° spin or anything like that), rhythm games (music class), dodgeball, shooting galleries, photography, stealth (instantly fail a mission if you’re seen, no proper stealth mechanics), tower defense (or at least a mission where you can knock out some guys with traps before they reach you)–but none of these million things go above a state of mediocrity.

And while they have all these things, the fundamentals of movement and camera control aren’t even handled well: the player character doesn’t turn with the camera if you try to adjust it as you run, so you need to take your thumb off the left stick before the game recalculates which direction you’re heading in. (Movement in GTA IV was awkward too, though I couldn’t say off the top of my head whether it was as awkward as Bully’s.) Using various punching and grappling moves in combination with debilitating items is actually more interesting than GTA IV’s awkward cover shooting, but it has a kind of “generic third-person action-adventure game” mechanical feeling, by which I mean the multitude of N64-PSX era action platformer games, or something like Psychonauts, which had more than enough charm, cleverness, and good writing to compensate. With nothing really standing out, and more than a few missions that try a player’s patience, Bully wears out its welcome before you’re through.

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.

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.

Far Cry 2

My main problem with Malaria Simulator Far Cry 2 was motion sickness, but that was mostly fixed by modding the FoV, and I adjusted to it after a couple days. That’s just something we’ve collectively solved since FC2’s 2008 release (except for a few troublesome exceptions, like Call of Juarez: Gunslinger), and I won’t let it color the review too deeply.

Most of Far Cry 2’s problems are well-documented. Enemies respawn infinitely. They’re like cockroaches: terribly numerous, clinging persistently to life, you could say there’s not so much a pleasure in killing them as there is a wish that they had never been around in the first place. I was constantly frustrated by not being able to drive anywhere without getting dogpiled, and stealth is almost impossible, because the silenced pistol needs some 6-8 shots to put somebody down, and guards see the player from vast distances away, chasing relentlessly. It’s weird how zealous they are in pursuit. Why would one guy chase me through miles of African wilderness just to finally get shot in the face when he steps outside of his van? What did he expect? Was he so eager to die? What inspired him to feel so strongly about me?

Whenever I was frustrated by a guard’s behavior or resilience, I found that it pleased me, far more than I should ever admit, to empty an entire SMG clip into their face once they were down. All the secondary weapons were toothless except for the explosive ones anyway, so it wasn’t as if I would ever miss the ammo.

The driving is comparable to Brutal Legend or the Mass Effect moon buggies: you go over a lot of hills and it’s not really all that fun. As I said in the Saints Row IV review, driving is fun because of the complexities, the tests of skill, particularly in traffic. Far Cry 2 does have pursuit from other cars, but unlike GTA cops, there’s not some radius of how far they care, or special techniques the player might employ to lose them. And while I can’t look behind my own vehicle, it seems like they’ll cheat to keep up, like a rubberbanding AI in a bad racing game. At least in Brutal Legend, the cars didn’t get stuck all the time.

It seems like it’s very hip to speak well of this game today: the malaria, the broke-dick piece of shit guns, all of it. The player isn’t supposed to have too much fun or feel too on top of things, the argument goes, because he’s a terrible guy in a terrible place and it’s blood diamonds and malaria pills you’re out looking for, not Baskin-Robbins ice cream flavors. But I don’t really buy it. If you’re trying to build the right ludic conditions for something like that, you shouldn’t be running around doing awkward parkour to get over rocks and rooftops. The gameplay and sense of ludonarrative consonance sort of succeed, but feel clumsy, much like the writing feels clumsy when it shoehorns in references to Joseph Conrad and Nietzsche. And much like the rushed, awkward voice acting.

I warmed to The Jackal, and to the idea of having this White Guy In Africa game with a dark tone where You are pretty much the whole problem regardless of how you do the quests, although at the very last minute the player character is dying to help some refugees, and I found the sudden shift incomprehensible, as if the developers were told they had to end it on a more positive note.

The collectibles really dragged playtime out, and should have been limited to a few large diamond caches and the recordings, which I did appreciate, but were bugged–I had to listen to them on the wiki. I also skipped almost all the buddies’ quests when I found out there wasn’t really any reward for doing them. They played more or less the same as all the other quests, anyway. The buddies themselves were a cool feature, although I didn’t like that they would switch out my secondary weapon whenever they showed up to help, and I would have preferred if I could choose which of them would help me or give me quests, because I never heard more than a sentence out of most of them.

Maybe the game is successful in its “shit shit shit” moments when a rifle jams immediately after the fight has started, and I’m willing to agree that a little chaos can be good, as long as it isn’t so chaotic that there’s no reason to develop a particular strategy. Was Far Cry 2 “the good kind of difficult”? I don’t think so. Enemies were pretty good about flanking me, which I liked, but they hit me with shotguns from sniper range, and had pinpoint accuracy even when line of sight was blocked by foliage. They had far too much health. It would also be a stretch to call them intelligent: they often blew themselves up with their own explosive weapons.

There were some parts that I appreciated, but I feel that Far Cry 2 hasn’t held up over time. I didn’t find enough tactical variety or depth to the experience. The themes of amorality have since been greatly overshadowed by Spec Ops: The Line and probably other games touching upon similar stuff with a more professional script and presentation, and while I can’t think of another FPS where the player is debilitated by disease, there’s probably a good reason for that. There are games like “That Dragon, Cancer”, and there are games where you dodge mortar fire and do parkour. The venn diagram would show some pretty scarce overlap.

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.