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.

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.

Invisible, Inc.

Invisible is unique; an FTL-styled roguelike stealth game that’s more XCOM than Thief. It’s an inventive combination, but to me it’s not one that proves to be more satisfying than a more traditional stealth game. That’s up to a person’s tastes, but I like to take my time and completely ghost a place. In Invisible, that’s off the table from turn one: your break-in is immediately detected and your alarm level is steadily rising, no matter what you do (or don’t do). The distinction isn’t simply about taking it easy; in many stealth games I often wish the guards had smarter behavior, responding more appropriately when losing sight of an intruder in the building. But Invisible’s approach is certainly often harder, too, and if you’re more interested in a challenge than in a state of mind, this might be for you.

Communication
Invisible might not be designed specifically for me, and I wouldn’t hold that against it, except that I also think it’s not a perfect execution of what it tries to be. One of my bigger contentions is with the lack of crucial information conveyed. “But Zack,” you might say, “you gave Dark Souls a 5/5 and it doesn’t explain shit.” True, but Dark Souls isn’t a tactical stealth game. Is the challenge supposed to come from putting together a cohesive set of character skills, items, and programs from what you’re able to find in the seven or eight corporate buildings you have time to plunder before the campaign’s end, and flitting through guards and managing your power with the right timing? Or is the challenge supposed to come from not understanding where you’re allowed to stand, or what the rules are?

I would have liked to see movement ranges of guards when hovering over them, like in Advance Wars or other combat-focused tactical RPGs. I never really picked up on what would cause a guard to shoot me if I stopped on or passed through a specific tile in his vision, and this is something that could be put in a tooltip when you hover over a tile. I often had no idea how an item or program worked before I bought and tried it, because the description wasn’t self-explanatory, or it didn’t list the cooldown time in the store. I didn’t understand that guns weren’t reloadable without consumable items, even between missions. I once carried an augment around in my inventory between several missions, thinking I needed to hit up a grafter in a cybernetics lab to install it, when it was actually usable out of the inventory. I didn’t know if the alarm level would rise if I stepped directly in front of a guard and then knocked him out while it was still my turn. I didn’t know how guards would communicate or what would set them off. I didn’t know how many turns a daemon would last, even if I had it identified, and that’s the sort of thing a person might want to plan around.

Communication is basically the most important thing in a stealth game. What’s the level of light where you’re standing? How much noise will you make with a certain action? Are guards globally alerted to the presence of an intruder in the building, or is the alert still restricted to the guards in the room? Invisible communicates some of these elements well, but still fails to explain a lot of its mechanics. Does hacking a drone make the drone alert when the hack ends? If I move a hacked drone through a door with a shock trap on it, will it be destroyed? Will a shock trap shock me if I open the door myself? What if a guard opens it while I’m in range? Do EMPs take out a guard’s shields? Does Net Downlink cap at 6 AP per turn, or per mission? If I step directly onto a sound bug, does it alert guards? When I have 8 hours left on the clock, what happens when I fly directly to a mission that’s 12 hours away instead of picking the 5-hour one? If this were a board game, every player would have to come up with their own unique way to resolve the guards’ turns, because the explanation is never prepared.

Randomization
Good use of RNG is about being able to adapt meaningfully to what you’re given. “Let’s find out which threat you’ll have to experience today” is much better than “Let’s see if you something good happens to you, or something bad happens.” Invisible is a mixed bag here. I thought item-shopping and map generation were decent mix-ups: they didn’t always conform to what I needed, but didn’t really screw me, either. There’s good and bad for sure; I’ve seen some breezy, linear levels and some where I had to double back. I’ve also done levels where I had to let a camera see me before I could hack it, which kind of sucks. But these are manageable and don’t have terrible long term consequences; there will be other shop terminals, and even if items don’t really mesh with your overall team strategy, they always seem to have a use somewhere; here, one man’s trash is definitely another’s treasure.

But chance plays a role in too many things, including awfully major stuff, and I’m not into that Snakes and Ladders shit. It absolutely sucks when you break into a detention center and find the guy with a slight bonus to ranged weapons (unarmed in his cell, of course) when you could have been given the guy who opens safes for free–especially when your program setup hasn’t left you with much spare power to get safes open. There was also a time when I hit a cybernetics lab only to find two augmentations that both did nothing for me; they had a chance to give spare power per turn or something, but at the time I was swimming in power, and I would’ve killed for extra actions or melee armor piercing or whatever. It would hardly be crazy to give me a few choices at the grafters.

Daemons can also absolutely screw you, especially if you’re foolish enough to run Faust and Brimstone. When you do that, there’s really nothing to keep the game from just spawning extra guards or locking your hacking down each turn. I’m seriously thankful I don’t have to deal with some 25% chance to miss on a sleeping dart or whatever, because it would’ve just kept me from using one more thing in my arsenal.

The game seems to generate its seeds early enough that there’s no chance of save-scumming around this stuff. I’m actually grateful for this, because I’d hate to feel incentivized to tediously use my rewind actions to avoid bad luck. I think the logic is that you’re supposed to be alright with getting dealt a terrible hand for an entire campaign sometimes, because campaigns are short and you gain experience toward unlocks even on failure. But I found this grindy and would’ve vastly preferred creative challenge-based unlocks like the ones in FTL, like unlocking a non-violent specialist by playing without knocking any guards out.

Suggestions
The geoscape felt a bit sparse, especially when 12 of the 72 hours of your campaign can vanish in a single click. I’m not necessarily trying to say that because it resembles XCOM, you should have to spend a full third of the game managing bases on the world map. But you could certainly have some more options. Maybe all the cloaking device manufacturers are in Asia, but the companies in North America have a monopoly on ranged weapons, and you can choose to do all your work in one place instead of flying around, but you still have to wait 8 hours for nightfall or whatever. When a detention center mission pops up, show me three of them simultaneously, tell me who’s in each of them, and only give me enough time to hit one, so the other two agents die. This could even be how agents are unlocked.

I was really fond of the cooldown-based items, but I almost never used ammo-based weapons or consumables. Even if guns gave you a limited number of shots per mission, they could still be freely reloaded when missions are over. Ammo packs could give you one mid-mission reload, but still be replenished between missions, too. My problem is that, strategically speaking, unless I’m absolutely screwed unless I throw that grenade, my instinct will be to hold onto it, because I’m afraid of getting screwed more for not having it in the future, as the difficulty increases. Your goal is to gain resources, not to consume them. Essentially, I ended up selling everything, because money that can be put toward levelling up my character’s speed always looks better in the long-term. But that’s boring.

I mentioned challenges or achievements as a means of unlocking new characters or starting programs, but I’d also have been more motivated to attempt some extreme challenges if I earned some extreme characters for pulling it off. If the hardest challenges specified which characters you could use to accomplish them, it would be kind of fun to get some people with really overpowered abilities to use when just messing around. I can’t say what would be too overpowered off the top of my head, but rather than just an extra point of armor piercing here or there, I would like to see more dramatic variety. What about someone who could sprint soundlessly, or turn sprint on and off at will?

I got a few enjoyable campaigns out of Invisible, but I burned out before trying Expert Plus, Endless Mode, Time Attack, Iron Man or any of that. Once I saw the various threats and used a good chunk of the playable characters, and felt like I had a good handle on the limitations of the game, I was more or less done. There is a DLC expansion that adds more of everything, including new enemies, which would might shake things up for another couple runs. But as long as the primary formula is unchanged, I think I’ve had my fill.

In short, some more goals and choices would have gone far, particularly choices on the world map and those reducing the impact of the RNG. Info could be conveyed better, especially when it comes to guards noticing and firing upon you, which tiles they can hear you sprinting from, etc. I’m still not describing a game I would score a 5/5, but there’s untapped potential here.

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.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

This is a really unusual game, but only in that you wouldn’t expect to find a really dynamic mechanic in what is otherwise such a publisher-safe, Triple-A standard-fare, Assassin’s Creed knockoff. The idea of having the foes in the game act within this semi-permanent Orc hierarchy that you can totally stop at the source lends itself more to a kind of shorter game that you replay indefinitely, which is probably why it feels like something out of an indie roguelike instead of what it is. It’s also probably why you’re made to conquer the ranks twice, and then twice more in the DLC, padded out with tedious collectible hunting and the occasional bad escort mission.

For whatever publisher-friendly reason, they couldn’t just completely focus on the good stuff they had and build some kind of FTL-like replayable challenge game out of it. Something where you’d ramp up the difficulty across multiple runs as you also gathered higher-tier runes by trying to accomplish objectives with the runes you unlocked last time.

Instead there’s a secondary “Trials of War” challenge mode, which is better than nothing, but only insofar as you get to do the good part of the game some more, assuming your patience for it hasn’t totally worn thin. It’s like skipping the story and other bad stuff, like the cheesy boss battle against a giant troll, where you roll sideways as it idiotically charges forward and then hit it while it’s stunned. You know the one I’m talking about: you’ve already beat that boss eight million times. Even if you’ve never heard of Shadow of Mordor.

But the challenges are largely pointless as they are. Try to kill some guys within 40 minutes. What does that mean? Maybe a lot of luck; running around in circles in an Orc captain’s designated zone until you can finally see his red ass in Wraith mode. Then you either get a pathetically easy kill (which might be fun), or the enemy has resistances to everything and no fears, so you just gotta do a terrorize move to make his underlings flee, and then do the one sword combo that damages everybody, over and over, until he’s weak enough to be grabbed, or he dies. That’s not so terrible by the expectations of the story campaign, but it isn’t interesting enough to draw people back to the captain-hunting parts in Trials of War. I don’t need the captain fights to be Dark Souls boss battles, but dropping the QTEs and making combat a little less all-or-nothing would be a good start. Do some more stuff with strategic troop deployment. I occasionally got intel that certain captains would be rattled by the appearance of a specific rival Orc they hated, but I never really got to see that stuff. That could be another direction to take things in: taking people out in an order that lets you strategically exploit them more along the way. Or getting them to help you in very limited circumstances without mind control, because of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” type stuff, like with Ratbag in the story missions, but more dynamically.

Plus, even in the Trials of War section, you still have to start “missions” to attack certain targets, which clean the map of anything already on there. Logistically it makes things pretty simple, but it limits your ability to really try to break the game in the sort of way great games always allow, like luring a giant monster into the enemy camp before the fight breaks out. If you can fail a mission because you tried to walk over to something you wanted to interact with, and the game scolds you for going off the path, someone’s made a sequence of terrible design decisions.

There’s still a lot that’s appealing about the Orc captain mechanics. Enemies have names and personalities, even if you haven’t had the chance to learn them yet. A grunt kills you and suddenly you find out he has a name; he’s been promoted. He mocks you for having lost to him the last time around, which is an incredibly interesting thing to do with player death. Rewinding time whenever you fail something just isn’t fun. Shadow of Mordor shouldn’t have even had story missions.

The stakes could’ve been higher, though. It’s an easy game. You can advance time through death as much as you want. It’s not XCOM. The enemies aren’t going to get trolls with laser cannons mounted on top just because you died so much that you ended up in the month of Girithron. Thing is, you probably won’t die that much anyway. The game threw some captain at me at the end of the campaign and told me to fight my “nemesis”. I wasn’t sure if I remembered the guy. If he’d really foiled me all across the game, it would’ve meant more to see him there. I will say that it was oddly satisfying to nurture and protect my enemies until they were at max level so I could get better runes from killing them. If the sequel wanted to go all-out in a Harvest Moon: Orc Farmer direction, I think I’d be decently happy with that game, too.

There’s always more to complain about. The controls were awkward. Mashing two of the controller’s face buttons to do a special attack was awkward and unreliable. You’d be lucky to get the right guy with an auto-targeted grab. Getting up or down from a ledge could be frustrating. And the “going into the Wraith world” thing could have been a lot more than just a batman detective mode. It should have been your stealth, in place of your weirdly effective crouching.

But I can come away somewhat positive about the experience: after so many games where you can honestly feel a kind of malaise in dealing with an enemy who can hold you up for a while but isn’t worth killing at all, because you know they’ll automatically respawn when you turn the corner–Batman: Arkham City to name one clear offender–it feels nice to simply look at a list of 25 ugly dudes, mind-control them, and keep them from being easily replaced.

Plus you’re a ghost who can warp behind a sentry and suck the life out of him like a vampire, so that’s kind of neat too, I guess.

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.

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.

Mark of the Ninja: Special Edition

Mark of the Ninja is one of my favorite games with a pure emphasis on stealth, if not my all-time favorite among such. I like it more than the Thief games. I wouldn’t call it my favorite game that incorporates stealth mechanics, but it’s still very high praise. Stealth is one of my favorite genres.

There are exceptions, but stealth games tend to sit on one side of a spectrum with survival horror games as their opposite. I don’t mean in terms of mechanics; you often hide from stuff in survival horror. But in stealth games, you are the scary thing that everyone is afraid of. That’s a wonderful feeling. For example, playing Arkham Asylum and hearing a guard’s voice crack as he shouts into the darkness at Batman. That kind of thing is great. Mark of the Ninja is the same, letting you “terrorize” guards, usually by stringing up corpses. They’ll shoot their allies at a sudden sound, and be too distressed to remember to sound the alarm. I think of this as a sign that the developers have the sense of what makes a stealth game great.

Replayability is another cornerstone of the genre, and Mark of the Ninja lets you jump in mission-by-mission, aiming for challenges, collectibles, and high scores. You can replay a mission with new items, or a different outfit, which leads to completely different play styles. I think they should have incorporated speedrun challenges as a record that isn’t factored into the player’s high score, so that there’d be more of a reason to play with the kill-heavy styles: you always get the best scores by ghosting a level, so unless you’re doing a challenge, you tend to always want to pick the outfit that lets you blink around like you’re playing Dishonored, or the outfit that lets you run silently but has no sword. The Special Edition also adds an outfit that lets players silently knock out guards, and getting the ability to take guards out without taking penalties for kills is something that opens up all sorts of strategies. But it also makes the violent styles look even less appealing.

The game has another advantage over many stealth games by being two-dimensional, and being very communicative about where guards are and what they can see. The best stealth games are always really good about telling the player how well-hidden they are, usually with some kind of light meter. Mark of the Ninja gets a pretty good score on this front, but there were still occasional issues with the boundaries of light, and also with not fully understanding when an enemy would see me on top of a light fixture, or with the Sam Fisher cyborg ninjas at the end who could sort of sense what was behind them. This is of course more of a problem in New Game Plus, where the player is significantly blinded and needs direct line of sight on guards. For the most part, my feeling was that New Game Plus adds nothing and makes the mechanics a bit more frustrating. The game is generally on the easy side, so I was willing to go for the gold score medals on each stage in NG+, but since the game checkpoints constantly, it still wasn’t too tough at all. I had more fun and found more replay value just by playing around in old levels with different outfits and without the NG+ vision handicap.

The game was really polished and felt fluid and cool, but I had some occasional small issues. There was a problem with aiming throwing darts, where I’d need to be angling my control stick within a precise degree of the object I was trying to hit. If I could have just toggled between targets, that would’ve been a lot better. It was also a little finicky about whether I could hit lights from the inside of a vent, but no big deal. Sometimes I’d stealth-takedown a guard and the music would heat-up for a half second, and I wouldn’t understand until my score was being tabulated that it had counted as the guard noticing me and sounding an “alarm”. An emotional state of alarm? I don’t know.

The campaign is a good, satisfying length, although I wouldn’t have minded more of it. It might’ve been cool if checkpoints were handled differently: the game is somewhat smart about things like not repeating audio when you get sent back, but it still feels very trial-and-error and brute-forceable in terms of the player taking huge risks in impatiently jumping right over a guard’s head, but only getting sent back about ten seconds when that doesn’t work out. This is better than being forced to replay stuff you don’t want to do again, but it trivializes some of the tough parts. I think instead of the sensory handicap, NG+ should’ve tried fewer checkpoints, and also perhaps requiring the player to manually activate them, to allow for added personal challenges. Maybe allowing checkpointing only in places where you can switch your inventory–the specifics would obviously require some playtesting. I certainly have never complained about a checkpoint right before a trap instantly killed me, but rolling with the punches and being forced to occasionally kill a guard would’ve been good. It also would’ve been cool if alarms going off had a bigger impact on missions, even changing the player’s objectives slightly. That could be a nice ambition for a sequel.

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.

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.