Game reviews

Anthem is a dirge for game design

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This is Anthem. It’s super-suit barrel rolls, jet-assisted power punches, and raining fire from the sky. It’s exploring the ruins of a long-dead precursor race that created the world with a song. It’s sniping, machine gunning, and shotgunning your way through overwhelming odds. It’s bum-rushing bad guys while slamming them into a bulwark of steel. It’s holding the line against hordes of merciless enemies. It’s standing up and protecting a civilization on the brink. It’s BioWare taking the lessons learned in Mass Effect and applying them to a wholly original and exciting world. It’s a triumphant chorus.

This too is Anthem. It’s loading screens on loading screens on loading screens. It’s an inventory menu that you can’t access unless you’re home. It’s brain-dead enemies that sometimes forget they’re fighting you. It’s multiplayer that doesn’t care about synergy or tactics. It’s loot that bores you and doesn’t seem to matter until the end of the campaign. It’s non-player characters vomiting their life stories at you. It’s BioWare ignoring the lessons learned in the rest of gaming and throwing their hands up in surrender. It’s a sad trombone.

Which Anthem will sing to you?

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The unexpected nuance of White Tribe and its racist rump-colonial regime

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If you spend enough time playing wargames, you eventually start paying attention to the questions designers are trying to answer. Some seem to have no answer at all.  The “WW2 European Theater in an evening” problem has been out there for decades. Hitler’s Reich is the most recent one to strike out looking with a bewildered glance at the umpire. Sometimes answers come from unexpected directions, when talented designers change the question entirely so that the solution becomes obvious. Skies Above the Reich took what seemed to be an insoluble problem of solo daylight bombing over Germany, inverted the perspective, and wrapped it up in an impossibly neat package, like Fermat’s Last Theorem.

And sometimes the whole problem space shifts, and you don’t notice until the seismic disturbance knocks you over.

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In Worbital, no one can hear you giggle. Unless you’re playing with voice chat.

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I spend a lot of time moping around, mourning the death of traditional RTSs after everyone else has gone off to play some dumb MOBA.  I can’t even muster the energy to rail against MOBAs, because I’m too busy being dejected that Starcraft online would just be a string of humiliating defeats. I’m a lot fun at parties. At least it keeps me busy. Mourning the death of traditional RTSs is a full time job.

But sometimes I get a vacation.  Sometimes something like Infested Planet, Tooth and Tail, or Offworld Trading Company comes along and brings me a little joy.  Today is one such day.

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Blackstone Fortress has plenty of figures, but not much character

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The latest dungeon crawl to sprawl across my table is Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress, a hundred plus dollar monstrosity that Games Workshop has stooped to my level to offer.  That level being people who would play a Warhammer game, if not for the painting of a bunch of miniatures, the finding of a tape measure, and the task of pressing into service a friend who will then have to paint his own miniatures.  We can share a tape measure, however. If I were willing to go to those lengths and drag someone along with me, I’d be playing Netrunner regularly.

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Misunderstanding Terraforming Mars

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Terraforming Mars is a great boardgame about an economic engine that traffics in money, metals, and energy, which are then funneled into projects to gradually turn Mars from a barren red board into a host for scientific marvels, lush forests, teeming cities, and sparkling oceans. It’s one of those lovely marriages of theme and mechanics that most boardgames aspire to.

Sadly, it’s a terrible videogame. Continue reading →

Over Diablo III? Now that it’s on the Switch, I don’t think I’ll ever get over Diablo III.

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Here I am playing pretty much the exact same game a fifth time over. I first played Diablo III when it came out for the PC. Again when the Necromancer was added. Again for the Xbox 360. Again for the Playstation 4. And now for the Switch. Nothing has changed since the last time. And of course, none of my progress has been carried over because, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are like divorced parents who refuse to talk to each other, much less come together to support a single game. Everyone’s gotta be his own gatekeeper these days.

So, naturally, the ennui sets in quickly and I commence the dull slog through content I’ve already seen a hundred times, right?

As if. Continue reading →

Red Dead Redemption 2 and the love song of J. Arthur Morgan

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Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of homespun wisdom, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

–with apologies to T.S. Eliot

The camp is celebrating because one of the gang members has returned, rescued from certain death. A night of carousing has begun. Mary-Beth asks Arthur to dance. He’s not much of a fella for dancing, he tells her. Oh, it’s okay, Arthur, she says, just ’cause you dance don’t mean you’re not still angry and sad.

Is that what you think of me? he asks good naturedly.

Sad in a good way, like a romantic poet.

Well, that’s about all I can muster, he drawls. They dance in the firelight to a merry accordion.

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Strange Brigade is a rip-roaring thrill ride, but isn’t equipped to soldier on

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I’m not sure there’s anything particularly new or even special about Strange Brigade. You could call out its commitment to serial pulp adventures set in the 40s. Or, as it’s known these days, Indiana Jones. These characters and their weapons are the trappings of an era when a pilot was called an aviator and pith helmets weren’t ironic. Steamer trucks full of weapons and nary an assault rifle in sight. Zeppelins, tents and short wave radios at excavation sites of ancient Egyptian ruins, an incredibly annoying announcer trying his darndest to sound like announcers of yore. You gotta give developer Rebellion credit for their commitment to the aesthetic.

But really, Strange Brigade is the simple act of shooting powerful guns at monsters. And lobbing the occasional grenade. And even more occasionally popping off some magic power because, well, that might as well be in there if we’re going to have zombies and skeletons. For the most part it works splendidly. Simple, gratifying, quick, accessible, with a unique sense of character, to boot. So why have I stopped playing?

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Shadow of the Tomb Raider brings Lara Croft full circle

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“I’ve only got one chance at this,” Lara says urgently.

I’m lining her up to make a jump I know she’ll easily make. Why did Square Enix decide to make her say “I’ve got one chance at this”? First of all, it’s not true. I have literally unlimited chances. But this isn’t even a particularly tense moment. Yet someone at Square Enix’ Montreal studio wrote that line, someone told actress Camilla Luddington to say those words in the sound booth, and someone decided to put that audio bit in front of this jump, which is just another of the dozens upon dozens of unremarkable jumps in this insipid retread.

I shouldn’t have been thinking about a dumb line at that point in the game. The climax was in high gear. Serious action was supposedly happening. The fate of the world was hanging in the balance, or something. I should have been caught up in the game. The line should have tapped into my sense of urgency at getting Lara where she needed to be. But by this point, I had been hate-playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider for some time, the same way I hate-watched Walking Dead or Lost. I’ve come this far. Might as well see it through.

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Space Base flushes Machi Koro out the airlock

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Machi Koro sure is cute. The quaint fields, orchards, bakeries, and cafes. The sushi bar and flower stand and pizza joint. Even when it gets serious with tax offices, furniture factories, and airports, it’s still cute. It refuses to be anything other than a lightweight opportunity for a few folks to roll dice and pass around cardboard coins. Someone eventually gathers enough cardboard coins to finish his city. Presumably fun was had.

What I appreciate most about Machi Koro is how every turn is everyone’s turn. In other games, the act of rolling dice is something you do for yourself. It’s my turn, it’s my roll, the number is my result. You’ll get your own result from your own roll on your own turn. The simple twist in Machi Koro is that although we take turns rolling, the result is for all of us. If you roll the right number, you’ll activate my buildings. This means there’s technically no down time, that it’s always everyone’s turn. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do pacing right.

But with Space Base, the concept really takes off. Continue reading →

Daybreak is precisely what State of Decay 2 didn’t need

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Among the many great things about the first State of Decay was its post-release support. The Breakdown DLC added infinite replayability to the core game along with progressively greater difficulty as you got further, with unlockable characters along the way. It very nearly turned State of Decay into a rogue-like. But that was five years ago, before we were kicking the term “rogue-like” around so freely. Then the Lifeline DLC shifted the tone, action, setting, and progression someplace new, with new kinds of characters who played the game differently. So what happened with State of Decay 2 that we get this new Daybreak DLC?

Daybreak is nothing you haven’t seen before, done better. It adds a four-player horde mode, played on a single unimaginative map, as a drawn-out and repetitive slog to unlock gear to draw out the repetitive slog even further. Along the way, bits of gear might trickle into your actual State of Decay game. But your time would be better spent just playing State of Decay 2 to find more stuff instead of grinding away at this half-baked horde mode to discover, oh, look, I got a new kind of hammer in Daybreak that now I can buy in State of Decay 2. Frankly, I would have been more excited by unlockable hats.

Daybreak is always and only four players, so if you can’t find an online game, some bots will tag along. They better because there’s no adjustable difficulty or variable challenge levels. You just live through the same number of waves, comprised of the same creatures, throwing themselves at the same wall, with the same clock counting down the same amount of time, culminating in the same cluster of superzombies with their thousand hit points, every time you play. Every single time. Each like the last. Except maybe you have a new type of shotgun or grenade. If you want State of Decay minus the expansive maps, dynamic crises, characters with personality, and constant threat of the unknown, Daybreak is for you!

However, please make sure you haven’t played Metal Gear Solid: Survive, Strange Brigade, Fortnite, or any of the other games actually designed to do zombie horde modes. Daybreak is glaringly bare bones compared to the game designs it’s aping. It chugs along, herkyjerky and weirdly clumy, trying to do something it wasn’t built to do. I have yet to have a smooth multiplayer experience in State of Decay 2. Yet someone at Undead Labs or Microsoft is intent on making it a selling point.

Previously, Undead Labs’ approach to State of Decay has been to embrace what makes it unique, to double-down on the idea of open-world resource management and community survival, with zombies, vehicles, and a vivid sense of place. It stands apart from Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil, 7 Days to Die, and anything else with zombies. But Daybreak feels like it was made by someone who has no clue what makes State of Decay special. This $10 DLC has no interest in standing apart, much less participating in State of Decay’s unique identity. Instead, it plays like a weak attempt to pander to people who aren’t playing State of Decay, leaving the rest of us to wonder what happened.

Skies Above the Reich flies circles around the competition

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Sometimes one new idea can stifle decades of opportunities. Solitaire wargames were almost unknown when On Target Games — basically a one-man operation in West Allis, WI — published B-17: Queen of the Skies back in 1981. A game you played yourself, by rolling dice and generating a narrative about your bomber crew, was oddly compelling in an era when many gamers were forced to solo games for lack of opponents. Avalon Hill saw the obvious potential and acquired it, and published a much nicer-looking version in 1983. Despite the fact that it was, as Greg Costikyan described it at GDC in 2009, “little more than a series of tables on which the player rolls dice,” it seemed to have some essential magic that designers chased for years. Thirty-five years later, in 2018, Legion Wargames released Target for Today, an essentially “upgraded” version of B-17 (after having published a similar bomber-centric game, B-29 Superfortress, in 2011). In between, games like Patton’s Best and The Hunters — and others — helped codify the “story through charts and tables” design school that exempted designers from having to think too hard.

The idea of piloting a bomber through a series of missions is such an obvious story hook that there have been plenty of cardboard and digital entrants in the genre, from 50 Mission Crush to B-17: The Mighty Eighth to the very recent Bomber Crew. But tabletop depictions of the skies above wartime Germany can’t recreate the frantic action of air combat the way a digital game can, so boardgame designers have anchored their games in the desire for mission-to-mission progression, flying repeatedly over the terrain of occupied Europe in an attempt to weave stories out of the unvarying path of a single aircraft.

The key realization that Jeremy White (designer of The Dambuster Raid and The Doolittle Raid solitaire games) and Mark Aasted, designers of Skies Above the Reich, forced on me was that there was nothing wrong with following a bomber on a series of missions. There was, in fact, nothing wrong with following a bunch of bombers on a bunch of missions, as Dan Verssen’s B-17: Flying Fortress Leader and Erik von Rossing’s A Wing and a Prayer did. The problem was the missions themselves: as soon as you knew where you were going, your bombers just had to take off and go there. Meaning you could react to events, but couldn’t drive them. But who could possibly drive events in a game about the bombing of Germany? The bombers are certainly a designer’s last hope.

No. There is another. Continue reading →

Cue Moondance for Victor Vran on the Switch. No, seriously, cue Moondance.

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Of all the action RPGs out there — sheesh, there are a bunch of them! — you’ll find plenty that know how to situate the mindlessness of hack-and-slash in a larger and less mindless context. Soldak’s Zombicide drops you into evolving worlds to navigate a web of creatures and factions chasing their own agendas. The hand-made geography of Grim Dawn, a game built to encourage you to explore its nooks and crannies, trumps any procedural arrangement of dungeon tiles under forest paths next to castle walls. The intricacy of a Path of Exile character build, wending its way through that ridiculously complex chart, like some advanced celestial navigation. The breadth, personality, and dynamism Guild Wars 2 brings to traditional MMO world-building.

All of these action RPGs offer compelling reasons to wade through potentially repetitive slaughter to level up a character. They all understand how to answer the question “Why?”. But none of them compares to Diablo when it comes to the moment-to-moment hack-and-slash. The animation, the rhythm, the variety, the information-rich chaos. Where the blade meets the bone, where the arrow meets the artery, where the fireball meets the flesh, that’s where Blizzard truly excels. The why of Diablo falls away before the glory of its what.

And then there’s Victor Vran. Continue reading →

Gladius learns all the right lessons from all the wrong Civilizations

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It’s clear early on what game the Gladius developers have been playing. And not just from the interface. Not even from the fact that you start with a settler and two warriors. But from the way it gallops apace. The turns tick-tock along with the nearly clockwork drumbeat of your thumb on the spacebar. This needs your attention, then that, then this, then you’re done with the turn. Spacebar, spacebar, spacebar. Units then cities then end turn. Thumb thumb thumb from units to cities to end turn. Units to cities to end turn. Units to cities to end turn. Units to cities to tech tree to end turn. Units to cities to end turn. It’s a steady sequence, designed so that the act of playing is rhythm and the act of not playing is dissonance. Why would you want to mess up that rhythm? It would be more natural to keep playing than to stop playing. Units to cities to end turn.

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Sol: Last Days of a Star throws a graceful apocalypse party and everyone’s invited

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The premise of Sol: Last Days of a Star is that the sun is about to go supernova. She’s gonna blow any moment and you’ve got to beat feet, which is no mean feat, given that suns are a real drag. All that gravity, you know. Your only hope is to harvest sun energy to build up momentum to slip the fiery bonds of Sol.

The sun machine is coming down and there’s gonna be a party. Continue reading →