Category Archives: Xbox

Best Games of 2015

Somehow I managed to play 30 games that were released in 2015. That made coming up with a top 5 list a bit difficult. But, I managed to to do it. Here’s my video about the best games of the year.

If you’re not one for videos, here’s the list.

  1. Pillars of Eternity
  2. Ori and the Blind Forest
  3. Rise of the Tomb Raider
  4. Until Dawn
  5. Tales from the Borderlands

And since 5 is so few, there are a couple honorable mentions

  1. Stasis
  2. Wolfenstein: The Old Blood
  3. Witcher 3

What were your favourite games of the year?

What I’m Playing This Week

I’ve played a lot of games over the past week or so (surprise). There was a Steam sale on and though I should be saving for Christmas, I gave myself a small budget to knock a few things off my wishlist.

Here’s what I’ve been playing…

Fallout 4

It’s finally over. It started out well, but eventually turned into a real slog. That happens with all the open world games, really. I may write up a real review of this one soon.

Dead in Bermuda

I started playing this game on a Friday night and basically didn’t stop playing until Saturday night, aside from a few hours of sleep. This game has a “just one more turn” factor, like Civ.  You play as a group of 8 people who have crashed on a desert island. While doing the normal resource management stuff – finding food, crafting, gathering materials – you also explore the island and run into some mysterious beings who mention a prophecy that you can fulfill which will grant you the power to escape the island. The goal is to find out more and fulfill the prophecy before you all die from starvation, injury, sickness, or from throwing yourselves off a cliff. The encounters while you explore the island are quite amusing, and each day ends with a discussion among the characters which may have implications on their physical and mental state.

Dead in Bermuda

The game is really attractive with a nice, clean interface. It’s not overly complex once you get the hang of it, and it does save your progress each day do you don’t necessarily have to start over if everyone dies. A big part of the game is leveling up the characters. There are 16 different skills that all impact some element of the game in some way – people with high gathering skills find more materials, people with high constitution get less fatigued.

There’s not a ton of incentive for replay, as it seems very little of the game is randomized aside from exactly where things are located and a few character interactions. Hawever, I had a lot of fun with it. I recommend it to those of you who are looking for a good survival/resource management game that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Jade Empire

After all the Bioware talk last month, I felt the need to play the one game from them I’d never tried – Jade Empire. It’s from the same era at Knights of the Old Republic, and it feels very similar. Rather than a user of the Force, you play as a Spirit Monk. Your village gets attacked at the start of the game, your teacher (who seems to be more than he appeared) disappears and you have to go find him to find out the truth about who you are and why you have strange powers.

As expected, the story and interactions with companions are the highlight of the game and there are a lot of interesting sidequests. The combat in the game is quite different than any of Bioware’s other games though. It’s mainly melee combat and each fight is a balance of weak and strong attacks, blocking and dodging. There are multiple different fighting styles and you can switch between them freely. I’m really enjoying this and it’s making me want to replay KOTOR.

Morningstar: Descent to Deadrock

I’m a sucker for an adventure game (or any game) set in space, so picked this one up not too long ago. It’s an okay point and click adventure. Your aim in the game is to repair your ship which has crash landed on a mysterious planet. The story is decent, as are the controls. It does run into the adventure game problem of having a bit too much inventory to deal with – it seems like it could have been reduced for clarity (i.e. do we need both a steel pipe and a steel rod to solve problems?) This resulted in some mindless attempts at combining objects to get past certain puzzles. Also, the voice acting of the main character wasn’t great. Overall it wasn’t bad, but I don’t really recommend this one.

Banished

Banished is a city building strategy game. While I generally like strategy games, this one made me realize how little patience I have for learning complex new games. There are so many features and things to build, it was overwhelming. After spending 20 minutes doing one tutorial and realizing there were 4 or 5 more to go, I decided this probably wasn’t the game for me.

BRoken Sword: Shadow of the Templars

It doesn’t really feel like it, but this point and click adventure game is 20 years old. It follows George, an American lawyer, and Nico, a French journalist as they solve a mystery that involves intrigue, murder, and Templars. I surprised I hadn’t played any of the Broken Sword games earlier, as I love adventure games and I was playing a lot of them when this first game out.

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the TemplarsThe game has it’s good and bad points. The writing is clever and well done, though occasionally too verbose.The puzzles are hit and miss. I had actually started this earlier in the year but quit after the first series of puzzles, which were particularly bad. It started with a sliding block puzzle – not a bad puzzle, sliding blocks are just my personal kryptonite – followed by a ridiculous inventory puzzle that involved using a bullet casing for pretty much everything and a lot of back and forth in order to get into a secret room.

I’m glad I came back to it, as the rest has been pretty good and there have been different puzzle types, like ciphers, which I’m particularly fond of. I think I bought the whole series at one point, and I’ll likely continue on with them when I’ve finished this.

What have you been playing?

Rise of the Tomb Raider review

I’ve apparently forgotten how to write. So, here’s a video review of Rise of the Tomb Raider!

Fallout (4 ) Never Changes – First Impressions

I’ve put about 10 hours into Fallout 4 over this weekend. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the time it will take to complete the game, but I think it’s enough to get a handle on the positives and negatives of this new iteration of Fallout. I’m not writing a full review – I haven’t finished yet, and writing a review of an open world game sounds terrible. However, I do have some assorted  thoughts on the game.

2877208-fallout4_upt2015_20150603_v2

  1. Character creation. For the first time in Fallout my character isn’t an ugly, blurry mess. Borrowing from DAI’s face sculpting tools, you can actually create a decent looking character in this game.
  2. Setup. For the first time, we get to see what things were like before the bombs fell. It’s brief, but we are introduced to our character and their partner and child just minutes before they’re ushered into a Vault and the nukes go off. It’s nice to have a minute to appreciate Fallout’s distinct aesthetic in its prime before the world becomes a Wasteland.
  3. Story. The game tries to give us a more urgent and personal story from the get-go, but it doesn’t succeed. As we wake up in the Vault we see our infant son get kidnapped, so we go out to find him. However once you leave the vault and get a glimpse of the wasteland, all thoughts of the creepy baby are quickly pushed aside, as exploration is much more appealing. Sure, you can tell people in conversation that you’re looking for your baby, but so far I’ve gone 10 hours without following that particular story thread. There’s no emotional attachment there and frankly it’s just not that interesting.
  4. Urgency. There really isn’t any. At least so far. However, this is a problem with pretty much all open world games, so I won’t hold it too much against Fallout 4.
  5. Voices. For the first time, the protagonist is voiced. This is a very welcome change, though the performance of the female protagonist so far is not particularly inspiring. It’s not bad, but she’s certainly no Commander Shepard. Partially this is due to the writing – the dialogue is sparse and to the point. Though there is usually a sarcastic response option.
  6. Storytelling. Where I’ve always thought the modern Fallout games excel is visual and environmental storytelling. It’s not the big arc, it’s the small ones. It’s stumbling upon a sidequest while you’re on another mission, seeing a skeleton in a car and piecing together what happened, hacking into terminals to find the real story behind a location. Fallout 4 continues to excel at this.
  7. Robots. This game is full of sassy robots, who are full of personality. Not just your companion Cogsworth, there are many robots to meet in the Wasteland.
  8. Combat. VATS is still great, the rest of combat is still kinda shit. Though I’ve been reading in other reviews that the FPS combat has improved, I’m not really seeing it. Especially at the beginning of the game when most enemies rush into melee range, I don’t find the shooting mechanics are very good.
  9. Companions. Companions are quite helpful in combat when it comes to killing things. However, they’re also in the way. Like, all the time. Going down a narrow corridor? There they are, blocking you. Trying to shoot something at a distance? They’ll become an obstacle. If anything, I think this problem may be worse here than in previous games.
  10. Explosions. One of my biggest frustrations in previous Fallout games was that I’d often get blown up in combat, and have no idea where the explosion came from. Though they have added a little icon to tell you when a grenade is near, I still get caught in mystery explosions way more than is necessary.
  11. Saving. You can quicksave your game anywhere, though autosaving doesn’t happen as often as I’d like.
  12. Crafting. Fallout 4 has introduced a rather robust crafting system where you can modify your weapons and armor. It’s an enjoyable addition so far, and it’s nice to customize things to suit your playstyle or visual preferences.
  13. Workshop. Your home in the Wasteland can be built up to our specifications through the Workshop. While initially I didn’t think this was something I’d like, I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time with it. You can build beds, new houses, plant crops, build water pumps – everything a growing Wasteland settlement needs. People you help through the game will join your settlements. It is fun to build, though the game’s engine isn’t ideal for it. Placing objects is awkward. Some kind of overhead or simplified view of things would be great. You can build electric systems to power your base, but it isn’t explained very well. The best part of this is that all the junk you find in the Wasteland – the clipboards, the old telephones – can be used to build things rather than just as vendor fodder.
    One thing I’m not liking as I go through the game is that every place where you help people can be turned into a base, with a workshop for you to build up. While making one wasteland sanctuary sounds fun, making a dozen sounds like a huge timesink. I haven’t figured out what, if anything, happens when you ignore these bases. Does it matter if they don’t have enough food or defence?
  14. Exploration. I’ve been pretty burnt out on open world games lately and I have to say, exploration in Fallout 4 is 100x more enticing than it was in games like Witcher 3 or Dragon Age: Inquisition. Part of this is due to the simplicity of the map. You see icons for major landmarks, but not every single place where you can gather a resource or fight a camp of raiders. So there’s mystery. There’s a reason to explore. It’s not just a matter of ticking off every box on the map. I’m sure there will be many little locations and items that I’ll never find. And that’s okay. The locations I do find are interesting, full of great visuals and stories that don’t need to be explicitly spelled out.
  15. Finding things. At the beginning of the game I found it really hard to locate items. So many games I’ve been playing recently help the player by highlighting objects of interest in some way, and Fallout doesn’t do this. Now that I’m a few hours in, I’ve gotten used to it, and it makes things feel less game-y.
  16. Text. Fallout has some of the best in-game text entries. RPGs are generally full of lore and codex entries, books and letters. I hate reading them. In Fallout most text is found on terminals, and I read every word. Text entries are put in the right places. It’s not just general knowledge or lore, these entries tell you about the places you are in  and the people who live (or have lived) there. They often tell a story from multiple points of view, they can contain hints of where to find item stashes, point you to other interesting locations. Log entries tend to be darkly humorous and the fact that you often have to hack into these terminals to find the information just makes it that much more intriguing. Reading information in Fallout feels like reading someone’s journal, not like reading a textbook.
  17. Overall. Fallout 4 feels like Fallout. The good parts of Fallout 3 are there – the exploration, environment, the storytelling within particular locations, the dark humour. And the bad parts are still there – the combat is mediocre, it doesn’t look as good as other current games, the story doesn’t have any urgency. Though some new mechanics have been added, I don’t find that the existing ones have been improved much. I wouldn’t want a ton to change, but it’s been five years since New Vegas, some refinements would be nice.

If you prefer videos, I’ve also done a mini video review. It covers some of the same stuff, and includes some gameplay footage.

Dragon Age: Injudicious

Dragon Age: Inquisition was one of my favorite games of the year last year. It had its shortcomings to be sure, but there was enough sweet story and charming interactions with other characters to make up for it. Plus, it was a Dragon Age game!

I played through the game once. However, it was a 300 hour playthrough. I did everything. I always meant to play again. I wanted to choose the Templars instead of the mages, I wanted to have another romance (or 7), I wanted to let the Chargers die and leave Hawke in the Fade. I want to find out who the hell this Blackwall guy is that I totally missed. But, after 300 hours of playing I needed a nice, long break from the game.

I finally went back to it this past week when the Trespasser DLC was released. I picked up all three of the DLC packs and hopped back in. I started with Jaws of Hakkon. This was a mistake. I wish I never played (or paid for) this content. The few hours of gameplay it offered put a spotlight on all of the annoying aspects of the game and offered none of the good parts. It also made me re-examine the game as a whole.

We all know where Dragon Age shines. It’s in the conversations, friendships, romances, and rivalries with your companions. It’s in the choices you make and seeing the results of those choices in the world. It’s in the banter. It’s in shaping an Inquisitor into what you want her to be. The rest, looking back at the game a year later, is kind of shit. Open world was a huge mistake. Adding the ability to jump (and making it use the same button as interactions) introduced all kinds of annoyances. Collection quests are bullshit. Inventory management and the crafting process are annoying (even if the gear is pretty). The codex… fuck the codex, I shouldn’t have to read a novel to understand what’s going on. Making your average conversation with an NPC have a free-roaming camera instead of fixed, more “cinematic” fixed camera angles make conversations feel cold and unengaging. Combat could be okay, if every fight didn’t take a million years and feel exactly the same. Also, I’m pretty sure this game gave me a repetitive strain injury from clicking left stick every 3 seconds to look for items.

DAI map

There’s just so much shit to get through in order to get the parts that make the game worthwhile. Jaws of Hakkon just added another huge, open map with more shards to collect and too much combat and travel time, with nary a glimpse of what makes Dragon Age charming. And it made me realize…that’s what 90% of my experience with the main game was.

I continued on to play through the other DLC. The Descent was good. It didn’t fall into the same traps that Hakkon did. It was nice and linear, there was more story and interaction with other characters. I actually got to see close ups of characters I was talking to during conversations. There was still some shitty collecting of gears but there was an actual purpose to it (opening doors) and you didn’t need to get every single one. It did have a lot of boring combat and for some reason there are no walls in the Deep Roads, meaning I Leaping Shot to my death about a billion times. If you don’t play an archer, Leaping Shot is the most fun and visually appealing ability, plus it makes noise like bowling pins being knocked over, so not using it is not a reasonable option. However, the DLC was decent. Some of the Dragon Age Charm was there.

Trespasser is the last story DLC so I expected a lot of story. For the most part I got it. It had a number of charming bits. Seeing my companions again after so long was nice. Though when I met up with my boo Cullen, I said hello then 3 seconds later we were married. That was a bit jarring. It was great to go to the theater with Josephine and the spa with Vivienne, to hear the bard sing again. Then there was a bunch more combat in more high up areas with no walls. Lots of falling. The end was alright, though it’s the narration during the credits that ended up being my favourite part of the whole thing. Cassandra’s great. Makes me almost want to play the game again to romance her.

However, I think I’m done with my Inquisition experience. Going back for the DLC made realized just how much useless, un-fun filler is in the game and I just can’t bring myself to take part in that again. No matter how much I want to kiss all my companions.

The Witcher 3 – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (part 3)

I’ve talked about the more negative aspects of The Witcher 3, and now it’s time to move on to what makes it great.

Side quests

The Witcher 3 features hundreds of side quests – secondary quests, contracts, treasure hunts. What sets them apart from so many other RPGs is that they’re almost all interesting. There are no grindy, MMO-style kill or collection quests to be found here. Dragon Age: Inquisition (which I loved, but also has its share of problems) offered a ton of side quests too, but I often found myself asking – why am I doing this (other than for XP)? And I often couldn’t really find an answer. If it wasn’t collecting objects, it was a dozen quests that came from dead bodies. Meaningless filler.

The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt crone side quest

With The Witcher, I know why I’m doing the quests. Each one has a story, has a believable NPC that asks for your help. The information unravels as you progress, rather than dumping a bunch of exposition on you and sending you on your way. I see relationships develop between characters I probably won’t ever see again, experiences the foibles of the locals, get glimpses into the lives and deceptions of the people in Velen. It makes the world come alive, and even more importantly, makes me enjoy doing side quests rather than just going through the motions.

Even monster contracts, which could have been a simple matter of killing and returning to the quest giver, have a fair amount of depth. You much research the beast, track it, and use its weaknesses against it in order to defeat it. Many often feature an interesting, and usually sad, story.

Conversations and Decisions

The world of The Witcher is a morally grey one. There are a lot of decisions to be made, big and small, and often there’s no explicitly right or wrong answer. You may think you’re doing the good thing but it backfires, hurting people in the process. You usually end up choosing the lesser of two evils. I like that the game skips the twee icons or colour coding used by Bioware. The game doesn’t feel the need to explicitly say: “this is the sassy response, here’s the angry one, this is the romantic conversation option,” or tell you what it thinks is the pragmatic vs. sympathetic option. The dialogue options in The Witcher seem much more natural, and usually don’t put the burden of worrying what your companions will think on you.

Unlike many RPGs, The Witcher isn’t about saving the world. Geralt is a character who ultimately wields no political power, commands no armies. Witchers are supposed to be neutral. They kill monsters, take jobs for money. There’s no underlying pressure to do the “right thing” (aside from what the player’s own moral code may dictate). Being immersed in a world full of politics and intrigue without being the one in charge is actually quite a freeing gameplay experience.

Sex

The Witcher’s handling of sex gets better and better. As I mentioned in my first post, I like that The Witcher series features sex, and I like how it’s portrayed as a fun thing to do, rather than the path to everlasting love and devotion.

Here’s an experience I had with the game that I really enjoyed (minor spoilers for one side quest follow). In Novigrad we meet Rosa van Attre, one of the daughters of a Nilfgaardian diplomat. Through not totally honest means, I (Geralt) become her fencing instructor. She’s eager to learn, I’m good with swords, maybe something will come of this. Throughout the interactions with her, she’s a bit flirty. I teach her some things, and don’t go easy on her when she wants to have a real dual. She keeps talking about her corset pinching, and I’m thinking: wow, she totally wants me. As the quest winds down, I’m thinking I’m about to score and one final dialogue option appears. I say something which runs totally contrary to her political ideals, and she drops me like a bad habit. And it’s awesome. Maybe I should have said something else. Maybe sex was never on the table at all, and I was misreading the situation. If this was The Witcher 1, I would have given her what she wanted and she would have had sex with me. For sure. It seems CDPR has been learning some restraint over the years.

Character Design

The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt NPCs

You meet hundreds of characters throughout the game, and their facial designs are impeccable. They’re all so different. Some have lined and world weary faces. Some are conventionally attractive, many are far from it. With so many characters it would be easy for all but the major ones to blend together, but it’s obvious that CDPR put a lot of time and effort into making even minor characters look unique and realistic to the situation they’re in. Many games reuse the same few faces, the same flawless complexions, the same handful of hair styles, but not The Witcher 3. Characters are much more memorable when they don’t all look the same.


 

Have you been playing Witcher 3? What do you think?

The Witcher 3: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (part 2)

Creating a game with a huge open world like The Witcher leaves a lot of room for error. When the world is so big, the systems are numerous and complex, and there is so much to do and see, it’s not easy to capture every issue in QA nor please everyone with the decisions made. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of issues.

The Bad

Saves

Let’s start with the big one. I’m playing on XBox One and there’s an issue where the game will just stop saving your progress. Autosave won’t trigger, trying to manually save will return a message saying you can’t save at this time. If you die during this time, the game hangs indefinitely on the load screen. I’ve run into this 3 times and each time ended up losing a couple hours of gameplay. The cause seems to be allowing your game to get suspended, either by leaving it running with no activity or using another game/application without quitting the game. A hard reset is required to fix it. Now that I know the cause I can avoid it, and the developers have said they’re working on a patch, but still – this is really bad.

Accessibility

There are a number of easily fixable accessibility issues. For such a big world, a lot of things are really small.  The font size for text is tiny. It’s likely okay on PC, but as someone who plays on console and sitting 8 feet away from the TV, I really have to strain to read things. The subtitles for speech aren’t so bad, but it’s very difficult to read anything in the menus. Thankfully, this is something that will be patched soon. There’s also a bit of an issue with the symbols on the map. Areas you haven’t completed are indicated by a white symbol, while places you’ve finished are indicated by a slightly darker kind of grey, but really still looks white, because it’s so small symbol.

The Witcher 3 - map

I’m also a bit annoyed that the zone maps are so large that there are (many) times when you can’t zoom out far enough to see both your current location and your objective at the same time. The above image shows the zone map fully zoomed out, and it only shows about a quarter of the zone. Plus, if you zoom out any further, you end up on the world map and annoyingly have to reselect the zone to go back.

Combat

Combat is clunky. I know this isn’t necessarily an opinion shared by all, but I find the animations for each sword swing overly long and you need to wait until they’re completed before you can do anything else. This results in me furiously spamming my Sign button as I’m fighting, trying to finish off a sword strike with some fire to the face, and the game just not responding. It gets worse when you fight multiple enemies as they often come up and hit from behind while you’re still finishing your swing on another opponent and there’s nothing you can do about it. When things are going smoothly it’s not so noticeable but when you’re surrounded or against a tougher enemy, it seems like there’s a frustrating delay between each action.

One thing they did in this game is have Geralt automatically draw the correct sword for the opponent he’s fighting, which is great. When it works. About 5% of the time I find Geralt won’t draw any sword (especially if combat starts after a cutscene) and he’ll just start punching things. The clunky combat is really noticeable here, as if you instinctively do an attack when combat starts, you need to wait for the animation to complete before the game will respond to your command to draw a sword.

UI

The Witcher 3 - inventory screen

Most games, but huge open world RPGs in particular, really need better UI design. The Witcher 3 is no exception. Let’s start with the inventory screen. What a mess. First, there are just way too many items. I just counted and I have 183 items in my Alchemy and Crafting tab. There’s no custom sorting. There’s no search. It’s just a page full of stuff I know very little about.The huge amount of items in The Witcher doesn’t benefit the game in any way. I don’t need to pick up broken rakes or empty vials to be immersed in the world, they really just add clutter. Likewise, it would be easy enough to have fewer herbs and magical ingredients and just use the remaining in more recipes. At the moment I have 16 green mutagens in my inventory. Why? And why aren’t they all at least grouped together in my inventory? Do we really need both leather scraps and leather straps? You can craft or disassemble one into the other, so it makes me question why the need for that extra step.

When it comes to vendors one of my biggest complaints, that I’ve have for the whole series, is that the game gives you no indication if you already have a recipe or a book when you see it for sale. Reading books will often add entries to your bestiary or markers to the map, but only the first time you read it. Since there are dozens (maybe hundreds) of books in the game, it’s hard to keep track of what you’ve already read and what is worth buying. I probably waste a lot of money because of this.

A few other things

It’s nice to have an equine companion in game, but Roach sure is fussy. He listens to your commands when he feels like it, but bridges or changes in terrain will often make him come to a standstill. Also, Geralt’s verbal commands (slower, faster) often don’t even remotely correspond to my inputs.

Repairs. What a chore and a gold sink, especially at the start of the game when gold is hard to come by. Give me convenience over realism any day.

The Witcher 3 - lighting candles

And then there are the candles. So many candles and you can light, or extinguish, all of them! Sometimes the candles are right beside an object you’d like to pick up, or a person you’d like to talk to. It’s no fun having to re-position your camera until you can finally interact with the right thing, rather than playing with a stupid candle over and over again. In the above picture, the candle is laying across a book. Why would I want to light that?! Unless there’s a ‘burn the house down’ objective, don’t let me interact with this. This is going to be patched soon – “Geralt will not longer interact with candles near chests and other interactive elements.” Really, I don’t see a need to be able to interact with candles at all. Light a brazier or torch in a dark dungeon – sure. Candles in houses? No thanks.


Most of these issues aren’t huge, but put together they result in a lot of frustration. Hopefully upcoming patches will resolve a few of these but I have to say, when I buy a game on release day I expect a finished product.

All is not lost, next time I’ll talk about all the things I love about The Witcher 3.