The Morning Bell Podcast 2016: In Review

 IMG_1910.JPG
As befits review, I’d like to give honorable mention to a new addition to our little team: this year we welcomed on a new co-host, Ian (pictured above on the left), and he’s been a pretty swell (I think) chap to have along. Joel tells me he’s Luke v2.0, so maybe I’m getting the sack, but Ian’s fun enough to have along that you’d probably not really notice if that happened (#silentfarewell). Well, fear not, I’m not gone yet!
I’ve found The Morning Bell Podcast to be quite a fantastic opportunity. We get to talk to all kinds of writers, editors, publishers, developers and more about the cogs and gears of their jobs. It’s insightful stuff, and it’s all done in a laid-back, friendly atmosphere that lets everyone feel comfortable. We don’t (except on special occasions) dissect pieces of writing at great length; we converse about topics that (usually) are right up the guest-of-the-week’s alley, so that we can provide you (and ourselves) with a trove of interesting inside knowledge. Some days that means talking about what makes dystopian fiction so attractive to contemporary audiences; some days that means talking about how to write game narrative (and how different it is to normal prose); other days that means discussing subjects like relatability and inclusiveness in novels. It’s a lot of fun picking experienced people’s brains for information. I hope you guys find it as interesting as we do!
Joel is the dedicated constant of the podcast. Always there, always answering emails, always reliable and approachable, always making sure everything flows smoothly and everyone remembers when and where to go, setting up and maintaining the equipment – and then formatting and publishing the podcasts as well. My hat (if I wore one) well and truly off to him.
If there’s one thing I would like to see happen next year with the podcast, it’s some kind of industry funding. There are plenty of funds and grants that apply to what we do, and Joel (more than the rest of us) puts in so much work and money that I think he really deserves to get some back – but funding for The Morning Bell Podcast wouldn’t be as much about cash as it would be about career recognition by the arts industry. Whether or not that happens, though, Joel will soldier on and you’ll all get to keep hearing awesome interviews with interesting people.
All the best for the new year, and see you there.

Guild Wars 2

GW2_Logo

It’s time to tackle a big one. An MMORPG. Take a deep breath and relax.

To be fair, I’m going to approach Guild Wars 2 as a sequel to Guild Wars 1, even though the gameplay differs quite a lot. I’ve followed the trek of the Guild Wars teams since just after Eye of the North was released, and I racked up ~2k hours in the original before its sequel came out.

As a sequel to Guild Wars 1, the opening of Guild Wars 2 was a trip through story lane; lots of things happened and lots of things changed in the world. Many lands became inaccessible through politics or other means. Some kingdoms isolated themselves. Some races got over their differences (this began in Eye of the North). Some places (like Lion’s Arch) remained in the game for nostalgic/historical purposes. Lore-wise, the intro presented a pretty reasonable and curiosity-raising transition.

A few minutes into the game, it becomes chillingly apparent that you are (apart from the occasional human you bump into) completely alone. This is less troubling in explorable areas, but story gameplay and the very way your skills are designed beg the question: where did all our little AI party buddies go? It was quickly made clear that to survive, we would need to rely on a single, profession-specific self-heal skill. No tanking DPS while a monk tops us up, no making conditions backfire on casters, and very limited capacity for restoring party health. Guild Wars 2 is a lone-wolf design. Sort of. More on that later.

Guild Wars 2 tried, somewhat over-ambitiously, to market the idea that each player could (to paraphrase) have a different story. It’s neat that they thought so, but it simply didn’t happen. The game is an MMO, which logically cannot provide different stories to its players. Not unless a lot more thought is put into the design. Sure, you can branch out and choose which race to play as (this gives you about two hours of slightly disconnected story gameplay) and then the sub-faction you want to follow the main story with. This allows you to hear slightly different conversations, but the gist and the plot remains pretty much identical to every other player’s. Don’t get me wrong – it was a neat idea, and I pick the The Vigil every single time – it just can’t feel as organic as it was marketed, because if your world instance looked different from other people’s, synchronization of the MMO world would be pretty tricky.

Dungeons are strange things. They’re fundamental to the MMO experience, and they’re challenges for the semi-educated gamers to hone their co-ordination and tactics… but I’m not convinced that GW2’s combat system is designed for them. I’ve yet to see a dungeon taken conventionally (okay, I did see it happen once, but I’m not sure if players are supposed to die quite that often in any game except Dark Souls). Dungeons are run using hack-style mechanics, like stacking in tiny corners or pulling single enemies at a time and praying (with crossed fingers) that ArenaNet has not buffed the dungeon mobs yet again. With the recent expansion, dungeons also (for no apparent reason) became unprofitable. When both unsupported by combat mechanics and unprofitable… dungeons became unpopular places. I’m not sure if ArenaNet quite understands that players choose to use hacks simply because the experience isn’t fun to play conventionally. They certainly didn’t realize people were primarily running dungeons for the gold.

To support my concerns regarding dungeon combat in GW2, I ought to discuss the combat system next. Combat changed heaps between GW 1 and 2. Some of the changes made things smoother – combat flows better in GW2, for instance, and combinations such as shooting arrows through walls of fire (which makes fire arrows) are nice features – but a lot of things were made worse or removed. There is less synergy and less customizability in GW2. Skills are determined primarily by our equipped weapon, which generally has a couple of decent skills, a couple of mediocre ones, and the “spam 1” – an attack chain that defaults with auto-attack as it has no cooldown and replaces the basic attack from GW1. Each character can equip three class skills, an elite skill, and a single heal skill. For most classes, this is strictly a self-heal (rangers are an exception). Guardians can strap on a couple of level-based sidegrades to add minor healing to some of their AoE skills, and they have an optional elite skill (more on these shortly) that fully heals themselves and up to four other players. Elite skills are a disappointment. In GW1, elite skills were these fantastic skills you could obtain by defeating an enemy champion (which involved both a hunt and a battle challenge). They weren’t the be-all-and-end-all in battle (they aren’t in GW2 either), but they felt like they made a difference and made your character significantly more useful. They also acted like improved versions of regular skills. In GW2, elite skills are obtained by leveling. They are useful, but generally underwhelming. Most particularly, though (and unlike in GW1), they take a very, very long time to recharge. You won’t be using them twice in a fight. Maybe not even twice in two fights. Your character’s usefulness is shaved by an entire skill slot every four to six minutes. Water combat is still viewed on the whole as something of a joke. It’s a 3D, weightless combat system that generally allows you to spend all your skills without hitting anything due to average visibility and could-be-improved targeting on AoE skills. But as to the feel of combat, it certainly plays smoother in GW2. It’s a pretty nice feeling to be able to cast/attack/use skills while moving. You generally don’t have to stand still unless channeling something big.

When it comes to teamwork, it feels like the ArenaNet chaps groaned and said “if we have to”. Apart from a few combo effects, characters are designed to function on their own. There are very few support skills, and there’s no way to target specific allies with your skills (any skills you have that affect allies will prioritize your squad, so long as they’re within range). Targeting, supporting, buffing, and assisting were all key elements in GW1. If you didn’t work as a team you’d likely fail. This was because mobs in GW1 usually came attached to groups. None of this “one wolf spawns in the middle of nowhere and waits to be killed” stuff; foes came in squads, and generally were capable of buffing/saving each other while your group tried its best to do them in. GW2 comes with a “live alone, fight alone, die alone” feel, which effectively kicks teamwork out the door.

The maps are quite pretty. Ascalon (and north of it, in GW1) was my favorite landscape in the Guild Wars universe until the Charr came along and conquered it and then settled it, but it’s still the most charming biome in the game. It’s the way a fantasy kingdom should look. Big trees with leaves that turn orange and red and purple around harvest, rolling hills, rivers, fields, castles, keeps built into the sides of cliffs. Praise aside, though, I feel like GW2 is small. A lot of the places we had access to in GW1 were removed, and only some were replaced. As an explorer gamer, I really want that space back – and some more places to visit! (Pardon the pun, but one reason I went from GW2 to Elite: Dangerous was to explore more – the game is, quite practically, based in space.)

To showcase the new (and controllable) jumping mechanic in Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet set up jumping puzzles. It’s a little challenge with a souvenir at the end (usually just an achievement and a chest of stuff worth a couple of silver). Nice idea, as they are completely optional minigames. There are a couple of jumping puzzles that take hours and hours to complete because of that one jump you can’t make, but that just makes it all the more worth it when you make it to the end. Pity the rewards don’t scale based on how many times you fell down and died or nearly died.

Crafting is the economy driver. Gather resources, sell them to crafters. Crafters take materials, make junk, sell it cheap, then level up and sell things of more value. Higher level materials are (generally) worth more, so the higher the tier, the more return for gatherers, and so on and so forth. Crafting isn’t foolproof (the workbench does not have the most user-friendly layout), but it’s fine. Average. Nothing worth any special praise.

Guild Wars 2 has an average trade function (I’m pretty impressed by the paid-mail system in Elder Scrolls: Online). Trading in GW2 means either sending things directly to other players and not expecting anything back, or listing on the trading post. This is (amusingly) taxed heavily. In-game money, sure, but what in the world does ArenaNet do with the 10% of in-game money profit they tax on transactions (not to mention the listing fee)? In GW1 you could trade from person to person. Granted, you had to stand next to them, but that’s a small price to pay compared to 10% of a nice fancy 40-gold item.

Guilds are not as big a focus as the game’s title makes them out to be. Emblems are cool, guild halls are damned pricey, tiers are average and (nowadays) grindy, but it is nice to have guilds simply to collect your friends and fellow gamers. Guilds are chiefly hamstrung by one thing, in my opinion: items are one of the following: not bound, account-bound, and soulbound. There’s nothing for guilds specifically. There’s guild halls (kind of), but they don’t appear to be incredibly useful (yet?). Basically, guilds are just friend lists with politics.

World vs World is something I found to be a lot of fun. Ever wanted to play out a 100 vs 100 medieval fantasy battle? I did. And I had a ball doing so. Waves of allies crashing into banks of foes, pulling back, smashing into them again, popping buffs and consumables, crashing into them again, forcing them back, cutting off their retreat, circling and wheeling and crippling and knocking your foes down until the battlefield is littered with foes and little bags of loot (not kidding – WvW player kills actually drop items called bags of loot). Recent updates cut WvW back slightly, by replacing a nice map with an unattractive (well, some like it) and unpathable (I’ve yet to see someone say it’s fun to navigate)  map. Still, WvW is the focal point of guild fights, and almost lives up to the game’s title.

ArenaNet recently (well, last October) released the Heart of Thorns expansion for GW2. It added gliding and it added jungle maps. I’m not a jungle fan, but for the sake of somewhere new to explore I took them on. A lot of minigames were added to the new maps, as well as a lot of map restrictions (removed by progressing huge, map-wide events). It’s pretty tricky to get anywhere unless the map is highly-populated – and that brings us back to combat, which was not designed for teamwork. But gliding was a lot of fun. ArenaNet later added gliding to the vanilla maps as well, which is refreshing when traversing favorite old maps.

 

Pros

  • Good optimization for PC (this was hamstrung by the Heart of Thorns expansion, but hopefully that will be fixed by the time you read this)
  • Living World events and quests
  • Nice musical scores
  • Nostalgic locations reimagined and redesigned
  • Pretty landscapes
  • Solid, consistent, enjoyable setting
  • Smooth combat mechanics

Cons

  • Combat and teamwork hindered by restrictive skill design and capacity
  • Low focus on guild play (other than farming guild hall materials)
  • Poor selection of trade mechanics
  • The world feels small after its prequel
  • Tons of items that don’t need to be soulbound/account-bound
  • WvW has had some poor design choices, even though it is one of GW2’s most unique aspects

The Witcher 3

The Witcher 3

I did a pre-release post, but now it’s time to ponder the game in all its finally-experiencable glory.

First impression: wow, this is amazing. Everything feels epic and looks beautiful.
A few hours later: this is impressive. And fun. Oh wait, is that level 20 griffon supposed to be circling poor little level 4 me? That’s… disconcerting.
Ultimate realization (days in): can’t leave my computer. Can’t take off my headphones. Can’t even go outside or get food. Must take another witcher contract… and another… and another!

The Witcher 3 wanted to market itself based on the size of the world and the effects of quest choices you make. That would be all good and well, but while the choices and effects are interesting, the world feels super small. Granted, it’s probably bigger than all the worlds of other fantasy games that exist, but I’m a huge sucker for exploration. It’s mildly depressing to look at the map and see that the chunks of the world I can explore are only tiny little snippets of the world map. Seriously! But back to choices and effects. The Witcher 3’s choice system openly demonstrates that Mass Effect (and BioWare in general) has quite a lot of room for improvement. I knew choices could be presented well in games, and CD Projekt Red has stepped boldly in the right direction. It’s refreshing to 1) not be making massive, spontaneous ultimatum choices, and 2) to occasionally not even witness the effects of positive or negative choices until later.

I’m impressed. And possibly bewitched.

The game engine is well-optimized, and patches to improve things keep coming out. Not even sure why! Makes me think back to when I bought Assassin’s Creed Unity. The support chaps told me my computer simply wasn’t good enough. Funny that, because The Witcher 3 (much newer, and definitely prettier) runs like a charm on my rig.

The gameplay is good. Granted, it’s not perfect, but it’s close. Running, riding, hunting, swimming, diving, sailing, all seamlessly joined. The time of day changes. The weather changes. Combat is streamlined (so long as Geralt has figured out that he’s in combat). The world feels diverse and interesting because of the freedom of movement and the interaction. The one main downside to gameplay I’ve noticed so far is fall damage – if you trip over for some reason, don’t be too surprised if your health bar is cut in half.

The music for The Witcher 3 puts a good chunk of other games to shame. As much as I enjoy Jeremy Soule music, I don’t really think that fantasy should be dominated by orchestral music. So The Witcher 3 was a splendid change. Most of the score consists of Slavic-style folky tunes that capture the heart nearly as well as they capture the setting. Battle music is some of the best, but the three crones (no spoilers) are accompanied by the best tune. You’ll know when you hear it. Think dark, dark fairy tale music.

Questing is a real treat in The Witcher 3. There are regular quests that involve talking to people, finding people, killing people, and making choices. Pretty much every game has them. In The Witcher 3, though, we get to watch Geralt’s reaction to these quests. Fetch quests? Geralt doesn’t care much for being a delivery boy. Talking to people? He’s got a hilarious overdose of sarcasm that makes conversation amusing and interesting. Killing people? In style. Making choices? Fun mystery boxes of “what does this button do?” conundrums that make you pay attention. Don’t skip conversation if you want to make intelligent choices. Seriously. Your choice can be as clear as “Mhm”, “Really?”, or “I’ll commit myself to every word you just said and that is my final choice and so much for the other conversation options that would have saved my good friend such-and-such”. Sarcasm aside, I’d list that as a gameplay strength. But those are just the regular quests. In The Witcher 3, you also run into witcher quests – or, more specifically, witcher contracts. These are brillant combinations of hunting and mystery-solving. Geralt is equipped with a marvelous dose of Sherlock Holmes. He has remarkable senses that allow him to pick up details like what kind of liquid has been spilled, what type of claws gouged a wall, or even what kind of blood is at the scene. To accompany these skills, Geralt unashamedly talks to himself. A lot. Good for him, I say. But this sense-and-talk combination makes for interesting puzzle-solving. Geralt starts by talking to witnesses, then moves to investigate the scene, and then (often) follows a trail. Along the way, he spots clues that tell you what you’re going to find, how and where you’re going to find it, and usually also inform you as to how you’re going to need to defeat whatever it is. Hunting quests in this manner are a massive improvement to fetch quests or general kill-the-creature-that-lives-in-the-cave quests. It’s also interesting to learn about each little town and place through the monster(s) that plague the people there – for instance, wraiths appear when people have been cruelly murdered or wronged.

Relationships. Ultimately, you could say that The Witcher 3 does relationships like Assassin’s Creed does combat, which is to say that it’s simple enough if you know the buttons. However, it certainly isn’t Mass Effect’s yes-or-no relationship dialogue options. And the fact that you are playing a solid character makes the relationships more meaningful. Shepard was, well… a husk (pun intended) of a character. Geralt certainly isn’t.

The Witcher 3’s scenery is gorgeous. Fantasy at its finest. Ornate tomb carvings. Sprawling, grassy hills. Flocks of sheep, mobs of horses. Roaming giants. Ruins. The textures were done well. And the game’s musical score complemented the setting perfectly. Charming, haunting, old-Scandinavia-esque melodies. Tracks that make perfect companions for traveling, hunting, and doing grim battle. But don’t expect perfection in every way the game looks. For some reason, 95% of Geralt’s armor options more or less completely fail to please the eye. Heavy armor is accompanied by a giant, round wok (yep, a Chinese frying pan) over the character’s belly. Light armor is bulky and has clipping issues with collars. Medium armor has great textures underneath – but is padded with ugly outer jackets that seem to always have the worst possible color combinations. The only chest armor that I have actually loved so far is the first one I ever crafted – the Warrior’s Leather Jacket.

That brings us to crafting. CD Projekt Red boasted that the crafting system would be innovative and interesting; it’s okay, I suppose, but nothing amazingly special. I will say this for it, though – I really appreciate the fact that once you craft a potion or oil, you never have to go scouring the land for ingredients again. Oils have inifinite use (which makes sense, given the amount you would use on a blade in the game). Potions and bombs have charges that replenish when you meditate (although this consumes hard alcohol in your inventory, so you gotta load up your pack like a boozer). Other than that, crafting is average. Find or buy materials, go to a craftsman with sufficient experience, craft or smith the items you have learned about. Swords generally look okay (certainly not as bad as armor), so it’s mostly about picking the best stats. Silver swords have worse skins than steel, but they’re still okay.

In conclusion, The Witcher 3 is a lot of fun. If you love wandering across open landscapes and hunting dangerous monsters, this game is totally for you. It’s certainly for me!

Pros

  • Gorgeous setting
  • Music to blow your mind away (especially combat music and town minstrels)
  • Enjoyable, weighty combat
  • One of the best fantasy settings ever written
  • Beautiful scenery
  • Good optimization for PC
  • Questing innovation

Cons

  • Combat hindered by unresponsive/unpredictable controls and the in/out of combat control changes
  • The world is – ironically – too small
  • Fall damage is incredibly lethal

The Witcher 3 – Pre-release

thewitcher3

I’m waiting for The Witcher 3. Earnestly. A lot of us are. Will it be worth the wait? I think so. I’ll get back to you on that in a month and a half. Or according to Steam at the moment, I should have started playing it yesterday. Unfortunately, it looks like Steam has an error that is displaying the release date as April 7, 2015, but the game is neither playable nor preloadable yet.

But let me discuss what hopes I have for the game.

Explorability. Skyrim was fun, but The Witcher boasts a bigger map. At least twenty percent bigger, according to an interview with game director Konrad Tomaszkiewicz. Not only that, but Geralt’s world is a lot richer than Skyrim. Tons of people. Tons of trade, villages, and more. Quests and hunts everywhere. Tamriel is interesting, but the province of Skyrim is mostly barren. (No disrespect to Skyrim, though; still have plenty of good memories there.)

Gameplay. It looks from the previews that the combat is a lot like Assassin’s Creed Unity, which had a decent combat system – not perfect, mind you, but still decent. With the variety of creatures in The Witcher, that quality of combat (with a touch of CD Projekt RED magic) should be smooth and fun. And if the jumping/climbing is anything like Uncharted, it should be very unrestrictive, liberating gameplay. Nothing like the stiff movement and scripted movement (climbing ledges or dropping from them) from The Witcher 2. More believable than Assassin’s Creed.

Visuals. The Witcher 2 was one of the harshest things you could do to your computer before Assassin’s Creed Unity came out. And yet (unlike Unity), The Witcher 2 was playable, and could be scaled down to punish lower-end gaming rigs less. I’m expecting The Witcher 3 at high settings to be fairly straining for our hardware, but I think CD Projekt RED is smart enough to get it running on our hardware without burning down our neighborhoods. This developer seems to like its customers.

Setting. The Witcher games (and books) have delivered gritty settings. Powerful, realistic, motivating. Real people: characters who are witty, rude, gluttonous, dishonest, racist, etc. They aren’t grey people who kinda just eat and drink and sleep and say they are sad about things and then die. The Witcher unashamedly delivers very honest characters. It’s supposed to be a dark fantasy world, and CD Projekt RED definitely delivers just that. To its outstanding credit. Fiction keeps getting censored, and it really oughtn’t be. If you want censoring, go live in Australia. Even kids’ playgrounds are censored – it’s practically impossible to hurt yourself on one.

Music. I haven’t heard any of The Witcher 3’s music yet, but after The Witcher 2, I’ve got my fingers, toes, arms, legs, and absolutely everything crossable, well… crossed. I was blown away by songs like Dwarven Stone upon Dwarven Stone.

So, yep. I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of what promises to be the most epic gaming experience yet.

Assassin’s Creed Unity

Yup. I know I briefly covered Assassin’s Creed Unity in a comment on my Assassin’s Creed post, but now that I’ve played it I feel that it almost falls into a completely different category. Well, okay, just remember that I said almost.

I never thought I’d get Unity. I looked at it, looked at the time period, looked at the price, shrugged it off, walked away. When I was given a high recommendation of it (in a comment on my Assassin’s Creed review), I looked for a sale and grabbed it. Sadly, I’ve quite a bit of trouble with the game.

I downloaded it, ran it, and it very nearly bricked my computer. That was partially my fault; I’d been running a dual-SLI 660ti Nvidia build on its minimum recommended power supply for nearly a year (700W). But it wasn’t just me. I’ve never had a game shut my entire computer down. Not even hard-pressing games like Crysis 3. Assassin’s Creed Unity, on the other hand, took one look at my rig, rubbed its hands together in glee, and blinked my computer into oblivion no less than five times. I’m lucky it survived, actually. Eventually I caved in and grabbed a new, 1050W power supply (at least it leaves more room for later upgrades), and those crashes haven’t happened since. But the game is far from smooth. I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried running the game at max settings. I’ve tried running it at minimum settings. Nothing (apart from anti-aliasing) seems to affect how the game runs – it’s choppy, it’s irresponsive, and it’s constantly flicking my screen around. I’m tech-savvy enough to know that my computer is good enough to run the game. I can out-rig pretty much all my buddies, and yet they don’t get the same issues. Assassin’s Creed Unity is terribly optimized (in other words, the development team probably just gave up on it). What gives me the most kicks is that Unity was released the same day as Assassin’s Creed Rogue – and Rogue runs beautifully on high settings for most gamers. Even high-end computers have massive trouble running Unity. Which is a pity, because of the next paragraph.

Paris is pretty. I liked Rome and Venice and Jerusalem more, but Paris is definitely pretty.

The biggest pro for me about Assassin’s Creed Unity is its co-op element. Without that, I doubt it would have gotten as much attention. In fact, it would have fallen out of the sky at launch without co-op (see all other paragraphs). I suppose it goes without saying that I love co-op gameplay. And this is the only co-op Assassin’s Creed game. That’s right. Ubisoft broke its only co-op AC game. I’ve struggled through hours of trying various tweaks, guides, reviews, and more to get the game working. Why? Because I just want to get it to function on my computer. I have gotten a few hours of semi-functional-but-mostly-epileptic gameplay with my friend, and it’s super fun. The co-op, not the epilepsy. The problem is, I can’t seriously play the game with that kind of performance. The number of times I’ve tried to shoot a sharpshooter who is aiming at my buddy and somehow had the screen completely reverse (resulting in me shooting some random object – or civilian) is through the roof. That’s bad for teamwork. The amount of instances I’ve tried to stop my character from lagging into hugging a wall when I’m trying to run either away (which results in my death) or to save my friend (which results in his death) is unbelievable. But when it comes down to the basics of Assassin’s Creed in co-op, it’s a lot of fun to walk and jump around a city in unison. If only it wasn’t threatening to give me epilepsy every five seconds.

Story-wise, Unity is just another Ubisoft Assassin’s Creed game. The character is traumatized from a young age, he wants revenge, he grows up and turns into a killer. He kills people, questions people, etc. We’ve seen it before, and we’ve played it in games that run faster than twenty frames per second. It’s not a bad story, mind you; it’s just that Assassin’s Creed hasn’t tried anything new (until Rogue, but that’s quite literally another story). I haven’t gotten very far into the game, unfortunately, because I’m not a big fan of epilepsy (see above).

Assassin’s Creed Unity is different to all the other AC games. It plays slower. A lot slower. The combat feels less arcade, but is also less realistic. Sure, it’s harder to fight the guards. They can block, stun, drop grenades, and generally do anything we can do. And yet it’s not actually an improvement. In the older Assassin’s Creed games, if someone tried shooting you, you could move behind his buddies to break line-of-fire. In some of those games, holding enemies in front of you was an actual button-press counter to ranged attacks. In Unity, they just ignore their buddies and fire through them to stagger and severely wound you. I don’t care if this is some kind of compensation for player latency (due to co-op gameplay) – this is just poor game design. We can’t fire through civilians (or non-civilians) to hit shooters, so why can they fire through their mates to kill us? Also, even though the old “kill streak” combat option was removed from Unity, the combat still very much goes like this: watch for an attack and hit the parry button. And again. And again. And again. Apart from avoiding pistol shots, this works fantastically and flawlessly. If the combat was to be more challenging, why not allow multiple enemies to attack the character at once? That would present both more challenge and a more realistic feel. Overwhelming numbers means exactly that. Even in a ten-man battle we only have to deflect one at a time in this game. Except for that one shooter who is standing behind a mob of five of his allies and hitting us flawlessly every time.

Assassin’s Creed Unity needs a team to work on it. It’s not finished. It’s still about as functional as a beta release. It needs people to continue on it and make it work. After that’s happened, I’d like to play it.

 

Pros

  • Co-op gameplay
  • Relatively smooth combat control
  • Fluid freerunning
  • Historical locations and people
  • Decent musical scores
  • Beautiful scenery

Cons

  • Repetitive combat
  • Repetitive AI scenarios
  • Locked skills (really? I can’t sit on a seat or throw coins on the ground until I earn enough points?)
  • Disgusting optimization for PC (and, so far as I’ve heard, Xbox and PlayStation as well)

Question: why, in France, does everyone have a strong British accent? I don’t think I’ve encountered a single character with a convincing French accent yet, and – although my sessions have been sporadic – that’s a lot of gameplay.

Mass Effect

Mass Effect. There’s an awful lot that can be said, some things that oughtn’t be said, and a few things that don’t need to be said. I’ll take the series as a whole rather than focusing on one game at a time.

First impression: wow, this is amazing. Everything feels smooth and epic.
A few story choices later: this sucks. Everything feels locked in and alienated from us.
Sober realization (days in): hmm, that was okay. The game was not terrible overall; bad design choices stopped the game from achieving true greatness, but they didn’t completely destroy it.

Mass Effect tried to market itself based on narrative choice (freedom to design your own story) and a personalised character. Well, if freedom means a choose-your-own-adventure book (the kind where every choice we make you ends up with our character in a trap or eaten by wolves), sure. The only choices we can actually make are ones like:

  • Do you want to kill Character A or Character B?
  • Do you want listen to Character C, which will make Character B hate you forever and leave your story?
  • Do you want to destroy Nation A or Nation B?
  • Do you want to give an order that makes no sense and you know will kill either Character D or Character E?

You get the point. The choices are ultimately rigged, and not in “this could work out either way” kinds of ways, either – in blatant, “we know both choices are really bad, but to continue the game we have to choose one” kinds of ways. There are some choices in the game (such as inadvertantly rescuing a famous admiral) that allow us to open up more intelligent options when we make bigger choices, but saving the admiral meant sacrificing Group F to save him anyways. Same problem.

Also, the choices are all made during cut-scenes. In other words, if a cut-scene comes up, we know there’s going to be a choice. We don’t know anything about what the choice will entail or involve, but we know we will have to make one.

On the lines of a story sold based on narrative, the whole thing is a (spoiler) world-is-ending tale. Never been there before. And this one was even worse, because it made very little sense and completely took all meaning out of the choices and gameplay we had gone through. Come on, BioWare, did you just give up on the story? Why else would you implement an all-powerful, unrelated character who simply states that you made a bad game?

Did I start out hard? Yep. BioWare has such a grip on the market that starting out hard is necessary. And it’s not going to get a whole lot easier yet.

The gameplay was, well… amusing. If there’s one thing I’ve complained a lot about in Mass Effect, it’s the fact that combat was a glorified version of whack-a-mole. You heard me. We sit behind a bench, wait for the gunfire to calm down a little, stand up, wait for them to pop their heads up, spray a round, and drop back behind our shelter. This is 60% of the game. Oh yeah, and our guns create their own ammo, but somehow (in Mass Effect 2 and 3) they run out of it. BioWare liked to explain it by saying that we actually have to replace the heat pack in our guns, and we collect heat packs to replenish ammo, but hey – what if we only fire one bullet every ten minutes? How are our guns heating up so badly? I’m not against the idea of having players try options other than guns, but in whack-a-mole combat, melee fighting is completely out of the picture. Seriously. Also, the movement limitations were sad. Mass Effect played out in a beautiful sci-fi setting, but all we can do is kind of walk, kind of sprint, and kind of dodge. No jumping, no extra pathing (unless it was scripted), no swimming through void in zero gravity. Mass Effect 1 had an issue with repetitive planet surface scenarios (land, drive, drive, drive, get out, clean up enemies), but rather than improve on this element, Mass Effect 2 and 3 completely removed it. We could scan the planets, but that was it. No beautiful landscape view, just a planet on a screen.

Relationships. This was almost the only reason Mass Effect was rated M, and yet it was brutally mechanical. A relationship is so much more than just following someone around with your tongue out until they turn around and say “let’s do it”. The relationships in this game reminded me of Harvest Moon DS. Just find the flower the girl of your dreams enjoys most (or, if you want to save money, a trinket from the mines you can dig up on the top level) and keep handing stacks and stacks of them to her until she starts blushing. Fantastic representation of reality. Works every time. Oh, but then you have to go save lots of pixies (by a lot, I mean more than a hundred) one at a time before you can proceed. Mass Effect made relationships a lot simpler. Just keep clicking the dialogue option that says “I want you”. Takes about three conversations.

Yep, that was harsh. But Mass Effect wasn’t all bad.

The scenery in Mass Effect was gorgeous. Much of the game was set on planet surfaces, where we got to see aliens, awesome panoramas, spaceshipwrecks, secret labs, ruined monasteries, and much more. It was (as I already said) gorgeous. The textures were done well. The game’s musical score complemented the setting perfectly. Haunting, beautiful melodies. Sci-fi electronic tracks. Songs that seemed to complement the very stars in the sky. But was it too little too late?

In conclusion, Mass Effect was beautiful. But while aesthetics alone may suit drawings or movies, a game needs much, much more. The cultures and characters you encounter make for an interesting game. The story and gameplay strip that away a little bit, but if you are looking for a game purely because you love sci-fi settings and music, definitely go for it. If you are hunting for intuitive gameplay and love a good story, don’t play it.

 

Overall layout of the game:

60%: whack-a-mole
30%: spontaneous, genocidal choices
5%: robotic, Harvest Moon relationships
5%: other (galaxy map travel, upgrading weapons, complaining about lack of ammo)

 

Pros

  • Smooth combat control
  • Science fiction locations and people in a fascinating setting
  • Beautiful galaxy views and scenery
  • Haunting-yet-charming musical scores
  • Decent optimization for PC

Cons

  • Repetitive, whack-a-mole combat
  • Extremely limited movement, no zero-gravity moments
  • Trainwreck ending

Writing App

Some of you may remember that I once blogged about Storybook. I was just trying the program again before I posted that blog post, and my article turned out pretty disappointed. Now it turns out that the program very nearly died – it only survived due to the charity of the lovely open source community. So it still exists. However, I’m not here to talk about that program. I never found it much fun (although now I’m curious about whether the community has fixed it).

I’m here to talk about another writing program entirely.

 

Subject

Writing App is smooth, portable, and – in my opinion – fun. It costs $3, and I’ve used it long enough for it to have earned every cent. If there’s one downside to the app, it’s that it is only available on the Apple store. That bothers me a tiny bit (what will become of me when my aging iPad dies?), because I’m not a fan of Apple policies, Apple prices, Apple cables, Apple formatting, Apple hype, or apples. Well, okay, apples are fine. This app probably means that I’ll be scouring eBay for an unused old iPad when mine dies, but if it continues to deliver, I’m okay with that.

The app lets you create a project. This can be either a short story or a novel. I only ever pick novel, due to the type of writing I do (I either write novels or collections of related short stories). Within your project you can add characters, items, places, notes, and chapters. Each item – except chapters – has sub-pages, such as eyes, hair, strengths, weaknesses (for characters), descriptions, etc. These are totally optional, but I use them to help me flesh out the stories and characters. It’s no secret that an author should know a lot more about his world and characters than the reader does. After you have whatever information you need, just add a chapter and start writing. (Oh, and it has a fantastic font for fantasy writing: Bradley Hand.)

Pros

Kudos to the app developer, Thomas Sillmann. I’ve chucked several comments (including bug reports) and compliments at him, and he has responded every time. Generally within a day or two.

The app has a clean interface. None of that messy jumble we get with half our apps these days (what do all the little buttons do?). The menus are easy to navigate, the sidebar makes swapping between characters/items/chapters easy, and saving is automatic (I had a lot of problems with that with other apps). As messy as we writers can be, it’s important to keep at least a reasonably clean writing space.

Dropbox integration. That means you can upload entire projects straight to Dropbox to access them on your computer. You can also upload each file individually to Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote, or an email address.

Cons

The Dropbox integration is currently a little buggy. An update to the app did something weird, and Thomas is working on fixing it. Individual files still upload correctly, but project backup is out of the question at the moment. Bit sad, because I like to look over my project on my phone when I’m on the run, but I’m looking forward to the update.

The chapter-writing interface isn’t necessarily as pretty as I’d like. Some authors (myself included) get a little dazzled by blank white pages, and this is about as white and dazzling as they get. Put a paragraph or two on it, and it’s fine, but I’d really like some kind of border option (on the sides) or something. Or a slightly crinkled parchment backdrop. Ooh, that’d probably even kick a few extra dollars out of me. Well, anything but an absolutely blank page.

Overall rating

4.5 stars. I’m finding the app very clean, as well as helpful for sorting information and writing short pieces, and I’m impressed by the developer’s swift responses to my questions. Customer support is one of the most important aspects of the app market, but even more so when a writer is having trouble with an app and needs to keep his pen to the paper.