Tomb Raider 2013 Review

16 03 2013

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Introduction:

I have to start off by saying that this should have been the game I’d been waiting on and following since it was announced. However, I had the misfortune of making Aliens: Colonial Marines the game I had been following and anxiously waiting for since 2007. Much to my chagrin we all know how that game turned out, but I digress on that point. What I’m getting at is Tomb Raider, for me, more than lived up to the hype it built up before release.

Lastly, before I get started, let it also be known that I did play the “old school” Tomb Raider games, but I wasn’t exactly a diehard fan, so I think my opinion should be fairly un-biased in approaching this game. (At least I’ll pretend that it is ☺)

For those of you that have not played the game, or are mostly oblivious to what this game is about, basically Crystal Dynamics decided to do a reboot on the Lara Croft franchise. Which in my opinion was a solid move as the franchise was in desperate need of the revival.

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Setup:

So if you’re a classic Tomb Raider player, you’re probably used to playing a female avatar in short shorts, skimpy top, ridiculously large bosom, and dual wielding pistols while vanquishing bandits with physics defying aerial maneuvers. While that approach worked in the 90’s, nowadays, the trend in AAA games tends to be hyperrealism. Basically, Crystal Dynamics took this idea, and really ran with it. They realized they needed a more “human” Lara Croft than in previous renditions of the game. So how do they accomplish this? They do a prequel of course! What better way to attempt actual character development with this heroine than going to a time when she’s young, innocent, and not the badass Tomb Raiding diva we were used too.

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More than that, they needed to make Lara Croft relatable to audiences. As previously stated, the classic formula of having a cliché hero/heroine just “blowing shit up” doesn’t cut it much anymore, it’s typically far less engaging to audiences, as they want something real, like I’ve already said, something relatable.

Initial Impressions:

The first hour in the game is spent going from quick time event to quick time event while Lara is literally brutalized and beaten relentlessly, and if you’re not on the ball, killed in some pretty viscerally nail biting ways. Fortunately, the extreme linear nature of the first hour does not persist for the rest of the game. The first hour is really about establishing one thing, Lara is alone, hurt, cold, starving, in a foreign place, and most importantly, she’s incredibly afraid for her life.

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This is an important fact because the rest of the game you’ll watch as Lara goes through a transformation of an innocent archeology graduate to a steadfast heroine, who is not squeamish in the least in dispatching her enemies.

Some critic argue that the transition from Lara being unwilling to take lives to when she no longer has a problem with it happens a little too quickly. While I do agree, it happens rather quickly, based on the severity of their situation in the story, it doesn’t feel too awkward or unnatural. Especially after you see some of the scenes she goes through, you probably won’t have a problem with her willingness to take human life so readily.

If you are familiar with the classical “Hero” cycle with story arcs, you’ll find a lot of checkmarks and parallels with Lara Crofts story.

Environment:

After the first hour of play, the game really opens up. For the most part, the game still follows a linear design, however, within specific areas you’re free to find tombs (which are puzzles without enemies), salvage materials in the area, hunt for food, or you can keep plowing along the main story quest. With the salvaging, there’s a nice meta experience as you constantly acquire and upgrade your gear, it adds a nice progression system to the game.

Getting back to the environment, to date, it’s one of the most breathtaking games that I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying. Keep in mind, I played it on PC but I’m told it looks very beautiful on console as well. I found myself just periodically stopping and panning the camera so I could enjoy the visuals of the island. I think out of the entire play through, which took me about 12-13 hours, there was only one or two areas that didn’t look absolutely stunning.

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The environment also does a really good job of hiding the overall linear aspect of the game. It FEELS like a sandbox type game, even though it truly isn’t. One way it accomplishes this is by the “campsite system”. Once you’ve discovered a campsite location, you can travel to it from any other campsite. This allows you to go back and explore tombs, or large areas that you might have blasted through.

Speaking of the tombs, they are pretty satisfying, and some of the puzzles are pretty creative. Overall, I think they could have made some of them more difficult, but they were creative and interesting enough that it more than made up for it. From a design perspective, the Tombs are a very creative way of incorporating “negative space” into the pacing of your game. “Negative space” is time in the game where designers give you a cool down from excitement, usually that equates to time in games when there aren’t enemies trying to kill you. They do this because they want to bring your excitement (chemicals in your brain) down to a lower level, so you don’t get fatigued on an engagement level. However, I’m going off on a tangent so I digress. Basically, the tombs allow for a nice break from the action! (See, much more simple lol…)

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Core Gameplay Mechanics (Combat, platforming, etc.):

So let’s get on to some of the core mechanics in the game. Naturally, first and foremost Tomb Raider is a platformer. You’ll do all sorts of climbing, jumping, falling, zip lining, running, dodging, and overall manipulating your environment to attain some goal or objective.

What is also unique about this Tomb Raider is that they incorporated a fair amount of combat into the game. I think they did a pretty good job balancing combat with platforming elements however. When you enter into a space where enemies are present, Lara will automatically go into a crouched combat mode. You can choose to hide in the environment and silently assassinate your enemies with a silent arrow, or you can close with them and engage with guns and a climbing pick axe.

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The thing I was most impressed with was the fact that some areas require you to manipulate objects, then jump off them, or use them in some way while they are still in motion to achieve your goal. This sounds like a “well no shit it’s a platformer”, but if you know anything about game development, setting up collision volumes and the proper physics properties on objects within the game is a tremendous amount of work. Needless to say, they pulled it off pretty damn well.

UI:

To be honest, there really isn’t much of a user interface in this Tomb Raider game, which is a good thing. You have your classic non-diegetic ammo HUD counter, and when you enter Lara’s “instinct” mode, you’ll see specific objects light up in a tac-com type UI. For Lara’s health, they use the classic meta-physical system of blood splatters and your screen changing colors to represent how close to death you are. There’s no health bar, and Lara’s health will slowly recharge over time. You’ll also get audio and visual cues from Lara that she’s been damaged. Overall, there are as few as possible UI elements within the game that you actually see.

Overall this is great as you spend more time looking at your character and the beautiful environment she’s running around in.

Stability:

Like I said earlier, a solid play through with about 80% completion of everything in the game took me about 13 hours…. and the game didn’t crash once! Granted, if you have an Nvidia card, there are supposedly some issues with on that hardware setup. Or you can play on console and probably not experience any crashing either. I highly recommend you play it on PC if you have a rig that can run it on at least high graphics settings, especially as you can turn on the Tress RX function and see how it looks when every single strand of hair is animated. Sometimes, it gets all out of wack and you see some wonky animations, but overall it looks amazing.

I run a fairly decent high-end machine, and I still had to turn some of the graphics from their highest setting, so the game has a very high potential if you’re an enthusiast and like buying $600 video cards every six months. Either way, the game is absolutely gorgeous.

Complaints:

I only have a couple of comments here. One is that the quick time events do not transfer very well to PC. Half the time you don’t know which button you’re supposed to be mashing, and the hit detection for the keyboard during quick time events just sucks all around. Most people I know just had an xbox 360 controller plugged into their PC, and grabbed it real quick for the quick time events. They are doable, and you actually get used to their brokenness, but easily the biggest drawback to play the game on PC. Fortunately, after the first hour of play, there aren’t very many quick time events, so it’s only a minor inconvenience.

Lastly, the only other complaint is that there are certain parts of the game where Lara doesn’t react how you’d think she’d react, there’s a few character dialogue sequences that feel….. fake. Fortunately, there are less than a handful of them, and the overall character development and dialogue are so well done that it doesn’t break the engagement of the game or story. Considering how many sequences they had to draw up, act out, animate, and what not I’d say that it’s pretty damn well executed. Especially considering that it’s not a Call of Duty 4 hour campaign, even rushing through, I still sunk about 13 hours in, so you definitely get your money’s worth.

Summary:

Overall, I think Crystal Dynamics knocked it out of the park with this game. I feel they did a good job of doing a solid heroine hero cycle as I felt a connection with the character I was playing, and not only through pathos, but in triumph in overcoming obstacles and watching the character change after life altering events. I thoroughly enjoyed the Tomb Raider reboot, and I think the new Lara Croft is an engaging, realistic, and relatable female character for audiences to connect with. If you haven’t given this game a look, I highly suggest you check it out, as you won’t be disappointed.

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Feel free to comment here with your thoughts!

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PS4 Announcement

6 03 2013

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I realize I’ve been absent from my blog for a while, and there’s been a TON of things I’ve wanted to discuss. Alas, changing testing jobs and keeping up with school, and admittedly trying to play through my laundry list of games, has kept me away! No more! I swear I’ll do a better job of posting from now on, especially as this is such an exciting time for the industry and the state of transition that it’s currently in!

So without further ado, I want to talk about the very recent PS4 announcement. Let me start by saying that I do not own a PS3, never have, and I don’t have plans of ever purchasing one. This was a huge change for me this console generation as I absolutely loved my PS2. I didn’t purchase one because I didn’t agree with Sony’s business decisions and how they chose to build the PS3. Let’s just say for the moment, that it’s all water under the bridge, so to speak.

If you haven’t watched the official PS4 press release that was launched a few weeks ago, you really should. Granted, most of the information presented was ambiguous and sounded anecdotally like the same empty promises Sony made for the PS3 announcement many years back. However, I don’t subscribe to “fanboy” type rages, so why am I writing this post might you ask? The answer is very simple, and it’s something I’m really excited about that Sony is doing. The ‘thing’ that I’m excited about is the fact that Sony decided to go with an x86 architecture for their new console.

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For your average consumer, they probably don’t know what that means, nor do they really care. From an industry/developer prospective, it’s pure awesome-sauce! Sony has notoriously had a very closed ecosystem with difficult to developer for software/hardware setups. The fact that they chose to build their new CONSOLE with a PC based architecture means three critical things.

First of all, and most importantly, this means that the traditional lines that separated what a “PC” and a “Console” was defined as, are quickly disappearing. Whether the average consume realizes it or not, we are entering a new age. The current “console” generation marks the end of what being a dedicated gaming console really was about. More and more you’re going to see hardware performing multiple tasks outside of gaming and being integrated with other devices on a level previously unheard of.

Second, aside from “traditional consoles” changing, the PC based architecture means that developers will have a much easier, and financially cheaper, time developing games for the system. Most importantly though, this means porting games built for other systems will be cheaper and better.

Thirdly, and this one may be a bit of a stretch, but it means the utopia most of us have had in our dreams of TRUE cross platform play, in some capacity, is becoming more of a reality than it ever has been. While this may not become a reality this generation, the less consoles are like traditional consoles, and the more they become like a PC, the easier it is for this dream to become a reality. It’s already starting to happen with things like Eve & Dust 514, and hopefully these types of relationships will continue to happen as hardware, software, and closed ecosystems become less of a barrier for developers.

That all being said, I fully expect Microsoft to release a very similar architecture for their next box. You can also expect it to be fully integrated with your phone, tablet, PC, and probably a dozen other things. Overall, next generation consoles will make as great an effort as possible to be an “all in one” entertainment center, as being a dedicated gaming rig with a close ecosystem is no longer a viable platform.

Like I said, new and exciting times are coming, and this isn’t even beginning to address the possibilities, or ramifications, of all the “smaller” android based home boxes or the Linux based Steam box coming out!





Spec Ops The Line Review

31 12 2012

I know I’m cutting this one close, but I wanted to get it in before the end of 2012. The reason I want to do that, is up until this point, for this year and gaming period, I finally played a shooter game that challenged previous conventions, and had a story that actually made me think about what I was doing.

Originally, when I stumbled upon this game, I played the demo and decided not to purchase it at full price, particularly as the demo wasn’t anything impressive. Upon revisiting the game, and actually playing it, I can tell you it’s well worth your time. Especially if you’ve been looking for a shooting game where you feel mentally challenged. Before I get to the main segment of this piece, let me get a few technical negative aspects that I didn’t like about it first. Naturally, I played this game on PC and the controls do not convert well to a keyboard and mouse. They take some getting used to and there were certain places, or controls, in the game that didn’t function well because of it. If you’re playing with a controller or on console, you’ll be fine and won’t notice these issues.

Now that I’m done with my main complaint, let’s get on to what I experienced while playing through.

NOTE: I will try to keep this as spoiler free as possible, I just want to convey emotions I experienced by certain actions, not give away key plot points.

Moving on, if you are an avid gamer as I am, than you have probably played a fair share of shooter type games, especially as it’s been an industry staple as of late, thanks to the COD’s and BF’s of the industry. Having been playing these games since as long as I can remember, I never once felt regret for having to do something, or any of my actions. The games themselves were usually over accentuated power fantasies, thusly spent the entire game ramping you up to some type of hero or badass to save the world. Naturally, there’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s an old recipe and it’s been done far too many times.

This is where Spec Ops The Line really shines. Personally, if they had removed “Spec Ops” from the title, it would have been better off in my personal opinion, but I digress. Without any specific spoilers, you’re an American Delta Force team sent into Dubai, which is being destroyed by sand storms, to find out what happened to an American Army unit which defied orders and went in to Dubai to evacuate the citizens. Once again, without spoilers, your small team more or less gets stuck right into the middle of a civil war between American troops, CIA, and Rebels.

 

It quickly becomes apparent, that things are not going to end nicely for anyone, but you have a glimmer of hope throughout most of the game of rectifying the situation, but along the way you keep having to make decisions that are hard and feel very wrong, but as they are forced upon you, you literally have no choice but to press on. As your team progresses through the hellish encounters and decisions they have to make, their morale, dedication to the mission, and even physical appearance changes and breaks down. They react to the decisions you’ve been forced to make, which is rare in shooters, as AI teammates usually stay quiet and are hardly ever developed as characters. In this game however, everything starts to become personal for each one of your teammates, and it shows significantly as the story progresses.

I honestly can’t say much more than that, or go into detail, or I’ll be giving up key elements of the story, and nobody hates anything more than a spoiler! I can promise you, however, that the ending will definitely surprise you, and leave you trying to mentally sort all the pieces together. When I was finished playing through, I legitimately felt bad for what I’d done, but I still feel that I didn’t particularly have any choice in the matter at the same time.  A lot of it sums up to a damned if you do and damned if you don’t type scenario.

 

For me, this game was a sign that shooter games CAN be made to send a message and do something more than create a power trip type fantasy. As gamers, we don’t always need the cookie cutter shooter game, with the ever so predictable “Terrorists are going to nuke the world, and only you can stop them” plot line. I also noticed that a lot of ratings for this game were mediocre on most websites. Which surprised me, as game journalism is always crying for the “mature” grown up shooter experience that does something more than feel like an 80’s action movie. This is probably a result of the marketing team which was responsible for getting this game out there, not truly understanding what they had on their hands, but I digress on that as well.

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Perhaps you won’t have the same experience playing this game that I did, but I honestly believe if you are searching for a more meaningful experience in a shooter game, you should seriously give this a shot. It’s fitting, that I publish this review on the last day of the year, as this game is my diamond in the rough, and to this point is the most unique action shooting game experience to date.





End of 2012 and traditional business models

29 12 2012
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Nuke Explosion Courtesy of Deviant Art – Kingsandji

So naturally this time of year people reflect upon their lives, decisions made, experiences had, and then inevitably begin to look forward to the New Year and what it might bring. Since my blog is strictly about video games (for now at least) I want to talk about what I’ve observed.

As an individual working in the industry, mass consumer of industry news, and avid gamer my entire life, I’ve observed several interesting patterns and here’s my predictions. I know I’ve said it before, but retail will soon be finished, and if consoles do not change their business models, then they will not survive past another console generation. I believe Sony and Microsoft realize this, and that’s why I believe the next two pieces of hardware that hit us next year, will not be what the core gamer audience expects. They are most likely going to be an “All-in-one” media entertainment box”, I say this because Microsoft is a metric compiling and consuming beast, and when their metric data is telling them that the majority of XBOX 360 owners are NOT playing video games, but streaming Netflix, music, and video, that something has changed. This is due to a number of variables, which I will not get into; I’d rather talk about the business model for selling games, and what has recently happened to me.

Let me start by saying, “I LOVE MY XBOX 360”, and until now I’ve been incredibly dedicated to it, only switching to PC to play a strategy or MMO game on occasion. I however, woke up one day and realized that slowly I was being sucked back into playing games on my PC, and for one major reason, it was a better deal. Yes Steam, I’m looking at you. Steam is literally the digital crack needle of video games for me. I find myself getting around to playing games that weren’t on the top of my list, JUST because they were on sale, or I find myself delving into new experiences because of a lower price point. Here is my point, the traditional “Purchase a physical copy of a video game at a brick and mortar store for +/- $60” is dying and will soon be dead. This is mainly for two reasons, one is a matter of convenience to the consumer, and the other is it is a better business model for developers. Consider the following, for a developer releasing a game through Steam (an online digital distribution service by Valve) they keep 70% of the profit from those sales versus selling in the traditional model of a physical copy at retail where they maybe see 30% of a $60 purchase, maybe.

Why, you ask, will things go this way? It’s because currently, the development costs for AAA games is NOT sustainable anymore. Most of the AAA games you see on the market that are sold cross platform, need to sell upwards of 5 million (or much more) copies just to break even, or begin to see a ROI or return on investment. The golden age of consoles has long since been done, and it’s time for something new. I am not predicting the death of consoles outright, more along the lines of their inevitable evolution. In closing, I’ll deal with the inevitable comment of “Well PC’s are too expensive, that’s why consoles will never die yaarg!” (Sorry about the pirate)

Yes, a quality PC gaming rig is more expensive outright than a console. However, the game has changed (see what I did there?) Due to changes in digital distribution on PC’s, I rarely paid $60 up front for a game on PC, while console gamers are still paying $30-$60 for games that I’m paying $15-$30 for. So do the math, yes PC has a higher barrier to entry on price, but you easily recoup the cost in saving on video game purchases. Just as an example, I ran a calculator service, just now, on my Steam game library, which calculates every game in my library at their regular cost (not what I purchased them for on sale) and currently my library is worth $1620.25, and I’ve only recently switched back to PC gaming. That’s already well over what I paid for my gaming PC, and it plays everything on ultra-graphics settings.

In closing, I know it sounds like this entire post was a Steam fanboy rage. Take it how you will, but it’s undeniable, that their digital distribution methods are changing the industry, and the way we consume video game technology. Sooner or later, you will have to get on the bus. So what has my rant about business models really been about? It’s about the wave of change we are about to see unfold next year, and personally, it’s going to be damn exciting, and the real purpose of this blog was to lessen the blow of any disruptive technologies that blindside the average gamer next year. The winds of change are upon us!

Thanks for reading!

-Cheers





The Witcher 2 Review

23 12 2012

 

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I know I’ve been absent from my blog for some time, well life and business has a way of catching up with you. Now that it’s the holidays, and I have some time to write, I want to talk about a game that snuck up me. Now, as a frequent user of video games, I want to talk about a game that came out of nowhere and had me completely enthralled.

If you’re an avid gamer, you know what I’m talking about. That awesome feeling when you stumble upon a game that resonates perfectly with you, and you find yourself playing nonstop. This is particularly amazing when you weren’t looking for that game the in first place. As the incident goes, I stumbled upon The Witcher 2 on a Steam sale, and picked it up with barely a mild interest, honestly, it was a drunken impulse buy.

With an hour or so into the game, I was completely hooked, and amazed by the overall experience that I was having. There are very few games that I can say this about, and The Witcher 2, definitely earns the prestigious merits and accolades. That being said, let’s dive a little into why I thought the game was amazing, and some of the issues I did run into along the way (nothing can be perfect). Join me, for a quick analysis of The Witcher 2, as we peel a few of the layers back and take a look under the hood!

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Story, aesthetics, and fantasy universe, now with less spoilery-goodness! (Okay maybe a little)

Let’s start with the games strongest feature, and that is undeniably the story. You will find yourself in a rich fantasy universe, reminiscent of a medieval world; complete with all the trappings you would expect, and more. The world is full of the traditional races you have seen countless times, dwarves, elves, and humans etc.

There are several things that really stand out about the story and the environment with this game, that I felt were incredibly fascinating. First, and probably the most interesting to me, is that there are no real “Good” or “Evil” decisions that you make. Many RPG games follow the traditional style of awarding the player “Good” or “Evil” points for the decisions they make in the game, especially if the game has branching path decisions or not. At first, you feel that this is going to be the case, as you will have to make some pretty big decisions, who to side with, who to kill, who not to kill, what types of reactions you use, etc. Even though you can make seemingly “Evil” or “Good” decisions, you realize by the end of the game, that it doesn’t matter. As is true to reality, “Good” or “Evil” is simply a matter of perception, your choices in game have huge rippling effects, but the world goes on and you don’t transcend into some champion hero, or sinister villain.

I won’t spoil the last encounter, mainly because I enjoyed how the developers let you truly choose, especially against traditional game endings, but needless to say, you will probably be surprised.  Closing comments on the “Good” & “Evil” concept, I feel that not having to worry about what type of points that would be awarded for my choices, I was able to REALLY project myself upon my character while making the decisions on a case by case scenario with how I felt my character would really act. Overall, it allows for a greater sense of immersion in the story and the character you’re playing.

The next piece of the story, and the fantasy universe, that stood out was how pronounced and visible the societal issues between races were in this game, in fact, it ended up completely altering my decision making process to when I started. As spoiler free as I can be, you start out naturally allied with a specific race or faction, but as the game progresses, you see rampant racism, acts of genocide, and other tragedies commonly frequent in real life scenarios.

These issues, were well done enough that it led me to completely changing who I was allied with, which you get to choose eventually through pivotal decisions, and ended up taking me down a completely alternate story path from what I intended to go down from the beginning. In conjunction to that, the game has a particularly “adult” theme to it, so I don’t recommend letting your kids play this if you have any. Don’t let that keep you from experiencing the story though. The adult theme lends a very strong hand to establishing the fantasy setting, and doesn’t feel too over accentuated or gratuitous, as it can feel in some games.

That will segue into my next portion of the story, the romance plot! All at once, you can hear the collective clicks as all of the males reading this close the web browser! (I kid) Seriously though, it’s actually a driving portion of the game, which naturally leads to the “damsel in distress” story arc. Normally, I’d sigh with the thought of the story doing nothing new, but this time, it felt good to me. Plus, there’s a pretty solid twist at the end, which ties into it, so you won’t be let down.

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I do have one gripe about the romance plot, but I’ll leave that out, as I feel it might be a bit of a spoiler so I’ll just tease you with it instead!

Summary of story and universe:

Overall, I felt the universe was rich, well crafted, and very easy to immerse myself into. You’ll feel and see the obvious inspirations that the developers had from several sources, yes; some Tolkien is in there too. You’ll be greeted with gorgeous visuals, strong adult themes, societal issues, mythical monsters, a captivating story arc, and a hero cycle that feels great.

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Core Gameplay Mechanics:

So on to a few of the functional aspects of the game. To sum up the combat, it is pretty much a third person hack and slash, with menu based special abilities/items, which are used in real time but in a bullet time type mechanic. Confused? Okay in English, you can chop your enemies to tiny bits with your swords, or change your spell & item hotkeys during combat with a wheel menu layout, while you do this, you enter a bullet time state, thus giving you time to strategize without fully pausing the game or interrupting combat.

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The combat mechanics feel pretty good, and are kind of fresh. You can choose to go all out melee, or you can bounce around setting traps, tossing magic, and throwing bombs/knives at your enemies.

I feel that there are some balancing issues with the combat, as far as correctly ramping difficulty throughout the game. For example, early on, I was fighting by the skin of my teeth, but I felt that once I crafted some nice swords and armor, plus a few points into my chosen skill tree, that I was unfairly pummeling my enemies after the first chapter. Perhaps this is on purpose, as when I started the last couple encounters, and the end game sequence; I was quickly on my toes again (and dying a lot). It also could have been because I was spending time exploring, crafting, and doing quests outside of the critical path of the story arc. (So maybe I was ahead of the curve a little, which that isn’t inherently a bad thing)

I did feel that on occasion, the combat felt a little clunky with specific encounters. Plus, the AI was a little too easy to deceive at times. Don’t let that discourage you though; you’ll have plenty of moments where you are too busy fighting for your life to notice small issues.

There are a few QTE’s (Quick time events) throughout the game, but they are spread out enough that they don’t detract from the combat. They are usually saved for fighting mini-games, and boss finishers.

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Overall, I felt the combat mechanics were different enough to be fun and interesting, but I think there are some balancing issues with the difficulty ramping, and the game didn’t particularly force me to use all of my abilities. I found I was using maybe 45%-50% of my available abilities. I found a few dominant strategies, and stuck with that for the majority of the game. Personally, this didn’t detract from my experience, but from a design perspective, it’s not really a good thing.

UI

Not too many issues, however, I will comment on the inventory interface. At first, when buying/selling, or navigating your inventory, you’ll probably feel a little confused. The interface does a poor job of properly highlighting your selection, and until you get used to it, you can easily become lost. It’s not game breaking, but I feel they could have designed the inventory UI just a touch better.

Bugs/Issues

The most issues I observed on my play through, was some minor AI pathing and reaction issues. Overall, nothing too obvious to the untrained eye. I have heard, from other sources, that there used to be some “blocker” type bugs that would prevent a player from progressing. I believe, that these have been addressed and fixed, as since I just purchased the game and I did not encounter any of these issues. Keep in mind though, there are different story branches you can proceed down, so maybe some of these bugs still exist, but I ran into none of them.

Summary:

The Witcher 2 was a sleeper game for me. I didn’t really know anything about it, but once I spent a few moments in the game I was hooked, and played practically nonstop through the game. Perhaps, the game just happened to resonate to me perfectly, but I feel that anyone who values a compelling story, fleshed out characters, and a rich environment will immediately take to this game. Besides, the game is probably on sale on Steam, so give it a chance and tell me what you think!

Hope you enjoyed my small review of The Witcher 2, and I hope I kept it as spoiler free as possible!





Guild Wars 2 Review lvl 30-80

1 10 2012

 

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As promised, I’ll be covering my lvl 30-80 play experience and some of my thoughts on the process. I’ll be covering a few topics such as core gameplay, story, economy, and end game events/dungeons.

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Core Gameplay:

Not much particularly changes from lvl 30 to lvl 80 in this game as far as significant changes in skills/abilities. Unlocking more traits does make a significant difference in customizing your class. However, the game scales rather well in difficulty to your respective level. At about level 60+ I started to observe the corresponding zones of that level were becoming increasingly difficult, in comparison to the previous areas. When I hit the lvl 80 areas, I found myself dying plenty even with pretty good gear. Overall, the game starts weaning you from a balanced mixture of quests and group events, to almost exclusively group events in the lvl 70+ zones. By the time I reached lvl 80, I began to realize just how critical it is to have the right abilities selected, based off of what you’re doing. The final tier in un-lockable abilities is absolutely critical (At least for the Mesmer they are). This is especially true for running the higher level dungeons, which in this game they can be particularly unforgiving. It’s a nice change in pace for the player because the zones condition you to “mobbing” through quests and group events. Then you jump in a dungeon and suddenly you and four other players have to actually function on a traditional level of dungeon running. Strategic pulls, situational awareness, specific tactics for boss fights, etc.

On a recap of skills/abilities, having only five weapon skills per weapon does not feel entirely limited or boring by level 80. I was suspicious of this system from the beginning; mainly I felt it might be a little over simplified. However, blazing through to level 80 I never particularly felt any boredom with my available weapon abilities. The pacing in GW2 negates this problem, as they elegantly avoided any kind of “level grind” that a lot of MMO’s can fall victim to.

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Story:

Without going into particulars of the story, it does a pretty good job of staying interesting all the way to lvl 80, and plainly sets the player up for some end game events. I did notice however, that the corresponding equipment rewards for completing a quest began to become less and less beneficial to me (In other words they started to suck). While at the same time the experience gains became significantly better. From lvl 65 to lvl 80 I practically only completed my daily quest and my story quests. As I mentioned before, this is particularly nice that they avoided a grind in this game. Many MMO’s have the terrible habit of making the last 25%-35% of the level cap extremely “grindy”. In regards to the story itself, they basically designed a branching path architecture with all paths looping back to the same ending. There are several player driven choices that will change the story slightly and how you as the player experience it. For example you have the choice in which factions you join, and you occasionally choose how your character responds (aggressive, compassionate, etc.).

In conjunction with these alterations in the story, you also have to remember that you can change your story slightly during character creation with selecting your past as noble, commoner, etc. So in recap on the story, it manages to stay interesting and relevant to the player. While also being rewarding all the way to lvl cap, and if you as the player want to experience every possible angle and minute change in story, you would have to do a lot of plays through to see them all, as it will fluctuate based on the variables you choose of race, past, faction, and your characters emotional disposition.

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Economy:

Now this is a fun one! If you’re an experienced MMORPG player, you’ve probably played at least one game where it was literally destroyed (or you’re experience lessened) by the economy being destroyed by gold sellers, or terrible design. If you have not experienced this, then consider yourself fortunate. That being said, let me start by saying it is definitely too early to say how the economy in GW2 will pan out, as these things take time to mature. However, I will offer some of my observations and some of the development teams design decisions.

As I was playing through the game, I was so caught up in blasting through events and quests; I never particularly stopped to pay attention to how the market was functioning. Mainly because since you can place items on the auction house while out in the field, I didn’t care! After a decent amount of time, I was wondering why I was getting more money from the auction house (I had placed copious amounts of items for sell). So I took a visit to the auction house and found I had almost a dozen pages of items NOT selling. Upon further investigation, I realized that items beneath rare status often had 1000+ of them on the market. This does one critical thing, since the supply is vastly higher than the demand; it drives the value of items below rare to that of just above vendor prices.  I believe this is on purpose by Arena Net to combat gold sellers. Basically, a lot of these items are more valuable by being broken down for crafting materials, or by just selling them to the vendors. Rare and above items can only efficiently be obtained by running harder dungeons, or completing large group events. This makes it difficult for gold sellers in small groups, or bots, to efficiently “farm” these items.

Lastly, and most importantly about the economy, is that Arena Net is shamelessly their own gold sellers. If you can’t beat them, join them right? What they have done is implemented “gems” that can be purchased for real money, then used to buy cosmetic items, or (ready for this?) used to exchange for gold on a living, breathing, currency exchange. This exchange even has a variable exchange rate based off of player activity and use of the exchange.  Players can buy/sell gems/gold back and forth. This means that savvy players can watch the exchange and make a profit from strategic buying/selling dependant on the current exchange rate. I don’t know how this will work in the long run, but it’s an interesting dynamic and a fresh way to tackle the gold seller problem. I think it’s somewhat akin to digital piracy. Piracy is rarely a social problem, but usually a problem of a service/good not having a high enough perceived value in regards to its current cost or availability.

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End Game:

Now this is the big question people always ask about a new MMORPG, “Is there an end game?” Thanks to a generation of World of Warcraft players being spoiled by a decade of content being developed, they now expect a newly launch MMORPG to have an equivalent amount of content (Okay I’ll get off of my soap box now J ). That being said, I haven’t particularly been at lvl 80 long enough to experience everything. I can say that the lvl 70-80 zones have a ton of group event quests continually going on. I also have not had time to run the higher lvl dungeons yet either. I have observed however, that they have done something interesting by creating raid quality open world group events. For example, in one of the zones a group event opened up, and not only did we have to kill the boss, but periodically she would go through phases in which we had to go to different locations and perform actions like disabling power generators, then resuming the attack. There were other elements to that fight, but what I’m getting at is I believe Arena Net is aiming for raids that don’t require shouting in “LFG” for hours and joining a separately instanced area. These kinds of experiences might exist, but I haven’t specifically reached them yet. In closing, if there is one piece of advice I can offer if you are currently playing through, or plan on playing through, is to SAVE YOUR KARMA POINTS!!!!! Wait let me say that again, this time more accentuated, SAVE YOUR KARMA POINTS!!! You can thank me later on that one!

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Summary:

So far, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first play through to level cap on my Mesmer, and I hope the community that’s been established sticks around and that GW2 has a nice long life. I say this because they’ve done enough different and innovative things that they’ve created a nice and refreshing MMORPG experience that I think everybody should experience.

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Thanks for reading!

-Cheers





Guild Wars 2 Review lvl 1-30

2 09 2012

So as the title implies, this review will cover my initial impressions from level 1-30 in Guild Wars 2. So needless to say I was one of 400,000 + people to jump into the head start for GW2, and so far I’ve been nothing but impressed. So I will attempt to cover a few topics or categories of my experience to level 30.

Mesmer in front of main Human City

The game starts with a typical well thought out character creation process. The fun part here is that you pick a few things that describe your character, which establishes your story. What this means is there are different variations within the same race depending upon what you choose. For a comparison it feels similar to Mass Effect 1 where you set up your characters past. Except here there are way more variations because of the different races, so in essence you would have to play a lot of characters to get every story line.

After your character is made you launch right into the game and story, you don’t just spawn into some newbie zone and kill bunny rabbits with a stick. After the first story quest is done (you are in an instance for this), then you are free to go wherever and quest. Here is where GW2 REALLY shines. Your character level will adjust to whatever zone you are playing in. This was awesome because I rocketed past in level over my friends, but I could go back and play in their zone with them, and still get experience and money. This vastly recreates replay ability, and helps keep zones from turning into dead zones because there is less people that level. Also, it is particularly easy to get to the other starting areas with your friends. A couple of portal jumps and you are there.

So with that I will segue into questing. The questing in GW2 is seamless and very painless. The only quest you will keep on your HUD is your main story quest. All other quests are specific to the area you walk in. So you walk near a quest giver and it pops up on your HUD, soon as you leave the area it goes away. If you complete it, you automatically get the reward, so you don’t have to chase down NPC’s later to receive rewards. This method helps streamline player progression a lot.

The next best thing about questing is the dynamic group events that happen everywhere. I’m not entirely sure if the group events trigger from a certain amount of players in the area, or if they are on a timer or random. Either way, group events will start up all over the place, requiring a decent amount of players to accomplish them. They vary from taking down a boss, defending a city, escorting an NPC, or destroying objects/cities. The best part about them is that you only have to be in the area and you can participate, very similar to what Warhammer started, but much more seamless and plentiful. For questing, they have a very refreshing take when compared to traditional MMORPG’s.

Event Quest

Event Quest

On to story a little, the story NPC’s are fully voice casted and pretty well animated. The voice acting is also pretty well done. I found I was actually interested in my storyline quest, and found the characters to be believable, this is rare in an MMORPG and should be valued. It should not come as a surprise though, considering how established and vast the lore for GW is in the first place. It’s a rich and very fleshed out world to explore.

Aesthetically speaking, the world is very well constructed. They implemented “view vistas”, which often require some Mario jumping skills plus puzzle solving, to locate. Once you reach the vista you are rewarded with a camera view panning over some grand scenic view (which a lot of these screenshots come from in game). That paired with a good soundtrack (reminds me of playing Skyrim with the music), really helps the player get immersed in the world. The level designs are also very expertly crafted, and well just plain gorgeous in a lot of places.

View Vista Before

View Vista during camera movement

Now some more technical review, lets get on to the character skills setup. Here is one of the most refreshing aspects of all with GW2. You get character traits and character skills. The traits are dependent on your class and you unlock them as you level up, similar to a skill tree. However you can only have a limited few selected at a time, so you have to mix and match five of them on your HUD to use. You can change them out easily, but not during combat. The best part is that your skills are specific to whatever weapon your character is holding. For example, on my Mesmer I switch back and forth between a greatsword and a staff often. When I do this switch, my skills completely change because they are specific to that weapon type. This is awesome because you can quickly change up your tactics to suit the situation. You are also limited to five skills, this might sound like over simplification to people used to MMORPG’s where 80% of your screen is filled with a hundred buttons. This design streamlines the process very nicely, as you can have two weapons types selected, and you can switch between them in battle. This allows you to change your tactics on the fly, which is awesome especially for PVP.

Mesmer blasting enemies with a Greatsword

The character classes are also refreshing (I know I keep using that word a lot, but GW2 is refreshing!) mainly because they don’t really conform to traditional archetypes. For example, my ranger uses a bow and throwing axes which is expected, but she can also use a greatsword. My Mesmer is a magical light armor casting class, so you would expect just wands and staffs right? Well she happens to rock with a greatsword as well. Sounds odd, but they are well executed.

The last thing I’ll compliment them on so far is the server set up. I got on when the servers were fired up, and guess what… no queue times! This is because they smartly implemented “overflow servers”. So basically you play on a server and you’re in queue for the regular server. When it pops it seamlessly transports you to the main server in the exact location you were standing. The only issue with this is when your playing with your friends, sometimes it can be a challenge to get on the same overflow server or main server with them to play. This will work itself out as populations and community’s balance out. It is a nice feature though, because nobody likes seeing “Estimated wait time : 3- Hours”, I know we have all been there.

So now on to some gripes. The largest issue right now is the fact that the auction house, as of the time of this writing, is still down and not operational. This doesn’t anger me specifically, because I realize there are always kinks in an MMORPG launch. I just hope it is fixed soon for the less patient players. I also have observed that there seems to be a lack of variety with different armor models. So far, I believe there are a certain amount of sets between level ranges, I.e. 10-20, 20-30, etc etc. I hope in the future they add new armor and equipment models.

I realize that I’m at lvl 30, which is a drop in the bucket for a total of 80 possible levels. So far this s an awesome experience and completely refreshing for me. I will continue to review the game as I progress towards the “End Game” experience. I hope you will enjoy reading about my experience there as much as I enjoy playing it!