Madden 19 - title

I have a bit of a confession to make: despite my years of playing Madden, and my frequent blog rants about the quality of the game and my desired feature sets, I'm actually not particularly good at the game. I never really have been. I don't really have the "stick skills". I've been playing the game exclusively on All-Pro difficulty setting since the PS2 days, and never really graduated to being an All-Madden level player. All-Pro has always been a bit on the easy side, but I just never have a good time on All-Madden due to the A.I.'s excessive cheating.

Pro and All-Pro difficulties actually providing a challenge?

I'm having a really hard time with Madden 19, and I'm wondering if I'm the only one. The game feels like it's a lot harder to move the ball, and I'm still not quite sure if that's a result of the game cheating more, or if the A.I. has legitimately improved considerably, or if there's something wrong with me (are my 33-year-old reflexes simply not fast enough to play this game anymore?).

My early games were low-scoring defensive struggles in which I and the CPU struggled moving the ball.

I'm not the only one who's struggling; the CPU is only faring a little bit better. My first few exhibition games (on All-Pro difficulty, 9-minute quarters with 19-second accel clock) were field goal battles with final scores in the 16-6 or 20-10 range. I struggled to put up 150 or 200 yards passing or to surpass 30 or 40 yards rushing. The CPU didn't fare much better, usually getting around 150 yards passing, but beating me with 80 or 90 yards rushing.

In general, defensive reactions times and coverages (for both my team and the CPU team) seemed much tighter (without even having to tweak the game's A.I. sliders). Passing the ball downfield seems considerably harder and riskier, as receivers for both teams were often blanketed by man coverage, and the underneath defenders are uncannily good at reacting to the ball and swatting passes. They might even be a bit too good at swatting passes now, as even touch passes over the middle were routinely swatted down. Tiburon might need to tune down linebacker jumping abilities a smudge and add some animations of the ball being tipped instead of outright swatted.

Underneath defenders are swatting a lot of passes.

Passing concepts that had been reliable "money plays" for me over the past few years were completely shut down. Corners did a better job of staying with the receivers for Dagger, Corner, and comeback routes, and the defenders in the flats did a much better job of providing underneath support with those crazy leaping swats. Even when there were gaps in zones, I had trouble getting the ball off before defensive pressure got to me. Blocking is still a very binary "pass or fail" affair, so sensing pressure and getting the ball off on time is still largely a crap shoot. Drag routes seem to still be completely indefensible, but defenses are much quicker at converging and limiting the yards after catch.

This generally excellent coverage was counterpointed by occasional complete breakdowns. I had several instances in which my defender in a deep zone coverage (and it was always my defender!) would suddenly undercut the route while the ball is in the air -- as if to go for an aggressive interception or swat -- only to run himself out of the play and leave the receiver wide open with no help over the top. Almost every touchdown that I saw in those first few games was a direct result of one of these coverage breakdowns.

Deep zone defenders occasionally ran themselves out of plays by undercutting routes.

While I struggled with these early exhibition games, I did appreciate that Madden 19 was actually providing me with a substantial challenge unlike any that I had seen in the entire history of the franchise. And best of all, the game seemed to be relatively fair about imposing that challenge. As hard as it was for me to move the ball, it seemed almost equally hard for the CPU as well!

Could it be? After all these years, has EA finally produced a Madden game this is challenging, fair, and -- dare I say -- good?

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Death's Gambit - title

Being that Death's Gambit is produced by Adult Swim, I wasn't sure if it was going to turn into an outright parody of Dark Souls. Was this going to be some kind of comedic satire? Or a serious and thoughtful game? Or just a mindless hack-n-slash with little regard paid to story or narrative. It surely wastes little time before mocking Dark Souls.

Death's Gambit wastes little time before mocking Dark Souls.

Much of the game's design is blatantly inspired by Dark Souls, except for the title's font, which is evocative of Demon's Souls. From the menus, to the character creation screen, to the main character's armor that looks suspiciously like Artorias of the Abyss' armor, to the death mechanics, you'll see Dark Souls mirrored in almost every element of the Death's Gambit's design. As such, it's very hard to judge Death's Gambit without appealing back to the game(s) that so clearly inspired it.

Music is one strange element of production in which Death's Gambit deviates considerably from its inspiration. The main menu music is reminiscent of old-school RPGs, such as Final Fantasy X, rather than silence, and this trend of not being silent extends to the rest of the game. Instead of a mostly-quiet experience with calming strings in the hub and an intense orchestra for boss battles, Death's Gambit has pretty constant background music as you traverse the world. This makes the music, overall, feel less memorable, as it kind of just disappears into the background. The background music for the Central Sanctuary reminds me of Resident Evil's save room while I'm listening to it, but I can't actually remember what it sounds like once I stop playing.

Lessons from Dark Souls

Death's Gambit is, sadly, plagued by a lot of nagging little problems and lack of polish. Some of them are even issues that have been present in the Souls games, but which have been fixed (or at least addressed) by FromSoft in sequels. In these cases, White Rabbit should have known better. The most egregious of such offenders might be the inability to purchase multiple copies of any given consumable at a time. The Buy screen doesn't tell you how much of a given item you already have, and the Enchant screen doesn't tell you which items are equipped. If you use up all of a given consumable, it's removed from your item bar, and if you buy more, they are not put back into your item bar.

Nagging annoyances include text and foreground decorations obstructing the action.

The game also puts text overlays on the screen, sometimes while enemies are present. You can't read the text while you're focusing on not dying, but the text also gets in the way of the action. It's nice that they make sure that the player sees some of the important lore that you find, but don't do it if you're going to have enemies attack the player at the same time!

To top it all off, a lot of the text is really small and difficult to read, with no option to enlarge it. If you're playing on a console, sitting more than about 8 feet from the TV, you will probably have to lean forward and squint to read most of these menus...

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I've been having a lot of trouble with Madden 19 so far. The game has so far seemed unusually difficult. Not just for myself, but also for my CPU opponents. Both myself and the CPU have had a lot of trouble moving the ball. Part of this seems to be the result of some tighter coverage in the defensive secondary. But a big part of it is the complete ineffectiveness of the running game. At first, I thought the problem was associated with the defenders not being bound by the same Real Player Motion locomotion limitations as the ball-carrier. This may still be the case, but I discovered that a big part of the problem is a recurring glitch in which the center gets stuck in a looping animation of him snapping the ball instead of blocking his assignment.

This problem happened several times during the course of my Franchise preseason game. I captured some footage of it, and edited it into a quick Youtube video highlighting the problem.

Centers get stuck in a loop, as if snapping the ball repeatedly instead of blocking their assignment.

When this happens, the defender who the center is supposed to block (usually the defender closest to the quarterback or running back) goes completely unblocked and has an unobstructed path into the offensive backfield. This results in runs repeatedly getting blown up for losses of 3 or more yards. So far, I haven't seen it happen on a passing play, but it's possible that the bug affects passing plays as well.

The problem isn't isolated to the human user. While going back through some footage from that same game, I also saw at least one incident in which it happened to the CPU's center as well.

This isn't the first glitch that I've found in the game. I also posted a short clip of a defensive coverage glitch in which defenders in deep zones would undercut a receiver's route, as if to go for an aggressive interception or swat. The problem is that the defenders runs himself out of the play, out of position to even attempt such an interception or swat, and leaves the receiver open for a huge gain or a touchdown. I've seen this happen on several occasions, and the defender does it even though he doesn't have any help over the top.

Defensive backs also undercut routes and run themselves out of plays.

Bugs like this have been pervasive enough in my early time with Madden 19 that I'm not sure if I can consider the game to even be viably playable at this point. It just isn't worth my time. I might have to put Madden aside for now and check out the recent patch for Maximum Football 2018 instead. Or hold my breath until Axis Football releases...

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Doom (2016) - title

I never played the original Doom. I didn't get into PC gaming until the mid twenty-aughts, and even then didn't play much in the way of first person shooters that weren't the first two Call of Duty games. I was always more into SimCity and Civilization. So I was in no rush to play 2016's reboot of Doom, nor can I really look at it from the perspective of how it holds up against the original's legacy. I heard a lot of good things about it, and picked it up on this year's Steam summer sale.

Bethesda recently announced a sequel, so I thought I'd check this one out to find out if I should be excited.

I miss the good ol' days of game demos being available before a game releases.

I actually did play the free demo on the PSN months ago, which was an option for me because the game's been out for two years already (does this count as a retro review?). I miss the days when free demos were available before a game's release, so we could try it before we buy it. Sigh. Anyway, I had a lot of trouble with hitting enemies with a PS4 controller considering how fast and movement-oriented the combat is, but I definitely saw the potential enjoyment that I could have with the finer control of a mouse. So I went ahead with the Steam purchase.

Punch a demon in the face

Doom breaks from the cover-based mold set by most recent big budget first-person shooters by encouraging very fast, very frenetic, very aggressive, and very in-your-face action in a fashion similar to Bloodborne. Staggering an enemy allows you to perform a melee "Glory Kill" that provides you with a shower of health pick-ups and ammo. When your health is critical, the best course of action usually isn't to run away and take cover (like in so many modern cover-based shooters); rather, the ideal strategy is often to find the biggest, meanest demon, shotgun it in the face, and then rip its head off with your own bare hands. This keeps the player in the action, and mostly removes the need to backtrack through a level to find health kits and powerups. It's not quite as tactical or thoughtful as the dismemberment system from Dead Space, and some might argue that it's derivative of the chainsaw from Gears of War, but it does help to create a definite flow to the combat that helps it to stand out from other shooters of the era.

Charging an enemy is often the best way to restore your health.

The default move speed is faster than the sprint of most other modern shooter games. You can press 'Shift' to toggle a "walk" mode, but I honestly don't know why you would ever want to, and I never once used it after experimenting with the controls at the start of the game. Most enemies also charge at you with melee attacks or have actual projectile attacks (as opposed to hit-scan weapons). You don't avoid damage by ducking behind cover; instead, you can usually just side-step an incoming projectile or attack. Again, because of the fast speed of the character, the term "side-step" isn't really apt; it's more like a "side-sprint".

This all creates a very retro feel that [I assume] faithfully captures the spirit and fluidity of the original game's combat. It's an experience more akin to a first-person bullet hell game rather than the cover-based, whack-a-mole shooting galleries that define most modern shooters.

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Civilization VI - Lautaro of Mapuche

Civilization VI's first expansion, Rise & Fall released earlier this year, and it introduced a few leaders and civilizations that are making their first appearance in the franchise. I hope to be able to write strategies for every one of the expansion civs and leaders, but I'm going to start with the ones that are new to the franchise, and the ones that most utilize the expansion's new features (Era Score, governors, loyalty, and so on). This month, I will be tackling the Mapuche, lead by Lautaro.

The peoples known as the Mapuche are a collection of societies indigenous to southern Chile and Argentina who are linked by social, spiritual, economic, and linguistic heritage. Archaeological evidence shows their culture has existed since around 600 or 500 BC, and their textiles have been traded throughout South America for centuries. Though mostly independent, the various tribes would unite together during times of war (such as against the Inca and Spanish) and elect a "toqui" (meaning "axe-bearer") to act as a military and domestic leader.

Civilization VI - Lautaro portrait

One such toqui was Lautaro "Swift Hawk". He was elected toqui while still less than 20 years old, after escaping from the personal captivity of the Spanish general Pedro de Valdivia. He lead numerous successful raids (called "Malón") against the Spanish, eventually capturing Fort Tucapel in December and killing his former captor, de Valdivia, during the Spanish counterattack in December 1553. The Mapuche, under Lautaro's command, may have been able to further expel the Spanish if not for a typhus outbreak and famine that prevented further raids. He was killed four years later in a Spanish ambush, but the Mapuche would continue to resist the Spanish for over a century after Lautaro's death. Lautaro is revered by Chileans (Mapuche and non-Mapuche alike) for his courageous leadership against the Spanish who sought to enslave them, and is even depicted as an almost heroic figure in the Spanish epic poem La Araucana.

Lautaro and the Mapuche can be a potent military force in Civilization VI: Rise & Fall, especially against rival civilizations that ascend to golden ages, or who fall into dark ages.

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