Star Wars Squadrons - title

I don't think it will be controversial to say that the best part of EA's 2017 Star Wars Battlefront II was the multiplayer space dogfighting. It made me yearn for a good Star Wars flight sim in the vein of the old X-Wing and TIE Fighter PC classics. But in this age of big-budget, micro-transaction-fueled, multiplayer-focused, spectacle shooters, I wasn't going to hold my breath for EA (the exclusive rights-holder to Star Wars games) to deliver any time soon, especially after a planned remake from LucasArts was canceled back in 2009.

So it came as a surprise to see Star Wars: Squadrons. Yes, it's an online game with a competitive multiplayer focus, so no divergence from modern norms there. But it's also a $40, "middle-shelf" game built on a lower budget than the usual AAA blockbuster that EA produces. That lower budget and pricetag seems to have liberated developer Motive from much of the corporate burden of expectations associated with a larger-scale, more expensive product. Squadrons takes a few risks by raising the expectations and barrier of entry for players, and it doesn't stoop to offsetting its lower pricetag by incorporating a micro-transaction economy (at least not yet).

A flight-sim light

Much like the Ace Combat series, Star Wars: Squadrons hits a good, comfortable middle-ground between an arcade dogfighter and a flight-sim. Squadrons even errs a bit closer to sim in some regards via its power-allocation and sub-system-management mechanics. It is also much more restrictive about the use of special weapons. While Ace Combat allows players to coast along by shooting down almost every enemy plane with your stockpile of 60 or 70 missiles (despite flying a plane that only has between 2 and 6 missles strapped to its undercarriage), Squadrons focuses much more heavily on the use of the fighters' primary laser cannons.

Squadrons locks the player into a cockpit view.

Players are even locked into a cockpit view with limited HUD elements, forcing players to rely on the cockpit instruments. This game makes me wish I had a good PS4-compatible flight stick. The only flight stick I own is an old PC one, which I had to jury-rig to work with Ace Combat 7 on Steam.

No, it isn't as as involved as the classic X-Wing and TIE Fighter PC flight sims, but it's a significant step up from the N64 Rogue Squadron game and its sequel.

Motive has redeemed itself from the awful
single-player campaign of Battlefront II.

A more serious effort

Squadrons shows a lot of signs of learning from the failures of Battlefront II. In fact, I was surprised to find out that Motive was not the studio that developed Battlefront II's space dogfighting. That duty was handled by Criterion Studios. Motive was, in fact, the studio behind Battlefront II awful single-player campaign.

This time, Motive seems to have put some actual thought and effort behind Squadrons' campaign, its story, and its characters. Almost as if this is a project that the studio actually wanted to do, rather than being a project that was imposed upon them by a greedy publisher who just wants a token single-player mode in a game that is actually designed to scam money out of people with pay-to-win online multiplayer.

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Madden NFL - title

I had previously written about how the Madden NFL video game series from Electronic Arts has failed to simulate football by using a shortened quarter length to keep games around 30 minutes long. These shortened games lead to a rushed pace of play, fundamentally change the strategy of football, and also affect other aspects of balance and game design that are not easily fixed by simply setting the game to 15-minute quarters.

This time, I'm going to move away from the rules of the game, and look at more specific game mechanics that fail to simulate how real football players actually play football. This installment, and the next, will look at how real NFL quarterbacks make reads and go through progressions, and then at how defensive pressure packages are used to disrupt those reads and progressions to force the quarterback to make bad decisions. Then we'll look at how Madden completely fails to model these aspects of football, and the various ways that EA and Tiburon have tried to fix or cover up these problems over the years. Some have worked; others have been little more than band-aid solutions.

The companion isn't the sole focus of the narrative this time around.

How Madden succeeds at simulating football: pre-snap reads

Let's start with some good faith towards EA and Madden and talk about the things that the game actually does get fairly right: pre-snap reads. As a QB in Madden, you'll be looking at whether the middle of the field is open or closed before the snap, and this will give you a reasonably accurate idea of whether the route concept that you called will be successful. If you call a cover 2-beating post or dagger concept, but the defense comes out in a Cover-3 look, with a safety in the middle third, then you will be well-served to either adjust the routes using hot routes, audible out of the play entirely, or call a timeout to regroup and come up with another play.

Madden players can make sure
that a blitzing Mike LB is blocked.

Over the past few years, Madden has also gradually introduced concepts such as reading the Mike linebacker. This determines who the blockers will prioritize blocking, which can be important if the defense sends multiple blitzers. Identifying the most dangerous blitzer as the "Mike" ensures that someone on your offensive line will try to block him. Usually, this will be the inside-most blitzer (the one lined up closest to the center). You can also slide pass protection left or right to deal with an overload blitz, and can also assign a double team in order to neutralize a particularly dangerous pass rusher.

To Madden's credit, it gets most of this stuff right. Hopefully all the mechanics that I just mentioned are still in the game by the time you're reading this, and they haven't been stripped out by Tiburon in order to make room for some new gimmicky feature...

A Madden user can make many of the same reads that a real NFL quarterback would. The game will even highlight the key reads before the snap on certain plays to remind the user how to execute the selected play. Good stuff. I don't have many complaints here. Defenses can even disguise coverages, can fake blitzes, and use other similar tactics to try to fool the human user and force a bad read. Again, good stuff. The problems begin when a CPU QB steps on the field, and only get worse when the ball is snapped.

[More]
This series of blog post will also presented as a video essay on YouTube.

My first foray into long-form video analysis was a cathartic, hour-long, breakdown of how EA and Tiburon's design philosophy causes its Madden NFL video game series to feel disappointing and stagnant. That video was mostly about how EA's insistance on releasing the game annually forces them to come up with gimmicky features that they can plaster on the back of the box and on marketing material to try to re-sell the game every year, while neglecting the core problems and bugs that are the real thing holding the game back.

The fact that Ultimate Team is the biggest money-maker, and the impetus of the game's design efforts certainly doesn't help. You'd think that wanting to have a competitive, e-sport-level product would lead to the developers (and the competitive players) emphasizing and demanding solid, robust gameplay. Apparently not.

I will discuss how and why things are done in real football.

I'm starting up a new series of blog posts and video essays dissecting the failures of the Madden NFL video games' ability to simulate the sport of football. I'll start by talking about how and why something is done in real football (with an emphasis on NFL football). Then I'll dissect the ways in which modern Madden games (that is any Madden since 2008) completely fails to model that respective aspect of football. If relevant, I'll even address the silly ways that EA and Tiburon have tried to cover up the problems with band-aid solutions. Lastly, I'll even propose my own suggestions for how EA could potentially resolve the issues I'm going to bring up. So there will be some constructive criticism to go along with the complaining.

Before I begin the critique, I want to say that I'm not making this content simply to shit all over Madden or EA for the sake of shitting all over Madden or EA. Not that they don't deserve it. I'm doing this because I love football, and I love football video gaming, and I want our football video games to be better -- whether those games come from EA, 2K, or any other developer. I've also written reviews and done video breakdowns of the successes and failures of the indie football games in 2019, but I'm not going to go into the same level of nit-picking with those, since they are from studios that are severely limited by a low budget and lack of manpower. Madden, on the other hand, is developed by a corporate conglomerate with 30 years of experience making sports video games, hundreds of millions of dollars to throw around, and has a staff of hundreds of people working on it, almost a hundred of which are programmers. Bottom line is that EA has lots of money and the resources, and they have the exclusive rights to the NFL at least through 2026 (and used to have the exclusive rights to NCAA football as well). EA could make the definitive football video game. They just choose not to.

EA Sports logo NFL

Besides, almost everything I'm going to say in this series will likely apply to indie games as well. Those indie games have been getting consistently better, so there's a chance they might get more of this stuff right before Madden manages to. So I'm going to be directing most of my criticism towards EA's multi-million-dollar Madden series because I expect Madden to be able to do these things right.

...

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Tags:, , , , , , , , ,

Star Wars Battlefront II - title

Dang, I was really hoping to get this one out before the end of the year...

Thanks to previews, journalists, and complaints from beta users, this is yet another game that I knew better than to buy on launch day at full retail price. Even before the game came out, beta players and gaming websites were already condemning Battlefront II for its pay-to-win multiplayer system. When the media finally got their hands on preview builds of the full game, they were quick to attack the online progression system. Once the game was released, public outcry forced EA to literally neuter the game's online economy.

Slot machines are legally required to disclose
their paytables -- and sometimes their RTP.

EA started damage control by slashing the prices of heroes so that they supposedly weren't as much of a grind to unlock. However, the sneaky bastards also reduced the rewards for various in-game activities (such as completing the campaign), so as to render the cost reduction virtually moot. Then, EA disabled micro-transactions altogether. So by the time I finally started playing the game (over a month after launch), it was a totally different experience than it was intended to be at launch.

Star Wars license-holder Disney was furious with EA for potentially tarnishing the Star Wars brand (especially with the pending release of The Last Jedi). EA's stock prices fell as a result.

Battlefront II has actually caused law-makers and regulatory agencies in the United States and Europe to consider whether loot boxes qualify as "gambling", and whether they should, therefore, be regulated as such, including banning their sale to minors. Corporations are also starting to hop onto the bandwagon of self-regulation. Apple announced that all iOS apps with randomized micro-transactions must disclose the odds associated with rewards. This is the same disclosure that is actually legally required for actual gambling, such as slot machines.

For the record, I do not object to gambling per se. I actually bet every week on college and NFL football. Don't worry, I live in Nevada; it's legal for me. I spent almost three years working as a game developer for a slot machine manufacturer, and the only reason that I'm not still at that job is because the entire department in which I worked got laid off in the wake of a corporate merger (I'm actually very bitter and opposed to corporate mergers, by the way, but that's a discussion for another time). So I don't have a problem with gambling. I just think that it has a time and a place, and I don't want that time or place to be in my video games that I'm already paying $60 just to play. This is why casinos don't generally charge a cover fee.

I personally feel that Shadow of War and Destiny 2 are much more egregious examples of corporate avarice.

Also, for the record, I think that Battlefront II's micro-transaction controversy is a bit overblown. It's an online multiplayer shooter in which there is no win condition or end state. Whether you want the extra hero characters, and whether you're willing to spend time or money to get them is entirely up to the player's own whim. The game is perfectly playable without those heroes, and you can play through the campaign completely without spending an extra penny. It's a bit sleazy that EA markets the game by advertising these characters, and then locks them behind a grind/pay wall, but fighting games have been hiding unlockable characters behind grind-walls for decades.

Battlefront II isn't even the worst micro-transaction / pay-to-win system to come from EA! EA Sports titles like Madden and FIFA have been getting away with much worse pay-to-win systems (via their respective Ultimate Team modes) for years. Personally, I also think that Shadow of War (review coming very soon) has a much more offensive micro-transaction model because Warner Bros actually tied it into that game's campaign. If you want to finish the story, you either have to sit through the grind, or pay to speed it up. Though all of these pale in comparison to Activision and Bungie locking formerly-accessible end-game content behind the pay-wall of a Destiny 2 expansion pack.

In any case, it's sad that a review of a video game has to turn into a political op-ed, but that's the sad state of things right now.

Controversy and public outrage forced EA to completely disable in-game purchases.

So, if I knew that the game was controversially terrible, why did I bother to play it? ...

[More]

Madden NFL 18 - title

Oh boy, booting up Madden 18 for the first time was like watching a slow motion train wreck -- before the train had even left the station. After a few start-up questions to set my play style and difficulty level, the game immediately loaded into a demo game of a Superbowl rematch between the Falcons and Patriots. Except it crashed to the PS4 menu before the game could load. I booted it up again, sat through setting my initial preferences again, and then waited in anticipation to see whether the demo game would actually load.

It did, but instead of a tightly-choreographed narrative tutorial like in Madden 16 and 17, it loaded into a normal Play Now game, but with pathetically sparse commentary and lazy SuperBowl presentation. Now, Madden 17's tutorial wasn't great. The player banter was cheesily-written and poorly-acted, and completely misrepresented the actual content of the game. But at least it had scripted scenarios that put the player in position to try out some of the new features. Madden 18's introduction couldn't even be bothered with trying to be a tutorial. It just throws you into a game with a few tooltips popping up in the corner of the screen that you may or may not have time to read, and which may or may not be actually relevant or useful.

The demo game exposed the persistence of legacy issues with loose ball and onside kick recovery.

The actual game exposed several legacy issues were still present. Loose-ball physics and fumble recoveries appear to still be an ongoing problem. A fumbled ball just magically sticks to a recovering player's hand, and an onside kick was sucked right into the waiting hands of a member of the receiving team. So much for my hopes that the Frostbite Engine might be a panacea for fixing any legacy physics issues...

The game ended, I was given a "What's New" teaser video that explained the settings and options that I had already chosen before, and then I was put on the main menu where every piece of content was locked out. The only thing that I was allowed to do is replay that same Falcons-Patriots Superbowl rematch. You see, this year's Madden game pulls that annoying trick where it installs just enough content to allow you to boot up the game and play a tiny piece of demo content while the rest of the content downloads and installs in the background. I hate this feature! I don't want to play an incomplete game. I'll play it when it's fully installed and ready to go. In the meantime, I can read a magazine or play something else. Don't tell me the game is "ready to play", when it isn't!

What I got was a buggy, poorly-performing game scenario that I didn't want to play, and which did nothing but showcase that major legacy issues still remain, that the commentary might be sparse and lifeless (fortunately it isn't), and it couldn't even be bothered to actually teach me any of the game's new features.

"Ready to play", my ass... At least install the Skill Trainer so I can do some tutorials!

And I thought Grand Theft Auto V's tutorial was bad.

When the game finally was ready to let me actually play, I spent some of my early time in Ultimate Team to get my feet wet and see if that mode had become worth playing. No, it still isn't...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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Featured Post

How Madden Fails to Simulate Football: Quarter LengthHow Madden Fails to Simulate Football: Quarter Length06/05/2020 This series of blog post will also presented as a video essay on YouTube. My first foray into long-form video analysis was a cathartic, hour-long, breakdown of how EA and Tiburon's design philosophy causes its Madden NFL video game series to feel disappointing and stagnant. That video was mostly about how EA's insistance on...

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A PolyCast discussion of what Civilization can learn from MaddenA PolyCast discussion of what Civilization can learn from Madden11/15/2016 The past few weekends, I've been lucky enough to be invited to guest host on a pair of episodes of PolyCast, the Civilization podcast series. Both episodes were dedicated towards first impressions and thoughts about the release of Civilization VI (which I've already reviewed). The first episode (episode 268) was recorded the...

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