Ghost of Tsushima - title

I don't recall the last time I played an open world sandbox game through to the end credits prior to writing a review for it. Usually, I've made my decision about the game long before credits roll. If I like the game, I usually stop before it becomes too tedious, finish up my review, move on to something else, and I rarely ever go back to finish these games. That was the case with Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, Shadow of Mordor, and others. Ghost of Tsushima is a rare instance of me actually liking an open world sandbox game enough that I couldn't stop playing.

One of the sad ironies for me, as an amateur critic, is that I usually play a game longer if I don't like it -- sometimes all the way to end credits. As was the case with Assassin's Creed III and Shadow of War. This is because I want to find out if there's anything late in the game that might redeem it -- even if in some small way.

In this regard, Ghost of Tsushima is a rare exception. I was enjoying the heck out of the game and wanted to see how it ends before I commit to a review. It wasn't even a case of me rushing through the main story just to get it over with (as is the case with many bad open world games). In fact, I completed all the side missions (including the mythic missions), liberated a majority of the occupied towns, and found a majority of all collectibles. I might even play some of the epilogue. So I can say without reservation that I like this game! And it all begins with the presentation.

This is not a promotional still! Nor was it taken with the included "photo mode".
This is just what the game looks like!

You have to see it to believe it

Ghost of Tsushima is not necessarily the most technically impressive game that I've played. Games like Red Dead Redemption II and The Last of Us Part II have had better facial animation, lighting, textures, and/or draw distance. But where Tsushima lacks in technical capabilities, it more than makes up for in aesthetics and artistry. The environments are beautiful, and the weather effects (especially wind effects) are second to none. Whether it's fields of vividly-colored flowers swaying in the wind, or ocean waves crashing on a sandy beach, or the plum trees on a rocky mountain dropping their blossoms into the breeze, or a thunderstorm threatening over the horizon, or a shinto temple towering over a forest of golden trees, there is something pretty to look at no matter where you go.

Screenshots do not do the game justice. You have to see it in HD motion to appreciate it.

I'm not normally one to gush over a game's graphics, but Ghost of Tsushima really stands out for its environmental design. Over the crest of every hill, it seemed a majestic screenshot opportunity awaited me. Picking just one or two to highlight in this review was a real challenge. Even the best screenshots that I could capture do not do the game justice. You really have to see it in high-definition motion (without the compression of an internet stream) to truly appreciate it.

I haven't seen weather effects this good since [maybe] The Witcher III.

This game is perfect as a virtual vacation during the travel-restricted social-distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or at least, it would be, if not for the densely-packed sandbox content making it so that I can't take 10 steps without running into an ambient encounter of some kind. I could be trotting along on my horse through a forest lit with the golden glow of a sunset beaming through the canopy, with the serene ambiance of the wind harmonizing with the background music of Japanese flutes. But I can't enjoy this serenity for more than 5 seconds before a pack of Mongols shows up, the flutes give way to battle drums, and it's back to the swinging of swords and showers of blood.

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Marvel Spider-Man - title

I'm a pretty big Spider-Man fan in general. I watched the cartoons and the movies, and I play the video games as they come along, but I've only actually read a few dozen individual comics. I did, however, play the shit out of all my Spider-Man action figures as a kid! I do, however consider myself to be a Spider-Man game aficionado.

When I'm out in public, I often imagine myself web-swinging to get around. What would I swing from? Are those lampposts close enough that I could swing from one without face-planting on the pavement? I also often wish that I could hang upside down from the ceiling when I'm bored or waiting for something. As such, I pay very close attention to the way that Spider-Man moves in video games, and the quality of a given game is usually predominantly determined by how elegantly it handles movement.

Like a streak of light, he arrives just in time

The traversal mechanics and physics of Insomniac's Marvel's Spider-Man are fluid and work solidly. They just aren't particularly interesting or challenging, and they aren't really as expressive as I would like. It basically boils down to "hold R2 to go somewhere". It's pulled straight from Assassin's Creed's parkour system, except that holding the same button allows you to transition from rooftop parkour to web-swinging without any effort or thought. There's a few modifiers and variations that you can perform, which add a little bit of freedom and expressiveness, but it's not much. You can web-zip to perch points, hold circle to move around the corners of buildings while wall-running, and you can jump and dive to gain speed. These things help you get where you're going faster, but you could just rubber-band the R2 button and left stick, set the controller down, and you'd get to where you were going eventually anyway.

Insomniac was inspired by Assassin's Creed's "hold R2 to parkour" traversal system.

To Insomniac's credit, however, the web-swinging physics seems much more accurate than any Spidey game since the landmark Spider-Man 2 movie tie-in on the PS2 / XBox. Webs do seem to genuinely connect to objects in the environment (whether they be buildings, lampposts, trees, or so on). The only exception that I'm aware of is when you double-tap X to zip forward. I never use this move, however, because of how it cheats the physics so blatantly.

The environment is also much more detailed and populated. Buildings have more varied geometry with lots of ledges and poles and towers for you to zip to, you can parkour over cars when running in the densely-packed streets, and the map is dotted with construction sites and road work that gives you additional locomotion options and helps make the world look and feel lived-in. Spider-Man also has a lot of contextual movements in the environment that helps keep movement fluid. He'll web-zip from fire-escape platform to fire-escape platform when ascending buildings, he'll pirouette through narrow gaps, he'll swing around poles, and so forth. In general, the animations are all exceptional, and the traversal mechanics feel really good.

Spidey transitions seamlessly from web-swinging to wall-running to contextual "spider-parkour".

Spinning webs, any size

Despite the physics being generally solid, I do feel like the game occasionally cheats to make it work. Webs sometimes seem to grow in length when attached to certain objects, and the player (and therefore Spidey) can overcome the force of gravity through sheer force of will. This allows Spider-Man to swing greater distances than he should when swinging from buildings or trees that aren't considerably higher than Spider-Man is, and for him to avoid falling into the side of a building when he continuously swings from the same side of the street. All Spider-Man games have struggled with finding ways to allow him to move around in Central Park and along the coastline. These little cheats are common ones for developers to implement, and Insomniac is no exception.

Webs seem to reliably connect to something in the environment.

To that end, I'm going to say something that might get me flamed by the internet: I think I maybe actually prefer the web-swinging concept of Beenox's Amazing Spider-Man 2 movie tie-in game.

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God of War - title

Vikings and norse mythology seems to have been a popular concept in games recently. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, for instance, is an excellent hack-n-slash adventure through Norse hell. I've also been playing the Wasteland-like RPG Expeditions: Vikings on Steam (which I'm hoping to review soon). I also have games like Mount & Blad: Viking Conquest and Total War: Thrones of Britannia on my short list of games I'd like to play. And there was also the Viking character in For Honor.

Now, Sony's PlayStation flagship God of War has jumped from Greek mythology to Norse mythology. Having killed all the Greek gods, Kratos has apparently settled down in the mythological Midgard with a wife and son, only for his wife to die and his son be attacked by the Norse god Baldr. This sends Kratos and Atreus on a father-son bonding adventure to spread Atreus' mother's ashes from the highest peak in all the realms, and to learn why the Aesir are suddenly keen on hunting them.

Norse mythology seems to be a popular subject in media lately.

A father-son murder team

Atreus has some of the same problems that The Last of Us has with Ellie. Atreus doesn't feel vulnerable enough to demand protection, and he's rarely relevant outside of combat, except for his running commentary about what you're doing. Because of this, the actual game rarely feels like it's about protecting or escorting Atreus. And even though the game is ostensibly about Kratos teaching Atreus how to fight and be a man, the player never has an opportunity to actually teach the kid or take on any parental responsibility for him. It's just about Kratos throwing axes at draugr, and Atreus occasionally shoots them or jumps on their heads to help you out. The puzzle sections rarely require using Atreus (other than occasionally shooting something with his bow or having him scamper through a small tunnel).

Atreus is basically just an extra ranged attack.

That being said, I think that God of War makes some strides in the right direction (compared to The Last of Us). The player (and Kratos) can command Atreus to attack a target with his bow, which is one of the easiest and most consistent ways to deal stun damage to enemies, which opens them up to an intant-kill attack from Kratos. It's also a strategy that is pretty much essential on the harder difficulties. This creates a much greater sense of playing in tandem with Atreus, as he and Kratos often work together to defeat foes.

Atreus and Kratos can also break each other out of being grappled or stunned. I've never gotten a "Game Over" as a result of Atreus being defeated, so I'm not sure if that's a possible fail state. Being grappled or stunned only seemed to ever temporarily take Atreus out of the fight and negate the ability to use his bow. Either way, this is an improvement over Ellie from The Last of Us, who (as far as I recall) operated entirely independently from Joel, was never at any risk, and could be completely ignored for most of the player's time actually playing the game.

Kratos and Atreus can break each other out of enemy grapples and support each other in combat.

The important take-away here is that, unlike with Ellie in the combat encounters of The Last of Us, I never forgot that Atreus was there when playing God of War...

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No Man's Sky

After experiencing some annoying performance issues on the PS4 version of Dark Souls III (including a framerate capped at 30 fps), I decided that I'd hold out the extra three days for the PC version of No Man's Sky. I assumed that the keyboard and mouse controls would be more comfortable, since the game is half shooter, half flight-sim. I assumed that the PC version would perform better and look better. And I figure that the game will eventually enjoy a vibrant modding community that is likely impossible to spring up on the PS4, since (as far as I know) the PS4 does not support modding in any way. I, once again, may have been wrong in my choice of platform

In addition to having to wait three extra days for the game to release on PC, I've read a lot of reports of severe problems with the PC version of the game at launch. It simply won't run on certain machines with certain graphics cards. Many rigs have consistent performance issues. My PC is a few years old, but it more than meets the system requirements for the game, yet I've been stuck having to run it on medium graphics settings. Upping the settings to high only results in the game becoming unplayably slow whenever I step into the cockpit of my ship. I'm talking, like half a frame per second, and the game dropping all my inputs. The final insult is that the game breaks when you alt-tab out of it, which prevents you from alt-tabbing back into it. If you alt-tab out, you'll have to kill the process in task manager and restart the app - which, of course, will cause a loss of any progress since the last autosave. So despite having a dual-monitor set-up, I can't alt-tab out to open up podcasts or play some tunes while I warp around the galaxy.

Most of these problems will likely get fixed at some point (and some of them already have), and hopefully I'll be able to run the game at high graphics settings. But in the meantime, if you're interested in playing the game, then the PS4 version is probably the technically superior one right now. Apparently, the PS4 version also has numerous performance issues, including crashes.

Sadly, technical problems are only the beginning of my complaints with this game.

Betraying the naturalist within

Instead of being a game about exploring strange new worlds and discovering exotic wildlife and natural wonders of the universe (as I'd hoped), No Man's Sky turns out to be quite the opposite: a game about conspicuous consumption. The core game loop does not consist of landing on an alien world to explore and catalog the local flora and fauna. Instead, you land your ship in a vibrantly-colored patch of minerals and plants, and you begin strip-mining the site clean. You harvest the raw materials that you'll use to refuel your space ship so that you can warp to the next planet to strip its resources for more fuel.

No Man's Sky - cataloging alien life
The incentives to catalog alien life feel extrinsicly-imposed and not a natural part of the core game experience.

Actually seeking out and cataloging the local wildlife takes a backseat - if you even bother to do it at all. The game isn't about that. There's nothing in the core gameplay loop or narrative that actually sets the game up to be about cataloging alien life. The only reason that the player has to even bother with scanning and analyzing is because you're rewarded with in-game currency for scanning stuff, even though there's no in-game reason (that I could discern) for why you would be getting paid to catalog alien life or who it is that's putting the money in your account. It all feels so thoroughly divorced from the rest of the game, and the money feels like an extrinsic incentive that is imposed from outside the scope of actual gameplay. In fact, I don't know why the game would have an in-game reason for why you would get paid to catalog stuff. After all, these planets are all already known by somebody in the game universe - they have space stations in every star systems and colony modules and trading posts on every planet long before you ever get there to "discover" them. So not only does cataloging life feel like an extrinsically-imposed mechanic, even this process of "discovering" feels completely fake and artificial...

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Silent Hills just won't seem to die. Shortly after the game was canceled by Konami, petitions started popping up demanding that it be re-instated. Then came the debacle of the Metal Gear Solid V release, which seemed blatantly incomplete and/or half-assed. Then Kojima officially left Konami, Guillermo del Toro tweeted that the cancelation of Silent Hills "breaks his greasy heart", and it all seemed done and buried.

Or was it?

Andrew House (Group CEO of Sony Interactive) announces a partnership with Hideo Kojima.

Within a week of the official announcement that Kojima had left Konami, he was reported to have already set up his own independent Kojima Productions studio, and that he had already partnered with Sony to develop an un-named PS4 exclusive. Geez, that was quick. Kojima has always had a good relationship with Sony. The Metal Gear Solid games were originally PlayStation exclusives, and were definite showcases for those Sony platforms. I mean, when you think of the original PlayStation, what are the first few games that come to mind? Probably Final Fantasy VII. Tomb Raider? Maybe Resident Evil? And definitely Metal Gear Solid. Even when Kojima was initially rumored to be leaving Konami, I had speculated that Sony might make a move to hire him. Contracting him to act as a second-party developer of exclusive content is just as good. I had also speculated at the time that there were three possibilities for Silent Hills to see the light of day:

  1. Konami could hire Kojima's independent studio to continue development of Silent Hills. This seemed unlikely considering the rocky conclusion to Kojima's employment.
  2. Kojima could buy the IP rights to Silent Hill (and maybe Metal Gear). This also seemed unlikely considering that both franchises are cash-cows for Konami.
  3. Lastly, there was the possibility that Kojima Productions could continue the development of what would have been Silent Hills, but without the "Silent Hill" title. Same game; different name.

The partnership with Sony opens up a fourth possibility: Sony could buy or lease the licensing rights to Silent Hill and then contract out development to Kojima Productions. This is the only way that the game could possibly see the light of day and still maintain the "Silent Hill" name. Konami has already expressed its disinterest in continued first-party console game development. It's just too expensive, and the company wants to focus more on its gambling business and mobile games. If Konami wants to continue to see revenue from those IPs, then they are stuck either making smaller in-house games (such as mobile games, pachinko machines, or browser-based games); or they would have to license out the IP to third-party developers. Sony certainly has the buying-power that Kojima, by himself, doesn't have, and could certainly afford to buy those rights, if they so desire.

A trailer for Konami's next Silent Hill game. Not exactly what fans were hoping for...
Hideo Kojima and Norman Reedus

However, Silent Hill fans probably shouldn't get their hopes up for a triumphant return of their tarnished, yet beloved, franchise. In the video announcing the partnership with Sony, Kojima says that he is "thrilled to embark on creating a new franchise with PlayStation". So this project does not appear to be Silent Hills. At least, not in title...

Kojima is rumored to be collaborating once again with Guillermo Del Toro, which opens up the possibility that the two are going to work on realizing the plans that they had for Silent Hills. During a keynote address at DICE, Kojima and Del Toro stated that they would like to continue to work together. Del Toro even went as far as saying that he would "do whatever the fuck Kojima asks him to". He even made an off-hand comment about famed Japanese horror illustrator Junji Ito. I don't know much bout Junji Ito, but his work is apparently a pretty big deal, and he's also been seen with Kojima. Kojima and Norman Reedus have even been seen together, and it's been rumored that Reedus will be working with Kojima again. All the pieces seem to be fitting into place...

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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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