Outer Wilds - title

I refuse to give money to Epic,
and waited for Steam release.

Outer Wilds was one of my most anticipated games in 2019. As such, it was immensely disappointing that it became a timed exclusive for the Epic Games Store. I have a lot of issues with how Epic Games runs its business, and with the ethics (or lack thereof) of the company, and so I refuse to give them a single penny of my money. Our daughter plays Fortnite with her friends, and we're not going to disallow her from doing such (and besides, her socialization options were incredibly limited during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, and I think playing Fortnite stopped her from going stir crazy). But I've told her that the first time she asks me for money to buy V-Bucks, it will be the last time she plays the game.

I could have bought Outer Wilds on PS4 a year ago, but it just looked like the kind of game that would be better experienced on PC. I've been burned enough times by Bethesda RPGs that I'm always skeptical of a console's ability to adequately run a game with a world of the scope and comlexity of Outer Wilds. So I bit the bullet and waited the year for the game to release on Steam.

The opening screen recommended the use of a game pad, and I obligingly started using my PS4 controller on my second play session. And I've read that the game ran just fine on consoles. So I guess I could have spared myself the wait and just played on PS4 from the start. Ah well, live and learn.

Outer Wilds plays best with a controller anyway, so there was no need for me to pass up the console release.

Now to go back to finishing Fallout: New Vegas while I await the Steam release of The Outer Worlds...

Knowledge is your upgrade

Readers of my blog know that I'm not a huge fan of most open world games. The sandboxy nature of those games tends to lead to stagnant stories and worlds that feel ironically dead. They also tend to be full to the brim of monotonous copy-pasted content that becomes a drag to play.

Outer Wilds offers an entire solar system as an open world sandbox for you to explore. Granted, the scale of this solar system is considerably shrunk down in order to accommodate a game, such that an entire planet is about as big as a small neighborhood, and the different planets are only a few kilometers apart from one another. It's fine. It works well enough with the game's cartoony aesthetic style.

You have an entire toy solar system to play in.

What's important though, is how rich with detail and intrigue this world solar system is. Nothing looks or feels copy-pasted. Every nook and cranny of the map contains something new that you haven't seen before. On top of that, the map is positively dynamic!

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Cities Skylines: Sunset Harbor - title

I was starting to wonder if maybe Colossal Order was done with Cities: Skylines, or they had moved on to development of a full sequel. After releasing two expansions per year since the game's launch in 2015, we've now gone almost a year between expansions. The last one was the Campus expansion last May. Now here we are with a new Sunset Harbor expansion.

The announcement for this expansion (a mere week before its release) got my hopes up in a similar fashion to the Snowfall expansion. I thought that Sunset Harbor would add a slew of features that I had been longing for in the game for a long time. Sadly, Sunset Harbor disappointed me in much the same way that Snowfall's lack of a seasonal cycle and poor implementation of ski resorts did. Sunset Harbor lacks almost all of the things that I had hoped for, and it continues a trend of Skylines expansions that add new mechanics or content without revising or enhancing existing mechanics or content to utilize the new ideas.

Much like past expansions, Sunset Harbor neglects a lot of seemingly-obvious content.

When I saw the title of the expansion, I thought for sure that this would be the expansion that would finally introduce public beaches! No such luck. There's no public beach area. Sunset Harbor (despite having "harbor" in its title) does not introduce modular passenger and freight harbor areas, or upgrade harbors into a leveled industry like Industries did with agriculture, forestry, ore, and oil. I still can't daisy-chain my harbors to send shipping routes up rivers or canals, despite the fact that the existing passenger ferries and the new fishing industry can. It similarly doesn't convert tourism and leisure into leveled industry or commercial areas.

As always seems to be the case with Skylines expansions, I'm torn between whether I should review the expansion from the perspective of what it actually brings to the table, or from the perspective of failing to meet my own hopes and desires for what the expansion should be.

One of the things that was missing from Industries

Sunset Harbor does, however, check off a couple items from my wishlist. At long last, it has provided a desert biome map! As someone who lives in the American Pacific Southwest, I've long been frustrated by the inability to create a city that looks more like the familiar landscape of my own back yard. Now I finally can. Sadly, it's only one map, but the asset editor that's always been included in the game will allow me to make more if I want to, without having to resort to downloading mods that might destabilize the game.

I've long hoped for a desert biome to be added to the game.

The big feature of this expansion is also a feature that I thought was missing from the Industries expansion. I complained that Industries only added new infrastructure that replaced the existing agriculture, forestry, ore, and oil industries that have always been in the game, and didn't bother to add any new industries. Parklife, by comparison, added a couple new types of parks that hadn't been in the game before, including nature preserves and an amusement park. Personally, I thought that the most obvious option for a new industry to add to Industries would have been a fishing or aquaculture industry. Well, now we have a whole expansion that has added that one idea.

The new fishing industry doesn't follow suit with the Industries expansion industry areas, or the Campus university areas. You don't paint aquaculture areas and then grow them and level them up. There's no complicated production line or logistic element. The different types of fish that you can catch also don't do anything different. There's no fancy factories that consume specific types of fish (like a pizza factory that consumes anchovies), or that combine your fish with other types of fish (like a fish stick factory), or with other industry products to create a more valuable luxury good (like combining fish and seaweed with crops to make sushi).

Aquaculture does not level up or have production lines like other industrial sectors.

Instead, there's a handful of fishing harbors that act as resource-extractors, and then there's exactly two buildings that process or consume them. Your fishing harbors can either sell their fish to a market to be sold directly to consumers, or the raw fish (regardless of type) can be shipped to a factory that processes the fish and distributes them as generic goods to send out to commercial zones. In lieu of either the market or the factory, the fish will be exported to other cities for a small amount of money.

That's it! That's everything that fishing has to offer!

...

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Moons of Madness - title

It's hard to make a good Lovecraftian horror game. The key to Lovecraft's horror was the mysterious intractability of his cosmic abominations. It wasn't just that they were ugly or deadly; the horror came from the realization that these monsters were part of a much greater cosmos that humans can barely comprehend, and that we are little more than ants to these god-like beings who could snuff us out of existence at a whim -- if they even cared enough about us to do so. In the century since Lovecraft wrote his stories, Lovecraft's monsters have become so iconic that Cthulhu is pretty much a universally-recognized, cliche monster along with the likes of Dracula and the Xenomorph. The closer a story adheres to Lovecraft's ideas, the more familiar it becomes, and the harder it is to create that sense of being overwhelmed with unfathomable knowledge that drives a person insane.

That is why I think that FromSoftware's Bloodborne is perhaps the best video game adaptation of Lovecraft's concepts (even though it is not a direct adaptation of any of his stories). Bloodborne's esoteric and arcane lore, and the indirect nature in which it communicates its backstory, actually does create that sense that the player is just a small piece of a much larger puzzle that you will never fully comprehend. And the difficult nature of the game means that the player certainly feels like you can be snuffed out of existence at any moment.

Moons of Madness isn't mysterious, or arcane, or particularly threatening. It's cliche and predictable to a fault.

Flatline

I saw almost every plot point coming from a mile away, and if you don't want spoilers, then I suggest you skip ahead to the next section. I didn't expect there to be a full-on underground lab complex akin to Resident Evil 2, but it wasn't something that came off as very surprising considering how telegraphed the corporate conspiracy "twist" was from the start. All the other twists, however, came off as rote and stale. The science experiment gone haywire, the relief ship crashing, the reveals about the protagonist's family history, the multiple betrayals ... none of it came off as even remotely surprising, and the whole game degraded to simply waiting for the next shoe to drop. The game isn't very long, but the predictable nature of its plot made it feel like it was dragging on for much longer than its six-ish hour playtime.

The secret lab was not a surprise and only distracted from the cosmic horror.

Worse yet, the corporate conspiracy stuff ended up distracting from, and drowning out, the Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The monsters don't feel mysterious because they're all the results of experiments being done at the request of the evil corporation. The Lovecraftian temple complex and "dreamers" fall flat because their existence is spoiled much earlier in the game. Heck, the other characters visit the temple and tell you all about it over the radio, while you're fumbling about the silly underground lab, so by the time you get to the temple, it's not mysterious at all. I think the point was to try to convey the awe and wonder of the NPC characters in the hopes that it would instill a sense of awe and wonder within the player, but all I could think was "I'd much rather be playing as those other characters right now!"

When all is said and done, I feel like Observation (despite not being directly inspired by Lovecraft's mythos) pulls off the cosmic horror shtick much better because its alien influences remain mysterious and intractable all the way through the end -- perhaps to that game's fault.

...

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Axis Football 19 - title

Well, the football video game price wars have apparently begun. Unfortunately, however, the prices are not shifting in the direction I'd like. Instead of EA being forced by competition to drop the price of Madden to something reasonable, like $30 (as they had to do in 2004 to compete with ESPN NFL 2k5's budget price of $20), both Maximum Football 19 and Axis Football 19 have upped their price from $20 (in 2018) to $30 (in 2019). I've already complained that Maximum has shifted its retail price out of the budget indie tier and into the middle-market (or "double-A" tier), and that Maximum isn't quite up to the level of quality that I might expect from a title at that price.

Axis Football doesn't feel quite as over-priced, as it was a much more feature-complete product to begin with (and remains a more feature-complete product this year, despite Maximum's new dynasty mode). That being said, I don't feel that Axis is improved enough to warrant a 50% jump in price.

Whereas Maximum focused on adding a much-needed dynasty mode in order to prop up its mediocre-at-best on-field gameplay (and moderately succeeds in that regard), Axis already had a working Franchise mode. What Axis needed was to improve its on-field gameplay. ...But they kinda didn't... Like, not at all...

Same as last year?

I was optimistic about Maximum Football and Axis Football because I expected them to make significant improvements to on-field gameplay from year-to-year -- something that EA has consistently failed to do with Madden over the last ten-to-fifteen years. So to see both of these indie games play virtually identical to last year's counterparts is very disappointing and has substantially deflated my initial optimism.

My excitement for the potential improvement of Maximum and Axis has been deflated
by both games releasing with virtually identical on-field gameplay compared to last year.

If you read the gameplay section of last year's review, then you pretty much know how this yea'rs game plays. Axis Football 19 still has much of the same rigid and robotic player animations. The locomotion system is terrible and allows runners to cut and turn on a dime. Defensive players still frequently stand in place. Deep zone coverage is still atrocious. The CPU still never defends 2-point conversion attempts. Receivers still lack varied or convincing catch animations, and defenders similarly lack pass defense animations. Blocking and tackle interactions can still be triggered with players who are not in physical contact with each other. I can still run my defensive end around offensive tackles, unblocked, for free sacks.

Some football rules are also still wrong or not implemented at all. Axis might as well just end games in ties if they can't implement a working overtime ruleset. I can still exploit kicking kickoffs out of bounds without penalty in order to pin opposing offenses deep. There's no fair catch. I can't motion receivers before the snap to see if the defense is in man or zone coverage.

The developers failed to address many of the problems that plagued last year's game --
such as poor deep zone coverage [LEFT] and the ability to easily run around offensive tackles [RIGHT].

Much moreso than last year, I'm noticing that outside runs seem to be far too effective. The reason for this seems to be the crazy success rates of receivers making (and holding) blocks on the edge and in the second level. Safeties are not only bad at deep coverage, but they're also terrible in run support. They stay back too deep (and sometimes just stand around), instead of trying to meet the runner in the lanes or trying to force an outside run back inside. If a receiver or tight end gets into the second level and blocks the safety, then the play is practically a guaranteed touchdown.

...

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Her Story - title

Having a little bit of free time between playing Madden 20 and starting out this year's indie football games, I checked out a couple indie games that I've had sitting around in my Steam library for months. Both are player-driven mystery games about trying to deduce the events of the past. The simpler of the two is called Her Story, which is a game that released all the way back in 2015. So I'm quite a few years late to this party.

Her Story attracted my attention because it was developed by Sam Barlow. Barlow had previously worked as a writer for Silent Hill: Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Personally, I felt he and the other writers at Climax had butchered Origins. His work on Shattered Memories, however, which was not bound by the constraints of established Silent Hill canon, went in a more interesting direction. Maybe not as interesting as if they had gone with the initial Cold Heart pitch, but whatever. I was curious to see what Barlow would do when completely free of the Silent Hill namesake.

I was curious how Sam Barlow would handle himself when free of the Silent Hill namesake.

Down the deductive rabbit hole

Her Story stands out because it is a completely player-driven experience. You have almost free access to a database of interview answers from a woman who is a suspect in the disappearance (and murder) of her husband. The game consists of searching through a series of live-action videos of interview questions, in which every word of her answers have been indexed for search. The catch is that you can't simply watch all the clips in order, and the game will only give you (at most) the first five clips at a time (in chronological order). You also don't know what questions are being asked, so you don't necessarily have the context for her responses.

Each response is laden with bread crumbs of keywords that you can pick out and search in subsequent queries in order to find related videos and discover additional details about the suspect's life, the victim's life, and the events leading up to the disappearance of her husband. This is where Her Story really shines. The game starts with the word "murder" in the search bar, and each clip that you watch will reveal new names and places. This should lead you towards going down the rabbit hole of searching for each new name or place until you eventually come to the weirder and more interesting testimony.The scripts is expertly designed to distribute bread crumbs in such a way to dole out the story over the first hour or two in order to build up the mystery.

Pick out key words from her testimony to find related statements.

There's also no hand-holding or guidance of any kind. It's just you and the search engine. It's entirely up to the player to input the words you want to search for. You can follow-up on a particular clip by searching for a keyword in her response, or you can search for some completely different, random word(s) instead. The game doesn't highlight the next words for you to search. It doesn't stop to tell you that you've "solved" some mystery or completed some objective. There's a widget that shows you how much of the database you've viewed, but other than that, there is no in-game progress-tracker. In fact, there's not even a real end goal.

...

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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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