Gran Turismo 7 - title

I used to love the Gran Turismo games. I played the shit out of Gran Turismo 1-3. I think I was even close to hitting the 100% completion threshold of GT2 (well, the max 98.2% because the game was bugged and it was actually impossible to get to 100%). 1 and 3 in particular are great games in their own right, and still hold up well today. Gran Turismo 4, however, is when the series started to lose me, due to several changes to the design philosophy of the game that all converged to make it less appealing to me as a matter of personal enjoyment.

I was able to get my hands on a fancy new PS5 over the holidays, and I'm looking for games to play on it, and also technical showcases to see what the fancy new hardware can do. I was especially curious how a simulation racing game would feel on the Dual Sense controllers, with its variety of haptic feedback features. I could see a lot of potential in that genre of game. So I bought Gran Turismo 7 for pretty much this reason alone. It was a little bit for nostalgia too. This game celebrates the 25th anniversary of the series itself. So I went ahead and purchased it for old time's sake.

I was even tempted to buy the Special Edition to get the bonus Toyota Yaris. I figured the Yaris is probably the closest I'll come to being able to drive my real-life Toyota Echo within the game. However, I suspected that if Gran Turismo 7 would be anything like GT 4 or GT 5, it would be giving away cash and cars like candy. So I didn't see any value in the other special edition bonuses, like the extra credits. I sure as hell wasn't going to spend $20 for just one virtual car that I would probably race a handful of times for its novelty before switching to more powerful cars.

A Toyota Yaris GR is already available in standard edition, so I don't see any value in the special edition.

But there's already a GR Yaris in the game anyway, so I'm not sure what is so special about the Special Edition car. Besides, the Aqua and Prius look more like my car anyway. In any case, I hate special edition bonuses, and pre-order bonuses, and retailer-specific content. It's such a cynical fucking slap in the face to us consumers to have content withheld from the game unless we buy a specific edition, or buy from a specific vendor.

Feeling the road in my hands

Anyway, I bought the game to hopefully be a showcase for the technical innovations of the PS5. Of all the games I so far own on the system, none of their use of the PS5 controller's tactile features have really lived up to the promise of the Astro's Playroom game that comes included with the PS5. I was hoping that being a Sony-exclusive, flagship title, Gran Turismo would really wow me. It does do some neat things, but I don't know that I would say that it "wow" me.

This game requires finesse with the gas and brake.

I didn't really start noticing the rumble feature effects until I got further into the game and was playing with much more powerful cars. Up until then, the rumble was mostly reserved for if I hit the rumble strips on the side of the road or actually went off the road, or if I lost traction or spun out. But it felt similar to typical video game rumble. When the cars started to get more powerful, however, I started noticing some additional rumble effects. The engine would vibrate the controller a bit more, and I would also feel a soft thud from the middle of the controller whenever the car would shift gears.

The adaptive triggers do a little bit more heavy lifting. The throttle will stiffen up if the car starts to lose traction or if trying to accelerate up a steep incline, especially in inclement weather. Even in ideal conditions, smashing the gas and hitting top speed in a straightaway will also make the controller feel unstable in my hands, sometimes to the point that I'm genuinely afraid that if I turn the steering wheel at all, I'll instantly lose control and spin out.

By the time I feel the car slipping in the rain, it's already too late.

This actually causes me to loosen my grip on the trigger and throttle down, which usually restores some stability to the car. Instead of completely losing control because I have no way to know just how lose my car's hold on the road is, the adaptive trigger helps me to maintain control by signaling that I am throttling too hard. Pulling my foot off the accelerator pedal a little is exactly what I do in real life if I start to feel my car losing its grip on the road (which happens quite often in the gusty winds of Las Vegas), and that instinct is exactly replicated in the game.

More generally, the adaptive triggers make it uncomfortable to jam on the accelerator or the brake, especially for an extended period. It really encourages slowly depressing each trigger in order to better control the acceleration or braking of the car. Again, this mirrors how a real-life car is controlled. This makes all inputs feel much more deliberate and controlled.

Steering can be done with the motion sensor.

9 and 3

The real surprise highlight of playing Gran Turismo with the Dual Sense controller is steering the cars with the motion sensor. I'm not sure if this option was available in Gran Turismo 5 or 6 on the PS3 and PS4, or if it's available on the PS4 version of Gran Turismo 7, but this is a totally new way of driving a video game car for me. And I'm actually genuinely surprised by how well it works. I chose the motion control option after I booted up the game for the first time, thinking it would be borderline unplayable, and I would switch back to the traditional analog stick steering. But holy hell, I actually stuck with it!

The motion sensor is surprisingly responsive and maps reasonably well to the motion of holding a steering wheel at 9 and 3 o'clock positions. Using this control method, and the first-person cockpit camera, I had little-to-no problem keeping my car in a straight line and steering it through corners. I even got a gold medal on all but 1 of the B-1 license tests (and all but 3 of the A-1 license tests) using the motion controls for steering.

Steering with the motion sensor is surprisingly responsive and accurate.

It is a little awkward to hold for longer races. Holding down the throttle and brake triggers can be a little bit uncomfortable, especially if I'm trying to use my middle finger for them. And trying to use other face buttons often results in my car veering a bit. Holding the controller out in front of me (where a real steering wheel would be) can also be tiring after lengthy races. Not being mounted to a dashboard means I can't rest my hands on the controller the way that I would on a steering wheel.

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I wanted to see The Last Duel in theaters. It is a story that my partner was interested to see, and we were making tentative plans to see it. I'm still hesitant to go to a movie theater due to the ongoing COVID pandemic. I actually passed on seeing Spider-Man: No Way Home in the theater because I don't want to sit in such a crowded space with total strangers. I was actually kind of relieved that The Last Duel was bombing in theaters. It would mean that we could go see it in theaters, and I could be comfortable in the knowledge that we should expect to have no problems social distancing in the theater.

But real life happened. We got busy with stuff, and kept putting it off. Then my partner actually caught COVID, so we were self-quarantined for 2 weeks. By the time we would have had an opportunity to go to the theater, I think The Last Duel had already been pulled.

So when we were sitting around in the holiday week between Christmas and New Year, with plenty of free time on our hands, we saw it while scrolling through HBO Max and decided to finally watch it.

The structure of The Last Duel is quite unorthodox for a feature film. It abandons the typical 3-act structure of most mainstream movies in favor of more of kind of a 4-act structure, in which the first 3 acts retell the same events from 3 different characters' perspectives. There isn't technically a 4th act, as the climactic duel is actually part of the 3rd act, but as it's a culmination of all 3 characters' plots, I kind of see it as its own 4th act.

The Last Duel - Carrouges
©: Scott Free Productions, 2020.
The Last Duel - Le Gris
©: Scott Free Productions, 2020.
The Last Duel - Margueritte
©: Scott Free Productions, 2020.
The Last Duel repeats almost the entire story 3 times, once from each characters' perspective.

I'm on the fence about this particular style of story-telling. On the one hand, there's a lot of subtly and nuance that re-frames or re-contextualizes most of the events depicted. We get to see multiple characters' conflicting perspectives of the same events, and how one person can believe himself a hero, while everyone else might see him as a self-righteous dick.

However, I have two significant complaints with the structure of this film, in particular.

The first complaint that I have with The Last Duel is that the desire to re-tell the same events 3 times leaves little time for anything else. We get one scene early in the movie of De Gris and Carrouges fighting together on the battlefield. There's nothing else to help build up and develop the deep friendship and respect that they supposedly have. The audience is constantly being told that they are good friends, but all we ever see is petty bickering between them. We just have to take the characters' word for it that they were ever friends to begin with.

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Humankind - title

It's going to be virtually impossible to review Humankind without frequently comparing it to iterations of Sid Meier's Civilization. Civ has absolutely dominated (and almost completely monopolized) the historical turn-based strategy genre. There have been plenty of space and sci-fi-themed 4x strategy games, ranging from Master of Orion, to Galactic Civilizations, to Stellaris, and even Amplitude's own Endless Space; but not a whole lot in the more Earth-bound sub-genre. I've also been a huge Civ fan (as the readers of my blog can no doubt tell), so it's hard for me to look at any game in this genre and not partially judge it through the lense of comparing it to Civ.

So I'm not even going to pretend to judge Humankind strictly on its own merits, in a vacuum. I simply can't. I'm not sure if anyone can. Amplitude, as a company, clearly looked to Civ for inspiration, took lessons from the successes and failures of its previous strategy games, and said "hey, we want a piece of that pie too." But despite the surface-level comparisons to Civ, Amplitude takes a very different approach to game design. While Civ has always been very firmly rooted as a "digital board game", Humankind takes a much more story-driven and "simulationist" approach, akin to the sort of thing that you might see in a game like Crusader Kings. I think this approach works, and it does a good job of separating Humankind from Civilization.

Culture wars

Perhaps the biggest deviation that Humankind makes from Sid Meier's Civilization is the way that it handles the game's civilizations themselves. In Humankind, you don't play as a single civilization throughout an entire campaign. Instead, each era you have the opportunity to select a new culture from a list of era-specific cultures. I like this concept a lot in principle, but also have some misgivings about the way it works out in practice.

Empires transition into a new culture at the start of each era.

On the one hand, it's great to see a game like this recognize the fact that civilizations aren't singular, monolithic cultures that exist forever, unless they are conquered or die off completely. That gaming paradigm (which Civ has always embraced) ignores the reality that cultures change and evolve over time. They change with the times, and blend elements from other neighboring cultures. And even if a nation or empire falls or collapses, it doesn't just disappear off the face of the planet overnight. It's people get absorbed into whatever nation or empire replaces it, and those people continue to influence the development of that new culture.

But this isn't exactly how Humankind works. The cultures of the game don't gradually transition or evolve due to social, economic, political, or geographic pressures and influences. Instead, at arbitrary points throughout the game, each empire completely changes its culture in a single game turn. And you aren't locked into choosing a related or similar culture either. You can pick any culture that is still available from the given era, no matter how separated that new culture might be from your old culture -- whether that be geographic separation, ideological separation, or even racial separation. I can be Greek one turn, and then suddenly be Aztec the next, and be Khmer the following era.

I was hoping for a system in which players would have to select from a list of related cultures when transitioning into a new era. For example, I was imagining that being Classical Romans means that, when the medieval era hits, I would have to chose between a related culture like Byzantine, Holy Roman, Ostrogothic, Franks, or Papal States. Then, depending on which I picked, my culture would continue to shift to another related culture in the following era. For example, if I picked Byzantine as my medieval successor to Rome, then my early modern culture choices would be things along the lines of the Ottomans or Orthodox Rus; whereas, if I had gone with the Papal States or Holy Roman Empire, then my choices would be things like Venetian, German, or French.

Changing cultures each era is no more silly than ancient
Abraham Lincoln leading ancient America in a bear-skin hat.

Instead, these transitions from one culture to another over the span of a single turn can be very jarring in Humankind. But I guess it's no less jarring than seeing an ancient era Abraham Lincoln leading America in 4000 B.C.E. while wearing his silly bearskin tophat.

I hope that if Humankind gets expansions, that those expansions will modify this culture-changing mechanic so that there are more cultures available each era, but your choices are limited to cultures that are related to the one you were playing in the previous era. Maybe it costs influence (or maybe even fame) to change cultures, and changing to an un-related culture costs more than changing to a closely related one. I know it can be difficult to find such examples of related offshoots for every possible culture, especially for cultures that were conquered or died off in real life, but I think it's a solvable problem.

It's easy to come up with possible successors to the Roman Empire, because every culture in Europe and Asia Minor seemed to claim succession from Rome. It's a lot harder to come up with related successors to culture like the Aztecs or Maya, and it would seem insensitive or outright offensive to limit the choice of succession to the colonial European cultures that had conquered or massacred them in real history. But there are options. In the case of the Maya or Aztecs, successor options could include cultures like the various Pueblo or Navajo cultures, but I admit that's kind of a stretch.

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Crusader Kings: Lead Your Dynasty to Triumph

I wasn't very surprised to see a game like Sid Meier's Civilization adapted to a board game. Civ (the computer game) was always heavily inspired by board games to begin it, and so it's mechanics translated easily back into board game formats without losing much other than the broader scope of the PC game.

Paradox's Crusader Kings, on the other hand, is a totally different beast of a PC game. It is an insanely complicated, system-based blend of grand strategy game, RPG, and social sim. It simulates thousands of individual characters across hundreds of countries and duchies through dozens of generations. The possibility space is vast. As such, I would never have expected to see anyone attempt to try to boil down this deep historical simulation into a tabletop board game. Well, I guess I shouldn't say "never". In this age of every media property being adapted to board game formats, I suppose it was inevitable for someone to try.

And someone did try. In 2019, a year before the release of the Crusader Kings III PC game, Swedish board game manufacturer Fria Ligen ("Free League Publishing") released a board game version licensed by Paradox. I received the game as a gift last fall (during the height of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic), and so didn't get to start playing the game until well into 2021, when we finally felt a little more comfortable meeting up with friends.

As much a story-generator as a board game

For any PC players coming to the board game, there is something very important that you should know about Crusader Kings: the Board Game: it's focus is largely on the story-telling aspect of the Crusader Kings experience. If you play the Crusader Kings PC game as a hardcore strategy game, then you will probably find the board game lacking in that respect. The Crusader Kings board game is as much a story generator as it is a strategy game -- perhaps moreso.

As a story generator, my friends and I have found Crusader Kings to be very entertaining. It's certainly one of the better story-telling games that I've ever played.

Each action card will include a random event that is either disruptive to the current player,
or which benefits another player.

The way that Crusader Kings creates its little stories is through the random events of each player's action cards, and through the resolution of events by drawing trait tokens. Each turn, a player plays a pre-selected card from their hand. You perform your chosen action, and then you resolve a random event on the card. All cards, except for the "Crusade" action cards, will have a random event that is either harmful to the active player, or which provides a benefit to another player (usually the next player in the turn order).

Many actions and card events will also require that the player draw traits from a bag (similar to a die roll in most other games). Each player character starts with a pre-determined set of traits at the start of the game, and can acquire new traits through marriages, succession, or other events. All your traits go into a bag, and you draw one or more blindly from the bag to resolve a given trait check and determine the outcome of an event.

Player actions, card events, and trait draws, thus combine together to create emergent stories in both the short and long term. Sometimes these little stories can play out over the course of a few actions or turns. Other times, game-long narratives can form.

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Crusader Kings 3 - title

My blog readers know that I'm a fan of historic strategy games. Two of my favorite PC game franchises are Civilization and Total War, and I've dipped my hands into plenty of other historic strategy games ranging from the prehistoric Dawn of Man, all the way to Ultimate General: Civil War and Company of Heroes. But there's one prestigious set of historic strategy games that I've yet to get into. That is Paradox's historic strategy lineup of Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, and Hearts of Iron. I own Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV on Steam, and I've always wanted to get into them. I have a friend who plays them a lot, and the game looks really fun, but I was just never able to figure either of them out.

I tried booting up both a couple times and was just immediately overwhelmed. I tried the Crusader Kings II tutorial twice, and still didn't feel like I had a firm enough grasp on the game to feel compelled to keep playing. Part of that is because both games have myriad expansions and DLC that have just further complicated the games and repeatedly raised the bar of entry for newcomers. The only one of Paradox's tutorials that I felt gave me a reasonable grasp on the game was the tutorial for Stellaris.

When I saw previews for Crusader Kings III, I immediately put it on my watch list and committed myself to buying it day one, so that I could get in on the ground level in the hopes that it will be easier to grasp before Paradox starts releasing countless DLCs. It seems to have paid off, as I've been hooked on the game on and off since launch, and that addiction has cut into my Civ playing time, as well as delayed many of my blog projects and YouTube content. So for those of you eagerly awaiting new Civ strategies or the next installment of "How Madden Fails to Simulate Football", you can blame Paradox Interactive for the delay...

I am not the state

As someone who was never able to get into the previous game, I cannot say if Crusader Kings III is "dumbed-down" compared to its predecessor. It is, after all, still insanely complicated. But I definitely feel like it has a gentler learning curve and a much more effective tutorial compared to its predecessors. The hand-holding of the tutorial really did help me get a better understanding of how the various mechanics were working, and I've also found it much easier to navigate the revised U.I. and find the information that I'm looking for. I still feel like I have no idea what many of the U.I. panels mean, but I at least understand enough of the basics this time around to actually feel comfortable playing the game.

If you're unfamiliar, Crusader Kings is a medieval grand strategy game in which you play as the king of a small, European (or Middle Eastern or African) kingdom. You engage in diplomacy and court intrigue to increase your wealth and power, fight wars to conquer territory, and manage your growing holdings. But unlike a game like, say Civilization, you do not play as an abstraction of the state itself. Instead, you play as a line of rulers in a single family dynasty. You play as a single king (or queen) character at any given time. This king grows old, and eventually dies, at which point, you take control over you chosen heir and continue playing the game as that character. If you ever get to a point in which you have no family heir to carry on when you die, it's Game Over.

When your player character dies, you take over as that character's primary heir.

As much improved as the tutorial is, I do feel that it has one glaring weakness: it doesn't really cover succession. The tutorial basically puts you in control of a 40-year-old king in Ireland. It shows you how to press a few claims, use a casus belli to press those claims, create a title, deal with vassals, marry off a child, and then it basically just hands you the reigns and says "OK, now keep playing". And yeah sure, these are all the things that you spend most of the game doing. But I would say that arguably the most important part of the game is declaring your heir and setting up your inheritance to maximize the territory that your primary heir retains power over. I think succession is the single most important part of the game, and the tutorial doesn't cover it at all. When it finally happens, there's a tool tip that pops up to explain some stuff, but it didn't really help me all that much to understand what was happening, and a tool tip popping up after the fact certainly didn't help me to prepare for my king's inevitable death and inheritance.

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

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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