Stranded Deep - title

I've been diving into my Steam wishlist and backlog while waiting for this fall's suite of football video games. Stranded Deep is a game that I had on my Steam wishlist for years -- when it first became available through "early access" -- along with games like The Long Dark and The Forest. I don't typically invest in early access games because I don't want the incompleteness of the game to combine with my overly-critical eye and completely sour me to an experience that would likely be positive when the game is finished. This is also the reason that I rarely go back to games that received major overhauls post-release, like No Man's Sky or SimCity (2013) -- I'm already soured on the game, and it's unlikely to win me back.

I never got around to buying Stranded Deep on Steam, even after it left early access which is apparently still in early access on Steam, because the "survival sim" fad had petered out and my own interest in that particular game fizzled out as well.

Survival sims were a huge fad on Steam, but the fad started to fizzle out
long before indie titles like Stranded Deep or The Forest ever saw full releases.

But Stranded Deep showed up as another free game for PSPlus subscribers (along with Control), and I went ahead and downloaded it. Gotta get that $60 per year of value from the subscription somehow. Honestly, I use my PSPlus subscription mostly for the cloud storage. I consider it "game progress insurance" in case my console fails on me. So I rarely play the free games. But I mostly liked Control, so went ahead and gave Stranded Deep a shot too.

Stranded Deep is definitely not as good as Control.

Survival of the wiki-est

I kinda knew I was in for a disappointing experience when I had to pause the game during the tutorial in order to look up how to proceed. My girlfriend also said as much and wondered out loud why I would even continue playing a game that couldn't even do an adequate job of communicating its fundamental mechanics. She said I have much more patience than her, because she would have given up right then and there.

I had troubles right from the start with simple things like operating the inventory and performing some of the early tutorial crafting. The thing that dead-ended my progress and forced me to look online was trying to figure out where to get the leaves to make rope to craft the knife. I thought I would use leaves from trees, but I wasn't sure which trees, nor was I sure how to pull leaves from trees. The game lets me pluck coconuts off of trees, so I thought it would allow the same for plucking leaves off of trees. Nope. So I tried using my stone tool to cut leaves off of palm trees, only to get palm fronds, which cannot be made into rope. Then I started doing laps around the island looking for seaweed or hemp or something. So 2 minutes into the game, and there I was stuck on the tutorial.

I had to go online to find where to get fibrous leaves.

It turns out, the necessary fibrous leaves are harvested from the exactly 2 yucca plants on my starting island, both of which are kind of hidden next to large boulders. Or I could cut the baby palms growing all over the island for small amounts of fibrous leaves. But I didn't think to try this because I didn't have any reason to think that the baby palm fronds would be any different from the adult palm fronds.

This specific tutorial problem could have been fixed by modifying the tutorial objectives to specifically tell the player to harvest fibrous leaves from a yucca or baby palm. More generally though, it would have been helpful if the game could provide a tooltip when the player hovers over certain resources that explains what that resource might be used for. Or have the character speak to himself out loud that "I could probably use the leaves of that yucca to make rope.". The character comments out loud how "disgusting" it is to skin an animal every time I do it (even though the character has been living off of skinned animals for weeks and should be used to it), so the developers were definitely able to implement contextual dialogue. And even if that kind of dialogue is too difficult to implement, an "examine" button (like in old-school survival horror games) could have worked to tell the player in plain text what can be done with any given resource on the island.

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Kingdom Come: Deliverance - title

I tried. I really did. I wanted to give Kingdom Come: Deliverance a chance. I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt.

I had been passively watching this game for a while, and was looking forward to its release. I didn't realize that it was a Kickstarter project. I thought it was just an independent developer self-publishing a game, like Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, which was friggin' awesome! So I didn't contribute towards the Kickstarter. But I did pay $60 for PS4 digital download of the game, and I deeply regret the decision.

If you're gonna charge the same retail price as a polished, publisher-backed game, then I expect the game to show something approaching that level of polish. Kingdom Come is just too wonky and unstable right now. Maybe in six or twelve months I might be able to pick it back up and enjoy it. As of now, however, I consider the game borderline unplayable.

Kingdom Come has ambitions to be Skyrim or The Witcher III, but it lacks the polish.

Scummy saves

The nail in the coffin is the game's restrictive and punitive save system. I'm a fan of diagetic save systems, and this particular save system could probably work really well if the game were just in a more stable and robust condition. I want to emphasize that this worked brilliantly in Resident Evil (and in survival horror in general) because the challenge and difficulty of survival horror came from having to manage a slowly dwindling supply of resources and health. Very few (if any) encounters outside of boss fights were even capable of bringing you from full health to dead, and even the boss fights were clearly telegraphed so that you had plenty of warning to go back, restock your supplies, and save. When to save (and whether or not to overwrite your previous save) became a part of strategy, especially in the case of Resident Evil with its limited, inventory-space-consuming Ink Ribbons.

Reloading from savior schnapps makes you drunk.

Basically, Kingdom Come only auto-saves at the start of a major new quest. You can trigger a manual save by sleeping or by drinking a special type of rare and expensive alcoholic consumable. If you re-load after using the savior schnapps, the character is also inebriated. This seems, to me, to be an attempt to punish players for save-scumming. It also means that if you get tired or have to step away for whatever reason, and you didn't just complete a quest and are not in a convenient position to save (either lacking access to a bed, unable to risk being drunk when you reload, or simply don't have savior schapps), then you are just screwed.

Until this game gets to a more playable state, this save system needs to be relaxed immensely, or relegated to a "hard core" or "ironman" mode. Because the game is so bad at tutorializing mechanics and at presenting information to the player or warning you that what you're about to try to do won't work, save-scumming is almost necessary just to figure out how basic mechanics work in the limited opportunities that the game gives you to practice them. Tutorials drop walls of text on you without actually giving you an opportunity to practice the thing being tutorialized, so that you aren't given a chance to reinforce the concepts in your mind before the game moves on to something else.

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Far Cry: Primal - title

I've never played any of the Far Cry games. I possess a copy of Far Cry 4 because it came bundled for free with my PS4, but I've yet to actually insert the disc into the console and try the thing. I was intrigued by Far Cry Primal because it looked like it might explore a novel subject matter that games have kind of ignored for as long as I can remember. Apparently, Far Cry 4 had a bit in it in which you play as a primitive human riding around on animals during a drug-fueled hallucination, and Ubisoft decided to adapt that concept into a full game.

The last time that Ubisoft had done something like this, they had taken the naval combat from Assassin's Creed III (the completely dissociated highlight of an otherwise boring and stupid game) and converted it into Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. And I loved Black Flag! So I was optimistic that Ubisoft might have another novel treat in store for me. I've played dozens of first person shooters, but I've yet to play as a caveman in 10,000 BCE, so let's give this a go, shall we!

The game begins by showing the date 2016, with modern ambient sounds, apparently intended to make the player think that the game might have some kind of present-day framing device (similar to Assassin's Creed). But then the clock starts ticking back to 10,000 BCE, and the game begins. I wonder if this was intended to mock Assassin's Creed and subvert possible player expectations.

Stone age shooter

This game got off to kind of a rough start for me. I was killed by the mammoth in the tutorial because it charged at me before the game displayed the tutorial tip teaching how to attack with a weapon. So that seemed like a cheap death, and gave me a bad first impression. Fortunately, the next few hours of play didn't have any similarly sloppy design, and I was rather enjoying myself.

Far Cry: Primal - tutorial death
I died in the tutorial because the mammoth charged me before the game taught me how to use my weapon.

It didn't take long, however, for the novelty to wear off. Combat has a focus on melee combat with clubs and spears, which leads to a problem similar to other first-person hack-n-slash games: the constrained field of view makes situational awareness very difficult. Without the option to toggle to a third-person view, it's difficult to tell exactly what is going on immediately around your character, and close-quarters combat with mobs frequently degraded into just spinning around mashing the attack button. Fighting animals can be even worse, as many of them (such as dholes and badgers) are small and fast and incredibly difficult to actually hit. The problem is mitigated somewhat as the game goes on, as new utility abilities are introduced, but I was saddened that Ubisoft didn't really do anything particularly interesting with the basic combat.

And it doesn't really get much better when the utility abilities are introduced, as they mostly just involve simply sicking your tamed beasts on the enemies and hoping that the beast doesn't die. In the regular gameplay mode, you'll also have access to overpowered one-hit kill attacks and bombing runs with your owl that act similarly to an air strike or artillery bombardment in other games. These attacks are so overpowered that the Survival Mode disables them entirely. If you have a powerful enough wolf, bear, or saber-tooth tiger beast, you can often just get away with commanding it to charge a group of enemies while you sit back and watch.

Far Cry: Primal - bow and arrow
This is one game in which a bow and arrow actually makes sense as a primary weapon.
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In between games of Madden 17, I need something to tide me over until the release of Civilization VI consumes my life at the end of October. As such, I did what I usually do in these situations, and I dove into my Steam backlog to look for something that's been sitting around, unplayed, for a couple years. Usually, I try to find some short games like This War of Mine or Papers, Please. I try to avoid the bigger games because they can end up consuming more of my time than I want them to, and if I jump to something else, then I may not go back to such a game to give it a fair chance. Sorry, Master of Orion, Endless Legend, and Endless Space 2, you'll all have to wait until after my upcoming Civ VI bender before I can give any of you a fair chance. That being said, I decided to take a risk and try out a city-builder that I've had sitting around for awhile. I love city-builders, and so this could easily have dragged on for weeks or months, but I hoped that the narrow scope of this game would mean that it wouldn't take as long to get my fill of it.

Banished is a game that offers unforgiving tough love. I feel like this game is the "Oregon Trail" of city-builders, and it's enjoyable as a challenging game of resource management. Unfortunately, it isn't exactly the best at explaining itself, and so it requires a lot of trial and error in order to get going. There's a lot of cycles of cascading success or failure, so you'll likely be restarting your games multiple times before you get anything remotely close to a sizable village. I would also advise that you try to keep multiple save states for your early cities so that if you make a small mistake that starts to spiral into catastrophe, you can reload and fix it without having to restart the entire game.

The tutorial explains a lot of the basic functionality of the buildings, but it never really addresses how to get the most out of these buildings. This results in an unnecessarily high learning curve and bar of entry as you try to stumble upon the optimal placements and uses of buildings. I kept making little mistakes that had big repercussions that forced me into restarting my very first game multiple times - even going so far as to save the random map seed so that I could restart in the same map and try different approaches to some things.

Banished - sub-optimal settlement
I had to iterate through some sub-optimal building placements before stumbling upon a viable city.

An example of a small misstep that crippled a game was that I built a farm that overlapped slightly with a single tree in one corner. Normally, farms are created as soon as you finish zoning them, and you simply have to select which crop to plant and assign workers to work it. But if there are any rocks or trees, then you must first remove them in order for the farm field to be built (like with any other building). So while I waited for some laborers to come chop down the trees (uncertain why nobody was bothering to cut down that one fracking tree!) spring passed and the window for planting closed. So the farm went un-used for the rest of the year, I had no crops saved up, and several adults and children died, leaving my village under-staffed for the following year. So I restarted and placed my farm entirely in an open field, planted during the first spring, and collected a healthy reserve of wheat to keep all my villagers fed through the winter...

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Last time, I discussed what I perceive as a problem in the way that most open world games (specifically, sandbox games) design their maps and use the space that the maps offer - or fail to use that space, to be more specific. So many open world maps end up feeling less like actually playing the game, and more like a convoluted mission-select and collectible checklist screens. This problem is especially bad in the Ubisoft model of design, and is also a problem (to a lesser extent) in Bethesda's open worlds. Due to the popularity of these developers' franchises, many other developers have been cloning these styles of games to one extent or the other, to the point at which Ubisoft's open world model seems to be the go-to template for any developer trying to make an open world game. These games aren't necessarily bad. They just aren't very good at making the space of their maps feel meaningful in its own right.

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate - zipline
Many open world games have large, expansive maps that mostly feel empty and pointless,
as the player rushes through them simply to get to the next map marker or checklist item.

But now that I've established what I see as a problem, I want to focus on positive feedback. In this discussion, I'm going to look at a handful of games that should serve as inspirations for would-be open world developers. Ironically, some of these games aren't even open world games, but they still pose valuable lessons for how games that are open world could better use their game spaces. That isn't to say that the games discussed here are perfect. In fact, many of them have their own major flaws. But each of them has some element of design that utilizes the actual game map as a component of active play, rather than just a space in which game sequences exist. First, let's take a look at a game that was re-made recently, and use it as a "before and after" case study of map design...

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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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