Madden NFL 23 - title

When John Madden was originally approached by EA about consulting with them on a new 7-on-7 football video game, he insisted that the game be "simulation football". He wanted authentic, 11-on-11 gameplay that could potentially be used as a tool for teaching the sport of football. It was the only way that he was willing to put his name on the product, and EA held fairly true to the philosophy of "simulation football" through the 90's and into the 2000's.

I think John Madden's last major contributions to the video game were around 2008, when he provided commentary and narration for the "Madden IQ" Skill Trainer. It wasn't long after this that EA's dedication to "simulation football" began to wane. A few years later, Ultimate Team was added to the game, Franchise Mode was gutted and replaced with a stripped down "My Careers" mode, and Madden himself stopped providing commentary for the game. Franchise Mode and core gameplay have been largely neglected in the years since, in favor of introducing terrible story modes, expanding the arcadey Ultimate Team mode, and adding even more arcadey game modes like SuperStar KO and 5-on-5 The Yard. The Madden video game series has fallen far from the goals and priorities of its namesake -- a fall that is made even more tragic and frustrating by an exclusivity deal with the NFL that bars any other company from producing an NFL-licensed "simulation" football game.

Madden 23 starts off with a tribute to the life of John Madden, who passed away this past December.

It's fitting that, with John Madden himself having passed away this past year, EA Sports and Tiburon seems to be trying to honor him by taking the video game back to basics and finally, after years of neglect, trying to address long-standing issues with the on-field gameplay, physics, and A.I.. Is it enough to satisfy the "simulation" expectations of John Madden, himself? Spoiler alert: NO.

Back to Simulation Football?

Madden 23 starts off well enough. The very first thing that the game asks the user to do is play through a tutorial of the new charge-up passing mechanics (largely ripped-off from Legend Bowl). Madden doesn't simply throw the user into a live game situation and expect new players to just know how to play -- though, expecting users to already know how to play the game from last year was always a sad testament to how little had changed in Madden from year to year.

After finishing the tutorial and deciding how difficult I want the passing mechanic to be, Madden 23 threw me directly into a demo "Legend Game". It's a Pro Bowl of All-Madden players from throughout NFL history, with 2 versions of John Madden coaching each respective team. The entire game is largely an excuse to let the commentary team of Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin give a history lesson about John Madden's career and celebrate his accomplishments. My partner commented that I'd been playing for 15 minutes and she was already sick of listening to the game flagellate John Madden. Personally, I was more annoyed that the game defaulted to Pro difficulty, so scoring was relatively easy for me, and the CPU Tom Brady threw 3 interceptions. Each score and turnover interrupted the commentary about Madden's career, preventing me from hearing the unique dialogue, which the commentary team would not return to if an interruption occurred.

Madden 23 tutorializes its new mechanics before throwing users into a game situation.

Whatever. The game itself is mildly entertaining. It uses clips and graphics from older Madden games as part of its presentation, some NFL Films music, and it includes old commentary clips of Madden himself introducing some of his favorite players, from Brett Favre to Tom Brady to Tony Gonzalez. It's as good and fitting a tribute to the ol' coach and commentator as I would have expected to see in a video game, short of playing through some kind of story mode and re-living moments from his actual career.

But that's just the tutorial and demo game. Is the rest of the actual game as fitting a tribute to the man who demanded "simulation football" from video games bearing his likeness?

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When I booted up my PS5 for the first time and signed into the PSN, I immediately downloaded a few of the must-have games. You know, the Demon's Souls remake, Miles Morales, and Returnal. I also downloaded some other ... shall we say "less high profile" games that piqued my interest, including the [ultimately very impressive] World War II shooter Hell Let Loose and a little indie game that claimed to be a sequel to H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi novel The War of the World, called Darker Skies.

Darker Skies takes place during the aftermath of H.G. Wells' classic novel The War of the Worlds,
but the visual and sound design is clearly pulled from the 2004 Steven Spielberg movie starring Tom Cruise.

Budget "Last of Us"

I didn't have high hopes for this budget indie title, but I was curious what a game developer would even do with a property like War of the Worlds. As soon as I saw the first enemy, a zombie shambling around just like a Clicker from The Last of Us, my heart sank. With all the potential of the source material, Steel Arts had to go with a zombie game?! The War of the Worlds is a classic sci-fi novel about a Martian invasion of Earth. My expectation for a video game adaptation of The War of the Worlds would either be some kind of survival horror game about surviving against Martians who survived exposure to Earth's microbes, or an action shooter about humans counter-attacking the Martians on Mars, or something akin to XCOM. It absolutely would not be a total knock off of The Last of Us, right down to having infected zombie humans.

And when I say this is a knock off of The Last of Us, I'm not just talking about the presence of Clicker-like zombies. The protagonist has an X-Ray "focus" vision, he scavenges random supplies in order to craft consumables supplies, and most encounters with enemies are intended to be dealt with by various throwable tools. There's even areas of the map that are overgrown with red Martian tendrils, similar to the spore-infested areas of The Last of Us, except this time around, the character doesn't need a gas mask to get through.

The character can use X-ray vision to detect enemies through walls, but only if they are moving.

The only thing missing is the tag-along NPC child character -- which is a big problem because the interactions between the two characters is a huge part of what makes The Last of Us a great game. That's where the heart and soul of that game was. If you played The Last of Us, and you thought the best thing to emulate is the crafting system, then I feel like maybe you missed the point...

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Stray - title

When some of the trailers for Stray started releasing on the internet a couple months ago, a couple of my co-workers were really enthusiastic about it. I took one look at the trailer, and pretty much had the entire game figured out. But the idea of playing as a literal cat (as opposed to an anthropomorphized cartoon mascot cat) seemed novel enough for me to toss the game on my Steam wishlist. I ended up buying it on PS5 though, since the price was the same and my aging PCs might not be able to render all the pretty, ray-traced neon lights of the game's cyberpunk dystopia setting.

Right off the bat, I was surprised that Stray does not feature any kind of customization for the cat. I had a bit of a Mandela effect going on in which I could have sworn that the trailers I watched earlier in the year showed customization. But no, we're all stuck with the same orange tabby cat. At the very least, I feel like the developers could have given the player the option to play as one of several pre-fab cat models. The game begins with 4 cats in a little colony, and it seems like the developers could easily have given players the option of which of the 4 cats we want to play with. Ah well. Not a big deal.

I wish there were options to customize the cat or play as different pre-made cat skins.

After being separated from the other 3 cat buddies, the one playable cat must navigate a walled-in dystopian cyberpunk city to find its way back out to its colony. This is done by progressing through a linear route through the environments and completing collections of 3 various types of activities:

  • Run away from hostile critters,
  • Explore small sections of the city populated with humanoid robots for keys, collectibles, and lore,
  • Do some light stealth.

Cyberpunk cat tower

The best parts of the game are easily the exploratory sections, as they are the most free-form and best utilize the novelty of the feline protagonist. The levels all have a significant vertical element to them, and the low-angle camera gives an impressive sense of scale. All the spaces are very small horizontally, never representing more than a single city block, but they are easily doubled or tripled in terms of traversable size when the vertical spaces are factored in. A simple, 3-story tenement building might as well be the Empire State Building from the perspective of your foot-tall feline avatar.

If the player isn't routinely looking up, climbing where you can, and squeezing into tight spaces, you'll likely miss a lot of the game's secrets and collectibles. Though if you are testing the verticality of all the spaces, you should find most (if not all) collectibles without much extra effort or thought.

A stray cat must navigate a cyberpunk city inhabited by robots.

This gameplay would probably be a lot more impressive if not for the fact that it isn't doing anything that every other open world adventure game since Assassin's Creed has been doing: climbing and rooftop parkour. Even though the levels are 3-dimensional, paths to the heights are usually clearly signposted and railoaded, and the cat can only jump or climb onto places that specifically have "jump to" prompts. There are no leaps of faith for this cat. All the challenge is simply observational: is there a clearly-visible path to the place I want to go?

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Hell Let Loose - title

Hell Let Loose is one of the most un-welcoming games for new players that I have ever played -- at least in the modern era of video games since in-game tutorials became common place in the early 2000's. There is no tutorial or practice mode of any kind. For a standard, run-of-the-mill online shooter, that might not be a huge problem. But Hell Let Loose is not your standard, run-of-the-mill online shooter. It's a slower-paced online shooter based heavily around squad tactics, in which death comes quickly from out of nowhere -- especially for players who get isolated from the support of their squad. It requires much greater communication and coordination from players, and it has a complicated role system in which each character class has very specific duties on the field, all of which are required for an army to be successful.

There are various roles, all of which are necessary for victory.

As such, the complete inability to ever be able to learn those roles and how they work is a huge problem! There is a "Field Manual", which explains, in text, the basics of the game and each role. But it's an information overload, and a new player can't really be expected to absorb it all.

There is no tutorial or boot camp,
like in other similar games.

Straight to the front

The developers, Black Matter Party, is a small team, and I know that creating a guided, playable tutorial to explain such a complicated game would not be easy and would require a lot of budget and person-hours to create. Being an exclusively online, multiplayer shooter with no single-player campaign, means that creating A.I. bots for practice is well beyond the scope of the game. But if I could just practice by myself, and be able to freely switch to any role at any time, it would go a long way towards helping to learn the game.

At the very least, the ability to drop myself into an empty offline arena n order to run around, practice each weapon, practice the equipment of each role, and learn the map itself, would be very helpful. That shouldn't be too hard, since a basic offline sandbox mode doesn't require any additional assets, scripting, or A.I. programming. It also probably wouldn't be too hard to drop in some target practice dummies scattered around the arena for me to shoot at, and maybe also some friendly dummies for a medic to practice reviving. I don't see any reason why that wouldn't be doable, even for a small team.

The unfriendliness towards new players likely scares a lot of people away from this game, and its reputation as being un-welcoming to n00bs probably limits the number of players who are willing to even give it a chance, despite the fact that it seems to have garnered mostly favorable critical reviews. This creates a cyclical problem. The low player count means there aren't enough active players to support and maintain beginner servers. Heck, this game is lucky to have more than 2 matches open at any given time. Matches are, thus, dominated by skilled, experienced players, who are able to spot and snipe the less-experienced players from a mile away, before the poor victim has any clue what is going on, or that he or she is even in danger. This makes the game even harder, further pushing away new players, keeping the player-counts small, and further widening the gap between the few dedicated players and the scrubs like me.

Much of my play experience consists of running across fields or forests, and then promptly dying.

Most of my play experience in the first few weeks of play consisted of me running across a field, or through a forest, or into a village, only to be instantly killed by an off-screen opponent. Or if that opponent is on-screen, it's probably just 2 gray pixels off in the gray distance. There's no kill-cam or anything either, so I have no idea who killed me, or where they were. I have no idea what weapon they were using, or whether I was even killed by gunfire or by a grenade Or maybe I stepped on a landmine, or was hit by artillery bombardment or a mortar, or was strafed by a fighter plane. Are those things even in the game? I don't know -- or at least, I didn't know during those early play sessions. If I do get shot, I have no idea what gun my killer was using, whether he was standing, squatting, or prone. Was he was behind cover? Was he was looking down the sights or shooting from the hip? I don't know anything about what killed me.

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Letters to a Friend: Farewell - title

When I saw Errant Signal's video essay about Letters To A Friend: Farewell, I was instantly intrigued. Even watching someone else's footage, and not actually playing myself, the exceedingly grainy camera had me seeing things that weren't there, constantly wondering if something was going to pop out of the shadows. In a slow-burn psychological horror title like this, that kind of constant tension really helps to set a mood and elevate the emotional response to the game, and I wanted to experience it for myself.

Letters To A Friend is a short, 30 to 40-minute indie horror game with a unique silent film aesthetic. Aside from ambient background music, there is no dialogue and no sound effects. All the spoken dialogue and inner monologue of the player character are conveyed through text displayed on static title cards. The entire game is played in monochrome, with a heavy vignette and film grain effect.

Letters To A Friend is absolutely committed to its grainy silent film aesthetic.

The plot is about a notary who goes to a house so that the owner, Markus, can sign away his rights to inherit the property after his father had recently passed. Markus begins rambling, claims he can't find the key to the locked attic door, the time grows late, and the notary is asked to stay overnight in the study, so that Markus can find the key and sign the paperwork the next morning. The notary agrees, only to have his sleep disturbed by weird noises and odors, which are all described in text on title cards. Something is not as it seems.

I don't want to go into further detail right away because speaking any further about the plot or themes of this 40-minute story would completely spoil it. This game is short even by walking sim standards, but on the upside, at least it gets straight to the point without burying its meaning in layers of confusing metaphor and symbolism, as many walking sims are prone to do. This game is only available on itch.io, and its recommended price is $5.99 USD, but since it's on itch, you can opt to pay more if you want to help support the developer. Personally, I paid an even $7 USD. If you don't mind short, indie walking sims, and the silent film aesthetic looks interesting, then I recommend checking this game out and playing for yourself. Then feel free to come back and read the more spoiler-y details of the review and analysis.

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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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