Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel - title

FromSoft has a pretty amazing track record with the DLC expansions for its Dark Souls and Bloodborne games. Heck, the Crowns Trilogy expansions basically save Dark Souls II from being completely dismissable within the Souls library. Needless to say, expectations for a Dark Souls III expansion were pretty high. Maybe they were too high, as FromSoft sadly seems to have really misfired with Ashes of Ariandel.

Is this mid-game content, or end-game content?

My primary problem with this expansion is that it has wildly erratic difficulty. It breaks with the tradition of having a very obscure access point, and so it's very easy to access very early in the game. It's basically un-missable. There are no arcane hoops to jump through this time, nor is it so obscurely-hidden that From needed to include a dialogue box to tell you where to go. Instead, there's simply an NPC in an area of the game that is accessible fairly early in the game. Talk to this NPC, and he'll transport you to the Painted World of Ariandel.

Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel - developer hint
The developers recommend facing "the depths of Lothric Castle" before playing the DLC.

Once you enter Ariandel, you'll find a pair of developer hints. One reads "Before one faces the painting, one should face the depths of Lothric Castle.", and another claims that only the mighty will survive. So clearly, this area is intended to be late-game content (as you're recommended to have already beaten Lothric Castle and/or Oceiros' Garden). But take a few steps into the DLC, and you'll find some pretty simple basic enemies. The followers of Farron are easily beatable by any mid-level character. Some of them can throw spears at you while hidden behind the blinding snow while you're dealing with their comrades in melee. I didn't have too much trouble dealing with this though, as the melee enemies can be easily kited away from the ranged ones.

The wolves are pretty weak and are only tough if the whole pack gangs up on your or if the camera wigs out while they are jumping around. A level 50 or 60 character would probably have little trouble with these enemies. To From's credit, these wolves are actually pretty fun to fight. They aren't nearly as obnoxious as the dogs that have driven me nuts in previous games.

Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel - pack of wolves
Most of Ariandel's enemies are pretty easy for mid-game characters
as long as you don't let them swarm and overwhelm you...

But then there's the Millwood Knights and Corvian Knights, which feel like they require the player to be closer to the 80-100 range. Seriously, there's like a 40-level difference between the enemies that you'll encounter in this level, and that's pretty ridiculous. Some of the Millwood Knights guard some fancy optional weapons and an optional area, but the other Millwoods and the Corvian Knights are placed along the necessary paths of progress. You have to fight them. Or at least try to run past them.

The Corvian Knights are a particular pain in the ass...

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Civilization VI review

Firaxis has given me a belated birthday gift by releasing Civilization VI. They've also ensured that I don't get very much productive done during the months of October and November this year, since I've been sinking a whole lot of time into "one more turn"-ing myself late into the night. I've barely scratched the surface of the newly-released Dark Souls III DLC, my Madden franchise has fallen behind, and I haven't even bothered buying recently-released games like the new Master of Orion. My board game collection has been collecting dust, and my Dungeons & Dragons campaigns have been on hiatus. I'll get back to all those things after one more turn.

Oozing with production quality

The first thing that stood out to me upon entering my first game was the artwork. It's a pretty stark contrast from Civilization V's visuals. Civ V favored a semi-photo realistic quality. Many screenshots of the game's map look like satellite photos, and units (though exceedingly large) looked and animated realistically. This created a lot of pretty screenshots (still images), but the game looked kind of static, washed-out, and dull in motion. VI, on the other hand, goes for an exaggerated, vibrant, and more cartoonish look that reminds me a lot more of Civ IV and Civ Revolution.

Civilization VI - informative graphics
The graphics are vibrant and highly informative. Everything that you see on screen genuinely means something.

What I really like is how utilitarian the visuals are. Almost everything on the game map is communicating part of the state of the game to the player. You can see every piece of infrastructure in and around a city, as well as exactly which tiles are being worked, all without having to open a separate screen and without having to clutter the screen with extra UI icons. There's even different graphics to represent the different phases of a building or wonder's construction that tells you exactly what that city is currently constructing, and how close it might be to finishing that wonder. It's attractive, but it's also clean and informative.

The fog of war is also wonderfully functional and neat to look at. This game renders the fog of war with the style of a hand-drawn map on canvas (similar to Total War: Shogun 2, which I loved). Heck, there's even an animated day/night cycle that was seemingly added because ... why not?

Improvements have different graphics for when they're un-worked [LEFT] versus worked [RIGHT].

The rest of the game shows similarly high production quality. There's actual cinematics for the win screens instead of dialogue boxes with a static image. Finishing a wonder results in an in-game cutscene of that wonder's construction. It isn't quite as pretty as Civ IV's pre-rendered wonder movies, but makes up for it by providing a sense of context that makes me feel like I'm seeing "my Oracle" instead of just the Oracle. There's more historic quotes, all of which are narrated wonderfully by Sean Bean. Firaxis even brought back composer Christopher Tin for some of the music. The new theme music, "Sogno Di Volare" ["The Dream of Flight"] isn't as immediately catchy as "Baba Yetu", but it's still an uplifting, memorable track that stands out more than the menu themes of Civ V. Put simply, this game just looks and sounds terrific...

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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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Madden NFL 17 - title

UPDATE OCTOBER 23, 2016: LATEST PATCH AND/OR TUNER HAVE PRACTICALLY RUINED THE GAME FOR ME.

I've been having miserable experiences with Madden 17 since publishing this review. I suspect that either patch #2 or tuner #2 are the culprit. Sliders don't seem to improve the experience at all. In fact, certain sliders (like CPU QB Accuracy and CPU Pass Blocking) don't seem to have any effect at all anymore. I am tempted to rewrite this review with a much lower score, but I'm hoping that EA will fix the problem - or at the very least, that deleting the most recent Tuner data will resolve some of the issues.

Sadly, I don't think it's possible for me to re-download the first tuner data. This is a shame, since that one actually did fix some genuine problems the game had at launch.

DO NOT DOWNLOAD PATCH #2 OR TUNER #2!

Electronic Arts has supposedly spent the last three years or so rebuilding Madden from the ground up. Because of that, the past few years' games have felt very incremental, and somewhat incomplete. It was obvious that there were still major holes in many facets of gameplay. Personally, I would have preferred that EA just take a two or three year hiatus in order to hold off on releasing a game until it was actually complete. I'm happy that it seems like we're finally getting a "finished" version of EA's vision of a "next gen" Madden game, and I was curious to see if it would live up to expectations.

By their own admission, EA has finally rebuilt the final few phases of gameplay that still used predominantly legacy code (e.g. special teams and the football itself). For the first time in a long time, it feels like Madden can be approached and reviewed as a complete retail product rather than one step in a long-term incremental beta process. Is it worth the wait?

We'll, first impressions let it down a bit. Much like last year's game, the introduction and tutorial for Madden 17 seemed like a pointless waste of time that misrepresents the actual content of the game with its frequent cutscenes and dialogue from players and coaches. I'm not sure who these scripted gameplay intros are intended for. I would expect that new players would likely be confused and unsure what to do, resulting in failing the intro without any clue what they did wrong or what they were supposed to do. Experienced players, on the other hand, are probably just annoyed with the lack of control in this sequence. The inability to skip the cutscenes only makes repeat playthroughs (if you care enough to try to actually beat the scenario) feel tedious, as you'll have to sit through more cringe-worthy dialogue. EA Sports / Tiburon isn't Naughty Dog, and so writing dialogue and directing voice actors are not the studio's strong suits. About the only thing that this intro sequence does is highlight the new commentary team, which is actually pretty good.

Slowly becoming a complete football game

Despite the blocked field goal in the intro being an un-playable cutscene, special teams was one of the primary areas of focus this year. It's an area that's been mostly neglected since the analog kick meter was introduced back around 2007. And what was the innovation that EA decided was necessary to bring their kicking game into the next generation? Well, actually, they decided to bring back a kicking meter that works almost identically to the older PS1 / PS2 era games. You start the meter charging by pressing X, then press X again to set the kick strength as the meter fills, then press X again to set the kick accuracy as the meter returns to the bottom. Nothing new here.

Madden NFL 17 - kick meter
The "new" kick meter is basically a return to the older kick meter.

However, you now have to hold the analog stick to aim the kick prior to starting the kick meter. If you let go, the kick trajectory will snap back to the default. This does require a bit more dexterity than either of the previous kick meter systems ever needed, but it's still fairly easy once you get used to it. Though, EA could maybe loosen up the accuracy window for online games because any amount of lag makes the kicking game virtually impossible. You also have to be more careful with timing your kicks, as the game and play clocks both continue to tick while the kick meter is charging. Not sure if this is a bug or a feature... So be careful that you don't wait too long and give yourself a delay of game (or let the game clock expire before) you get the kick off.

On the other side of the ball, defenders can now actually block kicks by jumping the snap...

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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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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

A gamer's life...

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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