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...


Madden NFL 17 - title

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...


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...


Cities: Skylines - game title

After the disappointment that was Cities: Skylines' Snowfall expansion, Colossal Order has tried to renew loyalty in the brand by offering free updates and a whole free DLC. Despite my disappointment with Snowfall, I still love Skylines, and I support its developer Colossal Order. They've shown a great deal of good will towards the consumers by offering their game at a budget price, and by continuing to provide exceptional post-release support, maintenance, and improvements to the core Cities: Skylines gameplay. One of the recent major updates added terraforming tools and the ability to create canals. There's also a free DLC called "Match Day", which adds the ability to build a soccer stadium and maintain your own team.

Its game day in the city!

"Couldn't you already build a soccer stadium?" you may ask. Well, yes you could. But now there's an additional soccer stadium (which is oddly much larger than the original soccer stadium), and you can inspect it in order to customize your team and set a handful of policies regarding them. If you team wins games (which happen annually in the game's calendar), then your city gets a large lump sum of reward money. You can increase the odds of winning by enacting the various policies. They include making public transit free on game day, hiring private security to keep the peace (you know, soccer hooligans), or [the much more expensive] option to enact a youth subsidy that recruits the best players from the community. Ticket prices are also adjustable, and affect both the income you earn from sales and the attendance and support of fans. You'll also need to provide adequate transit to and from the stadium in order to encourage visitors (including tourists) to attend the games.

Cities: Skylines - match day
Your soccer stadium has some limited customization options.

Of course, you won't be getting a full-fledged soccer management game. You won't be managing a roster of players, setting depth charts, recruiting new players, or trading players with other teams. This is a city-building game, not EA Sports! I do wish that the stadium had more secondary color customization option in order to personalize it more. It would also be nice if there were multiple stadium architectures to chose from and multiple sports, but I guess we can leave that to the modders. The stadium that was already in the game is still present, but it does not function like the new stadium. I don't see any reason why they couldn't have moved that stadium into the new "Football" sub-category and make it function the same. Hopefully, it's easy enough to mod, say, a basketball arena that has the same policies attached to it. The Match Day DLC is free, so temper your expectations.

I'm kind of surprised that the devs keep adding stuff that generates more money for the city, since Skylines has always had the problem of money being a bit too easy to come by...


This War of Mine: the Little Ones

It was a long wait to get this DLC on PC and Steam. It originally released back in January on consoles, while we early adopters of the PC version were stuck waiting out in the cold with no clue whether or not we'd ever get the expansion. I wanted to play it, but I was hoping that a PC version would be released because I was skeptical that controlling a shelter full of characters with only an analog stick (and no pause button) would be unweildy. But it finally did get a release on Steam, and was even discounted during the Steam Summer Sale, so there was no way that I was going to pass that up.

The base version of This War of Mine is a fantastic game and ranks up there with Papers, Please, Metal Gear Solid 3, and Ace Combat 4 as one of the best games about war that I've ever played. This War of Mine is a very harsh, brutal, and depressing game. But if you didn't think that it was a depressing enough game to begin with, then wait till you play it with children as playable characters! The expansion adds some new scenarios with child characters as well as a handful of child-specific craftable items, but it's surprisingly skimpy on new content. As far as I can tell, there are no new scavenge locations, ambient events, or neighbor events.

This War of Mine - a child was hurt
If the game wasn't already difficult and depressing enough, now you have to keep children safe as well.

The trauma of war

Children can be both a burden and a blessing in this game. By default, they can't perform most crafting, they can't shovel away rubble or unlock blocked doors, they can't be sent out to scavenge at night, and they can't do anything to guard or protect the shelter from raids. At the start, they are basically just extra mouths to feed that have the potential to consume more of your valuable medicines and bandages, but they can't contribute directly to your survival. They can also be particularly needy, and their needs can be tough to meet as you struggle just to get the basics like food, water, and an assembly line of crafting stations.

However, it won't stay like this for long, as children can be taught to do many of the same crafting tasks that the adults can do...

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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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