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.


Shadow of the Colossus (PS4, 2018) - title

I debated whether to turn this into a retro review of Shadow of the Colossus, or to focus this review on whether or not this particular remake manages to re-capture the magic of the original. Honestly though, what could I possibly say about Shadow of the Colossus that hasn't already said?

The original game (released in 2005 by Fumito Ueda's Team Ico at Sony) is a classic and a masterpiece of interactive art. It ranks right up there with games like Portal, Half-Life, Super Mario Bros., and Tetris as a contender for the title of "best video game ever made". Virtually every creative decision that the original team made was the absolute perfectly right decision to make. From the desolate and bleak, yet hauntingly-beautiful landscape. To the immense sens of scale and grandeur that embodies almost every crevice of the game and the sheer smallness of the protagonist himself. To the intimidating, yet majestic aesthetic design of the colossi themselves. To the bittersweet death animations of the Colossi, accompanied by Kow Otani's outstanding score, that makes you question the rightness of your actions. To the way that Agro's independent actions, slightly imprecise controls, and occasional insubordination sell the idea that she's an independent living character that you are riding, rather than a simple vehicle that you pilot as an extension of the player avatar. To the decision to not drag down the game's pace or pollute the overworld with a single encounter with grunt enemies. And on and on...

Shadow of the Colossus was like a digital vacation when it was released in 2005.

It's as perfect a video game as has ever been made. It's the centerpiece of any "games as art" argument (if we still even have to have that argument anymore). Critics and analysts before me have already consecrated Shadow of the Colossus far beyond my petty powers to add or detract.

Bluepoint is the masters of remasters and remakes

Why couldn't Bluepoint have done
the Silent Hill HD Collection?!

Because of how absolutely brilliant the original game is, I had reservations about any attempt to remaster or remake it, especially after the debacle that was Hijinx Studios' Silent Hill HD Collection. Fortunately, however, the remake privilege (or burden, depending on how you want to look at it) was given to Bluepoint Games, the veritable masters of remasters and HD collections. Bluepoint had already released an HD remaster of Shadow of the Colossus on the PS3 back in 2011. I never played it because I thought the PS2 version of the game still looked fantastic and didn't need to be remastered to be enjoyed. That HD remaster was very well-received by the general public, as have been all of Bluepoint's remasters, as far as I am aware. Why couldn't Konami have given Silent Hill to these folks?!


Civilization VI: Rise and Fall - title

When Civilization V first launched back in 2010, it was in a pretty ugly, incomplete state. The game was buggy, was very slowly-paced, was completely missing any sort of espionage mechanic, and had other gaping holes in its design. It took about six or eight months' worth of patching and updating from Firaxis before the game reached a state that I would consider "adequate". Its first expansion, Gods & Kings basically came off as a fan wishlist, as it re-added (and re-vamped) many of the features and systems that had been removed between Civ IV and Civ V (religion and espionage). That expansion also addressed a lot of core complaints with the game by dramatically improving combat balance and A.I. intelligence. The second expansion, Brave New World, almost completely re-invented the game and added a considerable amount of innovation in the form of trade routes and the new great works and artifacts systems. It also added an exceptional, robust roster of new civilizations.

Civilization VI launched with most of Brave New World's innovations still in place (though culture seems to have regressed a bit), and also added its own new innovations in city management. It felt like a much more complete game at launch than Civ V was. At the time, I was blown away by Civ VI, but as time has gone by (and I've increased the difficulty level), my enthusiasm for the game has diminished a bit.

I really enjoy the game when I play it on the King difficulty level (the "easiest" of the "hard" difficulty levels, in which A.I.s only get very slight bonuses). As soon as I up the difficulty to Emperor, I start to get frustrated, and the game becomes much less fun. The problem is that on the difficulty that I enjoy (King), the A.I. puts up very little resistance, and the game (though fun) is generally too easy. I can play the game on Emperor (I haven't experimented much on Immortal or higher in VI yet), but the stacking of the deck makes the game less enjoyable because I often feel that I'm blocked out of many early-game strategies that I want to try (such as early religion or wonders). It's all possible to accomplish, but it's prohibitively so, and the game often pushes me too far in the direction of militancy.

Doesn't address core game issues

Nope. Still no build queue...

In summary, while Civilization V's first expansion filled many of the gaping holes and addressed many of the flagrant flaws in vanilla Civ V's design, VI's first expansion mostly just stacks additional mechanics and features onto an already-complete game, while leaving many of VI's annoyances, quirks, and genuine flaws un-resolved. Let's get these complaints out of the way first.

Rise and Fall does little to address complaints with shallow unit upgrade paths. There's still generally only a single unit of a given unit class every other era.

Rise and Fall does very little to improve the combat systems in general. Units still die far too easily (in my opinion) (though this seems to be due in large part to the disparity in unit upgrade levels mentioned above), and imbalances between melee, ranged, and mounted units are still prevalent.

Rise and Fall does nothing to address complaints that I've had with the maps feeling very crowded and claustrophobic.

Civilization VI back-loads most of its culture, tourism, artifact, and great work systems into the second half of the game, and Rise and Fall does very little to make these feel like game-long engagements the way that Brave New World mostly did.

It does very little to make the late-game victory march feel less like a slog, or to make the early-game feel less rushed (especially on higher difficulties).

It does very little to address complaints with how the A.I. agendas can make them very erratic and schizophrenic. A.I.s are still far too willing to agree to joint wars against their own friends, allies, and trade partners, and joint wars in general still feel like a cheap loophole that lets warmongers bypass the casus belli system and warmonger penalties. Further, while the expansion does allow for deeper alliances with mutual benefits for the civs involved, it does not expand alliances to the point of allowing for shared or cooperative victories. So dipomacy in general still feels like a zero-sum-game with every civ acting to the exclusion of all others.

There's still no icon or indication that a unit has experience bonuses from barracks or buffs such as "Spears of Fion", or to indicate which abilities or penalties a given unit has by default.

We still can't assign military units to escort traders, nor can we see the path of any particular trader after it's started a route. And Trade routes themselves still don't generate reciprocal profit by default, meaning there's no reason to want other civs to send routes to you (other than getting a free road out of it, which isn't all that rewarding).

There's also still no build queues for cities!

Religion was overhauled in a patch last year, and religious units occupy their own layer.

Some major game upgrades have already been made available via post-release patches and DLC updates, and I'm grateful for those. New resources and wonders have trickled in since launch. One of the best improvements came in an update last year that allowed religious units to exist on their own layer, so that swarms of missionaries don't block your own units' movement in your territory. And the religious system in general was improved. So the game, overall, has improved a little bit since release. It just hasn't improved as dramatically as Civ V had improved in its first year. Though, to its credit, Civ VI didn't have as much room for obvious improvement.


Assassin's Creed Origins - title

Hey, I actually managed to play and review all of this past holiday season's big, Triple-A releases! Hooray for me! I mean, sure it's the end of February, and I'm just now reviewing a game that came out last October, but at least I did play it.

Since the refreshing exceptionalism of Black Flag, the Assassin's Creed franchise has been scarred by mediocrity and controversy. As such, I opted to buy the game used off of eBay so as not to support Ubisoft. This is after I had enjoyed Black Flag so much that I happily bought a retail gift copy for a friend and recommended the game to yet another friend. Heck, if the save file could have been transferred over, I would have gladly traded in my PS3 copy of Black Flag for a PS4 retail copy.

Even Ubisoft realized that the series was growing stale, and stopped their cycle of releasing two or three games per year. It's been two full years since the last full release (Assassin's Creed: Syndicate in 2015). The extra time certainly helped elevate Assassin's Creed: Origins above the chaff of the rest of the franchise, but not quite enough to propel it to true greatness.

I played Origins on PS4, which means that I avoided the frustrations that many gamers reported involving Origins' multiple layers of DRM slowing down their computers. Wait, isn't Ubisoft the company that, years ago, publicly stated that DRM doesn't work, and that they "don't want to punish a paying player for what a pirate can easily work around"? This same company is now putting not one ... not two ... but three separate DRM applications on a single game? One of which is their own proprietary distribution service, U-Play? Is the company lying, or are they just scatterbrained and can't make up their mind? Or is the management just incompetent?

Would exploring tombs and temples by torchlight become a common mechanic?

Well, when I started up the actual game, I was pleasantly surprised that it starts off pretty damn strong. Even Black Flag was mired by an opening act that stranded players in a tedious, bog-standard Assassin's Creed sandbox city for a couple hours before opening up the seas by giving us our own pirate ships. Origins, however, has a very strong, distinctive opening chapter that eventually gives way to a more bog-standard gameplay experience.

After an admittedly-silly and confusing opening cutscene that utterly fails to establish the setting or characters, Origins throws the player into a one-on-one duel to highlight the new combat mechanics, then hands main character Bayek a torch and asks the player to explore and escape from a derelict Egyptian temple. Then we head off across an intimidating swath of Saharan desert to the oasis that is Bayek's home town. Here, we have some open-ended exploration, hunting, rescue, and assassination missions. During this, we are introduced to the game's shining star: its setting and environment.

Classical Egypt is magnificently brought to life in this game. The map is vast and spread out, with large swaths of barren desert and sand dunes separating some of the game's regions. Small farming settlements and market hubs dot the environment, and each feels like a necessary part of a functional society. Best of all, Bayek isn't stopping every ten steps to pick up some random, meaningless collectible, and our map isn't cluttered with icons representing all this meaningless garbage.

Egypt feels vast, is beautiful, and is brimming with life and energy.

Not only does the map work well with its sense of physical scale, but it also excels at representing the temporal scale of Egypt. Even though we are playing in antiquity, the game world is still dotted with tombs and abandoned settlements, some of which are thousands of years old. Remember, ancient Egypt is one of the longest-lasting civilizations in the history of the world, having been a world superpower for over three thousand years! The time span between the building of the Great Pyramids in Giza, and the life of Cleopatra is longer than the time span between Cleopatra and our lives today. Assassin's Creed: Origins completely nails that sense of living in this ancient kingdom...


Middle-Earth: Shadow of War - title

Dang. I was really hoping to have this out before the end of the year...

Shadow of Mordor was easily one of my favorite games of 2015, and one of my best reviewed games of that year, and I even cited it as an example of successful open world game mechanics. I've praised the game for its tightly-focused design, relatively limited scale, and the fact that it didn't waste the player's time with an excess of meaningless collectible hunts.

"The developers showed plenty of restraint in many areas of design so that they could focus on the innovative new feature that everything in the game revolves around. The design is tight and streamlined. They didn't waste the player's time with an excessively large, complicated map, or a multitude of irrelevant mini-games and side quests."
    - from my Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor review

Yes, the original game did have some collectible hunts. It did have some filler content. It did have bullshit, game-y missions with arbitrary win/loss conditions. But those issues weren't pervasive enough to bring down the game as a whole, and the game generally flowed very smoothly. In their quest to mindlessly monetize the sequel, Shadow of War, Warner Brothers and Monolith have doubled down on both the best elements and the worst elements of Shadow of Mordor, and the result is beautiful when it works, and ugly when it doesn't.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - defending fortress
You now recruit orc captains to defend fortresses from Sauron's army.

The biggest problem is that the game now feels like a grind. In order to get you to pay for in-game, randomized micro-transactions called "War Chests", the campaign has been needlessly padded-out. Instead of having the option to hunt down uruk captains for the utilitarian purposes of gaining intel or gathering an army of mind-controlled slaves to do your bidding, you now must recruit orc captains into your own army in order to siege and then defend castles and fortresses from Sauron's counter-invasion. In principle, this sounds like a brilliant idea! I've often criticized open world and sandbox games for not having actual threats or consequences that pressure the player into acting. In fact, requiring that the player defend and hold captured strongholds from enemy counter-attacks is exactly the sort of thing that I've proposed as a compelling way to keep the game world feeling alive, and to keep the villain actually feeling threatening and antagonistic.

The problem is that (aside from one scripted castle defense) all the castle defending is back-loaded into the final act of the game. At this point, the plot is basically over, ... [More]

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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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