Death Stranding - title

I had no clue what to expect from Death Stranding. I probably would have bought it regardless because I usually enjoy Kojima's games. I was also curious if Death Stranding would be, in some way, representative of what the canceled Silent Hills might have been. Most of all, Kojima is a bold, and usually innovative creator, and I felt compelled to support his new studio -- if for nothing else than to give a middle finger to Konami.

After spending several dozen hours with it, I'm still not really sure what to think of Death Stranding. Much like with Final Fantasy XV, Death Stranding is loaded with novel ideas and messages that I find personally interesting or compelling. But just like Final Fantasy XV, those novel ideas take a back seat to time-wasting filler quests. Death Stranding can be hypnotically beautiful, zen-like, and maybe even emotionally moving, but it's also big, bloated, and convoluted, and it takes far too long to get where it's going.

At a very reductionist level, Death Stranding could be accurately characterized as "side quest: the game" or "Amazon courier: the game". But that characterization would be overlooking the nuance behind the game, and what it has to say about modern gaming and society in general. That makes it a very difficult game to review without giving one's self some time to let it soak in ... which is part of the reason why I've been mulling it over for more than a month now...

Rebuilding America, one Amazon delivery at a time

Carrying cargo is, in fact, the entire game! Our protagonist, Sam, is unwittingly tasked with delivering cargo across this post-apocalyptic America in an attempt to get in the good graces of the settlements dotting the land, and connect them all up to a vast information network to restore a semblance of civilization. On the way, you can literally build roads and bridges as you go -- rebuilding the American infrastructure little by little.

Online players will leave guideposts and infrastructure to help each other out.

This infrastructure is actually a clever implementation of the Demon's Souls / Dark Souls style of asynchronous multiplayer. In principle.

Instead of the ghostly visages of other player warning you of traps or ambushes or pitfalls, online players can build bridges, roads, vehicle charging stations, storage boxes, and other helpful infrastructure that will make your trek through the world legitimately easier. They aren't just cluing you in about what dangers to expect, or what course of action to take, the other players are actively helping you (and everyone else) without ever needing to set a digital foot in your game. Just like in FromSoft's Souls games, you can also leave little notes that take the form of emoticons, and which combine the function of the Souls player messages with avatar gestures.

When you first step out into the world, there's a sense of desolation and loneliness about the landscape. It reminds me a lot of Shadow of the Colossus, except our only company is a crying fetus instead of Aggro (who's such a good horsey!). The scenery itself is more evocative of Iceland, and doesn't look like any part of the United States that I've ever been. But then again, this is the same game designer who put a tropical rainforest in the middle of Soviet Russia, so... It's beautiful and serene, and figuring out how you're going to navigate the environment can be a legitimate zen-like puzzle.

Trekking through the map reminded me of the beautifully desolate environments of Shadow of the Colossus.

This game requires very precise and deliberate inputs from the player, and it can sometimes be very unforgiving of small mistakes. If you turn too quickly, Sam may lose his balance and fall over, possibly damaging or destroying the packages that you are carrying. Walk to quickly down a steep slope, and you'll risk loosing your footing and face-planting. You can hold one or both trigger buttons to try to stabilize yourself or catch your balance -- and there's no real reason to not hold both triggers the entire game, since balancing your load doesn't make Sam walk noticeably slower. And you'll have to manage Sam's stamina, the battery supply of vehicles or certain tools, and so forth. You might even find your hands cramping from holding down the triggers after a particularly long or strenuous journey over rough terrain, providing you with a small degree of physical discomfort to go along with Sam's physical exhaustion. And you'll be pushed along by occasional rainfall that will cumulatively damage your cargo and equipment.

Even though Sam will progressively get stronger and better able to keep himself balanced, and even though the game will gradually unlock new mechanics for making it easier to traverse the landscape, you can never get sloppy, and the game will punish you for impatience! It reminds me a lot of Dark Souls, except instead of getting killed by a hollow undead sword flurry because I thought I could sprint through a return trip through an early area of the game, I'm instead tripping over my own two feet because I tried to run down a mossy slope to get this delivery done faster.

Simply navigating the open world terrain without tripping and falling is a primary gameplay mechanic.

The terrain is important and relevant, and navigating it safely and efficiently is the game's core gameplay. You aren't simply holding the stick forward and walking a straight line to a point on the mini-map or radar, as you might do in, say, Skyrim or Far Cry. This is how you design an open world game! You make the traversal of the space into the operant challenge. Or, at the very least, make the space between landmarks -- and the act of traversing that space -- feel meaningful. I feel like game designers are really starting to vindicate all those blogs that I wrote years ago about the failings of open world design. The destinations aren't important in Death Stranding. It's the space in between (the open world itself) that is important.

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Return of the Obra Dinn - title

Well, with a Madden review in my rear view mirror, and while waiting for the indie football games to hit the market, I decided to try out one of last year's darling indie games. I very much enjoyed Lucas Pope's previous game, Papers, Please, so Return of the Obra Dinn was high up on my wish list of indie games. It was just a matter of finding time to sit down and play it and give it my full attention.

This isn't a game that you can just kind of casually play. Much like with Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn requires your close attention. You have to pay very close attention to details, which can come from one of several different places. It might be a single word or a name in a snippet of dialogue. It might be inferring a person's naval rank based on the uniform they're wearing. It might be making a mental note of what room a person is running into or out of. You then have to use those details to make genuine deductions or judgement calls.

Elementary, my dear time-lord

The basic premise is that you are an insurance claims adjuster (I guess) working for the English East India Company. A missing merchant ship suddenly returns with all hands missing. You must search the ship to piece together the events of its voyage, and try to determine what happened to as many of the crew as possible.

Search a derelict ship for clues to the fates or whereabouts of its crew and passengers.

Your only tools are a notebook and a mysterious stopwatch (or is it a compass?). The notebook contains a crew manifest, a drawing of all the crew and passengers, a map of the ship, and a few notes on where to look for initial clues. It is also used to log all of the pertinent information that you find. The other tool is the mysterious stopwatch that has the ability to manifest a recreation of the scene of a corpse's death. Where such a fantastical tool came from and why you have it is not really explained (at least not at first). When you find a body, you can activate the stopwatch to see how that person died. The stopwatch manifests a 3-D freeze frame of the moment of the person's death and replays the last things the person heard before he (or she) died.

The whole game consists of exploring these scenes to try to figure out who the deceased person is, how they died, and to cross-reference the scenes to figure out who everyone else is and what happened to them. It's actually a lot more challenging that it seems.

Try to figure out the names and fates of as many people as you can, using the clues provided to you.

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Axis Football 19 - title

Well, the football video game price wars have apparently begun. Unfortunately, however, the prices are not shifting in the direction I'd like. Instead of EA being forced by competition to drop the price of Madden to something reasonable, like $30 (as they had to do in 2004 to compete with ESPN NFL 2k5's budget price of $20), both Maximum Football 19 and Axis Football 19 have upped their price from $20 (in 2018) to $30 (in 2019). I've already complained that Maximum has shifted its retail price out of the budget indie tier and into the middle-market (or "double-A" tier), and that Maximum isn't quite up to the level of quality that I might expect from a title at that price.

Axis Football doesn't feel quite as over-priced, as it was a much more feature-complete product to begin with (and remains a more feature-complete product this year, despite Maximum's new dynasty mode). That being said, I don't feel that Axis is improved enough to warrant a 50% jump in price.

Whereas Maximum focused on adding a much-needed dynasty mode in order to prop up its mediocre-at-best on-field gameplay (and moderately succeeds in that regard), Axis already had a working Franchise mode. What Axis needed was to improve its on-field gameplay. ...But they kinda didn't... Like, not at all...

Same as last year?

I was optimistic about Maximum Football and Axis Football because I expected them to make significant improvements to on-field gameplay from year-to-year -- something that EA has consistently failed to do with Madden over the last ten-to-fifteen years. So to see both of these indie games play virtually identical to last year's counterparts is very disappointing and has substantially deflated my initial optimism.

My excitement for the potential improvement of Maximum and Axis has been deflated
by both games releasing with virtually identical on-field gameplay compared to last year.

If you read the gameplay section of last year's review, then you pretty much know how this yea'rs game plays. Axis Football 19 still has much of the same rigid and robotic player animations. The locomotion system is terrible and allows runners to cut and turn on a dime. Defensive players still frequently stand in place. Deep zone coverage is still atrocious. The CPU still never defends 2-point conversion attempts. Receivers still lack varied or convincing catch animations, and defenders similarly lack pass defense animations. Blocking and tackle interactions can still be triggered with players who are not in physical contact with each other. I can still run my defensive end around offensive tackles, unblocked, for free sacks.

Some football rules are also still wrong or not implemented at all. Axis might as well just end games in ties if they can't implement a working overtime ruleset. I can still exploit kicking kickoffs out of bounds without penalty in order to pin opposing offenses deep. There's no fair catch. I can't motion receivers before the snap to see if the defense is in man or zone coverage.

The developers failed to address many of the problems that plagued last year's game --
such as poor deep zone coverage [LEFT] and the ability to easily run around offensive tackles [RIGHT].

Much moreso than last year, I'm noticing that outside runs seem to be far too effective. The reason for this seems to be the crazy success rates of receivers making (and holding) blocks on the edge and in the second level. Safeties are not only bad at deep coverage, but they're also terrible in run support. They stay back too deep (and sometimes just stand around), instead of trying to meet the runner in the lanes or trying to force an outside run back inside. If a receiver or tight end gets into the second level and blocks the safety, then the play is practically a guaranteed touchdown.

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Maximum Football 2019 - title

I was harsh on Maximum Football 2018 last year. Perhaps overly so, considering the game's indie nature and budget price. I wasn't trying to hate on the game, nor am I a Madden fanboy (feel free to check out my reviews of the last few years' of Madden releases if you need proof of my being fed up with lackluster releases from EA).

I was harsh because I wanted to point out as many possible flaws as I could, so that as many of them as possible could be resolved, and Maximum Football would get better the following year. I bought Maximum Football 2018 in order to support the developer, Canuck Play, to that end. I also bought Maximum Football 2019 in order to continue to support Canuck, because I am still hopeful that this game can turn into to something special. I didn't wait a couple weeks and buy a used disc for cheap off of eBay, which is what I usually do with Madden because I don't want to give EA a cent until they actually earn it.

College and Canadian football legend Doug Flutie offered his name and likeness.

Not in the bargain bin anymore

Canuck isn't there yet. But I honestly didn't expect them to be (which is why I made a YouTube video about being excited for 2020, rather than 2019). I'm still approaching Maximum Football 2019 as an "early access" work-in-progress.

At last year's budget price point of about $15, it wasn't too hard for me to overlook Maximum Football's many flaws and limitations and still recommend it to people who want to see competition in the football video gaming marketplace. It wasn't much different than paying for "early access", after all. However, with the price of this year's game nearly doubled to $30, it's a lot harder to make a similar recommendation. The inclusion of a Dynasty mode does partially resolve my single, largest complaint with last year's game, as it means that there is an actual game here to play now, with an actual sense of progression and accomplishment. But Maximum made so few strides in its core gameplay, that I'm just not sure it's worth the hike in price.

$30 pulls Maximum Football out of the category of "budget indie title", and puts it firmly into the price point of "Double-A" or "mid-market game", alongside games like Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, Lords of the Fallen, and Cities: Skylines. But Maximum is not "Double-A" quality!

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Her Story - title

Having a little bit of free time between playing Madden 20 and starting out this year's indie football games, I checked out a couple indie games that I've had sitting around in my Steam library for months. Both are player-driven mystery games about trying to deduce the events of the past. The simpler of the two is called Her Story, which is a game that released all the way back in 2015. So I'm quite a few years late to this party.

Her Story attracted my attention because it was developed by Sam Barlow. Barlow had previously worked as a writer for Silent Hill: Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Personally, I felt he and the other writers at Climax had butchered Origins. His work on Shattered Memories, however, which was not bound by the constraints of established Silent Hill canon, went in a more interesting direction. Maybe not as interesting as if they had gone with the initial Cold Heart pitch, but whatever. I was curious to see what Barlow would do when completely free of the Silent Hill namesake.

I was curious how Sam Barlow would handle himself when free of the Silent Hill namesake.

Down the deductive rabbit hole

Her Story stands out because it is a completely player-driven experience. You have almost free access to a database of interview answers from a woman who is a suspect in the disappearance (and murder) of her husband. The game consists of searching through a series of live-action videos of interview questions, in which every word of her answers have been indexed for search. The catch is that you can't simply watch all the clips in order, and the game will only give you (at most) the first five clips at a time (in chronological order). You also don't know what questions are being asked, so you don't necessarily have the context for her responses.

Each response is laden with bread crumbs of keywords that you can pick out and search in subsequent queries in order to find related videos and discover additional details about the suspect's life, the victim's life, and the events leading up to the disappearance of her husband. This is where Her Story really shines. The game starts with the word "murder" in the search bar, and each clip that you watch will reveal new names and places. This should lead you towards going down the rabbit hole of searching for each new name or place until you eventually come to the weirder and more interesting testimony.The scripts is expertly designed to distribute bread crumbs in such a way to dole out the story over the first hour or two in order to build up the mystery.

Pick out key words from her testimony to find related statements.

There's also no hand-holding or guidance of any kind. It's just you and the search engine. It's entirely up to the player to input the words you want to search for. You can follow-up on a particular clip by searching for a keyword in her response, or you can search for some completely different, random word(s) instead. The game doesn't highlight the next words for you to search. It doesn't stop to tell you that you've "solved" some mystery or completed some objective. There's a widget that shows you how much of the database you've viewed, but other than that, there is no in-game progress-tracker. In fact, there's not even a real end goal.

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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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