Control - title

I kept hearing good things about Remedy's Control, but I never got around to playing it. For some reason, I was thinking it was an XBox exclusive. Maybe it was a timed exclusive? Anyway, it showed up as one of the free PSPlus games of the month a couple months ago, and I downloaded it to play over the summer. I kind of regret not having purchased it, since it's a pretty good game with a lot of neat and innovative ideas, and Remedy is a smaller studio that could definitely use the money and deserves the support, especially considering that Control was released as a mid-budget, mid-price, $30 release ($40 for the new Ultimate Edition). I'll probably buy it as a gift for a friend at some point, so that I can support the studio for making a quality product.

In any case, consider this a recommendation: if you haven't bought and played Control yet, please do so. It's definitely worth checking out, especially if you like a game that will give you a substantial challenge. It's available on the next-gen consoles, but if you're like me and haven't been able to secure a PS5 yet, then it's also available on the previous-gen as well. It won't have the fancy ray-tracing and other advanced graphical effects, but it played well and ran mostly smoothly on my PS4 Pro. The only technical issue I had was long load times and a temporary freeze whenever I unpaused the game. No big deal. The game is tough, but it wasn't so overwhelmingly difficult that I was stuck constantly staring at the long load screens.

Spectacle action worthy of The Matrix

Control is certainly a spectacle to behold. Every fight feels like it has the bombast of the climactic lobby shootout in The Matrix. Nobody is running up walls or doing slow-motion kicks, but the player (and enemies) can levitate, bullets are whizzing past, furniture is getting thrown around, loose paper and stationary is flying everywhere, and chunks of the walls are being ripped or blown off. At the conclusion of each fight, the environment is completely trashed, and it looks fantastic. Even on the PS4, the level of detail is impressive.

The aftermath of every battle reminds me of the lobby shootout from The Matrix.

There's also a surprising amount of expressiveness in the combat mechanics. I can go in and just shoot all the enemies as if this were some basic cover-based shooter. Or I can use telekinesis to barrage the enemies with the clutter in the environment. I could even run in with the shield up, attack with the "melee" psychic push, then dodge around, managing my energy like the stamina bar of Dark Souls. Even within one of those broad play-styles, there's a handful of support abilities that can be used to varying effects. I can haphazardly throw any old object at enemies with telekinesis, or I can specifically search out objects that might explode and do larger amounts of damage to be more efficient. I can mind-hack an enemy and turn him against the other enemies to act as a damage sponge and spread around my DPS. There's a surprising amount of options here, especially considering that first impressions make Control look like just another run-and-gun shooter.

By midway through the game, the challenge had started amping up to the point that I wasn't able to rely on simply shooting every enemy with the pistol anymore. Doing so was still possible, but it was difficult. I started using all of my psychic abilities in many encounters, and I was rotating through all of my available service weapons based on the situation. Even the abilities and weapons that I initially thought were garbage (such as the shield and the pierce weapon) started getting regular use against certain enemies or in certain situations. I even learned to spend time scanning the environment for particularly destructive telekinesis objects.

Abilities and weapons that I had initially dismissed as "garbage" were getting regular use later in the game.

This was a far cry from my recent experience with Resident Evil Village, in which I was able to breeze through a vast majority of the game by just shooting everything in the face with the pistol or shotgun, and never had to utilize the more diverse tools and environmental opportunities at my disposal, because using them was more trouble than they were worth. No, here in Control, I am using everything! In fact, I even had a viewer pop up on my Twitch stream and comment that he had never bothered using the shield, but watching me use it against the Distorted made him realize that he could have been using it in his playthrough to save himself a lot of frustration and respawns.

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Assassin's Creed: Valhalla - title

One of the thoughts that dominated my playtime with Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was "Oh I hope the next game is a viking-themed game!". I felt that the open-ended sailing and naval combat would work well in a viking setting, complete with raiding coastal villages as an extra way of obtaining wealth and loot (in addition to plundering trade ships in the open sea). Black Flag was so good, it seemed like a sure-fire, slam-dunk idea! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it turns out: almost everything could go wrong.

I've been hoping for a viking-themed game ever since Black Flag.

For starters, I refused to buy Assassin's Creed: Valhalla at its release because I did not want to give any money to Ubisoft, which has had ongoing legal issues regarding multiple sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations against high-level managers and executives. Like the Catholic Church, Ubisoft may have systematically hid these alleged transgressions and protected the executives who were committing them. Even the company's HR department has been accused of being complicit.

So fuck Ubisoft and its executives, who (if these allegations are true) should all be in prison, and the company's ownership should be given to the employees who were wronged. I wasn't going to give that company a dime of my money, so I waited and watched eBay for cheaper, used copies to show up. I specifically filtered for "used" copies -- none of that "new, sealed" wholesale scalping nonsense that is all over eBay. Buying a sealed copy from an eBay scalper is the same as buying a new, retail copy, as far as I'm concerned. Several months after release, I finally bought a cheap, used copy for about $30 from someone who claimed to have played the game and got bored of it, so that my partner could kill time while stuck at home during the ongoing pandemic in 2021.

She played through the entire game, and liked it just fine. I played a little bit, hated the early hours, and stopped playing it so that I could work on other projects. I only came back to it later (after she had finished) to see if the game had any redeeming qualities. And even then, I did not even come close to completing the game because it's just too damn long, and I have much better things to do with my time.

You had one job, Valhalla! And you couldn't even get that right!

Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is a tedious, repetitive, drawn-out, copy-pasted, glitch-laden, slog of a game and story. It tries to copy the one thing that Black Flag did so well, and which inspired all future sailing mechanics for every Assassin's Creed game that followed, but it actually somehow manages to remove that thing! That's right, there is no naval combat in the game at all. Worse yet, there is absolutely nothing to do with the longship except use it as a vehicle for moving about the empty, sterile seas and rivers. There isn't even much in the way of islands to discover out in the open seas, so even the exploration incentive is gone. The Norway map has a few islands, but the England map has virtually none. In fact, you don't even use the longship to sail the seas around England; you only use it to sail up and down rivers looking for villages to raid. The key selling point of Valhalla, the longship, is nothing more than a glorified truck, and the rivers that run across England are basically just roads.

The longship is little more than a truck, and the rivers are little more than roads between raids.

Things are spaced out a bit more than I usually expect from an Assassin's Creed game. The map isn't quite as littered with mindless collectibles, even though it is still littered with mindless collectibles. But the map still isn't quite big enough, the distances still not quite far enough, and fast travel is still accessible enough, that I never felt it necessary to use the boat as the most efficient method of traversal. If you're stopping at every village to raid, to search for every collectible, and to play every side quest, then you're better off just using your horse, because any time you would save from using the boat will be offset by the extra time it takes to board and unboard the thing everytime you stop for a side quest.

It's like Ubisoft took the castle sieges from Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, stripped out the Nemesis system that gave those sieges context that made them worth playing, and then just put rivers between all the castle gates so you'd have an excuse to attack from the boat. But the longship feels completely unnecessary to the game. Early in the game, the longship feels like it might be a more integral part of the game, when you're sailing around the seas, fjords, and snaky coastlines of Norway, and crossing large bodies of water is necessary. But then you get to England, and the map is almost completely land-locked, save for those traversable rivers.

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Outer Worlds - title

Obsidian Entertainment's follow-up to Fallout: New Vegas was a hotly-anticipated game for me, but it's timed exclusivity on the Epic Game Store meant that I had to wait an extra year to play it. I probably could have gotten it on console. I didn't because I was worried about performance limitations, but I don't recall reading or hearing too many complaints, so maybe it was fine on consoles. Ah well, much like Outer Wilds, I may have ended up waiting unnecessarily long to play The Outer Worlds. Unlike Outer Wilds, The Outer Worlds is not the instant-classic that I had hoped it would be.

Here I come to save the worlds!

The early hours of Outer Worlds seemed promising enough. The game is based largely around the same factional conflicts that drive the plot of Fallout: New Vegas, with the player dropping into an unfamiliar situation, and solving the locals' problems in one of several ways. Most quests will require the player to chose sides in a conflict and fight the opposing side, unless you have high enough speech skills to negotiate some kind of peaceful solution.

This sort of stuff is, of course, the highlight of the game. The relationships between quest-giving characters and their respective factions are like little puzzles for the player to figure out -- puzzles that can be solved equally effectively with kind words, as they can be with a gun, or sometimes both a kind word and a gun. Outer Worlds rewards the player for doing that little extra bit of due diligence to complete an optional objective, or to hack that terminal to find some juicy bit of intel that I can use to sway an NPC to give you what you want.

Players also assemble a crew of companion characters, each with a strongly-defined role. Each companion provides buffs to certain player skills. Parvati provides a buff to engineering skills, Ellie provides a buff to medical skills, Max provides buffs to hacking, and other characters provide various combat skill and intimidation buffs. These buffs can stack together and get quite large too, especially after you take one or two perks to improve them. I hardly ever needed to use food or drugs to buff a skill because my companion characters almost always provided me with enough of a boost to get me through most quests.

Players create a crew of companion characters to go questing with you.

I was actually surprised at how early in the game I had recruited all possible crew member. All but one come off of the first world, and the final one can be acquired on an early game quest on another world.

Which companions I take on a particular quest is, therefore, important. I found it was a good idea to pay attention to the dialogue from quest-givers to get a better idea of what lies ahead for me in a given quest. It's also worthwhile to check out the quest log to get any insight on what I'm expected to do. Going on a "bug hunt"? I'll take my heavy-hitters like Nyoka or Felix. Need to hack my way into a derelict outpost and get it operational again? Take Parvati and Max. Need to rescue some colonists who are trapped in a cave? Take Ellie and Nyoka in case anyone needs medical attention.

Or at least, that's how it works in principle. Remember when I said that the game seems promising in the beginning? Well that's because the opening chapter of the game is a very well-constructed vertical slice of everything that Outer Worlds has to offer. The downside is that, unlike Fallout: New Vegas (which has a similarly excellent opening chapter that serves as a vertical slice preview of the whole game), the whole rest of The Outer Worlds is just the opening quests repeated several more times on different planets, and it never gets much harder or more surprising.

In practice, there weren't very many quests that required diverse skills. I only specifically remember having to treat an NPC's wounds twice, and one of those was at the very start of the game before I had Ellie in my party anyway. Even though I kept taking Parvati whenever I thought I was going to need to repair things, there were still only a handful of engineering checks, and I recall them all being relatively easy. Honestly, I found that quests seemed to be much more dominated by speech checks, and my companions were mostly just bullet sponges and pack mules.

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Resident Evil VIII Village - title

Village seems to be positioning itself as a sort of "greatest hits" of earlier Resident Evil games. I'm not sure it all comes together as well as Capcom must have hoped it would. Resident Evil VII Biohazard did an excellent job of modernizing the design philosophies of the original Resident Evil game. Map design, inventory and resource constraints, and the "fight or flight" nature of enemy encounters all perfectly re-captured the feel of the original PS1 classics, without all of the clunkiness.

Village maintains the exploratory map design of the original Resident Evil and of Resident Evil VII, but it also tries to port concepts and aesthetics from the Resident Evil 2 remake and from Resident Evil 4. The RE2 stuff fits well enough, but the RE4 influences just don't feel compatible with classic design philosophy.

The setting instantly reminded me of Resident Evil 4.

Clash of philosophies

Right off the bat, the general aesthetic screams "Resident Evil 4". The game begins in a small, rustic, eastern European village at the foot of a gothic castle. Just like in RE4, you're quickly ambushed by the monstrous villagers and have to desperately fight your way out. Resident Evil 4 replaced the traditional zombies of the series with semi-aware "ganados"; Village similarly breaks away from the traditional zombies, but this time, the monsters are werewolves.

Not long into the game, you'll start smashing crates to reveal hidden loot, and pixel-hunting along the walls and ceilings for obnoxious sparkling gems to shoot down and collect. Also just like in Resident Evil 4, you'll routinely get rewards of items and money from defeated enemies. That money and loot is used to buy items or upgrade your equipment at a shop, just like in Resident Evil 4. This is where the game started to break down for me.

Loot, ammo, and cash can be recovered from smashed crates or defeated enemies.

Giving the player rewards of in-game cash for defeating foes (and for wasting bullets to shoot glowing gems off of walls) completely changes the motivations of the player in how we deal with enemies. I'm no longer carefully considering whether to try to sneak past an enemy or run away, nor am I ever firing off a single round at an enemy's knee to stun or cripple it so I can get away without consuming more resources, the way I might in REmake2. Since every defeated foe returns some of the resources that I invest into killing it, there is no "fight or flight"; only "fight". The enemies stop being threatening or frightening, especially on the standard difficulty setting, in which ammunition is readily available and the monsters patiently await their turns to charge and attack.

Even inventory management is mostly thoughtless. The more linear, more action-oriented, and less puzzle-oriented design of the game means that key items and treasures are not put in your limited inventory, and there isn't even a storage box to keep excess weapons or supplies. Only weapons, ammo, and healing items go into your briefcase. Everything else has unlimited storage. Even crafting components have separate, unlimited storage (the only exception being the animals meats needed for the Duke to cook meals -- more on this later).

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Outlast - title

I have one more game in my spring "walking sim" research. That game is the 2013 first-person horror game, Outlast, which (along with Amnesia: The Dark Descent) was instrumental in popularizing the "hide-and-seek" brand of horror gaming that became very popular in indie and low-budget horror games over the ensuing decade.

I liked Amnesia, and was interested in playing Outlast back around its release. I bought it years ago, and it ended up sitting in my unplayed Steam backlog until I installed it about a year ago, with the intent of playing it during the pandemic. But then I played other games, and Outlast sat around on my desktop this entire past year until I finally got around to playing it last month.

So was it worth the 8-year wait? Meh.

A haunted house permeated with uncertainty and surprise

At a very fundamental level, Outlast wanted to be a game that shocked and horrified players. In many regards, it's very successful at this endeavor, and it holds up pretty well in the 8 or so years since it released. The game starts off with a slow, ominous build that helps create an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. But once the horrors start coming, it's a barrage of shockingly horrific violence and inhumanity. I was never quite sure what I was going to find on the other side of a door or at the end of a hallway.

Sadly, the over-the-top violence did turn out to be desensitizing. By less than halfway through the game, the mutilated bodies of inmates and guards just wasn't scary anymore. Thankfully, there's a few other shocks and surprises in store for the player that helped keep me from becoming too comfortable with what's going on around me.

I actually had plenty of spare batteries
at the end of the game.

Like with most good survival horror games, Outlast sets up an expectation of scarcity that makes players anxious about using supplies that are actually in fairly generous supply. Just like how Resident Evil provides more than enough Ink Ribbons to let you save whenever you come across a typewriter, and Silent Hill gives enough ammo and healing supplies to let players stand your ground against most enemies, Outlast provides plenty of batteries. I thought I was using the night vision fairly liberally throughout the game, yet still had 6 or 7 spare batteries on me at almost all times throughout the game, without ever feeling like I was going too far out of my way to search for them.

The only exception was going through the courtyard and female ward, which is basically just a resource sink. The courtyard itself is a pain in the ass to navigate, but it looks really cool. The blowing wind and lightning creates lots of visual and auditory tricks that kept me tense throughout the entire time. I thought I was seeing ghosts all over the place, but could never really be sure that it wasn't just a trick of the light. I came out the other side of the courtyard with like 2 or 3 spare batteries, which made me nervous whenever I saw a dark hallway or room in the ensuing level. But it didn't take long to get my battery reserves back up to a comfortable level.

The dark courtyard perhaps the most tense and frightening (and battery-consuming) level.

In fact, by the end of the game, the night vision seemed to become less critical to progress, as the final level or two of the game are very well lit. I got to a point where I wasn't able to pick up new batteries because my stock was already full. So perhaps Red Barrels could have been a bit more stingy with how many batteries it provides? Or maybe they could have made a few more levels of the game a bit more dark? As it stands, most areas in the game are either completely lit and do not require night vision at all, or they are pitch black and absolutely require batteries to see anything at all. This means that the game has to provide more than enough batteries; otherwise, progress becomes impossible.

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