Elden Ring - title

I always considered the first Dark Souls to be an "open world" game in all the ways that matter. The world is interconnected, coherent, and surprisingly functional. Almost every location in the game is walkable from almost any other location, and every distant landmark is an actual place that you can go, which usually has a big, scary monster waiting to show you the "YOU DIED" screen for the thousandth time.

As such, I didn't really expect that a transition to an actual open world would in Elden Ring would really make all that much difference -- either positive or negative. Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro already felt open and exploratory despite being a series of linear corridor crawls cleverly interconnected into a tight helix. So I didn't expect Elden Ring to really feel all that much more open or exploratory. Further, all of From Software's games are also designed from the ground-up with a play-at-your-own pace paradigm of story delivery -- in that From's games are more about doling out "lore" in piecemeal rather than about a linear narrative with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end. So I wasn't terribly worried that a transition to an open world structure would break any narrative flow or the sense of stakes for the character, as it does in so many other open world games.

From Soft's brand of player-driven lore discovery is well-suited to an open world format.

What I didn't expect though, is how the open world would dramatically improve both the accessibility and the challenge of the game.

Elevating the genre

Having transitioned to a more traditional open world design, Elden Ring does suffer from some of the same problems that plague the sub-genre. Assets, enemies, bosses, traps, and so forth are all re-used throughout the map, and many of the dungeons look like they were pulled straight out of Bloodborne's Chalice Dungeon generator. Each region of the map will assuredly have at least one mine tunnel full of upgrade stones. It will have at least one crypt dungeon (usually with a Burial Tree Watchdog boss that looks like a cat statue). It will have at least one set of ruins with a boss waiting in the basement. And they'll all have a minor Erdtree with an Erdtree Avatar (or similar) boss.

That being said, I haven't come across any of these dungeons that feels to me like it was just haphazardly thrown together. Each dungeon has its enemies, traps, and setpieces thoughtfully arranged to test various gameplay skills and the player's power of observation and thoroughness of exploration. Each one also has a unique piece of loot offered as a reward for defeating it -- usually a weapon, talisman, or spirit ash. Unlike, say, Skyrim, which just rewards all of its dungeons with disposable weapon or piece of armor that is level-scaled and arbitrarily magical, each dungeon in Elden Ring rewards a unique item that conveys a piece of lore. Early in the game, almost all of this loot is something that will be useful to most builds, which really helps to encourage the player to continue exploring these mini-dungeons. And later, even if the item isn't useful for a build, it might still reveal valuable lore.

Bosses are frequently re-used, but none of the dungeons feels haphazardly thrown together.

The sheer volume of places to go and things to do might seem overwhelming, but it's also a huge boon to new or struggling players. They have plenty of options for alternative challenges to try, which vary in difficulty. Getting stuck on the main quest path, or in a particularly nasty optional dungeon is easily alleviated by simply wandering off in another direction -- any other direction -- and trying something new that might be a bit easier to conquer, or which might provide loot that is useful in the places where you are struggling. Or you can just wander around the overworld and grind.

A lot of these dungeons can also start to feel tedious and unnecessary. I can go through entire dungeons, beat a boss, and still not have acquired enough runes to gain a single character level. On the one hand, this is frustrating, and some of these dungeons feel like a waste of time for a mid-to-high-level character. On the other hand, the increased desire to hold onto these runes means I'm more inclined to run away from a fight that I'm not equipped to handle, which forces me to engage more with that open world by trying to find another boss or another dungeon that is more my level, rather than continuously bash my head against the same boss wall over and over again.

If you get stuck on a boss, explore somewhere else.

Players are much more free to follow your own path through the game. In fact, From included plenty of opportunities for sequence-breaking for particularly inquisitive and observant players. Dungeons and bosses that seem like a mandatory bottleneck for progress can sometimes be skipped entirely. And honestly, it's not even all that hard to find these bypasses, since they are often out in plain view for anybody who bothers to deviate off the main path at all.

And this process of exploration really does provide a sense of genuine discovery in ways that most other open world games fail to deliver. The full scope of the map is hidden to the player at the start, so reaching the crest of a hill and finding an entire continent that wasn't on your map a moment ago is genuinely surprising and awe-inspiring. The fact that every notable point of interest is not immediately marked by climbing a tower or finding a checkpoint really facilitates a sense of exploration and adventure. It really feels like there's always going to be something new and interesting over every hill, around every corner, and within every dungeon.

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Axis Football 23 - title

One of my pet peeves with sports games is that they like to make the game sound newer and more advanced than it actually is by putting next year in the title. The Madden that releases in 2022, and which is based on the 2022 NFL season, isn't called Madden 2022; no, it's called Madden 23! Same goes with other big-budget sports games, with the sole exception possibly being video games based off the Olympics (do those even get made anymore?).

One of the things that I liked about the slate of indie football games (Maximum Football and Axis Football) is that they used the current year in the title. There was no confusion or misunderstanding when saying "the 2021 version of Axis Football" -- it's called Axis Football 2021, and it was released in the fall of 2021. But if I say "the 2021 version of Madden", you might wonder if I mean Madden 22, which released in 2021; or Madden 21, which has "2021" in the title, but which actually released in 2020 and is based off the 2020 NFL season.

Well now Axis Football has adopted the same numbering scheme as its big-budget cousin, and they have skipped Axis Football 2022 in favor of releasing Axis Football 2023 in the 2022 calendar year. Sigh... I'm not sure what Axis Games' reasoning for this is. Maybe they felt pressured to adopt the same numbering convention as the big-budget sports games. Perhaps the more sensical numbering scheme was actually confusing people: "Why is there a Madden 22, but no Axis 22 yet?" Whatever the reason, there is no Axis Football 2022, and we instead are going straight to Axis Football 2023.

The leap I've been waiting for!

But my disappointment with Axis Football 2023 basically starts and ends with its title. This is probably the biggest single-year jump in gameplay quality that I have seen from this series since I started playing Axis Football way back in 2018. Axis Football 2023 looks and feels much more polished than in previous years thanks to the developers finally addressing the lackluster catching and pass defense animations that made throwing the ball in previous years feel like such a crap shoot.

Receivers and DBs play the ball more realistically.

The new animations make pass catching and pass defense so much more readable. I can actually understand why a particular pass is caught, incomplete, or intercepted because the ball doesn't just hit the receiver's body and either stick to it or fall to the ground. I see receivers leaping to catch overthrown passes. I see them reach down to try to catch underthrown passes. I see defenders putting an arm out to swat the pass.

It's much clearer why passes are complete or not.

On top of that, the receivers actually have momentum when they perform their catching animations, and that momentum will affect how quickly they can turn upfield -- if they can turn upfield at all. The momentum on catching animations serves to limit the amount of run-after-catch yards that lead to inflated passing stats and scores in previous versions of Axis Football. Now, if a receiver has to come back towards the line of scrimmage to catch a pass, he won't be able to instantly pivot back upfield for extra yards as soon as he catches the ball. He'll continue to take a couple steps towards the line of scrimmage before being able to plant or turn and head upfield, which gives pursing defenders a chance to converge and tackle him before he gets going.

Similarly, receivers running horizontally across the field will also have to follow-through on their catch animation and preserve their momentum, which prevents them from immediately turning upfield. Receivers running towards or along the sidelines will also often have their momentum carry them out of bounds, which makes throws to the sideline (such as quick outs or hitting a running back in the flats) feel much less exploitative than in previous years because the receiver will likely be forced out of bounds instead of being able to instantly turn upfield for 10 or 15 yards.

Receivers retain their momentum after catching the ball, limiting yards-after-catch.

Put simply, the passing game actually looks and feels more like real football, and it elevates Axis Football tremendously!

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Madden NFL 23 - title

When John Madden was originally approached by EA about consulting with them on a new 7-on-7 football video game, he insisted that the game be "simulation football". He wanted authentic, 11-on-11 gameplay that could potentially be used as a tool for teaching the sport of football. It was the only way that he was willing to put his name on the product, and EA held fairly true to the philosophy of "simulation football" through the 90's and into the 2000's.

I think John Madden's last major contributions to the video game were around 2008, when he provided commentary and narration for the "Madden IQ" Skill Trainer. It wasn't long after this that EA's dedication to "simulation football" began to wane. A few years later, Ultimate Team was added to the game, Franchise Mode was gutted and replaced with a stripped down "My Careers" mode, and Madden himself stopped providing commentary for the game. Franchise Mode and core gameplay have been largely neglected in the years since, in favor of introducing terrible story modes, expanding the arcadey Ultimate Team mode, and adding even more arcadey game modes like SuperStar KO and 5-on-5 The Yard. The Madden video game series has fallen far from the goals and priorities of its namesake -- a fall that is made even more tragic and frustrating by an exclusivity deal with the NFL that bars any other company from producing an NFL-licensed "simulation" football game.

Madden 23 starts off with a tribute to the life of John Madden, who passed away this past December.

It's fitting that, with John Madden himself having passed away this past year, EA Sports and Tiburon seems to be trying to honor him by taking the video game back to basics and finally, after years of neglect, trying to address long-standing issues with the on-field gameplay, physics, and A.I.. Is it enough to satisfy the "simulation" expectations of John Madden, himself? Spoiler alert: NO.

Back to Simulation Football?

Madden 23 starts off well enough. The very first thing that the game asks the user to do is play through a tutorial of the new charge-up passing mechanics (largely ripped-off from Legend Bowl). Madden doesn't simply throw the user into a live game situation and expect new players to just know how to play -- though, expecting users to already know how to play the game from last year was always a sad testament to how little had changed in Madden from year to year.

After finishing the tutorial and deciding how difficult I want the passing mechanic to be, Madden 23 threw me directly into a demo "Legend Game". It's a Pro Bowl of All-Madden players from throughout NFL history, with 2 versions of John Madden coaching each respective team. The entire game is largely an excuse to let the commentary team of Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin give a history lesson about John Madden's career and celebrate his accomplishments. My partner commented that I'd been playing for 15 minutes and she was already sick of listening to the game flagellate John Madden. Personally, I was more annoyed that the game defaulted to Pro difficulty, so scoring was relatively easy for me, and the CPU Tom Brady threw 3 interceptions. Each score and turnover interrupted the commentary about Madden's career, preventing me from hearing the unique dialogue, which the commentary team would not return to if an interruption occurred.

Madden 23 tutorializes its new mechanics before throwing users into a game situation.

Whatever. The game itself is mildly entertaining. It uses clips and graphics from older Madden games as part of its presentation, some NFL Films music, and it includes old commentary clips of Madden himself introducing some of his favorite players, from Brett Favre to Tom Brady to Tony Gonzalez. It's as good and fitting a tribute to the ol' coach and commentator as I would have expected to see in a video game, short of playing through some kind of story mode and re-living moments from his actual career.

But that's just the tutorial and demo game. Is the rest of the actual game as fitting a tribute to the man who demanded "simulation football" from video games bearing his likeness?

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When I booted up my PS5 for the first time and signed into the PSN, I immediately downloaded a few of the must-have games. You know, the Demon's Souls remake, Miles Morales, and Returnal. I also downloaded some other ... shall we say "less high profile" games that piqued my interest, including the [ultimately very impressive] World War II shooter Hell Let Loose and a little indie game that claimed to be a sequel to H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi novel The War of the World, called Darker Skies.

Darker Skies takes place during the aftermath of H.G. Wells' classic novel The War of the Worlds,
but the visual and sound design is clearly pulled from the 2004 Steven Spielberg movie starring Tom Cruise.

Budget "Last of Us"

I didn't have high hopes for this budget indie title, but I was curious what a game developer would even do with a property like War of the Worlds. As soon as I saw the first enemy, a zombie shambling around just like a Clicker from The Last of Us, my heart sank. With all the potential of the source material, Steel Arts had to go with a zombie game?! The War of the Worlds is a classic sci-fi novel about a Martian invasion of Earth. My expectation for a video game adaptation of The War of the Worlds would either be some kind of survival horror game about surviving against Martians who survived exposure to Earth's microbes, or an action shooter about humans counter-attacking the Martians on Mars, or something akin to XCOM. It absolutely would not be a total knock off of The Last of Us, right down to having infected zombie humans.

And when I say this is a knock off of The Last of Us, I'm not just talking about the presence of Clicker-like zombies. The protagonist has an X-Ray "focus" vision, he scavenges random supplies in order to craft consumables supplies, and most encounters with enemies are intended to be dealt with by various throwable tools. There's even areas of the map that are overgrown with red Martian tendrils, similar to the spore-infested areas of The Last of Us, except this time around, the character doesn't need a gas mask to get through.

The character can use X-ray vision to detect enemies through walls, but only if they are moving.

The only thing missing is the tag-along NPC child character -- which is a big problem because the interactions between the two characters is a huge part of what makes The Last of Us a great game. That's where the heart and soul of that game was. If you played The Last of Us, and you thought the best thing to emulate is the crafting system, then I feel like maybe you missed the point...

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Stray - title

When some of the trailers for Stray started releasing on the internet a couple months ago, a couple of my co-workers were really enthusiastic about it. I took one look at the trailer, and pretty much had the entire game figured out. But the idea of playing as a literal cat (as opposed to an anthropomorphized cartoon mascot cat) seemed novel enough for me to toss the game on my Steam wishlist. I ended up buying it on PS5 though, since the price was the same and my aging PCs might not be able to render all the pretty, ray-traced neon lights of the game's cyberpunk dystopia setting.

Right off the bat, I was surprised that Stray does not feature any kind of customization for the cat. I had a bit of a Mandela effect going on in which I could have sworn that the trailers I watched earlier in the year showed customization. But no, we're all stuck with the same orange tabby cat. At the very least, I feel like the developers could have given the player the option to play as one of several pre-fab cat models. The game begins with 4 cats in a little colony, and it seems like the developers could easily have given players the option of which of the 4 cats we want to play with. Ah well. Not a big deal.

I wish there were options to customize the cat or play as different pre-made cat skins.

After being separated from the other 3 cat buddies, the one playable cat must navigate a walled-in dystopian cyberpunk city to find its way back out to its colony. This is done by progressing through a linear route through the environments and completing collections of 3 various types of activities:

  • Run away from hostile critters,
  • Explore small sections of the city populated with humanoid robots for keys, collectibles, and lore,
  • Do some light stealth.

Cyberpunk cat tower

The best parts of the game are easily the exploratory sections, as they are the most free-form and best utilize the novelty of the feline protagonist. The levels all have a significant vertical element to them, and the low-angle camera gives an impressive sense of scale. All the spaces are very small horizontally, never representing more than a single city block, but they are easily doubled or tripled in terms of traversable size when the vertical spaces are factored in. A simple, 3-story tenement building might as well be the Empire State Building from the perspective of your foot-tall feline avatar.

If the player isn't routinely looking up, climbing where you can, and squeezing into tight spaces, you'll likely miss a lot of the game's secrets and collectibles. Though if you are testing the verticality of all the spaces, you should find most (if not all) collectibles without much extra effort or thought.

A stray cat must navigate a cyberpunk city inhabited by robots.

This gameplay would probably be a lot more impressive if not for the fact that it isn't doing anything that every other open world adventure game since Assassin's Creed has been doing: climbing and rooftop parkour. Even though the levels are 3-dimensional, paths to the heights are usually clearly signposted and railoaded, and the cat can only jump or climb onto places that specifically have "jump to" prompts. There are no leaps of faith for this cat. All the challenge is simply observational: is there a clearly-visible path to the place I want to go?

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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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If you ever wondered what a not-good version of The Last of Us would look like, try Darker SkiesIf you ever wondered what a not-good version of The Last of Us would look like, try Darker Skies09/01/2022 When I booted up my PS5 for the first time and signed into the PSN, I immediately downloaded a few of the must-have games. You know, the Demon's Souls remake, Miles Morales, and Returnal. I also downloaded some other ... shall we say "less high profile" games that piqued my interest, including the [ultimately very impressive]...

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