Cities: Skylines II - title

One of the biggest criticisms of Cities Skylines II is that it is lacking content or feels "incomplete". I don't necessarily disagree, but I feel like saying that the game feels "incomplete" might be doing it a bit of a disservice. It is lacking a lot of content from the original game, sure, but that original game had over a dozen expansions and countless content packs and mod assets released over its decade-long life cycle. So of course there's going to be things that the original, expanded game had, which the new game doesn't have.

But the sequel also has (and does) a lot of things that the original didn't do. It has a much more complicated economy, in which all industries generate specific types of raw materials or goods, and all commercial stores sell specific types of goods or resources. Basically, the core idea of the Industries expansion supply lines and logistics was expanded out to the entire game, rather than just those few specialized industries.

In fact, the sequel includes content or ideas from almost all of the original game's expansions. In addition to the industrial aforementioned seasonal cycle and industrial supply lines, we also have a few natural disasters, some eco-friendly upgrades to various polluting infrastructure, pedestrian roads, road-building tools that put Mass Transit to shame, and some customizable, modular buildings.

Unfortunately, some of these mechanics imported from the original game (and its expansions) do not quite live up to my hopes and expectations. I made a video describing how the modular buildings and industry areas of Cities Skylines II do not live up to the expressiveness and creativity of the Parklife and Industries areas from the first game. I'm not going to transcribe the entire video here. Instead, I will summarize the main points and ideas, and refer you to the full video if you want more detail and examples.

Full video outlining my suggestion for improving building upgrades and industry areas.

Also, I would like to remind my readers and viewers that video and blog content like this is supported by viewers like you through Patreon. So if you like this content, and would like to see more like it, please consider becoming a Patreon for just a dollar or 2 a month. Your patronage helps to offset the cost of maintaining this website, as well as the software licenses I use to create the video content.

Patreon

Patrons also get previews of and early access to upcoming content, and Patrons at higher tiers have voting power in polls of upcoming projects. I've been working on a massive project about Star Trek video games over the past few months. There are currently a couple previews available on Patreon, and I plan on releasing the entire project early to Patrons when it's finished, while publishing the episodes one at a time to the general public. So if you'd like to see that project early, then consider becoming a Patron. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all my Patrons, past, present, and future. Your support really means a lot.

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Silent Hill: The Short Message - title

Silent Hill: The Short Message is a first-person horror game about wandering through looping, decrepit hallways in an abandoned apartment building, while confronting a secret, repressed guilt. And stop me if you've heard any of this before.

Silent Hill used to be a series that innovated, that pushed the envelope. The first game basically introduced the video-game-playing public to the concept of psychological horror. The second polished the formula to introspective perfection, while also providing a template for a plot twist that would be repeated in (what feels like) every horror game since -- at least the ones not named Resident Evil. Even action-oriented games like Dead Space ripped off Silent Hill 2.

Silent Hill 3 introduced gamers to a teenage girl protagonist who actually felt like a real person, instead of being a hyper-sexualized "boob ninja" in a bikini or skin-tight catsuit, while also providing jaw-dropping technical accomplishments. The moving, bleeding, living environmental textures of Silent Hill 3's Otherworld amazing and un-precedented at the time. And it's character models and lighting looked better than many games that would be released on the following generation of consoles.

Hideo Kojima's playable teaser P.T. spawned a cohort of horror games ripping off the formula of first-person looping hallway horrors, of which The Short Message is only the latest example. And heck, even P.T. was really only popularizing horror conventions that Silent Hill 4 had already started experimenting with a decade earlier.

This is a blunt and earnest depiction of teen depression, self-harm, and suicide.

The Short Message, on the other hand, is largely a retreading of horror gaming tropes that are quickly becoming tired and stale. The looping hallways were mind-blowing back when P.T. did it -- ten years ago. But I've seen it in seemingly every horror game since, from Layers of Fear to Visage to MadIson.

It isn't just general horror trends that The Short Message is retreading either. It's also invoking well-worn and frustrating habits that the Silent Hill series just refused to break in its never-ending quest to recreate the lightning-in-a-bottle that was Silent Hill 2. The character's repressed guilt being hidden from the player and revealed as a mid or late-game plot twist? Check. The person you're looking for being dead already? Check. Silent Hill acting as a purgatory that seems to be willfully trapping people until they confront and overcome aforementioned guilt? Check.

The heaviest, bluntest hammer Konami could find

One thing that The Short Message doesn't bother to copy from its ancestors is the subtlety and nuance that Silent Hill used to be famous for. The Short Message is unbelievably heavy-handed, blunt, and melo-dramatic. This is owing, in large part, to trepidation from Konami and/or developer HexaDrive about how to depict the game's subject matter: teen depression, self-harm, and suicide. It's a touchy subject, for sure. One has to give credit to Konami and HexaDrive for so directly addressing an issue that most game publishers and developers won't touch with a 20-foot pole.

HexaDrive's depiction of mental illness is not
as hopeless and fatalistic as Bloober's.

But this is also where The Short Message lands on one of its greatest strengths. It's blunt depiction of teen suicide is at least a hopeful and optimistic one -- one that is also grounded based on the very real social and technological issues that often motivate or catalyze real-life self-harm and suicide by actual teenagers. And this is not something that we should overlook in discussion of The Short Message. It's almost the polar opposite of how Team Bloober (the company that is developing the Silent Hill 2 remake) has historically treated the same topic. Bloober has always shown abuse victims as totally, fundamentally broken individuals for whom death or suicide is a welcome release that spares the world from their burden.

In contrast to Bloober, The Short Message wants depressed teens to know that they are not broken, that they can get help, and that there are people out there who care about them and would miss them and would be there for them in their times of need. The Short Message wants people to know that recognizing the red flags, and talking to the person can save their life, and that, for the depressed individual, things will get better.

If nothing else, The Short Message has its heart in the right place.

And let's face it, teenagers aren't exactly known for subtlety or nuance. Teenagers do tend to blow things out of proportion and be melo-dramatic. So it's hard for me to hold The Short Message's overly-blunt and melo-dramatic dialogue against it. Yeah it's cringe-worthy at times, but it's cringey in exactly the way that real-life teenagers are often cringey. There might also be more intentionality behind the blunt, cringey dialogue than is apparent at the surface level. Does the heavy-handed and cringey dialogue represent the literal events as they actually happened? Or are we seeing the world as the teenage character sees it?

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Friday, January 26, 2024 07:50 PM

Alan Wake 2 is all over the place

in Video Gaming | Game Reviews by MegaBearsFan

Alan Wake 2 - title

I'll give Remedy this bit of credit: in a world overrun with soul-less, design-by-committee, live-services and vehicles for micro-transaction economies, Alan Wake 2 is a game that actually has a strong creative vision and personality. It follows in the footsteps of Hideo Kojima and Death Stranding by being completely confident in itself and being un-abashedly weird. And just like with Death Stranding, that means that sometimes Alan Wake 2 is genius; other times it's confoundingly stupid and hackneyed!

It's hard even to classify Alan Wake 2 into a single genre. That goes for both narrative genre and also ludic genre. In both cases, it's kind of all over the place. At the most reductionist level, it follows the basic formula of a modern horror game: exploring creepy environments to find keys for doors, fighting monsters as an over-the-shoulder 3rd-person shooter, solving puzzles, and managing a limited inventory. So it's a "horror game", right? In fact, sometimes, it's seriously scary and disturbing. But other times, I'm questioning its "horror" status while I'm laughing out loud to a deliberate joke, or bored out of my mind because nothing scary or particularly exciting has happened in hours. Yet other times still, it's farcically campy or schlocky, and un-intentionally laughable. It's story is ridiculously out there in its concepts and execution, but somehow every beat of the plot is set up and signposted as clearly and obviously as the neon signs that point the player to the next objective in the Dark Place.

Plot twists are signposted more clearly and obviously than the neon signs that often guide the player through levels.

It's also frequently up its own ass. It is, after all, a fictional story about the power of fiction to alter reality (and our perception of reality). It even features the lead designer as a self-insert character within the story. Though surprisingly, he made himself a secondary character instead of one of the 2 playable protagonists. So it's not really about him, but he still found a way to make the entire plot revolve around that secondary character.

In the mind's eye

I feel that Alan Wake 2 is consistently at its best when its sitting firmly in its horror-mystery mode. As such, the opening couple hours of the game really pulled me in and hooked me. The game's main quest and side content are split up into various "cases" for the FBI agent protagonists to solve. There's a mechanic in which the player can retreat into Agent Saga Anderson's "Mind Space", which is an imaginary office room in which she sorts through all the clues she's gathered and strings them together on an imaginary wall in order to fit the puzzle pieces of the mystery together. Each time the player discovers a critical piece of information in the game world, it will show up in the Mind Space's filing cabinet as a new file in a case folder. Putting the clues together in the right way will unlock new lines of inquiry, and can even reveal the next objective.

Agent Anderson can review the known evidence in her imaginary Mind Space office.

Apparently, the actual game doesn't even pause, and continues to play in the background while the player is in the Mind Space. Even though the Mind Space is a full-screen environment, the character can still be attacked by enemies in the "real world". At first, I thought this would be obnoxious, but after the first time I was attacked while trying to re-arrange items on the case board in the Mind Space, I learned my lesson. After that, I actually came to realize that that needing to find a safe, peaceful space in order to let the character think about clues they've discovered (and how to proceed), really helps to emphasize the danger and stakes of the situation.

Arranging the clues in the Mind Space is not very difficult or complicated. It's not like having to solve a person's fate in Return of the Obra Dinn, or anything like that. Most of the time, the process is just going through the motions. Even when there are multiple options for where a piece of evidence can go, the solution can be easily brute-forced without the player having to know anything about what's going on.

The Case Board is an immersive quest log and objective tracker.

Even so, the Mind Space is a creative idea for presenting objectives, quest logs, story summaries, and characterization. The Mind Space at least tries to force the player to have to engage with the events of the story in a meaningful and immersive way. The player has to at least pretend to know how the various events of the story, the characters, and the McGuffins you find all fit together in the broader story in order to progress the main story or side quests.

And in fact, the entire game is about the interplay between the audience and the fiction. For most of the story, it's about the ability of fiction to re-shape people's perception of reality, but as the game goes on, it becomes more and more about the audience's ability to shape or re-shape the actual fiction. It emphasizes that any creative work is made up of both the voices of its creator(s) and also the interpretation and reception of the audience. This has always been true, with all forms of fiction and story-telling, but it's even more true with video games.

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Cities: Skylines II - title

I've been playing Cities: Skylines for almost 10 years. As soon as I started playing it, I recognized it as the definitive city-building game. It blew its contemporaries, such as SimCity (2013) and Cities XL out of the water. It was a smash success that developed a massive following and spawned 11 full expansions, 4 mini-expansions, 21 asset packs, numerous music packs, and thousands of player-created mods and custom assets.

Creating a sequel to a game that is so beloved and content-rich can be challenging or daunting. Sequels to extensively-expanded games, such as any given entry of The Sims, Civilization, Crusader Kings, World of Warcraft, Rock Band, and so forth, run the extreme risk of feeling bland, empty, and incomplete compared to their content-rich and/or mechanically-complex predecessors. This can leave the sequel feeling underwhelming to long-time audiences, who might return to the older game because they crave the extensive, familiar content. The Sims in particular is infamous for stripping out popular expansion content, and then selling that content back to consumers again (and again) as an expansion pack for the sequel. The most notable example is probably that every Sims game has a "Pets" expansion, because EA could never bite the bullet and just put dogs and cats in the vanilla launch of a sequel.

Sequels to expanded games often strip out popular content to re-sell as expansions.

The sequel to Cities: Skylines is a bit of a mixed bag in this regard. On the one hand, yeah, a lot of content from the original game is absent from the sequel, and the options for what players can build can feel a bit sparse. On the other hand, the vanilla release of Cities: Skylines II retains something from almost every one of the original game's expansions. It even includes content and mechanics that were part of some of the smaller content packs and from popular mods.

The vanilla game includes a day/night cycle that was introduced in the original's After Dark expansion. Some of the economic models of the After Dark and Industries expansions have been expanded in scope to apply to the entire game, thus alleviating some of the need for explicit tourism, leisure, or specialized industry districts. It took the winter themes of Snowfall and fleshed it out into a full seasonal cycle. It includes some of the weather and disaster events from Natural Disasters, as well as some of the early-warning and shelter infrastructure. It includes modular upgrades and customizations to certain buildings and infrastructure, as well as large industrial areas, that fills a similar role as the modular areas of Parklife, Industries, Campus, and Airports (though I'll talk more about this mechanic later in the review). It includes pedestrian roads from Plazas & Promenades. It includes eco-friendly variations of utilities that were part of the Green Cities expansion. And of course, it has road-building and transit-planning tools that largely leave Mass Transit in the dust.

It even includes sports parks and parking lots, which were late DLC content released for the original game in the last couple years. And the road-building and traffic-management tools have much of the functionality from the popular "Road Anarcy" and "Network Extension" mods. And that's to say nothing of all the brand new content, mechanics, and more complicated simulation! So even though it is not as full or content-rich as its predecessor with its double-digit expansions (how could it be?!), Cities: Skylines II is still a fully-featured and content-rich city-builder that can be played for many hours before going stale.

Some content and mechanics from almost every CS1 expansion are included in CS2's launch.

But as I said, there is quite a lot of content from the original game that did not make the cut, and which is sorely missed. For one thing, bicycles and bike lanes aren't in the game at launch, which is a kind of baffling decision (considering this game is developed in Scandinavia, where bicycling is huge). There also aren't any walls or fences or quays, and the tool for disabling zoning on either side of a road is strangely absent. So it's back to using pedestrian paths to remove zoning from arterial roads. Zoning is actually quite a bit of a pain in the ass in the sequel, and I am frequently fighting with the road layout, zoning squares, and pedestrian paths to try to get my city to look the way I want.

If you were particularly fond of leveling up and expanding things like industrial parks, nature preserves, amusement parks, universities, and so forth, then you might be disappointed by their absence. In fact, recreation, leisure, and tourism options are very spares in the sequel, as it lacks the tourism and leisure districts of the After Dark expansion. You also won't be building any small fishing villages, since Sunset Harbor is the one expansion that doesn't have anything being carried over into the sequel.

To its credit, the vanilla release of Cities: Skylines II feels more content rich and mechanically-compelling compared to the vanilla release of the original Cities: Skylines. But there's so much absent from the original game, that I un-install the original from my PC with a degree of trepidation.

There is some content from CS1 that is conspicuously absent.
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Wednesday, December 27, 2023 06:30 PM

Madden 24 can't even get nostalgia right

in Video Gaming by MegaBearsFan

Madden NFL 24 - title

Yesterday, I posted a new video to YouTube which critiques the Training Camp mini-games in Madden 24, and their pitiful attempt at playing off of players' nostalgia for the almost-20-year-old Madden games on PS2. I'm not going to reproduce a transcript of the entire video here, since most of the points in the video were already made in my full review of Madden 24 on this blog.

A critique of Madden 23's Training Camp mini-games is available on YouTube.

In summary, the video compares the execution of the mini-games in Madden 24 to the overall execution of the mini-games in Madden 2006, and how these new drills fail to replicate many of the design decisions that made those old drills good. Most notably, the new drills lack any of the classic risk / reward mechanics of the old drills, and the new drills seem designed for the user to just grind them for the maximum reward possible. The critique also compared each new mini-game with the analogous drill from Madden 2006, and how each individual new drill is poorly designed in comparison to the classic drills.

I also rant a bit about the lack of any mini-game for offensive linemen. To be fair to Madden 24, the old Madden games didn't have offensive lineman mini-games either. But then again, those older games also didn't have any mechanics or controls for playing as an offensive lineman. Madden 24 does. So there is no excuse for Madden 24 to not have offensive lineman mini-games.

I do wonder how this Training Camp feature is being received by the Madden community. If the rest of the community dislikes them as much as I do, then I wouldn't be surprised to see EA completely drop this feature from next year's game. Honestly, I don't even think I would miss it.

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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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