Movies, music, games, books, television, and more.

My opinions, jaded completely by my feelings, experiences, beliefs, and how I'm feeling at the time.

*SPOILERS* I will usually include a section at the end that may contain spoilers. If you don't want to know, don't read that part.

My opinion is not yours, nor should yours be mine. If you want to know for yourself, do for yourself. If you disagree, that's fine - you can make one of these for yourself for free.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Xann Black Plays... Prey Night 3



After fiddling with the glitch for a bit longer - and possibly getting closer to a solution! - I wrap up my time in the Hardware Labs and head back to the Talos-1 Lobby... 

Xann Black Plays... Prey Night 2



I continue my trek through the Hardware Labs of Talos-1, and discover some excellent gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately, I also discover a glitch which could have frustrating consequences for a later quest.



TL;DR - You can skip the last thirty minutes unless you really enjoy watching glitches drive a streamer mad.

Monday, May 8, 2017

To Play or Not To Play - A Discussion on How to Approach Game Criticism & Analysis

As some of you may have noticed, I've been posting several game streams over the past few weeks; I'm not 100% certain where that will go yet, but the short version is I am trying to find a way to finally get rolling with turning my love of games into something more substantial. I was having a conversation with my friend Bryant (who has many blog exploits) about streaming, and he asked me what my potentially increased time gaming meant for my writing efforts. Below is the conversation which followed, in which he tried to help me get a handle on how one might approach examining games as a unique storytelling medium.

*Spoiler Alert: Mild spoilers for the opening of the new Prey reboot.*


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Xann Black Plays... DOOM, Level 3: Foundry (Meltdown)



After foolishly playing the first two levels without streaming - which is basically like not even playing them at all! - I bring you my in-progress playthrough of the 2016 DOOM reboot.

Xann Black Plays... Resident Evil 5, Part 2



After narrowly escaping from angry villagers - and one giant man trying to axe us all the questions - JS Wolfwood and I try and remember just what the Hell this game is about.

Xann Black Plays... Resident Evil 5, Part 1



JS Wolfwood and I roll back the clock eight years to 2009, and try our hand at guiding Chris and Sheva through the newest outbreak. Do all fruit piles conceal grenades? Watch to find out!

Xann Black Plays... Prey Night 1, Part 2



After a brief technical hiccough, I return to continue exploring the Talos-1 station. Little did I know that lurking in the Twitch chat was something even worse than a mimic...

It was a troll. Who said I was too old for games and called me a pedophile. Spoiler alert.

Xann Black Plays... Prey Night 1, Part 1



After being surprised by the demo, I decided to pick up the new Prey reboot from Arkane Studios, the team behind the Dishonored franchise. Watch me dive into the opening section! Along the way, I learn about life, chair love, and giving flowers to tentacle monsters.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Xann Black Plays... Prey Demo



The Prey franchise started as a sleeper hit on the Xbox 360, followed by a sequel which languished in development Hell - despite having one of the most awesome E3 trailers of all time - until it was ultimately cancelled.

The franchise has been "rebooted" - after only one prior entry, yes I know - by Bethesda with Arkane Studios at the helm. The trailers didn't impress me at all, but the demo...

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Heleus Cluster Blues



“Dear BioWare: Stop making open-world games” is the title of an op-ed recently posted on Polygon. I’ll leave it up to you if you’d like to go find it and read it; I agree with some points and disagree with others, but it sparked a discussion with Scott and Erich that I’ll build from here. Essentially, I stopped playing Mass Effect: Andromeda very early on – I’ve landed on Eos, but haven’t even walked over to the first outpost after you land – because I was losing interest rapidly, and what I’ve seen when watching my roommate Oz play does not endear me towards continuing.

The basic through line of the Polygon piece is that BioWare excelled when they focused on story-driven games that – while allowing for some freedom of mission order and exploration – were more linear in structure than ME: Andromeda’s vast planets. Neither Knights of the Old Republic was truly open-world, they simply allowed for freedom within set boundaries; Dragon Age: Origins was structured linearly; Dragon Age 2 was notoriously “restrictive” according to most players, though I like the way Kirkwall was set up; finally, the first three ME games weren't open-world in the same way as games like Skyrim, Dark Souls, or Witcher 3. Even DA: Inquisition, which provided the player with more options for moving around the world map and featured huge environments, isn't as open-ended as Andromeda.

Except that ME: Andromeda isn’t actually an open-world game, but rather a game which features open-world segments which you can (or are forced to) visit and explore both on foot and in the Nomad. These segments are interrupted by times when you need to revisit your ship the Tempest to progress a quest, or even travel to other regions of the Heleus cluster to converse with different characters. Now, I realize none of that is beyond the pale for any game of this genre, but the implementation is sorely lacking. Here are some cleaned-up versions of my rambling thoughts from earlier, which you didn't specifically ask for, but by Andraste you're getting them.

Transitions are a major issue, especially given how frequently they’re put to use while doing even the simplest of tasks. I spend too much time moving from between the Tempest, the galaxy map, things on the galaxy map, and the surface. This is even more egregious in a game with an inordinate amount of loading screens. Witcher 3 loads when you boot the game, or load a save. All other transitions - including fast travel – take you out of the game for the briefest of intervals, and don’t even require a full loading screen. The cumulative effect is that you rarely have time to lose your sense of immersion; in Andromeda, I found myself keeping my phone handy just in case I walked through a door and the game needed thirty seconds to powder its nose.

Right after landing on Eos I realized I had equipped the wrong armor, so wanted to go back in and switch it out; despite the Tempest’s boarding ramp being lowered, I got to watch the whole launch sequence as we took to the stars once more. Why does the Tempest lift off just because I board it? Does it really have to be in space for me to run around inside? In that same vein, as cool as it is to watch your view sweep from one interstellar object to the next when you’re moving around within a system, it quickly makes exploring new areas tedious. An option to turn that animation off would be nice, except those transitions are obviously miniature loading screens, so mapping the entire cluster will involve one repetitive camera sweep after another. Also, in case you’re thinking “Trey already said he hasn’t done much, though, so how can he have these gripes,” let me share some thoughts from folks who have already played most of / beaten the game. I think you’ll find some common ground.

Scott: “When you are on a planet and then go to the Tempest to find out you have an email saying someone needs something ON THE PLANET YOU WERE JUST ON!”

Scott: “This is why I wondered why people complained about Witcher load times. It was loading a no transition open world. I will wait on it to do that. Thank you.”

Next up: The. Fucking. Nomad. No three-hour session of an ME game should be spent driving around in the latest semi-functional space SUV. Yes, thankfully it is slightly more durable than the Mako, and the controls don’t make me want to break my controller. I personally was a fan of the Firewalker missions – which I might apparently be in the minority about – because they were self-contained enough for it not to get repetitive. Traversing terrain in an open-world game / environment is obviously going to be a major piece of the puzzle, though, and so you’d think BioWare could have come up with something more interesting than what essentially amounts to running errands with a dysfunctional family where one of the children is a seven-foot bird woman with a shady past. (That’s not a shot at Vetra, by the way. I already love Vetra. More on that later.)

Erich: “A lot of the character bits are amazing.  The story stuff can be great, but the places n between can be so boring. I spent hours the other day running side quests, and other stuff, without anything interesting happening except for a great conversation between Vetra and Liam.”

That ties neatly into my next point: There's so little of substance to do on the planets. All the myriad bits and quests and collectibles and crafting work in other open-world games because they're interwoven with the crux of the main game. I don't have to board a ship, sail to an island, and then ride Roach for ten minutes to find the one person in that region who plays Gwent. I can play Gwent with just about fucking anyone, because Gwent is a part of an organic, living world. Even if I did have to travel that far, at least there’d be something to look at. Hell, if we’re talking about running the roads in games, I actively enjoy spending time in the Regalia in FF XV because it’s executed almost perfectly. Rarely has a game done a better job of showing you a majestic landmark and then given you a sense of wonder at actually making your way there. Huge stretches of the planets in Andromeda are just barren wastelands, separating myriad tasks such as finding a mining spot, or exploring an alien ruin for a bit of loot or research data.

While I get that these worlds are supposed to be inhospitable when you first arrive, that doesn’t cover for what is essentially a lack of cohesive structure tying different bits of content together. From what I've read / heard / seen while watching people play, these are things that Horizon: Zero Dawn and Zelda: Breath of the Wild get right. Horizon has an entire storyline woven into it that reveals itself organically through exploration. Meanwhile, BotW "hides" rewards and shrines all over the place; according to Tycho, co-creator over at Penny-Arcade, basically if it looks like a puzzle / secret within the game then it almost certainly is. Open-world games necessitate more effort in keeping the player engaged, be it in the form of areas populated by flora and fauna, free-form quests that emerge as you play, or even just stunning landscapes and vistas.

Erich: “Yeah, all the backstory for the world itself is told in the most organic way possible. There have been a few times where I wished Andromeda had taken mechanics from Horizon. I know that that would have been difficult timing wise, though.”

It was at this point in the conversation that I realized Andromeda shares numerous similarities with another game in a beloved franchise which tried to go open-world.

!

Literally, exclamation point! It's MGS V! That is, it's got some of the same inherent flaws, at least. Both are games that aren't willing / able to commit to being either open-world or linear. Both force you out of the free roam environment, sometimes for little more than a cutscene or to be given an objective back in the area you just came from. The Tempest taking off just because you get on it really, really bothers me; now I’ve realized it’s because my mind correlates it to the constant helicopter trips between the main game world and Mother Base. Both feature meta-systems for sending out teams, gathering resources, and managing R&D projects which – if we’re all being honest – aren’t really critical to the core gameplay. Erich did point out that Andromeda’s story is executed in a more approachable manner, and I agree on that point; that doesn’t alleviate any of my frustration at having that story buried under a mountain of lackluster content, though.

I want to play Andromeda. Or maybe, I want to want to play Andromeda. Your crew seems to be pretty great, and Oz says some of the story moments and set pieces are really cool. I love the concept of the Initiative, and unlocking your father's memories via SAM has struck a real chord with me. Vetra and Jaal both interest me from the word go; a few of the others feel like archetypes we’ve already met, but one area I’ll always give BioWare the benefit of the doubt is characters. More than once, I’ve booted up single-player to check on my loot from strike teams – I might be addicted to that particular meta-system – and almost decided to just play for a while. Then I'll realize I have to spend hours listening to the whine of the Nomad, or shooting yet another Kett / Remnant / outlaw patrol, or swooshing between stuff on the map, or looking at loading screens. In contrast, if I really wanted to dive back into even DA: Inquisition, I could mitigate most of my impatience by just forging ahead for a while and ignoring my need to tick all the little boxes. That goes even more so for Fallout 4, or Witcher 3, or FF XV, the latter of which rivals even Witcher in terms of making an open world feel populated and fun to traverse.

Does that mean BioWare should give up on open-world games? I don’t think so, although they certainly need to tweak the formula. That’s something they’ve been doing since Knights of the Old Republic, though, and so maybe they can pull it off. To that point, all three of the original ME games are vastly different; the exploration, mission structure, dialogue and combat mechanics were tweaked with each successive entry. The changes were praised by some players as helping streamline the tedious sections, while others lamented the loss of features they felt were core to the spirit of the franchise. I won’t delve into the divisiveness of ME 3 here – there’s plenty of info out there if you’re interested – but suffice to say many fans did not share my enthusiasm and sense of closure afforded by the ending. Not having reached that point in Andromeda myself, I’ll let some other folks weigh in.

Scott: “The ending of Andromeda makes me want to play more but I don't want another game like Andromeda.”

Erich: “Yeah, I really like how straightforward the first game is.”

So while maybe it's not that BioWare can't make an open-world game, perhaps they shouldn't make a straightforward story-driven RPG with one hand, make a mediocre sandbox space exploration game with the other, then try and shove them into the same box. Truly successful open-world gameplay requires a marriage of the macro and microscopic; there’s a way to do it that allows for and enriches narrative-driven gameplay, but clearly that’s not what happened in this case. You don’t have to take my word, or even the word of my friends, and I’m not trying to dissuade you from giving Andromeda a try. If you’re like us and came in expecting “Mass Effect,” though, I can’t help but advise you to temper or at least adjust your expectations. I said earlier that I want to play Andromeda, but I have no qualms about admitting most of that impetus is because of my love of the franchise as a whole. I’m a huge proponent of making up your own mind about media, rather than just relying on reviews, but in this case general critical reception – and, one would suspect, the sales numbers over the rest of the year – seems to have hit the nail on the head. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go send my strike teams out one more time before bed; at the very least I don’t have to watch the Tempest take off to make that happen.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Better Late Than Never - Game of the Year 2016





Welcome back, fellow nerds! Sorry for my prolonged absence from the site; life has been a whirlwind this past year. Which also unfortunately means, like in 2015, that I didn’t play all that many games to completion. Oddly enough, I paradoxically may have picked up more games this year than I did in the past few; rather than buying things at launch, I waited until the big summer and holiday sales and picked up multiple titles over a few weeks. For instance I picked up Bloodborne, Until Dawn, and The Order: 1886 during sales even though I don’t own a PS4 yet, just so I could have them (my roommate has a PS4, so I’ve at least tried them out). 2016 did continue the trend of having a core group of folks I play games with on a regular basis each week* and that meant slightly less time for single-player stuff, but I still dipped my toes into most of this year’s big releases.

To an extent, though, I also continue to realize that it may simply no longer be feasible to play every major new release each year, and by that I just mean try them out, let alone finish each one. Part of this realization stems from getting older, and though I love video games every bit as much as I always have, but there are other events and concerns which occupy both my time and money more frequently. Over the past year-and-a-half or so I’ve been getting into board and deck-building games; I’ve been reading more and focusing on the writing I want to do as a profession; I started getting into model-building again. That means being more discerning in which video games I invest in, because otherwise I’m going to end up with an empty wallet and a bunch of titles I don’t ever get the chance to fully appreciate. With that in mind, here are my picks for our 2016 Game of the Year accolades.

*Shout-out to J S Wolfwood, GarlicWalrus, Eeeeerocket, and Valturen!

Game of the Year



Quantum Break

“What’s that?” I can almost hear a good portion of our readership asking themselves that question as they gaze at the banner image for this article. Others may vaguely recall a game from the makers of Alan Wake which features highly-detailed digitized versions of Iceman, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and Petyr Baelish involving time travel. Quantum Break also featured live-action, thirty-minute-long “episodes” of content between game story chapters which changed based on decisions the player made. It received relatively high reviews, was largely panned by most people representing themselves as gamers on the web, and then limped off into the mists of early-in-the-year titles.
What most people missed out in as a result was a stylish, well-crafted action game in which you use time in incredibly cool ways during both combat and puzzles, in a story that genuinely managed to surprise me at more than one turn. The decision-making system, while not necessarily as intricate was you might find in Mass Effect or The Witcher – nor nearly as nuanced as something like Metro 2033 – made things interesting by having it be the primary antagonist making the choices. The much-maligned live-action sequences are one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen a developer have the guts to invest in, and the game would be significantly less interesting without them.
If you like Alan Wake or Max Payne in the slightest, you should give this game a shot; that goes ditto if you enjoy movies such as Looper and 12 Monkeys, or the stories of Philip K. Dick. I still want to go back and play back through making the opposite choices from what I did before, especially since they can significantly change the game from very early on.

Runners-Up



Single-Player: Final Fantasy XV

Let’s just get this out of the way: FFXV deserves most of the flak it gets for being a J-Pop boy-band road-trip simulator with action bits. That being said, I’ve rarely enjoyed pouring 30+ hours into a game as much as this one, and I genuinely look forward to diving back in and wrapping it up. Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto have already sky-rocketed to near the top of my list of favorite FF characters, and this adventure is worth taking just to watch their friendship play out and grow. FFXV recaptures what the series does best – and what some recent entries have forgotten – in that it focuses on giving you relatable characters first, followed at close second by putting them in a truly spectacular setting.
The open world is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, with only Witcher 3 and Skyrim really challenging it in terms of both scale and scope. Driving from one end of the map to the other while listening to the soundtracks from previous games is incredibly fun, especially given some of the jaw-dropping vistas you encounter. The world is also densely populated with new characters to meet and countless side-quests, hunts, dungeons, and secrets to discover; it manages to walk that fine line between immersive and overwhelming even better than the aforementioned Skyrim in my opinion. Everything is there for you to either dive into or just skim the surface of as you like, and anytime you want to get back to the story the game gives you the tools to do so with minimal delay.
If you’re a fan of FF or JRPGs, chances are you’ve already picked this up; if not I can recommend it wholeheartedly, especially if you also like Kingdom Hearts. Thanks to the active battle system, I would also say that if you’ve avoided games like this in the past due to combat, I’d give this one a shot. Otherwise you’ll never know the joy of buying a new rare ingredient and having Ignis announce he has a new recipe for you to try.



Multiplayer: The Division

Rarely have I had less excitement for a game leading up to playing it and realizing I’m wrong. Wolfenstein: The New Order comes to mind, but generally I can gauge my enjoyment based on what I’m seeing of trailers and gameplay clips. Thankfully, we decided to play the open beta of The Division way back in February of last year, and pretty much immediately decided we would get it if the first few weeks showed the servers to be in good order. Our patience paid off, allowing us to miss some of the early headaches - such as players blocking one another from leaving the starting area – and by the time we dove in it was all fancy guns, realistic blizzards, and cool lighting effects.
The Division is not a perfect game, and the post-launch support and content has been a mixed bag, but if you have the right people to play it with everything else stops mattering. Remember how the PvP “Dark Zone” was a major focus of the marketing? We’ve rarely ventured there in 100+ hours of playtime, and yet I don’t feel our experience has suffered any for it. There have been numerous bugs after patches which caused our characters to behave in strange ways, such as the “Safe House Dance” in which everyone was constantly doing the weapon-switch animation. Our reaction? We found it hilarious. We played an extra hour one night because we realized our characters didn’t have to wear jackets, which completely changed how we approached picking what apparel gear to use.
I honestly don’t know if we’ll ever go back to the post-apoc streets of New York – another game further down the list has taken over game nights – and it remains to be seen if Ghost Recon: Wildlands will catch our interest the way this did. I do know that calling out “Lit!” whenever we ignited a cleaner’s gas tank, watching our turrets chew enemies to little pieces, and the joyful exclamations of someone getting an awesome new piece of gear will always stick with me as some of my favorite gaming moments.

Honorable Mentions

Battlefield 1

WAR. PIGEONS.



Inside
Look, every year, there’s an indie darling or two which people simply will not shut up about, to the point where you almost don’t even want to play it. One of those games in 2016 was undeniably Inside, except I love Playdead’s previous game Limbo so much I’ve completed it on three different platforms. Inside both is and isn’t the same kind of game as its predecessor, and while Limbo still holds a slightly bigger portion of my heart, this most recent offering kept me captivated from start-to-finish as I completed it in one sitting. The fabled “secret ending” was definitely a mind-frag, but I personally found the last few chapters to be the most interesting sequence.

In the Queue

Hitman

Bought the “Complete Season 1” on sale! I dig it so far; each episode is one of the open-ended, by-any-means-necessary style missions that were so heavily advertised for Absolution, but ended up only comprising about a third of that final game. Some of the challenges and unique kill methods are insane, and I imagine going for perfect on each stage would definitely be a fun endeavor.

Gears of War 4

Also got it on sale, via a random Pizza Hut promo! I’ve made it to the start of the third act, which is when the game we saw in all the trailers looks like it’s actually going to get rolling. Act I was absolutely terrible, in my opinion, and showcased the worst of Gears – mediocre cover-based shooting against repetitive enemies – while Act II heralded the return of unique mechanics and larger-than-life set-pieces. Also, JD and company are so much less interesting than Marcus and crew you can almost taste it, but I’m hoping the latter half of the game will at least give me some better character moments.

King’s Quest

I love sales! I’ve only gotten a portion of the way into the first episode, but what I’ve played so far is brimming with more style and obvious care than most AAA titles. While still an adventure game at heart, King’s Quest manages to eschew some of the more tedious aspects of the genre, and just in what I’ve played so far there have been several cool puzzles and action sequences. This game just further proves that the adventure genre and episodic content are a match made in heaven, and one which companies other than the vaunted Telltale should be exploring.

Best Reason to Buy a New 3DS: SNES Virtual Console




I bought a *NEW* 3DS (which is a stupid naming convention, but blame Nintendo, not me) specifically after it was announced at E3 that they would be rolling out the SNES Virtual Console only on the upgraded version of the handheld. It was definitely the right decision, as I’ve played more of Super Metroid, Link to the Past, Mega Man X, and a few others than I have of any modern-era 3DS game I own.

Best Game Titled “Saints Row IV: Re-Elected’ not Released in 2016

Saints Row IV: Re-Elected

…I mean, you saw this coming, right?