This is a Patch

 

Way back when, people talked about a WoW-killer.  WoW certainly isn’t dead but I think it’s a decent debate to state that FF14 is as good or better than WoW.

This is patch #2 since Stormblood launched in June.  That’s 7 months ago.  Here’s some of the smaller things in this patch.

It’s a good place to have both of these massive games running at the same time.

Last Jedi

We’re a couple months in now, so why not.

I like the movie.  More than I expected to.  The new characters had some level of depth to them, and most everyone had an arc.  There were instances of the dumb throughout, but on the whole it was a nice way to start fresh.

Characters

Rey is the crux of it all, practically a McGuffin in fact.  I like that she’s not a Mary Sue, that she’s able to make her own decisions and move forward.  I really like that she’s a nobody, as that string of who her parents were was frustrating from the previous film.  It (and the closing shot) portend to a true re-awakening of the force.  The battle scene with Snoke’s guards with Kylo Ren at her back was great to watch.  Very well filmed.

Kylo Ren is the story catalyst.  There’s certainly an arc, but it isn’t about growth.  It’s like peeling an onion and seeing the various depths.  On the surface he’s a spoiled child, then you see that he’s an abused child, then angry, then scared, the confused.  Doubt about truth seems to motivate him, and the lack of control he shows is amazing.  Sure, it looks like a tantrum but given the circumstances, every single one of his actions becomes justified.  Especially that crater in the ground scene.

Luke is a bit wishy washy to me.  He failed himself and Kylo, gotcha.  His guilt outweighs his reason.  There is no clear link between the Jedi code he so despises versus his actions.  The Yoda scene was expository, but required to push the story forward.  I truly do not understand how he can be portrayed as both incredibly strong and so incredibly weak willed a the same time.

Finn & Rose.  I understand the purpose of their arc, I just don’t see the point.  It could have been solved with any other plot device, like say a spy on their ship.  The entire gambling casino portion felt like a Lucas special-edition throwback.  You’re telling me that they felt more for the horses than they did for the child slaves?  Finn’s need for redemption and purpose is rather clear.  Rose has a little bit of it, but she’s used a bit too much as a plot device to move things forward.  Benicio del Toro’s character is the best part of the movie.

Poe Dameron.  Neat that you get to see the heroes fail, and the impacts of those decisions.  You’d think he’d learn from that but instead every story driver causes him to rebel even more.  Holdo is such an astoundingly poor leader it’s amazing that she doesn’t die from a papercut.  She causes 3/4 of the movie to occur by not acting when she should have.  Finn and Rose would not have left.  There would be no mutiny.  There’d be no final battle.  Poe learns something at the end but it actually goes against his character arc in the film.

Leia.  Or should I just call her space god?  Apparently she learned to control the force, and to a degree that we have never seen anywhere else.  She uses powers the Emperor didn’t have access to.

DJ.  The purpose of this movie was to show shades of grey.  He was a clear marker for that.  His intro was weak but his scenes were worth it.

Plot

New order still being around?  Sure.  We’re talking hundreds of planets.  Getting rid of one won’t stop them.  Getting rid of Snoke… that may change things.  Not sure how only Kylo and Hux are the only 2 people running the show mind you.

Being able to detect movement in hyperspace?  This doesn’t work as a plot device.  See, the order could have just ordered more ships to jump in ahead of the rebels and closed the trap.  It also took around 40 years between Rogue One (where the breadcrumbs start) and this movie for this tech to show up.  It also doesn’t justify Holdo.  Would have been easier to put a spy or some other mechanism.  Feels a bit too much like that Star Trek episode where warp speed destroys the universe… then no one talks about it ever again.

The Holdo arc.  Why would the leader of a couple hundred rebels not tell them what is going on.  She can clearly see the mutiny coming.  She even loses more people because of it.  And at what point did she tell Finn and Rose this secret?  You know, so that they could then DJ the secret, who would then sell that secret to the order?  The only explanation for all this secrecy is having a spy on-board.  See previous plot point.  Also not quite understanding why she would not have gone to hyperspeed immediately after releasing the final shuttle.  She was going to die anyways.

Snoke being nutso.  That part was pretty cool.  Extremely strong in the force.  Focused on a particular target.  That he was oblivious to Kylo using in his room was a bit weird, but it ended up working out.  He was a great plot device and does a great job explaining why there are no old people in the new order.

The casino scene could have been entirely cut and replaced with them walking into a Cantina looking for a criminal.  Same with the Moz scene.

Luke’s planet was neat.  The caretakers were a good touch.  I understand the technical reason for Porgs, though they are bit too much like Tribbles for my tastes.  The light/dark portion was well done.  Seems a stretch that no one knows of a planet strong in the force, but then again everyone is dead.

Luke’s force projection across the galaxy was like Superman turning back time.  He could have easily done this on the actual planet.  His death was ok, though poorly explained.  He certainly didn’t atone for anything.  Just acted as a delay to help with the escape.  There seem to missing some scenes explaining his personal closure after that scene with Yoda.  Also, is he now a force ghost too?

The last shot was a weird one.  The point of episodes 4, 5 & 6 (and 7) have been about the scarcity of force users.  Episode 1 did a really poor job explaining how the Jedi (or Sith) found new recruits.  Maybe everyone is force attuned and doesn’t know it?  It sets up some interesting possibilities.  In particular that there are no force teachers left in the universe.

Filming

I will say that the film is well shot, the images are well constructed with some interesting colors/contrasts.  I wanted more out of the music.

The writing seems like it was edited multiple times by multiple sources.  There are great flashes of brilliance (Kylo) and then it suffers from the dumb (Finn & Rose).  I do like that it throws a lot away and tried to start fresh.  Hats off to that.

The editing is rough.  There are missing scenes that would have helped move this along better, and there are scenes present that serve no purpose.  We didn’t need another space cantina casino showing us aliens.  We didn’t need a perfectly preserved impenetrable ice planet base that happened to have a very large exit in the back.  Also notice how they didn’t shoot from space, even though there were shields, shields that weren’t there since they used a battering ram?

 

 

 

Leveling for a Purpose

I guess I’m considered old school now.  I played enough pen and paper games when I was younger to see how games have shifted over the years.  The aspect of player levels is one that’s undergone the most shift – and with 7.3.5 in WoW coming out, it’s the topic du jour.

First a basic statement.  Character levels are simple way to denote increases in ability.  They don’t inherently grant some new item.  Very few games (until MMOs) ever gated content behind a line that said “you must be level 8 to try this”.  There were recommendations, sure.  But no hard stops.  And the levels themselves were few and far between.  I rarely got any D&D character above level 8.  I think the first Baldur’s Gate max level was 7.

The point is that the levels themselves were both milestones and not the goal.  The goal was the story (content) and the journey taken to live that story.

Video games tweaked that.  The old RPGs took it a step further, adding many more levels and modifying content to make it not exactly impossible, but extremely challenging to complete without a certain level attained.  I could complete Fallout if I avoided combat, at a very low level.

Online games needed to extend the tail of the game.  UO wasn’t the first, but it’s the most notable.  It used a skill-based leveling system, where you simply got better at something by doing that something.  Intuitive enough.  EQ took that model and then added the old D&D leveling, scaled all enemies, added resists, then just added more content and more levels.  It added an artificial mechanic that meant that your level gated content – either on inability to perform, or actual “you must be this tall”.  The goal of EQ was not to go through the content, it was to “ding”.  Significant shift in mentality.

EQ did re-enforce this mentality with significant boosts in power when your reached certain levels.  Losing a level meant potentially losing an amazing skill.  Losing Clarity or SoW was painful.  There’s a reason we called it Evercrack.

WoW took this mindset and removed the negative feedback loops.  Vanilla still had skill based content, still had levels, still gated content behind those levels, but the search for a ding was replaced.  Few can deny that the first journey through WoW was a pleasant one, and the story / environment / dungeons were refreshing.  Many tweaks later, including 2 expansions (TBC and WotLK) took that polish a step further.  But at a cost.

Every expansion further polished the leveling experience.  It moved away from small bits of story with a lot of fighting (grinding even) to more of an interactive story.  Adding new numbers meant additional scaling, where someone at max vertical (character level) and max horizontal (item level) had to have a challenge in the next expansion.  Stat inflation.  A few may recall that once TBC opened up before level 60, it made no sense to ding 60 in the vanilla content.  One item drop provided more stat points in TBC than you would ever see on all gear in vanilla.  It trivialized previous content.  And so it went.

Each expansion also focused on providing a set amount of content to be consumed during the “leveling process”.  This varied a lot, but an average of 20 hours seems about right.  (side note, vanilla was many hours longer, until Cataclysm changed that).  As expansions continued, the level spread between players grew.   Fewer people were in the “sweet spot” for grouping and zone content.  Previous top level material was made irrelevant as the newer content had both better rewards and actual players to play it with.

The table below shows the list of gated group content (open world content not included).  All told, approximately 87% of content of previous expansions is no longer relevant.

Vanilla TBS WotLK Cata MoP WoD Legion
Dungeon 21 16 16 14 9 8 13
Raid 4 8 9 6 5 3 5

(Contrast this to FF14, where all group content is relevant due to the re-use of dungeons in the group finder tool.)

If you were to take the original leveling path, you’d be alone for ~150 hours of playtime.  Not exactly an MMO, or a wait to retain players.  So Blizz smoothed it out.  Dramatically.  Faster experience curves, heirloom items, experience boosts.  You could go from vanilla to the start of an expansion in a few hours.  It put more and more content at the top level, making every level but the max level, irrelevant.  It pushed all the years of effort in previous years to the curb.  Then started giving/selling max level boosts (followed by many others).

Not everyone towed that line.  FF14 is a clear outlier.  It takes just as long today to clear the base game as it did upon launch.  Same gates.  It sort of works, except for the open world content, where people have moved on.  Dungeons are relevant mind you.

FPS games took the leveling approach, but have had issues balancing the concept of power between starter and max level.  It’s ironic that someone with 200 hours has not only more skill in the game, but is also provided more power by which to attack weaker players.  Most FPS combat this problem by throwing it all away every 1-2 years and starting from scratch.  Destiny 2 is a recent example.

This applies to other games as well.  Diablo 3 is a really good example of where the leveling game was made useless with their focus on end game activities.  Grim Dawn focuses on the story, and Path of Exile does the same (with even more focus on milestones at specific levels).

And that’s not counting for the gamification of everything else.  You get magic internet points for everything now.  Gaining levels in a fitness app.  Reward tiers for credit cards.  Comments on a message board.  Ranks in the console wars.  The number provides little meaning aside from competitive ranks with other people.  People complete activities, not because the activity itself is rewarding, but for the points accrued.

And therein lies the problem.  The reward of the journey is replaced with the reward of the ever-moving finish line.  By continually adding more finish lines (levels), it dilutes the previous ones.  The only thing that matters now is the current finish line, and people will speed through everything to get there.

It’s why I try to keep to the older-style RPGs.  The story itself is the reward, and the levels are just additional decision points along the journey.  I’ve conceded that the race to the carrot is no longer worth the effort.  No one ever really catches it, and once you think you have, a new one shows up.

 

Arkangel

I would think most people who read this blog are fans of The Twilight Zone. All the various iterations.  In igloo-ville we also received The Outer Limits during the 90s.  Psychological, horror, sci-fi…mostly standalone episodes.  All of them acting as parables or warnings for what could happen. It’s either in the now, or about 15 minutes from now, making the best of those episodes very poignant.

Looking back at them now, without the social context of the time, it’s hard to fully appreciate what they had going for them.  The best of them certainly do.  It’s a Good Life may be the most recognizable.

The real joy of these is that they are not brain dead stories, or pure entertainment.  They engage your brain matter and feel like they are talking to you.  Compare to say, Game of Thrones or Lost.  Both excellent but the viewer is not an agent.  Rod Sterling talked to us.

Black Mirror is as close as we can get to that feeling today.  Disclaimer – I have a soft spot for English writing.  Proper English.  First season ran in 2011 and woo is that episode a doozy.  Season 3 and 4 have been picked up by Netflix and each have 6 episodes. I’m only a few into season 4 now.  USS Callister was solid with a good premise.  Crocodile was like a mini-psychological thriller.  Hang the DJ is what happens when Tinder goes on steroids (and the most uplifting of the bunch).  Arkangel though – that’s a Phillip K Dick short story.

The foundation is solid – an anxious single mother who worries about her kid.  She loses sight and ends up putting a tracker on the daughter.  But the tracker does more… it gives a health check, let’s her see what her daughter sees and can filter “bad things”.  I’ve read enough sci-fi to see where this is going.

Sure enough, it follows the proper notes, with the necessary social commentary. As a parent, I could relate with the steps taken to “protect” the kids.  It hits a special note where there’s a clear psychological impact of permanent helicopter parenting and you really hope the mother learns a lesson.

Of course she does until her teenager lies about where she is for one night.  And what teen has not done that? The draw to snoop on her kid is too much, and then it’s a massive descent into invasion of privacy.

Side note – since I work in IT, in particular user-facing IT, I’ve been very exposed to the concept of privacy and network connectivity.  In that privacy doesn’t really exist.  If people knew what Facebook on a smartphone actually collected… or maybe if they cared…

Back on track.  The 1 hour episode felt more like a mini-movie.  There was some rather solid points to be made about a nanny-state (within a family), in particular when the individual being spied on is not aware of it.  The hurtful part was that the mother deemed watching her kid better than talking to her kid.  Like the data collection only ever needed to be one way and from one source.  (A bit like getting your news from a single source without any dialogue).

The best part is the feeling of not being comfortable watching the episode.  It hits really close to home.  I am really enjoying this series.  People should take a watch.

New Year Start

The holidays are rarely a relaxing time for me.  There’s just so much to do and whatever time “off” I have is actually planned weeks in advance.  This year was going to be different.  Work had delivered a major milestone and after 18 months without any time off, I decided to take 3 weeks and do the stuff that mattered.

I ended up spending last week in Cuba with my family.  Great decision overall.  Read 4 books (including the entire Broken Earth series), slept in every day, lounged by the pool/beach…didn’t plan a thing.   I’ve gone to a few places down south but never over the holidays.  Much different crowd.  First, no 20 year olds on party mode.  Second, since it’s Cuba, no Americans.  An interesting thing that I didn’t really catch on to until later in the trip.  It helped that it was ~30 below (where C and F meet) that week as well.

The rest of the time has been spent just having fun with the family.  The ice rink in the yard is top notch.  Lots of games and crafts around.  A whole lot of cleaning and tidying around the place.  Went to see Star Wars (better than I had expected in that it willingly throws away the traditional SW tropes).  One hockey tourney to go and then it’s back to work.  Finally refreshed.

2017

Overall it’s been a really good year.  Family is super.  I’m in some of the best health.  Finances are good.  The job has had more progress in 1 year than should be possible in 3.

Gaming has also been kind.

  • Horizon is my current game of the year.
  • WarFrame is a platinum best seller on Steam and worth 5x what Destiny brings.
  • XCOM 2 launched a DLC that is more than most expansions ever deliver
  • Mass Effect showed great potential (and EA timelines failed to deliver)
  • Dishonored 2 showed what a story driven sandbox can do.
  • Shadow of War delivered a better nemesis system, but a broken end game
  • Path of Exile launched two expansions this year.
  • Quite a few more games that I need to eventually pick up
    • Cuphead
    • Wolfenstein 2
    • Divinity 2
    • A Nintendo Switch!
    • Nier
    • HellBlade

Aside from the slow down this holiday season, it’s been my most active posting in a long while.  There are many fewer bloggers nowdays.  Most folks have left and vbloggers have taken space instead.   It’s still quite immature, as clickbait runs the money in the first few years.  It takes a long time for quality to start showing up (as it did with blogging and online news), so my guess is we’re 2 years away from that.

2018

I rarely have any resolutions for a new year, not like there’s a difference between Dec 31 and Jan 1 in terms of goals.  Change is a gradual thing, though there are always goals that can be achieved.

Work should provide a new opportunity in the next few weeks, one that’s about 10 years earlier than I had planned a long while back.  My team has recently completed year 1 of a 3 year plan, and there’s a lot of excitement for what’s coming

I’ll keep playing hockey and working out.  I’d like to get to a baseline 200lbs bench this year and push from there.  There’s surprisingly little weight gained over the holidays and vacation considering my indulgences.  Back to my regular habits now.

The family will be heading to Florida in March, then open the cottage a few weeks later.  I think we’ll be focusing on saving money from that time forward as there’s a few long term plans that need some funding.  Still 2 months of hockey to go with the eldest, and likely some dance classes for the younger.  Both squirts are doing great in school, have a insatiable curiosity, and a solid level of autonomy.   All told the focus this year, as with last, is ensuring that I simply have more time for the family.

Of all the potential games in 2018, I’m only looking forward to Pillars of Eternity 2 and Ni No Kuni 2.  Darksiders 3, God of War and Kingdom Hearts are a maybe.  Anthem I am looking forward to seeing play out.  I won’t be buying it, but if it does launch this year (I doubt) it will be the real bellweather for how MTX work in games moving on.  I think we were spoiled rotten in 2017.

As for the blog, I’d like to have more cross posts with other awesome blogs that I read.  That means more work on Feedly, at least 3 posts a week, and maybe some more videos.  I won’t lie – blogging on a regular basis is hard work.  I am somewhat envious of both Syp and Wilhelm.

 

And with that, time to sign off and enjoy the rest of my vacation.

Horizon Frozen Wilds

I am not usually one to buy DLC.  Well, perhaps if we’re talking about actual content.  Quality stuff.  Adding an extra car chase, or a different mode (like in the Batman games) just isn’t doing it for me.  Full-on extra work on an already great game… XCOM and Pillars of Eternity are good examples.

I make no secret that I really enjoyed Horizon Zero Dawn.  I think it’s the best PS4 game this year (and probably the best overall since I don’t have a Switch).  It is a near perfect game and when an expansion was announced, I was hopeful it would keep pace.

Frozen Wilds is an improvement on the macro of the game, while keeping the hyper-polished micro in line.  You still shoot a bow and run around (or on mounts), but all the enemies a whole lot harder to take down.  That super armor you get in the base game doesn’t have a whole lot of use here.

You can get some new weapons (close range and distance) that change a bit of the combat tactics.  If you can manage to draw the bow for maximum output, you deal more damage.  If you can’t, then it’s a lot worse than the best bows in the base game.  This means that you need to be a whole lot more tactical in combat rather than just unloading an entire quiver.

You get a few new skills, mostly about being mounted and a slight increase in inventory space.  Which is doubly ironic since mounted combat still has weak controls, and the inventory issues deal more with multiple stacks of the same item rather than too much stuff.  That said, due to the increase in enemy hit points, I found myself going out of stock on materials for the first time in the entire playthrough.

All the normal base enemies are here, though slightly upgraded with more power, health, and resistances.  They are accompanied by a dozen or so towers that continually restore their hitpoints, making some fights insanely hard if you’re not focusing on the right target.

Some new additions are here are too.  The Scorcher is a super fast robot cat that can shoot mines… very similar to the Stalker.  He’s so fast that the new bows are almost useless against him.  You need to take off his mine layer and take him out that way.  The Frostclaw is a giant frozen bear.  Where Thunderjaw was a huge threat from range, these guys continuously charge you, and throw all sorts of frost attacks.  When you first meet them, you’re really underpowered.  Even at max, they are a heck of a challenge.

Finally, the Fireclaw.  Here’s a video of the first time you fight one.

I died a half dozen times here, and I was really well geared.  The video above uses much worse gear than I had, and a different set of tactics.

The main story quest follows the Banuk up in Yellowstone.  I think it’s a better and more tightly written story than the main one, where the same characters are seen for the 8 hours it took for me to play through.  That consistency, and the fact that they accompany you on the quests, really helps sell the relationships between the NPCs.  The lore aspect of the story is top notch, with a more positive spin on the downfall of humanity.  It’s a vastly different take on the Banuk that what I had assumed, but it’s a wholly better one for it.

Frozen Wilds does not revolutionize the game like War of the Chosen did for XCOM2.  It takes what worked in the base game and then makes those pieces work together in a slightly different (and better) way.  It is highly recommended.

Scenery for the Sake of Story

An interesting opinion piece on CNET got me thinking.  Are video game stories stagnant while the set pieces are improving?

It’s certainly evident that games today are much prettier than they have ever been.  There are quite a few where I sit back after a set of events and am simply amazed at the experience.  I felt that way back in God of War and the initial Hydra fight, as much as  I did in Horizon sniping robot dinosaurs who shot fire.  The experience itself is just amazing to watch, let alone play through.

The stories though, those are rough. Some are really impressive, others are really bad, and most are ho-hum.

I’m of the opinion that written stories are the most impressive.  From word to the reader’s imagination, you need to convey something.  There are a bajillion books, most are horrible.  But you find that diamond from time to time.  We’re still reading books from 100+ years ago.  How many games that are 10+ years are people playing today?

Movies and TV are next, as they require some solid writing and they are fixed without player agency.  As a viewer, there’s nothing you can do to impact the story while you’re watching it.  Letter campaigns may change the larger story arc, sure, but that’s the exception.  Again, there are classics and junk.  For every Blade Runner we get 20 Battlefield Earth or The Ranch.

Games with Heart

There have been quite a few good ones over the years, most of them in the RPG space.  Earthbound, Fallout, Planescape…games where you can still remember minute details 10+ years later.

Others, like Shadow of the Colossus took a different route, where the player is meant to experience the story under their terms, rather than an A/B/C decision tree.  I think most would agree that this is the game that triggered the whole “game is art” conversation. (side note, it will be remastered for PS4)

But these are exceptions.  We may get 1 or 2 a year.  There are hundreds of other games, dozens in the AAA category, that just use story as a tool to let people play solo.  Halo 2 had a good story, but it’s nothing but downhill since.  Aside from perhaps Wolfenstein this year, FPS games have horrible story (hi SW:B2).  Racing games, fighting games, action… all of them have pretty tripe stories.

Other Parts Have Improved

A story today has pretty much the same structure as it did 100 years ago.  But controls, visuals, audio… all of these have dramatically improved in the past 5.  It may seem that story is getting worse but perhaps it has more to do with all the other parts having large improvements in a short period of time, that the gap is tiny.

Ultima is a really good example of this.  Super story (til 6).  Horrible game to replay today from the start, as it has not aged well.  You could easily place the story in a new game though.

It Doesn’t Matter

You don’t go and see a movie for the soundtrack.  You don’t read a book because the pages and print are comfortable.  You do play a game if the mechanics are solid.  A crappy story is less of a hurdle as compared to crappy controls, balance, or video.  Story adds a tremendous value, but it is not the primary one (even in RPGs, this is debatable).

We can certainly appreciate a solid story – and talk about it for years to come (we do).  But it isn’t fair to say that all games require it, or even that the quality has gone down over time.  It’s just that everything else has improved so much that our expectations on story seem out of balance.

Let’s just celebrate the great story tellers when we find them.