Control

When a game reaches multiple top 10 lists, my eyes tend to shift over.  When said game blends X-files, Lost, Fringe, Twilight Zone, Metroid, and Zombies… I’m doubly in.

Built in a New Weird setting, you play as Jesse who’s trying to find her brother within a secret government organization.  As you finally get through the front doors, you realize everything is going sideways, with a small war underway.

Cue the various exploration bits, and additional powers.  You have a weapon that can transform to other styles (full auto, sniper, shotgun, grenade launcher, handgun).  Powers are relatively simple.  Dodge and shield for defense.  Seize to convert low-health enemies.  Levitation to explore a pile of areas and make combat go full 3D.  And Launch – which is the bread and butter skill that picks up almost anything to throw it at targets.    The variety of items that can be thrown, and the distance… it makes for some extremely satisfying combat.

Enemies generally look the same, humanoids.  They are quite a bit different though.  Some are basic grunts, others launch grenades, some fly, some explode on death, some stealth and then shoot you at close range.  Then you have various elite enemies, and some exceptional boss fights.

Which does bring me to likely the largest hurdle for many gamers… this thing is hard.  Not to the level of Dark Souls… but enough that I died a solid 50 times before the end.  Sometimes it’s just bad luck and you end up between two grenades.  Sometimes you miss an important jump.  Most of them were the boss fights, in particular the last one and the few optional fights.  Levitation, dodging, launching, shooting.  It feels like pure chaos, but then you look back and go “holy shit”.

In fact, there’s one sequence near the tail end where Jesse says “that was awesome” and I cannot recall any game sequence that actually felt that awesome to get through.

There’s some RPG-ish elements here.  You get skill points to increase various powers/health/energy.  You get mod to modify yourself (better throws, less energy per use, more health, etc..) and your weapons (accuracy, rate of fire, ammo return, etc..)  There’s a huge amount of RNG here, and a massive difference between rank 1 and 5 items.  If you like min-maxing, there are some options here.

All of that stuff works, and generally works well.  But you’ve seen that before.  The extra bits here are the lore/setting.  There are dozens of lore items to pick up and read, listen to, or watch.  Some of it is absurd, like a rubber duck that teleports on it’s own, or a traffic light that teleports users when it’s red.  Some is freaky, like mold that takes like candy and transforms people.  There are various hidden puzzles too, like one where you cheat on a roulette table.  Piles of side quests that add extra flavor and bring you to the weirdest of places.  An extra dimension phone line.  The amount of effort and quality world building here is stunning.  You want to explore every nook and cranny.

And I want more Ahti.

Long story short, yeah, Control is one of the best games I’ve played this year.  That was awesome.

Looking Back at 2019

Still quite a few days left, but since the holidays are just around the corner, I’d be surprised if much else pops up.  Or that I properly digest it in time.

Macro

2019 at the macro level has been a new level of insanity.  Society seems to be going off the deep end, with the simple idea of respecting another person considered taboo.  Social media is a ridiculous enabler of the worst facets of humanity.  And when our global leaders focus on lying, ridiculing, insulting and just plain being poor role models… we’re not going to go far.  It’s depressing.

And that’s inclusive of the “woke culture” of finding fault with everything from behind a keyboard.  It’s a sad day when someone’s personal value is measured in the number of re-tweets they get.  Just focusing on problems instead of working on solutions doesn’t help anyone.  And “cancelling” is not a solution.

On the flipside, it’s making me much more conscious of my behaviour and the one I want my kids to emulate.  It’s a very strong driver for the extra volunteering load I’ve taken on.  We can all do better.

Micro

My year’s been solid.  Love my wife more and more every day.  Kids are growing up to be people I want to spend time with, and so far want to spend time with me.  Our social circles are all undergoing major mid-life crises (which I guess is normal at this age), making for some serious wake up calls.  I still have a lot of friends who are having trouble coming to terms with the fact that they are adults.  Both my wife and I are making extra time to support as many people as we can fit.  It’s impressive what a small gesture can mean to someone.  Sometimes just a 5 minute phone call can turn around a person’s day.

Career wise things have been going along at a breakneck pace.  There are days where I wish I was still a code monkey, but on the whole I am enjoying what I do.  Some day I’ll explain it, but for now let’s just say that it’s high enough to have global impact, yet direct enough that I can talk to the amazing people doing the work.  And I’ve entered a career development program that will both open new opportunities, and help me grow as a leader.  Lots (and lots) of work to get here.  I’m glad I can recognise it, and the support along the way.

Summer at the cottage was great this year, but went by a tad too fast.  Next year I’ll take some more time off and spend more with the fam.  There’s something special in seeing your kid’s face light up when you’re out on the water, or around the fire.  Something like that can make my week.

I blogged more than I thought I would, which is good.

Games

If I was to look at 2019, it would be the year of less is more.  The best games this year were able to focus on key aspects and deliver amazing experiences.  It didn’t take 40 hours to get through a slog of repetitive content.  Most were in the 8-16 hour range.

  • I started the year with a buch of indies.  Celeste, Frostpunk, Return of the Obra Dinn, Dead Cells.
  • I picked up Outer Wilds in the late spring and was amazed at what was presented (my personal GotY winner).
  • Bloodstained scratched that Castlevania itch, but didn’t really go beyond.
  • Outer Worlds showed everyone what can be done with a clear vision and a smaller set of resources – I’m looking forward to more adventures in that setting.
  • Jedi Fallen Order is an actually good Star Wars game from EA, and no loot boxes.  Call me pleasantly surprised.
  • I bit back into SWTOR to see what content I’ve missed over the years.  I do like what’s presented, and I’m going back with a Republic Shadow to compare both ends.  Won’t sugar coat it… it’s rough.  But that just means the game has progressed.
  • Lots of Dauntless, which has been a pleasant surprise.  Their official launch was in the fall, and their release structure should be applauded.  There’s tons of content here, it’s entirely cross-platform (Switch too!), and bite sized enough to make Monster Hunter look like paint drying.  Oh, their F2P model is impressive to boot.
  • Warframe has been an on/off thing for a while now.  It still has one of the craziest on-ramps I’ve ever seen, next only to EvE.  The depth here is stupifying.  Like if you went to a buffet, and found out there were 30 other buffets all linked together.  There are times where it feels like staring into the Abyss.

 

Overall

In terms of things that directly impact me, it’s been a really good year.  One of my best.  A year of reducing the complexities and at the same time spreading out to help more people.  I prefer to spend my energy on people who are positive, or are making attempts to be.  I try to let the negativity just slide off, and it makes for more enjoyable days.

As I get older (and hopefully wiser), I guess I’m just more appreciative.  Thanks for reading.

Warframe Update

Goals.  I need to set more of them.

Progress in Warframe is an odd measure, since it’s like saying you’re done with the soup section of a buffet and moving to seafood.  Ain’t no measuring stick for that!  But Warframe has a conceptual value called Mastery Rank, and it’s based on the rank of various pieces of loot.  Get a sword to rank 30, get some MR.  Same with companions, pets, main weapons, side weapons, and archwings.  Right now, I’m at MR7.  The max is MR28, though MR16 is where the final content is unlocked (Riven).

That makes one set of goals of getting more stuff.  There are 42 main line Warframes.  27 of them have Prime variants (better stats, much harder to obtain).  I’ve gotten all the ones that drop from planets up to Neptune.  I’ve got the main blueprints for Chroma and Octavia as well.  That also means I have a fair chunk of main weapons, secondaries, and melee choices.  I’ve leveled a fair chunk of them, though it bears note that leveling them is not the simplest of things.

From 1-30 takes just under an hour.  You can level multiple items at the same time, though most weapons level faster if you use them.  Helene on Saturn is a defense mission against Grineer, and is the go-to place for people to level everything.  Easy groups, generally small room, plenty of drops.  It can get repetitive though, so I try to interlay some other missions to break the monotony.

Upgrading items is done with mods, which work like points-based bonuses you can slot into gear.  You can upgrade mods, which increases their point value, but each piece of gear has a max amount, so it turns into this interesting (?!) puzzle at times.  Many mods are useful, though the best are quite hard to come by.  A full leveling run (from 1-30) can get me ~250 or so mods, though 99.9% of them are sold.

If I was to set myself some goals for the next month or so, they would be as follows:

  • Get to MR10
  • Complete all nodes up to Neptune
  • Complete Octavia & Chroma
  • Acquire Titania & Grendel
  • Complete Pluto missions (which should unlock lots of quests)
  • Get into a Dojo (guild)

Some of those are more achievable than others.  Octavia in particular requires a random drop from a 20 minute mission, which are level 25-35.  Guess that will depend on luck for groups.  Even completing all nodes can be a major pain.  Archwing missions aren’t all that muchr fun, and I have a large dislike for Mobile Defense missions.

Still, if I can complete at least MR10 and up to Pluto, I guess I can consider the basic stuff all complete.  Then I can start worrying about factions and whatnot.

 

Building and Maintaining Lore

World-building is dependent on setting up consistent lore, and then respecting that lore with the stories in that world.  In single stories, that’s certainly of value, but over larger series it’s essential to keep people invested.

Why?  Value.  If the stuff you put out at the start is discarded, then it means it has little value and consumers can easily skip it.  It also instills a level of doubt that the current story will have no links to the world and reduce it’s impact.

Game of Thrones has some serious world building going on in the books.  Even the TV show did a very respectable job of maintaining that world.  The issues with the TV show don’t relate to lore with respect to the world, but in respect to the actions taken by the characters.  Like how you don’t set up a main villain for 6 years and then dispatch him in 1 episode.

Harry Potter had a consistent world up until book 7.  Then the play came out and decided time travel was a good way to impact the main storyline and alternate universes.  The JK decided that twitter was a great way to pad extra content to the original books and throw in some major curveballs.  Now, if you ignored everything that came after book 7, odds are you’re a happy camper.

In the comic book world, there are plenty of retcons.  In some sense this creates larger arcs across multiple volumes.  Superman has undergone multiple versions, depending on the needs of the writers and society as a whole.  Batman has had tons of versions.  The slight difference here is that when a retcon comes along, there’s usually some advanced notice and the break is clean.  Rarely do they every try to blend both stories and worlds together.

Playing through SWTOR brings more of this to mind.  While nearly all of it is considered “Legacy” now, it still bears mind that it’s consistent.  The stuff done in Chapter 1 is not negated by anything in Onslaught.  That there are so many intertwining storylines and that they rarely conflict is quite impressive.  Typically the storylines would branch/fork and then come back to a mainline resolution.  Onslaught is a bit different in that space, as the branches/forks are still present at this point.

This is in conflict with the recent Star Wars trilogy.  The Force Awakens was somewhat consistent, with a few interesting bits.  Finn’s battle with a lightsaber against a shock weapon was a bit odd.  The Last Jedi took a baby & bathwater approach, which kept the setting but ignored most of the lore from prior.  Apparently the Force can help you live in space, it can transmit you across the galaxy, lightspeed can be tracked and can be used as a weapon.  There are a few dozen more examples.  The problem with this isn’t so much that they break the existing lore, but that they negate all tension in the film.  The implications of each of those changes the entire galaxy.  Think of it this way – every Xwing is now a nuclear bomb, capable of taking out a capital ship.

I know there are a lot of people who are more interested in the individual story, and that’s ok.  I’m much more interested in the thought process of the world, and seeing how other stories could add to the base presented.  Wheel of Time had some amazing world building.  Sword of Truth was pretty solid.  Lord of the Rings was only written because a world was built beforehand.  When it works, it means the sum is greater than the parts.  When it doesn’t, you get something like the Terminator franchise, where you burn the audience so badly that even when you do get quality (Dark Fate) no one cares.

I’d like to say I’m hopeful that is not the case with Star Wars, but given Kathleen Kennedy’s comments that there is no source material to draw from… that raises some eyebrows.

SWTOR – Shadow Musings

I’ve loved stealth classes for a long time.  They work in excellent form for quick combat, but generally get weaker as the combat duration lengthens.  In WoW, Monks have pretty much replaced Rogues in that respect.  But it’s hard to ignore their benefit of group stealth for time-based challenges.

In my Republic playthrough, my current character is a Jedi Shadow.  By level 25, aside from a stealth button, there really isn’t much there that screams “I’m a shadow ninja and you can’t see me.”  I’d have to triple check when my toolkit from stealth actually has a purpose other than bypassing groups of enemies.

I’ve just finished the Nar Shadaa / Taris grouping, then the tiny ship event that follows.  I’m chasing a Sith that is infecting Jedi with some sort of mental plague, turning them to the darkside.  My secret weapon, which I learned at level 5, is to take their illness for my own – sucking the poison as it were.  I finally found the Sith, and now to chase him…

This is an odd storyline.  Why in the world would the Jedi Council assign one of the largest threats to its existence to an initiate?  When  you’re already short staffed and someone is poaching your team, I think that merits more than the rookie’s attention.

The story beats are all similar too.  Each planet you find a Jedi turned dark, complete some quests to finally meet them, then use the shield ability to cure them.  Feels like I’m a doctor running around giving vaccines.  Aside from the very final part (in the ship), there’s no tangible progress.  If I recall, that is a point for quite a few of the Act 1 class stories, yet in this case it seems really apparent.

I generally liked my companions on the Empire side.  Sure, some annoying ones but it worked.  Qyzen is the whole honorable warrior shtick.  It completely conflicts with the light side Jedi options though.  Tharan Cedrax is meh.  His own companion, Holiday, is where it’s at.  There’s something about the exploration of AI in the Star Wars universe that’s always been interesting.  The whole Iokath/SCORPIO line is where it’s at for me.

I still maintain that the leveling experience is jarring compared to later content.  Planets are large swaths of nothing, with the hub/spoke model that has side quests that are not at all near where your main quest points you.  I’m sure I spend 75% of my time on my mount getting from A to B.  If not for investment in Legacy Quick Travel, the trip from B back to A would be all the more annoying.  It’s more of a gripe though, since I’m able to clear an entire planet’s quest (class & planet) in about 90 minutes.

I’ve thought about doing multiple classes at the same time, enough to allow rested XP to get me to 50.  Good news there is that since every planet scales to my level, that’s not needed.  So off to Tatooine I go.

 

Phoenix Point Quick Impressions

XCOM of attrition.

I rather enjoy the tactical/strategy squad genre.  I played the heck out of the original XCOM (even wrote my own mouse driver for it).  I’ve played every iteration since.  JAG was decent enough.  Syndicate is a top 20 all time game.  There are a half dozen in that vein every year that seem to pop up.  Sattelite Reign was a recent one.  Hard West.  Phoenix Point is a bit different, in that it’s designed by the same guy that made the first XCOM.  And hooo boy does that show throughout.  Couple thoughts after a few missions.

  • Squads?  Check
  • Alien bay guys?  Check
  • Research & manufacturing?  Check
  • Geoscape? Check
  • Factions?  Check
  • Action points in tactical mode? Check
  • Classes?  Check

The foundational parts are all there, it’s a relatively familiar system.  What Phoenix Point (PP) does differently is apply the concept of time management to equation.  One effective strategy in XCOM is to take a more defensive approach to combat, primarily due to the rather low hit points, and extremely long periods of recovery after damage.  Losing a top-end Sniper for a couple weeks due to really bad luck rolls was super painful.

PP instead puts the clock front and center for a lot of actions.  You need to collect material to build things, and you get more material if you finish a mission quickly.  You are presented with multiple attack choices at the same time, but never really enough soldiers to complete them all on time.   There will be times when you simply run out of ammo.

PP also adds a fair chunk of hit points to every enemy, so that it takes 3-4 attacks to take out even the lowly grunts.  Rather than throw a half dozen enemies at you, there are less of them, but they last longer.  The net effect is that each map is the same time duration, but there’s always something going on, and usually more than 1 active target.

Free Aiming

Everyone has missed a point blank shot in XCOM.  It’s absolutely infuriating when it happens, and often at a key point in battle.  Hip shots still exist in PP, but it also adds a Free Aim mode, which is a much more realistic combat mechanic.

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Dead to sights

In most cases, you can bring up your sights and find 2 concentric circles to assist with aiming.  There’s a 100% chance of it hitting the outer circle and 50% chance of the inner one.  As you get closer or farther from the target (or swap guns) the circles change in size.    Picking a part of the enemy has differing effects.  Maybe it disables an attack, maybe it restricts movement.  For some shielded enemies, maybe you can get by the shield and hit an exposed part.  Or perhaps you just want to take out the wall of the building to get a better shot next time… that works too.

This customized shooting makes a tremendous difference in combat.  XCOM sometimes felt like Excel with graphics, just a pretty pain on top of a number crunching machine.  PP says enough with that, and puts a lot of control in the player’s hand.  Yet with that control comes a suprising amount of challenge.  If you aren’t attacking the right enemies, what seems like a sure win can easily turn into a loss.

It will take some time to come to terms with PP.  There’s a lot to unpack here, and it’s going to take some time to get through it all.  From what I’ve seen so far, it should be a fun ride.

Exploration vs Achievement

At work, we’ve gone through psych profiles (NOVA, Insight, Myers-Briggs), and for a long time I’ve been super dominant in one aspect.  I am not a cheerleader, I am a trailblazer.  I see broken things, I want to fix them and find more broken things.  We have an annual review of these profiles, and that allows any new staff to better understand the drivers of teammates.  Which then makes for much more pleasant conversations where both people are aiming for common ground.

There are analogies to gaming.  Bartle posits a 4 quadrant player profile, including Social, Killer, Explorer, Acheiver.  Everyone has a bit of each profile within themselves, though there are certainly dominant aspects.  In that space, I am strong in the Achievement section, with some exploration bits included.  I have next to no drive for the Killer persona, and the Social one is fairly weak as well.  In both of those cases, people will play shitty games because either they are dominating other people, or the other people are the reason to log on.  Generally speaking, an FPS is much more about the Killer model, and an old-school MMO (UO, EQ, WoW Classic)  is more about the social aspect.

I tend to strike more in the Exploration & Achievement sections.  Not in the absolute sense of finding every nook and cranny, and the obscure/grindable achievements though.  Both of those have very long tails.  I have little interest in ever getting a 100% complete, or a Platinum only to have a badge show up.  Now, if content is gated behind the activity, then sure, it’s a tad more interesting.  Things like FFX’s Monster Arena is a good example, and WoW’s pet menagerie is a bad example.

When I “finished” Jedi: Fallen Order, the rest of the game was about unlocking new cosmetics.  Meh.  No real interest.  Outer Worlds I had done nearly all the quests and explored all the zones, but only in the context of playing a specific character build.  To get “more” content, I’d need to restart with a different build.  I’m giving myself time to forget my first playthrough to make it more enjoyable the next time.

SWTOR is in an interesting spot.  There’s piles of content I missed (the near entirey of the Republic 1-50 storylines), so there’s a fair chunk there to face through.  I don’t have much interest in the end-game.  There was a time that I used to.  I raided a lot in early WoW.  I was runing dungeons a-plenty until WoD.  WoD’s implementation made me reconsider my gaming choices, and that meant looking at my gaming catalogue.  Instead of spending a few hours dungeoneering for extra gear, I would rather play something like Shadow of Mordor, or Slay the Spire.  I get why people would commit to a single game, and the social bonds therein.  But I’m good with having to go through 5-6 other GotY candidates instead.

Reviewing what I have left on deck game-wise, that leaves:

  • SWTOR Republic class quests to 50.  Maybe, just maybe, get one of them out to Onslaught.
  • Warframe. Not much more do to here until I get a Platinum coupon, allowing for a much larger inventory.  There’s a post here about online pricing…the coupon is the actual price.  Everything else feels like a penalty.
  • Phoenix Point.  The XCOM successor of sorts from Julian Gollop who created the series.  I don’t expect it to be at the same level as XCOM2 at launch, but then again XCOM2 took it to another level with War of the Chosen (DLC) and the Long War (mod).