RDR2 – Guns Down

I’ve reached the end of the road in RDR2.  Some thoughts.

*Spoilers, clearly*

There’s something to be said about the end of a story, and the feeling of being on-rails until the end.  Ever since Saint Denis, there was only one path for Arthur and the gang, and sure enough, it delivered.  The game had delivered all it’s splendor, and it was a choice to either keep exploring (and side missions) or take the main story to completion.

Given I had the best horse, full stats, and the best guns, there wasn’t much left to improve RPG-wise with Arthur.  The optional story bits had some interest, but they were starting to feel more like busywork that actual value.  Don’t get me wrong, each side quest is a decent nugget of storytelling and/or actin, but when all the mechanics have been revealed, there’s only so much blood left in that stone.

The rest of the main quest takes a rather dark path, at least as compared to the rest of the game.  The gang is clearly on edge being chased by the Pinkertons.  They somehow manage to tick off the army too, while instigating an ever-escalating war between the native tribe.   Cowboys and Indians are portrayed through stereotypes.  The model of the latter is deemed unacceptable in today’s society.  Rockstar does a so-so job of portraying the history of that culture being conquered by the american government.  Many a time Arthur will pipe up that the situation is very complex, but the story never actually does that justice.  It feels like window dressing.  Sort of like the Women’s Suffrage quest where all you do is drive a cart.  Or the one where you recover a black man’s wagon of doctor supplies.  I had more interaction with a random stranger who I saved from a bear trap.  Compared to other games, it’s more than enough.  Compared to some of the storylines in RDR2… it feels less.

The near entirety of the 5th act is focused on external forces and Dutch’s want to manipulate them for monetary gain.  There’s a descent into madness from the start of the game, but it really goes off the rails in the end – and quickly.  The gang can see the signs and slowly leave camp.  The wheels are coming off.

Chaos ensues, a few more robberies where Dutch leaves his gang to their fate, a final train robbery that just barely gets by and then the final show down.  Arthur finally gets the Pinkerton boss, and they come after him to the camp and it’s a mad-dash chase to get away.  After a confrontation with Dutch and another, he slowly fades away at the top of a cliff to see the sun set.  It’s a fitting end to a bad guy trying to do good in the world.

The game then continues with John Marsten 8 years later, trying to set up a new life.  I am not interested in that story.  Clearly he finds a good place, then the Pinkertons pick him up for the events of the first RDR.  There really aren’t enough loose ends for me to care to see the rest of the epilogue through.

Final Thoughts

RDR2 is one of the most complete and amazing games of the last 5 years.  It is an amazing story telling engine, a great effort at simulation, and a believable world.  It is massive without grind (more on this).  Arthur Morgan is well written and acted, so that I felt an attachment to the character and the gang’s plight.  The majority of other characters had nuance and fit in, with Mary being a high point, and Micah a low point.  The world systems and how they keep going even when you’re at a different point… that’s amazing.  Nearly every single NPC has their own life and schedule.

The downsides relate almost entirely to the gameplay mechanics.  The controls are slow and confusing.  Combat is a major part of the game, but it feels incredibly loose.  The travel time between activities is double what it should be.  I’m sure I spent 15-20% of my gameplay time just riding on my horse between places.  The fact that some quests will include quick travel TO the location but not BACK, make that point all the more solid.  It was one of the main reasons I stopped doing side quests – I didn’t want to spend 20 minutes travelling there and back. The engine feels like it’s 10 years old, with updated graphics.

I will have to compare to God of War here.  That game had amazing controls, a superb engine, the world felt real, the story was engaging… it is hard to find any part that wasn’t great or near-great.   It remains my gold standard for a console game.

That said, RDR2 is darn close and really a must play for anyone who has a console. I do hope they release it on PC, just to let a larger audience get a view as to what a massive achievement they have brought to the table.

RDR2 – The Great Demise

I am a firm believer in karma, rather than some arbitrary being that picks a favorite.  In that there are direct rewards for an action, and indirect rewards.  Life just finds a way to balance itself out.

*Spoilers.*

Last I left RDR2, I was heading into Saint Denis trying to find the big score so the gang could buy some land and freedom.  Well actually, I was there to rescue a kid that was taken from a mob boss.

There’s the adage of big fish, little pond that applies well to Dutch, the gang leader.  He espouses some amazing views from his pulpit, but they are just hot air.  From a player’s perspective, that seems somewhat obvious, but from the character perspective you can see the attachment.  As the game progresses, you can also see the cracks start to show.  Dutch’s plans never really work out, there’s always someone else a single step ahead.  He’s never as bright as he thinks he is.  Always trying to reach for the sun and getting burned at every step.

Every job in Saint Denis goes wrong, at different levels too.  The one that seems to go well, takes a massive nose dive when the Pinkertons show up.  You lose a lot of good people whom you’ve spent hours/days getting to know.  Things go so awry, that you end up stowing away on a ship to Cuba, get shipwrecked, lose all your money, and end up freeing a slave camp to get out of there alive.

The trip back to town… the game throws you in a semi-dream state with the only voice-song that I’ve seen so far.  (Neat effect – you see more deer if you’re honorable, you see more wolf is you’re dishonorable.  Very reflective of native mythology.)

When this finished, I just stopped for a bit and started thinking.  After all the hell that Arthur goes through, he’s still bent on finding his people and trying again.  He’s doubtful of Dutch, but still trusts in his intentions.  The entire gang really starts to question the sanity of the man, and the decisions over the past months/years.

Blackwater is the watershed moment.  It’s when all the luck runs out and the dues start being called in.  Where Dutch is focused on the micro, the world around him is just taking massive strides.  Day by day, mission my mission, each previous decision has repercussions on the next set of events.  When you find out why the bank job went south, it’s a really impressive piece of art.

I’m nearing the clear end point now.  Arthur’s journey towards the grave is assured, it’s all about the timing.  And for the walls of the house of Dutch to fall down.

RDR2 – Satchel Interlude

Mainly due to another game not actually being playable all weekend.

RDR2 has 3 main branches of activities. The main quest (MQ) is scripted like a very long interactive movie.  It gates a lot of the other content in the game, and the activities you can undertake.  So if you’re playing and wondering why something seems possible but isn’t, it’s usually due to the MQ.

A second branch is the stranger/sub-quest activities that present themselves.  These are preset activities that you can undertake and open up nuance to the world around you.  They are not as formal as the MQ since they rarely focus on the gang, but instead the world building around you.  Some of these quests require you to explore the world to complete, such as finding dinosaur bones, legendary animals, or trading cards.

The third branch is the sandbox and random events.  It has general directions but nothing specific or trackable.  It could be that you get a tip about a house you can break into, or you meet up with a gang taking some hostages.  It provides a significant amount of life to the world around you.  One track of this is the upgrade system, which is predicated on collecting specific items – typically from hunting.  Of great value are satchels, which improve your carrying capacity.

I opened up Saint Denis and Chapter 4.  I figured with nearly all the map open and access to most weapons, I could focus on general character improvement.  Camp has an upgrade location where you hand in perfect pelts and get credits for some decent upgrades (non-cosmetic).  Some of these are easy (deer), some of them are hard (badger), all of them require work.

Perfect Hunting

Hunting requires planning and preparation.  To get perfect pelts, you need to find 3-star animals.  First you need to find them!  Some are really found in specific spaces (panther, badger) or spawn at certain times.  They have a random chance to spawn with normal animals, but to detect them you first need to study the animal (with binoculars).  To kill them, you need the right weapon: Bow + small game arrow, Varmint Rifle, or Scoped Rifle.  If you don’t kill them in a single shot, or with the proper weapon, the quality of the pelt drops.

That sounds oddly simple.  Did I mention that animals can hear and smell you?  That they leave tracks you can follow?  That predators hunt other prey?  So the execution isn’t exactly straightforward.  In particular for animals that are more cagey than others (damn squirrels).

For most animals, you can carry their pelt in your belt or on the back of the horse.  For large animals (bison, elk, gator), you can only carry one at a time on the back of the horse.  And stuff on the horse will disappear if you leave the horse for too long, or fall off if you stumble.  Let’s just say it’s painful to hunt a Bison up north, then travel all the way south to hand it in, only to be ambushed on the road and lose the pelt.

Open World

The best part of hunting is that it forces you off the main road.  This has you find some neat hidden spots in the world, and some extra story.  Found an abandoned oil rig, where the owner was killed because he didn’t want to sell.  Found a bunch of cannibals.  Found some ghosts.  Some hidden treasures.  A jail break.  Thieves blowing up a safe.

You really get to appreciate the finer details within the game. And there are a lot of details.

 

RDR2 – The Dream Dies

Plot spoilers?  Can you actually do that for a prequel?

RDR1 is the closing chapter of the American frontier, the end of the West.  RDR2 is the same theme, but a larger scope since it’s set earlier.  It certainly is about the impacts to the main character, but it’s also a heck of a commentary on society.

I am just entering Chapter 4 (I guess 50%?), where you can start to see the wheels really come off the dream-wagon that Dutch is pushing.  Backtrack a bit, and you start off in a blizzard, in a run down town.  You move to a small frontier-like town that has only one street.  You then move to Rhodes which has a couple streets and electricity.  Then off to Saint Denis which is a large industrial town.  Each one feels like I’m travelling 10-20 years into the future.

The parallel to today’s urbanization is evident.  Small towns are drying up everywhere as people chase jobs/money in the “big city”.  Something like 90% of Canada lives within a 2 hour drive of the US border.  The people I know who live in small towns mostly work in nearby large cities, and have regular runs into the to do complex errands.  Driving an hour is easy for them.  People in the city freak out about a 5 minute walk.

RDR2 is predicated on the charm of Dutch’s american dream of freedom and choice.  He sells it well, and his flock certainly believe him.  As the world around them closes in, he makes more and more rash decisions that lead to even further disaster.  Just the fundamental principle of “get enough money to buy some land” makes no sense if Dutch really believed in freedom.

As much as the game has you playing as Arthur Morgan, the story has little to do with him.  It’s about watching the dreams and the people around you die a slow death.  Even the mail carriers are aware that they are no longer relevant in a world with carriages.  It’s incredibly depressing.

Spectacle

The true testament to the success of this game is in the use of spectacle to provide depression.  One mission has you find mementos of an old vet who has turned to drink – you empathize with his descent, as you slowly discover he was a slave trader.  Another has you destroy the livelyhood of an old blood family, burn down their house, and make their matriarch go off the deep end.  There’s a giant firefight in the middle, and the final view of the event is straight out of any period film.

I am convinced that West World changed the direction of this game.  Sure the themes are not identical, but the concept of a very grey western, dealing with oppression, lack of power, the chase… all of it feels refined.  RDR1 (and GTA V) had a lot more black/white decision points.  The characters filled archtetypes.  RDR2 just has people.  People that are driven by their own motivations rather than the plot.

Crafting your own story throughout is extremely personal but you are only making tiny changes on the larger path.  Do you want to rescue the lady being kidnapped for who knows what?  Do you feel the need to help the farmhands defend themselves, and then rob them?  Help or hinder the drunk who crashed his cart?  Arthur has a set path – he’s an outlaw through and through.  But maybe he’s more like Robin Hood than El Chapo.  Maybe you prefer quiet to guns blazing.

Seeing it Through

I really enjoy The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  I’ve seen my fair share of the Duke.  There very few good “happy” westerns.  The hero is not meant to win, he’s meant to barely survive.  Shane anyone?

I know how the next game starts, so I have a pretty darn good idea how this one will end.  The destination is still a bit cloudy, but that’s really in the details.  Dutch, Javier, John, and Bill all live.  The rest… who knows.  But that journey is ridiculously captivating.  Watching the world close in around, slowly picking away at the dream until there’s nothing left.  Seeing the world trying to accommodate them, but the old style not wanting to give in.  People fight so much harder when they think they are losing something, rather than trying to gain.  It’s quite a mirror to today’s society… making it all the more enjoyable to experience.

RDR2 – Fishing Time

It’s not really a game until it has fishing in it.

RDR2 has horrible controls, built out of molasses, tar, and the 1980s.  What it hides behind those controls is spectacular.  It’s about as close to West World as anything that’s ever been released.  Staggering the depth of retention here…people live their entire lives in the background, for that single random event to meet you, then go back to their lives.  It’s not so much a game, as a simulation.

And it has fishing.

Getting Started

Fishing unlocks in act 2, but only partially.  You need to be in act 3 to get all the lures opened, and the option for legendary fish.  Time is meaningless in RDR2, when comparing players.  What may take me 10 minutes may take someone else an hour, and vice versa.  Still, it’s one of the much later unlocks as compared to the other game mechanics.

You get access to a pole and some simple bobbing bait to start.  Eventually you upgrade to more complex bait for different fish.  Then you unlock lures, which you drag through the water (retrieve is the technical term) and hope a fish bites.  You can fish from land, or get into a boat and fish the water.  Time of day matters, where dusk/dawn have a positive impact… as does fishing in the rain.

Fish meat can be used as food sources, and is generally a whole lot easier to acquire than game – so it fills you up a fair bit less.

The Mechanics

Rod + bait/lure + cast = fishing.

The easy part is getting the line into the water.  The hard part is getting that fish back to you.  You need to turn the stick in a clockwise direction, but only when the fish isn’t struggling.  Otherwise you can lose the line and the fish.  Bigger fish will pull the line out when they are fighting, which you can try to stop, but again at risk of losing the line.  Fish can swim in obstacles, cutting your line.  There’s a line cutting theme here.

The very large fish can take a few minutes to pull in.  Or, you can follow the poorly written instructions and bring them in quicker with a tug down on the left joystick.  This only works if your rod is in a neutral position.  It will tug the fish closer, and you will real up the slack.  Typically can get this done twice while a fish is tired, before they get fighting again.  Cuts reel time by more than half.

Fish Variety

They have different habitats (lake, swamp, river, cold, warm, etc..) and can usually be seen at the surface splashing around.  Pike, gar, sturgeon, bass, bluegill, salmon, pickerel… there are a bunch others.

Legendary Fish

At some point you get a Stranger quest to fish up 13 legendary fish, and you need special lures to do so.  The bait shop in Lagras (SE of the map) has what you need.  These lures only attract legendary fish.  And these fish are monster size.  You then need to mail them (really) to get the associated rewards.

Rewards

Frankly, fishing is its own reward.  Sure, you get a couple bucks, some food and a neat quest.  But the fun is in the act.  It’s a lot like just riding through the country side to see the way the world looks.  Fishing gives a sense of serenity and calm, lets you appreciate the world built around you.  The people walking by, the gators tanning along, squirrels fighting over food…you get a real sense of scale.

So yeah, I’m spending way too much time fishing and not much time shootin’.  Going to be here a while.

BioWare Anthem – Let’s Talk

Wikipedia link for easy reference.

Like Gangbusters

Like quite a few gamers, I cut my teeth on the early BioWare RPG staples.  Baldur’s Gate, Planescape, Icewind Dale… all of them hall of fame titles.  All based on the concept of character development, choice, and consequence.  Baldur’s Gate 2 remains my all-time best example of an RPG with hundreds of hours soaked.

Jade Empire was a neat twist on the genre, blending action combat with RPG pieces – which was the basis for Mass Effect if you think about it.  Knights of the Old Republic was a smash to play through, and dramatically opened up the possibilities for Star Wars stories.  Mass Effect 1 was a near revolution in the way RPGs functioned in the west – and I argue the reason that EA purchased the company in 2007.

Following the purchase, we received Dragon Age (Bhaalspawn anyone?), which was a massive sprawling RPG.  Mass Effect 2 was right around the corner, and another smash hit.  Due to long production times on games, both of these were well into development before the EA purchase.  I consider this the BioWare apogee.

The Downward Trend

Dragon Age 2 felt like an expansion, with the same recycled environments.  DA:Inquisition had interesting characters, but played like a solo-MMO with no healing.  Mass Effect 3 was technically sound, but threw it all away with a ridiculous ending.  So bad, that the fan feedback caused BioWare to change it after launch.  (Imagine being mad at the end of King Kong, and then on DVD he lives.)

SW:TOR launched in 2011, right at the tail end of the MMORPG bubble.  Two reboots along the way – F2P and KoFE. It solidified the trend to F2P conversion, in particular what not to do (hotbars for sale!)  It was tremendous in scale and took a couple years to find it’s identity.

The founding doctors quit in 2012.  At the same time.  Then the old guard started leaving.  Long time game directors, story writers, programmers.

Shadow Realms (4v1) was announced then cancelled.

ME:Andromeda launched to lukewarm reception.  So lukewarm, they shut down the studio that made it and put all future ME development on hold.

What’s Next

BioWare has only 2 active projects that we know of.  SWTOR, which has had slow but steady updates of the years.  The long term plans for this game aren’t clear, as most expected an expansion announcement by now.  Not sure how that really impacts the player base mind you, since there are still some mechanical changes underway.

And Anthem.  A game that appears to strongly follow in the footsteps of Destiny and The Division.

It’s fair to say that SWTOR isn’t exactly a cash cow, and Anthem must have an insane amount of pressure to deliver that the very existence of BioWare is in question.  Anthem is clearly an “all hands on deck” project.  Launching in 3 months.

Anthem Chances

People following the Destiny and Division clearly realize that making one of these games is extremely difficult.  The leveling process is easy, but keeping people engaged long term means a serious level of understanding of grind mechanics.  The good news here is that BW has some experience here with the end-game mentality in SWTOR.  The bad news is that the SWTOR model isn’t drawing all the kids to the yard.

The advantage for Anthem here is that there are two clear examples from popular games on how not to do it.  Destiny 1 was all about first out of the gate and learning with the community.  Division took months to learn that lesson, and paid a heavy price before providing a decent experience.  Destiny 2 took all the goodwill from the first game, and repeated the exact same mistakes, until a recent expansion.  I won’t say it’s easy, because it isn’t.  But good golly, do not repeat these same mistakes of others.

(Side Note: Activision’s earning call indicated that Destiny 2 undersold expectations.  It was one of the top selling games in 2017.  That’s where the bar is.)

PvE squad based games aren’t exactly popular right now.  PUBG/Fornite are dominating the market – and both are insanely popular in the mobile space.  That is a massive part of the market that is no longer available.  It is not possible to measure trends when making games… the dev cycles are so very long.  Timing is certainly key.

That said, there’s a whole lot in common with ARPGs like Diablo or Path of Exile.  You’re continuously running the same areas for chances of improved stats.  That positive feedback loop is the driver.  The concept of it never having an end is the carrot.  It’s the perception that the carrot is actually in reach that’s important.

If I was BioWare I would do everything in my power to avoid introducing PvP at launch.  The market for PvP is extremely small, given the breadth of options to gamers today.  PvP in Destiny/Division are side activities with the chance for rewards to be used in all other content.  Rare is the player who focuses solely on PvP.  Let them continue to play Fortnite/PUBG, or CoD.

The EA tarnish is hanging over everyone’s minds.  It’s surreal how people hate EA more than say oil, finance, or pharmaceutical companies who have actually caused real deaths. But they do hate EA.  And EA has a knack for exploiting every possible opportunity.  SW:BF2 took a massive beating due to micro-transactions, enough to get actual laws passed. They take great companies and turn them into a shell of their former selves.  Drug dealers have a better reputation.  People will criticize the smallest piece of Anthem just because it has an EA sticker.

The game launches in late Feb 2019.  It just posted about reaching Alpha.  It honestly does look like alpha, since they are in the “how the game responds” feedback phase.  In all honesty, that post is friggin’ solid.  It’s the sort of transparency that is missing in development.  But we’re also well past the time for a beta.  Beta is all about optimizing the numbers, bug fixing, stress testing… A good beta is 6 months.  A quick one is 3.  Had this post come out in the summer…

I do hope this game has success.  More than for the game’s sake, but for BioWare and the industry as a whole.  Quality co-op games are not common in the AAA field – we get PvP and solo.  Monster Hunter is top of mind right now, but then the list gets ultra short. Going to find out in a few short months.

The New Early Access

Fallout76 is about to launch.  November 14th to be exact.

Fallout 76 is riddled with game breaking bugs and more hacks.

Bethesda has replied with an acknowledgement of the issues, and that they will be fixed in time.  Just not to expect a smooth game at launch.

This is the exact same model as early access on Steam.  Though in large fairness, Early Access was for devs who couldn’t find a way to subsidize their costs before being ready for release.

I am really curious as to how that works out.  A multiplayer game that knowingly launches with this lack of polish is pretty rare, and usually loses most of the playerbase unless it’s the only one in the market, or offers something super interesting.  H1Z1 and PUBG are recent examples where that applied.

And it’s not like Bethesda has ever releases a game that was bug free.  Skyrim was chocked full of bugs on launch, but it was a single player game.  I can’t really think of any multiplayer game that launched with this list of bugs, and had long term success.

Now we’re in AAA expectations, early access, and multiplayer with PvP options.  From an IT dev perspective, I would not be looking forward to the next few months.  From a business perspective, I don’t see how this actually is going to work out positively.  There won’t be positive news cycles, except for the blurbs Bethesda themselves put out (e.g. like the how to get a nuke posts recently).  Players… I can’t hazard to guess.  Bethesda players are traditionally tolerant of bugs due to the giant scale of the games, but the last release was 3 years ago (FO4). But what market is FO76 actually aiming for?  And does FO76 offer something that other games do not, outside of the Fallout universe?

I think this will be an interesting experiment in major game launches.