Star Wars: Battlefront II Beta: The Good, The Bad, The Sarlacc

Bumbumbum da da dun. 

Bumbumbum da da dun. 

10/12/2017

Star Wars: Battlefront II Beta

The Good, The Bad, The Sarlacc

The early access beta for Battlefront II just ended yesterday (after EA somewhat surreptitiously extended it by two more days) and after pouring a number of hours into it, I return from a galaxy far far away to give my initial impressions and thoughts on what was teased.

Before I begin, just a note about Star Wars in general: As may be gathered from our handful of previous film reviews, I personally was never and remain not the hugest fan, or perhaps not the most invested in this particular property. I do enjoy it well enough, but never delved into it as deeply so as to be able to debate the nuances of midichlorians, the sex lives of Wookies or whatever else “real/hardcore” fans talk about. What I can tell you about is game design and integration, so strap into your X-wing or TIE fighter, here we go:

I must also admit up front that I never played the first Battlefront, so I’ll be unable to say exactly how the changes and updates compare within the versions, just how they worked here. The beta offered 4 modes with one stage/scenario each (although this is fairly standard in betas.) These were: Strike-- smaller squad objective-based matches; Starfighter Assault-- 24 player matches in pitched space battles; Galactic Assault-- 20 v. 20 ground matches with multiple win/loss conditions; and finally a solo/co-op Arcade mode featuring wave battles to earn points based on time completion and performance.

Among these, the standout for me was Galactic Assault. Being part of a massive force of either clone storm troopers or the separatist droid army to alternately assault a palace or defend it was a highly enjoyable experience. With so many players running around, the ability to respawn and choose a different class if desired fairly quickly upon death, it was a chaotic and intense affair that made for some quite fun times and memorable moments. The downside was that, once familiarized with the objectives, I felt one side had a clear advantage. If the Empire team could take down the Rebel droid transport in the first leg of the match, victory was achieved and the entire round ended without going into the second and third portions. While it was satisfying to pull off here and there, it meant that one could feel cheated out of getting to play an actual full match.

On the Starfighter Assault side, things are even more hectic, as ships zip around a docked star destroyer to either take out or defend (what else?) its shield generators and core. The pace is absolutely frantic, with NPC support ships showing up to aid or hinder each side, which double as bonus objectives to earn battle points towards (more on that soon.) But alongside all the lasers flying around and fighters exploding spectacularly, because so much is happening on screen and the nature of space combat, more than a few players including myself found ourselves smashing into the side of the destroyer or other ancillary installation, halting the flow and making one feel more like having Harrison Ford’s real life piloting skills rather than Han Solo’s.

I didn’t play as much Strike, but a few rounds of it were enough for me to gauge that it’s the online mode I’d likely play the least. While smaller in scale and thus more manageable, it just didn’t have the epic feel of either the above to make for interesting or surprising matches. Fought on obviously a smaller map as well, it was easy to get pinned down and feel like one wasn’t making much progress or contributing to the team very much.

Finally, I dabbled in the Arcade mode just to try it out, and it’s basically what it says on the tin. Fight as a hero character (Darth Maul, Rey, etc.) against increasing waves of enemies and get graded according to how well and how fast you cleared out enemies, which can be done solo or with a partner. It seems like a fun side excursion, but as I said that’s all there is to it.

Speaking of heroes, the system for earning ‘battle points’ in matches and then cashing them in upon respawn once enough are acquired to start as a special unit (both hero ships and famous characters such as Poe’s X-wing and Han Solo in addition to the above mentioned ones) is solid at its core. The possible issue is that while it makes sense that only so many are allotted on screen each time, if a team member is using one, and you do manage to build up enough points, it’s possible that you won’t get to redeem them, thus your great performance has gone to waste and again you probably feel cheated out of doing something awesome simply because someone else was able to get it first. From what I understand though, this is a vast improvement over Battlefront 1, making it more skill based, but it still feels a little uneven from what was in place here.

Online connectivity was stable for the most part, although I did have a few isolated instances of infamous lag and enemy player pop-in/out. Party capability also seemed to function fine. I was joined by friend of The Lost Signals, Rich Perry, for a number of games, and the matchmaking kept us together without interruption, bringing back some old-school memories for me of playing with a trusted ally and owning the enemy team together.

The Jabba in the room is of course the loot box/microtransaction system and here is where things have the potential to get nasty. The most egregious flaw is that progression is tied almost if not entirely to the randomized reward crates. So for example, since sniper/specialist was my preferred class in Galactic Assault, while Interceptor was my go-to ship, naturally I was looking to get upgrades specifically for both. However, I ended up with my officer loadout being three whole levels above my specialist regardless of the amount of time I played as each, purely because the crates happened to spit out more rewards that applied to that class. Luckily I did manage to get some decent upgrades for the Interceptor so it was a lot more effective than the other two ship types available, which because I hardly got any for them, I thus largely neglected to use in matches. But again, that was basically random luck and it could’ve easily gone the other way. The sticking point is that no matter how well or much time you play as any given class, the random numbers gods determine their effectiveness to a degree.   

The game does dole out points/in-game currency after each match, but the amount seemed on the lower end, so that it took more and more matches to scrape together enough to buy another crate. After finally getting enough crafting parts, which are also tied to loot crates and upgrading extras (like a double-zoom scope or extended ability times) I was able to create specific desired attachments and the like for a few of the classes I used the most. This is all without the possibility of spending real money to receive a whole bunch of loot at once, increasing the chance that you’ll get a sought-after upgrade, and thus a tangible advantage over others who don’t pony up. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out at launch, but it’s not a good sign overall for now. The issue of loot crates et al. I realize is a current industry hot-button topic, and this example is just one of a few recently that highlights the root problem and keeping in mind this was the Beta, it’s possible and even likely some tweaks will be made before full launch in November. Nevertheless, it’s a shall we say… DICE-y proposition at the moment.

Overall though, the Beta did get me more excited than I originally thought I’d be for Battlefront II, especially with the prospect of having a solo campaign as well to play through. (Similar to Titanfall 2 vs. 1 that lacked a single-player option.) I’m likely to get it now at launch and hopefully join up with some other friends to destroy/save the galaxy and be heavily entertained doing so. It will also be a great case study to see how the above mentioned lootbox quagmire shakes down in what is certainly going to be a huge game in terms of both polarizing the issue and general popularity due to its association with one of the most recognizable franchises on this planet. For now, I’m going to go back to hiding in my gutted bantha, or was it a tauntaun? Whatever, until next time my friends.

-Scott Thurlow

Summer Games Drought Wrap Up

The summer games came blowing in...

The summer games came blowing in...

8/4/2017

It’s the heart of summer, the time when traditionally as the temperature rises, so does my desire to cloister myself away in a cold room playing games, while conversely the number of major releases trickles and dries up to match the scorched earth outside. So, in that spirit I’m going to cover a handful of titles that I’ve been playing since this effect kicked in and give my overall impressions etc. of them. [Slight spoilers ahead]


Let’s start with one that I remember being enthusiastic about when it was announced-- Perception. Developed by The Deep End Games, which was founded by former members of Irrational Games, who some might recall worked on the BioShock games. Touted as a walking-sim where the central conception and mechanic centers on playing as a blind woman named Cassie, who makes use of a Daredevil-like echolocation system to navigate and uncover the secrets within a creepy New England mansion that seemed to call to her in dreams, the premise seemed solid in theory. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. While it is admirable to represent a character who lacks what may be our most important sensory input system to convey a heightened feeling of unsettling confusion in a strange and possibly supernaturally tinged setting, what it translates to in gameplay is having to constantly tap Cassie’s cane on the surrounding environment every 30 seconds, or else be plunged into utter darkness. This may very well be effective at replicating what it would be like to live as a blind person, but in terms of gameplay, it quickly becomes repetitive and annoying, especially since the field of view revealed when using Cassie’s “sixth sense” is fairly limited and thus it is quite easy to become lost in the mostly same looking rooms and corridors.

Compounding this is the fact that the “Presence,” the aforementioned supernatural element, hunts Cassie based on the amount of sound she makes, so that one must either stop using the core sight mechanic to bumble around in the dark for a minute or two before the Presence goes away, or resign to being caught and restarting checkpoints that are sometimes few and far between. There is the obligatory hide-in-closet or under-bed option, but this requires Cassie to echolocate an appropriate spot first, which afterwards are indicated by a green glow amidst the impenetrable black so that again it is often unclear which direction or room it actually lies in when attempting to evade the Presence in a tense moment.

Perception’s level design is spotty at best, and the same can be said of the overall story. Most might know that I’m a sucker for Lovecraftian-inspired tales, and at the outset Perception seems to be going for that, but by the second chapter (out of four total) it becomes clear it’s just another ghost story, retreading and mining the infamous Salem witch trials to make it seem deeper than it actually is. The credits indicate that the story was based on a supposed true tale of an ancestor of one of the lead developers, and again while that may be interesting in theory, in practicality it doesn’t necessarily make for an engaging or satisfying narrative. Here’s hoping their next release learns from the pitfalls that I perceived to be in Perception.

 

Next up is Prey. Or as I described it: Deus Honored: IsolationShock. Ostensibly intended to be a “soft reboot/remake” of the original title, although due to its stay in development hell earlier, the final release has almost nothing to do with the 2006 title. Nevertheless, it was highly anticipated, as Arkane Studios (who worked on the first two Dishonored games) was given the project with Bethesda set to publish, which looked like a winning combination. And it very much is.

As might be gathered from my semi-tongue-in-cheek summary, Prey borrows chunks from all of the above games and stitches them together into a very enjoyable FPS sci-fi/horror experience that, if not completely unique, manages to spruce things up enough to create a Frankenstein’s monster of a game that is quite alive indeed. With RPG-like elements including both human enhancements and alien powers sometimes similar to (but never exact copies of) those from Dishonored combined with weapon upgrades, zero gravity sections and crafting systems all seamlessly working together, exploring and fighting through the Talos I installation is a tense and satisfying experience. Throw in some interesting alternate history backstory, such as J.F.K. surviving his assassination attempt, leading to an accelerated space race and eventual cooperation between a united U.S. and Russia against an encroaching alien threat that shows up precisely due to humans’ earlier presence in space, and it’s all a recipe for a damn good time.

Prey does attempt a mind-bending plot twist or two, and although it isn’t able to introduce anything truly jaw-dropping, it does sustain enough solid ideas scattered throughout which culminate in a more surprising and less bog-standard ending than what might be expected on the surface. It’s like discovering a newer movie or TV show that clearly owes a lot of its design cues to earlier works, but is quality largely because of that exact fact. All in all Prey does a great job of taking a familiar setting (derelict space station,) framework (human vs. alien,) and mechanics (scavenge/craft/upgrade/kick more ass/repeat) to produce one of the best FPS I’ve played this year. Definitely recommended and as of this time, there is promised (though details are unspecified) DLC which I’m quite looking forward to.

 

Now onto Gwent (still in public beta)- Based on the Collectible Card-like mini-game from Witcher 3 which garnered enough popularity that CD Projekt Red, responding to their fans’ passion in true fashion, decided to make it a fully fleshed out standalone product. For me it’s been the Witcher 3: Collectible Crack Game. Granted, I possess a huge bias and nostalgia for CCGs in general, and have become a big fan of the Witcher series as a whole, so attempting to ignore my blinders, I would still say Gwent is a blast. Any other developer would’ve likely just jerked off a cut-rate sub-par game to cash in a cheap and easy spinoff from its flagship franchise, but CDPR as usual went above and beyond to make an immensely robust online CCG on both the competitive and casual fronts. I found myself playing many rounds of it between/instead of other responsibilities (like for example writing more articles.)

The artwork first and foremost is top-notch, and there’s even an option to upgrade (or in game terms “transmute”) your cards to animate them. Which on top of being just plain cool to see, doubles as a sort of a status symbol, since you can show off your favorite/most played units after tweaking a deck to perfection. Addressing the kayran in the sea-- yes, while there is what some may call a “pay-to-win” aspect, i.e. you can spend real money for more in-game resources to buy card barrels (read: booster packs) and craft/transmute higher level/cost cards at a faster rate, I haven’t found this particular system to be broken or overly unbalanced, as the matchmaking (both casual and ranked) does a fair job of making sure you’ll be dueling evenly matched opponents often, and powerful ones only occasionally (mostly due to the available player pool at any given time.) Speaking of the matchmaking, I’ve found it to be broadly reliable, rarely encountering issues or interruptions during the hundreds of matches I must have played at this point.

If you’re into CCGs and/or the Witcher, or even better, both, Gwent is a ton of fun that can be consumed in small doses (matches usually last about 15 minutes on average) but also has the depth and range of a truly well-done game within the genre to be long lasting. When it eventually moves out of beta and into open public, I can see it rivaling even the likes of Hearthstone within the CCG domain.

 

Lastly, I picked up Get Even, whose elevator pitch might well have been something along the lines of “Amnesiac Liam Neeson ripoff gets cool gun while in his fractured memories.” Ironically, my initial impressions thus far find it a bit uneven in terms of gameplay and plot. I would estimate I’m about 55-65% through, and while it does have an intriguing setup, it seems to suffer, again almost ironically, from a sense of schizophrenia. For example, one of the core shooting mechanics provides a ‘CornerGun’, which allows Liam Neeson, I mean, “Cole Black” vision around cover at 90 degree angles and enables the possibility of eliminating foes from behind corners with various upgrades that progressively unlock as you delve further into the Memento-meets-Taken-in-VR themed storyline.

That’s a great idea, were it not for the fact that the game itself slaps you repeatedly for killing what amounts to non-existent adversaries. As it’s established early on, the action is filtered through a near-future VR framework, rendering the faux morality it attempts to impose completely moot. It is difficult to be invested in the lasting consequences of murdering a digitally projected construct already, and when a game’s narrative itself shows us the enemies are all just illusions while simultaneously telling us that we shouldn’t kill them because of…reasons, it’s even less impactful and more confusing. I suppose if a later reveal is something along the lines of ‘but actually they were real all along!’ it may carry some weight, but at that point, the way the characters and plot have been laid out so far, I’d say the effect would be minimal.

Aside from that possible poster case of ludonarrative dissonance, there’s nothing to really complain heavily about nor particularly praise. The writing is serviceable, as are the controls. There is also a bit of a Condemned component, having Cole use a smartphone to scan the environment for evidence and find collectibles/clues, but again it’s all just kind of there. It works, but doesn’t stand out. As I said, I still have a bit to get through in Get Even, and it’s narrowly possible that it will manage to pull off something truly surprising/effective in the end (in which case perhaps I’ll have to retroactively retract some of this) but as it is, I’m not betting on it.

So, that’s my summer of games so far and what I thought of them. There is one more title that I recently purchased and have yet to start, but am looking forward to- Little Nightmares, which has garnered good reviews that I’ve seen and at the very least the art/animation style looks right in line with my tastes. But from amongst the above, I would say check out Prey if you’ve got more downtime (as I neglected to mention that it’s probably a 40-hour or so game) and if you’re looking for something quicker and don’t mind CCGs, get yourself the (free) beta of Gwent and start dueling.

I’ll be waiting for the slew of releases to start hitting in October, just in time to spend my winter hibernating in a warm room, playing games.  

-Scott Thurlow

What Remains of Outlast 2

Should you stay or should you go?

Should you stay or should you go?

5/4/2017

Been a few rounds since my last post, so I figured it’s time to cobble something together on two recently released and very broadly related games from last week-- in the same way grey wolves are broadly related to labradoodles-- Outlast 2 and What Remains of Edith Finch. This will be a sort of mashup review/commentary on both, with slight spoilers although nothing too in depth, since for reasons that will shortly become clear, one of these games deserves to be played and the other just sort of exists, filling the space between our inevitable exit into eternal darkness. The theme of death then, is something both titles on the surface have in common, although each approaches it from a quite different angle. So here’s what I thought of them-- what worked, what didn’t, and why.

First, What Remains of Edith Finch, the second release by developer Giant Sparrow, previously acclaimed for The Unfinished Swan (which I played a bit of but was underwhelmed by. Fellow Lost Signal J. Ian Manczur quite enjoyed it though, so take that as you will.) Falling under the "walking sim” label, or as the pretentious might describe: “interactive narrative game experience,” Edith Finch combines components of games like Gone Home and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, with maybe a bit of Dear Esther throw in for good measure, but without necessarily outright copying any of these. Rather, it marks a leap forward and step up in the genre, keeping the core conventions intact but adding a healthy dose of imagination and clever design to weave together the bittersweet chronicle of a family whose members over the years have seemingly been plagued by a series of rather unfortunate events ultimately leading to their untimely deaths.

Edith Finch manages to do a lot with a little. Every story of the tragic end of a Finch has its own feel and personality that reflects that of the member it represents as it unfolds, and this is further mirrored in the mechanics of each. The art styles both overall and as applied to the individual stories are perfectly suited to match the narrative tone throughout. Some are stronger/more memorable than others to be sure, but all have something to mark them as distinct, so that taken together they create a collage of melancholic tales rather than retreading one single defining feature for the 6 or so hours it takes to see them all. It’s difficult to comment much further without major spoilers, so just take my vague word for it, if you’re into these types of games, Edith Finch cements itself as one of the best thus far.

Now that it’s probably clear which game is which in the recommend category, let’s move onto Outlast 2, Red Barrels’ followup to the largely successful Outlast. Longtime followers may know I’m a big fan of horror in all media generally and more so in the gaming sector. I liked Outlast a lot and gave it a few playthroughs at the time. Thus I was very much looking forward to 2. First impressions were mainly positive-- the plot hits the ground running pretty hard and fast, establishing an early rock solid atmosphere and for lack of better term, gore/grotesquery accoutrements design. The rural Arizona farm setting is well realized aesthetically and largely immersive if not completely original. I can also respect its ballsy attempts to comment on and depict the darker side of religion, specifically Christianity/Catholicism. These elements though are eventually shoved so relentlessly in your face that it almost becomes satire territory.

On the gameplay side, there are a handful of quirky design choices that more often than not fall flat. The biggest thorn that comes to mind being the checkpoint system. A number of times, O2 reset me at spots where it was extremely difficult to escape a one-hit kill, throwing me into annoying loops of almost near-instant loss scenarios. God may forgive, but when this happened multiple times, all sense of tension and fun evaporated, and in an ostensible horror game, I cannot.

However, since respawning also resets health and camera battery level, it's an easy/cheap abusable exploit to run trial and error paths at other times and then purposely die so as to regain those resources. Often it forces one to do this anyway, at various points of frustrating attempts to navigate where the game wants you to go without much direction and little indication of the difference between which pieces of scenery/rendered objects are interactable vs. simply window dressing.

Because of the above, in my entire playthrough, I never had to use more than 3 bandages max and had a large stockpile of batteries midway through. There’s also an underused mechanic of listening for nearby creeping footsteps via the camera sound pickup, but I found I hardly needed this. It drains battery on top of the more frequently used and helpful night-vision, so that one might as well forgo it completely. Additionally, I found myself inadvertently creating amusing instances of ludonarrative dissonance, wherein I was going through a sequence which the game clearly wanted to impart urgency to, but which I interrupted at points looking for collectibles along the way in side rooms. “Excuse me, demented cultist, while I record footage of some of your previous victims...there, now you may resume chasing me.”  

O2's length is about twice that of Outlast. Due to this some of its ideas begin to noticeably stretch thin vs. the compact running time of the first. Apparently there also is a plot point/note (collectible?) that explains a large missing piece of information pertinent to what's happening and why, but I learned this through an outside recap and not in my initial playthrough, so that if it was truly meant to be impactful/important to add to the story, it was seemingly missable/optional. Given that, and even after learning of this detail, the question I ended up asking was: what is it actually saying about all of this? Your guess is probably as good as mine. Overall, O2 was decent but didn’t reach any new heights of horror. Red Barrels delivers some satisfaction, but along with that come odd and unintuitive decisions that detract from the total experience. RE7 was still much better.

So there you go minions, if trying to decide on what game to play between these two, go for the surreal experience of dark whimsy in What Remains of Edith Finch. And if you feel like playing through some grittily atmospheric but ultimately baffling torture-porn, try Outlast 2. In the meantime, I wait dreaming in the depths for the Call of Cthulhu game to hopefully release this winter.

-Scott Thurlow

GAME DEVELOPERS CHOICE AWARDS: 2017 WINNERS

The winners actually are... (image via http://gamechoiceawards.com/

The winners actually are... (image via http://gamechoiceawards.com/

3/2/2017

Back in January the GDC announced their 2017 game award nominees and I went through a few of the categories, going over the games I thought would win in each as well as the ones I thought should in fact win. Yesterday the actual winners were announced, so now it is time of course to recap, see how I fared in retrospect, and give my final thoughts in the aftermath.

Best Audio

My pick: DOOM

GDC:  Inside

I haven't gotten around to playing Inside, though I am planning to (eventually) and know mostly what it's about. Having said that and being unable to comment directly on its audio design, I still think DOOM has the perfect bombastic soundtrack/audio design for what it is, and it would've been nice for it to have a nod, but I suppose you can't kill every demon all the time.  

Best Debut

My pick: Hyper Light Drifter

GDC:  Firewatch

As I mentioned in the original breakdown, Hyper Light Drifter would've been great to see recognized here, but Firewatch is an excellent choice too and a well-deserved win. I'm very much looking forward to developer Campo Santo's next game to follow in similar footsteps, and if so they look to have a bright future ahead of them.

Best Design

My pick: Dishonored 2

GDC:  Overwatch 

Spoiler: Overwatch won Game of the Year, and usually the game which does that wins design, so there it is. Again I must refrain from commenting much further since online competitive shooters aren't really my bag these days, so I'll only reiterate that I think Dishonored 2's design is top-notch and should certainly be played/appreciated. 

Innovation Award

My pick: Firewatch

GDC:  No Man’s Sky

I'm somewhat torn on this one, only because while I understand why No Man's Sky took this category, perhaps the controversy surrounding it should be kept in mind, wherein complaints regarding exactly how much "innovation" was promised vs. what the final release contained somewhat marred the game in general. Firewatch ended up snagging another just below, so in the end I don't think it's necessarily a snub.  

Narrative

My pick: Uncharted 4

GDC: Firewatch

Firewatch strikes again and I'm more than fine with that. I had words to say about Uncharted 4 and specifically its narrative, but at the time of the nominee announcement I thought it was the standard party-line to receive this one, so again it's nice to see some underdog recognition, and maybe in light of this, underdog no more. 

Audience Award

My pick: Stardew Valley 

GDC:  Battlefield 1

This one I was less sure of in general, but perhaps in retrospect Battlefield is more obvious. I know Stardew has a dedicated fanbase, but ala Overwatch etc. the online competitive shooter scene is much larger in comparison. Based on all accounts, Battlefield is indeed well crafted, so good on ya DICE and your numerous fans. 

Game of the Year

My pick: Overwatch

GDC:  Overwatch

One last time...I haven't played Overwatch nor am likely ever to, I just pay attention to the trends and there was almost no way it wasn't going to get GOTY here. So-called it! My personal pick of games I did play and thought were GOTY contenders from among the nominees was Dishonored 2.

That's pretty much it from me on the GDCAs. Overall I'm satisfied with a majority of the awards and if 2017's games are any indication thus far, it is shaping up to be even an even stronger year. Once more I will elaborate on my own top picks and more when Syntax Error season 3 premiers later this month. See you then,

 -Scott Thurlow

 

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard: Evil Comes Home

Knock knock. (image via The Escapist)

Knock knock. (image via The Escapist)

2/2/2017

It’s been slightly over a week since Resident Evil 7: Biohazard released, shipping 2.5 million copies in that time, and all I have to say is- goddamned right. Headshots off to Capcom for finally giving us a Resident Evil that returns to its survival horror origins. RE7 is a triumph, taking a spot in the higher tier of the series’ long and sometimes shaky history. But make no mistake, RE7 simultaneously recaptures its former glory and capitalizes on more modern conventions in the best way.

After the all-out, but ultimately asinine, action and storylines of RE5 and 6, Capcom and co. finally deliver a title that feels truer to the nature of the franchise than anything else put out under the name in years. While Revelations 2 did edge a bit closer, there was nothing standout about it in the end and many fans, including myself, were left with a sense that the series was still lacking a concrete direction.

Then Capcom announced a new numbered entry back at 2016’s E3, along with a few details, chief among them being the switch to first-person view and a self-proclaimed intention to invoke the style of the early originals. Many fans then, including myself, began to cautiously, but hopefully, conjecture that this would indeed be the revitalization RE sorely needed. Let me emphasize- it is exactly that, and whatever reservations lingered until now, be assured this is both the Resident Evil we remember and wanted.

In true fashion however, the road to this point was rocky. After an oddly handled teaser/trailer, one which Capcom inexplicably updated three times while only changing minor items, there was still more confusion than excitement. With so little to go on, the question of if and how Capcom could pull it off remained. Having spent the better part of a week with RE7, my answer is- perfectly, as planned.

I don’t wish to spoil or give too much away, because it should definitely be played fresh. Most of what I will mention below was part of the pre-release gameplay/marketing information available, however I cannot avoid going into a few further gameplay/mechanic/slight plot details in order to explain why I think this game works so well, so consider yourself warned.

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For starters RE7 requires barely any knowledge of previous titles. There is a broad overarching connection to the existing cannon, but it is not necessary information to understand or enjoy the core story. This is the first sign of intelligent and informed design, making it both immediately accessible to any newcomers as well as giving long-time fans a reason to be invested without feeling like this is a cheap knock-off or cash-in that the RE name was randomly slapped onto (as has been the case before, re: Umbrella Corps.)

From its outset RE7, has a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe, though never devolving into outright parody or cliché. Set not in any exotic locale or bloated/sprawling underground Umbrella installation, but rather in the backwater swamp of a sleepy Louisiana homestead, the all-important sensation of isolation is instantly conveyed. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the spot, the Baker family, serve as the primary antagonists who present excellently frightening and deranged foes each time you encounter one of them during the course of the game. Likewise the ‘Molded’ creatures that nest sporadically throughout, ready to ooze through the floors and walls right when your guard is down; sparking flashes of panic upon hearing one form, realizing at the last second that it’s actually behind you as you whirl around hoping to have enough time to get a shot off before booking it the fuck out of the room frantically closing any open doors between you and it along the way, searching desperately for a hiding spot so as not to expend any more precious shotgun shells because you know more Molded are now spawning somewhere nearby and all the while just trying not to die!

Scenarios like the above serve to exemplify how and why RE7 achieves its goals as related to its gaming pedigree and history as a whole. It is able to successfully revive and impart that trademark claustrophobic tension, that vague sense of encroaching dread punctuated periodically by razor sharp sections of action that at its best the series was a master of attaining, all without resorting to predictable or tired jump scares. It feels as fresh here as it did originally, and sets a high benchmark for the series.

Everyman protagonist Ethan Winters is not the trained soldier Leon Kennedy or Chris Redfield are. He moves and reloads more slowly and sometimes awkwardly, making the player feel truly vulnerable. Weapons have a realistic heft and weight to wielding them that adds to this. Due to the viewpoint, it’s more difficult than ever to see what might be lurking around a corner or section of a location without exposing Ethan to danger in the process, and that makes for top-notch survival horror in the truest definition. This switch to first-person may initially seem at odds with what RE is traditionally known for, but it’s a smart move that transitions smoothly, retaining a constant unease while adding a layer of immersion that was previously absent. Taken together, they create an unsettling but viscerally satisfying experience, seamlessly oscillating between intense and cathartic at any given moment.

Sound design must be mentioned as the unsung hero and standout star of RE7 (as we decreed all good horror games should be to some degree) with so many other elements fitted to exploit the expert application of appropriate auditory arrangement; the places in RE7 themselves become alive. The effect is startling once noticed and a slowly dripping bathtub full of blood’s worth of credit should be given to how well it’s integrated everywhere in the game, producing a fantastic blend of subtle but unnerving atmosphere.

RE7 handles the more classic components deftly as well. Resource collecting and management is as streamlined and tight as ever. Safe rooms are scattered variously to save and store excess items in. Keeping a close eye on ammo/health is vital. The addition of a finely implemented crafting system gives every combinable item scavenged the potential to be made into something both useful and novel for a RE game; nothing is wasted.

Among the (few) complaints I’ve seen leveraged against it accused the puzzles of being dumbed down. Though I agree they are simple, I would argue it’s again good design to keep the player going forward vs. forcibly halting them in an attempt to solve too obtuse an obstacle, and thus risk losing any momentum built to that point. The ubiquitous search for bizarrely themed keys is here, but these sections also act as a breathing space between disturbing main boss battles, plot development, and fight-or-flight, combat-or-not encounters.  

Finally, multiple playthroughs to find different items and secrets, and even interesting, alternate ways to fight or evade enemies add to replay value without the old annoyance of being spread over mostly retreaded cross-plotlines of other characters. The game is admittedly shorter, but at the same time that means no filler. It leaves plenty of room for any who wish to delve into RE7 again in search of something that might’ve been missed earlier, or try their hand in the campaign after unlocking the highest difficulty setting for an old-school hardcore challenge.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been this...animated about anything, let alone a new game entry in a series with 20 years of baggage both positive and negative attached to it, but RE7 has brought me to such a point. Although I might stop short (for now) of going so far as to call it an instant classic like RE4, in my eyes it definitely deserves the high praise it’s been receiving and has earned its place as a worthy addition. Resident Evil-- welcome home indeed.   

-Scott Thurlow

 

Game Developers Choice Awards: 2017 Nominees

And the other winner is...

And the other winner is...

1/10/2017

The GDC recently announced its nominees for the 2017 awards, which will be held March 1. Separate from simply The Game Awards back in December, one can perhaps argue the GDCAs are more 'prestigious' although I think that's somewhat of a false dichotomy. They share many of the same games, and I'm fairly certain I can predict what will win vs. what games I think should've actually won in a number of categories, and as is my wont, I shall do so now.

Just a quick caveat to keep in mind before diving in: I'm only going through a few of the categories of interest to me, and basing my assessment both on what I think the industry will swing toward as well as the titles I actually played so far this year. And as per tradition, Syntax Error season 3 will debut with our picks of the top games of the year, at the end of March after the GDCAs. 

So load up and here we go: Starting with Best Audio, I don't see how DOOM can't win, but I suppose it's possible it'll go to Overwatch simply because it's seemingly become the darling game of this year, but one which I must refrain commenting on since I didn't play any of it. DOOM's score though is the perfect compliment to the nonstop action of the game and certainly deserves it in my eyes.

Best Debut is a tougher one, and I'll take a moment here to salute the GDCAs for having both a better represented field than The Game Awards and for listing a number of honorable mentions in each category that I could easily see making the actual nominees in many cases. Overall, my pick for this would be Heart Machine's Hyper Light Drifter, especially given the circumstances of its development. However I wouldn't be disappointed and/or surprised if Firewatch won, as it's also garnered a lot of attention since release and is an excellent opening title from developer Campo Santo as well. Stardew Valley might be a strong third and definite fan favorite, giving it a chance at taking the Audience Award, but I don't think it's enough to grab the win here. 

Best Design is another tight race, but as I mentioned Overwatch has so much momentum going into this, that if it wins GOTY then it almost certainly will win here too. I would choose Dishonored 2 since that has quickly become a frontrunner in my personal list for best games and specifically due in large part to its design. If DOOM doesn't win for audio, then it should definitely be recognized here, as its level design is similarly top-notch.

The Innovation award is kind of an odd one, being a more vague category, but from among the list, it's likely Inside will snag it, which I have no problem with, but again I think Firewatch is very strong in this aspect and also would be a fine choice.

Best Narrative is one I'm always closely interested in. Uncharted 4 looks to be the best bet, not hurt by the fact it already won in the GAs, but I could see it also going to either Firewatch or Inside here, as they look to be battling each other in every category they're both up for.

Finally we come to the MVP of 2016: Game of the Year. Overwatch is all but a lock for this, with Uncharted 4 the obvious second. Firewatch and Inside continue their wrestling match, but I think it's more likely they will win elsewhere at least once but not quite make GOTY. For myself, Dishonored 2 is everything I think a GOTY title should be, and although I don't think it will win at the GDCAs based on this list, I will certainly have more to say about it on our episode. 

Among the honorable mentions, Titanfall 2 was listed for three categories (audio, design, and GOTY) and having just recently gotten around to playing it, I think it either should have outright been nominated for at least one of those, and in a less strong year might've had a better chance at being included and possibly winning (most likely for design if I had to choose.)

So, there have you have the GCD 2017 nominees and my predictions/evaluation of them. 2016 was in my opinion a much better year for games than last, and the lists reflect the high quality of titles that were released. Stay tuned as always for the right opinion, i.e. mine, and I'll see you all in the next match.   

-Scott Thurlow

 

Westworld: "This Place is the Future"

He found...something else.

He found...something else.

 

[Spoilers for Westworld Season 1]

12/14/2016

Westworld drew the curtain on its opening season the other week (in a rather dramatic and devastating manner) and we covered some of the interesting philosophical implications contained in it on our review. Throughout the season and leading up the finale, there were also a great many things written, said, theorized and discussed about the show and its intricacies. While all of these subjects are certainly pertinent and intellectually pleasing to ponder, I wanted to explore a specific one that we touched on but didn’t delve into all that much, and tie it into videogaming as encapsulated by the above quote spoken by a young William in his first visit to Westworld. A while back on Syntax Error, we raised a number of open ended questions attached to how Virtual Reality technology will actually affect us in various ways once we assume it is possible to achieve.

Although never outright stated, to me it was somewhat implied that in the world of the show, outside of the park itself, the rest of the population’s entertainment is something like the highest possible level of currently available real world at-home VR. The masses have their console equivalents to satisfy their gaming hobby, meanwhile, only the upper echelon of wealthy elite can afford a trip to Westworld itself. If we are to believe what the show tells us, then early on it’s stated that a vacation at Westworld costs 40k a day, and that was ostensibly 30-some years prior to the present events of the plot. So extrapolating on that as a basis, one can conclude that a trip there is very costly indeed. Which is amusing in the sense that, in this setting, what is essentially live action role playing (or LARPing as often used in negative context in our modern times, thought to be only enacted by the hardiest of hardcore nerds) has become the purview of the privileged, professional few.  

The idea of Westworld seems to be the next logical step up from what I’ll call “day-to-day” VR; a real life simulation populated by fully functioning lifelike synthetic beings in a carefully  programmed world within which there are no lasting consequences for actions taken by any given human guest of the park. William, and we viewers, see this in the nature of the lives that the android “hosts” of Westworld live out. The NPCs are as real as can be in this place. As William initially becomes infatuated and even starts a relationship with one of the attractive hosts, Dolores, he finds himself drawn into the world more and more until eventually it becomes “more real” than his outside life.

Thus, over time, the naive, sympathetic, well-meaning character of William turns into the ominous and callous Man in Black after coming to a revelation “among the dead” about what kind of person he discovered himself to be. As his former friend Logan observes after witnessing his transformation, “I told you this place would show you who you really are.” At that moment he, and we, truly experience the potential this type of scenario has and what paths it may lead one down.

William goes on to create his own identity and character, remarking 30 years down the line to the designer of the entire endeavour, Dr. Ford, that he always felt the park to be lacking a “real villain,” hence his own “humble contribution.” It’s additionally revealed that his real-world wife later committed suicide after discovering what he was really up to on all those “business” trips to the park that he convinced his company to buy. If that wasn’t the breaking point before, it surely was after, as he relays the tale of his decision to commit a “truly” evil act; that of murdering a host child in front of her mother, Maeve (whose own arc is interesting in and of itself but is not the focus here) in an attempt to feel again in the wake of that loss. The audience has now shared the ride with William and saw where he was led by the rules, or lack thereof, allowed by Westworld throughout his life.

By this point, he has seen and done almost all there is to do; encountered every narrative adventure (read: side quest) and terrorized the hosts in whatever manner his whims decided. He owns the park and knows every trick in it, save one-“The Maze.” William has since become obsessed with searching for another, deeper (and perhaps humorously as I took it-- attempting to unlock a final difficulty setting) level to the game that he thinks is hidden under the surface, one in which there are consequences and real danger for the guests of the park. He never finds it of course, as the Maze is simply a metaphor for the hosts gaining self-awareness and actualizing their own consciousness. It might even be argued he has perhaps helped Dolores to unlock her own maze, and consequently unwittingly found himself in the center of it. Her self-actualization has, in fact, made it so ‘there are consequences and real danger for the guests’. Nevertheless, William has already found the center to his personal maze, and in fact cannot escape it.

The greater issue is that William could be any of us. He mentions to Dolores that business is booming in the park, implying a high demand for the experience. It is therefore the slipperiest of slopes, for if/when (more likely “when”) we are presented with such a world/scenario en masse, it inevitably will raise the questions of who or what we would turn into if we could get away with murder, etc. without repercussions. Would we view the victims of our dark deeds as less than human, seduced by the illusion only to find out they are actually more human...than human, while all the while we were conditioned to be something... less than a man? The answer remains to be seen of course, but as it approaches faster than ever, I for one eagerly await to see what the “Westworld” of our era will be, because whatever it may resemble, that place will be the future.

- Scott Thurlow

 

 

The Game Awards: 2016

And for the win...

And for the win...

12/2/2016

The Game Awards for 2016 were announced earlier today, so it's time to take a look at the winners in a few of the categories I'm particularly interested in. I'm going to just focus on those specific ones, but you can check out the full list here.

The big one, Game of the Year, went to Overwatch. Cool, I suppose. Haven't played a single second of it nor am I planning to do so, thus I can't really comment on the game itself (and also can't use the throwaway joke of it being Over-rated. Er, wait...) Instead, looking at the list of other nominees, I think it was sort of a weak field Over-all (that's better.)  From among those that did get a nod, I would've chosen DOOM. However, this will be covered more fully when Syntax Error returns in the coming season and we list off our own picks for top games of 2016.

Overwatch also took Best Game Direction, which is like winning best picture and best director, so no real surprise there either. My personal pick from the games in that field would be Uncharted 4, although again I think a few other games are woefully absent from the list. Speaking of though, Uncharted 4 did take Best Narrative, but the trend continues, as excepting Firewatch, there wasn't much competition in the category. 

DOOM did manage to secure a nice double kill by taking both Best Action Game and Best Sound/Music, and deservedly so. Shooting demons from hell is indeed made all the better for having a hardcore metal-ish soundscape to accompany the slaughter, and that my friends is action which goes to 11. Good choice, VGAs. 

Next up is Best Performance, where Uncharted 4 returns as perennial fan favorite Nolan North gets the win for his swansong role voicing Nathan Drake. Fine again, sure, he's always solidly reliable, but there were also two other actors from U4 up for this one, as well as two from Firewatch. Although to be fair, there were only two actual characters in that game. Still, my choice would've been Cissy Jones for her subtle but charming portrayal of Delilah in it. 

Best Independent Game is always a good one, and probably has the strongest field of picks within. While I do think Hyper Light Drifter should've gotten it easily, I can also see why Inside actually did, and judge it to be mostly acceptable.

The final two categories of interest to me are Best Action/Adventure and Best RPG. I've always found it a bit odd that 'action' and 'action/adventure' are separate, but I'll roll with it, since a game which I greatly enjoyed takes top spot: Dishonored 2. Definitely worthy. Hyper Light Drifter gets, I won't say snubbed, because I don't think it was better than D2, just that I would've liked to see it win one of the things it was up for. 

Finally, Best RPG went to Blood & Wine, the final DLC from The Witcher 3. A bit strange for a DLC from this year that was for a game from last year to a) be nominated as its own game apparently, and b) win while being attached to the original game which itself already won a host of 2015 awards, including Game of the Year. Some Geralt-style Axii magic going on it seems. To be clear, I did also vote W3 best game last year, and Blood & Wine was fantastic, but here is where I'll call snubbery, as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was in the running for this one and should've absolutely gotten it instead. Maybe without the above mentioned weird loophole, it would've. 

Anyway, there you have my pretentious take on (some of) the official awards for 2016. As I mentioned at the start, stay tuned for season 3 of Syntax Error where we'll kickoff by doing our own list. In the meantime, you can check our 2015 choices, and may all your bullets/arrows/knives/magic missiles find a rival head to rest in.

-Scott Thurlow