XCOM 2: The Turn Based Strategy I Needed

I pre-ordered XCOM2 about a month before Christmas for myself, my brother, and close friends. I had only seen one teaser for it and admittedly had only a moderate interest level. I grew up with XCOM and spent hours sending my blonde mo-hawked men into silver UFOs to get shot. It was never a game that I excelled at because I was too young and it was too complex back then. XCOM Enemy Unknown and XCOM2 have both done an amazing job revitalizing the game and giving old fans (like myself) more.

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I don’t play a ton of turn-based strategies. I was playing Shadowrun: Returns last month but XCOM2 got me a lot more involved in every single action. Alien Activity have always been two words that make me sit, unblinking and tensing every part of my body until I was sure none of my friends and family died that minute. Yes, I said friends and family. When XCOM Enemy Unknown became popular and I was able to hear from more people who played the XCOM franchise, I learned I was not the only one who enjoyed renaming and customizing characters to resemble family and close friends. There was something so much more meaningful, and painful, about taking someone you trust into battle and trying not to get them killed by aliens.

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In XCOM2, there is surprisingly even more customization than Enemy Unknown. I am a huge fan of the game offering more content in this area. There are so many gratuitous closeups and cinematic kill angles when you take an action that allow you to take a moment from being ultimately STRESSED to just sit back and watch an alien get utterly destroyed. It may sound like a small thing, but allowing you those few seconds of reveling in the reward of a successful kill makes it all worth while.

Customization options allow you to change everything from what their armor components look like (e.g. arms, legs, torso), accessories, and tattoos which are earned. You can now give their weapons names, patterns, and color. After spending 10 minutes customizing one soldier, I was extremely relieved to find the “Save to Character Pool” button. Yes, the game takes pity on you and says, “We know you will reload 100 times to not lose all of this hard work. Here, we pity you.”

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Your soldiers all start off as Rookies and individually level up when they get kills in battle. They are automatically assigned a “class” after their first promotion and then you get to choose their specialization as they grow. You can stick to 1 skill tree or dabble in both depending on your play style. A lot of times, I would get skills and forget about them only to be surprisingly rewarded in battle later. Battle gets increasingly more fun as your soldiers level up because your men become stronger in ways that cater to how you play. I keep a sniper or two in the back and send in rangers to do a lot of flanking damage. I also love to bring a medic along and someone to hack the shit out of robots.

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There is also this new loading screen to and from missions that have your soldiers sitting in the Skyranger looking extremely badass. On the way to a mission, it tells you a summary and where you’re going. On the way back, you get some highlight statistics from the mission and MVP charts for a few select feats like who dealt the most damage. Again, it’s just another really nice touch that allows you to admire your team of soldiers and feel more attached to them. It really does motivate you to make smart decisions in battle… and reload 100 times.

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The one thing I really can’t bring myself to care much about with XCOM2 is the story. I always find myself clicking through the little cutscenes in which you are talking to the doctor or engineer. I just don’t even need the plot with the rapidly developing alien technology and how they’re retaliating to enjoy the game. I just want to skip through it all to get into missions quicker. I haven’t beaten the game yet but I already look forward to trying an Ironman playthrough (no save scumming allowed). If I never post again, it is because I am dead from jumping off of a bridge after missing a shot with 98% chance to hit.

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Warhammer Vermintide Gives New Life to the Ye Olde Gaming Tradition of Rat Killing

Warhammer Vermintide is the newest 4-player co-op game to consume my free hours of the eve as of late and it may be my favorite yet. I did not think it could happen, but I find myself enjoying this game more than I did many 4 player titles over the past several years. My friends and brother tend to team up to kick ass in 4 player games like we did in Left 4 Dead, Evolve, Payday 2, and Monaco. I had no idea what Vermintide was all about when it came out, but I took a swing at it after it was gifted to me by my benevolent friend and I have been slaying rats since.

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Red Moon Inn

Before you jump into the action, everyone gathers in the Red Moon Inn. It’s important to mention this part because it’s really a minor detail that makes a lot of difference in 4 player co op games. To have a virtual space to “relax” and recoop in feels like the missing element I always wanted. When you’re in a game like Payday 2 or Left 4 Dead, you’re just sitting looking at a menu with UI elements when you aren’t actively fighting your way through a level. It’s so much nicer to have a place to stand around in, swap out your gear, and show off your loot to other players before getting into things. Or, if you just need to take a break and breathe, you can hang out and take a few minutes while still allowing your teammates to forge equipment, upgrade, and use a shrine to “pray for loot”.

I love this touch. It also allows you a chance to get to know the characters a bit better because each of them have their own room made up to decor that suits their personality. You can learn a lot about a person by looking at their stuff.

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There are 13 different missions in the game that are filled with a variety of objectives to accomplish. The variety of events throughout missions really feel like tests to challenge the strength of a team. The number one challenge of the game is teamwork and sticking together to survive the random chaos! I feel like more and more games like this are coming out; games like this seem more fun and appealing if you have a group of people to play it with. If you can find some kind of steam group or online group to team up with if you don’t have enough friends who like to do this kind of thing, I highly recommend doing so.

Another in-game feature I really enjoy is the presence of collectibles in most levels called Tomes and Grimoires. When my friend was first explaining this aspect to me, it was one of the most appealing things. Tomes and Grimoires, when picked up, will replace the players’ inventory space where healing items and potions go. They are hidden in tough to get to places in levels that require solving short jumping puzzles. That is awesome for two reasons. One, it calls for level exploration that isn’t in the pursuit of getting to the end as soon as possible. Two, the players have to be confident enough in the team’s abilities to go out of their way  for them and sacrifice the inventory space!

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Loot phase. 

 

Possibly the best and worst part of the game is the loot phase. You get to press a button to roll dice. Now, I must say, I really really wish this worked like dice in the Witcher 2 in which you released the left mouse button as you moved your mouse to “throw” the dice and roll them. In Vermintide, you just click a button and they roll themselves. This feels a lot less satisfying because then you wind up feeling like it was out of your control. In the Witcher 2, if you accidentally rolled dice off of the table, tough luck! At least it felt like your fault. When you make it through a level in Vermintide with 3 tomes and 2 Grimoires just to roll a 2 or 3, it pretty much calls for an immediate ragequit.

I could just go on and on about this game. It’s pretty cheap at only 29.99 retail. I would gladly have paid a full 60 for this. If you love co-op games or just want to decapitate some rats, get this! Now! GO!

Davey Wreden Delivers an Intimate Story Game: The Beginner’s Guide

This is the kind of gaming experience that compels me to get my thoughts out about it because I have been thinking about it nonstop since I finished playing about 24 hours ago. The Beginner’s Guide is a first person narrative experience with minimal player interaction. Instead of keeping you busy with mechanics and enemies, a narrator (Davey Wreden) guides you through a compilation of games to tell you what he thinks of them and of his relationship with a person named “Coda”.

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There’s always a man. There’s always a CS map. 

Please excuse my bad Bioshock Infinite joke.

Anyway, the player moves from level to level seeing what appears to be the slow progression of a game designer becoming more skilled and honing their creativity through games. What starts of as some kind of strange analysis of his friend’s games turns into this concerning dilemma of what Davey wants and how the friend reacts through his creative medium.

Spoilers ahead in the next paragraph.

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One of the biggest feelings I took away from playing this was creative inspiration. I was blown away by some of the imagery that the levels presented. Starting in pure whiteness or darkness blew my mind. The manipulation of space that made everything seem so magical and temporary reminded me the power that games really have. At one point, you enter a room with floating text of many, many game ideas. It fascinated me. I felt like I was being shown drafts and wanted to take any one of his ideas and run with it.

I am in love with this concept of minimal control, walking-simulator style game that hits hard on delivering a certain feeling or idea. There will always be a place for AAA titles, yes, but now that games are so accessible on Steam it only seems right that personal games like this are emerging more and more.

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Davey Wreden took this compilation of games (or made them) to show us just how hard the creative process can be. He shows us how the desire for creative freedom can often juxtapose the “rules” that we take for granted in games. He makes us question tropes, puzzles, and solutions. I think the most powerful thing he did in The Beginner’s Guide was use 3D space to metaphorically explore the inner mind space of the developer. I felt privileged to be led by Davey through such personal experiences like growth, frustration, and isolation.

The Beginner’s Guide artfully explored new territory with this one. I hope to see more projects from him, and other creators, that deliver a similar “auteur” experience. If games like The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, and Jazzpunk were up your alley, don’t miss this one.

 

Among the Sleep: Psychological Thriller Meets Crawling Simulator

This weekend, I took a break from playing The Witcher 3 and finally installed and played Among the Sleep. As usual, I bought it during a Steam sale some time ago and never got around to it. My partner was perusing Steam games on Saturday and I brought it up as a suggestion because we both tend to like first person games that are focused on a narrative. I installed it and we both sat down to play this together with only the knowledge that it was about being a two-year-old who crawls around in fantastic looking environments. Boy, was there more.

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The voice acting makes this bear sound creepy and untrustworthy.

I am going to give a vague synopsis to avoid spoilers and discuss the core mechanics of the game. It begins with a cutscene as you become acclimated to the life of a two-year-old and what your living situation is like. You receive a teddy bear that speaks slowly and with the voice of a middle aged man. But, you are willing to follow the bear (because you have to) as it plays games with you.

After you become familiar with the basic mechanics and what life is like for baby-you, something jarring happens that makes everything shift. The house becomes dark and scary and you are helpless as you crawl through it to open doors and peek around corners. You are a vulnerable observer who wants nothing more than to find their mommy.

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Go ahead. Crawl around. Nothing to be scared of.

Reality then breaks away into fantasy, or perhaps nightmare, as you fall into a sort of dreamworld representation of your psyche. You then proceed to navigate through several levels that may be places you have experienced as a two-year-old with creepy filters changing them that may represent some kind of fear or trauma. The environments seem to be alive in that there are sounds and visual shifts happening as you navigate through them to solve puzzles. If you have played a game like Amnesia, it is similar to that in how you progress.

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I thought this was just a nice park…

You can alternate between walking and crawling and hold shift to run, albeit not very fast. You are a toddler after all. And who wants to run? It’s so noisy. Crawling felt like the most immersive, and scariest, means of traveling. Feeling small and low to the ground enhanced the feeling of vulnerability in the world around me. The feeling of vulnerability is key to making you feel like a victim to trauma as you discover childlike drawing scattered throughout each level which depict your perception of important figures in your life.

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Vision distorts as baby-you cannot handle certain sights.

The game is about uncovering the child’s life and the secrets it holds. What happened to you and why are you here piecing things together? Each level is rich with scattered pieces of the narrative, scares, and memories. When you are scared, the best you can do is hide under or inside of something such as a bed or cupboard. It’s exactly how you think as a child; if I hide, maybe it will all just go away. And it does, but not for long.

FEZ: A brilliant game that sat in my Steam backlog for way too long.

I felt that it was necessary to include in the title of this post that I just got around to playing FEZ. I’m pretty sure that I bought it during the summer Steam sale of 2013 months after it came out. Two years later, I booted it up because I wanted to play something that my laptop could handle when I wanted to be near my partner who was stuck on the sofa playing Bloodborne.

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I would be more disappointed in myself for waiting so long but, on the other hand, this is just the kind of game I was in the mood to play this summer when not screaming at Rocket League or spending hours on my Desktop in The Witcher 3. I can play Fez for 15 minutes to an hour and get plenty of satisfaction from my play time. It is a pretty casually paced 2D/3D platformer that allows the user to change the perspective on the fly.

Change perspective on the fly?! That sounds crazy, you might be saying! Well, it is. I was pretty awed by the puzzles that could be created from such a mechanic in Monument Valley but since FEZ came first I’m giving credit where credit is due. Of course there may have been other titles to do this first. If you know of any, please let me know in the comments!

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You play as the little white dude named Gomez. He looks like he’s made of clay. You also get a hat, so rest assured you Team Fortress players. You traverse across many different types of environments trying to collect cubes by climbing vertically and horizontally. It works similarly to Super Meat Boy or I guess even Super Mario that you will encounter more advanced types of puzzles and geography to navigate as you progress. I think I am about 20% of the way in right now so it’s been fairly easy so far.

One of my favorite parts of the game are all of the cute little animals strewn about the levels. There are rabbits, turtles, bunnies, pigeons, and worms. They all have adorable animations and sound effects, too. Sometimes I just have to walk up to them and watch them live their little lives. There is no way I know of yet to harm them. They just meander around looking cute while you play the game.

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This game is only about $10 full retail on steam right now. I’m sure most readers probably already on it on Steam from the 20 sales that have happened since the game first came out. If you haven’t taken the time to boot it up yet, go do it! This game will instantly charm you.

Finally got a Playstation 4. These four titles have kept me playing!

I kept waiting and waiting to pull the trigger on getting a Playstation 4. $400 is a substantial investment, there weren’t a ton of exclusive titles, and I figured the price would drop over the summer of 2015. Well, turns out it doesn’t matter that I waited because my girlfriend wound up buying it for us (thanks, babe!). Seriously though- it has gone to great use since we got it. To be fair, she uses it much more than I do. I didn’t think I would play much on it but these four titles have kept us pretty glued to it these past several weeks!

1. Bloodborne

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I haven’t played more than 20 minutes of this game, and half of that was spent in character creation, but I can see why my girlfriend has been glued to it 24/7. It’s a console exclusive game that is a part of the Dark Souls series set in a gothic style world. The player is challenged by all sorts of crazy blind dudes with scythes, swords, pistols, and chain… whips? This game calls for player mastery in the 3D space and of your chosen weapon. You can alternate between a long range and short range weapons to take on enemies alone or with others. The online system uses beckoning bells to find other players who are trying to get through the same levels as you.

If you haven’t played any Dark Souls games or Bloodborne, you have probably heard another gamer passionately discuss how hard it is. Why would so many people keep playing it if it seems so rage-inducing then you may be asking. I know I asked. Well, my theory is because it is so incredibly rewarding when you do conquer things. You team up with unknown allies to defeat huge bosses and enemies that would otherwise seem impossible to overcome and it takes a lot of work. My girlfriend says it feels like she is really doing something with her life when she makes good progress in Bloodborne. Not many games can do that!

2. Rocket League

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ROCKET LEAGUE. This is one of those games that, at first glance, looks like nothing special. Let me tell you that this game is worthy of all of the attention it has been getting. I was talking to a coworker about how I thought this game’s success could also be attributed to it’s timing. This game came out in the middle of the summer with no other really big AAA titles flooding the market and when everyone is looking for a game to hop into with friends. It was being given away for free for anyone with a Playstation Plus account while going for $19.99 on Steam. I am pretty confident in saying it is the best free game I’ve ever played.

Think Matchbox cars meets FIFA. The gameplay is simple- hit the ball with your car using boosters and jumps to get it into the opponent’s goal! Each game, whether you win or lose, you get an item at the end. The item can be a topper for your car, an antennae, wheels, decals, or a different trail particle effect. The matches are 5 minutes each which is perfect for the fast pace. Losing is easy to cope with due to the low cost of sticking it out for one game, but winning feels so good. There are no weapons and being good is mastering the jumps, timing, and angles. It’s one of those games that has me cheering and jeering at my TV and pumping my fists like I just scored a goal in the World Cup.

3. Trials Fusion

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I was so fond of Trials after having played the first one on Steam years ago that I looked at the new one on the shelf at Gamestop with a knowing smile on my face. I remember having tested Trials Fusion a year or two ago at Comic Con before its release. Fortunately, my girlfriend was familiar with Trials so it was an easy pickup for us. As much as I love my hardcore RPGs and FPS games, sometimes it is nice to play a casual game like Rocket League and Trials Fusion. Both games offer as many laughs as they do controller-gripping vein-popping moments.

Trials Fusion is just a good time. The goal of the platform time trial game is to get from the starting line to the finishing line as quickly as possible to place-hence the title. What makes it unique is the ability to lean your player forwards and backwards to balance your rider and spin your bike. Unfortunately, your avatar is highly susceptible to crashing and will ragdoll flop all over the place after the slightest touch to their body. It makes for some hilarious results, too. In Trials Fusion, you can use the L and R stick to flop around and do some ridiculous ragdoll flailing before you decide to give it another go. The quick restarts make gameplay feel smooth and addictive. Similar to Rocket Legaue, you can unlock various upgrades to your bike for fun customization. It’s another great local co-op game for those who have gaming SO’s!

4. FIFA 15

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What can I say? I love soccer. I miss having cable to be able to watch Premier League and some MLS games but now I get my fill by playing with coworkers and playing FIFA. I don’t know all of the fancy new features that 15 has over any other version but I think it is a fine game. There is a lot of nuance in moving the player and the dribbling/defending. There is an astonishing amount of unique animations but very often do you see popping, clipping, and other odd bugs. Considering the movement animation is at least 50% of the game I have to say I am pretty surprised at the amount of bugs I see in each game but it doesn’t ruin it for me. For as many bugs as I see, I am also wowed by some of the unique moments in player celebration, reactions to calls by the ref, and idle animations.

I’m very much looking forward to FIFA 16 with the addition of women’s teams. I hope that they push the PS4 graphics a bit further as I think that the VFX could use some stepping up .I really noticed the water FX in particular when you are playing in the rain. One more nice thing I like about this version is there is very little repetition in what the announcers say. I think it was FIFA 12 or 13 that I heard a lot of repetition but maybe I just haven’t played as much yet.

Well, that’s it for my two cents on some great PS4 titles! I would have mentioned GTAV, of course, but since I am already playing it on PC, so. I am looking forward to some other titles on the PS4 like the next Quantic Dream game, Horizon, Firewatch, and The Last Guardian.

9.03m: A Game About the 2011 Touhoku Tsunami

This evening, I sat down at my computer in a rather somber mood (for reasons I can’t explain) and decided it was a good time of day and the right mood to try a little game called 9.03m.  9.03m is an experimental, indie narrative game which aims to connect the player to the feelings of loss and sadness caused by the 2011 Touhoku Tsunami.  The tsunami caused a devastating blow of 15,884 deaths, 6,147 injured, and 2,636 just plain missing.  I’m not sure what aspect of the tsunami inspired the title 9.03m (perhaps it’s the distance you walk in the game?) but needless to say, I was prepared for an emotional experience going into it.

The opening shot.  A beautiful moonlit beach with particle effect light leading the way.

The opening shot. A beautiful moonlit beach with particle effect light leading the way.

I must admit I was a bit surprised at the minimal scope and quality of the game, but by no means would I say I was disappointed.  Heck, I buy new songs I like on Beatport for 2 dollars, but buying a game like this that you can experience over and over or share with others is already worth the two bucks no matter how you slice it.  I’m just saying the game had a very indie look and feel to it in terms of level layout, modeling, texture, and design.  The interaction method for the clues you pick up was very much like the method used in Gone Home in which you can rotate items to discover information from them.  In 9.03m, each clue you found was connected to the life of a missing person as their silhouette fades away into the moonlit sky.

You walk from shadow to shadow, picking up memories left behind.

You walk from shadow to shadow, picking up memories left behind.

The game structure is quite linear as you move from shadowy figure to shadowy figure and examine the object they left behind as a clue to what once was.  Each item is stamped with a butterfly symbol that you must find to cue the ‘memory’ and then the beautiful, flowing piano soundtrack kicks back in to encourage periods of reflection between each beat.

Although it didn’t quite hit the emotional notes I think it was shooting for, this heart wrenching homage to the victims of the 2011 Tsunami in Japan is a worthwhile experience for your two dollars. The game’s setting, using the peaceful moonlit ocean and quiet beaches, urges you to reflect on nature and how at times it can be indescribably peaceful or mercilessly cruel.