Titanfall Beta: the First Weekend

The Titanfall beta started this weekend, and after the initial server issues, I finally got my chance to hop on. I wanted to write something about it, but I really didn't want to stop playing it. I am now level 14, the highest rank attainable in the beta, and in spite of that, I want to soldier on. It's that much fun.

I'm not the biggest shooter player in the world. I prefer a controller over mouse/keyboard, and I tend to shy away from competitive shooters in most cases. But for many reasons, Titanfall is different. It's a breath of fresh air in a genre that so desperately needs it.

It's also accessible. I was playing on PC with an Xbox 360 controller and I somehow never felt at a disadvantage. I was at the top of the scoreboard several times, something I've almost never experienced in a shooter. One of the initial weapons, the Smart Pistol, doesn't require pinpoint accuracy. You aim at an enemy, it locks on, and you fire. That's it. Enemy players require three locks, enemy grunts (AI-controlled soldiers mostly used for fodder) require one. Despite its accessibility, the weapon has a deceptively high skill ceiling; more often than not I found myself using it like a regular pistol against other players. It's a brilliantly elegant solution to the common problem of high skill barriers in first-person shooters.

The jump-jets every player has allow for an insane amount of mobility and vertical movement. In most shooters, stairs are just an obstacle for you to traverse. In Titanfall, if you're using stairs, you're playing the game wrong. Using the amount of agility provided to you is one of the most interesting things about Titanfall, and also what makes it feel so good to play; ambushing players from above and stalking them from below feels so satisfying once you learn how.

Around level 8, you unlock the ability to get "Burn Cards" from completing challenges. Burn Cards are one-use consumables that you slot into one of three spaces. Whenever you die, you have the option to activate a Burn Card, and you gain its effect for the duration of your next life. These cards range from upgraded weapons, to enemy radar, to permanently moving and healing faster. It adds a weird meta-game to the act of dying that serves to both placate and empower the player.

I haven't even gotten to the Titans yet.

When the match starts, your faction is "building" your Titan. Every time you damage an enemy (be it grunt or enemy player) the build time of your Titan is reduced. This leads to some pretty interesting strategies such as "farming" grunts as fast as possible in an attempt to get your Titan before everybody else.

Piloting a Titan is pretty standard fare as far as mechs go: you are slower than on foot, but FAR more powerful. This isn't to say that the Titans are too strong; every player, regardless of loadout, has an anti-Titan weapon at their disposal and, with enough skill, can go toe-to-toe with one.

Whenever you "Titanfall" (call down your titan) you have several options: you can hop in and wreak havoc; you can set it to guard one spot while you run around the map completing other objectives; or you can set it to follow you and automatically engage enemies. The AI is obviously not as responsive or intelligent as a human player, but it's still an interesting strategic choice that, again, only serves to make what is stale fresh again.

After kind of being "over" shooters, and after having not bought any big-budget shooters in the last 2 years, I think I'm finally ready to jump back in again.

Titanfall has made me a believer.

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A Case for Final Fantasy XIII, Or: Why It's A Really Good Final Fantasy (Combat Edition)

Final Fantasy XIII is a pretty divisive game. There's the group which despises it and firmly believes it to be the death knell of the entire franchise, and there's the (admittedly far smaller) camp which sees it for what it is: an interesting JRPG which breaks the formulaic methodology of the past entries (something which Final Fantasy XII was lauded for) and does some kind of interesting things with its story, and some even more unique things with its combat. I'm going to attempt explain why the latter has some merit to its argument, and why FFXIII isn't the abominable blight on the series that so many think it is.

I'm gonna break it down into three categories in three different blog posts: Combat, Character Progression, and Story.

Combat

I ordered "Flan," not... Oh.

Though it may not look it in screenshots, the combat in XIII is a stark departure from previous entries. Instead of the traditional ATB, it instead utilizes a fully real-time system in which the player still chooses abilities and attacks like a more traditional JRPG, but in which enemies and players can potentially be using abilities simultaneously.

Defeating enemies entails more than just "attack it until it's dead;" XIII employs a system called "chain combos" in which the player attempts to fill up that bar (known as the "Chain Gauge") in the top-right of the screen, which "staggers" the enemy and causes them to take drastically increased damage from attacks. Certain classes are better at building up this meter than others, and ceasing attacks on an enemy causes the chain gauge to slowly whittle back down to nothing.

Character classes are broken down into "roles" - Medic, a healing class whose closest analogue would be White Mage; Ravager, a magic user who attempts to build up the chain gauge through quick assaults; Commando, a melee fighter who focuses on dealing as much damage as possible and slowing the decline of the chain gauge; Synergist, a magic role which casts buffs such as protect, shell, and haste on party members; Saboteur, who casts de-buffs on enemies; and Sentinel, who is essentially the "tank" of the game and possesses an extraordinary amount of HP and defense, and can even provoke enemies to attack him/her.

The player can switch party roles at any time using "Paradigm Shift," changing the entire party's roles simultaneously. It is herein where the depth of combat lies; without learning which roles to shift to and at which time to do so, combat becomes tedious, boring, and incredibly difficult.

For instance, the player may encounter an enemy which possesses extremely high HP and magic defense and is completely immune to being staggered, but is weak to the fire element and has low physical defense. In this case, the player would want to switch to a party containing two Commandos and a Synergist -- the Synergist gives the two Commandos Enfire (all attacks deal fire elemental damage) -- before switching to two Commandos and a Medic. Alternatively, the player could just use three Commandos, if he were confident enough in his abilities as to not need a healer. This kind of design theory applies to the entire game, and the combat ends up being more like a puzzle than a traditional JRPG system.

Defeating enemies is in itself rewarding -- each enemy possesses a "par time" for defeat, and killing an enemy or a group of enemies under par time increases your victory ranking, which leads to more experience and item drops. Items dropped from enemies include weapons, accessories, items useful for crafting, and items which serve no purpose other than to be sold for gil (the currency, which is not earned by simply defeating enemies).

The combat is indeed a far cry from "mindlessly press A until things die" that so many people seem to claim; there is a uniqueness to the depth that few JRPGs attain (fewer still post-PS2 era).

Next up: Character Progression.

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2013 Postmortem: Why These Ten Games are (Subjectively) Better Than "Brothers"

It's that time again: the time of the year when I break down (for precisely nobody) what my ten favorite games of the year are, and why.

This will be a little different than last year; I'm just going to run down the list and explain why I believe each game deserves to be here.

LET'S DO IT.

10. Papers, Please

I wouldn't really say Papers, Please was a "fun" experience, and yet it's compelling enough as a video game that I think I'll remember it forever.

In Papers, Please, the player is put into the shoes of a government worker at an immigration control office somewhere on the border of a fictional eastern European country.

Nearly every activity that the player performs in Papers, Please is mundane and is the very definition of "work." The fact that the game expects you to feel some sense of personal agency for this person working one of the most boring jobs on the planet, and then YOU DO, is a testament to just how brilliantly it is designed.

9. Assassin's Creed IV

After playing most of Assassin's Creed III and being very verbal about how disappointed I was, it was with no small measure of reluctance that I picked up Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.

The amount of content in ACIV is absolutely staggering. Even setting the main story aside, there is easily 30 hours of gameplay here. From assassination missions to capturing nations' forts with your ship, I never wanted for things to do.

8. Rogue Legacy

I don't normally go for games which punish you for incredibly small mistakes. When I do manage to play a good chunk of them like I did with Rogue Legacy and Dark Souls, they are some of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences I have all year.

7. The Wolf Among Us (Episode 1 - Faith)

Even though it's just Episode 1, and despite the fact that it's only about an hour and a half, I still really enjoyed what there currently is of The Wolf Among Us.

I enjoyed it so much that I reviewed it and gave it 4/5 stars.

6. Antichamber

When I first heard of Antichamber, it was alongside the mention of "non-euclidean geometry." I was immediately intrigued; how can a game built on Unreal Engine 3 defy every law of physical space?

Antichamber did exactly that, and the satisfaction from solving each puzzle is something that I rarely feel (and haven't since 2012's Fez!)

5. DMC Devil May Cry

I was never a huge fan of Devil May Cry. I enjoyed 3 and 4, but never really got very far in either. I suppose that's why I was able to enjoy DMC Devil May Cry so much: I wasn't super invested in the series already.

With combat that manages to be deep yet accessible, and a story that is simultaneously hilarious and engrossing, DMC definitely deserves a spot on this list.

4. Payday 2

There are usually only one or two games a year that I come back to on a consistent basis and play with friends for dozens of hours. Payday 2 is one of those games this year; I played it almost constantly for the better part of a month, and I still go back to it every few weeks.

"Now crack open that safe, it's probably be full of cash!"

Comedy gold.

3. Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen

It may be that I just never gave Dragon's Dogma a chance, because I remember playing it in 2012 and thinking "Alright, this is just O.K."

After playing Dark Arisen for the better part of 35 hours though, I have to say that it's easily one of the best RPGs I've played this year. The depth and breadth of gameplay is massive; the main quest alone will run you 20 hours easily, and even after that there's likely dozens more hours worth of content.

2. Saints Row IV

I enjoyed Saints Row IV for many of the same reasons I enjoyed SR The Third: it's consistently hysterical, it's completely insane, and it never compromises on what exactly it wants to do.

The addition of superpowers to the already solid gameplay make a great formula even better. The only real gripe is that there's never a reason to drive cars unless a mission or side activity forces you to.

1. Gone Home

Games that invoke a physical emotional response like tears are an extreme rarity for me; by the "end" of Gone Home, I was crying like a hungry infant.

It's hard to put into words what I loved so much about it, but I was able to relate to it on a very personal level. Video games almost never do that to me, and Gone Home is one of maybe a half dozen that I've played in 20 years that has.

Well, there you have it. VIDEO GAMES ARE GREAT

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2012 - A Postmortem: The Great, the Not-So-Great, and the Strange

10 FAVORITE GAMES OF 2012:

10. Dust: An Elysian Tale

9. Black Ops 2

8. Xenoblade Chronicles

7. The Walking Dead

6. Sword and Sworcery: EP

5. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

4. Borderlands 2

3. Mass Effect 3

2. Fez

1. You'll just have to see my Game of the Year section at the bottom!... BUT DON'T SKIP RIGHT TO IT.

"Most Surprising Thing That Has No Right To Be As Good As It Is" Award

Mass Effect 3's Multiplayer

This game, man. When I (and probably everybody else) first heard about the inclusion of Multiplayer in the final game in the Mass Effect trilogy, I went berserk. WHAT?! Multiplayer? in MY beloved game franchise? Inconceivable!!

But sure enough, Mass Effect 3 was released, and it had a cooperative multiplayer mode.

The best part? It was actually pretty awesome.

I've played the horde-mode-esque portion of Mass Effect 3 far more than I played the single-player. A year ago, if somebody had told me that I would spend more time playing as a random Krogan Vanguard than as my Commander Shepard that I had spent years building, I likely would have regurgitated whatever food I was eating at the time and called the closest mental hospital.

Honorable Mention:

Black Ops 2's Campaign

"Best Game That Happens to be Downloadable" award

Fez

Fez title logo

Back when I first heard about Fez, I didn't think much of it. A cute, quirky platformer with an interesting gimmick? Sure; I've heard this somewhere before, and it didn't really catch my attention (I didn't like Braid very much).

However, leading up to its release and shortly thereafter, my interest quickly became piqued -- this was not merely a gimmicky platformer. This was clearly something much, much more.

It certainly is exactly that. If you haven't played Fez, you absolutely owe it to yourself to do so immediately. Very seldom does a game reward you so much without really giving you anything at all.

Honorable Mentions:

Journey, The Walking Dead, Mark of the Ninja, Dust: an Elysian Tale

"Most Overwhelming Disappointment" Award(?)

Jet Set Radio HD

I really wanted to love this. I loved the original when it came out. I loved Jet Set Radio Future

even more! But I suppose that's just the passage of time: as games age, they become irrelevant, and in turn just plain bad.

The controls are clunky, a lot of sound mechanical design was sacrificed in lieu of making an interesting visual style work, and to top it all off? It's just not all that fun to play.

Even I Am Alive is glaring. Shaking its 20-foot-draw-distance, broken-AI, invisibly-walled head disdainfully; "Really, dude?"

Honorable Mention:

I Am Alive

"Most Ambitious Game" Award

Journey

Journey, on its own, is a compelling case for why games can be considered "art". Gorgeous setpieces, a masterfully composed soundtrack, and sometimes

heart-breaking multiplayer all combine to make journey more than just a game; it's an experience which you absolutely need to have.

A difficult game to write about to be sure, Journey is one that I am positive people will be remembering for a very long time.

Honorable Mentions:

FTL: Faster Than Light, Frog Fractions, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

"Best Payoff" Award

Spec Ops: The Line's Epilogue

Without really spoiling anything or going into great detail, the ending and subsequent epilogue to this game is pretty terrific, and is only enhanced by Nolan North's incredibly solid voice performance.

If you've played through the game you know exactly what I mean.

Honorable Mentions:

Fez: Cracking the Code, most of Borderlands 2's quest dialogue

"Most Unintentionally Hilarious But Still Really Bad" Award

Prototype 2's "Fuck off. I hate computers!" scene

There's really not much that needs to be said about this one. Look the quote up on youtube if you want to see more.

Honorable Mentions:

Karaoke In Sleeping Dogs, New Super Mario Bros. 2/U's "Wah Wah"

"Game of the Year" Award

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

There is way too much I could say about XCOM, and really not enough time, space, or energy in the universe to tell you that you need -- no -- you HAVE to play this game. You absolutely just have to. It's inexcusable.

No matter how much it scares the crap out of you, no matter how averse you are to strategy games... Just give it a try.

Runners Up:

Fez, The Walking Dead Season 1, Mass Effect 3

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Tam Tackles: First Impressions - Legend of Dragoon!

Legend of Dragoon is a turn-based Japanese RPG for the Playstation, developed and published by Sony Computer Entertainment. It recently came out on PSN, so I’ve been playing a bit of it in an attempt to understand why everybody adores this game so much.

I’ll skip the back-story and contextual part of this, because honestly, after 2 hours, I still have absolutely no idea of what is going on in this game.

From the outset, Legend of Dragoon’s combat is excessively boring.

I don’t mean boring in the sense that you’d rather this checkup be done so you can go home, I mean boring in the sense that you’d rather smash yourself in the face with a block of ice than go through the hassle of *just* twenty more random encounters. I assume it gets better, but hey - I’m only two hours in. Did I seriously just say that?

Two hours and I’m not transforming into a dragon-fueled monstrosity who breathes fire and shits destruction? I’m not yet able to shrug off random encounters, and instead I am strapped down and forced to sit there, idly, while generic ooze monster #409 takes his sweet, sweet time attacking who I assume will be my healing character?

Many of the game’s combat “hooks” haven’t come into focus at this point.

The fact that even 2 hours in, the combat is as simple as attacking a monster with the “attack” command is unsettling, to say the least. I have heard next to nothing but high praise for this now-12-year-old game that has, seemingly, amassed a sizable cult following. I am beginning to wonder why. What is the point of waiting until hour 5, or 10, or 20 to give me the ability to use magic and be a Dragoon?

Was it for narrative purposes? That would be a forgivable story-telling mechanism; plenty of Japanese RPGs do that. However thus far, Legend of Dragoon’s narrative is… not the best I’ve seen in a Japanese RPG. It’s certainly not the worst; but so far, it’s not good by any means.

The game is absolutely brutal in its expected precision.

Legend of Dragoon’s combat, so far, requires you to be super-precise. You see, there are these abilities that each character uniquely possesses called “Additions”, which allow them to perform neat combo attacks on enemies for greater damage. In order to execute Additions, the game requires you to perform a series of timed button presses.

Sounds fun, right? I thought so too. In practice, however, the polar opposite is the case. After the novelty wears off (after about 20 minutes), it becomes an exercise in frustration. Missing one button press by a minute fraction of a second could mean the difference between doing 10 damage and doing 30 damage. It’s incredibly frustrating, especially since neither the PSP nor the PSX controller were particularly responsive with their face button presses.

Legend of Dragoon is never gun-shy about tossing around terms which have no context whatsoever.

Within the first hour, a character you meet begins telling the player character, Dart, about these two kingdoms which are at war, throwing around names like “Serdio”, “Sandora”, and “Basil”. I don’t really know what any of those are because the game has given me absolutely no context; I am assuming Serdio is the continent, Sandora is the nation that is evil (?), and Basil might be the capitol of the nation they’re at war with. We’ll see.

Closing Thoughts:

I am, as I stated, nearly 2 hours into Legend of Dragoon and it is incredibly slow. If a game doesn’t grab me by the collar and have sex with my eyes within the first half hour, it’s an extraordinarily tough sell. I’m sure it will pick up eventually; for now, though, I think I’ll put it down. I have better things to do.

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