Valorant: A Pristine Middle-Ground

As someone who’d played the game for north of 800 hours over the course of three years, Overwatch felt long in the tooth. Rampant power-creep, a questionable esports ecosystem, and few friends left playing it made it easy to step away from the game. Casually, I had picked up Counter Strike: Global Offensive and invested almost 400 hours into that as I admired the tactile gun play and the arcade-esque approachability the game offers in casual modes. Then, because I am a supremely lucky person, I received Beta access to Valorant.

Overwatch is a Blizzard game that introduces the hero-based gameplay commonly seen in MOBAS into a Team Fortress 2 equation, with highly-vertical maps, drastically different characters, and the intense frenzy therein. Valorant is the third game from Riot Games, and incorporates that same hero-based design towards Counter Strike, a game known for methodical, measured gameplay with incredible mechanical depth. The announcement came as part of a grandiose ten-year anniversary video for League of Legends, in which Riot highlighted many games in development, including their card game Legends of Runeterra, a fighting game, a Diablo-esque isometric action game, and a first-person shooter that is now known as Valorant.

This video could warrant an article its own to highlight the execution, but two important things should be known about it. Firstly it was very knowing of gamer culture and highlighted what players would want from a game like this, (no lag, strong anti-cheat) and even leaning into jokes such as highlighting the ‘S’ in Riot Games, as the company was often mocked for its title while having only one title. Secondly, and more importantly, this video was released at a record low-point for public opinion of what can be called it’s closest rival, Blizzard entertainment. From the perspective of a player, these two companies that both specialized in online multi-player games for PC were headed in opposite trajectories. A narrative of excitement and success was quickly cemented around Valorant, while Overwatch was seen to be on a decline. As an aside, Valve was sponsoring CS:GO tournaments, but they were largely held by organizations like ESL and FaceIt, and paled in comparison to the $30+ million prize pool spectacles seen at the annual Dota 2 International.

That brings us to now, where Valorant now exists in a closed beta state where popular content creators have access to the game, and have latched onto it with frothing excitement. Fortune has it for Riot that an already excited audience is captive within their homes due to a pandemic, and is chomping at the bit in hopes of getting access to the game; This rarity only increases the fervor, not that it seems to need it at this point.

If I were to describe Valorant succinctly, it feels like CS:GO made more approachable in the modern year, with esports kept in mind. If this analogy seems reductive, I’d like to make it clear that CS features a weapon called the AWP (pronounced “aup”) that is a one-shot kill bolt-action sniper; Valorant features a weapon that functions the same and is called the Operator (pronounced “aup-erator,” often shortened to just “aup”). To avoid getting into specifics, the game’s economy is kinder with purchased ability charges persisting through death, a mini-map is constantly on screen, and the game sports a singular arsenal instead of having one for attack and defense ala Counter Strike. But it is simply not a simplified CS. Instead, its hero characters offer creative utility to players by allowing them to scout out information, block sight lines, slow advantages, and even secure some eliminations. Each offers a unique playstyle while still utilizing the same arsenal of weaponry, meaning that they are more approachable than heroes in Overwatch but offer a diversity not seen in CS. This is the pristine middle-ground.

It is also important to note that Valorant is set in a near-future version of earth, and sports a diverse cast of characters from across the globe, similar to what Overwatch has done. These characters are not only distinct and cohesive, but also make the game very brand friendly; CS:GO is the opposite of brand friendly. Counter Strike is a realistic military shooter where terrorist try to plant a bomb and destroy something (like a nuclear power plant)while a counter-terrorist force fights to stop them. Whether justified or not, the game has been associated with the Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech shootings and, as The Score Esports explains below, has left teams struggling to secure sponsors. Valorant simply solves this problem by simply labeling teams attack and defense, designing weapons from scratch so that players are wielding Vandals instead of AK-47s, and tasking them with planting a spike (which explodes like an expanding black hole) instead of a bomb. Perhaps some will be able to peel this thin veneer away and realize that these fire balls may as well be molotovs, but it seems likely that companies like Statefarm will have no trouble adopting Valorant as they have Overwatch.

Despite merely being in closed beta, esports organizations like 100 Thieves and Team Liquid have wasted no time and already begun to host show matches and tournaments, with the likely intention to develop teams in the near-future. This instant gravitation towards the game is similar to what was seen last year with Apex Legends, but now has the potential to be skyrocketed forwards by the company in charge of the monolithic and international esports infrastructure of League of Legends. Many prominent players have also begun migrating away from their current games, mainly Overwatch, towards something that does not have any announced leagues or tournaments solely because of that same potential.

Personally I enjoy the game, but have waned slightly from shooters, and will enjoy the game in a casual setting. It offers a fun twist on traditional gameplay without uncontrollably expanding the scope of the game like battle royales have. Despite my interest lacking the same unfiltered excitement that others have shown, I think Valorant can go on to be enormous, particularly given how well-considered its design and launch have been in the current landscape.

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The Strange Dichotomy of Animal Crossing

I let out a groan, watching as a precious tarantula skitters off the edge of a pond and topples down into the water with a splash, never to be seen again. Begrudgingly, I resign myself to claiming the nearby giant water bug, haphazardly tossing my net into the water and fishing it out. I now know I’ve effectively lost 6,000 bells because of the difference in selling price for these bugs to Timmy and Tommy; if Flick has arbitrarily decided to grace my island with his presence that increases my loss to 9,000 bells as he buys everything for x1.5 its value. This is my third trip to a Nook Island today, with each visit costing me two thousand Nook Miles and requiring me to craft a new set of tools each time, as I leave them behind so I can carry more precious bugs back home with me. Given the decrease in payout, I now grapple with the simple question of ‘Am I earning enough bells for this to be worth my time?

I dreamed on a shooting star I could pay off my home loan to Nook, it didn't work.
I dreamed on a shooting star I could pay off my home loan to Nook, it didn't work.

Despite its adorable, toy-esque appearance, Animal Crossing New Horizons is a game that is teeming with economic decision-making and, somewhere deeper than that, systems that will generate a greater resentment for capitalism as a driving force within society. Of course, Animal Crossing’s capitalism is not our capitalism because, hypothetically speaking, Animal Crossing is never stricken with plagues that prevent people around the globe from going to work and more brazenly than that the value of the Bell neither increases nor decreases. However that does not prevent itself from presenting players with copious monetary expenses for access to in-game items and accommodations, all of which are paid through a simple loop of gather resources then sell items then spend money. Ignoring the potentially problematic narrative of draining natural resources for profit, this gameplay cycle feels like it is designed to resemble a cathartic, ritualistic practice akin to tending to a garden: It requires effort, but is supposed to reward through self-satisfaction. Still, as prices for items and home upgrades increase the means for acquiring wealth remain the same, and a drastically higher time-investment will be required for a player to complete their fourth home upgrade as opposed to their first, and they will watch their returns dwindle before their eyes.

Back on my island I deposit the collected insects in my home as I must wait for 8 AM in real-world time for the shop to open where I may sell them; until then they will act as a burden in my inventory, with each one taking up an individual space in my storage capacity. I venture back outside, passing the museum filled with bugs, fossils, and fish I have collected and surrounded by flowers I grew over the course of several real-life days. Along the way I encounter one of my villagers, Lyman the lime-colored koala, who once again tells me something about his workout regimen, as his identity seems to revolve solely around his time in the gym. Every time I speak to him, or any of the other animal denizens of my town, it feels as if I am pulling the string on the back of a doll to hear it recite one of its voice lines. These conversations hardly convey depth within their personalities and rarely offer any form of back-and-forth dialogue that has been prevalent in role-playing games for decades. Instead they are simply cute, Lyman is enjoying himself and has flowers rotating around his head while he emotes, the simplistic model offering a broad smile across its softly-textured face. Regardless, I step into the tent I assembled to allow me to recruit new citizens to move onto my island, and am greeted to a blue and yellow color-eagle. He is a prick, but as I’d like to improve my island and this is sometimes gated behind the number of villages who live there, I recruit him anyways.

Isn't assembly GREAT?
Isn't assembly GREAT?

To further this analogy that the villagers of Animal Crossing are toys, the system for collecting them is a simple capsule machine; insert your quarter and hope you receive the one you want. Remember those? Despite them not being as prevalent as they once were, they are plentiful in digital landscapes, from gacha games to loot boxes, all offering the thrilling adventure of popping something open and praying that it will contain the missing member within your collection. Those systems were designed with the simple prospect of generating money, and as Animal Crossing players can recruit a specific villager to move in by acquiring an Amiibo card for that character which are purchased, get this, in card packs, this feels much the same. It acts as an arbitrary, and brazenly foul, exploitation to prevent players from easily accessing cosmetic content within a game that they have spent money, not bells, on.

Our strange dichotomy lies here, in the fact that purchasing this toy set does not simply allow you to play with the toys, and instead requires an immense amount of inane assembly in order to acquire specifically what you’d like. But this is a digital play set, and the reason that I must spend my evenings hunting tarantulas for eight thousand bells a piece are arbitrary; the toys could have come assembled, but I am meant to enjoy assembling them. I, however, do not, particularly when it sometimes gives the impression that the assembly process is extended like something from a game that is hoping you will continue to pay its subscription; Animal Crossing costs a one-time fee of sixty dollars. Perhaps I’m likening Animal Crossing to Minecraft’s Adventure mode, and wishing it would include a Creative variant where I am unrestricted by resource and am allowed to select the villagers I desire in a town of my constructing. Or perhaps I’m frustrated that this video game decides to resemble real-world quandaries of repetitive labor in the name of affording goods I desire and doesn’t instead provide me an outlet to expel that frustration (I would love to shit talk Nook with my other villagers). Either way, I can’t shake this feeling that Animal Crossing is a game that could perhaps be enjoyed even without traditional game concepts such as progression or an economy, and instead lean on the charm and character that is wholly unique to it.

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ItsMagicNeal's Top Ten Games of 2017

After 25 hours of listening to a group of people debate the best games of (the year of our lord) 2017, I figured that the only way to properly recover from such an ordeal was to repeat the process myself. Of course unlike them my list will look a bit different because I didn't get to play every game I might have wanted to, but there is a game on here I haven't played, and I game I played was purposely excluded. So, let's talk about some games and discuss their finer points because games aren't fun unless we turn them into a game, shall we?

Game That Has No Business Being on Anyone's List: Destiny 2

One of, if not my largest, gaming guilty pleasures was Destiny. Over it's 3 year span, I sunk over a thousand hours into the game, bought every expansion, various merchandise, and even got to know a divorced man from Kansas City who I met over LFG. The game was a bit disjointed, had a multitude of issues, but that roughness gave it an admirable bit of character. Watching it shape over time, evolving to add things it always should've had, and take a few missteps was at the least interesting. There was possibility, and it seemed like every expansion was a step towards the potential of what we all thought Destiny could be, with smart refinements on the original package to make it easier to enjoy. In Destiny 2 I see no such possibility.

Isn't that a cool machine gun? Would be nice if there were more then one of them.
Isn't that a cool machine gun? Would be nice if there were more then one of them.

The core gameplay and content is at it's strongest, however all of the issues in the wrapping and endgame of Destiny 2 have regressed in almost every way imaginable. The heroic strike playlist, an activity that made strikes approachable, repeatable, and an activity that dropped worthwhile loot, were removed at launch. Instead the were replaced with a playlist that dropped nothing of worth, and subsequently re-instated with a paid expansion. Cosmetic items that players might have locked from activities were stripped out, and hidden behind microtransactions and loot boxes, meaning that it was impossible to attach cosmetic items to tasks a player had actually completed. The variety in the crucible was destroyed, with 3v3, 6v6, and free-for-all modes being consolidated into 4v4, and popular editions like Rift (Capture the flag) and Zone Control fell by the wayside. The weapons system was changed to consolidate special and heavy weapons into one slot, and allow players to keep two primary firearms, reducing the feeling of power in any load-out exponentially. And to boot it all off the game has had no problem reintroducing exotic items from the first Destiny, so that players can enjoy re-earning content that was taken from them previously.

If Destiny 1's problem was that it was too ambitious, then Destiny 2's problem is that it lacks ambition. In making things more approachable it lost the variety and depth of it's predecessor, and some of it's charm along with it. It's a tight shooter with well designed activities, but the way those activities work to form a greater progression system, and the loot system that players are supposed to be chasing, leave a lot of things to be desired. It would take a lot of things to fix Destiny 2, and it's certainly not impossible, but I have been left with no faith that it will be the game I might want it to be.

#10 NieR:Automata (Game I really should have played)

A N I M E
A N I M E

NieR seems really cool. I played the demo for NieR when it came out and it seemed pretty lame, especially as someone who doesn't really play character action games. But from what I've heard, it seems like something I will enjoy, so I'm going to make a good effort to invest the necessary time into it in 2018.

#9 Night in the Woods

Keep your boring nightmares to yourself Mae
Keep your boring nightmares to yourself Mae

I nearly didn't finish Night in the Woods. Slow-pacing, meandering, and those out-right annoying dream sequences nearly made me stop playing, but in the end I'm glad I finished it. The game doesn't always merge it's two seemingly unrelated plots, or provide the best conclusion, but it's full of heart, charm, and mystery that were enough to make me finish it. I just wish it would have hooked me sooner then it did.

#8 Cuphead

Just get gardening shears what are you doing you stupid cup
Just get gardening shears what are you doing you stupid cup

Cuphead is pretty damn rad. It nails it's aesthetic in every possible way and is a the best "You just have to look at this for 5 seconds" game this year. That being said it's a fairly simple game that is fun and enjoyable, but really just comes down to pattern-recognition and execution. Still, given the game's incredible success I can't wait to see what the creators might be able to do next.

#7 Horizon Zero Dawn

It'd be cool if that robotic dinosaur wasn't a glorified tower
It'd be cool if that robotic dinosaur wasn't a glorified tower

To think that the people behind Killzone would've made a game with this rich of a world is miraculous. It's got a great story with reveals and interesting dynamics, plenty of world to explore, and a strong female lead. Also I think robot dinosaurs fighting future cave-people with bows is pretty fuckin' cool. That being said the game's structure was a bit too Far Cry 3 for my taste, and maybe could have done with less icons on it's map. It's another case of, "I can't wait to see the next one of these"

#6 Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

OFF WITH HIS HEAD
OFF WITH HIS HEAD

Wolfenstein II does the best it can for a middle-chapter in a trilogy, but it still leaves some things to be desired. The game talks up the idea that you want to build America into a fighting force, yet during the course of the game you never really get to see people being called into action. Still it challenges a lot of politically relevant ideas and brings on some of the most insane cutscenes a game has ever had, but it's level and encounter design reflect none of that. Hopefully Wolfenstein III can make the improvements it needs to make and wrap this story up somehow.

#5 Pyre

God damn those colors
God damn those colors

I have a confession to make: I might have a crush on Supergiant Games. Their art direction, writing, sound design, soundtracks, and genre-blending gameplay are everything that I love in games, and Pyre is no exception. Everything in it's concept in execution display a pure imagination that isn't seen in a ton of other places, and work to create worlds that are some of the most realized out there. It's sad to think that some would pass it up because of it's presentation, because I think that Pyre is a whole lot more then just some text.

#4 Super Mario Odyssey

The snorkel doesn't work 0/10
The snorkel doesn't work 0/10

Mario is just a whole lot of fun. It's a gleeful journey through a strange world with tight platforming action that has a good amount of depth to it. If the dreariness of 2017 has you down and you need a pick-me-up, then play Super Mario Odyssey. The moons might be a bit repetitive, overly-simple, and constantly sprinkled throughout in a way that might make you tired of them by the end, but finding them still manages to feel satisfying. And it's a cool nostalgia trip, for all you old bogies.

#3 PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds

Maybe someone in one of those houses is serving poultry
Maybe someone in one of those houses is serving poultry

A lot of the arguments as to why PlayerUndergrounds Battleknowns is such a good game have already been made, but let me bring up a few more points. The game is a bit of a sandbox, and allows players to engage with it however they chose, no matter how lame that might actually be. Spending the whole game looting, or hiding in a bathroom are strategies that the game allows players to engage with, just the same as going out in a blaze of glory. It's a game about playing within that sandbox, and not about making it to the end, as the drab winning screen might suggest. The most important thing I hope game developers might extract for it is the want for open-world, online, competitive shooters. I think there's a hell of a lot that Destiny could learn from PUBG.

#2 The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Explosive arrows would be way better for this
Explosive arrows would be way better for this

I have a lot of complaints about Breath of the Wild, mainly about the wrappings around the game. It's lame threat, over-used characters, and wet fart of an ending leave a lot to be desired. I hope Nintendo will soon take the old Zelda lore books and dump them into a trash can so they can create new characters, worlds, and species, because a game that's built around discovery shouldn't really be so predictable. Once a player has opened the whole map they can identify all of the separate domains and who might be there, instead of having to actually go there and find out themselves. Some of the other decisions were a bit frustrating and had some more acceptable solutions, like being able to pick up enemy weapons to fix the durability of your current weapons. Still, the game's open-ended nature is refreshing, there's no sequence of events that has to be followed, and there are things that can be skipped entirely if a player so desires. It's another game with a lot of potential, and maybe needs more then one attempt to realize all of that potential.

#1 Persona 5

A cool, flawed group of friends that'll stand with you to the end (except Akechi fuck him)
A cool, flawed group of friends that'll stand with you to the end (except Akechi fuck him)

There are a lot of things wrong with Persona 5. The game's reliance on anime for comic levity is a bit tiring, since most of that stuff is perverted and homophobic. There are long parts of the game where Morgana keeps telling you to go to sleep. There's really no reason for the game to require you to play it twice in order to see all the confidant stories. The part where you're supposed to feel like you're searching for a target or questioning whether you should go after a target even though the game has told you who the target is is really dumb. Some of the main characters are really one-note and get really tiring towards the end (I'm looking at you Ryuji). But there just aren't other games like Persona 5. A game with a real-life setting that puts youth in power to fight against societal injustice doesn't really exist like it does. That and the incredibly art and sound really take Persona over the edge to make an impact on the player. The feeling of inspiration some got from NieR is what I got from Persona. The ways they improved on Persona 4 are really smart, and having completed this project makes me hope that P Studio can finally move on to create a game with a more fully-realized world, and one that takes less from the bad parts of anime.

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An open letter to ATLUS about coverage of Persona 5

Dear ATLUS,

Recently you issued a statement about the limitations imposed on those wishing to stream and share videos of Persona 5 online. While there is rationale to the decision you have made, I'd like to point out some of the follies of this approach and the direction you might be headed in.

Let's start with the problem: Persona 5 is a highly story-focused game and you're wary that people will feel satisfied watching the game online instead of playing it. This is amplified by the fact that the game has had a heavily extended development time and was therefore incredibly expensive to produce, meaning that you would likely need to make a lot of money in order to be able to continue operating. And at the same time, the trend of streaming games online and recording 'Let's Plays' has grown exponentially, with Youtube's most subscribed channel PewDiePie being devoted to games and Amazon acquiring game streaming site Twitch.tv for 970 million dollars.

So you're faced with a conundrum, how can you make money as a game developer when so many people are watching for free online? The answer is simple: Merchandise. Merchandising for games has become so popular that there are several websites and organizations devoted to it, such as Fangamer and iam8bit. Additionally some game developers create their own stores and merchandise which they sell to consumers directly, Bungie is an excellent example of this. Not only is merchandising a great stream of revenue that is extremely popular with internet-savvy millennials who would love Persona, but Persona itself is a property that is ripe with underutilized opportunities for merchandise. Things such as soundtracks, t-shirts, hats, bags, posters, even masks would all be beloved by all people who are interested in Persona, whether they've played it or not. Items like these could be sold online around the globe, as well as at popular conventions and other distribution sites.

But there's a larger issue here, and that's the viewpoint that a decision like this takes. In the world's ever-evolving media culture people love to share experiences and ideas, and to engage people. By preventing people from streaming Persona 5, you not only prevent them from expressing themselves and their interests, but you prevent them from sharing Persona with others, and therefore exclude it from the wider internet culture. This not only makes it hard to distribute merchandise, but also makes it harder to sell copies of the game. Sure people watch commercials and read written previews online, but now they often wait for a game to be released so they can see footage of the completed project. With your limitations, you have made showcasing Persona impossible for some, and have heavily demotivated others. If they can't stream the whole thing, they're likely to stream none of it. There's a greater concept here that's going to influence the future of marketing, and it's the power of Free, there's even a whole book about it. The gist of it is this: People no longer wish to pay up front for products, but instead are more likely to purchase things that are accessory to those products.

I'd like to say one final thing, and it's that this this situation is painted with a humorous layer of irony. Persona 5 is a game about thievery, deception, and changing the hearts of misguided adults, but it's being chained up behind streaming and sharing restrictions. ATLUS, it's time for a change of heart. Game streaming and sharing are not your enemy, instead they're something that can be used to your advantage, you just need to take the opportunity.

In short: If hold on life won't change.

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