Travel Log: 21 Hours with The Crew

Pre-Trip, The Road to The Crew:

I'm someone who's still not sick of open world racing. I'm still happy race side events exist in GTA, Watch_Dogs, and other open world games, and I'll even return to Midnight Club now and then. (Although ironically, Burnout Paradise is not my favorite Burnout game.) The Crew was on my radar from its announcement, but with the only gimmick being "the hugest open world map yet" I wasn't especially eager to jump into it.

Cut to mid September, when Ubisoft began giving The Crew away for free for a limited time through uPlay. I already had uPlay on my PC for Trackmania Turbo purposes, and so there were no barriers to entry left. I was in.

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Detroit, The Midwest:

The story is minimal, but I like it.

After being framed and jailed for his brother's murder, Fast & furious AU Gordon Freeman is approached by a detective who says "I'm trying to go after the guy who framed you. Would you-"

"I'M IN." he says, slamming his handcuffed fists on the table, itching to get his revenge-murder on.

And from there you're let loose onto the streets of Detroit. There's early story missions that lead you towards St. Louis, but in a game world that vast Skyrim instincts take over, and I almost instantly dick off away from the story and head for a place I would recognize - New York.

Humble beginnings.
Humble beginnings.

New York, The East Coast:

One of the bullet-pointed mechanics of the game is the Skill Challenges that litter the highways. On paper it's a good way to break up the monotony of driving between missions, but the first time a Skill course diverges from the path towards your objective, you're sick of them. That happens quick.

So it was bittersweet when I got far enough out of Detroit that skills became locked off. And once I finally reached New York, it was clear that just about everything to do is locked behind player level progression. This wide open world is functionally entirely empty unless you experience it in the line the designers have laid out. There's nothing inherently wrong with linearity, but it's so directly contrary to the promise of the game's main gimmick. It was infuriatingly disappointing.

But I was able to do what one does in any game based on a real world location: pick a place you're familiar with and compare the game world to the real world. For me, that's the Queens side of the East River by Roosevelt Island. And sure enough, zoom in on New York, and there's Long Island, there's Manhattan, and there's Roosevelt Island! I was able to find a spot that I more or less knew as home.

It feels like a really well crafted shoebox diorama. In my reference spot, I was able to look around and say, "yep, this is about what you would see if you were here in real life." And then you look up and say, "Oh, yeah, and there's what would be right over there, too!" But while "here" and "there" are accurate, the distances are all compressed to surreal effect. It feels right until you notice how there's only 6 blocks between Times Square and "Battery Park" at the southern tip of Manhattan. It's nostalgic and unnerving at the same time, in a way I really dig.

Even though all the missions were locked off to me, there was one thing to do: spiral out from New York to search the East Coast for /hidden car parts/. However, after a couple tedious hours spent combing from D.C. to Maine, I was met with more disappointment. I wouldn't able to redeem the fruits of my labor until I had unlocked the New York headquarters, which is tied to story progression. blocked again. But at least I had gotten an achievement for driving around New York for a while specifically at night. That felt good.

With shoulders slumped, I headed back to Detroit, ready to chain myself to the critical path.

If this were accurate, this is about where my childhood home would be.
If this were accurate, this is about where my childhood home would be.

Detroit, The Midwest, again:

The trip back was painless, thanks to fast travel that allows one to zip to any spot where you've been. It seems like another system that isn't in line with the ethos of "we made the whole US!" gimmick, and more over totally subverts the public transit / airport & train station system in the game. But restrictions on it more would've felt like a punishment for my exploration instincts, so I took it as a kindness.

I begrudgingly followed the story as it took its sweet time making its way to New York.

New York, The East Coast, again:

With the space already exhaustively explored, nothing stopped me from zipping directly from mission to mission, and doing absolutely no driving or exploration outside of the races. Honestly, if it hadn't been for the momentum that let me keep through missions, this is around when I would've dropped out of the game. But I was so close to finally getting that hidden car I worked so hard for, so I kept going.

This time New York welcomed me with new cars. The Nissan I had started with was fitted for off-road missions, and I picked up a Ford Fiesta that felt better on the streets. While I was at it, I took a look to see what I could get with my horde of uPlay points (Trackmania Turbo continues to pay off). Turns out, a sweet Dodge Viper which I was still too low level to properly use anywhere. But I plenty high enough in level to put a sweeeeeet Raving Rabbids sticker on it.

After zipping around through all the East Coast story missions, I finally had to put wheels back down on the road for the long haul down to Miami.

Tuner cars with big dumb off-road parts was actually a selling point for me.
Tuner cars with big dumb off-road parts was actually a selling point for me.

Florida, The South:

Unlike the East Coast, I hadn't gone south at all yet, so I couldn't fast travel. And the distance to Miami was further than it was from Detroit to New York. I got into my newest ride, and settled in.

I set out from New York at night. I watched the sun rise. I drove through a rainstorm that darkened the sky and found glistening wet roads on the other side. When the road widened and the traffic lightened up, the drift physics finally clicked in my head. While the cars had felt unimpressively slidey at the outset, now with the right shaped roads and the right amount of power behind my wheels, sliding sideways around corners came comfortably. The road mirrored the sky, and I experienced a minor zen.

When I arrive I check the map of the area around me. I had driven right through the Florida Everglades. My brain connects a new piece of context to an episode of Dexter's Laboratory I had seen long ago. Also the Gulf of Mexico is there. That's the Florida I remember.

This is probably the best time I had in this game.
This is probably the best time I had in this game.

Vegas, The Mountain States:

The fly-over states. The drive-through states. There's nothing out there but rocks and shrubs. It's clear by just how little of there is besides the road as you drive from Miami all the way to Vegas. It's not New York to LA, but this is where you cross the country.

What welcomes me is a surprise. Each region has a character who is your main voice on the radio for that leg of the story, and each one is introduces with a but of a cutscene. What stands out about this Vegas cutscene is that it actually has nothing car related in it at all. It's just our Main Character, sitting in a diner, late at night, waiting to meet someone who could be friend or foe. Anxiously stirring a cup of coffee, which is the entire meal. A gaze that subtly follow the legs of a woman who walks past, a welcome moment of distraction from the situation. This is a game that doesn't need people. It's about the drive and the speed and the experience points to level up the cars. And yet, for seemingly no reason, there is this moment that succeed at making these non-characters feel human. I was just really caught off guard by it this deep into the game. And just as abruptly as it arrived, it passed.

Okay, cars make a cameo.
Okay, cars make a cameo.

Dallas, The South:

The Mountain States introduces Raid vehicles, a 4th kit of equipment. But it's also the middle section of the game, so they try to mix it up with the other kits we've seen in the game so far. That's fine. What isn't fine is that each kit levels up separately. I haven't used my earlier kits for a while, so they are under powered for the current missions. To get them up to fighting weight, I actually have to head back east, where there are level appropriate skills I can replay for upgrades.

They put grinding in this racing game. I'm incredulous. What was formerly was just disappointment with the implementation of skills suddenly becomes low tier disgust.

So I go east, in a contempt fueled fugue state. I grind the skills. While I'm at it, I begin looking for hidden car parts again. I'm just criss-crossing these barren planes, not even beholden to the roads anymore thanks to the raid kit. Untethered from the world I've known so far.

What pulls me back is a sharp contrast - a grey block rising straight out of the ground in an otherwise flat and barren brown landscape. A city, isolated and unexpected. I had stumbled upon civilization. The curiosity brought me back. I checked my map after a long time being dismissive of it - Dallas. I was in Dallas. I don't know how I got there, but that's where I wound up.

By now I had done enough grinding, so I returned west for more story missions.

It's just...right there.
It's just...right there.

Northern Snow Lands, The Mountain States:

The story leads me north, towards nothing in particular. Slowly snow can be seen building up on the scenery, until we're engulfed by the feeling of isolation brought by the fog of a blizzard in the middle of the night. The hedge maze from the end of The Shining, but having never exited the station wagon from the initial scene.

It forces me to reflect. The last memorable setting was the sunny beaches and damp swamps of Florida, so disconnected from the scene I currently find myself in. The changes have been subtle, all places unified by roads under your wheels, but these mountains finally push past the tolerance of awareness, and force you to realize just how varied all the locales you've visited to far have been. Even the numbing nothingness on the way to Vegas was unique onto itself.

A story mission guides me down a massive ski jump. Fun setpeice, but a ham-handed and ultimately unnecessary attempt at making this a memorable leg of the journey.

Where did the world go?
Where did the world go?

Los Angeles, The West Coast:

From very early on, the West Coast had been marked as the end of the journey. An finish line to track your progress by. I had started to consider it back in the Snow Lands, but now with the finish line in sight the realization of just how far I've come sets in.

More missions. One drops me off rolling down Hollywood Boulevard. I've never been to the real Los Angeles, but I get a vivid flashback to Los Santos. Vinewood Boulevard. Next to where my first apartment in GTA Online was. It shouldn't be surprising, as they're based on the same real world location, but one virtual location being evocative without being identical to another was still striking.

Also there are the obligatory chases through the LA storm drains. They are perfect for it, so I'm not complaining.

Familiar to a place I've still never been.
Familiar to a place I've still never been.

Seattle, The West Coast:

One last diversion north before the finale. If the diorama version of Seattle is as accurate as its been for the other cities, I think I would actually like to travel here. It's a dense enough city, and the sky is never not grey. That's what I look for in a locale.

I wouldn't mind calling this home.
I wouldn't mind calling this home.

San Diego, The West Coast:

The story reaches its climax. You come back down south, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and enter the finale.

So far the last mission of each region has been a "boss fight" of sorts, with multiple sections, mixed objectives, and even vehicle swaps. It's a little bit of escalation that goes just far enough. The final mission of the game is also one of these, but it doesn't do anything to go bigger than any of the "boss fights" so far. The clear path would be to make it the coast to coast race situation that popped into everyone's head from the initial trailer reveal, but it's also understandable how you couldn't make that the finale, as that is a much bigger investment than you can ask of most players.

It almost feels like they even got the feeling that finishing this game at all was a big as for most players. The final mission doesn't reach for anything grander than middle game moments, and the final cutscene is reused intro footage. It's low-effort in a game where cutsenes are barely extant to begin with.

The ending was disappointing. But I knew it was going to be. That's not why I stuck around. I wanted to go to all the places. I wanted to see what was in-between the places. I wanted to get lost. It wasn't about the destination, it really was about the journey.

(But any kind of fanfare at all for finishing that journey really would've gone a long way.)

The final approach.
The final approach.

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The Future, Beyond The Story:

The story is over. There's PVP stuff, but I have no intention of doing that. Certainly not in a game with grind. There are small towns on the map the story didn't take me through, but without any personal connection to them, I feel no urge to go visit them. I could try to get and upgrade all the cars, but it's a small selection to begin with none of my goto car game cars. The expansion Wild Run has been pushed in my face this whole time, but nothing in it looks as motivating as unfinished side missions I already have.

But before I delete it and put this chapter completely behind me, I do feel compelled to do that coast to coast diorama road trip at least once. But it requires some decisions and planning: Just a s straight drive? Do a loop or a zig zag? Have some sort of self imposed scoring system? Find a friend willing to come along? Try to make a video out of it? Which would make it most fun, and how much time am I going to have to set aside for it?

Right now the leading idea is to mimic the route from Crusin' USA, and compare the virtual coast-to-coast experiences. Hopefully I can will that to come to pass. And hopefully soon, as I would do well to have that hard drive space back soon.

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Top 5 Games of 2015

A bit late, but I figured I should write a bit of GOTY stuff.

I try to make Top 5's based on personal experience more than anything else. Mainly because a lot of the time we don't get around to playing games until years after their release, but temporal limitations wouldn't be a fair reason to punish games that are worthy of praise. So just keep that in mind. It's intentional that there are games on my list not from this year.

So. Personal Top 5 game list, not necessarily from this year, and in no particular order:

5. Super Smash Brothers for Nintendo 3DS and WiiU

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Realizing this game made my list was honestly caught me by surprise. I've played a substantial amount of every Smash Bros., and never even really had a great affinity for it until Brawl. I can't even really say this one grabbed me any more than Brawl did (I'd even say less, actually, because Smash Run / Smash Tour aren't reasonable replacements for Subspace Emissary to me). The part that made it so outstanding is how much it grabbed everyone around me.

Smash has been a staple of gatherings with friends, at least since Melee. Yet it was always a game that all but the 1 or 2 most into it people would get burned out on it on after only a few matches, if they would pick up a controller at all. For as dedicated and concrete as the Smash community was and is, there was always a clear gorge between those who were into the game and those who didn't care for it at all. And that's not even getting into the fervor within the community itself over whether each game has merits and flaws or if everything that's not Melee should be burned to the ground.

This is what has made Sm4sh stand out to me. That impossible divide feels like it has all but closed up. Those same people who wouldn't even care to try playing in previous games are comfortable picking up a controller and are more than likely even going to actually have fun. I never dug deep enough to have anything more than an awareness of... Wavedashing? L-Canceling? Shine Sparking? Tripping? Curly-Mustasche'ing? Whatever those civil war-causing mechanical minutiae are, so I can't say how those may have been changed in this iteration that has made it more welcoming to casual players. But it's obvious that this was one of their design goals if from nothing else but the initial online choice of For Fun or For Glory. And strangely, the other place it's clear to me is when you look at 8 player mode and all the controller options. It's so brainlessly simple to setup games with 6 people, 2 Amiibo, GCN controllers, Wiimotes, Pro Controllers, and even 3DS's. Everyone is in, everyone is comfortable, the burnout is all but gone. It's at the point where we don't even need to bring other games to gatherings anymore. It's that bump from "a game everyone either loves or loathes" to "a game that everyone at least likes" that landed it on this list.

...I did mention Amiibo there, didn't I?

Let me lay out the best argument I have for Amiibo. The Amiibo I have for Sm4sh are basically all the characters that were considered for but wound up not being my main. So I wound up with 6 of them. I think of them as my backup. More specifically, I think of it as an alternate universe version of the Squads game mode from Call of Duty Ghosts. Load up the 8 player mode, split it into two teams, each team is lead by a human player and a team of three Amiibo. Is that any more enticing? Maybe not. But it feels better. It's knowing that I've worked with these AI's to train them up to fighting capacity. I've spent hours with them, and have watched them go from a confused punching bag to an infuriating rival. It's a feeling that reminds me of the first time I played Pokemon, growing my team and taking on the world. But this time, instead of standing behind my Charizard and having it eat shitty birds for hours, I'm standing across from it and screaming "SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT!" My computer buddy and I get stronger by beating the shit out of each other. This is why I love my computer friends.

4. Rocket League

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Sm4sh made the list because of the kind of splash it made when playing games with people in person. A case where their joy fed my joy. This is not the norm. I'm not a big people person. I would rather play through mediocre campaigns and AI matches, or simply not play at all, than go out and find new people to play games with. Pub matches are a special kind of hell. This is key to the rest of my list. These are all games that were so good, I willingly sought out online matches with randos just so I could play more. Rocket League is that good.

The brilliance of Rocket League is in how it combines elements of simplicity and complexity. Saying it's soccer with car is actually saying too much, since is never comes close to that level of rules complexity. There's nothing that will get you penalized, so you just do whatever you can to get the ball in the net. Such a simple goal wouldn't be particularly engaging on its own, which is why they set it inside the bed of chaos that is a 3D physics sandbox. If this were some kind of traditional soccer game, it would also have some abstract concept of ball control. "this player has the ball," and will continue to just sort of have it until they decide to shoot it away or it's taken from them. Rocket League battle-cars have no such analog. The only way you relate to the ball is to be in it's way at a very specific place and time, and bash into it with fingers cross that it'll actually go at least somewhat in the direction you wanted. It's a soccer game in the same way that Toribash is a fighting game.

Even in the controls themselves there's a decided balance between intent and chaos. Putting double jump into your game is a major step on the path towards control above simulation. Any for of air control is a method for making sure the player can still continue to have agency, even at an unnatural point such as suspended in mid-air. It's one of the considerations for a game's feel, whether you would call it tight, sloppy, or stiff. There's a range of how strong this sense can be in a game, and "multi directional air-juke" puts Rocket League pretty high up. But for as well tuned as the controls feel, they still made the decision to put players in cars. This is a limitation on movement. You can't strafe, boost only works in one direction, and if you land on your roof you have right yourself before you can do anything else. Keep going in the same direction and eventually you wind up somewhere around the control wall of Steel Battalion. But Rocket League takes it just far enough that, with the extra movement ability they give you, pulling off the moves you want is always feels just-out-of-reach-yet-not-impossible.

Soccer is probably the wrong comparison. Really it's a lot more like car billiards. Except there's up to 8 players, and everyone takes their turns all at the same time, tripping over each other. But whether you play it as a chaos-box fun-time or as a 1-on-1 test of who is better at doing this simple feat through complex mean, Rocket League is guaranteed source of edge-of-the-seat excitement. In fact, just like with Sm4sh, far more people got into the game than I expected. Plus it's got a pretty good selection of cosmetic items for playing dress-up with your car, and that gives any game a ton of points in my book.

3. Duck Game

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I first learned of and got my hands on Duck Game at PAX East early in the year, and ever since that brief introduction it was a game I was super excited to own a copy of. In many ways it's just another entry in the local-4-player-minimal-competitive-party-game genre (you know, Samurai Gunn, Towerfall, Lethal League, and, oh, I dunno, Sportsball?), but It was one moment in particular that cemented the game in my mind as a must-have:

One level starts off with the 4 players sectioned off to the corners of the map, with a sword and set of armor for each of them. In the middle of the map is an inconspicuous magnet gun. The magnet gun isn't a weapon that deals damage, but instead has a number of other uses. Most relavent to this case, it is able to pick up a pieces of platemail armor, even if a player happens wearing it at the time. At the time, none of the players had any idea that this interaction existed, so everyone had decked themselves out with the presented armor, and as soon as someone picked up the magnet gun by accident, all hell broke loose. It was a glorious moment of "WHAT IS EVEN GOING ON? THAT'S A THING THAT CAN HAPPEN???"

That's what's so mind blowing about Duck Game. Yeah it's a multiplayer 2D deathmatch, but all the pieces in it interact with each other in far more ways than you would expect. At points it feels like Spelunky levels of Domino Rally chain-reactions. Here, let me give you another example:

A player is dumping rounds with a minigun. Stray shots pierce a nearby barrel and it begins to leak oil. The minigun has been firing for so long that it overheats and jams, refusing to fire any more until it has a chance to cool off. Rather than wait, the player chooses to throw the gun down and go look for another weapon. Now the cool part: The minigun lands in the pool of leaking oil, and the overheated barrel ignites the oil into a huge raging fire. Then even more chaos breaks out depending on what players or items are unfortunate enough to be within the area that is now nothing but flames.

It sounds like chaos, and it is. But it's a tractable chaos. Every piece of that chain is visible before it starts, and if you know about the available interactions there are steps you can take to have an ounce of control over it. Plus there are certain spots where there's an extra level of control fidelity that can be taken advantage of. When you hold a grenade, the fire button don't throw it, but simply pulls the pin. This is because there is a button dedicated to picking up / throwing weapons already. Not only does this lead to a lot of suicides the first time someone picks up a grenade, but also a few more interesting tricks to pull. If you can catch them in the window between pulling the pin and throwing it, and bonk them with a heavy enough object, you can make them drop the live grenade at their feet instead of chucking it elsewhere. Or you could even throw a dud grenade as a feint if you wanted. Maybe not the most useful of moves, but that the game is specific enough to allow that sort of trick is the impressive part to me.

Plus there's a button dedicated to quacking. Hold the button and your mouth stays open. Quacking has no function, but you can do it incessantly, and even in certain menus. And for some reason, there's nothing quite as hilarious as the last remaining player quacking a split second before the screen fades out into the level transition. It's the other side of the game. Even though most of it is, much like Rocket League, about gaining skill in controlling an otherwise chaotic space, it also knows it's just a silly crazy thing. It's called duck game. There are "weapons" that are just musical instruments that don't do damage, they just let players jam together. There's a cake tileset. Games have a post-game wrapup hosted by John Mallard. It doesn't take itself seriously, and I think the players get the message that they shouldn't either. Like I said, a major theme of this list is games good enough to brave playing with randos, and randos in Duck Game were never really that bad. Yeah, some will just stomp you outright and they know that's where their skills are at, but even they will hold their fire for a second to jam on some drums mid match.

2. Grand Theft Auto Online

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Speaking of rando horror stories, Grand Theft Auto Online is the sort of nightmare hellscape you would expect out of an online world filled with GTA fans. And yet, I've put more time into player infested Los Santos than into the entire story of offline GTA5 proper. It feels bizarre, and saying it out loud seems to paint a picture of a virtual masochist. It's hard to argue, but I wouldn't be this deep in if there weren't something overwhelmingly satisfying in it, right? (...Right?)

I mentioned above with Rocket League that a game gets points with me for letting you play dressup, but that's an understatement. I'm an absolute sucker for it. And GTAO not only has it in spades, but adds a sense of ownership to it all. As I stand on the balcony of my home in the hills, soaking in my cherished view of the lit up skyline of the sprawling city below, I'm happy to know that I've got a closet full of my favorite outfits bought piece by piece from stores across the city, a garage full of cars each customized for a specific job and mood, and even a second apartment down in the city closer to where all the action goes down. Everything I have is my favorite picks out of tons more options of each from across the city. And not only do I have these, but I earned these.

Okay, when first jumping into the game, the activities available aren't ones anyone really cares about. MP deathmatches and races and CTF type stuff. (I'm still a fan of open world racing, but I know everyone else is burned out on it by now. Hah.) But even before you open them for yourself you can jump into to PvE missing hosted by other players. It's some vague story-like stuff, it's the almost raid-style complex and challenging heists, and most importantly it's all interesting setups for exciting action sequences. Hijack a tanker barreling down the highway. Stealth your way into a facility to take out security systems. Steal a VTOL prototype right off of an aircraft carrier and use more jet fighters to escort it back to your hideout. It's the co-op version of SP style missions that everyone was hoping for!

But even outside of the scripted missions, there's a possibility for wackyness that keeps me just wandering around the city. Yes, you're guaranteed to run into players who just have the most expensive armored cars and guns and are just going around razing any players that come into range. But amazingly enough, there are maybe more players who are the opposite of that. Pull up next to someone on the street and start honking, and they very well might just jump in your car ready for whatever ride you're gonna give them. Impromptu kind-spirited bumper car matches. Sitting in a park sharing and eating snacks together. Go to the airport and grab some planes and see who has the bigger balls when it comes to flying under bridges. Or even just Doing donuts on the beach, dumping rounds into the air, and having a good hearty laugh when someone inevitably winds up flipping their car right into the ocean. To me it evokes the aimless, meandering play of kids on a summer's day, which is both unexpected as hell and pretty enchanting.

I think what makes this world work - what gives satisfaction to earning possessions and encourages peaceful unguided play - is a certain set of rules and systems regarding repercussions put in play by the developers. A car truly becomes yours when you purchase insurance for it, because once it's insured it will be replaced. And the replacement will be paid for by whoever was responsible for it's destruction. And not only will the jerk who blew up your car be forced to replace it, but then they're marked with a rising mental state, so other players know he's a jerk. If their mental state gets high enough, they will even have a bounty placed on them, so they are punished by being made a target. Or, if a player is so mad they don't want to wait that long, there are systems in place for them to set a bounty themselves, or even take other actions like hiring muggers, assassins, bodyguards, or bribing police for a window of indulgence to take care of matters themselves. It's a mix of systems in place that doesn't prevent non-stop chaos, but works to police it to a reasonable level with the help of the other players.

A system to keep players responsible and maybe a little respectful is something I don't think anyone expected to exist, or else "GTA Online" wouldn't immediately get the gut response "What!? No! Why would anyone!?" But what it does is cut down on the nightmare, and gives people the chance to enjoy being in and building up some ownership over the masterfully crafted space that is Los Santos. That's really what it all adds up to: Los Santos is just a place that I enjoy being in.

1. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

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I'm not a guy who gets angered easily. But the moment when I hit the second / final credit scroll in MGSV is in the top 3 most red-faced, stuttering, wake up cursing in the middle of the night infuriating moments of my year. Maybe I felt this anger stronger than other people because Quiet's Goodbye was the very final mission I did, and there was no more uncharacteristic of a mission to send the game off on. An unavoidable firefight, that you inexplicably get locked into such that it takes away the menu option to return to base. I don't remember how, but I did eventually escape that which was designed to be inescapable, which was actually the more feasible option considering that I had went in with the loadout I used for the rest of the game: Sneaking suit, tranq pistol, and D-Dog only. Going back decked out with armor and rockets made completing the mission possible, but then

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Podcasts from the Oleetku Studios Podcast Network!

So for anyone who is looking for new podcasts, we just released the first episode of No Credit Continue, a review podcast talking about the freeware and free-to-play games that are worth checking out. But while I'm at it, I'll just post the whole thing up here (reposted from the Oleetku tumblr, which you should check out if you're curious about the other stuff I'm working on).

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Everyone gets busy around the Studio. So after the normal day is over, Nick and Ryan sit down to catch up with each other inside of the magic circle known as Late Nite.

View on iTunes - Visit the homepage

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Nick has always been enchanted by the antics of has-been-superhero hosted late night talk show Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Like he’s kinda obsesed with it and everything it touched. Now he is inflicting it sharing it with co-host Jo, as well as everyone listening, by watching an episode every week and then recording a short discussion about it.

View on iTunes - Visit the homepage

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No Credit Continue is your podcast source for freeware and free-to-play games. Tune in to hear Nick and Andrew talk about all the amazing games you could be playing right now!

View on iTunes - Visit the homepage

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Long time listeners to the Oleetku Studios Podcast need not fear! You are already subscribed to all of these new shows! Everything we put out will be collected into one feed, so you don’t have to worry about subscribing to multiple feeds to keep up to date on our shows. New episodes every Sunday!

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And we have more shows in the works, so keep your eyes peeled! If you want to tell us about what you’d like to see, let us know on our facebook page.

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New Game - Jeff Penguinn's Cartridge Stacking Professional

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So after watching Giant Bomb's Unprofessional Fridays: 10/31/2014 I was left with the image of Jeff Gerstmann sitting there in a penguin costume, struggling to play Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo on a modular CPS-2 setup.

I was giggling, I was weeping. I knew I had to do something. This game is the result of the few weeks after that broadcast. I had 3 goals while making it:

  1. Make a match-3 game using only red-green colorblind friendly colors. As it turns out, that means mainly yellow and blues.
  2. Have a "drop a cart onto its matching console to score" mechanic. Something like Kirby's Star Stacker or Burger Time.
  3. Make a game! This is the first game I've made by myself from scratch (well, in Game Maker: Studio). Until now I've had to rely on other people for coding. So just having something full and playable is an accomplishment for me.

Coded in Game Maker: Studio. All art created from scratch. Music created using MTV Music Generator for the PS1.

Check it out and grab the game from its itch.io page! It's free! It's not a big game, but I think it's fun for what it is!

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Journal of a man who hates DotA

Honestly, I would go so far as to say I hate DotA, and all it's ilk.

At first I assumed it was just because I was bad at it, and had never been a big fan of any RTS or even Diablo-style games. But there was something more to it, something that was actively offensive to me about it's mechanical design. That I could put my finger on what it specifically was that I hated about the game drove me nuts, and so to-date, I have put in:

  • 24 Steam hours of DotA2. That accounts for 19 games, 12 of which are full public matches, and 6 of those twelve were wins. All games were with one or two friends on voice chat. Spent around 5 bucks on cosmetic items with Steam wallet funds made from selling trading cards.
  • Level 12 in League of Legends, but with reportedly 9 or 29 wins, which I think depends on whether or not you count bot matches. I've unlocked 3 champs by choice, and have also put in $10 (but to be fair that was for the Nurse Akali skin which was a donation to Haiti).
  • A few hours each into Awesomenauts and Super / Monday Night Combat, and possibly some others trying to be a DotA-like without the classic interface.

*edit* I put these here for the sake of honesty. I'm not claiming to be an expert player, nor am I trying to make an argument that DotA is a bad game that everyone should stay away from. Before I began playing there was something I didn't like about the game, but I couldn't pin down what it was. It has taken this long for me to understand the game and it's system to the point where I realize and can put into words the elements of it that make it a game I don't want to play. *end edit* (Putting time into a game I don't like isn't unique to DotA for me. I have a number of Halo achievements you wouldn't expect to see from someone who has openly said they don't like the Halo games.)

I have trouble finding exact stats on how much time I've put into DotA-likes, but it's more than I ever wanted to play. But in that time, I have managed to pin down and think about how to fix the problems that I think overwhelm an otherwise tense, strategic, and fairly deep game.

The First Problem - The Mental Jump

I come from a background of largely FPS games. So when I show up, and the team kills are posted at the top of the screen, and you tell me that you win once you destroy the other team's core, it sounds like a lot of objective based TDM skills will be transferable. In actuality, they are not.

In objective TDM, cover your teammates, distract and flank opponents, and kill them so that you have time to do the objective while they rush back from wherever they spawned. DotA is deceitful, because there is a valid situation where you can follow this very pattern: the lane push. Clear the wave, kill or chase off the heroes in lane, and then hit the tower and try to take it down before the heroes come back. So the FPS'er in me says, "Alright, well we need to kill the core to win, we need to kill these towers to kill the core, and we need to kill or chase off the laning heroes to kill the towers. So let's attack, chase them off, get the towers, and get the core all before they do the same to us. This is what we need to get good at." Even now, explaining it this way makes a lot of sense to me. However, the RPG roots of DotA give it an element that makes this entire understanding of the game essentially useless.

Heroes level up. Stats go up, items are bought, abilities get better. And they stay better for the rest of the game. In traditional DM games, players spawn on the same level. Same health, same crappy gun, same possibilities laid out before them. And they get better over the course of a match through picking up new guns, getting power-ups, and controlling secure spots on the map (either through traps or just finding a good wall to put your back against). But when someone kills you in DM, you respawn just as you were when you first entered the game. The playing field is being kept even by resetting players every so often. Dota has momentum. A positive feedback loop. Once someone gets big, they stay big, and it only gets easier for them to get bigger. The only way to even the field is for other players to catch up.

So that's the unapparent truth of DotA. Kills and towers seem like an obvious measure of progress, but they're largely irrelevant when compared to team levels. DotA is about the race to get yourself (and ideally your whole team) leveled up faster than your opponents. While watching a Heroes of the Storm stream, I noticed right away and was relieved to see that they put the team level right up at the top of the screen, just as big as the team kills. The towers aren't there to be an objective to take out, they're there to buy you time to grow powerful. If you can get big enough fast enough, then you can do whatever you want, including taking those towers and rampaging straight on to the core. But before the level difference is wide enough to pull off a game winning sweep, you're likely going to use that power to harass the other team. Which leads to what I've found to be the second biggest mental plateau into understanding DotA.

The only effect you can have on another player is to deny them something - to inhibit their growth. Denying isn't unique to DotA. Not by a long shot. In the traditional FPS setting, you could deny another player by grabbing a power-up before they do. But it's a better move to just focus on killing them, because then they won't get that pick-up, AND any other progress they made this life will be reset. Killing a hero in DotA doesn't put them back any, it just denies them the time on the field earning experience. But at the same time, you can deny them that by pushing them out of lane, by tricking them into wasting time fighting you, or simply killing the unit they're about to get XP off of (this specific denial mechanic is specific to DotA, but the rest are valid almost anywhere). And all of these are generally more efficient than killing another hero, but give the same effect as a kill, so they are more important than kills. To kill or deny is the choice to waste your time and theirs, or just theirs while you continue to farm and grow.

This mechanic, and the core idea it brings of the only way to affect opponents is to get under their feet, I think leads to what most people consider the biggest problem of DotA-likes.

The Second Problem - "Stop feeding."

The part of DotA where players fight, are popping skills, trying to land combos, dodging, coordinating on lanes, and ganking and stuff is solid. But unless that goes tit-for-tat, one side of the fight gets bigger, and the game goes back to being entirely about momentum. Since the momentum race is apparently, once again, the biggest factor of a match, it means the denial and stifling of the opponents growth is the main way players fight. To get under their feet. To yank each small victory away from them. This means that the main competitive mechanic is for players to be spiteful, annoying, sadistic, vindictive, little shit-heads to each other. That's it. That's the way this versus game is played.

So when people wonder why this game is known for having a pretty vitriolic community, and Valve has had to try so much to keep players friend, I don't find myself too surprised. Personally, the problem that I feel I've run into more than anything else is players on my team yelling at me to, "Stop feeding!" I think this is a pretty good summation of the symptoms, tho.

And just so we're on the same page, if you're "feeding the enemy," that means that the enemy is killing you over and over.

...Did you catch that? The way that someone else is doing something, but you're getting yelled at for it? Strange, isn't it?

Well, let's try it again. "Stop feeding," maybe more translates into, "Stop letting the enemy kill you." Okay, there's something actionable in there. You could stop presenting yourself to the enemy. If they're killing you over and over, it means that at some point they a subtle edge over you 2 or 3 times, and it rolled and now they're straight bigger than you and you can't stand up to them anymore. So fighting - or even harassing, or maybe even just standing in sight - means dying. So don't fight. But to not be in lane means they're not going to be hindered in their farming. That's unacceptable too, though, because hindering enemies is the only thing to be done in the game. Well, the other solution is to get help from someone else on your team and gang up. But everyone else is already dealing with their own stuff, trying to deny the enemy in their own lane. Moving to rescue you means a deficit in another lane, so that hasn't really helped anything.

So really, "Stop feeding," actually means, "You've already fucked up, we're basically down a man." DotA is a game where it is arguably more harmful to your team for you to play badly than to not play at all. So don't start playing unless you're a prodigy, I guess.

It's just such a weird and kind of shitty loop. If everyone is playing optimally, then both teams stay even because both are getting so undermined that no one can rush ahead. And as soon as someone slips up, that's when the other team has a chance to get ahead. The game has no risk-reward mechanics to let you push your team forward by being skillful, nor are there any real mechanics to knock your opponents backwards. You are either playing optimally, or failing to step on your opponents foot and / or not optimally farming experience.

Actually, that's not entirely true. The Divine Rapier and the Gem of True Sight are two items with drop on death. A hero carrying these items can be regressed by killing them, because it will force them to lose an item they earned. But with the way the rest of the unfolds, it is I think more likely that the player who bought the item will be blamed purchasing it at a poor time when they couldn't hold onto it, rather than the killing player be praised for taking them out.

Getting better at a game and learning to play skillfully is inherently satisfying, but DotA has such a dismal basic game flow that it really kills any want I have to get to that high level of play. It's like a water slide but instead of a pool at the end it's just asphalt. You're likely to get hurt, you're just trying to keep it from being too much that you can't go again. And even the water slide itself, in this case, I think isn't quite worth riding on.

The Third Problem - Needless UI missteps

Some have said that the minutiae of DotA is part of the depth of it. I wouldn't call it the depth, however. Rather, I'd say the subtlitites of DotA are split between mechanical idiosyncrasies and plain poor design. The courier and TP scrolls, compared to the recall ability of League of Legends, are an idiosyncrasy. Systems that accomplish the same task, but change certain specific considerations in how to best accomplish it, but ultimately has no impact on the overall flow of the game. On the other hand, there are some specific, frustrating, and as far as I can tell pointlessly complex subtleties which I chalk up to being remnants of modding an RTS up against the very limits of its engine. Attributing these aspects to the depth of the game is bullshit, and anyone .

I already wrote a short blog post on high skill floors, and the nature of making simple tasks harder. There is difference between what I talked about liking there and what I'm haranguing against here. When raising the skill floor, it needs to be done with purpose. The difficulty and depth of DotA comes from the skill in engaging fights, the experience to know when to pressure, defend, or farm, and the knowledge to to adapt to enemy builds. There are very few issues that make up the set I'm attacking here, but they anger me most because they really have no purpose, and other games adhering to the formula have already gone on to smooth them over for what I feel is a better design.

The courier has given me much trouble in my time with the game. Not the existence of the courier, mind you. Giving you sustainability in lane while also being a vulnerability leads to tactical decisions which require mastery to use effectively. But the way it is incorporated into the interface is kind of a mess. More than once I've run into troubles with juggling items from different players on the same carrier, having it deliver items but then leaving return home with items because of a miscount of slots, being unclear with what it's holding unless you click on it, then being able to leave it adrift from a mis-click or just forgetting that it is still the unit under your control. Again, some of this is clearly left over from a game engine that expect control over multiple units, but in what it now a game which keeps a player's mind focused on control of a single unit. So I'm not saying that the courier is the problem, and being able to do interesting things with it is good and does add to the game, but there is no reason beyond stubborn expectation that there shouldn't be a better, clearer way to integrate and control it.

As much as I can complain about the integration of the courier, I have almost as big a problem with the shop itself. The layout is inscrutable unless you have everything memorized, or you search for what you want. But if every item is laid out so it's all only one click away, and you have to type out what you want, something has gone wrong with your layout. You can select guides going in that just highlight what you should go for, but as not an expert player I've found myself having to react and adapt often enough that I never get a chance to follow through on a guide. More than that, there have been times I've bought the parts to complete an item, but when they get into my slots and combine it picks unintended items that I already had and I wind up with a combined item that wasn't the combined item I clicked on to purchase the remaining parts. I don't even know what leads to that happening, but it happened from no fault of my own, and can be a setback if the unintended item you wind up with can't be reclaimed or used for something else useful. And if there's some kind of claim that juggling items in your slots to make sure the right combinations happen is some level of depth, then the person making that claim is wrong. Choosing a specific item and winding up with an entirely different one because of some unforeseen hitch in the engine coding is inexcusable.

Maybe if I had gotten into the original DotA my feelings would be different. But after hearing the extents that went into rebuilding DotA for DotA2, even to the lengths of programming in specific cases to reproduce glitches caused by the original engine that didn't occur in the new one, I found myself almost disgusted. It's that mindset of staying blindly loyal to the original, rather than trying to make major improvements and create a better game, that drives me to prefer League of Legends. Still the lesser of two evils, mind you, but the point remains.

There is one specific point that continues to stand out to me as illustrating the difference in philosophy between DotA and League. In DotA, every movement on the character requires a new click. In League, if you hold down right click and move the cursor, your hero will adjust and run towards wherever your cursor currently is. It's a subtle change, but I think it's exemplary. DotA development is tweaking, trying certain things big things to see what they can get away with that people will enjoy, but leaving everything else as is, almost to a fault. Perhaps because they're scared that if they change something as core and visceral as the controls they'll be hit by universal blow-back. Where as League feels like a product where everything was reconsidered to see if it could be made better for what the game was, unafraid to depart from the game's history. They also made a number of idiosyncratic changes along the way, but the interface alone feels like something that was created to support the game, not hacked together just to get the idea up and running.

That meta-game masteries and rune pages stuff is total bullshit, tho. Makes the momentum kick in a bit even before the match has actually started. The hero unlocks I don't mind tho, keeps the pool from being too overwhelming for new players, and by the time you figure out who you like you'll be able to unlock a couple.

In a way, I look at DotA-likes and feel like with just a bit of tinkering you could play them almost entirely with twin-stick shooter type controls. The interesting and challenging part of the game isn't the interface, it's the decisions you make mid match, trying to eek out a sliver of footing that you can snowball into a win. There is no denying that the well matched teams have a great back and forth that makes for tense and engaging games. And Heroes of the Storm looks to negate the power of momentum by unifying levels across the whole team, but my guess is that without building stats piecemeal a lot of players will feel like it's some kind of slimmed down experience. But increased evenly matched team-fights and interesting, unique maps may make up for it, while making the game into a pretty different beast. I feel League has had success with their 3 other modes / maps (Twisted Treeline's two lanes helps get rid of that "I couldn't hold my lane and now my team is a man down" feeling). But ultimately, I don't think any of these fixes would make me want to play a DotA-like, because I really don't enjoy a game where all you do is be vindictive little shits to one another.

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