All-New Saturday Summaries 2017-03-18

This week, I've been considering the impact of first impressions. Obviously there's a lot to unpack there as it pertains to real life and social interaction, but let's just focus on video games for the sake of avoiding a whole lot of social nuance talk I'm dangerously unqualified to weigh in on. The most prevalent current example of the detrimental effects of a failed first impression is the upcoming Mass Effect Andromeda, which has been drawing scorn and ridicule for its inexplicably bad animations and character faces. Because it'll be a few more days before we get anything concrete about how the game plays and where its story will go - I suspect we'll have something a lot like Dragon Age: Inquisition, personally - we're naturally discussing what we do know, and what we have seen so far, and that's the aforementioned walking (I say walking, but perhaps "awkward strutting" is more apt) nightmares occupying the new Nexus Station and the USS Not-Normandy.

I suspect Peebee over here was not her character model animator's personal best.
I suspect Peebee over here was not her character model animator's personal best.

It's been a while since I've seen a game draw so much ire on so little details, but that's the importance of a good first impression. Looks are never the be-all and end-all of the quality of a game (or a person, for that matter) but they are the first thing we see and process, so they can't help but define who or what something is until we learn more about them. In ME:A's case, it might serve to draw a lot of people away from what could be an entirely acceptable open-galaxy BioWare RPG. At least, I'd like to hope it's entirely acceptable. There's some grousing about the slightly more integral writing and gunplay, and how often you'll be running around alien worlds activating alien pillars with hide-and-seek and sudoku mini-games, and it could well be that the goofy swaggers and inexpressive faces are simply the tip of the iceberg. Time will tell how well the game ends up doing, with many folk I know here on GB and elsewhere who are either all-in regardless because it has the Mass Effect name attached or they immediately dropped their pre-orders at the first sight of FemRyder's manic grin.

Closer to home, I felt that way about this week's Indie Game of the Week. Rather than be perturbed by its graphical issues (it's all pixel art, and looks glorious), I simply couldn't do with its lagging issues. I've never been the type of guy to fret about framerates, but in some games it's more integral to others, especially fast-twitch action games and online games where it's often the difference between life and death. Because of my oft-discussed completionist nature, I tend to only play games the one time, and I think this week's Indie Game's one chance to impress me already came and went. I'm sure it has its legion of fans - it's one of a few games I stuck on this year's List of Shame because of how frequently it appeared in 2016 GOTY lists - and I hope they appreciate how much more of a chore that game can be when it's not running at a smooth fixed framerate. And - as with Mass Effect Andromeda - it isn't to say that it doesn't have other problems which aren't quite as prominent.

Anyway, I've chain-dashed around the bush long enough, here's this week's content for your perusal:

  • This week's The Top Shelf was a fun one to write, packed as it was with the full breadth of what anyone might reasonably find in my PS2 library: a combination of 3D platformers, RPGs, character action, survival horror, weird license games, games I'd never normally buy but ended up in my collection anyway and at least one game that I never thought I'd like but ended up being one of my system favorites. The list of "Approved" games continues to climb, and we're only one third of the way through the collection with many improved sequels and games that make better use of the tech in general left to go.
  • The Indie Game of the Week, discussed above, is Hyper Light Drifter. Everyone seemed to really enjoy the game, but whether it was the sub-optimal experience or the fact that I've played a lot of Zelda clones recently, something about it didn't quite work for me. It was major annoyances like the framerate, but also a bunch of smaller annoyances like the ridiculous trophy requirements (never make "don't die once" a target if your game auto-saves after every death, what the hell are you doing?), the fact that found collectibles don't carry over after deaths and that there's no way to see collectibles on the map if you need to sweep up in the late- or post-game (for the record, I found 185/186 of the gold collectibles. No idea where to start looking for that last one). The game conflates satisfying challenge with irritating fake difficulty one too many times for my liking also, with erratic checkpoints, a temperamental chain-dash move and traps that will knock you into other traps to create instant death loops. HLD certainly has its charms, but I might still take an Ittle Dew, Evoland or Oceanhorn over it.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

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I've fallen completely under Deus Ex: Mankind Divided's spell, despite preparing myself for a sub-par Jensen experience. The game still has that series-long issue (if it's even an issue) where the number of options presented gives me anxiety over optimal routes and solutions to problems, and for the time being I'm absolutely aiming for the pacifist and no-alarms run because that's how I play stealth games regardless. If I get a weird ragdoll that kills itself somehow or flip an alarm seconds before leaving a place and void the trophy without realising, I'm not going to lose sleep over it. I acquired enough Pavlovian twitches trying to S-rank Human Revolution.

Mankind Divided starts strong enough with an abilitease prologue, a new hub city (Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, which was curiously enough the setting for half of Dreamfall Chapters, another recent dystopian cyberpunk game) and some fun new abilities in the form of Jensen's "hidden" experimental augs. The abilitease moment knocked most of Jensen's augs out - all of which return to be purchased again with invaluable praxis kits - but added these new ones that require some min-maxing to acquire. Min-maxing in the sense that you need to permanently remove some of them to use the others. It's a little restrictive as systems go, but Deus Ex was always focused on builds: you know ahead of time what kind of game you're playing, whether you're brute-forcing every enemy scenario or stealthing past silently, and the new augs offer a half-and-half mix of combat and stealth options. It's no big deal to lose half of those abilities, then, since your approach won't need them anyway.

I'm getting used to the unusual character animations too, since that's apparently the theme for this blog. I can't quite put my finger on why they're so unusual, but I suspect the added amount of expressivity and motion is making them slightly resemble cartoon characters. Deus Ex has always felt a bit unreal with its near-future world of cyborg people and crazy late-21st century fashion, and so I wonder if there was a deliberate decision to edge the character models to a slightly more unrealistic direction to emphasize the game's alien setting. Or maybe they were trying their best and accidentally took a detour into uncanny valley, and I'm just being a colossal jerk. Moving on.

Honestly, I've spent most of this week's Deus Ex game time just exploring Prague. It's not the biggest open-world map, but it has a level of connectivity that's fun to explore, as various vents and breakable walls lead to all sorts of places. The game's XP reward system is heavily weighted towards exploration and solving quests over gains from combat, and you get XP for almost everything: hacking a terminal, winning a debate (I love that the "C.A.S.I.E." emotional state reader is back), using remote hacking to turn a TV or radio on/off, and finding new paths to familiar and unfamiliar locations. However the biggest point gains besides quests come from the treasured Smooth Operator and Ghost bonuses: the former is given for never tripping an alarm in a situation where you have to avoid enemies, and the latter for never getting spotted in same. I don't know if they balanced the combat approach so it gets an equal amount of XP from completing hostile areas in a slightly less subtle way, but I suspect that route probably won't need as many augs regardless.

Personally, I want as many augs as possible, including a full hacking suite and all those fun traversal-enabling powers like higher jumps, temporary immunity to poison gas, being able to lift heavier objects and falling large distances without dying, so I'm doing everything I can in this relatively safe hub city environment before moving on with the plot. I'll no doubt have more to say about the game's story and characters (within spoiler limits, of course) next week. (I might also have to touch upon the game's overt political messages about segregation and bigotry too, since they ended up becoming more prevalent than anyone dared imagine after 2016.)

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