Last But Not Least

"What are you doing, bud" I asked my TV. Trico. He was rolling around in a shallow pool of water, emitting bassy chirps of pleasure. I couldn't help but crack a smile. The goofy playfullness reminded me of my dogs back home, and as it had done dozens of times already, The Last Guardian instigated a sudden pang of homesickness.

This is the exact moment I fell in love with this dumb goofball.
This is the exact moment I fell in love with this dumb goofball.

"No, that way" I pointed again, stamping my little feet in frustration. Trico's head snaked around to look at me, curiously. Tilted slightly to one side, he regarded me and my frustration stoically. But then his ears twitch, perked, and his head snaps back to the direction I had motioned. His feet shuffle around, tail swishing past and almost knocking me off my feet. I can't help but grin again, as I leap clumsily onto the back of his leg, just as his ruffled wings spread in preperation for takeoff. Fucking finally!

The Last Guardian is a beautiful game, and in it's own way, groundbreaking.

There is more personality and life to Trico than to any number of voiced human characters you could name. To make a character feel alive, you need to give it independence; The game will prompt you to issue commands, but often they feel less like commands and more like requests, which are slowly and methodically considered and then either dismissed or carried out. There will be misunderstandings, and frustrations. And then sometimes everything will click, and you'll feel so in tune and grateful that you cannot help but feel pride at what you've both just accomplished. "Good boy!" I mutter to my TV, overwhelmed with relief. Yeah!

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It's hard to stay mad at Trico. He doesn't always promptly do what you want, but in a way that is often incredibly endearing. It doesn't feel like you're fighting an algorithm, it's as though you're training an animal. Trico has been so carefully crafted that it's impossible to think of him as just a tool to help you achieve your goals; he is a companion, one that may at times be obtuse, though through his grace and intuition he is seldom held responsible. It's your job to help him understand what you need him to do, and if you can't then that's your fault, not his.

This is naturalistic game design at it's finest.

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There are systems in play, of course, and there is slight repetition of gameplay elements and mechanics. Of these, many are far from perfect (One could argue that the core antagonist in the Last Guardian is the camera, maliciously uncooperative in such a precarious and claustrophobic landscape). But what makes The Last Guardian shine is its attention to detail. It's in the gutteral barks Trico shoots at you as you clamber over fallen masonry, in his nervous hopping after being spooked, his feline mistrust of water, and his piercing focus when he sees you lumbering forward with a treat. It's in the way your arms boyishly flail around as you rush down the stairs, and in your heartbreakingly piteous limping after taking a heavy fall. There's over 9 years worth of attention to detail in this game, and it shows.

Since finishing The Last Guardian I still feel that weird protective attachment to Trico. It's sometimes unsettling to think that so many other people are sharing those experiences, which seem so personal. That sense of ownership is strong, and it feels strange knowing that you have to share it.

"Bonding" is often characterised by emotions such as affection and trust. And shared hardships, and sadness. Terrible, terrible sadness.

Thanks for reading

Love Sweep

9 Comments

The microtransactions in Gears 4 are a total ripoff

Last week I wrote a blog about the campaign of Gears 4, specifically about it's storytelling (as oppose to it's mechanics) and you can read that over here, if you'd like. If you'd not like then that's also fine. You do you.

Since then I've had a chance to spend some time with the multiplayer aspect of the game and, now that I'm nearing level 40, it's time to weigh in; Gears 4 multiplayer is pretty great! The maps are fun, the new game modes are interesting, encouraging teamwork and experimentation with new weapons and tactics, and the social playlists make it much easier to drop in and out of matches. Horde mode is still great, and the new levels of control you have over the purchase and deployment of defences and weapons totally scratches that Home Alone itch of wanting to invent the perfect death-trap. Class skills add an extra layer of strategy, as well as allowing players to buff the roles in which they feel most comfortable to better aid their team.

It feels really awesome to have so many positive things to say about Gears 4 multiplayer.

It's a shame that this is all undercut by their absolutely moronic progression structure and exorbitant microtransactions.

The way this progression is currently structured, loot crates can either be bought with ingame credits or real world moneybones. You can bolster this by completing bounties, multiplayer side-objectives like face-stabbing 10 dudes in a single match, or completing a game with a specific character. You'll unlock 500 credits at every 5 levels (Why not 100 every 1 level, guys?). You'll also get between 50-100 credits for each multiplayer match you complete, depending on how well you do. This sounds like a lot of ways to accumulate moneys, right? Unfortunately, it's not.

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The cost of the Elite Crate, the one with the character and weapon skins, costs 3500 credits. If you want to do the math, that means you would earn enough to buy one pack naturally every 30-ish levels, assuming you're also doing bounties and winning most of your matches. I've been playing for 15 hours (total combined with the campaign and horde) and I've only earned enough credits to buy one. And that was even during the double XP weekend that just finished. Obviously you'll get more credits for a higher score; for what it's worth, I was once ranked in the top 500 King Of The Hill players in the world. My k/d is solid.

Leveling in Gears 4 is slow.

Accumulating money to unlock those skins is even slower. The alternative is to buy them with real money, but each costs £3.99. That's the equivalent cost of 5 loot boxes in Overwatch. You can buy them in bulk to drop the price, but when you've just spent £75 for the collectors edition of a videogame, why would you want to shell out another hundred for cosmetics? That's taking the piss.

As mentioned above, Horde allows players to equip custom skills to boost their class skills. These abilities can only be leveled up by combining duplicates. But duplicates can only be obtained by buying loot crates or crafting. Crafting is the process of destroying a skin or bounty to receive a fraction of it's cost back as scrap. But with the unlock rate so low, who has got spares to scrap right now? So you have to buy them, abilities which are vital to progress and complete the more difficult levels of Horde. Yep, The Coalition has established a Pay-To-Win structure for a sizable chunk of their multiplayer. Because everyone loves those.

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So, most importantly, what are the repercussions of this on their online community?

The most obvious can be seen in Horde, where players don't have access to the abilities they need and so struggle to play at the later levels, when enemies have been buffed to unreasonable difficulties. I've put in a good 6 or 7 hours into Horde and i'm yet to get past level 40, even with a team of friends in party chat. Part of that may be because we're not good enough, but I doubt it. This is my fourth Gears and I've sunk a lot of hours into previous titles, especially into Horde.

The matchmaking for Hardcore and Insane Horde playlists right now are completely deserted, I assume because nobody has yet unlocked enough abilities to make an attempt worthwhile as oppose to the network code being buggy. On top of this, for some moronic reason you gain more credits for dropping out after wave 10 than for getting to wave 20, so even if you find a decent team there's a good chance them might disappear before you get to a decent wave. As a final kick in the teeth, to get a class to level 10 and have access to all their ability slots, it takes about 80 full runs, levels 1-50, without dying. That's 80+ hours, minimum. The guys who put in that research also made the following discoveries:

  • How you perform in your class has no impact on your leveling speed
  • Completing bounties, class related or not, has no impact on your class leveling speed
  • Working on a difficult wave and failing (e.g. playing beyond your level), nets you no progress to your class skill

I understand that you need a balance between wanting players to feel like they are making progress, and slow enough that there's still an incentive to purchase stuff on your store. I get that. In fact, I think I get is slightly better than the Coalition does, because their expectations right now are completely unrealistic.

I'm their target demographic.

I bought the collectors edition, I love Gears, I have disposable income and, as is evident to anyone admiring my Dota 2/Overwatch/Hearthstone collections, I have no problem spending money on microtransactions. But with Gears 4 I refuse on principle. This is bullshit.

The overwhelming sense right now is that progression is a fools errand. So, play and enjoy the multiplayer, but don't expect to get anything out of it beyond the fleeting joy of chainsawing strangers in half. And don't expect to make any progress in Horde at all, either. Long-term, Gears 4 has a lot of changes to be made, and fast. Launch week is supposed to be the busiest time for a multiplayer community; if you scare the players away now, they won't come back.

Thanks For Reading,

Love Sweep

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

UPDATE 1/Dec/16:

Alright, so I'm now pushing level 100 and it's probably time to weigh in on the updates and changes the devs have made. Most prominent is that it's now a lot quicker to accumulate credits, and the price of loot crates has been reduced since my initial review. I've since completed horde not just on Normal, but on Insane as well; there's a knack to it that basically involves hiding in a corner with a bunch of turrets and hoping the boss bugs out every ten waves so you don't have to fight him until the end. It's not particularly satisfying and it takes fucking hours, but considering every enemy can put you down with a single shot, there's not really many alternatives. You also need a balanced team with a scout that has a good power deposit bonus, and a team with enough self-preservation to allow the aforementioned scout play his class. There also needs to be an engineer whose whole job is basically clicking on fortifications for 3 hours. Anyway.

The game still isn't perfect, but it's better. The new maps, only granted to season pass holders, were initially useless as they weren't included in any of the active playlists. Guns have been slightly rebalanced, though this time around I never got deep enough to really appreciate the subtle differences.

In terms of the microtransactions I abandoned their elite crates and sunk all my credits into horde crates. You won't get any cosmetics ever but it gradually (very gradually) gives you the class abilities you need to compete at the harder horde difficulties. They've also decreased how long it takes to level up your class, which means you can push every class up to level 3 or even 5 without only a couple of horde runs. They're still doing their bullshit special-event overpriced "limited time only purple guns waaah!!!!" sale nonsense, but I'm still bluntly refusing to take part.

Anyway. That was the state of the game a couple of weeks ago. I've since uninstalled it.

Thanks for reading (again)

Love Sweep

59 Comments

Storytime with Old Man Fenix: Let's talk about the campaign

Despite loudly complaining about how disinterested I was

over the weekend I purchased the Ultimate Edition of Gears Of War 4. I needed something to play and, after realising that my old Horde team was getting back together, punched in the numbers that let me buy things on the internet. No, I'm not going to tell you what they are.

Gears Of War 4 is a tricky one. The writing is jarringly inconsistent, at some points genuinely funny while at other times frustratingly bland and repetitive. I don't know why Kait was delegated the role of Captain Fucking Obvious, but hearing her yell "We need to take down that chopper!" for the 15th time in as many minutes quickly begins to grate. Despite that, there are moments in Gears 4 which are humorous, rewarding, and even self aware. "We just need to head down this street" mutters Marcus. "And I'm sure that'll go without a hitch" replies a sulky JD.

Pictured: Gears 3. Also known as
Pictured: Gears 3. Also known as "The Best Gears Game"

I remember praising Gears 2 for the way it managed to portray a larger world despite the linear storytelling of the game itself. You would stumble upon stranded, or see soldiers running around parallel streets and fighting in the distance. Similarly in Gears 3, walking around your ship and talking to other survivors, walking through the stranded settlement to argue with Ice T; Regardless of the size of your team, the world felt inhabited, and lush. The Coalition seems not to have grasped how valuable this is when world-building, as the majority of Gears 4 feels completely lifeless. 25 years have passed since the end of the war, and humanity is supposed to have rebuilt. There's even a brief trip through a new settlement, discussions regarding the pressure on women to conceive and bear children - all of which implies social progress and a larger, expanded universe. This is undermined by the settlement itself being completely empty, and further exaggerated by your only opponents being robots and drones. Their polite warnings aren't quite extreme enough to be amusing, and as a result they feel as hollow as the town they inhabit. Endless streets and buildings completely devoid of human life, and no amount of chatter between our main cast can fill the void of emptiness left by those pristine virtual assets. It's like running around an empty multiplayer map. Yes, Gears Of War 4 looks pretty. But no, it doesn't feel alive.

...Anybody home? Hello?
...Anybody home? Hello?

Eventually you'll meet the swarm, and I've reached the point where I don't really care how they justify their re-existence because I want to fight something that isn't a robot now, please. There's some interesting new weapons thrown in, and some appropriately blobby new monsters to fight. Personally I found the prologue some of the most interesting storytelling in the whole adventure, as you're finally able to take part in some of the key battles from the books and previous games. In many ways the greatest hits of the franchise; pre-emergence Aspho Fields where Commando Dom and Hoffman storm an enemy beach-head, and then on to E-day, the first sightings of the locust from the eyes of Minh and his squad, among other, later battles which do a great job of showing off just how technically proficient the Coalition can be.

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In the same style as it's previous iterations, the over-arching narrative is a mess. There are multiple points in the story in which you can't help but feel that hundreds of lives and dozens of hours could be saved if only the core cast would sit down and talk about what's happening instead of mindlessly grunting at one another. Around the middle-point in the game they bridge this gap in such a ridiculous way that, had I not already abandoned any hope of rational storytelling, it would have made me drop my controller in disgust. On a smaller scale, there's an unsettling amount of bouncing between alpha-gore-lust and melodramatic emotional loss (Because it wouldn't be a Gears game unless one of the characters was desperately searching for a lost loved-one). The younger generation seems completely unfazed by the giant monsters spawning out of the ground, despite having never seen them before in their lives, and continue goofing around. However, Marcus has the occasional horrific flashback, which adds some colour and depth. You'll also be pleased to see some old favourites turn up, and there are subtle nods to previous games throughout. The underlying conclusion however, is that as with the rest of the game, Gears 4 is relying on it's predecessors far too much, and ultimately falling short.

I appreciate this review probably seems pretty harsh. I guess I arrived at Gears 4 with low expectations, and in terms of it's storytelling, it met them. That's not a good thing.

Old Man Marcus is thoroughly pissed off. One sympathises.
Old Man Marcus is thoroughly pissed off. One sympathises.

I haven't got into the multiplayer at all yet, though I intend to spend quite a few more hours in horde mode. I like their class-based perk system, though they've taken out the melee/shotgun combo which seems like the sort of thing which would make the online crowd completely lose their shit. It also seems strange that, from the huge library of enemies they could throw at you to fight, they have only picked the few from their own game. The older locust are in the campaign, so the assets are ready to rumble. They also removed the sawn-off, which is a shame. "Two steps forward, one step back" seems to be their entire design brief.

Anyway...

Thanks For Reading

Love Sweep

30 Comments

Gears Of War 4 completely failing to attract my attention

I'm finding it really difficult to give a fuck about Gears Of War 4.

I should be the target market; I'm the guy who played the first three games extensively. I was, at one point, ranked in the top 500 players in the world at King Of The Hill in Gears 3. I very nearly S-Ranked Gears 2, completing the campaign multiple times on various difficulties. I even read all the books. Every time I mention that I read all the books I feel obligated to confirm that yes, there are actual Gears Of War books, which is ridiculous when you consider the plot of the games might as well have been written in crayon, but there you go.

So what is it about the Gears 4 gameplay that's so completely underwhelming?

The cynics among you might argue that being pried from the hands of EPIC is a pretty good place to start looking, though there are plenty of franchises that manage to stagnate without changing hands, and the success of Halo 5 with 343 at the helm sets a pretty solid precedent to counter that argument. So let's put all that political behind-the-scenes stuff aside and try to be as objective as possible when analysing the Gears 4 gameplay we've been presented with thus far.

I've thought about this a fair amount since it's announcement, since that first chunk of gameplay was shown at E3 last year. The game looks great; you'd fucking hope so, being a flagship franchise for Microsoft's current gen console. But as soon as that logo flashed up on the screen my first thought was "OK, so who are they fighting?" For those of you that don't remember, spoilers, the Locust were all wiped out. So were the Lambent, using Adam Fenix's secret kill everything infected by imulsion machine™. So all the monsters are dead. Except they aren't? Even though the entirety of humanity on Sera numbers only a few hundred thousand, we're going to drudge up some new threat that's sweeping across the planet only 25 years after the last one. That feels so... forced. At what point does the human race collectively shout "fuck it", throw their hands in the air and accept their fate. I mean fuck, give those people a break already.

Old man Fenix looks haggard as fuck. Why can't you just let him rest, Microsoft?
Old man Fenix looks haggard as fuck. Why can't you just let him rest, Microsoft?

But look, let's be real here

If you'd told me that this was a level from Gears 2 then... well, I wouldn't have believed you, because I'm not an idiot. But I'm sure someone else would have.
If you'd told me that this was a level from Gears 2 then... well, I wouldn't have believed you, because I'm not an idiot. But I'm sure someone else would have.

Nobody (apart from knuckleheads like me) is playing Gears Of War for the narrative. You don't care that there's an entirely new roster that's both poorly written and lacking in charisma; You play because the lancer chugs out a super-satisfying stream of fire, because the gnasher kick is primal, and the way your Theron chuckles when you stick an enemy with a Torque Bow. The roadie run, slamming into... oh, it's more generic waist-high walls? Huh. Could we maybe think of some ways to mix thi... no? Sticking with the grey blobs of granite? OK cool. And... more dirty humanoid teeth-aliens with Hammerbursts to fight? Right.... And we're going to be running around in.... gloomy dilapidated COG architecture. Starting to see a pattern here, guys.

At this stage in the life of the franchise there's a look and a feel that you need to nail for it to stay part of the franchise. I get it, I know how this works. And the gameplay we've seen so far is distinctly Gears. So why does it feel so archaic? Could it be because, since the original release 10 years ago, we've actually moved on enough that simply rehashing exactly the same ideas and just giving them a facelift doesn't quite cut the mustard any more. That new guns is a poor substitute for new ideas? Maybe I'm being harsh, maybe it's not a Gears problem. Maybe it's that the gritty space-marine power fantasy isn't quite as empowering as it once was. Maybe, in those last 10 years, our horizons have been broadened. We live in a world of VR now, a world where people run around catching pokemon outside. There's never been a broader spectrum of virtual adventures out there to explore, and it's slightly depressing to watch Gears Of War cling to it's outdated mechanics in this context.

Or maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm just old.

I feel fucking old.

But then maybe I'm wrong; Maybe this game will come out and it'll be everything we hoped for. It will revitalise the entire genre, and the masses will hail the waist-high wall as a phoenix Fenix reborn, giving life once again to a genre that has been stale for what feels like far too long.

Or maybe not. Who the fuck knows.

Thanks for reading

Love Sweep

38 Comments

Ten Thousand Posts

Welcome to my 10,000th post on Giant Bomb, the website about videogames. It's been 2848 days (7 years 9 months and 17 days for those of you without calculators) since I made this account on Juy 21st, 2008. That's 384 blogs, 1025 images, and 12,200 PM's that I've sent and received. Filling in your mental timelines, I've been moderating this website for 5 years and 3 months, roughly 62% of my membership here. Since joining Giant Bomb I've lived in 8 different houses on 3 different continents. I enrolled and graduated from university, held 5 jobs, and I'm currently living on the opposite side of the planet from when I started. I have PM's from people in my inbox that started 6 years ago who I still keep in contact with on a daily basis. I've watched people meet on this site and go on to get married. I've made friends all over the world and, in some instances, I've even traveled to meet them in person, in the real. I flew to Boston for PAX and Jeff bought me my first ever meatloaf. I got to drink Tequila with Ryan. I feel fucking honoured.

And old. I feel old.

Increasingly the majority of my time on this site is spent moderating it. Sometimes it can get hairy, and you need some distance from the people that are taking part in the discussions you're being asked to police. That sucks, and I wish I could be still be more involved. I'm not going to lie, I miss being a sarcastic little shit and causing trouble (although I'm sure plenty would argue that nothing much has changed in that regard). I miss hanging out in the IRC and fucking around. But I'm also proud of the website we've built and helped to shape. I don't want to get all emotional or anything (I promised myself I wouldn't cry) but we did good, people. Yeah.

Ten thousand posts is a nice milestone. I don't get the opportunity to write much anymore, so you're going to have to excuse the sudden goofy nostalgia :)

Stay excellent, Giant Bomb community. I still want to be inside you.

Thanks for reading

Love Sweep

31 Comments

The Last Of Us Factions vs Uncharted 4 multiplayer beta

I've been playing The Last Of Us multiplayer pretty consistently since release, at first on PS3 and then transitioning over to my PS4, so I was pretty excited to take part in the Uncharted Open Beta this weekend. In previous Uncharted games the multiplayer was something I was happy to flirt with, though rarely felt focused or engaging enough to distract me for any meaningful length of time. I've always preferred multiplayer with some kind of objective beyond "Hey, shoot that guy!", and while Uncharted online led to some pretty crazy cinematics, the gameplay rarely resulted in anything more than a huge clusterfuck.

The Last Of Us, by contrast, is a much more thoughtful and fragile experience.

Ammo is sparse, and the pace is slow. Every player is equipped with the Listen Mode/detective vision from the campaign, so if anyone is moving around in the immediate vicinity you can spot them through a wall. But by now everyone knows how this system works, so players are much more cautious, remaining still until the enemy approaches so as not to be spotted, or using perks and silent weapons so as to become completely invisible. The result is a much more tense and precarious back n' forth, where losing an ally is a significant blow and you need to make your bullets count. Each playstyle is enforced by both weapon loadouts and perks, which are picked at various levels with relative advantages. So if your loadout has 25 slots you could get level 1 stealth, which means you don't show up on the enemy radar. Or you could sink in more points to get level 3 stealth, which means you can't be marked either. But those extra points you spent mean you can't now afford your favourite rifle. I always appreciated the precarious balancing act that the system employs, so it's nice to see it pasted over into Uncharted.

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Having said that, this is definitely not the same game, and some of the series trademark chaos is back in play. While enemies are definitely less spongy than in previous Uncharted multiplayer games, the patience of The Last Of Us is nowhere to be seen. The game hints at silenced weapons, though none appeared in the beta, and the use of sidekicks and mythical abilities means there's almost always something loud happening onscreen. Each is purchased through an ingame store, as in TLOU, though primary weapons are no longer upgradable to increase reload speed, rate of fire, etc. An abundance of ammo means you no longer have to be stingy with your bullets, and the range of weapons is suitably varied, though their extravagance leans heavily towards RPG's and assault shotguns over frontier rifles and crossbows. Sidekicks, NPC's that you can spawn and position, also help to mix up the gameplay. The Sniper will spot enemies and take periodic potshots, the Brute is a huge tanky motherfucker with a gattling cannon and does exactly as you'd expect, while the Triage is your support 'kick, reviving downed enemies and increasing the recharge rate of abilities for players within the immediate vicinity. My favourite though is the Hunter; think of the Scout from Team Fortress 2, a speed-demon who will rush straight at enemy players and grab them - while he won't damage them, they are incapacitated for a few seconds, just long enough for any allies to get in the appropriate shots. The hunter is pretty squishy, but great for flushing players out of cover, and some of the best gameplay moments from the past weekend are a direct result of racing through the map after a hunter, wielding a shotgun, and watching players panic as we dash straight towards them.

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I was a little put-off by the totems that you can plant in the map when I first saw them, but the reality of their impact on gameplay is that they're about map control. You're unlikely to actually die to one, even if it lands on top of you it's not too difficult to roll away (though more difficult under fire, obviously), and the totems work best as a way of flushing enemies out of cover and pushing through a stalemate. In combination with the sidekicks you can get into some pretty wild situations. 5 vs 5 means a potential 5 brutes in play at once, and as a rule of thumb you want to avoid running into a brute blob. But a blob is the perfect target for a totem - you can see how the dynamic of each match can be easily manipulated.

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The main other new gameplay feature was the rope swinging, which is fun, though the physics are pretty erratic. Things like "momentum" and "gravity" don't really apply, which makes it slightly difficult to target the best trajectory of anyone you're trying to shoot. There are a couple of maps where it's possible to spider-man from one hook to the next, though the game occasionally gets confused and re-attaches you to the one behind you. Despite this, it continues to push you forward on a fresh burst of momentum. The rope also seems to increase and decrease in length based on where you're swinging. "Clunky" is a pretty good description in general, actually. Though it's admittedly satisfying when you nail a mid-air instakill by landing on your target.

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If The Last Of Us had any flaws it was with its microtransactions. Only half the guns in the game were available for custom loadouts, the rest of which had to be bought individually or could only be accessed through pre-set loadouts (which, after you've played for any length of time, are unanimously dismissed as garbage). From what I can see in the beta of Uncharted 4, all of the guns were unlocked based on player level, the highest being at level 9. I got to level 6 with two days of playing, so it doesn't look like they're going to be out of your hands for long. There are skins, taunts and, this being 2016, hats that you can either buy directly with real money, or chance upon by opening chests with in-game currency. As these are all entirely superficial, I'm pretty happy with this system, though I do wish they'd go a little deeper with their customization options. Hopefully in the full game there'll be a bigger selection of skins and characters from which to pick, because right now most of them seem limited exclusively to tuxedos. Considering the multitude of outfits each has worn over the course of the series, that seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. Having said that, Uncharted 3 let you run around as a skeleton, so maybe there's still hope....

In summary, it was comfortingly positive. I'm hoping there's some more objective-based gameplay modes beyond Team Deathmatch, but the groundwork is definitely there, and the net-code seems to hold up nicely as well, even between my brother and I, each playing on opposite sides of the planet. It's a lot more frenetic than The Last Of Us, which is more focused on stealth and positioning, though that's not necessarily a bad thing, and I'm looking forward to jumping back in when the game is finally released.

Thanks For Reading,

Love Sweep

10 Comments

This town is comin' like a ghost town

I'd been avoiding Firewatch, though I couldn't really figure out why. I'd followed the careers of the Campo Santo team individually for years (I'm sitting here wearing an old Threadless t-shirt designed by Olly Moss as I write this), so the culmination of their talents should have been something that I was naturally drawn to. But... I don't know. Something didn't feel right, and I wasn't entirely sure what.

When I finally got around to it, I finished Firewatch in a single sitting, not something that happens frequently. Maybe it's because I've finally conquered my Dota addiction (2 months already, one day at a time) I can now play other games for longer than an hour without itching for a fix, but I sat glued to my TV for the entire game. Even when I was asked to trudge from one end of the map to the other I did so with neither complaint nor pause. I looked forward to the conversations that took place and, after an early fuck up, I quite deliberately sought to be a better participant within them. I'm typically pretty reserved around people I don't know, though to play through Firewatch in this way seemed only to deprive myself of what gave the game it's charm. So I opened up, and I fed the discussions through to their conclusions, even if I did otherwise play the role of Henry as a cantankerous old grouch (Fuck yo' boombox).

There's going to be some pretty heavy Firewatch ending spoilers in the immediate future. You've been warned.

The end of Firewatch was ultimately... disappointing. You could argue that disappointment is perhaps deliberate, as Henry has the potential to articulate a similar sentiment. Once I'd finished I dropped my controller next to me on the sofa and sat through the credits. And I couldn't help but feel slightly pissed off.

"Henry there's... there's something I should have told you about this area" confesses Delilah, relatively early in the game. "It's... outside. The whole thing. And people come and go as they please. It's madness!"

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Which was a nice line, and it made me smile. Except they don't. Throughout the game, at every major beat where you could conceivably meet someone you find nothing but echoes, the implication of other people. It's cleverly done, and it tells an intriguing story - by design it helps to feed into the atmosphere of isolation and paranoia. Except after a while it stops feeling natural. After a while I stopped being surprised at the complete lack of any human presence, despite all the clever little clues the game drops as a substitute for any actual physical characters. But I kept hoping that sooner or later I'd find someone. "I'm about to get monked, right? It's going to wait until I think that nobody else exists in this world and then I'm going to get chased by a Sasquatch or something". But time and time again, nothing. Even as I climbed the stairs to the final tower I dared to hope that I'd actually find some cheese at the end of the maze. But no. The princess is still in another castle. But there's no more castles; All we have is a clunky helicopter dude with a helmet covering his face to minimise any humanity he might otherwise have had.

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So I sat there on the sofa, and I thought about it. I felt cheated. And I'm prepared to bet the writers of the game will happily smile and say something smug like "That was intentional" but being the cynic that I am, I can't help but think "that's a pretty shitty excuse for not hiring a character animator". That doesn't feed my paranoia, that breaks any suspension of disbelief the game might otherwise have established.

I spend too much time wandering around dead, empty worlds.

Gone Home, Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, The Witness, Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable... even Portal. The primary similarity between them is that they are all abandoned worlds. They create personality through other means - audio logs, narration, notes and diagrams, graffiti. In Firewatch you are limited entirely to silhouettes on the horizon. But there's no actual people there.

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Animation is tough, character animation especially. When I started out making films my original plan was to go into animation, but that didn't last long. I was, fairly bluntly, told that my animation ability wasn't good enough. It was a brutal lesson, but it stuck with me and I learned from it. Animation is arguably the most competitive specialisation in the film industry, and it's been glorified by companies like Pixar and Disney so it's also the most well known and relatable. It's also, arguably, the most creative aspect of the entire CG pipeline. It's an art form in the traditional sense, and the only way you can get good at it is years and years of practice. It took me 5 years of hard work to get anywhere close. Naturalistic animation is fiendishly difficult - it's easy to spot when it's wrong and invisible when it's right. It's also been the bane of the videogame industry for years, especially character animation. Even big budget games are guilty of sloppy facial expressions, overlapping armour plates clipping through other objects (or even the characters wearing them), and weird algorithms that trigger certain animations only after a certain condition has been met, making the entire process feel disjointed. Collectively, the industry has rarely been able to get it right. Even the best examples I can think of (Naughty Dog?) fall back on pre-animated cut-scenes, even if they are using the in-game engine, to portray anything more complicated than a simple exchange.

So I guess it's no surprise that indie teams making games like the ones I listed above choose to skip it entirely. It makes sense financially, and from a production standpoint. Maybe I'm being too harsh and it's not realistic to expect small indie studios, usually programmers, to shell out for animators, as even established game designers struggle to integrate animation into their games. But I really, really wish they would try. Because otherwise the result is that the player is forced to walk around an abandoned museum. It might be an interesting museum, but it's still abandoned. The first time that isolation was overwhelming, stifling, it was interesting and innovative. Now it feels lazy.

"Look, bumping into someone in the middle of nowhere is part of the fun", laughs Delilah.

She's not wrong.

Thanks for reading.

Love Sweep.

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The Kingkiller Chronicles: reflections

When I first discovered The Name Of The Wind, back in the early days of 2011, it was everything I wanted from a novel. My knowledge of fantasy writing was limited almost exclusively to classics like Lord Of The Rings, or Dune, or Game Of Thrones. In fact the majority of my fantasy library was predominantly sci-fi, and I placed the high-fantasy genre in the same sub-folder as World Of Warcraft fan fiction. I came to learn pretty quickly that this was a hugely unfair dismissal, and have since endeavoured to correct those unprovoked misconceptions. It's been a few years, and I think I'm doing OK.

I loved The Name Of The Wind.

Patrick Rothfuss has a way with words that borders on poetic without veering into pretentious. The cultivation of the world that he created in his book was hugely satisfying to digest - a rich and well thought out series of social systems and hierarchies that are aptly explained and put to work without the drudgery of overbearing exposition. Rothfuss wallows in melodrama on occasion, though by in large the book is endearingly witty, garrulous and dark. I finished The Name Of The Wind in the space of a few days, neglecting both responsibilities and sleep in order to do so. A few weeks later The Wise Man's Fear arrived, my pre-order landing on my desk on the day of it's release, and my productivity once again dipped as I worked my way through.

I've always read a lot, ever since I was a kid. With my favourite books I would, and still do, read them repeatedly almost until I could recall huge portions of each at will. I remember trying to explain to my parents that I didn't get bored of reading the same book more than once, or watching the same film more than once. If anything I enjoyed having the entire sequence of events lined out in front of me, then being able to dip in and read my favourite chapters almost as individual short stories, filling in any gaps from memory. This always made my Dad a little uncomfortable, and he would push me to try new books instead of obsessing over one's I'd already read. It was never really a problem though. I read everything, both old and new. I was, like I'm sure many of you were, a pretty weird kid.

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Both The Name Of The Wind and The Wise Man's Fear have since been committed to memory, stashed away in the weird little library I have in my head. They are both books that are familiar and easy to read. Or at least, they were. I have drifted through each one maybe a dozen times at this point, and with each repetition I find myself less and less comfortable in their company.

I'm going to work around the assumption that those of you reading this are familiar with the work in question, because otherwise this is going to get pretty spoilery. Heads up.

I remember being amazed when Patrick Rothfuss revealed he had never possessed any musical ability. The way he writes about music, the way he captures so passionately and intricately what it feels to dedicate yourself to an instrument is hugely relatable and impressively nuanced. It's a huge shame then, that this knack doesn't extend to his understanding of relationships between men and women.

One gets the firm impression that Rothfuss is projecting his own sexual frustration and inexperience, the pages reflecting his own social awkwardness, while simultaneously attempting to live vicariously through his protagonist. This is made abundantly apparent as Kvothe, the lead, seems to absent-mindedly attract the attention of every female he crosses paths with (All of which happen to be stunningly beautiful and clever, incidentally) except the one he truly desires, at whom he fumbles awkwardly and is terrified of approaching, content to stalk her across the map and glare enviously at the many men she actually seduces. There's a word for that. It's called being friendzoned. It's not a nice word, but one can't help but feel that for Rothfuss, it's deeply familiar.

One could argue that this is fairly standard behaviour for an inexperienced boy of 15, but this clashes horribly with the maturity he is otherwise supposed to possess. With the knowledge of every play ever written stuffed into his head, by way of explanation, Kvothe is supposedly the sharpest and most intelligent student to ever reach the Arcanum, and has the ability to talk his way into or out of every social situation as he sees fit. He's also been trained to be a master sexpert by a mystical fairy woman, and then sent back to earth to overwhelm the entire female population with his magical penis. Did we mention that he also knows karate? And he's a wizard? The character development of the protagonist often feels as though a child is throwing every power fantasy onto a single character. It's immature, and exhausting. While I admire Rothfuss' general style of writing, the impression I've ultimately walked away with is that he's trying to sporadically force every Fallout Perk onto his character and hope nobody notices.

As an aside, it's pretty fucking ridiculous that Kvothe is so easily angered by any suggestion that the Ruh are thieves and criminals, while simultaneously stealing everything that isn't nailed down.

I'm slightly torn at this point, because I don't know if it's actually Rothfuss I dislike, or if he's deliberately designed his character to be a smug little prick. In that regard he's either a very gifted writer, or an exceedingly poor one.

Hit me up if you felt otherwise. Would be interested to know if I'm alone in thinking this way or if others deeply dislike the arrogant little shit that stars in this book.

Thanks For Reading,

Love Sweep

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Life isn't that strange after all.

EDIT: This blog is spoiler free.

The third episode of Life Is Strange drops today (yesterday?) and I find myself uncharacteristically looking forward to it. The first two episodes filled the continuing void created by Kentucky Route Zero - There are chapters still being written, and I can't think of anything else I'd rather Cardboard Computer were doing, but at the same time come on already. I'm in consistent terror that my anticipation may eclipse my enjoyment of their abstract little adventure.

What was I talking about? Life Is Strange? Alright, cool.

Sometimes I wake up on a Saturday morning and my brain is still.... y'know. Fuzzy. That's what I like to call the "Hohokum window", a brief few hours where I'm mentally limited to ambient electro-lounge music and optimistic colour palettes. I don't want direction, I just want to float around and absorb, and in turn be absorbed. I want a distraction that doesn't require cognitive arithmetic, where questions like "Why am I flying my rainbow snake around a water park?" aren't really important. There is no succeed and there is no fail. It's just Hohokum, man. Enjoy it.

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But sometimes I find myself home earlier than I was expecting on a Friday night, and the lights are out, and I'm in a weird place. Well, obviously my home is not the weird place. I meant more existentially. That's usually the time I turn to the games that I wouldn't normally play, where I look for something different that can keep me distracted, and that I can feel invested in playing.

Life Is Strange is about teenage girls at a school in rural America.

As someone who grew up and lives in London in the south of England, my understanding of school in America is gleamed almost entirely from the first 20 minutes of The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift. Needless to say, I had a lot to learn.

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I like the goofy awkwardness of Life Is Strange.

I was a geek in school and I'm a geek now, and I can relate to a lot of it's incestuous social hierarchies you're prompted to navigate, despite the foreign setting. It's almost disappointing that there's a rewind-time function, as the game does a pretty great job of establishing atmosphere and continuity around the sleepy town of [I can't remember what it was called but you get the gist] and the sci-fi esque superpowers can't help but feel both distracting and, if anything, detract from the otherwise naturalistic environment they've managed to conjure. Walking around Max's dorm I couldn't help but cringe at the decor, her choice of books and music, her enthusiasm for selfies and social media. But then I think, fuck, ten years ago I was a complete twat. I had a lava lamp for fucks sake. Who am I to throw stones?

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And in this, I think, is where I find my enjoyment for Life Is Strange. It's successful at being just the right amount of uncool. It nails the bitchy high-school drama, which most of us would rather forget, in a way that's quite insightful for a medium that's predominantly written by and for adults. If teels neither condescending, nor out of touch. It is, essentially, convincingly pretentious, full of naive arrogance and half formed social graces. And that's weirdly pleasant and nostalgic to observe, not to mention incredible difficult to accurately represent. I don't think any other game has managed to successfully do so to this extent. It's impressive.

Maybe I'm alone in feeling this way, or it's a direct result of me being a inebriated 20-something, but it ticked all the right boxes. I'm a fan. Keep it coming.

Thanks for reading,

Love Sweep

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Grounded and Grounded NG+ [Spoilers]

Last weekend I finished my second Grounded run on New Game +

My 5th completion of The Last Of Us campaign and, probably, my fastest - clocking in at around 8 hours in total. Grounded, for those that don't know, is the most punishing difficulty available, released separately from the "Survivor" difficulty in the original game but thrown in with the Remastered edition for the PS4. Where survivor removed the "Listen" functionality, which grants Joel the Naughty Dog equivalent of Detective Vision, Grounded takes it a step further by completely removing the HUD and UI. You are not told how many bullets are in your guns, you are not given button prompts in combat (Aside from story-specific QTE's) and you are never told how much health you have left. Your screen is blissfully uncluttered. On top of this the availability of ammo and materials are further reduced down to the bare minimum, and Joel is painfully fragile - Before upgrading your health it's possible to be killed my a single bullet, or a single hit from an enemy. As a result you're further encouraged to stick to the shadows, frequently avoiding combat altogether in favour of running or sneaking straight through entire levels without firing a shot.

This was the first time I'd messed around with the photo mode, and it's surprisingly versatile.
This was the first time I'd messed around with the photo mode, and it's surprisingly versatile.

It's a much different style of play that I grew to appreciate. As ammo is short - and I'm talking non existent - bricks and bottles became my weapons of choice - in the few chunks of the game where you are forced into combat, a thrown brick will stun an enemy, allowing you to grapple and instantly murder them. Similarly a melee attack whilst holding a brick or bottle will finish an enemy much faster - the most potent combo is to throw a brick at an enemy and then run at him with a melee weapon of your own - one swing will earn you an instakill. This is both the fastest way of dispatching an enemy, and also preservers the amount of hits you can make with your melee weapon.

Here's a screenshot from my first grounded playthrough, about halfway through the game. This was a fairly standard situation to be in.
Here's a screenshot from my first grounded playthrough, about halfway through the game. This was a fairly standard situation to be in.

Without the listen mode

which is removed in both Survivor and Grounded difficulties, a solid familiarity with the level design is pretty important. Combat is always risky, so if you can make a beeline straight for your destination without engaging anyone then that's obviously going to be advantageous. Similarly there are several sections of the game where, if you dash before the game is ready, you can clear chunks of the level before enemies have established their patrol routes. One example of this is at the hydro-electric plant, where you're ambushed by hunters. Once you've cleared the first room and head upstairs to the office, it's possible to ignore the 3 hunters in that room, jump through the window and dash to the end of the walkway. A few seconds later and all 9 of the enemies that are supposed to populate that level will spawn and bottleneck through the locked door at the end, meaning you can fry them all with a single molotov. I'm not a huge fan of cheesing the game like that, but I did it "properly" the first run through and it took me fucking hours. Knowing the key beats in the campaign are vital so you can make sure you have the appropriate weapons available. I had to fight the school bloater on my first grounded run with no health or molotovs and, thanks to the awkward checkpointing, that was a fucking nightmare.

Any second now...
Any second now...

The checkpoints are frequently unforgiving, and I'm not entirely sure if it's by design or not, because I don't remember them being so savage on any of the easier difficulties. The hospital at the end of the game, for example, has zero checkpoints. You need to make it up through both floors, including the second floor where every enemy carries an assault rifle, without being seen or dying. Perhaps more frustrating are the sections where you play as Ellie - that snowy town needs to be cleared in a single run, and she's even more fragile than Joel is, not to mention that whole place is a fucking maze. The weapons Ellie picks up are devoid of any previous upgrades, so say goodbye to your rifle scope. The defence sequence at the Lumber Mill is perhaps the hardest section of the entire campaign, Ellie being killed in a single hit and only having a Bow and Rifle (with a painfully slow reload speed) to do any real damage. My strategy at this point was to reserve any rifle ammo for clickers, and for the other infected I would run around David in circles and wait for his AI to either punch the infected to death or grapple them so I could rush in and shiv them - the infinite knives that Ellie holds are her one saving grace, and the "Throw a bottle then stab them" approach is pretty much the only way you're getting through this chunk of the game. And make sure you've got a Molly, because there's that fucking bloater at the end. Remember kids, no checkpoints! Yeah. It's a fucker.

Grindhouse.
Grindhouse.

By contrast, there are big chunks of the game you can simply stealth through in a single run. I cleared the entire Hunter Town, and most of Bills town, without ever getting caught up in a firefight or even being spotted. Any area with clickers you can safely ignore them and, providing you're going as slow as humanly possible, you can brush right past clickers and they won't kick off. If you do make noise you can actually duck back into stealth and escape, though they will converge on your last known location and it will fuck up their patrol patterns, so it's usually easier to take the death at that point. On my first run through I made it all the way to Bills Town without firing a shot or using a health kit. Easy peasy.

One other thing worth noting is that, once Joel's health drops into the red (at the point he's visibly bleeding and holding his arm up to his ribs) the game seems to vacuum him into insta-death animations in situations where you would otherwise be fine. If you're in a fist-fight with an infected or a hunter and you land the first blow, you should be able to maintain that combo until they're finished; If you're already on the verge of death though, the game will snap you out of that combo after the first punch, even if the enemy is stunned, and you will die. It is bullshit of the highest calibre.

Open Mic.
Open Mic.

Ultimately I enjoyed both playthroughs of the game. As you gain familiarity with the core mechanics and how they can be employed and manipulated, you gain a confidence that makes the game much easier. When I started playing I would sit, nervously hiding and trying to learn patrols, repeatedly being killed - but simply throwing up my hands and saying "Fuck it, I'm going for it" and stealthing out straight into the middle of the enemies, worked with surprising frequency. Fortune favours the bold, I guess.

Never had enough Shivs though. That was always a fucker.

Anyway, if you have any questions or you're attempting this yourself and you get stuck, give me a shout. I'm getting pretty close to attempting a speedrun at this point, and I'm but a few trophies away from my platinum.

I guess once that's done I need to find a new hobby...

Thanks for reading,

Love Sweep

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