Saturday, February 20, 2016

Blood Rage and Warrior Knights reviews

Blood Rage (released in 2015, published by CoolMiniOrNot) and Warrior Knights (originally released in 1985 by Games Workshop and then cleaned-up and re-released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2006) are two games that at a glance seem very similar. Both have elements of area control, some type of worker placement, collecting and playing cards, and miniatures. They are also both about war. Or are they...?

Warrior Knights is considered by many to be a classic Ameritrash game. That is to say it focuses on direct conflict between players, has a ton of colourful components, and has a strong theme. You hire armies, conquer and fortify cities, send your nobles on crusades and sponsor expeditions to distant and exotic lands. The game is played until either one player controls half of unrazed cities on the board or all the influence tokens have been claimed. Gathering influence also strongly depends on controlling as much cities as possible as each city - at the end of the round - provides some influence tokens to the controlling player. Meanwhile players also jokey for positions such as Head of the Church and Chairman of the Council to get additional powers. The game features a rather unusual way of resolving player actions and triggering different major events. Each player has a deck of cards and every card represents a different action (or actions) that a player can take on his turn. In the beginning of each round, each player selects six cards that will go into three stacks (so two cards into each stack), as well as two secret neutral cards that will go into each stack as well. Then each stack is shuffled and resolved one card at a time (so the first stack must be resolved first, then the second and then the third). It creates an interesting dynamic whereby each player knows which of his actions will happen, but it not completely sure WHEN the actions will happen or in which specific order. Now, these cards are further divided into three categories: Taxation, Assembly and Levying (I may be wrong about the name of that last one). When enough cards have been played in either of those three categories, a special phase occurs (Taxation, Assembly or Levying - duh!). This might be good for some players (yay! I finally get some money!) or bad for some players (crap! I have to pay my troops and I don't have enough money!), so that's a pretty interesting, but at times very frustrating mechanic. Meanwhile there are also interesting things happening like voting for different laws, jockeying for offices that upgrade your nobles, sponsoring expeditions that might bring a big financial reward (or fail utterly and waste your investments), or sending your armies across the sea on crusades.

What Warrior Knights does well are its often unique mechanics. I haven't seen some of its mechanics, like turn order resolution and special phase triggering, in  any other game. The Council phase where players can vote on different laws, offices, private motions and so on is also very interesting and has clearly influenced other FFG games like the Game of Thrones board game. The other thing that Warrior Knights does very well is that for such a sprawling board game there is very little downtime for the players. The turns can be resolved quite quickly and you're always paying attention because either your card gets drawn, your opponent's card might trigger a special phase in which you can participate, or a neutral card that affects everyone is drawn. So unlike some other 'heavy' board games, Warrior Knights actually resolves player turns quite quickly.
My not-so-winning strategy focused on expanding overseas on various crusades.

However, there are some rather significant problems with WK that prevent me from recommending this classic wholeheartedly. For one the manual is (as is typical with FFG) atrocious and there are many rules that you'll have to look up an FAQ or errata for on FFG's website. Some rules flat out contradict each other, many terms are used interchangeably or are not defined at all and many examples of play in the manual contradict the rules. Another HUGE problem in my opinion is that it's very hard to actually plan in Warrior Knights. Put the wrong card in the wrong stack and you're going to waste that turn and not even get that card back for a while so you can play it again. Get your card drawn at the wrong time and you might not reap the benefits of your action. Maybe you were hoping to get some money so you could hire more troops or pay the troops you already have, but another player snagged the troops you wanted to hire, or even worse the Wages phase had been triggers and now you have to pay your troops but you haven't gotten your tax money yet and now your entire ROUND is ruined! The other problem is that it is so easy for one player to snowball the game, especially if the player in the lead also grabs the title Chairman of the Committee. In these type of games, such as Risk, Forbidden Stars, Game of Thrones or even Munchkin (especially Munchkin!), usually if one player is doing very well the rest of the players will gang up on him/her, but in WK it is more difficult to do due to how the map is laid out and the fact that you can only field up to 4 armies and the defenders usually have an advantage. Furthermore, a role of the Head of the Church is actually actively penalized because the Head of the Church has to constantly spend actions to gain Faith tokens to spend on either avoiding negative events or gaining positive events and that limits the scope of the game for that player (until another player decides to snag that title - which apparently doesn't happen all that often). Finally, we played a 4 player game and the game finished just as the almost all the cities got claimed. It was a very anti-climatic conclusion and our game actually featured very little combat between players. I freely admit that I finally triggered an actual war with another player more out of boredom than out of some winning strategy. So there you have it, Warrior Knights is a war game that has a lot of fascinating political intrigue but not a heck of a lot of actual fighting, combined with frequently confusing rules.

One would think that Blood Rage, by contrast, would be even more furious and, well, bloody than Warrior Knights. But you'd be wrong! A-ha! Gotcha! Indeed, Blood Rage - one of the best-selling and critically-acclaimed games of 2015 - has a very strong theme of combat and Norse mythology, but underneath its raging exterior is actually a very calculating excellent Eurogame. You see, while you may be fooled by the absolutely gorgeous and hugely varied miniatures (it is published by Cool Mini Or Not after all), at its heart Blood Rage is a game of area control, worker placement and card drafting. It has gorgeous art and minis (seriously, the minis are amazingly awesome, each clan has three unique miniature sculpts as well as a ship, then there are five neutral heroes and four gigantic monsters), but these are just trappings for a game that combines some of the best game mechanics of the last few years.

The game is divided into three Ages (basically rounds), and each round proceeds in the same way. Players take actions such as paying and placing their minis on the board, playing Quest cards (secret objectives akin to Ticket to Ride), moving their minis around the board, pillaging (more on that in a bit) or playing different upgrade cards to differentiate their clan from other players. Then the players discard any remaining unplayed cards (except one that they can keep for the next age), then they score points for their secret Quests and then Ragnarok wipes out one of the random provinces on the board along with any minis that are in that province. However, that last one is actually a good thing as any troops that are wiped out in Ragnarok actually score points for their owners, they go to Valhalla and then you get them back in your pool. There are really two main mechanics in Blood Rage. One is placing your warriors in different provinces on the board and then pillaging the province. Now, when you declare pillaging, other players who have troops in adjacent provinces can come and join your pillaging with their troops provided there is space in the province-to-be-pillaged. This allows for some devious play where you bait the other players to move their troops into a province you really have no interest in so that you can pillage a province that they are no longer adjacent to. It also creates for some hilarious situations as a pillage announcement (inevitably done in a loud and booming voice) sucks in everything like some kind of rage-powered tornado. In a pillage, the players each select a battle card face-down and then reveal them simultaneously and resolve the effects. However, to prevent snowballing, the winner discards the card he played, while the losers get to keep theirs! Brilliant! Furthermore, the winner's minis are now in that province while the losers' troops go to Valhalla and there are many secret objectives for being the one to send warriors to Valhalla, or having the most warriors to Valhalla, and there are clan upgrades that give you points if your troops (or any troops) go to Valhalla during a pillage. So deciding where and when to pillage, and deciding if you'll actually gain more by losing the battle is very important.
We are uhhhh pillaging something, Probably.

The other mechanic of note is drafting cards. Each player gets 8 cards at the beginning of each age, picks two, then passes cards to the next player, receives cards, selects 1 card and so on until each player has 8 cards. Then he discards 2 cards face down. That way each player has a rough idea of what cards will be played during the Age, what secret Quests and battle cards might be floating around the table. Ideally each player will try to draft a good mix of upgrades, quests and battle cards, and it's a good idea to base your strategy around a particular god. You see, most cards are themes around different gods and each god provides a clear strategy to pursue. Tyr is all about big numbers in battle, Odin is all about leveling the playing field by indiscriminately wiping all most of the warriors participating in a battle, Thor is all about winning the battle, Heimdall's cards are centered on sneaky 'play out of your turn' situations, while Loki is all about losing battles on purpose. Each Age has a different deck to be drafted so that players' abilities in battle, upgrades and quest rewards become progressively more powerful with each Age.
Blood for the Blood God! Victory points for the victory throne!

There is much to recommend about Blood Rage. It's gorgeous, has interesting mechanics. It is actually quite fast-paced and there is very little downtime. The pillaging mechanic and card draft mechanic are very fun. Moreover, there is a ton of replayability because the provinces that start the game razed or the provinces that will be destroyed in each Age are randomized, and the rewards for pillaging are likewise randomized. There are already quite a few small expansions for the game that I can't wait to get. If I had any negative things to say about the game it would have to be two complaints. The first complaint is that a new player is at a disadvantage because he wouldn't have a good idea of what cards become available in each age and his drafted deck wouldn't be as powerful. Fortunately after just one playthrough the players grasp deck drafting mechanic very easily and form an idea of what cards are available. The second complaint is the big disconnect between theme and mechanics. The game has a very strong theme, but it's still a Eurogame at heart. Some people who are drawn in by the theme might be put off by the type of game it actually is. Personally however I have now played Blood Rage more than half a dozen times and I can't wait to play more!

P.S. I tried to make a semi-drunken unboxing video of Blood Rage. I hope to put it up soon! I apologize in advance!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Warning: long post to follow! So I've been making my way through all the Best Picture nominees this year, and as excited as I am to see both The Martian and Mad Max on the list - two sci-fi movies filled with science and explosions respectively - I still have to concede that The Big Short may deserve the best picture award.

Bridge of Spies is a bit too understated and too comfortable of a movie - it tells a good story, but it doesn't tell it in a particularly interesting way, and the performances are really not the best compared to previous performances by the cast. I found myself discretely checking the time during the film, and the typical Spielberg pay-off at the end felt forced if you consider that the Cold War went off for decades still and nothing really changed significantly. It was one of the weakest Spielberg movies in my opinion and there were many other films in 2015 that were much more deserving of a nomination.

Mad Max is a marvel and maybe my favourite film of the year, filled with great spectacle and performances but it is uneven in its pacing and story. Its symbolism is rather heavy-handed and gradually grows tiresome as the film winds down. I won't go into how it should've been titled "Imperator Furiosa" as many people claim, it is a Mad Max movie through and through. It is a surprisingly feminist film so that could be another important consideration in nominating it (and I feel that's a good thing by the way). I'm very happy to see it get the nomination, but its story, basic and sometimes nonsensical as it is, don't make it a serious contender in my opinion.

The Revenant is an extremely raw and demanding film, but it is trying too hard to be a Terrence Malick film while it should be its own film. The actors and crew do an amazing and incredibly demanding job but Revenant feels too much: too much machismo, too much faux-New Age, too much post-colonial critique, too much forced symbolism (how many times does Leo get symbolically reborn in Revenant? I lost count). Does Leo deserve best actor award or Tom Hardy best supporting actor? Absolutely. But whereas Inarritu's Birdman was sly, witty, subversive, with an engaging meta-critique of the genre -a real high-wire act - The Revenant is at times too bombastic, too serious, too ponderous.

Spotlight I enjoyed a lot, it tells a very important story and it tells it well and it joins films such as All the President's Men or Zodiac as a great journalistic film. But although it has a great script and performances, visually it is boring to watch - it is very conventional and mostly feels like a TV show. It is filled with medium cut-and-reverse shots of people talking with each other and doesn't do much effort to stage and shoot the scenes in ways that could be far more interesting (I admit that I have been binge-watching Every Frame a Painting lately so that might skew my opinions). It could work very well as an HBO miniseries allowing some characters and subplots to develop further. TV is not a bad thing, TV has been consistently great in the last decade, but I would like to see the camera and editing work hand in hand with the great performances and the script and Spotlight just doesn't do that.

The Martian is excellent. It's a great adaptation and it's a very fun film. But it is uneven, which becoming apparent through multiple viewings. There is no doubt that Matt Damon pulls off a great performance, but I can't pinpoint any particularly noteworthy moments from the rest of the cast. One half of the movie is Matt Damon's character's YouTube diary (which he totally carries off because everyone loves Matt Damon), the other half is a rather cliche "bring 'em home alive" astronaut movie. It is all great fun, the humour is excellent, and there are some nail-biting action scenes, but it's just too uneven to be the best picture in my opinion. Great sci-fi adventure film and a big huzzah for portrayal of scientists and engineers and astronauts though.

Room. This movie is more painful to watch in many ways than Revenant's 2+ hours of raw physical agony, because its pain and tragedy is of a whole different order. It wrings unforgettable performances from its actors and demands so much from the audience. On raw actor performance power it should win. But, and this is my totally subjective and personal opinion, I always wish and hope that best picture awards (Oscars or otherwise) should go to films that have something important to say or something new to say using the unique strengths of the media of film. Sometimes we get that, and sometimes we don't (*cough* Titanic *cough*). Room is a film about surviving the unthinkable and love, but its story and message is not unique - its performances are.

Brooklyn. I thought Brooklyn was OK. I could watch Saoirse Ronan any time, and I'm a big fan of Nick Hornby (sue me, High Fidelity is one of my personal favourites), but I cannot for the life of me understand what Brooklyn is doing on the Best Picture nominations. It has some very lovely and charming performances, but it's not a particularly interesting film and it doesn't have anything particularly interesting to say. Maybe I'm the wrong audience for it, but for me it was mostly forgettable.

OK, so Big Short. What Big Short does is essentially take the 2010 documentary "Inside Job" (which was already excellent and won an Oscar) and dials it to 11. Both it and Spotlight tell very important stories, but where Spotlight falters on using its camera wisely to help tell the story, The Big Short uses camera and editing confidently, doing with it things that most TV shows would not even attempt to do. Unlike "The Wolf of Wall Street" which I absolutely despise (a great performance by Leo notwithstanding) as basically glorifying the Wall Street life style (yes, it's trying to show us how evil and greedy those people are but the lesson seem to be that if you commit financial fraud you'll be super rich and basically get away with it in the end), "The Big Short" is raw in its anger and cynicism that the 2007/2008 economic meltdown happened, that it was basically designed to happen, and that basically no one who was responsible for it was punished. It has some great performances and even if it does falter once or twice towards the end in its pacing, it never loses its focus. And the way it uses music is just great! It's very insidious in how it uses music and interpolated cuts to both prime the audience for each scene's payoff and to keep the audience uneasy (watch carefully the scene where Steve Carrell's character talks to a couple of mortgage brokers in Florida - it's honestly a masterpiece of a scene for so many reasons I could go on abot). It is a Film with a capital F, it does something that only the medium of film can do successfully. It tells an important story and it does it incredibly well through performances, cinematography, sound and editing. In my opinion it best fulfills all the criteria of a Best Picture.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dubai: Impressions and Tips

Having just returned from a Dubai vacation I'm naturally full to the brim with experiences and impressions, but I thought I'd focus on some overall impressions and some tips for new visitors to Dubai while they are still fresh in my mind.

Dubai is a very tourist-friendly city, everyone speaks or understands English and all signs are in English and Arabic, and you'll also notice many signs in Russian as well. It's a very multicultural and open city, but it's still a Muslim country so there are a few things to keep in mind. One being that it's hard to buy alcohol outside of hotel bars and night clubs. The other is that stores and such open a bit later on Friday than usual. Also, government offices and most government-run museums close at 2:30 so plan accordingly.

Getting around Dubai is very easy thanks to an excellent public transportation city. Don't get an Uber in Dubai! I've found that the taxis are very cheap, the drivers have all been very polite, and none have tried to cheat me unlike the taxi drivers in Doha. Also, getting around the city using the Dubai Metro is very cheap and very fast. 7 dirhams will get you to, or close to, most of the notable tourist and shopping locations such as Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, and so on. To use the buses however, you need to get a bus card at one of the major bus station and then you can load money on it at the machines available at every bus stop (big or small). I only used the taxi three times while I was in Dubai, relying on public transport to get around and I didn't waste much time doing so. Oh yeah, when getting on a metro watch out for women-only entrance and the Gold VIP entrance. I'm not even joking.

Because it's so easy and fast to get to places using public transport don't be afraid to go out of Dubai City to find a cheap good hotel. You can find good cheap hotels as far away as Jumeirah 3 or out in Deira and still be able to go to Dubai downtown easily and cheaply.

Speaking of downtown, it's totally worth it. I'd say plan at least a day to spend just in Dubai Mall and nearby attractions. Dubai Aquarium in the mall is only 100 dirhams to go in and I personally enjoyed it. Burj Khalifa can be entered from the mall, and I highly recommend either booking the tickets online ahead of time or going up to the counter and booking them for later in the day. There's always a huge line waiting to get in and don't count on being able to just waltz in whenever you want. Also to note, you can go up to the 124th and 125 floors for I think 120 dirhams, or you can do the VIP treatment and go up to the 148th floor for 300 dirhams. The latter experience is still worth it, you don't need to stand in line waiting for your turn to go up, instead you get to relax in a nice lounge and get coffee and snacks (provided with the ticket), then go up and experience the amazing view with being plied with more drinks and snacks. Hey, chances are you'd only want to go up once anymore so might as well live a little. :)

The fountain show right outside the Dubai Mall is also unforgettable, but I also enjoyed a much more quiet nearby souq Al Bahar and a little park nearby as a way to wind from the busy and loud mall. Speaking of souqs, definitely try to get to some of the city's souqs to experience a less glamorous but also interesting side of Dubai. What I did was take the Metro to Al Fahidi station, got off, explored the excellent historical village, little museums and art galleries, the Al Fahidi fort and museum. I love this part of the city, it was especially charming and full of character. Then for just 1 dirham I caught a water taxi to go across the Dubai Creek to the older part of Dubai. Skip the Al Fahidi souq, it's really just a cheap indoor mall and not a souq at all, but definitely check out the Gold souq, Spice souq and Bur Dubai souq. They do get tiresome because of very pushy criers and salesmen offering Rolexes, Kashmir scarves, suspiciously cheap smart phones and less legal wares, but they do have character.

To unwind, I highly recommend Jumeirah public beach and in fact the entire Jumeirah (Jumeirah 1 that is) neighbourhood. It's a quiet beachside middle-class and small business neighbourhood, very lovely, lots of bike and running paths, you get to see pretty amazing Grand Jumeirah Mosque and the public beach was very lovely. I went on a weekday around noon and it was empty save for a couple of families and a few joggers and the water was lovely. Word of advice, if you see the famous Burj Al Arab tower in the distance (that's the famous super-posh hotel that's shaped like a sail and has golf courses on the roof) don't even bother to go see it. You can't get close it, you get stopped by security and you can't actually go inside unless you are a guest at the hotel or have an invitation. Don't bother spending your time and money.

Lastly if you are a geek and want to do some shopping or just geek out, I highly recommend checking out Kinokuniya in Dubal Mall, and Battlezone in Jumeirah. Battlezone has great staff, great playing spaces for miniature, board game, and CCG gamers, and very reasonable prices (by Gulf standards).

Anyway, I really enjoyed my time in Dubai, I did have to spend quite a lot on entertainment and shopping, but I found that transportation and food were cheaper than I expected. Great city to visit!

Monday, January 25, 2016

How to introduce games to beginners

Last few gaming sessions it fell to me to introduce relatively new players to games they've never played before. Of course explanation of the rules was in order, but I think there's a much more important part of the introduction that's going to set how the game is going to go - selling the game.

It's not a surprise to anyone who plays boardgames or has seen the filled to the brim shelves of a boardgame collector or a serious games store that many boardgames look intimidating. The size of the boxes, or the unappealing art, or titles that suggest ponderous industrial machinery
Doesn't he look like he's having fun?
may turn players away from what could actually turn out to be a really great experience. So selling a game involves both convincing players that it can be a fun experience and setting the mood of the game. So what I like to do when introducing a game isn't to throw out a bunch of terms like "it's a worker placement game" or "it's an area control game", or to immediately launch into a rules explanation ("in this game we are going to be collecting resources and then trading them!") but to describe the theme of the game and what the players are supposed to play as (not what they DO in game vis-a-vis moving tokens or playing cards, but what their characters/nations/merchants/whatever are doing in the game). So here are some evocative (or at least somewhat evocative) ways that I described some fun introductory games to new players.

Pandemic: there are viruses spreading unchecked! We are a bunch of scientists working together to cure those viruses before the human race is doomed!

Puerto Rico: we are governors of New Spain lording over towns and plantations, competing to see who can build the best city and send the most goods to Spain!

Francis Drake: we are English privateers sailing to the Spanish Main and then burning and looting right through it for a chance to win the favour of the Queen!

Orleans: we are French lords and we are building the best damn Medieval society we can! (this can also work for Castles of Burgundy)

Race for the Galaxy (or Roll for the Galaxy): we are developing our own unique galactic civilizations and creating an epic space opera.

Galaxy Trucker: we are building awful rickety spaceships, loading them up with goods and then racing them. Horrible hilarious things will happen to our ships!

Lords of Waterdeep: we are a scheming cabal working against each other to control a city from the shadows. We are going to send a lot of adventurers to their doom!

This tells the players the theme and get them interested. Now arguably the gameplay is more important than the theme (there are some really theme-less or bland-themed games with amazing gameplay, and some games with great theme but crappy gameplay), but the theme is what gets the players interested in trying the game in the first place.

The second thing I do is compare the boardgame to a video game or a movie or a book or a TV show that the players are familiar with and that invokes the mood of the game. Instead of comparing to another boardgame, compare it to Firefly (Galaxy Truckers or Xia), or Battlestar Galactica (Battlestar Galactica game or Resistance), or Apocalypse Now, or Hunger Games or Lord of the Rings and so on. When I bring up this comparison I also try to point out WHO in this movie/book/video game the players represent ("so some of us are going to be like humans, and some of us are going to be like Cylons").
I know at least one of you is a Cylon. I mean government spy!
 It gets players invested not in the gameplay mechanics but in what the game is like - what the experience promises to be. Why do I think setting the mood is important? Because that's what's going to carry the game. Introduce the game as something silly and fun and that's the mood that'll prevail at least with some players. Introduce the game as full of intrigue, paranoia and secrets and players will be more likely to mistrust one another. Mood makes people play a role (you could almost say ROLE play...?) and immerse themselves in the game. For example in Puerto Rico you build plantations and warehouses and put things on ships. Hardly immersive right? And yet, right off the bat the players - once properly introduced to the game - started playing the roles of a corrupt governor, scheming merchant, declaring vendettas against each other (even though the game doesn't have any overtly aggressive mechanics) and it was just FUN!

The last thing I do in the introduction is give an example of something cool that a player can do in the game. Long before explaining the actual rules I can tell the players "Oh yeah, and you can totally double-cross people or totally play it straight and still win" or "you can marry the King of France and then have him assassinated and it's GREAT!" or "you can summon this huge monster that can kick everyone's ass!" I believe that what people get excited about in a game isn't necessarily the actual winning but other things you get to do. You can accumulate victory points in nearly every boardgame nowadays so there needs to be something else cool about your game to get players (especially new players) excited.
"Sometimes I get hard thinking about victory points." Said by no one ever.
 I don't think that people get excited about play Monopoly (although I don't know anyone who does get excited about playing Monopoly) because they get to roll dice and the object of the game is to bankrupt your friends. They get excited because they get to hold big wads of cash and plop hotels down and gleefully tell someone to pay their rent for a change. So single out one cool thing you can do or have done in the past in the game and tell new players about it. It will also give them a potential strategy to think about when they start playing and I think that's more important than explaining every single rule in minute detail.

So TL;DR for introducing a game to new players:
A. Tell them who they are playing in the game and what is the theme of the game.
B. Compare the boardgame to a book, movie, comic book or TV show that has a similar theme.
C. Tell the players what cool things they can do in the game.

What do you think? What's the best way to "sell" a game to new players?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Why I am worried about Tom Clancy's Division and you should be too (if you're a gamer)

Lately I've been on a huge first-person shooter binge, sinking a lot of time into Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 (which I am enjoying immensely much to my surprise, but maybe that's another blog post) as well as a few old-school shooters (like Republic Commandos, Counterstrike 1.6 and the first Jedi Knight), and a bit of time with Star Wars Battlefront (which - thank God - I didn't buy, but borrowed from a friend instead). This coincided with a huge amount of information dropped about one of the most anticipated AAA games of 2016 - Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's The Division (and you can see a bunch of collected game media impressions here on Kotaku). You might also enjoy this impression by a very popular YouTuber AngryJoe.

I was tentatively excited about The Division when it was first announced. It looked like a blend of persistent world MMO, with heavy shooter elements, some MMORPG-style abilities, and a bleak near-future apocalyptic story, all set in a 1 for 1 recreation of New York. Since then the game received its share of controversies, suffering form delay after delay, clear visual performance downgrades (at least on consoles - there has been no footage of the game running on PC in an unscripted setting) and confusion regarding what this game is supposed to be. However, with the media embargo regarding hands-on impressions lifted (as witnessed by the links above) a lot of that confusion has been clarified. On the other hand it also got me worried about the game quite a bit.

The first thing that's got me worried is how hard most game media journalists who have played The Division are trying to both make The Division sound like Destiny ('it's just like Destiny you guys! But you're fighting hobos and looters with realistic guns, instead of fighting aliens with sci-fi magical guns!') and NOT make The Division sound like Destiny ('it's nothing like Destiny other than both are shooters with RPG stats and damage numbers!'). So that's a first warning sign as they (game media and Ubisoft) are trying very hard to sell the game to both fans of Destiny and those who either hated it or never tried it (for the record, I still haven't played a single minute of Destiny and doubt I ever will). Granted, The Division was announced before Destiny actually came out, but it's still weird to see how much effort is spent on fitting The Division into the meta-narrative of the evolution of shooters and RPGs on consoles.

The second thing that makes me doubt the game's staying power is that there doesn't appear to be a huge variety of enemies or environments. You're shooting hobos, looters, criminals, what looks to be rogue cops and army dudes, some weird hazmat-wearing flamethrowing guys and so on. You're shooting them with real-world guns and using near-future but perfectly plausible tech (rolling micro-drones, personal radar systems, etc.) but you are essentially just shooting people with your gun. In games like Call of Duty that's totally fine because: a) the single-player campaign is usually quite short and ends before it gets too repetitive, and b) when playing matches where you shoot other people with your guns, personal skill, map awareness and knowledge of the game count for far more than the stats on your gear and the DPS of your gun. So there needs to be some kind of a greater incentive (both in terms of loot and in terms of narrative) when 'shoot people with guns' is dropped into an MMO-esque RPG. Destiny achieves it (to my knowledge) with having many different-looking worlds, big variety of instanced missions or dungeons (so that you're not just shooting people or the same race of aliens all the time), big variety of enemies and just big visual shifts between areas. The Division appears to have none of that at this moment. You're fighting in urban areas and you are shooting people all day long. It's kind of weird to see that a boss in a mission is some guy named Rudy (or Joe or whatever) but he still looks like the rest of the hobos around him while acting like a giant bullet sponge as if he was a raid boss from World of Warcraft or Destiny. It just doesn't seem like the Division would be able to sustain my interest for too long. Now, maybe the developers are a lot smarter than this, and maybe New York is just the FIRST stage and there are other cities or locations you travel to later on in the game, and maybe later on some weirder enemy types get introduce (robots, or infected or something) and they are just keeping this under wraps. However, given Ubisoft's previous track record with story telling and keeping surprises under wraps I find this difficult to believe.

Then there's the whole loot gathering and crafting progression. Basically I have no time or willpower to play another MMO. Even if, as the developers claim, most missions in The Division can be completed in under an hour. The point is that all of the gameplay videos released recently (see links above) show that the game progression is hugely dependent on gathering or crafting increasingly better loot. It's the same grind as in WoW, FFXIV or (as I am told by hardcore Destiny players) in Destiny and I have no time or patience for that. Especially if, as the developers and game journalists are constantly stressing, The Division will be a kind of game you'll want to play with friends. If my friends outpace me in terms of gear and levels, what am I supposed to do then? Also, I just find gear grinding to be very boring.

The other big concern for me is the tone. The cut scenes, the environment, the music and the ambient dialogue all paint this grim Tom Clancy-ish setting which is utterly at odds with the focus of the game on loot, DPS and shooting a bunch of people. So you're supposed to be restoring law and order in New York in the wake of a deadly epidemic and breakdown of society, but it seems that the primary motivation of the players is to get better guns and gear. Woo! I got a better scope/backpack/gun holster/laser sight! In other words, I feel like there's a big disconnect between what the game is about and the actual gameplay. Also, this disconnect between the narrative and the gameplay coupled with modern day realistic setting raise some rather ugly questions. The looters you shoot in the early stages of the game all wear "urban" clothing (read: African American hiphop influenced fashion), the National Guard elements helping you seem uniformly heroic, the US government (in a typical Tom Clancy military fiction fashion) generally means well and is prepared in some fashion and that society in the absence of the long arm of the government will inevitably break down. But you know, all of it is just an excuse to shoot a whole bunch of people with realistic guns.

Finally, Ubisoft is rather notorious for dropping post-launch support for titles that have no sold so well or that have lost a lot of player base post-launch due to various issues (poor story, buggy gameplay, poor performance). For example Watch_Dogs or Assassin's Creed: Unity. I pity anyone who had bought a season pass for those games because both games have received very little support post-launch. Ubisoft seemed to have dropped both like a hot potato and resolved to never ever speak of them again. Heck, I seem to recall even some sort of apology for Assassin's Creed Unity (and the excellent Assassin's Creed Syndicate seems to have swept Unity aside as a true next-gen Assassin's Creed). Basically, if
a) The Division fails to sell the number of copies that Ubisoft is hoping for, and/or
b) The Division fails to sell the number of season passes that Ubisoft is hoping for, and/or
c) The Division fails to retain the number of players post-launch that Ubisoft is hoping for
Then I am not holding out much hope for the post-launch support or Ubisoft's willingness to invest into the future of the game. Ubisoft needs to realize that MMOs and MMO-style games need constant post-launch support and that no online games come out of the game perfect. WoW didn't start out with 10 million subscribers, FFXIV has not become the huge commercial and critical success until Sony made the gutsy move to first shut down the game, then completely rebuild it, and then provide big monthly updates and an enormous expansion.

So what would make me pick up The Division after it launches (because I sure as shit ain't pre-ordering it or picking it up on day 1)? One, the launch has to be smooth - some server issues are expected, but it better not be a complete shit show. Two, the game needs to feature more than just New York - other cities or at least non-urban environments are a must for me to avoid the tedium. Three, the grind for decent gear should not take as long a time as FFXIV or Destiny. Four, Ubisoft needs to be very clear upfront as to what future additions (via season pass) will hold and approximate dates when they will come out. Five, they seriously need to add a persistent clan option and more social support. For a game that's supposed to be enjoyed with other people it's surprising to me that it has such limited emotes, no clan support, and awkward grouping.

Then again, maybe it'll be an amazing game from day 1. :P

Sunday, January 3, 2016

My favourite games of 2015 and the rest

2015 was a great year for games. The different "Top 10 games of 2015" by big-time Youtubers and games media showed just how amazingly diverse the good games of 2015 have been. Sadly, I haven't had the time to play all of the best games of 2015. Partly because of lack of time, partly because I moved to a country with a rather spotty Internet connection, and partly because League of Legends took up so much of my time (although that is no longer a case, LoL and I have had a falling out, but more on that later). So this is the list of games that I played this year and enjoyed most of all. It is in no particular order although one game in particular stood out among the rest for me this year.

Starcraft: Legacy of the Void
The final episode of Starcraft 2 and the game that brought the huge Starcraft story to a close, Legacy of the Void was not a perfect game, primarily because of its story. It simply was not a good story or a great ending to one of my favourite sci-fi games. However, what it lacked in story it made up in amazing mission design (seriously, the missions in Legacy of the Void were some of the best-designed Starcraft missions ever), bringing back a lot of the older units from the first game as well as all the new units, the huge amount of customization in the campaign, and of course the changes to the multiplayer. In particular, Legacy of the Void introduced coop multiplayer missions and online character progression tied to those missions and I just can't get enough of them! They're an absolutely fantastic way to play Starcraft 2 with friends and not feel totally out of your depth.

Hand of Fate
This little virtual deck-building game came out of nowhere and I've enjoyed it greatly. You play as an adventurer playing a card game of life and death against, well, death itself (personified as the mysterious dealer). The dungeon you progress through is a deck of cards, your gear is a deck of cards, as are different abilities, potions and so on. The story is surprisingly good, the hack-and-slash combat (into which the game transitions when you land on a combat encounter card) is quick and satisfying, the deck building elements are fantastic, and for a virtual card game Hand of Fate is a surprisingly atmospheric game. Can't get enough of it, and it can be played in very short sessions if pressed for time.

Assassins' Creed Syndicate
Could this be the game to unseat Black Flag as my favourite Assassin's Creed game? Quite possibly, because as cool as pirate ships are, having your own Victorian train might be just as cool, and instead of one lovable roguish protagonist you get two - the twins Jacob and Evie Frye who have fast become some of my favourite video game protagonists yet. The city of London and its outlying areas are absolutely gorgeous, navigating the very vertical city with the aid of Batman-style grappling hook is super fun, the missions and side activities are very varied, and I love all the Victorian literature references and running into famous Victorians (Darwin, Marx, Nightingale, the list goes on). In addition to this, the present-day meta story of Assassins infiltrating the Templar corporation of Abstergo is nowhere near as intrusive as in other games (even in Black Flag the present-day sequences could be quite tedious) and is presented mostly in short entertaining cutscenes. The vehicle combat and barge hopping are also just fantastically fun. The music in this game is stellar, I could just listen to it all day long. The combat can be rather wonky at times, but this game really redeemed the Assassin's Creed series after the Unity disaster.

Rocket League
This game. This. Fucking. Game. Rocket League is one of the reasons why I virtually quit League of Legends. It is incredibly fast. Each match lasts 5 minutes and doesn't outstay its welcome. I never really get mad at stupid plays by my teammaters because: a) the match is over very quickly, b) I can very easily drop the match and find another one in less than a minute, c) I'm just as terrible as they are. Moreover, it has a lot of customization including the ability to create your own team and season and play it with bots or with your friends. It's got a good variety of maps and vehicles. Vehicles, paintjobs and other cosmetic elements are unlocked very quickly. And it's a game about playing football (the non-American one) with cars that are rocket powered and go VROOM really well! What's not to like! I could spend 5 minutes playing it, or a few hours, it doesn't stop being fun either way and rewards flashy play and skill as well as occasional dumb luck. I have it on PS4 and on PC, so that no matter where I am I can play it!

Pillars of Eternity
I love Baldur's Gate. I love Baldur's Gate 2 even more. I love Icewind Dale almost as much. And I love Planescape Torment most of all. So when along comes Pillars of Eternity, a game made by the folks who worked on all the games above, featuring the same kind of gameplay but with a better UI and smoother graphics, set in an intriguing completely original setting I knew I was going to like it. But Pillars of Eternity blew me away. Sure, the combat did start to feel repetitive and more than a little frustrating towards the end, but the writing, the story, the amazing characters you meet, the setting and the music just knock it out of the park! Add to it a pretty great huge expansion that came out the same year as the game, with another expansion on the way, and Pillars of Eternity is a huge and rewarding RPG.

Dying Light
I don't like zombie games. I don't enjoy shooter games as much as I did. I'm not a huge fan of Far Cry style games. But man, take all these things together, throw in the BEST first-person parkour ever (yes it's better than Mirror's Edge - get over it!), awesome day-night cycle mechanic and a huge sprawling city to explore and somehow Dying Light had me hooked. The story and most of its characters were cliche and the twists could be seen a mile away, but the gameplay and attention to detail more than made up for it. During the day, Dying Light is a fun open-world shooter and free-running simulator. But during the night, Dying Light turns into a terrifying and slow survival horror experience - it's so so so great! Plus, the developers have been releasing a steady stream of updates, free and paid DLCs, new levels, expansions, challenges and so on. My favourite zombie game of all time.

Rebel Galaxy
I love Firefly. I love big capital spaceship combat. I love grungy ZZ Top-style country rock (it's a guilty pleasure). So along comes a game that has a huge sprawling galaxy to explore, trade with, or blow up, that has a kickass soundtrack, pretty great capital ship combat, and some entertaining characters. And this ships you can buy and customize look great and handle very differently. It might not quite have the sprawl of Elite: Dangerous, but it has a better story, better trading mechanics, looks almost as good, and I enjoy its combat a lot more. Really didn't see this game coming, but it won me over.

Witcher 3
This is my game of the year. Plain and simple. I sunk more hours into it than almost any other game this year (or maybe ever). I love the Witcher novels, the first two games and I'm vested in the series but Witcher 3 surpasses any and all expectation. This is a game where many of the sidequests have a better story and more interesting characters than all of Fallout 4 (more on that game in a bit), nevermind the epic and supremely well-written main story. The characters, voice acting, music, crafting, combat, monster hunts, the ridiculously huge yet detailed world combine to create the best open-world RPG ever made. And I haven't even played the first expansion yet (which I have on good authority has a story just as awesome as the main game itself) because I just keep completing sidequests in the main game and constantly find something new! Oh and CD Projekt might be one of the best developers and publishers, giving away a ton of great free downloadable content, and making the season pass both very cheap and ridiculously packed with goodies if the size of the first expansion is any indication. Game of the year and a permanent spot as one of my favourite games of all time.

Games I wish I'd played in 2015 but will play in 2016!
I really want the new Tomb Raider but it is a delayed exclusive for X-Box One and since I don't have one of these I'll have to wait. I greatly enjoyed the previous Tomb Raider reboot game and this one looks even better.

Tales from the Borderlands. I'm one of those strange people who liked the setting and story of Borderlands series more than the actual gameplay. I don't know what it is, but I liked the off-beat humour, the characters and the colourful setting a lot more than just shooting thousands of dudes so I could pick up a better gun. Tales from the Borderlands strips away the gunplay and adds in more humour and characters and world-building. I just picked it up during the Steam holiday sale and would love to just sit and finish it in one day.

And speaking of interactive movie-like narrative games, Life is Strange is another game I want to sit down with and finish off in one day. The story sounds pretty interesting, I really dig the music choices, and I like the vibe this game exudes. Plus I actually really liked the game studio's last game Remember Me (even though a lot of people didn't) so I definitely want to throw money their way.

Mad Max. Vehicle combat?! Nuclear wasteland?! Vehicle customization?! MAD MOTHERFUCKING MAX?! The game caught a lot of flack of mainstream games media, but the player response has been overwhelming (my favourite Youtuber TotalBiscuit even put it on his Top 2015 Games list) and it just looks badass.

Soma. I've been doing my best to avoid spoilers about this game because a lot of people agree that its story is a total mindfuck and it does survival horror really really well. It is also supposed to be shorter than Alien: Isolation - a game I really enjoyed but could finish due to some interminable stretches towards the end. Soma has that intriguing mix of existential and body horror, science fiction and philosophy I like, so it's definitely on my list of games to finish.

Undertale. It's totally not my style of games, but supposedly it really subverts the genre and the story and characters are supposed to be unforgettable. I hope I'll enjoy it.

Warhammer End Times: Vermintide. I actually have this game. I played this game. I enjoyed this game. But with my terrible Internet connection and huge time zone difference between me and my friends I just can't play this game at the moment. I really hope 2016 will be different.

2015 Games That Disappointed Me
No bigger disappointment for me was Fallout 4. It was a brilliant game in many ways and I still played 100+ hours of it but in the end it left me drained, exhausted and not having much fun. Its main story started out really well only to take some predictable turns and peter out towards the end. Some of the companions were very interesting and awesome in their own right, while others were less so. The gunplay was much better than Fallout 3 or New Vegas. What made this game such a disappointment was that this game is not really Fallout. Let me be absolutely clear - this game is not an RPG, it may be set in the Fallout universe but it is not a real Fallout game. Where are the huge dialogue trees and non-combat options and huge variety of ways to solve encounters? Fallout 4 has basically two main ways of interacting with the world: shooting it up and occasionally pressing E (or whatever controller button you're using). In terms of its narrative and non-combat options it's actually a step back from Fallout 3 or New Vegas ans a massive leap back from the brilliant design of the first two Fallout games. Eventually I grew tired, frustrated and angry at the game, I just didn't want to shoot another super mutant or raider or mirelurk or whatnot so I could get some special named gun. I was done. Maybe with some mods to address the game's most glaring issues and some DLCs to inject more quests (and let's face it - Fallout 3 had some AMAZING expansions so I know Bethesda can deliver) I might come back to it.

Star Wars Battlefront. Almost as big a disappointment as Fallout 4 was Star Wars Battlefront. HOW COULD YOU FUCK THIS UP SO BADLY? I found myself asking the game. Look, it captures the feel of being in Star Wars really well - the sound, graphics, attention to minute details of the setting, that's all great. Where it completely falls apart is the gameplay. It's basically a squad-based shooter, but it's actually taking a step backwards from the shooter evolution. Its gameplay has NOTHING interesting to recommend itself. The guns don't feel very distinct from each other. It doesn't have a cover system. It barely has any vehicles - a Battlefield/Battlefront game with no vehicles?! What heresy is this?! The iconic heroes are either too weak or too powerful. The weapons and some of the upgrades are not balanced at all. The respawn system feels positively medieval and encourages spawn camping. The progression is a tedious grind. There aren't even that many maps or modes AND NO SPACE COMBAT! Such a fail. Glad I didn't actually buy it, I only borrowed it for a couple of weeks.

Total War: Attila. Hey, at least it's better than Total War: Rome 2, amirite? No, seriously, it is better, it's actually a pretty good game. The horde mode added quite a lot to the gunplay, while playing as the decaying remnants of the Roman Empire felt very distinct and interesting in its own way. The problem was that Total War: Attila did not fix the huge problems that players had with Rome 2. This was a golden opportunity to fix some of the big issues (wonky diplomacy, boring character progression, major AI issues, a world map that was far too big, etc.) and that opportunity was squandered. Plus it introduced a whole bunch of new units but most of them felt very bland or like a reskinning of older units. Total War: Charlemagne is supposed to be much better but I'm going to wait for a deep price cut before picking it up - fool me once, etc. etc. etc.

Civilization: Beyond Earth: Rising Tide. My disappointment with this game can be partly attributed to awful technical issues I've had with it. While my laptop can run Civilization V with no problems, Beyond Earth and Beyond Earth: Rising Tide have been very difficult to get going on my computer. Rising Tide introduced the ability to build and exploit sea tiles, four new factions, hybrid affinities, artifact gathering and a bunch of other stuff. The problem for me was that it didn't fix AI issues, the new ocean options (units, techs, wonders, etc.) are very overpowered, and the new diplomacy system - while much better than the crap we got in Beyond Earth - was still not that great. I feel like with must one more expansion or a couple of DLCs Cvilization: Beyond Earth will become really good, the game we know it can be. It's just not there yet.

League of Legends. This is a game I played more than any other game except maybe Civilization 2 and 5 and Baldur's Gate 2. I still like League. Or at least I still like the idea of League. But with massive changes introduce post-Season 5 it's just not a game I enjoy playing all that much. I don't like the new champions or the direction that Riot is taking with reworking the older champions. I really don't like the new vision system. I don't think the newly reworked Masteries are well balanced. But most of all, I think League of Legends lacks certain quality of life factors that I've gotten used to in other competitive multiplayer games. Where are the replays like in Rocket League or Starcraft 2? Where is a built-in streaming support? Goddammit, all joking about horrible human beings playing LoL, where's the built-in voice chat or at least a Smite-like quick voice commands to communicate with the team better? Stop putting out more and more skins and chroma packs and other bullshit like that and modernize the game! More than anything, the lack of these quality of life factors has driven me away from LoL.

Well that's that for 2015! I am cautiously looking forward to 2016! New Final Fantasy and FF7 Remastered! Tom Clancy's The Division (here's hoping it'll be better than Watch_Dogs)! A new Homeworld game (even if this one's not in space)! Hopefully Star Citizen will finally be out! I predict that some of these are going to be pretty disappointing, but there will be enough great games to make up for this. Happy New Year's everyone!