Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Zenge - Thoughts

Occasionally during a Steam sale I'll grab a bunch of short, cheap puzzlers to play in between the longer games in my backlog. After finishing the fantastic Golf Peaks, I quickly jumped into Zenge in need of something simpler to tickle my brain. But Zenge is... I'm not sure what to say about it. Similar to its cousin Hook, its a game about following lines more than anything else, and unless the pretty art strikes your fancy, Zenge will fail to leave much of an impression.

Like a lot of the puzzlers I have, Zenge is so cheap that it makes no sense to discourage anyone from trying it. I mean, for four US quarters the game lasts about two hours and doesn't bombard you with any stupid design decisions. But on the flip side there's not really anything fascinating about it. The biggest draw Zenge has going for it is that after completing a puzzle, a picture will materialize that links the previous and future puzzles together. But the story the game tells is more of an abstract journey out of the pages of a child's book than it is an adventurous yarn that draws you in. That's not a knock against Zenge or children's books; it'll probably just be something you either fancy or don't. And personally, despite how much I appreciate awarding the player with art post-puzzle, that wasn't the main reason I picked the game up—the puzzles were.

And this is where I struggle to think up a lot of things to say about Zenge. It starts off simple enough to ease you into its various mechanics, but by the end you don't feel tested on your mastery or blown away at how all the systems come together. Like Hook, the bigger the puzzles get the more mindless busywork you have to do to make sure the various jigsaw pieces can move around each other and slot into place. There's nothing that'll stump you or flip your understand on how to play the game upside-down. You'll simply move pieces and then rotate or shrink them if they won't fit. And that's basically its entire playbook.

The one thing Zenge has over Golf Peaks is that its music is very soothing and beautiful. But presentation alone usually isn't enough to win me over, and Zenge is not an exception to this rule. The game enjoyable enough that I actively sought to finish it and didn't regret my time spent, but it's likely you won't hear me talk about Zenge outside of this one, lone blog post.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Last of Us - Thoughts

There is a pervasive, gnawing, heavy misery to The Last of Us that I would've call "niche" had it not been one of the most successful video games released for the PS3. Thinking on it, I would have been skeptical if you told me a decade ago that "downer" media like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones would become huge hits. Reveling in misery didn't seem like something large swathes of the population enjoyed—or at least, it certainly wasn't something people sought out more than once or twice a year. And while video games have always had an intimate relationship with violence, from the fatalities of Mortal Kombat to starving virtual friends to death in The Sims, few games have plunged into the murky depths of depravity. Those that did were usually seen as deviant; folks knew about Postal, Soldier of Fortune, and Manhunt, but adoration for those titles typically came from edgy teens, hungry for any kind of transgressive media. Plus there was always an element of farce to gaming's most violent offenders, making games like Carmageddon feel more stupid than sadistic.

So industry darling Naughty Dog taking a hard left turn into zombie-lane was surprising, especially coming off of the plucky Uncharted series. This post-apocalyptic world would be thematic inverse of Nathan Drake's universe: sick, sad, and dotted with blood trails that led to tragedy. Replaying it again in 2020 for Part II's release neither shocked nor sickened me, but I was mystified that so many people latched onto such a nihilistic experience. Perhaps they endeared themselves to Ellie and Joel, finding warmth in their rapport and struggle to survive. But if you pay attention to the game, love isn't the cornerstone that holds The Last of Us up—that privilege belongs to fear.

For the record, I think The Last of Us is best video game released in 2013. It's extremely polished, tells an enthralling tale, and is a hell of a lot of fun to play. That's why, despite being puzzled that so many people are captivated by it, I would never argue that they shouldn't be; The Last of Us is probably Naughty Dog's magnum opus. I don't think it's flawless—Pittsburgh goes on for too damn long—but it's an indisputable AAA masterpiece in my eyes, and a game I long for others to experience.

Yet it's obvious it won't be everyone's cup of tea. The Last of Us lands a gut-punch with its opening in order to submerge you in the terribleness of its world, conditioning you to see murder as numb, morally gray offense. As manslaughter soon becomes second nature, you'll pick up on game's prevailing ethos: you need to kill to survive. Coincidentally the theme is propped up by a ludonarrative harmony, as any time your character lacks the means to fight back—whether in gameplay or in a cutscene—bad things will inevitably transpire.

My dilemma with this, and my subsequent struggle to understand the love for it, is that it's a libertarian's wet dream. The Last of Us is anchored in the fear of the other and spends more time exploring and reinforcing this concept than it does trying to refute it. Every character lives in constant fear, from Marlene to Joel to Henry, and whatever characters don't die become jaded to the prospect of trusting others. This is an idea pervasive in the zombie genre ("what if the real monster was MAN??!!"), but the subtler, quieter moments of The Last of Us add this terrifying loneliness to everything. And by the game's close, it will echo the theme tenfold. I think narratively the game is brilliant—the ending is absolutely perfect—but it will leave you with a hollow feeling, one that blurs the difference between surviving and suffering. There are no champions or heroes in The Last of Us—there's just a pack of desperate scavengers and you... and you better learn to become more ruthless than they are.

I spent a long time on this melancholic preamble largely so I could gush about how superb the killing is in The Last of Us. I chose Survivor as my difficulty this time around and did not regret it—robbing the player of supplies and their ability to "see" through walls vastly changes the experience. Escaping a gang of infected may be tense on normal, but in Survivor you're deprived of all your toys and ammo, forced to do calculations like how to kill six enemies with four bullets spread across three different guns. The increased difficulty removes any leverage the game might provide the player, forcing them to rely on their patience, instinct, and a little bit of luck to make it to the end. You'll learn how to ration supplies and savor being handed a box of shotgun shells, and even when the odds may be stacked against you (like, say, having a flamethrower and two arrows going into the final fight), The Last of Us teaches you that there's always a way to survive.

I cannot undersell just how much playing on Survivor works thematically with The Last of Us, primarily because it helps turn the player into a monster. Animations for strangling and stabbing people are vicious because they need to be—you have to be sure the enemy you just subdued won't be getting back up. Likewise, it's disgusting to watch a nailbomb shred a man's legs into a rosy aerosol, but neutralizing a patrol that way can be immensely cathartic. The ammo famine turns headshots into small celebratory explosions, and there is an almost transcendent quality to stumbling across the multi-use, insta-kill ax. Throughout your playthrough, moments of barbarity will slowly transform into gleeful psychopathy, like lining up two people for a single shotgun blast, or throwing a molotov at a stubborn foe hunkered down behind cover.

The violent video games I mentioned before invoke the same mindset, but The Last of Us is ever-conscious of its own bloodlust, Ellie cursing after every murder. Similarly, deaths in cutscenes are shocking and instantaneous—unlike your own game overs, which linger for too long in order to show you the grisly reality of failing. Joel doesn't see manslaughter as entertainment even if the player might, which helps to keep you grounded so you'll treat your opponents as the dregs of humanity instead of bags of blood operated by code. For The Last of Us, the satisfaction of killing is counterbalanced by the misery of death, which is one of the reasons why I found it to be so hauntingly effective.

The last thing I'll mention is something that I didn't expect to stun me: the music. While the visuals and mocap still hold up today, I was awed by Santaolalla's discordant soundtrack. The Last of Us' prevailing sense of misery is magnified by tracks that are rarely melodic, instead oscillating between uncomfortable, primal and eerie. I hadn't really noticed the music on my first playthrough (outside of the main theme), but this time I was constantly aware of the unorthodox and yet perfectly fitting soundscape to this dead-end world. Beside the fungal-infected zombies, Santaolalla's unsettling strumming is probably the defining aesthetic of the game.

You will find no peace in playing The Last of Us—and if you somehow manage to, it'll be because you've forfeited your empathy. Playing on Survivor can be a grim, frustrating experience (my kingdom for one half of a scissor!) but like Dark Souls, the difficulty complements the narrative like butter on toast. The game isn't completely bereft of beauty and softness, but you'll only be granted fleeting glimpses of joy, usually after caving in a man's skull in with a brick. I love how brutal and miserable The Last of Us is, but—as paradoxical as it sounds—I don't want to love its brutality and misery. I want these characters to be hopeful and graceful and kind, but as humanity spirals downward, The Last of Us posits that fear will prevail.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Mass Effect: Andromeda - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

To those that claim that Mass Effect 3 killed all interest in the series, I invite them to play Mass Effect: Andromeda.

I have a lot of sympathy for the task that BioWare Montreal had before them—return to the Mass Effect universe, despite the previous game effectively "ending" it. To get around this, the studio wisely shepherds the player into a nearby galaxy, giving them new worlds to land on, new aliens to meet, and new mysteries to solve. But while it may appear as if the Mass Effect title is an anchor weighing down a fresh new sci-fi plot, the real problem becomes Andromeda itself. Gone are Mass Effect's best qualities, replaced by uninteresting imitations, open-world shenanigans, and vestigial resource systems.

Right off the bat, Mass Effect: Andromeda's writing is a colossal step down. Conversations are stilted, ideas constantly drift off, and the dialogue is as sharp as a pencil eraser. This turns arguably the best part about Mass Effect—interacting with your teammates—into something that's fairly mediocre, if not baffling at times. It doesn't help that BioWare Montreal decided that the defining aspect of Ryder (the main character) would be awkward meta-commentary, so even when the dialogue is decent, you're bound to get Ryder interjecting with, "okay, seriously? You did not just say that!" The lackluster voice acting does the script no favors either; I'd honestly be shocked if there was anyone that thought the writing was on par with the previous Mass Effects.

Adjacent to that thought, Andromeda's main plot starts off interesting... but never goes anywhere ambitious. Stationed across the Heleus Cluster are terraforming stations built by ancient robots, all of which are being sought after by the enigmatic and warlike Kett. And that's essentially the entire plot. There's some twists and turns throughout the story but Andromeda never escapes the looming shadow set by the Reapers. The Remnant are basically robotic Protheans, the Kett are organic Reapers, and every other Mass Effect race is just how you remembered them, dealing with the politics and prejudices of old. There's a new friendly race in this neck of the universe (the angara) but there's absolutely nothing intriguing about them, outside of their reincarnated memories—a fact which only plays into a single side mission.

Andromeda's main focus is squarely on the war between the angara and the kett, which is one of the reasons why I found the Mass Effect label to be kind of superfluous. The ties to the previous games are meant to make Andromeda feel more familiar, but there's almost no reason why the Milky Way explorers couldn't have all been human. Sure, there's a krogan-only outpost that the other aliens are scornful of, but the struggle of the krogan for autonomy feels like an old hat by the time you solve their dilemma. Differences between the species are ultimately minimal since the back half of Andromeda treats humans and their colorful space companions as all the same: vermin for the kett empire to subjugate.

The kett aren't a terrible video game baddie, but they are extremely dull to fight against. They don't exude creepiness like the Collectors or danger like Cerberus snipers, and their most memorable unit—the Ascendant—is the worst fight in the goddamn series. You have to shoot at an orbiting sphere in order to make them vulnerable, and then you only get 1-2 shots until the sphere shield returns, turning a single unit into a three minute ammo-wasting snoozefest. A lot of the other beefy units also overstay their welcome, but the Ascendant was an noxious brew of annoying, boring, and hard to hit. I generally enjoyed fighting the remnant more, but both factions lacked diversity, so how you fought one enemy wouldn't really change from how you fought another.

Mass Effect has always had this problem to some degree, but the wealth of battle options at your disposal meant you could push and pull on the encounters according to what powers were available. Gameplay-wise, Andromeda is unarguably the most diverse Mass Effect title, letting you mix and match skills and passives from any tree. But then it contradicts this freedom by limiting your repertoire to three powers max and completely disabling the manual use of ally abilities. So it really doesn't matter which of your allies you bring into combat—you're the only person that can dig yourself out of a tricky predicament. In fact, teammates were as useless as they were in the first Mass Effect, rarely killing opponents and constantly, constantly getting in the way of my sights. By the end they could dish out some decent damage, but that was nothing compared to the powerhouse Ryder became; my allies were better off as meatshields, and even they couldn't perform that role well.

But becoming a space wizard that could lob black holes every ten seconds wasn't an easy road to travel. I've been playing through the Mass Effect series on Hard and Andromeda has been the only one to put up a fight the entire time. Enemies are considerably bulkier and harder to hit (your aiming has to be VERY precise), and if you lose any of your health or ammo you have to go hunting for a resupply crate, which are few and far between. Taking cover is also fluid and buttonless, which occasionally works well out in the wild but is a mess in closer corridors, where the only way to get Ryder to lower their head is by running them against an obstacle. To make matters worse, acquiring gear in this game is a confusing, bloated nightmare. You can spend one of three types of research points to obtain blueprints, which can then be developed with 4-5 different elements you'll mine from planets, and your gear can be both modified and augmented, and they come with their own rarity level, and there's over 100 types of weapons and armor to try this on. Or you can do what I did and just buy stuff from vendors. Once I found the Isharay and started collecting biotic damage armor, I had no reason to engage with 95% of the materials cluttering up my inventory.

The best thing I can say about Andromeda—besides having to ruminate on your level-ups since the difficulty is no joke—is that it's not starved for content. There are six sizable planets to explore with scores of side quests sprinkled across each world, ranging from "go scan this rock" to "kill a sprawling outpost of bandits." Between this and the ludicrous inventory system, Andromeda is brimming with content to kill time with... it's just a shame that the gameplay isn't all that fun and the narrative is uncompelling at best. Oddly enough, Andromeda struck me as a monkey's paw remake of the first Mass Effect: finally you have lush, open landscapes to explore and colonize! But it comes at the cost of having boring friends, shallow enemies, and conversations that are as memorable as what you ate for lunch last week.

There's a big fight at the end of Mass Effect: Andromeda where the main villain relentlessly taunts you with the most tired and cliche threats imaginable. By this point any kind of love or curiosity that I had left for the series had been drained, and all I could do was marvel at how utterly disappointing the experience had been. The other games had their problems too, but by the end of the day you still cared, having forged racial alliances and gathered together a ragtag team to save the universe. In Andromeda, I had no idea narratively how I beat the final boss and I didn't care what that meant for the world. I didn't even bat an eye when, after the boss's unceremonious death, a scant five sentences were spoken and then the credits began rolling. Mass Effect: Andromeda tried its best to forge its own path, but it ran out of gas as soon as it left the docking bay.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Golf Peaks - Thoughts

I find golf about as entertaining as watching someone fill out their student loans, but there's no way I could say "no" to a golf-puzzler. Strip away the sporty premise and Golf Peaks boils down to pushing a ball around a mountain using limited movement options. These options are presented as one-time-use cards, and either move you a certain number of spaces (1, 2, 3 etc.), ignore height while moving a certain number of spaces, or a mixture of both. Gold Peaks' simplicity and soft art style were the biggest selling points for me, and I'm pleased to say that while the game is a definite brain burner, it doesn't fry your neurons like other titles (*coughincreparecough*) do.

There are 10 worlds in Golf Peaks containing 12 courses each, and all but two worlds introduce a new mechanic. This turns a sizable amount of the puzzles into bite-sized tutorials, but fret not!—there are plenty of opportunities to test your skills. Every world has three optional/expert courses, and the two worlds lacking new mechanics will instead feature the toughest, longest puzzles in the game. You can blow through a third of Golf Peaks in thirty minutes, but your pace will slow down tremendously as courses expand and more movement cards are added to your hand.

Difficulty-wise, Golf Peaks rides a fine line between being too easy and over-complicated. The aforementioned tutorial puzzles usually have an obvious route you can discern at a glance, while later puzzles require grid counting and reverse engineering. A lot of courses will appear to hold dozens of viable routes, but with a keen eye you can spot valuable locations where specific cards can come into play. For instance, in the screenshot below, the 3-tile jump card can only be used at the leftmost and rightmost areas of the playing field—and with that puzzle piece in place, you can deduce the purpose of the other cards in relation to it.

But there are two wrenches in the deterministic gears of Golf Peaks. The first is something that's just downright evil: on some puzzles you don't need to use every card. That means that some movement options are there solely to throw you off the trail, and it's never obvious which one it is. The second wrench is a bit more unfortunate: each world's gimmick has a bit of fuzziness around it. For the most part I like the mechanics and how varied they are, but there's a lot of little quirks that bend the rules. Hills end movement after being landed on, jump pads can be reactivated if you ricochet off a wall, and goal holes stop momentum while warp holes do not. So while you can look at your cards and deduce you have X-total planar movement and Y-total vertical movement, the various mechanics twist these results, increasing and decreasing their values depending on how you approach them.

Note that I don't think manipulating static movement values via the environment is poor design—it's just that it hides otherwise open information. The red herring cards combined with variable number values give Golf Peaks an imprecise feel, despite the game being technically precise. At times this can create exemplar moments of cunning (like putting the ball into water so it respawns where you want it), but it can also be the source of your stumping when you forget how a particular mechanic operates. Again, this isn't bad—just be prepared to do a lot of number tweaking in your head while plotting your path.

Golf Peaks is a delicious puzzle game that takes the perfect amount of time to get through. It demands more persistence than $1 appetizers like Hook or klocki, but the amount of fresh ideas and devious mechanics showcased here will more than keep you occupied. The biggest negative I can think of is that the music is lacking (being neither that memorable nor soothing), but the puzzles and visuals are the meat and potatoes of the game—and Golf Peaks absolutely delivers on both fronts. So don't let the silly sport theme fool you. Golf Peaks is about staring at a mountain, calculating how to conquer it, and basking in pride as you finally land that sweet hole-in-one... er, hole-in-seven-cards.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Divinity: Original Sin 2 - Thoughts

Divinity: Original Sin 2—the game so nice I beat it twice!

Okay, I know that's a cheesy line, but when you consider that the game is an 80+ hour RPG, I'd say it's a pretty solid recommendation. Although I loved my time with Persona 5, not once did I entertain the idea of second playthrough—whereas I walked away from Original Sin 2 hungry for more, despite having played two campaigns simultaneously. Original Sin 2 is not only superior to the first game in every single way, but is also—unquestionably—one of the best turn-based RPGs ever made. It's smart, engrossing, deeply tactical, and well worth every single minute you invest into it.

The only major issue with Divinity: Original Sin 2 is that it's buggy. That's it. And unless this is your first rodeo with a western RPG, you're probably aware that buginess comes with the territory. That's not to excuse the glitches you'll inevitably run into, but rest assured that the occasional graphical hiccup or game crash doesn't ruin the experience—provided you save frequently. Every other problem Original Sin 2 has, from its unhelpful quest log to its wildly imbalanced encounters, are drops of bad in an ocean of greatness. Original Sin 2 garners so much good will that even when the game encroaches upon frustrating territory, you'll bear it all with a smile.

The key to Divinity: Original Sin 2's resounding success is threefold: it looks great, plays great, and gets you invested in its story. Any one of those usually provides reason enough to play through a game (the combat was all the first game had going for it), but having all three are the markers for a masterpiece. Before I dive into each of these facets, I have to commend Larian Studios for not only learning from the first game's failures, but also expanding the co-op from two players to four. Original Sin 2 was a ton of fun to play with my friend group, even when we were mucking up battles and accidentally (and sometimes not-so-accidentally) blowing each other up.

The jump in presentation from the first Original Sin to the second is subtle, but noticeable. The UI has been cleaned up, the visuals are clean and gorgeous, and the voice acting has been reigned in. I played a little Neverwinter Nights parallel to this and the difference between the two is night and day. That's not a fair comparison, but it helps to drive home how truly important a sharp art style, poignant soundtrack, and easily readable interface are to keeping the player invested. Original Sin 2's presentation wasn't the reason I was playing the game, but it certainly helped make a fairly complicated game more palatable—the voice acting in particular is downright savory.

What did keep me coming back to Original Sin 2 was the explosive combat. The Original Sin series possesses, bar none, the most engaging RPG combat I've ever experienced. It's smart, colorful, and extremely flexible, giving players innumerable ways to engage with it. A lot of skills have been reworked and a bunch more have been added, introducing spells formed from two different disciplines (like fire and archery), as well as abilities powered by Source, Original Sin 2's rare but powerful magic resource. This rapidly expands the ways you can interact on the battlefield, and since magic & physical armor now block debuffs, you can no longer stunlock foes from turn 1 like in the first game.

Even when fights are gruelingly long and cruel (I'm looking at you, Aetera) you usually won't mind losing because it's so much fun trying to puzzle out a viable solution. Notice that I didn't say "the correct solution"; every build and ability in the game has its pros and cons, and if you're approach battles wisely you can tackle fights well above your level. It helps that Original Sin 2 isn't about hard numbers as much as it's about spacial awareness and clever combos. For instance, if you need to stall a warrior while you whittle down another opponent, there's a ton of ways to do that: block yourself off with a wall of vines, freeze the ground beneath him, shoot an arrow into his feet, teleport him across the map, etc. Feeling like you're outnumbered but coming up with a risky play ("I'll Shackles of Pain myself so that when you blow me up they'll die too!") really captures the rambunctious magic of Original Sin 2. It's an experience no other game has: chess-like strategy blended together with improv comedy execution.

And if that wasn't enough to sell you, the story in Original Sin 2 is absolutely excellent. I would've been pleased if it was good—that would've heightened it above the farcical plot of the first game—but Original Sin 2 goes above and beyond, keeping a smidgen of the old humor but dowsing it in consequence. The story and choices you make are fraught with morally gray quandaries, few characters lacking a reason for the violence they cause. The first Original Sin was about stopping an apocalyptic force from returning, while in this game you are the cause of the apocalyptic force this time, and "solving" this problem is no easy task. The struggle between good and evil is stranger, murkier—all the major factions vying for power are simply trying to restore justice to a dying world.  I fully expected to ignore the plot at the start, but I was pleasantly surprised at how often Original Sin 2's dilemmas divided my friend group. By the end of the game, two of them had vowed to kill my character if given the opportunity—which is the sign of a great role playing story.

There is no RPG system with more fun, funny, and tactical combat than Divinity: Original Sin 2. Improving on the first game alone would make it a landmark experience, but Larian studios went above and beyond, creating a title that I would argue is a must-play. If Original Sin 2 is to have a greatest accomplishment, it isn't the strong visuals, phenomenal gameplay, or enticing story: it's that it makes the player engage with a role playing game, where every story choice, every stat increase, and every combat deliberation is theirs and theirs alone to make. There are a lot of ways to play Original Sin 2, a lot of characters to haggle with, and a lot of fights to survive, but these myriad of branches stem from the same trunk of truth—Divinity Original Sin 2 is unbelievably good.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Doom Eternal - Thoughts

2016's Doom didn't need a sequel. I will never whine about receiving more Doom, but that game was damn near flawless. The art design was amazing, the campaign had the perfect length, and the lightning-quick combat was a breath of fresh air for the FPS genre. In my entry on the game I complained about its linearity and some other issues, but time away from Doom has reduced those gripes to background noise. Doom was a juggernaut that blew nearly everyone away, and repeated playthroughs has cemented it as one of my favorite shooters of all time.

So when Doom Eternal was announced, I was more intrigued than I was ecstatic. The gameplay was perfect, so what else could id Software add? Perhaps if they made the stages more non-linear, removed the self-serious cutscenes, and expanded the multiplayer, then I could see how Doom Eternal could rise above the Olympic heights set by its predecessor. The game wouldn't be nearly as revolutionary—there was no way of that happening—but I would definitely be down to play a more polished Doom clone.

Yet in the end, id Software did none of those things—in fact they did the exact opposite. Doom Eternal is more restrictive, more self-serious, and does away with the traditional deathmatch experience. What skeletal remains there were of the original '90s series have been further discarded, forging Doom Eternal into its own strange, nasty little thing. So I can't in all honesty claim that Doom Eternal is a better game than 2016's Doom... but I think I like it more.

What I love about Doom Eternal is simple: the gameplay is nuts. Not only is Eternal faster on every front, but it's far deadlier as well, mercilessly punishing the player for missteps and careless gambles. Doom's difficulty tended to peter off in its latter half, but Eternal pressures the player for the entire game, keeping a blazing inferno lit under their ass. And it's not just that the enemies hit harder and are more aggressive; you'll be required to use your entire arsenal if you want to avoid joining the ranks of the dead. The ammo cap has been massively reduced, meaning you'll have to constantly rely on chainsawing through fodder demons to restock your weapons. Grenades serve a much larger role this time around (I forgot they were even in Doom!), providing a burst of damage & stun when the player needs it most. There's also a flamethrower and power-punch to refill armor and health respectively; if you haven't been keeping track, this is a lot of additional keys to hit.

The new abilities radically change Doom's combat from a free-form death ballet to a chaotic weapon juggling brawl. It's still possible to get to the point where you're untouchable, but reaching that zen state requires a lot more work than it did in 2016's Doom. Here you'll need to learn how to switch away from your weapon while it's on cooldown, seek out weaker foes when you're in need of munitions, and utilize enemy weaknesses to rob them of their strongest attacks. Doom Eternal's fights are rigid—so rigid that the most memorable thing to come out of the game is an infamous nemesis that can only be harmed when his eyes glow green. I was terrified of the aforementioned Marauder during my first playthrough, but he really does help to teach how Doom Eternal prioritizes what you need over what you want. At the beginning you'll probably find yourself wishing that you could hold more ammo or that the arachnatron wasn't such a bullet sponge, but you'll come to realize Doom Eternal shines brightest when you have to use every tool in your arsenal to survive.

A lot of folks are quick to mention the ammo drought, enemy weaknesses, or implacable Marauder as the biggest shake-up to Doom's formula, but that honor belongs to the best upgrade in the game: the dash. No longer must the Slayer dance around an enemy in the hopes their fireball will miss—dashing affords Doomguy a new dimension of control, letting him skirt dangerous attacks and rapidly close in for a glory kill. Seriously, the dash is a remarkable improvement that transforms the player from a scrambling ranger into a blazing-fast buzz saw of bullets. There is no doubt in my mind that without the dash, Doom Eternal would be the inferior experience compared to its older sibling. With it however, Eternal has evolved the series into a veritable FPS/character action game hybrid—and it rules.

I immensely enjoyed my time with Doom Eternal, but that's by and large because I learned to play by its rules. I found the demands inherit in its gameplay to be intriguing and rewarding rather than complicated and limiting. Plus I adored how ferocious the combat had become—especially on Nightmare, where being struck by two enemies at once is basically lethal. But by narrowing down its audience, I don't think I can comfortably call Doom Eternal a better game than its predecessor. In many ways Doom was the ultimate FPS power fantasy: despite the chunky gore and grim atmosphere, it was a welcoming experience that let you kick off your shoes and slay some hellspawn. Doom Eternal on the other hand is relentlessly austere, both in its gameplay and its lore.

And I totally understand—id Software was at impasse. Although they could've continued with a light-hearted "Hell on Earth" storyline, I think the plot would've suffered from a "been there, done that" feeling. Instead they dove even deeper into the lore, weaving a sci-fi tale about two clans of aliens and their history with Hell. Surprisingly, I didn't mind the focus on the Sentinels and Hell Priests, partly because I like how stupidly in-depth it was, and also because 2016's Doom had primed me on what to expect. I think the story of the previous game is more captivating—especially because you don't need to look into the lore to comprehend it—but Doom Eternal manages to stand on its own... for the most part (prepare for a lot more cutscenes you have no control over).

Almost everything else about Doom Eternal is on par with 2016's Doom. The progression system offers a lot of variability, the changes made to the weapons are excellent (the super shotgun meathook is a godsend), and the visuals are constantly captivating—an endgame area sticks out in particular, being one of the coolest and most unique alien worlds I've had the pleasure of rampaging through. There's no singular track that reaches the heights of BFG Division, but there are plenty heart-poundingfoot-tapping tunes that are guaranteed to get the blood surging through your veins. And lastly, I uh... have no idea how well the multiplayer holds up. The single player campaign was all I needed, and it fulfilled its purpose very well.

Doom Eternal isn't just more Doom—it's Doom-on-steroids. Some really big, demonic gut-ripping steroids. The game provides you with a lot of flashy tools and then warns that they are there for your survival, not entertainment. You can still flaunt your battle prowess, playing with imps and cacodemons as if they were newborn kittens, but the journey to get to that stage will be a lot more taxing. And honestly, some may not be ready for that. 2016's Doom remains the better game on the principle that it's the easier title to get into, but Doom Eternal managed to do the impossible: it improved on an already immaculate combat system. Eternal is a fearsome, chaotic, energizing beast—and I loved loved loved all three of my playthroughs of it.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Mass Effect 3 - Thoughts

BioWare's contentious climax to the original Mass Effect trilogy isn't... really... all that contentious. Sure, there's the phenomenally underwhelming ending that makes some wild leaps in logic, but besides that Mass Effect 3 is undeniably the successor to 2. I don't think it's as masterful as the Collector-hunting-comrade-collecting journey, but it's riddled with great character moments, tense dilemmas, and energetic firefights. Whatever failings it may have (of which there are quite a few), I honestly feel that the team at BioWare did the best they could.

The worst part about Mass Effect 3—and an aspect I believe is more detrimental than the unsatisfactory ending—is that everything revolves around the ongoing galactic war. On one hand, it absolutely makes sense within the confines of the story. It avoids classic RPG tonal dissonance of, say, breeding racebirds while an apocalyptic meteor descends upon the planet, but it robs Mass Effect of its leisure and gentleness. Gone are the innocent times where you could stop by a store and inquire about an alien race's history; now you'll eavesdrops to garner war assets and convince old friends to become statistics in your army. Every conversation, every expedition, and every interjection is designed to further aid you in the war.

I'll reiterate that while it's understandable in universe, the galactic war becomes a black hole that saps a lot of joy out of the series. On every mission people constantly radio in to tell you to "HURRY UP", leaving you no room to soak in some of the prettier backdrops. Puzzles and minigames have also been entirely removed, reducing the gameplay loop to "gear up -> shoot shoot shoot". The silver lining is that the downtime in Mass Effect 3, where you're allowed to sit back and chat with your companions, feels a lot more well deserved. This is part of the reason why the Citadel DLC (where you're on shore leave) is so unanimously well-loved, and remains the crowning jewel of the Mass Effect experience. But even if you happen to play the game without it, there are still a lot of small character moments that'll put a smile on your face.

Perhaps the greatest improvement Mass Effect 3 holds over its older siblings is that your crew actually interacts with one another. To people that haven't played the series this may not seem like a big deal, but your squad is central to Mass Effect experience—if not the driving force itself. It's honestly kind of strange thinking back on the previous two games that, outside of a few exceptions, the soldiers on your ship never strike up a conversation. Mass Effect 3 remedies this by peppering in various radio chats you can eavesdrop on, as well as some unique lighthearted banter that'll pop up during a mission. It makes the crew feel more alive and cohesive, rather than guns for hire that only respond to their captain.

Unexpectedly, there's also more character customization than in Mass Effect 2—something that I honestly didn't expect (or remember). Fully upgrading an ability lets you pick three of six enhancements for your power, which can make your squad feel more specialized... even though you'll likely just choose "damage up" every single time. But what really surprised me was that Mass Effect 3 allows the player to carry any weapons they want into combat—at the price of slowing power recharge speed per armament. This had a significantly larger impact on how I played than any of the dopey mods from the first game ever did. With each weapon carrying its own magazine size, fire rate, damage, and specific weight, I had a lot of options to play with.

When it came time to storm the battlefield, I found myself having roughly as much fun with the combat as I did in 2. There are significantly less enemies protected by armor and shields in Mass Effect 3—turning my singularity into a potent anti-cover weapon—but this is offset by foes tossing grenades as frequently as their Uncharted 3 brethren. While explosives are a good way to de-trench the player from their favorite piece of cover, all it really served to do was slow down the gameplay as I bounced back and forth from one waist-high rock to another. I wrote in my entry on The Division how natural it felt to zip around cover, and my point of comparison was Mass Effect 3; far too often the game rewards you for staying stationary and simply shooting enemies before they can shoot you.

I would still classify most of the combat as entertaining (even if you get into routine habits), which is more than I can say for the mission structure. There's been a mass exodus of missions unrelated to the main campaign, creating of a drought of creativity in the level variety. Missing are the strange and unique side missions found in 2; Mass Effect 3 has you shooting Cerberus soldiers at a civilian base in one mission, and then shooting Cerberus soldiers at a Cerberus base the next. Side missions aren't the biggest draw to the Mass Effect universe, but they were a source of mystery in the previous games. Here, there's no time to tickle your curiosity—there's an enemy that needs killin', and a war that needs winnin'.

I've saved discussing the story for last again not because I don't have a lot of opinions on it, but mainly because it's impossible to discuss without delving into spoilers. Suffice to say, I don't think the ending is that bad (again, a big part of the experience is the journey, not the destination), though it's a lot better on replay when you're prepared for the blindside. The other big story beats are interesting and engaging, though it can border on embarrassing how easily galaxy-wide turmoil is wrapped up, or how quickly old friends make themselves scarce (hello David... bye David...) But I give Mass Effect 3 a pass largely due to the fact that it had a lot of ground to cover and variables to account for. Honestly, the one thing I cannot overlook is how essential the DLC is to the experience: Javik, the Leviathan, and the Citadel content all add some excellent flavor to the game's universe, and hiding the first two behind a $10 paywall is naked greed that spits in the faces of the fans.

I've read and understood plenty of arguments calling Mass Effect 3 a disappointment, but it was always going to be hard reaching Mass Effect 2's heights. 2 was a connective story that had a lot of freedom, whereas 3 had to play it by the rules and wrap up any loose ends. How well it does this depends on what characters you've grown attached to, how fascinating you find a galaxy-wide war, and whether or not you're okay with Shepard's dialogue options getting massively pared down (goodbye middle choice!). Beyond that (and the ending [and the crushing seriousness of the war]) there's not that much to hate. The character writing is as sharp as its ever been, the planets and vistas are genuinely jaw-dropping, and the gameplay remains fun long after you've downed your 1000th Cerberus lackey. Mass Effect 3's reputation may be visibly troubled, but the game is a solid product that—at its worst—occasionally skirts mediocrity.


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