Thursday, January 31, 2019

Far Cry 5 - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Far Cry 5 is my least favorite Far Cry experience to date. And as someone that loooooved the third and fourth entries in the series, this was a challenging conclusion to reach. For a while, I just didn't believe it. I wondered if I was overanalyzing the game, or unfairly comparing it to its predecessors, or perhaps I was always sitting down to play it while in a foul mood. But after finishing the campaign twice, all roads loop back to this dour epiphany: Far Cry 5 has exhausted what made the series exciting for me.

A major part of that is honestly due to fatigue—Far Cry really hasn't changed the much since the third game. Sure, the newest installment gives you allies and lets you progress through its narrative in any order you want, but beyond that? Everything else is vividly familiar. There are outposts to infiltrate, side-missions that prioritize action over caution, cutscenes where villains drill their worldview into you, perk trees to navigate, and a plethora of collectibles to gather. There's barely a noticeable change in the weaponry or enemies either; every aspect remains proudly Far Cry, right down to the game's narrative rebuking you with "what if YOU'RE the bad guy?!"

In a way, it's very comforting. There are still hundreds of delightful moments that will sneak up on you, like say, a boat ramming into you while you're fishing, or a panicking pedestrian slipping into a vehicle you've rigged to explode. Those unscripted bits never failed to put a smile on my face, but Far Cry 5 tries to up the ante by flooding the world map with patrolling goons. Whenever you snipe an enemy driver with your bow, you'll barely have time to savor that unlikely headshot, as more enemies are always close behind. And antagonizing the regional leaders just makes the game worse, as limitless aircraft get called in to deal with you—and I have no damn clue how someone could enjoy fighting over a dozen planes with a measly assault rifle.

Due to the bolstered number of enemy vehicles, I had to keep a rocket launcher with me for a majority of the game, which only left me with two primary weapons to switch between—a significant step down from Far Cry 3's four weapon slots. While dealing with the increased enemy forces was a huge source of sourness, what also dampened my enthusiasm was the lack of intrigue into the world. Part of this may be due to the fact that Hope County is a less exotic locale to pick, but I also didn't feel any particular attachment to the companions or NPCs (besides the animals). And don't get me wrong, the visuals are downright breathtaking at times (especially when the sunlight drips through the trees), but the "wow" factor that carried the other games just wasn't here.

Which finally brings me to the narrative. On its surface, Far Cry 5 looks primed to sink its fangs into the rural American culture, ready to offer a scathing critique on the influence of religion in the region. Except that it doesn't really do that. And nor does it offer any kind of in-depth critique on the lifestyles of a Northwestern American. If anything, the game is strangely patriotic, content to paint Hope County as a land filled with hardworking, meat-loving Americans that merely want to see the red-white-and-blue fluttering high in the sky. Sure, you encounter some crass personalities (like Hurk Drubman Sr.), but almost everyone acts as a kind of caricature of an American persona, rather than an incisive target of satire. And seeing as the series has always been eager to paint your allies as both incompetent and monstrous, its bizarre that Far Cry 5 completely shies away from this approach.

Even the game's central antagonists did little to mesmerize me. Joseph Seed is an admittedly fresh take on the "madman that speaks the truth" trope that the series is known for, but his stoic, calm demeanor belies the shallowness of his words. I mean sure, Far Cry 5 does build up to a nice twist at its close, but the game barely says anything about the central force in the land: Project at Eden's Gate. The PEGgies are not that creepy, nor are they sympathetic, and their propensity for brainwashing makes them less interesting than mere mercenaries. The performances for each of the major villains is excellent, but the material itself leaves you with very little to ponder—like with the Americana aspect of the game, the use of a Christian cult felt superficial and absentminded. It's almost as though Ubisoft sought not to step on any sensitive toes, so they opted to use a cartoonishly evil cult in an exaggerated, toothless depiction of rural America.

There's a dramatic irony in the fact that what led me to the Far Cry series was its innovative and multiplicitous approach to combat. I thought it was so cool how you could go in with guns blazing, or sneak through a facility planting bombs, or snipe your opposition from a far-off mountain ledge. But after liberating what must be over 100 bases by now, the Far Cry series has begun to feel formulaic. I know to take out the snipers first, then silently take down the heavies, and to throw remote explosives onto any enemy reinforcements that show up. The action is still fun, but each stronghold offensive felt more and more like I was checking items off a list, instead of proving my guerrilla mastery. And compounded by the lack of a strong central plot, I don't know if this fault lies squarely on Far Cry 5's shoulders, or if I'm simply yearning for something new.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Hitman 2: Silent Assassin - Thoughts

Well, I tried.

I tried to be stealthy.

And sometimes, I'd succeed! Every now and then I'd throw on a doctor's coat and slip by some guards, or poison a meal and quietly creep back to the exit. Those were some of my proudest moments. But for most of its missions, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin set up brick walls. Sometimes it was a stubborn guard that refused to turn around. Occasionally I didn't cover my tracks well enough. But what I fell prey to nine times out of ten was Silent Assassin's finicky "threat" mechanic. And once I was discovered, only one method was left to my disposal: reload a save, and shoot that person in the head.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I have to clarify that Hitman 2: Silent Assassin is leagues ahead its predecessor in almost every way. There's more levels, more weapons, a greater variety of locations, and—shockingly!—intended methods of assassination that are easily deduced! Wow! No longer are you left running around a vast, empty military base, wondering how to silently subdue a coked-up maniac; now you can see your target playing golf on a balcony whilst spotting a sniper rifle in the garage. Being able to solve missions without a guide not only makes Silent Assassin a lot more playable, but also pretty dang fun... welllll, at times. More on that later.

One of the best additions to Silent Assassin is the inclusion of mid-level saves, rather than checkpoints. And since I was playing on the lowest difficulty this time, I got a whopping seven saves per mission (hey, in my defense it's labeled "Normal"!) What this does is drastically cut down on the repetition and trial and error, as you no longer have to ponder "can I walk with this gun out?" or "am I allowed in this room?" under the fear of jeopardizing your last five minutes of progress. I could've finished Codename 47 in a fraction of the time that I did, if only I could've saved before doodie (inevitably) hit the fan.

Hitman 2: Silent Assassin offsets this boon, however, by being a stricter game. Gone is the unnatural ability to hover behind a guard and effortlessly strangle him when there's no one else around. Instead, you have to stealthy approach your target at a tortoise-like speed, meaning that you can only strangle (or temporarily KO) guards if they're stationary. Running too is a major red flag to others—especially when you're in uniform—meaning that the ability to save is counterbalanced by your painful, glacial crawl past guards. And like with Codename 47, it's hard to tell exactly what guards can and cannot see, although this is a minor problem compared to Silent Assassin's clever—yet confusing—new feature: the threat meter.

I can at least commend Silent Assassin on introducing alerts based off of proximity, since it makes a lot of sense; a bald dude following behind an armed guard a hair's breadth away definitely seems suspicious. But the threat meter is extremely vague, as its throbbing red state can mean someone is merely suspicious of your actions, or they're about to expose you by perforating you with lead. This dilutes Silent Assassin to a bizarre coin flip in every instance where you slowly saunter past a guard, the meter unable to tell you when the switch from curious to violent is going to occur. Most of the time it's not too bad—all you really have to do is just keep walking—but if the guard stops in mid patrol or blocks a doorway you're heading towards, this can result in a bungled operation.

Not only that, but like with Codename 47, what sets people off can be downright unpredictable. Jog for a brief second and a civilian might scamper away to warn a guard, or walk into a back room and men will suddenly open fire, or secretively change costumes after being discovered and the guards will somehow manage to see through your disguise. But if you embrace your inner-psychopath and slaughter all the guards one by one, occasionally they'll run past you and not think twice... even as you're standing on the corpses of their kin. There were so many instances of confusion and befuddlement in my playthrough: being seen despite crouching behind cover, getting spotted by snipers despite my camouflage, not getting caught despite wearing a unique lieutenant's uniform, alarming a civilian because I occupied the bathroom stall they frequent (seriously??? You're going to rat me out for that?!!!) When the game works it works well, but a lot of the time it feels like you're one suspicious glance away from being assassinated yourself.

Early on, I realized that shooting people in the back of the head with a silenced pistol was the path of least resistance (thanks Normal mode). And though I tried my best to ghost my way through facilities and spare my enemies, Silent Assassin was quick to punish me if I made the briefest miscalculation (eg "I'm pretty sure it's safe to run now.") Add to this the fact that not only is anesthesia stringently temporary, but the hardest missions are arguably in the first third of the game, Russia & Japan being a long, demanding, and painful combination. I was thankfully able to finish the game with my stealth meter above my aggression meter, but I was irked by what this game forced me to do at times. Somewhere in Japan there's a castle full of dead ninjas, and I'm not proud of it.

Hitman 2: Silent Assassin finally gave me a glimpse into what the Hitman franchise is supposed to be. There are moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout it—like dropping a smoke bomb down a laundry chute and then disguising yourself as a firefighter to go "investigate" the source—but like its predecessor, the game is hamstrung by its imprecision. It still feels like luck is too influential on your success or failure—or maybe not luck, but unknown variables that you have to puzzle out through saving and restarting (anyone that's played the last mission will know exactly what I mean.) At the end of the day your meticulous plans can easily be quashed by some capricious—and often stupid—variables being rolled behind your back.

At least you can try to be stealthy, I guess.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Momodora III - Thoughts

After finishing Momodora II, I was prepared for more Metroidvania-style action, wondering what Momodora III would add to the formula. I found the answer to be quite surprising: nothing. Because Momodora III really isn't a Metroidvania per se; it has more in common with the arcade roots of the first Momodora of all things. It's crazy, right? I mean, how many series look backwards for inspiration, especially when they seem to be heading in the right direction? But rdein has learned a lot since their first title, as Momodora III proves itself to be the first game worthy of a playthrough.

That's not to say I didn't like or enjoy the first two games—they were charming and pleasant experiences that reminded me somewhat of when I used to savor playing Flash games on Newgrounds. But after completing those games, I felt their diminutive size was more of a detriment than an appeal, as there really wasn't much that I could latch onto or discuss. I've recently discovered that I was more or less wrong about that; it wasn't the size of the games that failed to enthuse me, but the content of the games themselves.

What made me come to this realization is that Momodora III is as short as the other titles (~1 hour), but it doesn't feel like it's lacking anything. The game bounces you between a handful of worlds, letting you meet some cute girls and pick up a smattering of power-ups. Structurally this sounds very similar to II, but the vividness and variety of the locales feels so much more robust. Being able to equip three different items and having each zone conclude with a boss fight gives Momodora a momentum it had been previously missing. And rdein makes sure to pepper the land with curious oddities, hiding away secret power-ups within walls and making NPCs mysteriously vanish, making the player wonder if they missed something earlier within the level. The other games had a touch of this esoteric flavor, but it's felt here most of all.

I have to openly admit that part of the reason why I prefer Momodora III to its predecessors is because... well, of the lack of a ceiling. I's downward delve felt too repetitive by the end and II's setting variety was rather superficial in hindsight, basically having the player move through some caves or... caves with a sky background. Momodora III still has some underground outings, but it also offers the player a lush grassland, violet garden, and riverside cityscape. I'm a huge sucker for stage variety, and III keeps its levels short enough that you never feel like rdein overuses certain gimmicks, traps, or enemies. The final area in particular is my favorite for both its mood and visuals, capping off the adventure quite nicely. And the final boss is no pushover, which is a nice change from the previous two entries.

Momodora III is a small, quaint, fun game—like the others—but it's also pretty satisfying. You'll face a decent amount of challenge on hard but it's nothing hair-pulling, which makes it a good fit for anyone that likes some action in their platformers. It was a bit odd emerging from this experience not yearning for more, but I don't think that speaks ill of Momodora III. If anything, I think it's a sign of III's success over its older siblings: it's the one title that holistically emerges as a game rather than an experiment.