Tag Archives: sandbox

The Outer Worlds

I played a game!

In even more shocking news, I played a game within about half a year of its release![1] I’m, uh, I’m actually having a hard time wrapping my head around that one. So, The Outer Worlds is a sci-fi RPG in which you wake up to a colonial civilization in decay and have to work out what to do about it. See, everyone came to the system from Earth about 70 years ago in two colony ships, except the second ship never showed up. Not to get too on the nose politically (primarily the first couple of groups), but the system is divided into approximately four groups.

  1. The Halcyon Holdings Corporation, who sponsored the outbound flight and even now works to develop new products for the many inhabitants of the Halcyon System
  2. The employees of the ten companies that pooled resources to form the HHC, mostly indentured to pay for their passage, and mostly unable to see a path to buying their full freedom from the situation, and that’s not counting the ones who haven’t really thought about wanting to
  3. Dangerous marauders who have broken free and now prey on society
  4. A handful of independents who through either corporate success or unlawful escape now live free of corporate restrictions, but at the mercy of the aforementioned marauders, not to mention the deadly beasts who roam the worlds and, sometimes, corporate troopers looking to enforce the original code

And now there’s you, a recently awakened colonist from the second ship, which is not lost after all, it just arrived extremely late, and by then enough water had passed under the bridge that the Board of the HHC decided… but I suppose now I’m getting into details past the first hour of play, so I’ll leave it here.

The story of this world is a delight. I can see lots of options I could have taken differently that would have had major impacts on the outcome, and some of them I would even want to see, only, who has time for playing for another 40-50 hours? The path I took, I have very few regrets about, so that’s nice. Plus the one sidebar about 90% of the way through the game that had me laughing in delight about one sublime moment of full character immersion for easily 30 minutes, before I restored and played like an adult instead.

The gameplay is… well, it’s fine, right? This is largely a shooter RPG, as I think they all are now, and it has companions, which means that your companions will always screw up your ambush and use up half or two thirds of its effectiveness. Which is a bummer. And the inventory system is nightmarishly bad. But on the bright side, once you acknowledge that there’s no way around that fact, it mostly melts away into irrelevance and just becomes the thing that makes you play a couple few extra hours than you would have in total. But if I had cared less about the plot and characters, I would have stopped playing quickly in frustration over just how bad it is, and never gotten past that threshold.

The story and backstory of the world definitely end up with more questions than answers, even as the story of the game concluded very satisfyingly. I very much want a sequel, and… I think I want that sequel to not include character importing, because my character’s story is over. But I’d hang out in the universe again from a different POV, no question.

[1] There is no question, in retrospect, that this is quarantine[2]-related. But I started in January, so it’s not solely due to quarantine.
[2] Note to future generations: It’s the Covid-19 coronavirus quarantine of 2020, not some weird personal thing or one of the other quarantines you will have learned about in your history classes.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

51g6GKymFKLAt long last, I’ve played another Assassin’s Creed game. I must be at least four behind now? And at some point they get terrible, though I do not know what point that is. Anyway, Revelations (the last of the Ezio Auditore trilogy) was still a good game, so that’s nice.

Well. I mean, it was a good game. That part is true. All kinds of new toys to play with, the same climbing and running and jumping and assassinating fun from the previous two games, plus a satisfactory ending to Ezio’s story and both a nod to how terrible AC1 was plus a satisfactory ending to Altaïr’s story to make up for it. Gameplay, 16th century storyline and 12th century storyline, all of these were firing on all cylinders. Best Assassin’s Creed game yet.

Except… so, the ending of Brotherhood pretty much blew me away. It was a huge out of nowhere plot twist for Desmond’s story (he’s the guy in modern times that is reliving the genetic memories of his ancestors) that was simultaneously a huge cliffhanger. And for that part of the story… I mean, just nothing. Everyone seemed to treat it as no big deal and not worth mentioning, and I’m left clawing for answers that I suppose will never be forthcoming.

So that’s lame, and inevitably colors the whole experience. Alas.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

acrom_360_mI wonder if there’s a new season of The Borgias starting on Sunday or so, or whether it instead got cancelled. I wonder this primarily because of my current familiarity with the characters and some of their life events, courtesy of my completing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood over the weekend. Because, see, after the happy ending in Assassin’s Creed II, the first thing that happens is the Borgias destroy Ezio’s home in revenge for that golden apple fiasco under the Vatican. It’s a whole big thing that won’t make enough sense to be spoiler if you haven’t played the first game and, if you have, basically it’s an excuse to get him injured and friendless so that he starts off the game not a god walking among men. Whether this is a good decision is left to the individual player, but I suppose it is at least an understandable one since someone could plausibly pick up this game first.

After that, it’s pretty much the same game, which is an entirely good thing. You climb and run and sneak and murder your way through early 16th C. Rome in an attempt to stop the Borgia and their Templar allies from controlling the fate of the world, with all kinds of side missions and secret explorations and memories of Ezio’s buried past along the way, not to mention the near-future modern day shenanigans in which it’s apparent that someone is helping Desmond Miles from afar, because he may not be able to trust all of the people helping him explore Ezio’s memories. To put it simply, this the best serious sandbox series ever, and the prettiest sandbox series ever regardless of plot seriousness. (The best non-serious sandbox series is Saint’s Row.) If you like to look at the beauties of the past, and you like to climb around on everything, you will love this game. If you like conspiracy theories and dark futures, you will also love this game. If you like both, this is your candy store right here. And there’s already another sequel out!

A word or two about the multiplayer: extremely fun among friends who have played the same approximate amount of time as each other, suffers from the modern theory that playing online a lot isn’t enough of an unbalancing reward, so we will also give you levels and new toys with which to crush newcomers who for some reason can’t play online 12 hours a day for the first month of release. I’m not sure how to solve this problem, and realistically there is no way beyond me accepting that multiplayer online has passed me by for the most part. (But yay for friends.)

Assassin’s Creed II

Assassins-Creed-2_X360_BXSHT_ESRBI’m always so happy when I finish a game! Though in this case, it was long enough that I may need to take a break (or at least a palate cleanser) before I start anything else serious. So, remember when I hated Assassin’s Creed? But I thought I would still love Assassin’s Creed II after a brief glance at it? So, yeah, that turned out to be true. It is the same as the other game in most important respects, only subtly better every time there’s a comparison to be made. Giant sandbox of a game, this time set in 15th Century Italy, where assassins must battle Templars for control of the hearts and minds of people, and, well, also the future. But that’s okay, because the future is in every bit as much evidence as the past; in fact, you’re not really in the past so much as your near-future guy is going into a cool machine that lets him live the memories of his ancestors (I think?) and learn from them, both skills and information. So while the game is open and sandboxy and actiony and jaw-droppingly beautiful, the plot is science-fictional and always interesting. Plus also, if you for some reason don’t care for the high-level plot, the plot on the street is of this kid first learning about his family’s secrets and then, when things take a wrong turn, setting about fixing everything, over 25 years of life. Good drama!

And if none of that does it for you, you also get to climb really tall buildings, wander around dusty tombs, and sometimes pounce on people from 40 feet above to stab them in the throat. And hang out with Leonardo da Vinci all the time. And learn a lot about regional history[1]. And… y’know, if you’re not persuaded by now, I really don’t know what I could add. Damn fine game, though, and I feel bad for you.

[1] I quickly decided the easiest thing to do would be to assume everything that happens in the past portion of the game is historically accurate. I’m pretty sure it was, anyway, so.

Assassin’s Creed

71233_frontTo be clear, this is a pretty old game. I remember reading about Assassin’s Creed in Gamestop’s magazine sometime in 2006 and being really excited about what they were doing with the cities full of random people and the ways you could run and climb and otherwise interact seamlessly with the environment, and without a lot of weird button combinations and things. Plus also the plot, which pits historical Assassins against the Knights Templar in the Crusades setting; it seemed to have a lot to offer on both the very pretty and the very cool scales. The framing story, which has a faceless but clearly very wealthy corporation essentially kidnapping a man who is a descendant of one of these assassins, because they can put him in their cool sci-fi device and use the blood link to pull genetic memories from him, seemed like it may also have been cool, but I really didn’t get far enough into the game to form a valid opinion.[1]

So, right, that part is probably relevant. Despite all of the real coolness inherent in the gameplay and plot in concept, in practice I found it absolutely unplayable. Part of this, I realize now after the fact, is that the introduction was weak and did not provide as much direction as I think I needed to latch onto the plot. The other part, that caused me to stop playing out of pure frustration, was mechanical in nature. Without a clear set of roadsigns to pull me quickly into the plot, I was still enamored of the beautiful countryside, and on top of that there were collectible items and very tall towers with expansive views to enjoy, so I started poking around into that, still perfectly happy with what was going on around me. Until I learned that any time I ran (or ran my horse) past a soldier, I would be targeted for death. It’s not like I had started murdering people yet, and it’s equally not like it was based on some recognition of me, as obviously a walking person is easier to look at. No, the designers just made a terrible decision in which any person who is running must be evil and in need of capture. And once I had to enjoy the expansive open world at a snail’s pace always instead of slowing down at the parts I wanted to explore in greater detail, or else I’d have to fight all the time? And I still didn’t really have a feel for the actual main game on top of that? It was rendered unplayable.

In the meantime, people have sung the praises of its sequels, and while nobody seemed to hate the one game-breaking aspect of the first game the way I did, everyone seemed to claim that the sequels fix a lot of other small problems that I never really saw for myself, and the whole is a massive improvement. My completionism still left me believing I might try to pick up the original again someday, but having played a few hours of its first sequel (review forthcoming, though likely not anytime very soon) and seeing that on top of my complaint, it really does feel a lot more polished and playable in ways I can’t even explain the differences for, it has become clear to me that I would only be punishing myself by going backward.[2]

Anyway, this right here? Kind of a horrible game that thankfully got another chance at life. Because the concept I loved so much? It works every bit as well as I had imagined.

[1] The wikipedia summary that I recently read tells me it probably would have been very interesting, though.
[2] Hence the wikipedia summary.

Saints Row 2

Saints Row 2 is the rare sequel that follows the horror movie rule of good sequels: make exactly the same thing again, only adding an incremented number on the end of the title. Five years after the rise and sudden fall of your character from Saints Row, he (or, this time around, possibly she!) wakes up from a coma ready for revenge. Only, revenge will have to wait: the 3rd Street Saints are no more, crippled in power by the total loss of their leadership[1], crippled geographically by the corporate gentrification of their seat of power, and crippled statistically by the rise of three new gangs who have taken advantage of the power vacuum to once more carve up the sad and inexplicably water-bound city of Stilwater.

The game, being a carbon copy, has flaws in keeping with the original: the glorification of gang lifestyle and graphics that seem almost hokey when held up next to Grand Theft Auto IV are the most obvious. But the newly chatty main character[2] is so over-the-top in her villainy and love of chaos that it felt a little less scuzzy than the voiceless original protagonist upon whom one inevitably would imprint their own motivations. As with the first game, I completed something like 93% of the available game, leaving out only a few races and stunt jumps and such. The series has been very good to me, on a value basis.

There is a remaining inevitable question to be answered. Having played them in such proximity, how does Saints Row 2 compare with Grand Theft Auto IV? Well, the similarity of game is a bit of a plus here; I really appreciated that the map of the city was so familiar, as opposed to Liberty City being so vastly different in GTA. (Then again, the time between sequels was only a couple of years rather than a decade, so I understand Rockstar’s point of view on the Liberty City update.) Storywise, GTA is the clear victor, hands down. Niko Bellic is a meaningful, tragic character while the nameless leader of the Saints is a caricature. And the respective stories very much reflect that comparison. All the same, I think Saints Row is the more fun of the two games; mindless mayhem and frequently-thin story motivations did not leave me wallowing in misery, the way Niko’s life did. And Saints Row’s story does have a handful of dark and dramatic turns, don’t get me wrong. If it wasn’t for the graphical disparity, I think I’d have to say it’s down to a matter of taste. But no, less fun-filled or not, GTA is objectively the better game.

[1] Some to retirement, some to the corporate sector, some to (seriously) the police force, and of course there’s the one that’s been imprisoned and in a coma.
[2] To my surprise, there was no option to import the previous character design from the original game. In compensation, there’s an ongoing joke about the character having “new hair”. Since mine changed gender, yeah, I found the understatement pretty amusing.

Grand Theft Auto IV

I’ve played but not reviewed previous Grand Theft Auto games. Most of the modern ones pre-date my reviews, of course, but then San Andreas was never finished by me. There was this thing with impossible-to-fly biplanes that I finally gave up on, since there were only going to be more planes in the future, and the training aspect had overtaken the fun. That said, I have reliably enjoyed all of them, and each more than the last. Grand Theft Auto IV is likely the best in the series; it has kept each of the improvements developed across the previous three games while quickly ejecting the overly bloated chaff that came with San Andreas. The result is a streamlined and mostly trouble-free game experience. Mission-based play and a large world guarantee that there are times when a mission replay will be exasperating, but at least for me, this problem was rare. The sandbox design is even improved, with ever more reasons to wander the streets for the hell of it. Plus, y’know, it is about as pretty as the generation gets.

All of which to say: I am impressed with the game design and playability, and that’s good. Which leaves storyline. On one hand, it’s the same as previous Grand Theft Auto games. You wander the city as it gets gradually opened up to you, making deals with bad people and doing worse things in order to get money. You’re pretty much a bad guy, or at best amoral in pursuit of your own goals. But on the other hand… Nico Bellic is an interesting, conflicted character who is drawn in by events beyond his control at least as often as he makes bad choices. And there are a handful of secondary characters (if not more!) with depth that nearly matches Nico’s. It is possible to disapprove of this game’s morality and not need to know more than that to make your decision. But I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to play the game for any duration[1] and not get emotionally invested in more than one of the characters. The game is every bit as story-deep as Mass Effect, and well worth almost any gamer’s time.

[1] For my part, I played it over the course of 18 months. I almost never come back to games once I’ve played stuff in between or let more than a few weeks pass.

Saints Row

I finished another video game, yay! And got something like 650 gamer points in the bargain, also yay! Now I should maybe get around to finding out why my wireless adapter no longer works so I can resume being online. Or I suppose I could always move the cable modem into the TV room and go ethernet, now that my desktop has been broken for six months with no signs of me caring enough to fix it. It’s possible none of that is really relevant, except insofar as I’m pretty much console or nothing these days. Anyway, the coolness here is that I played Saints Row to the end of the plot, and did almost every single part of the non-plot as well.

As far as the game itself, it’s pretty easy to explain. Big sandbox game where you can drive or run around and explore the world and listen to all the people talking and radio stations playing and interact with things in various surprising and unsurprising ways. Plus an attached plot about a gang war that your character is involved in, in which the leaders of your gang keep placing more and more trust in you as you prove yourself cool by performing their missions, wearing their colors, and otherwise interacting with the city in such a way that your face becomes more and more known by the general populace. And a pretty deep cast of actors whose voices you might recognize. Which is to say, it’s nearly exactly the same as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, at least on the surface. (Now, there’s a game I never finished. Alas.)

Below the surface, there are a lot of changes that make this one easier to swallow. No impossible to maneuver airplane and helicopter controls. (Well, mostly the airplanes were the hard bit.) Instead of having to wander around hoping to stumble upon the side missions, they are mostly in plain sight on the map, waiting for you to take them on at your leisure. But there are still a few collection items to discover as well, for people who like looking under every rock. And there are definitely other minor tweaks and differences around that are harder to explain in a blurb, like the cell phone. The long and short of it is that Saints Row felt like a polished, optimized version of the GTA games. As long as GTA 4 due out in a couple of months has taken note of even a portion of these refinements while managing to hold onto the spare, evocative storytelling of GTA 3 (not so much Vice City or San Andreas, though they had their own charms), it is going to be the game to beat this year.

Mind you, the storyline for Saints Row here was pretty cool. I did, after all, complete 95% of everything available in the game.