Star-Fired Beef


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Steam Challenge – L. A. Noire

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).

Grand Theft Auto is the series that RockStar is best known for, and despite changes to the bells and whistles, they all share the same basic gameplay foundations. A sprawling world, huge amounts of off-the-rails activities to discover, a main story that you can complete at your own pace while tooling around as much as you want. L.A. Noire is, at first glance, another chapter in that great tradition, but it soon becomes clear that RockStar have done something a bit different with this one.

L.A. Noire is very much a RockStar game – the attention to detail, the freedom of being able to roam at will, the immersion of being in a living city. What makes this game different, however, is the focus on the storytelling. You play as Cole Phelps, a young detective just back from Japan after the end of WWII. As he makes his way up through the ranks of the LAPD, and is assigned to various departments, he finds himself involved in a tale of corruption and murder.

The main focus of the gameplay is the case investigations. You visit crime scenes, search for and inspect clues, gather evidence, question witnesses and suspects, and eventually make an arrest. Every NPC is motion-captured, with particular attention paid to facial expressions and subtle body language to help you decide just how truthful your interviewee is being. As a police procedural, L.A. Noire is really, really good.

My main gripe – although it didn’t seem to affect my pace through the game – was with the questioning system. Every conversation has break points where the NPC says something and you have a choice on how to respond, depending on what you think they are telling you: Truth (believe them), doubt, or lie. The problem is, you don’t know exactly what Cole is going to say in those situations, and a lot of the time doubting them ends up accusing them of lying, or withholding information. It feels janky. Often it ends the conversation, since they clam up and won’t respond any more, which means you fail the questioning and can lead to you failing the case.

I think RockStar padded the game somewhat in the middle, too. There was a stretch of three or four cases where nothing seemed to be happening story-wise, and you were just doing the same things over and over. Once I got over that hump, my interest picked up again and the last third of the game was really good.

I’m not sure the writing was all that great, though. Dialogue was pretty spot on, but story-wise, it wasn’t all that satisfying. Most of it was predictable and there were a lot of loose ends that I don’t think were sufficiently explored. It felt like there was a much larger scope initially but the game got scaled back partway through.

I loved the premise of L.A. Noire, and the traditional RockStar strengths were what made the game enjoyable. The attempt at a more linear, story-based game was not as successful as it could have been, though.

Bran Van 3000 – Drinking in L.A.


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Spiritual Gaming

This post is another case of me sticking my nose in where it doesn’t really belong, after last week’s blog topic – reconciling one’s religion with the hobby of gaming – did the rounds. It feels like an intrusion, because unlike a number of the bloggers who have written about this, I do not share that concern with a possible conflict between my hobbies and my beliefs. It has honestly never come up in my thinking, until reading the blogs of others forced me to examine my situation.

I am strongly agnostic. I have no formal religion, but I have cobbled together a loose system of moral and spiritual beliefs from the various sources I have encountered over the years. If I were forced to choose a religion to identify with, I suspect that I would gravitate towards a pagan, Wiccan, or Druidic form. I have no idea if what I believe is the truth, let alone the Truth, but it feels right to me. Plus, it is always a work in progress.

However, I have done a decent amount of reading about various religions, particularly Christianity. Thanks to Karen Armstrong and her History of God, I feel like I have a good understanding of the way the Abrahamic faiths have developed and changed over the centuries, and I think I can empathise with the faithful of those religions a lot better. I do have problems with the way some beliefs are framed, and that has been the one major influence that religion has had on my gaming life.

To me, the act of gaming itself is no different to any other hobby. If your faith has issues with you watching movies or tv, or playing competitive sports, or making artwork, then you should be applying the same judgement to games, too. But I think the main concern people of faith have with media is the content, not the medium. Sure, there were massive fears over the rise of ‘rock and roll’ when it first became mainstream, but nowadays Christian Rock is a huuuuuge genre.

With regards to the concern about losing oneself in gaming, that you might be neglecting your faith because of it, well…one of the central tenets I find is useful to keep in mind in many faiths, is balance. You inherently know when you are out of balance, and although you may not be aware what it is, exactly, simply stopping to examine your life and priorities should make it clearer what needs to happen to bring yourself back into equilibrium. It is much harder to practise the good of your faith – love, joy, compassion, charity, etc – when you are out of balance, and so I think it is necessary to re-evaluate yourself regularly to right the ship, so to speak.

I don’t know whether any of that makes sense, even to me, so I’ll just leave it there. Turns out this topic was harder to write about than I thought.

 Árstíðir – Heyr himna smiður


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My Watch is Over

No, it’s not Game of Thrones related.

Despite not intending to buy Overwatch at launch…or…probably…ever…I decided to jump in to the recent Open Beta weekend and check it out. At least I could get a feel for whether I might end up buying it or not.

Yeah. About that.

Turns out my misgivings about Overwatch were all justified. Now, I am emphatically NOT saying that Overwatch is a bad game. It is, as are all Blizzard products, highly polished, quite attractive artistically, and smoother than a politician contradicting themselves in the same sentence. But for me, that’s it. It’s all superficial. It has no depth.

The Good

The characters are great, there is a nice mix of playstyles, and I had great fun with Tracer and Mei. The different abilities between characters is amazing, and it really does bring the TF2-era team shooter genre forward in showing that it is possible to allow for both defensive and offensive synergies within groups. Granting abilities to allies, like infrared vision, speed boosts, and shields, makes an already hectic experience even more skill-intensive, and while it is simply chaotic to someone like me who is not experienced, I can see how high-echelon play will showcase mind-blowing awareness, timing and judgement.

I liked the MOBA-style abilities that go beyond the fire/alternate fire modes of many shooters. It makes things way more interesting. I’m not sure that Blizzard has nailed the balance issue yet, but I guess they will improve that as time goes on. The abilities go a long way to giving each hero a personality and distinct playstyle, rather than simply being “the healer” or “the tank”.

Overwatch looks amazing, in that trademark Blizzard cartoony aesthetic. The visuals are colourful and easily distinguishable, and the levels are nice and crowded for maximum cat-and-mouse gameplay. The level design also allows for ample creative use of many hero abilities, particularly the movement ones. Widowmaker’s grapple, Pharah’s jetpack, Tracer’s blink, Hanzo’s wall-climbing, there is plenty of opportunity to use these in interesting ways.

Finally, I loved the way that you can earn commendations for your play, through a voting process at the end. Taking a leaf from the FFXIV playbook, Blizzard may hopefully be having a positive effect on community behaviour with this system. I say “hopefully”, because, well, it IS a Blizzard community…combined with an FPS community…yeah, I know, that’s a lot of hope.

The Bad

There are objective problems I have with Overwatch, and subjective ones. Let’s start with the objective ones. First, the tutorial absolutely sucks. You are forced to go through it as Soldier 76, who has a specific suite of abilities. The tutorial does a decent job of going through those with you, but there are many ways it could be improved. The main problem with it, however, is the fact that you are not told about the fact that heroes may have different uses for each of the buttons introduced. For example, Soldier 76 has a left-click fire, right-click alternate fire, an area heal on E, ultimate on Q, and left-shift is sprint. But as far as I can tell, only Q and left-click are standard across heroes. Tracer’s right-click is her blink ability, which is also keyed to left-shift (i.e. she has no sprint). My friend played a hero with NO right-click ability (Reaper, I think?). This is all cool, but the tutorial does not do anything to make you aware that the controls do different things depending on which hero you are playing. It makes for a more frustrating learning experience in the beginning.

Second, the commendations thing at the end of games is not intuitive at all. I didn’t even realise what was happening when three or four names and stats would come up and eventually one of them would be selected. I thought it was the game awarding bonuses. It took me half a dozen games to figure out what was going on. There needs to be some explanation of the system – even just a popup reminder to cast your vote would be sufficient.

Thirdly, I am incredibly pissed off that you are automatically placed in the in-game voice chat channel, and not only is there no option to leave with a single button, there is no immediately obvious option to leave at all. Now, fortunately for me, I had no bad experiences through voice chat, but holy brainfarts, Blizzard! Are you unfamiliar with the multiplayer FPS community?! You NEED to be able to opt out of in-game voice chat, quickly and easily.

Subjectively, the problems I have with Overwatch are less due to the game itself and more about the genre. I hate hate HATE the fact that you can change heroes mid-game. It is enough to turn me off the genre by itself. I want your hero choice at the start to matter. I want people to be forced to cobble together synergies with their teammates based on the team composition, not just switch to the obviously-more-compatible heroes after one untimely death. This issue is the single most defining feature of my decision to avoid Overwatch. Blizzard simply can’t lure me in without scrapping this mechanic, or at least introducing a permanent mode that is hero-locked.

I am extremely irritated to end a match, go through commendations, and then be automatically queued up with the same people for the next match. I hate feeling rushed into the next game. I want time to relax after my last game, maybe look at my stats, open loot boxes, or just step away for a minute. Yes, I know that you can leave the queue at any time, but again, it is not immediately obvious where that option is, and I would much rather have to press buttons to enter a queue rather than leave one.

Finally, I did not feel any sense of depth from Overwatch. There is nothing that hooks me. No progression, no story or lore, no reason for me to log back in on a regular basis. One or two matches, and I am ready to log out again. It feels like I have experienced all that Overwatch has to offer already. Again, that is a genre problem, not Overwatch specifically. But it means I will not be throwing any money Blizzard’s way for this game.

I find myself wishing they went further towards an FPS-MOBA hybrid, like Battleborn has. Maybe Battleborn is where the future of the genre is at, not a slightly-more-advanced version of the old giants, COD, TF2, and CS:GO.

george – Special Ones


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May Gaming Goals

It feels like I haven’t actually been playing much at all, lately. In reality it’s just been Hearthstone and Duelyst, with a little Diablo III. Oh, and testing out a few games here and there. Tried Titan Quest, didn’t like it. Played the Open Beta weekend for Battleborn, liked it but not well enough to pay $70+ for it. Similarly, Overwatch is appealing, but not $90 appealing.

I keep thinking about TSW, but never actually get around to logging in. So this month I will aim to finish the Shadowy Forest zone and advance into the Carpathian Fangs.

There are so very many things to do in FFXIV, my goals could get too ambitious very easily. So without going hard at it, I’d like to:

  • Get Arcanist to 30, finish the class questline
  • Get through as much Main Story Questline as my level allows, i.e. hit the MSQ level wall
  • Get Conjurer to 15
  • Get Thaumaturge to 15
  • Unlock and play around with Scholar and Summoner
  • Complete the tier 1 Grand Company hunts so I can be promoted

In Hearthstone, with the new Standard format and the new card set, I want to make a serious tilt at gaining Legend rank this month.

Pick a game from my Steam list to play, and complete it. (Ideally, repeat for a second game. Before Stardew Valley caught me out, I was getting through two games a month fairly easily.) Nothing really stands out to me at the moment, but I am probably looking at either the Witcher, Planescape: Torment, Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, or Grim Fandango.

I also would like to do a single playthrough of Long Live the Queen each week. I’ve made my first attempt, which ended with Eloise taking an arrow to the knee (gut) and making it fatal by pushing it through rather than leaving it the hell alone. It was a bit galling to get shot after I’d put so much training into flexibility and reflexes. Stupid bandits. Anyway, the game seems perfect for a single attempt per session.

The Fratellis – Flathead


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Coming Up For Air

Surface

 

Oh hi there. It’s been a while, eh? I was doing well with keeping some semblance of regular posting, but then…Stardew Valley happened. I wasn’t planning on getting it so soon, it was supposed to just go on my wishlist and fight for a place near the top. But then I recommended it to my friend’s partner, and she decided to gift me a copy instead and make me test the waters. I felt obliged to fire it up pretty much immediately, and 130+ hours later, I can report that yes, I’m a fan of it.

The biggest revelation for me wasn’t that I would enjoy Stardew Valley, but that I could still become obsessed with a single player game after all. I played it every day for weeks, and for hours at a time. It never felt like a chore, like I had to finish it so I could move on. This is something I haven’t done since my peak WoW days, and before that my Golden Era of gaming in the late 90’s/early ’00s with Half Life, Civ 2, Age of Empires, Baldur’s Gate and the like. I thought I’d lost the ability to “binge” on a game like that, due to the lethargy and depression I’ve been dealing with over the years. So it was kind of a relief to find that I just needed the right game, after all. The flip side to that thought, though, is why aren’t all these other games – games that I sincerely enjoy – doing the same thing for me?

So the last month or so has been mostly Stardew Valley, and Hearthstone. Can’t give up the Hearthstone addiction, especially with the new shinies of this week’s expansion! I’ve barely touched FFXIV, and not done anything TSW-related…and, of course, the blogging has suffered too. I have a bit to catch up on, as I was churning through some of the bigger games on my list, so I have a few impressions posts to do for those. I think I have managed to resist the lure of Black Desert Online, though Blizz has made a bid for my return to WoW by gifting me a copy of Warlords, with a 7-days-free offer, as well as a boost to 90. I am glad to have Warlords, but still no desire to play. It’ll only happen if I get reeled in by social connections, I’m afraid.

Oh, and I heard that Game of Thrones is back on. Sweet.


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Oh, To Be A Time Lord…

So my new posting goals hit a snag pretty quickly, hah. I had my busiest week for ages last week, just so many appointments and meetings, it was tough to find the energy to do any gaming, let alone writing. But then I slipped and ran out of meds, and the two days I was without them was just devastating. I lost all energy, had to drag myself out of bed, all I wanted to do was sleep, body ached everywhere. It was such a sharp crash, it was quite scary to have a demonstration of how much I depend on them in order to function at all. Even now I am just starting to get back to my previous state of mind. Harsh lesson.

I’m now just over halfway through the story cases in L.A. Noire, it continues to be an excellent game, but it is starting to feel a little slow-moving. The meta-story was set up early but despite continuous hints and suggestions during each case, there doesn’t seem to be any advancement of it. I was expecting more moral grey areas, more difficult decisions, facing more corruption than I have encountered thus far. I’m still on track to finish it by the end of the month, though! Despite putting a few hours into FFXIV, all I’ve really done is level my gathering and crafting classes, and stockpile some low level materials. I won a new game on Steamgifts, One Finger Death Punch, and have been having a blast with it. So. Much. Fun. I’d been eyeing it for ages, so I couldn’t help installing it immediately!

As was probably inevitable, I have given up on Wildstar. Although I liked the game, I felt no connection to it, had nothing attracting me back. As time passed without me logging in, and not missing it, I came to accept that it was just not cutting it in competition for my time. So, off to the land of the Deleted it went – joined, to the surprise of no one, by Devilian. I played exactly one session of that, and while it was kind of fun while I played it, as soon as I logged out it ceased to interest me. I always feel vaguely uncomfortable uninstalling games I haven’t played much (but didn’t hate), shades of my completionist past I guess. But with the Steam backlog, FFXIV/LOTRO/TSW occupying my current MMO attention, evergreens like Hearthstone,  and a bunch of new MMO titles coming out over the next couple of years, I simply have to face the fact that I have to be choosy. If only I had a TARDIS…

Wellyn – Alcoholic Tea


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Keeh!

I just finished reading The Metropolis Case, which was alternately a little heavy-handed but also quite beautiful. The main link between the characters in the story is music – mostly opera, and mostly Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, but also some rock – and the themes of love and death intertwined. The thing that struck me most was the power of certain arts to both shape and reflect personal experiences, and how some people can be transformed by that power. It made me wish (a little) that I could appreciate opera as deeply as these characters. Much was made of the dissonance present in Wagner’s production, and how a similar dissonance features in certain punk, post-punk, new wave, no wave, etc. I have never been a fan of such dissonance, yet I am sure that some of the music I like features it to some extent. I tried listening to some My Bloody Valentine, as it was mentioned in the book several times, but it failed to produce anything more than a grimace.

I discovered GC leves in FFXIV! Which allowed me to quickly finish up collecting the seals for my first chocobo, who I named Gobbles. I have yet to ride Gobbles, though, as I haven’t ventured out of town since then. Instead, I got to work doing more supply orders for my GC. I’m not sure whether I want to buy GC gear yet, so I will focus on getting promotions. Now I have my chocobo, it’s time to get back on the main story quest train again.

The announcement that Hearthstone was (finally) moving to a rotating Standard format blindsided me. I am happy they announced it, as we were fast approaching the time where design space was almost gone without significant power creep. I am amazed at their stupidity in some details of the implementation, though. Okay, yes fine make the cards from adventures craftable when they leave the Standard format, that’s good, but WHY would you yank those adventures from the store?! Aren’t you shooting yourself in the foot by doing that? Some people will save up dust and craft the cards they want, but some people will want the cards now and will pay real money to unlock them! It actually makes it harder for a new player to get into the Wild format. It’s not like you have ongoing costs keeping those products in the store! Gahhhh.

Celtic Woman – Níl Sé’n Lá


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Oooh, It’s A Snaaaake

As well as my mental recovery, the other thing I need to work on this year is my physical fitness. Now, I am not exactly happy with being fat, and I am definitely going to need to be slimmer in order to feel healthy, but after all these years I am finally coming to terms with why I am unhappy with my current state. It isn’t being fat that makes me feel ashamed and depressed, it is that I am unable to physically handle the activities that I love and want to be able to do. Simple movement without pain or effort is something that I look back on with longing, and I know that regardless of how fat I am, what I want is that freedom of movement, that confidence in body that has been lacking for so long. The side effect of increasing my fitness will naturally be weight loss – or, rather, fat loss – but I am not bound by arbitrary numbers or clothes sizes as a goal. My goals are purely action-based: can I handle this half-day hike? Can I ride from here to there? Do I have the energy to attend a full day of convention attendance/work a full shift on my feet/enjoy a walking tour of a new place? This week I made a significant step towards achieving these fitness goals. Thanks to the generosity of a community outreach mentor and his contacts, I now have a secondhand mountain bike, which I can ride in the nearby parkland walking paths. I had to ride it home from my mentor’s office, and it took about three times as long as it should, since I haven’t ridden a bike for nearly twenty years. And oh man, did I feel it afterwards. You guys. My balls. So sore.

I just got to the point in FFXIV’s main story questline where I chose my Grand Company affiliation. After a long and frustrating consideration of how each GC fit the needs of Menashi’s RP personality, I ended up choosing to become a member of the Twin Adders. It’s not ideal, but the speeches given by the other leaders at the memorial services rang a bit false for Menashi’s liking, so it became a choice of ‘least unsuitable’ rather than ‘most suitable’. THAT unlocked the Grand Company requisition dailies, and I finally got the quest to obtain my chocobo. So today I spent ticking off as many supply and provisioning orders as I had materials for, and soon discovered how lacking I was in some basic resources. Thus, after I finished crafting and obtaining GC seals, I headed out to start work on my mining. I can see myself easily spending a day’s session just gathering and crafting every so often – it is not a fast process!

My Steam gaming project at the moment is L.A. Noire. I am loving it for so many reasons, but I cannot help feeling slightly restricted by not having a controller. The investigations, though, are incredibly engaging. I did attempt to make Thief Gold my next project, but after struggling to make it through the first mission, I found that it just wasn’t holding my interest. Every time I played it my mind kept wandering off to ponder what other games I desired to play. Not a good sign. Also finished with a Lemmings-style puzzle game called Spirits, which again could not hold my interest long enough to stay motivated. I think I’ll do a Steam Challenge post on it, since I am satisfied with how much I got from it, but I doubt I will do a post for Thief Gold.

Airiel – Sharron Apple


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The Ghost of Blaugust Past

Lately I have been feeling guilty about not maintaining a regular blog schedule, and the feeling has slowly grown to the point of action. As per usual for me, my chosen path is to blatantly rip off copy emulate others who do it better – in this case, Belghast. So as both a residual resolution from last year, and in anticipation of (and training for) this year’s Blaugust event, I am going to try and establish a regular, ideally daily, posting routine modelled on Belghast’s unpatented three-paragraph template.

As part of my therapy, I am working on structuring my daily activities so that I don’t fritter away so much time obliviously. I can get caught up in reading, or gaming, or browsing, or watching videos, and get so absorbed in it that I fail to notice how much time has passed. Now, this is not so much of a specific problem – I don’t miss appointments or anything important like that – but it can really screw up my plans to be productive, and makes me have to re-plan the next day’s activities to incorporate the missed tasks. One of the prime culprits for this time vortex, obviously, is MMOs, so I am starting my structuring with that. 

FFXIV is my main MMO at the moment, although I am still “officially” invested in making progress in TSW and LOTRO as well. As I belong to Aywren‘s FC. and most of the members are in US time zones, I am trying to make sure I am around for an hour or two during their prime time. This hour or two generally satisfies my MMO cravings, and by staying in a specific window of time I beginning to find it easier to stop when I planned to, and thus I hope to lose some of the anxiety of clock-watching or fear of overdoing it. Self-trust is going to be a big component of my mental recovery, so it is things like this that will benefit me in the long run, even if it seems less than relevant right now.

Drapht feat. Downsyde & Layla – Inspiration Island


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Steam Challenge – The Stanley Parable

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).

The trailer promises so much. The Stanley Parable was to be a mindfuck of epic proportions.

It was, and it wasn’t. I am still conflicted about whether I actually enjoyed this game. The narration was fantastic, and my heart skipped a nostalgic beat when I loaded up the very Half-Life-2-esque graphics. It brought me back to the late ’90s, reminding me of both Half-Life, and Goldeneye in the atmosphere and setting. Portal gets mentioned a fair bit in comparisons, and while that is probably true, for me that is not as strong an association.

So what is the problem? Why am I not more committed to a judgement? Honestly, I am not sure. I tend to love games that play the mindfuck card, that leave you guessing as to what really happened, that leave a lot of stuff unanswered. And while it is usually the narrative that provides that experience, in The Stanley Parable it is the game world that does it. That makes the experience more intense, more fulfilling, and so more enjoyable in a lot of ways.

On the other hand, I think it overshot the mark in some respects. It felt like the payoff graph was a bell curve. At the start you are totally clueless, and everything is bizarre. As you play there is greater understanding, which allows you to explore more purposefully and feel like you are getting some sort of progress, i.e. learning more. Then, I found that after a number of playthroughs, I wasn’t getting enough new stuff to keep up the motivation to repeat content ad infinitum. It became a chore, and so I stopped.

I consider The Stanley Parable to be an amazing example of blurring the lines between games and art/philosophy, or of games as art. As a game it is still basic, although more involved than something like Gone Home or a visual novel. I definitely enjoyed it more as an artistic endeavour than as a game experience.

The Tea Party – Great Big Lie

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