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