On Interactivity

I probably spend more time than I should thinking about how video game controls work, but I spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of years playing through 3d games from the early 2000s, and that was a very interesting time for control schemes.  Developers were figuring out how to best make use of all of the inputs available to them to create a system for navigating 3d spaces, without a ton of existing examples, and playing older games is often eye-opening in realizing where standards came from.

It has also made me really appreciate the the fact that we HAVE more-or-less standard controls these days.  The biggest thing I usually need to figure out is whether “jump” is on the A button, as God intended, or whether it’s been put on Y for no logical or defensible reason.

I’m not talking about controls today, however, but rather objects and interactivity.

One of the side effects of the increased realism in virtual environments during the early 2000s and continuing to today is that game levels tend to have an awful lot of stuff in them that isn’t related to progressing through the game, and sorting out important stuff from scenery can be tricky.  I have rather painful memories of being stuck in Silent Hill 2 for ages because I couldn’t tell that one blob of pixels on a shelf was the key item I needed to get to the next section of the apartment complex, as an example.

One recent way that developers have been avoiding this is through Detective Sense / Witcher Sense / CroftVision(tm), where you spend a good percentage of your play time dropping in and out of a wireframe representation of your surroundings looking for brightly glowing things.  This is pretty convenient and makes it hard to get stuck, so that’s a win, but it’s awfully easy to spend so much time in Make Important Stuff Glow mode that you start treating it as the default view.  The best implementation of this is probably Horizon Zero Dawn, where it’s justified by the main character finding a computerized earpiece / AR gadget that is always scanning the area and showing her things that only she can see.

It’s probably a good thing that Aloy grew up as an exile, as an aside, because it likely saved her from being burned as a witch for seeing visions.  Also she’s almost certainly the only literate person in the entire Nora tribe, come to think of it – I don’t remember seeing any writing beyond vague iconography.  I’m really off topic here. Moving on.

Another way that seems fairly popular is the technique where almost any item you can pick up is represented by a brightly glowing ball or has a neon arrow pointing to it.  This is used heavily in the Souls games, which have generally very dark environments where things can easily hide in corners, but also came up in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which helpfully highlights harvesting nodes from quite a distance away and uses them to draw you towards paths and occasional ambushes.  This makes for less immersion, to be sure, but does solve the problem of needing to constantly click the make-important-things-glow button.

Some games still revel in visual clutter and expecting the player to make sense of it all, of course.  Skyrim, for example, goes for filling its environments with tons of random things and expects the player to figure out which of them are important to the player.  It works out because Skyrim doesn’t really have completely useless items – if you want to fill your bags with cheese wheels, there are cheese wheels on a shelf somewhere to steal and there’s really no reason to make every wheel of cheese glow so the player knows that he can steal the cheese.

Skyrim did break down for me when I hit the Dwemer ruins, since Dwemer stuff doesn’t look like regular, mundane objects.  It took me ages to figure out that the things I was mistaking for random decorations were actually chests, and I had to do a lot of backtracking to find all of the loot that I’d walked by.  It did kind of lend itself to the concept that these ruins were almost completely alien places, so that’s actually an argument in favor of some visual confusion where indicated.

Anyway.  The reason this has been on my mind is that my wife and I recently started playing through Knights of the Old Republic, which came out in 2003 and which is a really interesting beast when it comes to standardized controls and object interaction. It’s a bit of an evolutionary step as far as the control scheme goes – it uses both analog sticks for movement and camera control, but combat and other controls are all on the face buttons.  The triggers, where you’d expect combat controls on a modern game, are used to cycle through all actionable items in your immediate vicinity, at which point you can press the A button to walk over to it.  It can be a little dizzying to watch – the instinct upon entering a new room is to flick the right trigger a few times, which spins the camera around as your character immediately faces everything important – but is a really quick way to figure out  everything you can loot, hit, or talk to, and doesn’t break immersion.

Anyway.  It’s a small thing, but I’m a big fan of it.  Obviously it didn’t catch on as a control scheme – probably because of the camera issues – but it’s surprisingly good for a game of its vintage.

Posted in videogames, xbox | 3 Comments

In Which, I Explain My Absence And Rant About A JRPG.

So, my daily viewer counts have dipped consistently into the double digits of late, which is normal when I don’t post for nearly a month.  For the handful of people who do read this blog on the regular, I’d like to apologize and offer the feeble explanation that my employer decided to go from having 1100 employees locally to having 150 employees locally, moving the ones that were left to Work-From-Home status so they can sell the building, and replacing our departing team members with new hires, in a different city, who we are responsible for training and supporting.

So, even being part of the lucky 150, it has been a bit of a stressful time.

I also haven’t had my normal posting habit of “finish a game, write up a quick summary of what I liked about it, add three pictures hastily sourced from GIS, call it a good day” because I’ve been playing pretty much the same game all month and it took far too long to finish.

So, since I promised you an explanation AND a JRPG rant, let’s talk about Xenoblade Chronicles 2: The Touching Love Story Of A Young Lad And His Sword Who Is Also A Girl With Massive Hooters.

Which has nothing to do with why I bought the game.

If Pyra is not to your liking, however, rest assured that Nintendo/Monolith spent a good deal of money hiring famous character designers to bring a bevy of top-tier waifus to suit every taste, then hid most of them behind a gacha mechanic with drop rates that would have people foaming at the mouth if they charged actual money for the loot boxes.

Fortunately, they are all acquired through in-game methods, so the only thing you need to spend to build up your collection is the precious heartbeats separating you from your inevitable demise.

It also has a tiger in a nightcap.

Which, honestly, goes a long way towards justifying the existence of the game.

I got a lot of enjoyment out of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, but it’s a difficult game for me to recommend.  It took me a little over 77 hours to get from opening to end credits, and it would have taken a lot longer if I hadn’t, at roughly the 40 hour mark, decided that I was going to abandon any pretext of “gamer cred” and drop the difficulty setting so fights would stop taking forever to play out.

That’s a ridiculous amount of time to put in on a game, and that’s with trying to focus on the main story quest and ignoring almost every side quest NPC.  I spent some time trying to come up with lists of stuff I could have accomplished in 77 hours, but I realized quickly that trying to make lists about that was an even poorer use of time than spending it playing a long JRPG.

A good deal of that time was spend on filling out the skill trees for your assorted living weapon companions, because they don’t always fill out organically through normal play.  Rather, at some point you’ll realize that the reason a particular sword has been stuck at level 2 of a skill trait for hours is that you need to go back to a low level zone and find five of a specific monster to kill before you can proceed, but those specific monsters only show up at a certain time of day and never if it’s snowing.  Or that a spear wants to eat its favorite dessert – just roll with me, here – but it won’t tell you what that dessert is so you have to go through all sixty dessert items in your inventory until you’ve stuffed the poor thing so full of tarts that it’s ready to explode.

I’m not trying to imply, here, that this game was designed to sell you the strategy guide.  I am saying it outright.  It is therefore a little unfortunate that the strategy guide was only released in Japan, so keep the wiki bookmark handy.

It also has a ridiculous number of game systems to keep track of, with my favorite what-the-hell being the Economic Health system.  Basically, your travels take you through several countries, and the items in shops and quests you are offered depend on how wealthy the country is.  There are huge swathes of content blocked out until you spend millions of gold in the regional stores.  It’s not my place to judge, but I think they could have simplified this particular system away without hurting anything.

I had a few technical issues, as well.  The visuals are gorgeous – barring a fair amount of texture load-in – as long as you’re in TV mode.  In portable mode, well… I tried to avoid major story moments in portable mode, because the game does not play well like that.  It’s blurry and drops frames like mad.  It’s better than the Switch version of Nights of Azure 2, at least, which is just a visual nightmare no matter what mode you’re in.  It also has separate volume sliders for most audio channels (voices, narration, environmental sounds and music, that sort of thing) and I didn’t realize that turning down the one labeled “Cutscene Voice Volume” affected ALL cutscene audio (voice, music, sound effects) until after I’d finished the game and was going back to play around with the Event Viewer.  As a result, my attempt to tone down some of the frequent character chatter meant that I spent most of the game with the Big Epic Moments being practically silent.  I seriously did not understand why this was getting such universal praise for its soundtrack, and while I’ll accept some blame for that I still think this could have been labeled better.

AND YET.  I’ve spent this entire article complaining about Xenoblade Chronicles 2, but somehow it held on to me for an entire month and had me up until 5 in the morning getting through the last push to the final boss and the end credits.  The world, characters, and story kept me going through all of the technical issues and over-complicated game systems, and that’s pretty high praise.

So, what I’m saying here is that this is definitely a game for anyone who likes cute girls, painfully sincere shonen protagonists, and huge game worlds with enough to do to keep you busy for a year.  Just don’t be afraid to look up things online if you get stuck, and play docked if you can manage it.

 

Posted in Switch, videogames | 2 Comments

I played some Dark Souls.

It was OK.

I didn’t start the Dark Souls remaster intending to go all cheevo-mad, but the problem was that the very first Channeler – the one in Undead Parish – decided to drop the Channeler’s Trident.  It was kind of a sign that I was destined to collect every last rare weapon.

On a COMPLETELY unrelated note, I have some pretty unkind thoughts about Seath’s tendency to always be turning in the precise direction he needs to turn to have his tail clipping through the walls of his arena.  Completely unrelated.

When I played through Dark Souls on the PC, it had been out for several years and the online was being particularly glitchy, so I did absolutely no jolly co-operation.  I also tended to be really short on humanity, so I almost never took advantage of any of the NPC summons.  I did it The Hard Way, and I feel good about having done that.

Once.

This time through, I did a lot more co-op, and it was a good time.  I particularly enjoyed hanging out at the Centipede Demon and making sure that the host got the lava-walking ring. We didn’t always win, but it was a good feeling to know that the guy was going to have a much easier time on his next attempt.

I even put up with PC invaders for most of my first play-through, and I have to say that I can’t recommend the experience.  The last straw was being backstabbed, from the front mind you, by someone who was – on my screen, at least – well outside the reach of the massive 2-handed sword I was trying to flatten him with.  After that, I set the game into Offline mode, only switching back online when I was actually standing at a fog gate.

The older versions of Dark Souls didn’t have the ability to play offline without actually disconnecting from the internet, so if you needed justification to buy the remaster, I’d say that’s a pretty good one.

Griping about gankers aside, it’s still just about the perfect remaster of one of the best games I’ve played in the last… well, ever.  Now we just need… ah, never mind, I won’t even bother saying it. 🙂

 

Posted in PS4, Souls, videogames | Leave a comment

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Mildly Snarky Comment

Apparently “mildly snarky” is my phrase of the day, and I apologize for using it in consecutive posts.  Also there will be the tiniest of spoilers for Solo in this post, but they’re quite a ways down.  This would be a good place to stop reading if you haven’t seen it and want to go in completely blind.

I added to my growing collection of IMAX commemorative tickets today by taking in a showing of “Solo: A Star Wars Story”.  This was one of the stranger ones I’ve gotten, if I’m quite honest, being a collectible ticket that doesn’t actually have the film’s main character on it anywhere.

Maybe there are a few different versions?  I know they did different tickets for The Last Jedi, where weeks 2 and 3 got new art.  I only went during week 1 and was pretty happy with the particular variant that was passed out during week 1, since it features both Rey and Grouchy Old Man Luke.

Anyway, I am not really here to talk about IMAX collectible tickets.

I am required, as a boy type person who grew up in the 70s, to love all things Star Wars.  And, to be clear, I liked the movie quite a bit, though  I kept being bothered by not being able to place where I’d seen the actress who plays Qi’ra before.

For the record: I have seen all seven seasons of Game of Thrones.  I have a problem with faces.  I’m not sure if it’s actually prosopagnosia, but I have literally walked past my own mother without recognizing her, so maybe?

Anyway.  Despite liking Solo, I do think they could have cut back on SOME of the callbacks to previous movies.  It’s great that they did an origin story, and I absolutely LOVE Splinter of the Mind’s Eye so I was gobsmacked that they set some scenes on Mimban, but…

Look, maybe I should just give an example.  If you ever watched The Empire Strikes Back and really wanted to know the story behind this incidental bit of C-3PO dialogue:

Well, then you will probably be just as happy as I was about Mimban.  On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made that maybe spending too much of your movie trying to explain EVERY off-the-cuff comment made throughout the original trilogy is not a great use of screen time.

I’ll still see it again, mind you.  I’m not actually THAT bothered. 🙂

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A Cautionary Tale About Amazon Prime Pre-order Discounts

So, my copy of Dark Souls: Remastered arrived on Friday, and it is absolutely brilliant. I’ve just finished ringing the second Bell of Awakening and it’s off to Sen’s next for some swinging-blade action.

But that’s not the point of this.  The point is that, along with the disc, I got an email from Amazon telling me that they’d charged me $39.88 and that I had saved 0.11 with their pre-order price guarantee.

This… seemed odd.  One of the reasons I order games from Amazon is that, as a Prime Member, I generally expect to get 20% off on pre-orders.

So, I went to their chat support expecting to get an apology and an $8 credit and maybe a free month of Prime added on to my existing subscription.

Instead I got linked to this page of “cases where the 20% pre-order discount does not apply”, which I have reproduced below for your convenience.  Note rule #6:

So, apparently “re-masters” are now not eligible for the Prime discount, which is a weird and arbitrary rule.  It also doesn’t seem to be applied consistently – for example, I looked up the impending Switch version of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and that is showing me an available discount.  So this rule probably only applies to games that actually have “remaster” in the title.

This is the second time in a row I’ve had a bad time with their customer service, which historically has bent over backwards to make me happy.  The last time was when I had a $300 processor delivered to my neighbor two houses over, and the chat support agent told me that it had probably just been marked “delivered” by mistake and that I should wait a couple of days before talking to them about it again.

Anyway, it’s a small enough thing that I’m not going to go down to Best Buy and buy a copy with my GCU discount to return to Amazon to get my 40 bucks back, but it’s apparently annoying enough that I’m going to write a snarky blog post about it.

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I May Have A Souls Problem

So.  Dark Souls: Remastered comes out tomorrow, and I preordered the PS4 version ages ago.  Of course, between people who got their copies early and people who bought the PC version off Steam when it launched early, there are an awful lot of people already playing it and posting about it online.

I have commented in the past that one of the best things the Souls games teach is patience, so it is ironic that I am have been champing at the bit all day to get my hands on my copy so I can tear into it.  I confess that I checked the mailbox a couple of extra times just in case it had showed up.  This is not, by any definition of the word, a great display of patience.

So, when I got off work tonight, I decided that I was going to load up the original release of the game and mess around with a few different weapons that I’d picked up on my first play-through.  I went into Dark Souls fresh from playing through Demon’s Souls, and I had pretty much made exactly the same sort of character in both games – a lightly-armored, dex-heavy character who spent 90% of her time hiding behind a shield.

So, I took my end-game character down to the Kiln of the First Flame and spent some time hitting Black Knights with various weapons.  I figured the most important thing to do was to get in some practice with the Drake Sword, because it’s just so convenient to pick that up once you have a bow and a few dozen arrows, and I would grab that and then run to the Undead Parish and farm Balder Knights until I got a swag sword and…

…and that was EXACTLY what I had done last time, come to think of it.

So, I went through my Bottomless Box looking for other weapons that you can get early on, and I stumbled across the Zweihander.

I’ve never been a Big Damn Sword person.  Frankly, running around with a slab of iron that would make Cloud Strife blush seems just a little… brutish?  Not terribly appealing, anyway.

BUT.  I’ve seen an awful lot of people who absolutely rave about the Zweihander, and it’s not quite as ridiculous as the Ultra Great Swords, so I figured, you know, what the heck.  I’ll give it a try.

Several dead Black Knights later, I was in love with the thing.  I just wasn’t sure that it would actually work at low levels, so I was a little nervous about committing to going for a Big Damn Sword build.  I don’t remember if you can respec in DS1 or not, but memory is telling me that it’s Not A Thing.

Then, I remembered that I’d tried to get a friend interested in the Souls games by setting him down in front of my PC with a controller, and that I’d been shocked by how far he’d gotten with what seemed like a lot less effort than I’d had to put in… and his saved character was still sitting in the Undead Burg at like level 9.

Well.  It didn’t take much effort to run back to Firelink and make the mad dash through the graveyard to pick up the Zweihander, only to find that I couldn’t actually USE it without getting several points of strength, but some grinding took care of that…

…and then I blew through both of the early Black Knights, and the Taurus Demon, and the Bell Gargoyles, and let Lautrec out of his cell and pushed him off a cliff before he could go murdering anyone  and frankly I had to stop there because I probably should leave some of this for when I actually have the game I’ve been so impatiently awaiting.

It will be here tomorrow.  It had better be.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Gaming, PC Gaming, Souls | Leave a comment

Some thoughts about digital distribution.

One thing I didn’t expect to get out of starting this blog, a little over 11 years ago, was the ability to look back and see how my attitudes had changed over time.

One of the big things I’ve done a 180 on has been the virtues of physical media over download services.  I used to be incredibly averse to owning digital copies of things; it felt so ephemeral compared to having something physically in my hand and I loved the look of a crowded shelf of (books/movies/games).

Also, I felt that the phrase “digital distribution” was, in itself, absolutely the dumbest phrase ever.  I actually still believe this.  It’s right up there with using “DRM” to mean only SOME copy protection schemes.

But, times change and the joy of having shelves full of Things has faded.  I’m also a lot more confident that digital services will probably be around for the long haul – I’ve lost one or two things to rights issues over the years, but the only major service I’ve ever used that is now completely inaccessible is Desura.  And, I mean, Desura.

The last physical disc game I’m planning to buy is the Dark Souls Remastered edition, which will be arriving this week, and I’m only buying THAT in physical form because, well, in this case I DO want it on a shelf.

I am still, however, buying Switch games as physical copies.  This is mostly because I don’t trust Nintendo with anything online.

Anyway.  This is all a lead-in to talk about a page that I stumbled across on Microsoft’s site.  It isn’t, in itself, anything all that interesting – it just shows your Xbox 360 purchases in purchase order – but I found looking at the last page to be a fascinating look back at the bygone days of roughly a decade ago.

One thing I did NOT notice at first is that there is at least one thing missing, which does lend some credence to my worries about the Great Digital Holocaust.  Specifically, I’m missing “Boogie Bunnies”, which was a really cute puzzle game that came out in the early days of the 360.  It’s still on the Microsoft store, however, and I have the option to buy it for $4.99… so I think that I may have bought it when signed into the wrong profile, or something.  A little weird, but let’s move on to talk about some of these.

Space Giraffe was actually the reason I caved on the whole buying digital games thing.  It’s a shooter by Jeff Minter, and that’s all you need to know if you’re my sort of people.  It was 400 Microsoft points, however, and you couldn’t buy point cards for less than 800 points, so I bought Geometry Wars Evolved to use up the rest of the card.

Triggerheart Exelica and Omega Five and Rez… well, all of these are Japanese shooters of various sorts, and all of them excellent.  I actually owned the Dreamcast release of Triggerheart Exelica, so this may mark my first instance of buying a game a second time so I could have it on a new platform.

Undertow and Carcassonne were free games from Microsoft, for some reason.  I think Xbox live went down for a couple of days and they gave everyone some free games to apologize.  I’ve played like 10 minutes of Undertow.

Aegis Wing was another free game.  I think it was the winning game from some internal garage games competition or something.  It was OK, and free.

Oh, I just noticed one other thing missing from this list.  There’s no Yaris.  Man, that was a stinker, even for an advergame.

After that, we have Braid.  I didn’t pay for this one either, I actually won it from a Mountain Dew promotion.  Yeah.  Braid is about as far as you can get from the Dewritos stereotype, so I don’t get that either.  I didn’t particularly like Braid, but I’m told I have poor taste.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light was a very fortunate purchase that came out of “I have a friend over, so let’s see if we can find a couch co-op game to play”.  We blew through the entire thing in one sitting.  There may actually have been some Mountain Dew involved, come to think of it.  I still have never gone back to play the single player mode.

Perfect Dark was the only game I even came close to finishing on the Nintendo 64, and I’d always regretted getting stymied by the final boss, so I bought the remake.  Eventually, I even played it.

And, finally, El Shaddai, which seems to have been the first full retail Xbox 360 game I bought in a digital version.  It was crazy cheap, if I recall correctly – I think it was 3 bucks or something, which was enough to induce an impulse buy.  It’s one of a few games that I’ve tried out, hated, forgotten about for a few years, then come back to and loved, and it really deserves to make its way to the Xbox One backwards compatibility program.

So.  I bought Space Giraffe in August of 2007.   El Shaddai was February of 2013.  This one little page of results shows five and a half years of digital purchase history, and a third of the things on it were freebies.

Five years on from El Shaddai, I want nothing more than to have a library that I can sit down to without ever needing to find a disc.  If you told me that ten years ago…

Well, anyway.  So that page exists and it’s an interesting look back.  I’d be interested in hearing what other people see when they look at the same thing, or if anyone else has had the same change of mind, or if you’re still in the take-my-discs-from-my-dead-hands mindset.

I should do the same thing with Steam sometime.  Hmm.

Posted in videogames, Xbox 360 | 2 Comments