Friday, July 17, 2015

Game Review - No Time to Explain (Xbox One, 2015)

You know that stereotype of a person who is, like, so totally random?  You know how everybody loves that kind of person?  No Time to Explain is essentially the videogame equivalent of that person.

The game opens with the protagonist sitting in his house when his future self busts through the wall.  "There's no time to explain!" he exclaims just as a giant pincer grabs him and pulls him off screen.  Fortunately, he drops his futuristic laser weapon.  Your character arms himself and sets out into the first level.
Look, it's a man with a construction hat jumping over platforms! Soooooo random!
What follows is a game that tries much too hard to be random.  You'll encounter giant sharks, dinosaurs, a living muffin, and a trip inside your own body to cure diabetes.  Throughout the game, there was exactly one line that made me chuckle; everything else just seemed pathetic.  I've never been a fan of this sort of random humor, and this game certainly didn't change my mind.

The gameplay, on the other hand, isn't too bad, it's just really short.

No Time to Explain is a relatively simple puzzle platformer.  Each stage will challenge you to move through obstacles to reach a portal.  Instead of just running and jumping, however, your maneuverability comes primarily from that laser weapon from the introduction.  It has one hell of a recoil, so you can use it to blast yourself into the air and float back to the ground, or it can propel you across deadly chasms or spikes.

The key to success is then mastery of those controls and careful planning to find the best trajectory.

This section is one of the more enjoyable ones, as your primary movement is pulling back and letting the little green dude fly in the opposite direction.
Along the way, the gimmick for some levels will change.  The first major change is the introduction of a high-powered shotgun instead of the laser - it launches you through the air with a single burst instead of the continuous effect of the laser.  Other stages use slingshot mechanics or shifting gravity to add new challenges.

In addition to those primary stages, there are a few boss battles and a couple that borrow heavily from other genres (a side-scrolling shoot 'em up is one example), keeping the gameplay relatively fresh as it progresses.

The major flaw is the game's length - it took me about three hours to complete all the stages, including all my trial and error to pass some of the trickier obstacles.  What's worse, there's virtually no replay value.  The only incentive to revisit stages is to find the hidden collectibles, and even then, most are not too hard to find and obtain.  You'll be hard pressed to get more than about five hours of entertainment out of this one, and what you do get is a mild distraction at best.  There's nothing deep or compelling about it.

There's a section that gives its satirical take on the "games as art" debate.
If you can get it for free, No Time to Explain is a fun little platformer.  It's the kind of thing that would have been a cute Flash game a decade ago.  Because it tries much too hard to be random and it generally lacks content, however, it's not worth the ludicrously high $15 price tag.  Your money is much better spent elsewhere.

My Rating: 2/10 - terrible.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Game Review - Defiance (Xbox 360, 2013)

In my mind, there are two major features that give good MMORPGs the addictive qualities that keep players paying monthly subscriptions.  One is the satisfaction of developing a character and upgrading his or her gear.  That occasional ding of a level up gives a sense of progression that you simply can't get in the real world.  The other is challenging content, with areas that require precise skill management and coordinated teamwork.  In a sense, these obstacles allow players to continue that progression despite hitting the game's level cap.

Defiance is a now free-to-play MMORPG that does the first of these very well.  The leveling mechanics and the ways low-level characters can interact with other players are perhaps the best I have ever seen, but the result is an endgame that isn't terribly exciting.

The basic premise is interesting but doesn't get fleshed out in any meaningful way.  You take on the role of an "ark hunter," someone who tracks down extraterrestrial scrap in the war-torn wasteland of the San Francisco Bay area.

In Defiance's universe, you are effectively a gun for hire, employed by a powerful businessman to further his economic interests.  Unsurprisingly, the main story gets you involved in some local politics, and you learn a little bit about the war that scorched the Earth, but none of it is very compelling.  I didn't feel that any of the characters were developed enough for me to care about their fate, and I never learned enough history to get excited about any of the major events.

Of course, you typically don't play an MMORPG for its detailed and intriguing storyline; you play it for the multitude of random fetch quests, right?

If fetch quests are your personal brand of masochism, then you're in for a treat with Defiance.  There are tons of sidequests along the way, but nearly all of them amount to "go to this area and pick stuff up."  There are a few where you might do something cool, like raiding a fortified base, but most are frankly dumb.

That said, the map is surprisingly dynamic.  There are constantly cooperative events occurring that can challenge a dozen or more players.  These random events range from minor skirmishes to claim some salvage to big boss battles to defensive missions fighting waves of enemies.  Interestingly, some of the more complex sidequests are actually repeatable - if you return to that fortified base, you'll be able to complete the objectives again and earn more rewards.

In each of these cases, the rewards are based on your performance.  Dealing more damage and defeating more enemies will yield higher quality loot and more experience points at the end of one of these events.  The result is one of the typical MMORPG cycles - the better your gear, the easier it is to obtain higher quality gear.

With these events occurring all over the map, it's important that the game remain balanced for new and experienced players alike.  Defiance's solution is a great one: the "threat level" in an area is determined by the number of players nearby and their levels.  Increasing the threat level increases the power and resilience of enemies, allowing high-level characters to be challenged by enemies in the introductory area.

To keep low-level characters from getting overwhelmed, they get power buffs to match the current threat level.  Those buffs aren't nearly as strong as using higher level gear, but it's enough that your new character can still meaningfully contribute in battles while adventuring with high-level friends.  This feature ultimately means that all of the game's content is available from the very start.

The most appealing aspect of this system?  You can always play with your friends, even if they have spent 300 hours developing their characters and you're just starting.

Sadly, this system is not without its flaws, and there are two big ones that stick out.  First, having access to all the game's content means that there's not much that you're working towards aside from a bigger, badder character.  Sure, there are queues for some cooperative maps that you can't access until you reach a sufficiently high level, but that's of minor interest compared to everything else in the game.

Second, the threat level mechanics can be used to your detriment in frustrating ways.  Since the game checks nearby players, it's possible for somebody to bump up the threat level just by passing by.  Your enemies will get stronger accordingly, and you may find yourself facing significantly stronger opposition by yourself if that other player doesn't join in.

While the MMORPG elements of Defiance are great, the underlying gameplay is a little mundane.

At its core, Defiance is just a coop third-person shooter.  You'll run around and shoot enemies, all while seeing the battlefield from an over-the-shoulder camera.  There is a good diversity of weapons to use, including genre staples, like shotguns and assault rifles, and a few oddballs, like infectors, which spawn friendly parasites when defeating an enemy.

This shooter base is supplemented with RPG elements, including both a skill grid and gradually more powerful gear in accordance with your character level.  In a lot of ways, the game functions in a Borderlands-esque fashion - you get an active skill and various passive ones to enhance your capabilities, and the loot you'll acquire will generally scale with your character level.

The active skills are easily the most interesting aspect of this system, in part because there are no character classes.  Instead, you start the game by choosing one of the four possible active skills after a brief tutorial allowing you to sample each of them.  Then, as you earn enough skill points later in the game, you're able to unlock the other three skills.  Only one active skill is allowed at a time, but the ability to change them on the fly or for different missions is definitely a huge plus.

The passive skills are a lot less interesting, as most of them confer very minor benefits.  Sure, increasing health by 10% may be fairly significant, but many of those skills only change things by 1-3%.  It seems like there's a lot of customization options in the skill grid, but in reality, most of those skills seem inconsequential.

Weapon levels are also a pretty nice feature, adding incentive to keep finding new loot.  Fortunately, there is a bit of a failsafe in place so that you're never stuck with underpowered guns if you don't find a new one worth using.  By using Arkforge (which comes primarily at the end of big world events or coop missions), you can change a weapon's level rating (and therefore its stats).  This works both ways, letting lower-level characters use gear they bought from their higher-level friends, and allowing players to keep using the same guns throughout the entire game.

All in all, the basic gameplay is effective if unexciting.

With one notable exception: competitive multiplayer is completely broken.  The problem lies in the fact that the level scaling that comes from adventuring with higher-level characters doesn't affect every aspect of your character.  In competitive multiplayer, that means that someone about 1000 levels above you may be able to kill you in one shot while you won't be able to penetrate their shields even by unloading an entire clip.  Similarly, a player 1000 levels above them can do the same.

I tried the competitive multiplayer at various points throughout developing my character to level 4000+, and I was almost always disappointed with the result.  Early on, I got crushed by everyone, earning impressive kill-to-death ratios on the order of 0/15.  Eventually, I got to a point where I was able to one-shot some of my opponents, but then others would one-shot me.

And that is still the case now, even after investing well over 200 hours in the game.

The few competitive matches that have been truly enjoyable are the ones where every player is at roughly the same level.  Those are truly enjoyable matches, but they are a startlingly small fraction of the multiplayer games I played.

With all the pros and cons I've discussed to this point, it would be easy to say that Defiance is a reasonably well-balanced and entertaining player vs. environment game but a terrible player vs. player game and call it a day.  Unfortunately, there is one other huge flaw that knocks a few more points of the game's rating.

Defiance has this frustrating tendency to boot players from the server with a "critical failure" message.  It happens a lot, it happens to everybody, and it happens seemingly at random.  Some days are worse than others, but losing 45 minutes of progress on a big coop mission or PvP match because the game randomly returned you to the login screen gets pretty frustrating.  And again, it happens a lot.

So with that in mind, if you're willing to put up with terrible server issues, you'll find a reasonably fun MMORPG experience, so long as you're not looking for deep and competitive PvP.  If that's not your thing, though, I can only recommend that you stay away.

My rating: 5/10 - ok.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Achievement Report - Bean Dive 2015

It's that time of year again!  The time when gamers rejoice and play all the games in their backlog just long enough to pop a single achievement.

That's right, this weekend marks the beginning of the annual Bean Dive over at TrueAchievements.  Check out my report on last year's dive to read some of my thoughts on why I enjoy this particular event.

My Dive
Rather than waste any time, I'll get straight to the summary.  I'll list each game that I played this weekend, followed by an approximate amount of time I played it while going for the first achievement, and some brief thoughts about the game.

As I now have an Xbox One, I'll split the games by console for easier parsing.

Windows 8 (7 Games):

Age of Sparta - <5 minutes - Another in the long line of free-to-play empire building games where you have to wait inordinate amounts of time to do anything unless you pay for things with real cash money.  Meh.  I guess I could see this being a mild distraction from time to time.

Dragon Mania Legends - 5 minutes - Looks just like Age of Sparta, except that you're training dragons instead of Greek troops.

Dungeon Hunter 5 - 15 minutes - This looks like a surprisingly good action RPG for a free game.  Not groundbreaking, for sure, but it should be decently fun.

Make it Rain - <5 minutes - Oh, what have I done?  This is one of those games where the only point is to click or swipe repeatedly.  It was free, though, so I downloaded it.  Like a chump.  At least I'll be able to write a scathing review of it at some point...

Modern Combat 5: Blackout - 5 minutes - This game actually seems pretty cool.  While the graphics are pretty low quality, it might be an enjoyable first-person shooter with reasonably high production value.  I'm amazed that I'm almost excited to play a few Windows 8 game, but hey, here we are.

Overkill 3 - 10 minutes - This game could be a neat rail-shooter, but the controls are atrocious.  It seems like it was designed for touch devices, but I have to play with a mouse and keyboard. Maybe I'll be able to blaze through it sometime soon.

Tiny Troopers - <5 minutes - I only played the tutorial, but it seems like a nice little point-and-click combat game.  Could be fun, but I'm not expecting a whole lot out of it.

Xbox 360 (24 Games):

Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I DON'T KNOW - <5 minutes - The first achievement popped part way through the tutorial, so I didn't get to see much of the game.  The basic 2D Zelda-esque mechanics seems decent enough, but seeing as I was pretty disappointed with a later Adventure Time game, I worry that this one will be a big letdown.

Angry Birds: Star Wars - 10 minutes - I didn't really play this game; there's an achievement for watching the credits, so I started that text scroll and let it run while I did other things.  No thoughts here, obviously.

Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel - 10 minutes - You get an achievement at the end of the tutorial, so this one was pretty quick.  It seems like a pretty good coop third-person shooter, especially so if you're playing alone, as there appear to be some useful commands for managing your AI-controlled partner.  Of all the shooters I've played in the last few days, this one is probably the most exciting.

Assassin's Creed IV - 15 minutes - This game might actually be fun...  I have grown tired of the repetitive nature of the Assassin's Creed games, so I skipped AC3 entirely.  This one was available for free with Games for Gold, so I downloaded it anyway.  It's nice to see an Assassin's Creed game out in the jungle instead of even more featureless alleyways.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 - 20 minutes - It's been a while since I've played an FPS set in World War II, so this might be fun to get into.  I'm not overly excited about it, though.

Dark Souls II - <5 minutes - All I had to do is die; that's pretty easy in a Dark Souls game...  I know exactly what I'm getting into with this one.  I've recently had renewed interest in the Dark Souls franchise, so I'll have to get back to this one once I finally play through the first.

Destiny - 15 minutes - I only completed the tutorial mission, but Destiny certainly like a fun loot-based shooter.  I can definitely see it getting repetitive as I know some people complained shortly after release, but I think I'll have fun with it, at least for a while.

The Evil Within - 45 minutes - Survival horror games always make a good impression on me, and this one is no different.  There are a few aspects of the introductory chapters that remind me of Deadly Premonition, which I love, so I'm looking forward to playing this one.

F1 2013 - <5 minutes - The first tutorial task (accelerating and stopping) can earn you an achievement, so I didn't even try turning my vehicle.  It seems like a relatively straightforward racing game, though.

Gears of War: Judgment - 5 minutes - Simply put, this is a Gears of War game.  A third-person shooter where enemies are bullet sponges and a heavy emphasis on use of cover.  It's about what you'd expect from the franchise.

Just Cause 2 - 5 minutes - Yet another game that didn't wait long to give me an achievement, so I don't have much of an impression here.  I've never played a Just Cause game before, but I might be able to get into this one.

Just Dance 2014 - <5 minutes - I had unreasonable amounts of fun playing the dance sequences in Kinect Star Wars, so I picked this one up hoping for more of the same.  It's not quite as ridiculous as the Star Wars dancing, and the moves seem more complex, but I think it should be fun.

LEGO Movie Videogame - 5 minutes - I've been getting a little burned out on LEGO games in the last few years - the original LEGO Star Wars was phenomenal, but the franchise has been run into the ground more recently.  I got this one (on sale, of course) because of how cute the LEGO Movie was; I figured it was worth giving LEGO games another chance.  I only played the prologue stage, so I don't have a very good impression of it, but it'll probably be one of the first games I go back to in the coming weeks.

Max: The Curse of Brotherhood - 5 minutes - Seems like a cute, simple platformer.  Should be fun.

Metal Gear Solid HD Edition - 30 minutes - Games with clunky controls aren't usually very good.  Stealth games provide even less leeway with imprecise movement and awkward interactions than your average game.  Stealth games with clunky controls are miserable.  I'm not looking forward to playing this one again.

Metro: Last Light - 5 minutes - There wasn't much of an impression for this game as the first achievement popped very quickly.  The opening sequence really reminds me that I need to brush up on the Metro 2033 storyline, confirming my need to replay Metro 2033 before diving into this one.

Mini Ninjas - 5 minutes - I barely progressed into the tutorial for this game, though it seems like it could be a cute little action-adventure game.

MX vs. ATV Alive - 5 minutes - A racing game.  There doesn't seem to be anything particularly exciting about this one.  It is a little weird to run a race without a minimap somewhere; maybe I've been spoiled by recent racing games.

Silent Hill HD - 2 hours - It took a while to get to the first achievement in Silent Hill 2, so this was one the longest for my dive.  When it came time to declare allegiances, I was always a Resident Evil fan, so I've barely played anything in the Silent Hill franchise.  So far, I like what I see, and I'm excited to run through a couple of the first Silent Hill games.  The one downside?  The game lagged like crazy when I earned that achievement.  I hope that's not a persistent trend...

Sniper Elite V2 - 10 minutes - I have worries about this one because one part of the tutorial was totally opaque to me.  I actually had to look up a guide to figure out what I had to do, so I fear that the whole game will be unnecessarily confusing.  I guess we'll see.

South Park: The Stick of Truth - 5 minutes - It's been a while since I've watched South Park, but I've already seen bits and pieces of this game in other places.  I think I'm going to enjoy the combination of South Park humor and what seems to be a pretty solid RPG.

Thief - 15 minutes - I recall thinking that the mix of stealth and special arrows formed a cool basis for a game back when the original Thief games were released 15 years ago.  This one doesn't seem like it plays quite as smoothly as I remember from its predecessors (though to be fair, I'm probably misremembering that anyway), but it definitely seems good enough, at least from the introductory mission.

Two Worlds II - 15 minutes - Seems like one of the many Elder Scrolls style RPGs that have glutted the market in the last several years.  It doesn't seem terrible like some of them, though.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - 15 minutes - Unsurprisingly, this seems like a solid RPG.  I'm looking forward to giving it a go at some point.

Xbox One (24 Games):

AirMech Arena - <5 minutes - It didn't take long to earn an achievement in this one, but I've also played the 360 version, so I know what I'm getting into.

Assassin's Creed IV - 10 minutes - For someone who really doesn't like the Assassin's Creed franchise, I sure play a lot of the games...  I got this for the same reason I got the 360 version - it was free, so why not?  Maybe I'll eventually complete it twice?

Blue Estate - 20 minutes - I may be one of the only people in the world who gets excited about a good rail shooter.  This seems like a good one.  It reminds me a bit of House of the Dead: Overkill in that the story is way over the top.  I'm really looking forward to this one.

Castle Storm: Definitive Edition -<5 minutes - I've already played the 360 version of this one, and it was a decent amount of fun.  I got this version for free from Games with Gold, and I can't say no to a free game (see my collection of Win 8 games for evidence of that...).

Chariot - 5 minutes - A friend challenged me to earn all the achievements in this game because it's apparently quite hard.  Obviously I couldn't pass up a challenge like that!  It seems like it'll be a cute little platformer, so I'm excited to get deeper into it!

Costume Quest 2 - 2 hours - It's a turn-based RPG just like its predecessor.  I'm sure it will also be a little quirky along the way.

Dance Central: Spotlight - 5 minutes - Another dancing game, though this one came for free with the Xbox One Kinect.  It seems more like what I was hoping for with Just Dance, so I think I'll be happy with this one.

Far Cry 4 - 1.5 hours - Far Cry 4 feels very similar to Far Cry 3 (here's my review for that), so I expect it to be a very similar experience - reasonably fun for a while but awfully repetitive by the end.  Even worse, the storyline doesn't seem to have the same charm as its predecessor, so it's probably going to be a less enjoyable game overall.

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD - 5 minutes - I'm not quite sure how I feel about this one.  It strikes me as a spiritual successor to Resonance of Fate, which was a pretty good, unique game, but it had a steep learning curve (so it was really hard to get into it).  I'll have to give it more of a shot before drawing any real conclusions.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection - 1 hour - It's a collection of all the Halo games.  I'm sure you know what that means.  However, I tried to get the achievement for completing a multiplayer match, but in waiting for about 15 minutes at two different times, I could never get a match started.  After that, it took about 20 minutes to get an achievement in one of the single player campaigns.  That multiplayer difficulty worries me a bit (a lot), but the campaigns should be as good as the originals.

Lifeless Planet: Premier Edition - 5 minutes - Man, many of these games seem really sweet!  This one strikes me as an interesting exploration/survival game.  I'm looking forward to playing it, though it's probably not one of my favorites in this list.

Massive Chalice - 5 minutes - I've long been a fan of turn-based strategy games, and this one seems to fit that bill perfectly.  A freebie from Games with Gold; I think I'll have a fun time playing it.

Metro 2033 Redux - 1.5 hours - I first played Metro 2033 years ago, and I've never played the sequel.  I kind of wanted to play the first once more before tackling Last Light, plus they were both on sale recently, so here we are.

Metro: Last Light Redux - <5 minutes - Same deal as the 360 version.  I got this version on sale a while back, not realizing I already had it on the 360...  I guess that's what happens when you have a big backlog of games.

Ori and the Blind Forest - <5 minutes - It didn't take long to pop an achievement, but from what I hear, this game is a wonderful little Metroidvania title.  It looks and sounds fantastic, too, so I'm really looking forward to it!

Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare - 10 minutes - I completed a single multiplayer match, getting two kills (and one achievement) in the process.  It seems like this one will be similar to last year's Gotham City Imposters - a cute, fun team shooter that gets kind of stale once you've sunk a fair number of hours into it.

Pneuma: Breath of Life - 5 minutes - I just made it through the prologue, and this one seems like an adventure/puzzle game.  I've been a big sucker for adventure games since The Longest Journey charmed me.  I haven't found another game that has lived up to the standard that The Longest Journey set, so maybe this one will.

Pool Nation FX - 20 minutes - Pool video games are always a bit weird in my book.  It's really tough to capture the precision in both cue position and viewing angles that you use when playing the physical game.  I spent some time playing a versus match before realizing I could nab an achievement much sooner in a different way.  What I saw basically confirmed my fears - the control scheme, while reasonably complex, still feels awfully clunky.  I'm not sure this'll be much fun.

Project Spark - <5 minutes - Welp. I barely had to start this one to pop an achievement because it seems to be synced with my progress in the Win 8 version.  It's a cool outlet for creative types, allowing players to design epic levels and whatnot, so my experience is mostly going to depend on what other people do with it.  Still, there may be some cool things to do whenever I decide to go back to it.

Shovel Knight - 10 minutes - I was really excited about this game the first time I learned about it, both for its nostalgic factor (it's very reminiscent of old school Mega Man games) and because it seems like an awesome platformer (it's very reminiscent of old school Mega Man games).  The first stage didn't disappoint, and I'm really looking forward to this one.

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition - 1 hour - Another game I've already played on a different platform (you can read my review of the 360 version here).  I wanted to play through this game one more time in preparation for Rise of the Tomb Raider.  I expect it to be as awesome on the One as it was on the 360.

Warframe - 20 minutes - This game seems pretty sweet.  I always love a good coop multiplayer game, and from what I could tell by completing the tutorial and one mission, this will be a good one.  Plus it's gorgeous.  I'm excited!

Watch_Dogs - <5 minutes - The first achievement in this game pops very shortly after you first get control.  I know there was some drama about this game when it was first released (though I don't remember what that drama was), but I don't have any sort of impression about this game yet.  No real commentary here.

Zombie Driver Ultimate Edition - 5 minutes - I've already played this game before (you can read my review of the Xbox 360 version here), so I know what I'm getting into with this version.  It still looks like it'll be good for some mindless arcade action, so it'll be nice to pick this one up every once in a while.

My dive included 55 games and nearly took the entire weekend and dropped my overall completion percent by an astounding 8.65%.  There are a few other games that I would have included, but I played each of them for a few hours and didn't come close to unlocking an achievement, so I decided to call it done.

The Best of the Bunch
I wanted to narrow this field down to 6 that I'm most interested in playing, so here they are:

Blue Estate
Modern Combat 5: Blackout
Ori and the Blind Forest
Shovel Knight
South Park: The Stick of Truth

And there you have it, this year's exciting Bean Dive.  You can probably expect reviews of some of these games in the coming weeks!