Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Assassin's Creed: Valhalla - Pretty Pictures


For the past two weeks I've been playing Assassin's Creed: Valhalla. This was mostly spurred on by purchasing a Xbox Series X and then deciding what I was going to play on it. So I looked at the titles it had on launch day and sorted alphabetically. And frankly it worked out.

Admittedly, Valhalla isn't a revelation of a game. It's a bog standard late 2010s/early 2020s open world RPG. But I think it's quite competent at it and it's kept me entertain as I wait for the Minnesota winter to break.

I've nearly completed a 100% playthrough. Once I finish that up I'll write up more of my thoughts on the game. But I wanted to do something I often don't and make a screenshot post. I haven't been able to travel during the pandemic and I've needed virtual worlds to fill in that void for me. Valhalla's 873 AD England and Norway have scratched that itch for me; the game is beautiful.

 

The game is multiplatform and has been out for a couple of months now. It wasn't strictly necessary to play this on the Xbox versus my PC. At this point I'm not sure which is more powerful: my gaming PC with a RTX 2080 or my Xbox Series X. I suspect things are pretty close right now. But I figured this would be a nice game to get a feel for the graphics I can expect from the new consoles.

 


You can choose between some preset graphical options on the XSX version of AC: Valhalla. I run the performance mode which tries to keep things as close 4K and 60fps as possible. The other mode focuses on graphical fidelity and allows some framerate dips here or there. Smoother FPS always looks better to my eye.

 


The draw distance really impresses me. I suspect there is some graphical trickery happening at certain points to add in some environmental details that you can't actually get to the in game, but it's not really noticeable.

 


As with most Ubisoft games I play, the actual animations tend to be a step behind the environment. Not a huge deal graphically, but it does break the immersion.

Other graphic aspects are also lacking. In the picture below, the main character's hair would have looked bad in the original Toy Story. Let alone a AAA title in 2020. 



But I've sunk nearly 110 hours into the game thus far. I'm clearly enjoying myself. I look forward to talking about it more in the next couple of days.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Bless Unleashed - Closed Beta Impressions

You know when you keep running into someone you kinda sorta know? You're generally aware of each other but not acquaintances and certainly not friends. And then you keep running into them over and over again, at the grocery store, out walking the dog, etc. That's Bless Unleashed for me.

I think I've played in a beta or launch of a Bless game about four times now. The original PC beta, the original PC release, the reboot Xbox One beta, and just this weekend, the reboot PC closed beta.

This game launches a lot.

At this point I think I've developed an affinity for the series out of sheer name repetition. You can certainly drum up articles about your game on MassivelyOP if you're re-releasing your game every 3 months. But Bless kinda gets mixed in my head with a host of other action RPGs from Korea. Combo based combat, threadbare story, good but generic looking graphics. Gun to my head I could tell the difference between Bless, Blade & Soul, and Black Desert Online from screenshots, but I'd have to think about it. That's not fair to any of those games, but it's where I'm at.

The ever generous Belghast gave me a game code for the Bless Unleashed closed beta test last weekend. This is the PC version of the reboot. A couple of months ago I had participated in the the Xbox One beta and found it to be perfectly fine. But something in my mind resists playing MMOs on consoles. Anymore, I resist long play sessions on consoles at all. So I was eager to give the mouse and keyboard version a shot.


 

And it's...still fine. I played a mage this time to get a feel for the ranged combat. The bulk of attacking happens with the mouse buttons. The number keys have a small number of important abilities. The 1 key had a powerful AOE attack and the 2 key had a ranged instant nuke. But the "filler" abilities are all on the mouse. 

You start off attacking by lining up your mouse cursor on an enemy, and then pressing the left or right mouse button to start off the combo of your choice. Right-click on a mage starts a fire-based string of attacks, left-click offers attacks with a bit more versatility. A popup shows the available options to you after every button press, again, left or right click. You can interrupt and end your combo at any time with the hotbar abilities.

You get more options on your combos as you level up. You start with basic nukes but eventually get more utility. For example, Blinkstrike unlocks around level 5ish and acts as a decently damaging AOE attack. But it also teleports you in front of the enemy, which is normally not where you want to be as a mage. But additionally it also acts as a push back and returns your mana. I used it a lot when the enemy was already on top of me. There's a decent amount of decision making baked into the system. You can mindlessly grind and play well enough, or be more attentive and grind more efficiently. I have room in my life for a system like that. That said, it's not an overly complicated system. Most button presses are just different names for a generic missile-like nuke.

I would prefer this to all to be on the keyboard but it works well enough on the mouse. As the picture shows you have an evade button on your spacebar you'll use often to dodge enemy attacks. It feels fairly responsive, but once you enter combat your character slows to an absolute crawl. The mage gets a blink spell in addition to the evade button so you can certainly maneuver around enemy characters. But the slow speed in addition to how long it can take in between fights to get your movement back make the game feel sluggish when grinding. I think other games in this space like Black Desert Online feel a lot better moment to moment because of this.

 There are talent trees but they are mostly perfunctory from what I can tell. You'll be able to unlock everything eventually and a lot of the abilities add little to your character. I'm unclear on how exactly you customize your character, of if much of that is in the game at all. 

It's definitely a console oriented MMO and the controls are a bit clunky because of that. But not overly so. It could use some fine tuning here and there. Picking out teleport spots on the map is sometimes difficult because icons overlap each other. The text speed on NPCs is slow and the skip dialogue button often doesn't work. Mob audio seems to stack on each other without any blending, meaning that busy parts of the zone were so loud I had to turn down my speakers. But I can't recall any graphical glitches and nothing was particularly game breaking. 

Would I return to it? I very well may. New MMOs (or at least, re-released MMOs) are rare enough and its always fun to be in on the ground floor of a launch. I'm not sure if anything from Bless really stands out, but it's seems fun enough to give it a try when it eventually launches for real. The devs on their Discord were throwing a March release out as a tentative goal, but nothing was formally announced. The console release had a two week head start package and I suspect that's the direction they will go in for the PC release. We will have to see how much that costs. If it's less than $35 or so I'll consider it. But jumping in for the free-to-play release seems more likely.



Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Among Us in 2020

Typically, the peak of my gaming happens in early winter as I avoid the cold real world for the warmth and coziness of the digital one. But this year, obviously, has been different in so many ways. The inside of my house's walls have become a bit too familiar this year, and I think that's messed with my normal routine.

I also had to deal with a kidney stone last week: painful enough to send me to the emergency room and large enough that I needed surgery to remove it as it began affecting my kidney function. Thankfully, the matter has been resolved and I've seen to have avoided contracting coronavirus from the hospital environment.

But there is one bit of gaming that marched on resolutely, our weekly Among Us session on Saturdays.

Part of my friend group from college got in to the Among Us craze a couple of months back. We've been playing diligently since, accusing and screaming and murdering one another in deep space. 

The game scratches a couple of itches for me all at once. 

Firstly, it's social at a time when I'm unusually desperate for such a thing. 

Secondly, it's strategic in a way I've personally never encountered in a video game before. We played a few games of Mafia back in the college days, but the whole 'social deduction' gameplay style has been a wonderfully refreshing twist for me. It still asks for some of my old skills, particularly being mindful of spacing and keep track of multiple player's pathing that remind me of my old Counter-Strike 1.6 and World of Warcraft Arena days.

And lastly, the game isn't mechanically complex like Counter-Strike and WoW are. I was still able to play and contribute even when zonked out on industrial-strength pain-killers. People in our group who have never played a video game before are able play using their iPads.

The meta our group is forming has been genuinely interesting to watch unfold. I'm one of, if not the strongest players. But when one of our causal members playing on their smart phone is able to outwit me you can feel their genuine happiness and I feel genuinely happy for them. The game gives people a chance to spotlight their cleverness in a way that feels organic. The 'good game's at the end of the night aren't polite and perfunctory, you mean it.

2020 has forced me to approach gaming in a way I normally don't. I've played Stepmania on a dance pad, Gran Turismo on a full racing rig, exercised with Ring Fit, and so on. I've rediscovered the fun in online gaming; a matter I thought I had tossed away more than a decade ago. 

It's a weird year that's given me a bit of a new perspective.

 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Destiny 2: Beyond Light

My first experience with the Destiny series was the original game; a rental of the PS3 version from the local Redbox. After the first 8 hours I returned the game back. I found it to be a generic shooter, with too many enemies, bosses with too much health, too much fussing about in menus, and writing that was too overwrought.

It was pretty though.

My experience with the second game didn't go much better. A extended free trial offered during 2018's Blizzcon, I suffered through an opening sequence that was so cringey in tone and dialogue I had to call my wife in to see it. The gameplay was much the same. Enemies seemed to be a bit more interesting to fight as they varied in their attack and defensive movements. The bosses were not better though. I almost lost the first boss fight as my morale was sapped from a bullet sponge boss fight that bored me to near tears. I gave it a couple of more hours as the game heaped system upon system on me. Eventually I hopped in my spaceship and Alt-F4 out of there. The game sat on my hard drive ever since.

So what compelled me to jump in for the latest expansion, Beyond Light? For one, the game and all of its expansions come with Xbox Game Pass. Secondly, I needed something relatively mindless to play on the upstairs TV. Thirdly, my therapist says I engage in too much all or nothing thinking. Taking a game I'm critical of and just enjoying it for what it is feels like a good test.

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Hyperkin Duke Wired Controller - Has Science Gone Too Far?

 


My school growing up didn't do the Console War thing. Whereas the schoolyards elsewhere were a dogfight of Nintendo versus Sega or Microsoft vs. Sony, our little rural town of Ohio was a veritable worker's paradise. In the halcyon years of 2001 and 2002, some our friend group owned, PlayStation 2s, some GameCubes, and the occasional Xbox. (The three of us who had bought Dreamcasts had fled to the other consoles by this time.) Instead of the typical school yard pissing match, we discovered the radical idea of going to each other's houses to play each other's consoles.

Small town communities can really shake out a lot of different ways.

Microsoft was a bit of an enigma to us at the time. We presumed the Xbox wasn't going to be much more than a Dreamcast 2. A short-lived console with some promising looking titles that would stretch our junior-high budgets too thin to buy yet another console this generation.

But our friend Matt took the gamble. The only one of us to take the risk of buying an Xbox at launch; he was naturally who we turned to when news of this Halo game surfaced. Word was the local multi-player was pretty good. We were also told that Fuzion Frenzy was the superior successor to Mario Party. Our information was sometimes incomplete.

This is is it Chief.

While Halo proved to be a good time, and Fuzion Frenzy proved to ... not, we made another discovery. The Xbox had a stupidly ginormous controller. 



And that made sense to us. The Xbox itself was the biggest console to date. It was marketed towards a "mature" audience. It wasn't made from a Japanese manufacturer with their "obviously" smaller hands. We saw the DUKE and we were impressed.

It wasn't until years later that I found out that that Duke was overwhelmingly unpopular. So unpopular that Microsoft stopped shipping this Titanic controller with the console and replaced it with the 'S', the smaller and more ergonomic controller that was shipped with the console in Japan. Turns out controllers are a certain size for a reason.

But I've always held a fondness for the Duke, even though I've never owned one. I didn't buy an original Xbox for myself until my adult years. I'm hesitant to buy used controllers online if I can avoid it and I've only ever found 'S' controllers in person.

I don't know why I like the Duke so much. But it does feel substantial and I like the button placement and distance. The GameCube controller looked like a toy comparatively. I'm not someone with a robust 'American' frame. I'm about average height at 5'8" (172 cm) and, presumably, have the proportional hands to go with it. But the Duke always felt proper in my hands. This is in contrast to the Nintendo handhelds over the years. The button distance seen on the DS, 3DS, and Switch joycons are too close together for long play sessions. Perhaps I'm just a bit ham-thumbed compared to most, but I find the PS4, Xbox One, and Switch Pro Controllers to be just about perfect. The Duke, however, has always struck me as an excellent fit for my hands.

So it was definitely on my radar back in 2018 when Hyperkin announced a modern day Duke controller with USB plugs for Xbox One and PC. It was expensive though, costing more than a standard Xbox One controller and I just presumed I'd need to pick one up used years down the line. But the thing always seemed in stock at various retailers. Amazon's Prime Day had one for cheap and I pounced on it.


The packaging is certainly premium. The controller is nestled in stiff black foam and comes with a small card thanking various people for their work on the controller. It gives off the impression of unboxing a successful Kickstarter project. And that makes sense: what could have possibly been the market for 20 year old failed controller? It's a niche product for enthusiasts and its treated like such.

First impressions? It's big. Just unnecessarily big. Comparing this thing to its successor, the Xbox S controller, is a laugh.


I thought I remembered how big this thing was but I apparently did forget. But it's easy to see why this wasn't a big deal to me back in 2001. Having owned a Dreamcast, I was used to unusually large controllers that had two slots for plugging in memory cards. The Xbox really did feel like the Dreamcast 2 to us at the time. And that begins to segue into discussing the features of the new Duke.

What happened to those two memory card slots? Replaced with a bit of plastic that looks a bit like a vent. It keeps with the overall "edgy" design of the controller. It doesn't look out of place. The other big feature? The animated jewel in the middle of the controller. The classic controller just featured a graphic of the Xbox logo. On the new Duke its literally a screen that shows the original Xbox startup animation whenever you plug in the controller. It's a complete gimmick and probably responsible for the higher price tag. It's cool the first few times but then I stopped noticing it. If the controller had a small speaker the like a Wiimote to also play the startup sounds it would have had more impact.


As for playability it mostly does pretty well. The analog sticks, face buttons, and triggers feel great. I think they feel better to the press than the Xbox One controller does, but mine just may be worn from use. What isn't great is the D-pad and the shoulder buttons. The D-pad isn't really a D-pad, it has some amorphously round shape that never really felt right. This was corrected to a proper D-pad in the original S-version, but the new Duke is accurate to the original. I won't be using this controller to emulate any 16-bit platformers.

The original Duke didn't have "shoulder" and "trigger" buttons like modern controllers do. It just had triggers plus a white and black button located on the face of the controller. The Duke keeps the white and black buttons, but also adds contemporary shoulder buttons near the top of the controller that duplicate the black and white buttons. The problem is that the shoulder buttons are in a terrible place ergonomically. The controller just isn't shaped to accommodate these. You basically have to reposition your entire hand every time to reach the shoulder buttons, which isn't acceptable in actual gameplay with modern titles.


And then there's the last big flaw: the controller has no wireless capability. That wouldn't be a deal breaker if it was priced like other 3rd party wired controllers but instead it's more expensive. They had literally all the room in the world to work with here and they didn't fit Bluetooth capability into the thing. The animated jewel is nice but I would happily trade that for wireless. As a last major nit to pick, the wire is just a simple USB micro cable and doesn't include the breakaway dongle feature the original controllers had. This was a small segment of the controller's cord that was designed to easily unplug in case someone tripped on the cord. It was a great feature that was never repeated. I'm sure manufacturing something radical like that at such a small scale was impossible with the new Duke, but it would have earned Hyperkin bonus points in my book.

So there are definitely some negatives here. But that was always going to be the case, it's a recreation of a flawed controller that introduces some flaws of its own. It's a bit of gimmick, especially at $70 retail. I think $30 is probably a more reasonable price to pay to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. The parts of the controller that work well really work well. Playing the Master Chief Collection on my PC with a Duke controller is a surreal and pleasant experience. I suspect the controller is more likely to go on my wall as art than see everyday use, but I'm glad to see a niche product like this find success. 

And yes, I checked. It still works with Fuzion Frenzy. The game still sucks, but the controller works just fine.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Complete: Super Mario Sunshine


I've read Super Mario Sunshine called the "black sheep" of the Mario franchise. Polygon's review for the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection is headlined: "Not even Sunshine can ruin this collection". Super Mario Sunshine's entry for "That One Level" is 1559 words long.

It's a game with some detractors.

I didn't use to be one of them. I played Sunshine back during it's GameCube heyday. It was a rare bright spot for an anemic console library. It was bright and colorful at the beginning of an era where browns and greens were the norm. The music is impossibly catchy and the tropical vacation theme is sometimes just the right feel when the real world is covered in snow.

But as a game it leaves a lot to be desired.

Even back in the day, Sunshine gave teenage me an observation. Sunshine's controls aren't bad in a vacuum. The problem lies in what the designers ask of the controls. Making minute controls to Mario's position is a problem. Light taps to the control stick are inconsistent in both which direction Mario ends up facing, but also what animation will trigger to get him there. Sometimes Mario simply turns like you would expect. Other times he takes a wide berth to get turned around, more boat than human. This isn't a problem, unless of course you design levels that require pinpoint precision with the control stick.

Sunshine very often requires pinpoint precision with the control stick. 

Platforming isn't a problem ... when it works. When you've designed the environment to give spatial cues as to where Mario is in a 3D environment? When you design the levels to give room for the camera at angles you can expect players to want? When you have a gradual difficulty curve that slowly introduces features and controls? Then platforming works.

Not only does Sunshine not handle these things, it actively shuns them. Similar looking platforms will be placed together, except farther platforms will be physically larger, making them seem closer than they appear and making jumps fiendishly difficult. Poor camera angles increase as you get further in the game. Nintendo clearly believes that fighting the foibles of the game's engine to be the core gameplay loop.

In fact, the designers clearly believed the weaknesses of the game engine was the most ripe for mining content. Even the smallest quibbles exist to be exploited for "challenge". For instance, talking to NPCs is a little off. You have to stand a little too close and there's a beat of lag from when you approach an NPC to when you get the "A" button indicator to talk. It's such a small thing that there's no real reason to even think about it.

Except, of course, in the level that relies on this clunky behavior in a timed mission.

But even fundamental concepts to a platformer are clunky as well. Momentum feels particularly unusual. Like illustrated in this playthrough of the infamous "Pachinko" level. (NSFW language). Momentum feels really off when jumping from one moving platform to another. You can see this wonkiness clearly on the boats around Delfino Plaza. In real life, if you jump up in the air on a moderately quick boat and you'll simply jump up and down like 'normal'. Momentum is relative to self. In Sunshine, it sends you flying backwards in an unnatural way. The developers count on this fact during a particularly obnoxious part of the game where one must jump from tiny boat to tiny boat. Missing requires restarting the very long sequence all over again. The problems with momentum are omnipresent, most of the difficult challenges in Sunshine involve moving platforms, it's a very core part of the game.

So that teenage observation? Many games, particularly in Sunshine, seem to have a divide between the designers and the programmers. The designers in Sunshine have a lot of level design ideas that seem good on paper. Such as navigating a boat using your water pack for momentum. But when you have to actually execute them in game it's a terrible experience. The designers are writing checks that the programmers couldn't cash. No one with any pull played through Sunshine and asked, "Does this kinda suck?" Sunshine's development feels like it was dictated to the dev team by someone who never played the final product. With an overhaul of the jumping and camera systems that underlie the game, Sunshine could be a fun and imaginative platformer. But that's not the game that was shipped

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Journal: Among Us, Mario, FF14, and Chicken Nuggets

It's been a hot minute since my last post. Last week was a series of ups and downs. I was sick all week (with non-Covid symptoms) and generally feeling miserable. But then I rebounded and feel more or less better than ever. I even got some gaming in.

The post today has a little bit different organization today.

Things I Did

Among Us


The new hip, young thing on the market despite being two years old and on end-of-life when Twitch got a hold of it. We got a group together of 7 of us from the old college days to give the game a try. It was fantastic. I was feeling physically like crap but still had a very enjoyable 3 hours of game play. It's essentially a murder mystery game, in the vein of Mafia, Caesar, Town of Salem, etc. I was surprised at how well everyone was able to play. While me and the wife we're on our fully-kitted gaming PCs, others were playing on budget laptops or their phones. It seemed to make no difference to the playablity of it all. Those who never play video games seemed to have had just as much success as those who do. We have another gathering planned for Friday. I'm looking forward to it.

Final Fantasy XIV - Weaver to Level 50

It's time to come to a sad, but necessary, conclusion. I don't really like crafting in Final Fantasy XIV. I don't hate it, but I also don't actively enjoy it. It took leveling 4 different professions to come to this conclusion, but here we are nonetheless.

I like the simple crafting "mini-game" in Everquest 2. Simple, pleasant, and easy to do while watching YouTube on another monitor. FF XIV attempts to make it's crafting more involved by throwing two hotbars worth of abilities at you. You don't have to use them all, but micromanaging your abilities to increase your chances of crafting rares is such a big experience boost I feel compelled to do so. 

I like crafting in MMOs to be an end-of-the-evening activity. In FF XIV it wants to be the main show.

Super Mario Sunshine

I caved in and bought the remastered ports of Super Mario 64, Sunshine, and Galaxy. The ports aren't exactly perfect, but they're good enough and it's nice to play Sunshine and Galaxy without hooking up the Wii or WiiU again.

After a couple of days of play I'm at 67 Shines out of 120. Let me just say they don't make platformers like they used to, which is a great thing because Mario Sunshine kinda sucks. The control scheme is imprecise given the challenge offered. I've always enjoyed the charm of the game, it was a rare game using a colorful palette in a time of browns and greens. But I'm finding a contemporary play-through to be less enjoyable than my memories had offered. 

I plan to get 100% completion before it's all said and done. Doesn't mean I'll like it though. I'll probably play Galaxy after this. I'd rather light myself on fire rather than 100% Super Mario 64 again; that has literally never been a fun experience.

McDonald's Spicy Chicken Nuggets

When it comes to food, especially fast food and junk food, I'm a sucker for limited time events. I've always meant to blog about my various indulgences but I guess I'm not that hungry in the mornings when I write.

The new spicy chicken nuggets from McDonald's aren't good. I guess they're not bad, because that would imply that have some sort of flavor to them. They are bland followed by a bit of spicy aftertaste. There's no reason for these things when Wendy's Spicy Chicken Nuggets exist. I don't want to meet the person who thinks McDonald's are better. Embarrassing showing by the arches. 2 out of 5 stars.

I also tried the Travis Scott burger. It's a quarter pounder with cheese but with bacon, lettuce, and a higher price point. It's a promotion with zero effort. 0 out of 5 stars.

I will now write an angry letter to McDonald's manager. I don't care if supply lines are compromised from a worldwide pandemic, this is a lackluster showing. My girl Wendy is running laps on Ronald right now.

Things I'm Looking Forward To

Xbox Game Pass

Drake Hollow looks like a family-friendly mix of survival game and colony-builder. Doubt I'll play it. Playing Doom Eternal on a console when I have proper gaming PC feels icky. I would say that I'm hopeful future Game Pass updates will be better with Microsoft's purchase of Bethesda, but I've either played or owned nearly the entire Bethesda catalog.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - Iron Man Mod

A full conversion that let's you play various Iron Man suits in the San Andreas world. Looks like they've changed the map to have some Avengers-related areas as well. Why haven't we had a proper Iron Man game yet? There was the poorly received movie tie-in by Sega, the VR game, and the Avengers title that was newly released. But the closest we've gotten to an open-world Iron Man game is probably the Lego Marvel titles. Very odd. Either way, the link to the mod is here

New Smash Bros. Character

It's Steve from Minecraft. Or Alex from Minecraft. Or a Creeper or an Enderman from Minecraft. I look forward to playing this character exactly once in Adventure mode and then wondering why I keep buying season passes to a game I don't play all that much.

It's neat that Microsoft and Nintendo keep teaming up on things. Now if we can get Game Pass on the Switch and Microsoft offering their actual functional online infrastructure to Nintendo titles that would be great.