Monday, February 24, 2020

Backlogging - Killzone: Shadow Fall

Every time I tried to play Everquest 2 this weekend the game either froze at the character select screen or crashed while loading into a new zone. That's not very conductive to leveling up my crafters, which was my game plan.

My hand forced, I switched gears to a different gaming project: clearing out my console gaming backlog before the new round of consoles release in the fall. This isn't a strictly necessary exercise. If the rumors hold true then both the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X will both have some degree of backwards compatibility. But I'm running into the problem of physical space for both consoles and games. It's probably about high time I start actually playing through some of these things and maybe purge anything I've decided I'm not in love with. It is almost time for spring cleaning after all and it can't hurt to get a jump start on it.

I have this thing where I like to play games in chronological order. Firstly, it helps take some of the decision paralysis out of deciding what to play. Just pick some parameters and then pick the first game on the list. I use GameFAQs for this usually. The advanced search feature let's me pick different parameters and then order the list by release date. Secondly, I like watching games evolve over the years and watch developers steal each other ideas and hopefully improve upon them. It's the stuffy English major in me, I tend to view art as creators having a conversation with both the audience and amongst other creators.

Anyhow, I'm only interested in playing console exclusives right now. My desktop is far more powerful than my base model PS4 or Xbox One S, so if I have the choice I'd rather play a game on PC. The PlayStation 4 was already conveniently setup next to my desktop because of my racing rig, so I went with that instead of the Xbox. The first exclusive launch title by alphabetical order was...:

Killzone: Shadow Fall
Platform: PlayStation 4
Genre: First Person Shooter
Release Date: November 15, 2013 (NA)

There's no two ways about it: this is a pretty looking game. I have apparently not been giving this generation's consoles enough credit because the vistas and environments in Killzone are damn impressive. Especially for a launch game that only used half the system's available memory because they were working with dev kits that only had 4GB of RAM instead of the 8GB that the PS4 shipped with.

This is less true of things when you get up close. There are some ugly textures here and there, particularly near the end of the game where a developer's efforts always seem to lessen under the presumption that most players won't actually get that far.  The game also retains that "chunky" face on NPCs that most seventh generation games had. It's not Oblivion bad, but the NPC you tag along with the second half of the game looks like took some bad bee stings to the noggin.

If your game doesn't do faces particularly well, maybe don't have cut scenes that highlight that.

This was the biggest PS4 exclusive on launch, so Guerilla Games were clearly under orders to make the game look as pretty as possible. Unfortunately, the overdid it a bit. On some of the more wide open levels, there is so much foliage that actually finding enemies or objectives because tedious. 

The core gameplay loop is fairly simple. First you scan an area to get X-ray vision of all the enemies and objectives in an area, then use your drone to provide a distraction while you flank the enemy and shoot them dead. Occasionally, you get an enemy type that needs to be stunlocked by your drone. Sometimes you need to do basic puzzle solving. The gameplay isn't terribly deep, but for a 10 hour or so campaign it doesn't overstay it's welcome too much.

The gun play is decent. I feel like in the post-Destiny world every shooter wants to pad out it's run time by making every enemy take entire clips to kill and Killzone mostly avoids that. (It pads its length by having unskippable scenes of your character very slowly riding elevators or conveyor belts. Very, very slowly.) Even with my potato aim on a controller I was able to kill enemies fairly decisively.

The gun variety is incredibly poor. There is a shotgun, a sniper rifle, a rail gun, a Gatling gun, and 4-5 different assault rifles with next to no differences between them. I don't know why there are so many assault rifles in this game. They may have slightly different zoom or power, but they are more or less indistinguishable. Maybe it makes sense in the multiplayer, but it serves no purpose in the single player.

I was surprised by how much narrative there is in the game. I was also very surprised by how much I really needed to have played the previous Killzone games in order to understand the plot to this one. I picked up the first Killzone game for $5 this weekend, so maybe I'll start playing through the series soon. The quality of the story is fine. It's a war movie but in space. There's a lot of "big reveals" that were probably pretty cool to people with an understanding of previous games. The story line did get confusing in parts. There is some incredibly poor audio mixing in the game, where background noise is louder than the dialog, resulting in me missing out on important story information. I didn't even realized I had traveled to another planet at one point until I read the story line summary on Wikipedia after I had finished the game. It also does that annoying thing every fantasy or Sci-Fi work does where they name drop a bunch of proper nouns and expect me to actually keep tracking of all of it. It was cool when Tolkien did it. Nobody is doing it for generic shooter #75,648.

All in all, it was fine. It would be a rental if that was still a thing. On 'The Grand Everwake Scale of Reviewing Things'. It was a 3/5. It was slightly above average. If you are a hardcore shooter fan and don't mind playing with a controller then it's worth the $10 or so it goes for used. For most people its probably a pass.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Everquest 2: The Enchanted Lands

A work project from hell combined with actual socializing have conspired to keep me from playing video games.

I've never cared for this being an adult thing.

The work project itself wasn't really the problem. Unclear expectations from the client led to a lot of staring at the screen and wondering what in the hell I should be doing.

Thankfully I had the good sense to charge by the hour on this one.

Last weekend was also Valentine's Day. Which is also Mrs. Everwake's birthday. And the anniversary of our first date. And her work's rescheduled Christmas party.

I did find the time to get some gaming in. More particularly I bought a dedicated frame for my racing wheel and pedals.

The racing wheel itself works on a clamp system, and the only piece of furniture I had in the house that fit with these clamps was the wife's desk for her computer. Obnoxiously, she insists on using her computer so playing Gran Turismo required the setting up of the hardware every single time.

The rig alleviates the need for this. Now I just have to slide it's bulk slightly to the right to line up with my computer's monitors and away we go. It's pretty much a perfect solution. Except it seems to collect an extraordinary amount of dog hair. I don't know why.

The culprit.
As a result, I did Gran Turismo Sport's version of their "license tests". In the series, these tests are a series of challenges that teach one the basics of how to drive a fast car. They always start with obnoxiously easy tests such as accelerating in a straight line and then breaking. But by the end they are usually the hardest challenges I've ever experienced in a video game.

GT Sport's version of these license tests are far from the hair pulling difficulty of games past. Since this was a niche release meant to focus on online racing I can sort of see why it wasn't made a priority. But really, if more people had to go through a significant challenge on how to actually drive their car, then maybe online racing wouldn't be the clown show it currently is.

Either way, the last test still took about 15 tries for me successfully gold medal, but the deed was done.

The achievement says that 9.7% of players have got all gold on these tests. I thought that number seemed high but it makes sense. It is easier than games past. Additionally, this game was not well received on release, and was probably only bought by diehards. I don't think a game that featured almost exclusively online competitive racing on release attracted a lot of the mainstream crowd, especially since "realistic" racing games are a dime a dozen these days.

I haven't made it very far in my Everquest journeys. Working from home means that procrastination is my number one enemy, and MMOs are just too good a vector for that.

I did knock out the Enchanted Lands, an original zone that only covers the 5 levels, 30-35. I think it's better for that however. Previous zones were way too reliant on grinding placeholder mobs and stupid amounts of traveling to pad out game time. The Enchanted Lands isn't too much smaller than the Commonlands and Antonica, but is able to rely a bit more on actual gameplay because of it. It does feel like maybe the zone was simply rushed at released. Most of the questing is concentrated to about half the zones. The northern half is barely used at all. It's fully populated with mobs but there aren't many quests. I wonder what led to that.

This is the first weekend in a while in which I can play games guilt free. It's also shaping up to be one of the first weekends with a wind chill above 'doesn't hurt to go outside'. I might dig out a little spot on the back porch and play Switch outside just because I can.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Everquest 2: The Thundering Steppes

Another zone bites the dust in Everquest 2. The Thundering Steppes is finished, despite the zone playing host to a 'kill 100 skeletons' Heritage quest that caught me unawares at the end. Thundering Steppes might have been my least favorite zone just because it's the least coherent. The themes are essentially "large open field that got hit by giant falling moon pieces a couple of times" and "giants, centaurs, and gnolls fight sometimes". Once I delve into the attached instance Ruins of Varsoon then we start to get some lore again, but there is surprisingly little breadcrumbing from the main overland zone to it.

Thundering Steppes is easier to navigate at least. Nektulos Forest was annoying because the dense foliage made flying difficult, but in general I preferred it's atmosphere.

There's not too much more to comment on. Thundering Steppes is a bunch of quests that encourage grinding. The smart way to play is grab as many quests as you can and try to sync them up so that you are constantly always killing what's in front of you without having to double back too much. When it works it feels great. When it doesn't it feels a bit like spinning your wheels. It's still a very old school zone that I don't think was ever updated in any meaningful way. It has it's place, but I think I'm glad to be done with it now and moving onto other sights.

Notably I'll be taking on the dungeons and instances featured in this zone: The Cove of Decay and the before mentioned Ruins of Varsoon. I enjoy the dungeons maybe a little bit less than the over world zones just because they tend to be mazes and I have little to no sense of direction. Nektropos Castle almost had me bringing out the graphing paper. The only reasons I didn't is because I literally couldn't find it. I have notebook of the stuff around here somewhere but who knows where I squirreled it away to during one of our moves. I don't think I've used it since replaying through some of the Ultima games a couple of years past.

Anyhow, the dungeons are also important to get through because most of the Heritage quests require runs through them as well. Heritage Quests involve equipment and items that were notable from the original Everquest. I don't do every single quest in the game, I don't hate myself that much. There are a lot of quests the rely on either low percentage drops or farming enemies that have placeholders. A placeholder is when another type of mob spawns instead of the actual useful mob, and you need to kill the placeholders and hope to spawn the useful mob. There are quests the require killing mobs for a lower percentage chance to drop an item to start a quest, that then require killing placeholders to spawn mobs that drop a quest item, and when you do kill the primary mob, may have low percentage chance of dropping the quest item you need. It's layers upon layers of RNG stacked on one another and I'd rather blow my brains out than deal with it.

But Heritage quests, and all the grinding and mucking about in dungeons they require, do feel important. They are a nice bridge between the two Everquests, and usually help spotlight some of the changes brought by the Shattering that separates the two timelines. Even if the gear you get from them isn't useful in the modern game, most can be converted to a furniture item and placed in your house. My Dark Elf is apparently quite the hoarder of old school items now, which feels nice from a role playing perspective.

I had some unexpected company today. Yesterday evening, I urged Mrs. Everwake and Everdog to do a snow-day dance. I don't know if dogs really have a concept of dancing or music, but Everdog certainly does not posses anything that could be described as rhythm. So the two settled for spinning in circles. The circle method proved to be plenty effective as witchcraft. When the wind chill is -48F (-44C), and the snow is being blown around at 30 MPH, even Minnesotans take the day off. With the local highway closed by the state, the wife's work place was closed.

I'd be a little more excited myself, except I work freelance and from home. The hallways between my bedroom and computer room were unencumbered by snow. Alas I must still work. And work has been a problem. I normally do technical editing, either cleaning up technical documents like academic papers for publication or translating them into something normal people can understand. This project is the latter, but requires a lot of graphic design work that I simply don't know how to do. Combine that with a client that isn't 100% sure of what they want in the first place and it's slow going. At least I had the good sense to charge by the hour on this one.

My complaints about the tedium of running on my treadmill aside, I did just knock out a workout. I use an app called Couch to 5k, which slowly ramps you up to running 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) over the course of 10 weeks. I've used it before with success so I'll use it again. Mrs. Everwake is also running with me and has picked out a 5k run for us to do together in about 10 weeks time. We actually did this run last year, and I did fairly well. I don't remember my time or what place I got but it was well within the upper half of people. I did get passed by a guy running in jean shorts and a hockey jersey, but that's just Minnesota.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Doldrums of Winter

The Everquesting1 goes on steadily. I'm mostly playing it in the mornings as a way to wake myself up to the usual horrors of the day. The slow, casual pace meshes well with checking emails and sipping coffee. For as many hours as I put into EQ2 I think I like it best when it's not my "main" game. An hour or two in the mornings, maybe a few more on the weekends, or the occasional binge, it's role in my life right now is to give me a consistent breather during the lower energy parts of the day.

But that can be a bit dangerous for me. EQ2 is very much also a comfort game, which is another way for me to say lazy game. If I'm not careful, EQ2 is less of a way to relax my mind and more of an excuse to will away an entire day without accomplishing anything I've set out to do.  I've intentionally set myself a limit on how much I'm allowing myself to play everyday.

And boy do I need it right now. My current day job's project is kicking my butt in a way that hasn't happened in a good long while. Nothing about this project is unusual from what I normally do, but I've also been stuck inside during a very long Minnesota winter and my chances to go out and socialize have been mostly limited to visiting family during Christmas. I really ought to get more exercise than I do, but my current options for that right now are really just the treadmill in the basement. The monotony of running towards the same wall for months at a time is a bit wearisome.

I'm not sure how the locals do it. I originally come from Ohio which has a cold but modest winter. Getting outside is a hassle of undercoats, coats, hats, gloves, etc. I'm also in a small town that has considerably less to do in it than my own previous big city. I'm quite used to going on several mile walks to shake off the doldrums of working from home. But in my new town I'm barely a mile away from the city limits no matter which direction I walk towards. The closest big town is 30 minutes away and is mostly just congregation of retail spaces. The closest city that I find genuinely interesting to explore is an hour and a half away. I'm a wanderer by nature and I feel I've been stuck in my nest.

Since I'm not in the best headspace right now, it's not really a surprise that my non-EQ2 gaming hasn't been particularly rewarding either. I've shuffled through Kakarot, Wargroove, Jump Force, Division 2, and Gran Turismo Sport but nothing is really sticking with me. These are all quality games. (Maybe not Jump Force.) But my mind is really just having difficulty dealing with learning new gameplay systems or the concentration needed to compete in Gran Turismo Sport. It's likely I have a bit of depression kicking in right now. And when that happens my cognitive abilities take a hit. It's not unusual for me to get like this during this time of year and I've went through some fairly huge changes in my life in the past two years that I haven't properly reckoned with.

I'm enlisting the aid of a therapist. Hopefully it goes well, there isn't a terribly huge selection of practices to pick from in this part of the world. I've done therapy before and it was just okay. It mostly just became someone to vent to and feel validated from, which is nice but I have people in my life I can already do that to. I'm hoping to get into a situation that can focus meaningfully on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) practices. I have both an extremely pessimistic world view and line of thinking and having some structure to catch myself in those thoughts and rerouting towards something more constructive has long been a goal of mine.

Unfortunately, this one wasn't much of a gaming post. I'm finishing up The Thundering Steppes and am still probably a couple weeks away from being satisfied with the content in the base game. I did make a number of purchases on eBay recently. I bought the Everquest 2 Collector's Edition to display in the game room. I think I may take some pictures and make a blog post of it, there are some interesting items included in it. I also purchased both the Everquest 2 and it's first expansion's strategy guides. I love collecting guides for MMOs. They act as time capsules for games that tend to change itself many times over or just flat out go offline.

I may also experiment with more non-gaming related blog posts. My interests in gaming can tend to ebb and flow. When I'm not being a miserable shut-in I'm usually easily excited by a great many things. Be that auto racing, cooking, pictures of my dog, etc. I think it would be nice to capture some of that here.

1. So I've been titling my Everquest-related blogs 'Everquesting' for a couple months now. I just realized the other day that MassivelyOP has been calling their weekly column on Everquest the same for a good long while. I have been reading Massively since it launched in 2007. I may have been a bit too lazy on my naming scheme there.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Motivations and Shattering Lands in EQ2

For the first time in a while I picked up an editing gig for my "real job". This has resulted in me writing considerably less for the blog. It's also lessened the amount of time I've had for video gaming.

This gives me the big old sad.

What gaming I have been doing has been mostly of the Everquest 2 variety. I'm still following my plan of locking my character's experience levels at the original level caps of the base game. This isn't strictly necessary since you can adjust your own level downward at nearly any time, but gives my gameplay a bit of structure. And as I said during my inaugural blog post, I like structure.  Last night I finished up Antonica and it's related instances (Blackburrow and Stormhold). This means I'm effectively done with all the content level 20 and below. Well, almost, I still need to betray my home city of Freeport so I can do all the various Qeynos/Qeynos Sewers/Qeynos Suburbs quests but I don't want to do that until around level 80. At that point I'll have finished the main city questlines in Freeport. Also, I'm still working on some low level collectibles. And some of the more annoying book quests.

There might be some stuff I end up skipping.

I was originally going to level a good character and an evil character simultaneously to avoid the betrayal issue. But I decided to do everything on one character for three reasons. Firstly, I've never betrayed before in the game, and I want to see both the betrayal questlines and I want to experience being a Exile. Secondly, I got tired of juggling two characters. Do I worry about maxing out the spell ranks for both characters? How about collectible quests; should each character do them all or should I split them up? Once you hit level 30 and the distinction between good zones and evil zones lessen will I still care about keeping up with two characters?

And thirdly, I had difficulty deciding if my playthrough was character-motivated or content-motivated.

I guess we should define our terms, but I think it's all pretty self explanatory. Some games I play are character-motivated, like say, Diablo 3. The storyline for Diablo 3 could literally not be any dumber if you tried (and I honestly suspect they did). What kept me playing was improving my character: better gear, higher paragon, etc. But I tend to play most games in a content-motivated frame of mind. I want to experience the world, the storyline, the atmosphere, and etc. In a single player game, once I hit the credits, I'm out.

MMOs tend to blur the line for me. Usually there is more storyline in the 'endgame'. Raids, content that is unlocked through daily grinding, events, etc. But I also grind rep, improve my gear like I would in a more character-motivated game. Usually I just play until I burn out, and then come back in the next patch and play through that new content.

(I also think there is an obvious third motivation: increasing ones skill at the game. But that feels less relevant for me in Everquest 2.)

It's not something I consciously think about. Not usually. I play until the game feels stale and then I play something else. But when you're faced with a gigantic magnitude of content that Everquest 2 has you have to come up with some home made structure. I have a level 110 character boost sitting in my inventory. If my goal was more character-based I'd be at max level right now with everyone else and grinding out whatever it is that you grind out in the EQ2 endgame.

So it's a cause of conflict for me. Having a good and an evil character would be a more convenient way of experiencing ever drip of content that Everquest 2 has. But the divide between the factions doesn't seem to be very important in the big picture, at least from what I understand. It's not like WoW's Alliance and Horde divide, with significantly different single player content for both sides.

I think ultimately I'm going to focus on just one character, and I'll betray factions if I think the content warrants it. I really do like having a "main". One character that has seen and done it all. Even if it was done 15 years after it was initially was released. In the game world, it all counts the same.

I suppose there might also be a fourth motivation for me: nostalgia. Or maybe even a fifth: a fear of having missed out, which is distinct from the fear of missing out. I oscillated a bit between WoW and EQ2 when they first came out. I was confident the veteran MMO franchise with the emphasis group play would win that duel. It did not. Also, all of my friends were playing WoW. After a couple of months it became clear which game I was going to end up playing. But I still missed EQ2's charm even if I ultimately found WoW to be the better game for me. That's the nostalgic bit.

But I also wished I could go back in time and do a lot of this content when it was new. I don't even really know why. I don't really love progression servers because they tend to be overcamped and I don't get to play at my own pace. Also, you just can't put the magic back in the bottle. The EQ2 and WoW that I played in 2004 can't be brought back in it's entirety because that audience, and my own experiences, have changed. Playing through the old content in EQ2 is a combination of what was and what could have been.

So I don't super know what my motivation is. I'm having fun, that's the only motivation I really need. But I have huge backlogs on both PC and console and here I am playing a 15 year old game that doesn't even work correctly with my monitor. I'm chasing something, even if I'm not 100% sure what it is.