Dishonored: Definitive Edition


Having played the original Dishonored in a stealthy pacifist manner, I opted to go for a more violent path this time around. The first thing I noticed was that this was not as much fun as it usually amounted to one intense fight where all the guards in the level were summoned to my location, then roaming the empty corridors to complete objectives and pick up loot. The second thing I noticed was that this was a lot easier and a lot quicker than sneaking.

When we talk about Ludonarrative dissonance the most common example is the extraordinary amounts of violence perpetuated by protagonists that we are meant to empathize with, but at least with stealth games a more commonly problematic one is the disruption between the fantasy and execution. The game sells you the idea of being a master spy or assassin, but in actual fact the player will frequently struggle with avoiding the gaze of random passers-by – something that should be trivial to the protagonist. Mark of the Ninja designer Nels Anderson did a GDC talk about this, mentioning how that game focused more on the fantasy and made avoiding detection trivial. In doing so, it becomes more about planning your approach – returning to Dishonored, these moments are when I feel it is at its best, and not when a stray guard randomly walks past a window halfway across the level and spots you being up to no good, forcing a restart.

Which brings up the question whether this is even a valid complaint – Dishonored does, after all, tell you any solution is good. In fact, unlike most other stealth games it recognizes when you opt for a more chaotic and straightforward approach and penalizes you for it with difficulty hikes later, so it is certainly not the worst offender. The original Mirror’s Edge, for instance, had a narrative that actively discouraged you from fighting and killing but gameplay mechanics that made attempting to avoid firearms frustrating and tedious. But I would argue that the reinforced enemies in a high-chaos playthrough of Dishonored do not add much to the difficulty, whereas the narrative chides you for being violent and the presented statistics aim to show you how good you were at sneaking regardless of the approach you take – it is at least interesting that the game allows you to coast through it rather than force you to deal with its unforgiving stealth systems, though I feel that it is simultaneously encouraging me to play a certain way and penalizing me for doing so. The expansions – Brigmore Witches in particular – take this even further with large open spaces with little cover, enemies that do not count as kills or detections, enemies that can teleport and an ability set that offer fewer opportunities for stealth.

That said, I mentioned in my reflection of the original Dishonored that it is an old-school approach to stealth gaming and I knew what I was getting into. Frustrations aside the gameplay is still tense and fun, the art is still beautiful and the narrative in the expansions – again, Brigmore Witches in particular – is a step up from the base game.

Posted on Nov 29/15 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Halo 5: Guardians


In some ways, Halo 3 was the high point of the series feature-wise – with dual-wielding, items, vehicle hijacking and a level selection that offered both the large battlefields of Halo 1 and the staged but engaging corridor fighting of Halo 2. ODST then made some cutbacks which at the time felt okay since it was a different kind of game, but some of the features never really came back. On the one hand, this takes away from the “combat evolved” tagline, the earlier Halo games felt more like sandboxes allowing you to play around with different systems. On the other hand, Bungie and 343 were clamping down on the core gameplay, always a strength in the series.

Halo Reach introduced the concept of classes that made gameplay more interesting without adding much complexity or otherwise slowing it down, and in a similar way Halo 5 has expanded on the basic moveset of the spartans to allow for some really nice close quarters combat. It still feels more staged and restricted than the earlier Halo games, but the second-to-second combat offers more complexity – I’m wondering if this is not a good thing in the end since the larger scope only really concerns the campaign.

The story still doesn’t quite agree with me – the dual-perspective storyline feels like it prevents it from going deep enough and it glosses over important character development by bringing up too many subjects. But that may be just me. In the end, I find most of the game to be okay to good but the shooting to be really enjoyable, not at all a bad place to be for a shooting game – even one with as much legacy as Halo.

Posted on Nov 27/15 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Call of Duty: Black Ops III


My relationship with Call of Duty is a weird story of privilege – I was never really into the military escapism side of it. When it comes to FPS mechanics, I vastly prefer the snappier, more responsive and more obviously visually coded Halo and Destiny styles of games. I have mentioned before that I never really meant to get into Call of Duty, but it was easy to set aside time for – all the games in the “Modern Warfare” series had a campaign that was intense, varied and offered everything it had to offer in a linear path that took around six hours to follow.

In this sense, Black Ops 2 was the first game in the series – of the ones I played – that I kind of disliked, and for seemingly poor reasons. It was longer, had a branching plotline and some light RPG elements – not bad in any sense of the word but it does take away from the popcorn experience and I thought the series is nowhere close to providing the experience of other games that are focused on moral dilemmas and character progression. It felt like a wasted effort made it drawn-out.

There’s also the matter of story – on the last generation of consoles, it went from military drama to Tom Clancy-esque outrageous political intrigue – Modern Warfare in a slightly different way than Black Ops, but both moved away from focusing on the conflict to focusing on the characters. The three franchises of this generation have gone further away from the military sim with Ghosts being post-apocalyptic, Advanced Warfare being about drones and corrupt PMCs and finally Black Ops III being about even more drones and digital warfare. On the one hand, I do not really like the direction it has taken on any of them – the focus on the anonymous man-on-the-ground in Modern Warfare and the scenes showing the ultimate results of war like the nuke, I think those were stronger than anything the game has done since. On the other hand, I remember not really liking the story in Modern Warfare either so it is very likely I my opinions do not align with the people this game was actually written for. It’s still good as throwaway entertainment, the way I am playing it.

Black Ops III has some neat ideas going for it in terms of player upgrades and character progression – none of the abilities or weapons you acquire are particularly innovative in themselves, but there is a good number to choose from and even though the levels are not as varied as in, say, Ghosts, the game feels very different when playing with a different loadout. I started out emulating my Destiny playstyle and went for close- to midrange encounters with lots of mobility and aggressive territory control, then I switched to a Mass Effect Infiltrator-build and went for sniping with skills favoring stealth and positioning. Both fun, and feeling very different to play.

… So that’s a cool part about it. I could talk a long time about other elements from Black Ops III, but as I think it’s not really intended for me it feels at best superfluous and at worst misleading. Also, this has been long enough already.

Posted on Nov 26/15 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Destiny: The Taken King


When I first mentioned Destiny a little more than a year ago, I mentioned having played it for longer than any other game I could remember – there have been periods where I played less since then, to be sure, but I never really stopped. My original raid team disbanded and I finished all the challenges the game laid out before me, then I found a new friends through the game and made my own goals within the game world. Never having been this into an MMO (or any other game, really), it has given me some insight into the allure of a solid game combined with a persistent but grindy reward system and the social contracts involved in high-level multiplayer games. I also think I am playing a bit too much since there are other games I’m missing out on. But anyway, the expansion.

The Taken King has greatly improved the storytelling – there are whispers about how vanilla Destiny was ripped apart and patched back together less than a year before release, which could explain the bare-bones approach it took. As someone who appreciated the underlying narrative of the original, it is a welcome change but hardly a game-changer – the new approaches to quests and the variety of tasks to accomplish certainly is though. There is no end of things to do in the Taken King, and there is a lot less incentive to do any specific one – Bounties are easier and give smaller rewards, Nightfalls no longer give you a weeklong buff, PvP events no longer guarantee exclusive gear. Even the raid rarely gives you true top-level gear. In some sense this is good since it makes completing everything a fool’s errand, in another it makes the grind to true max level so long that it if you let variety take a backseat to optimization you are not going to have a lot of choice for a long time.

It is a different kind of grind – having invested so much time in the old game I’m inclined to dislike change of that magnitude, but a lot of small changes have streamlined the experience. The economy still never seems to settle in a good place, but that is one of the tougher challenges of a persistent world.

Another thing that is a more obvious improvement is the variety in gameplay itself – strikes and story missions used to be a sequence of corridor fighting and holdout areas with the occasional miniboss – still fun due to the exceptional shooter experience and weapon variety, but not particularly varied in a minute-to-minute perspective. The Taken King includes light raid mechanics more or less everywhere and makes bosses more interesting than bullet sponges – after you have done them a few times the puzzles are no cerebral challenge anymore but it’s still a nice change of pace.

Talking about Destiny as I would another game is difficult, because so much of my experience is tied to the community at large, the people I play with regularly and the massive amounts of time I have invested in my characters and how the game has evolved during that time. The core shooter is still very solid and everything immediately surrounding that has improved though, anything beyond that is probably too personal to be relevant to anyone else.

Posted on Nov 02/15 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »