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Game Review: Detroit — Become Human

Posted in video game, video game design by commorancy on May 27, 2018

Chloe from Detroit Becoming HumanI’m usually a big fan of Quantic Dream video games. However, this one tries a little too hard and fails in many ways. Let’s explore.

SPOILER ALERT

If you’re interested in playing this game, this review may contain spoilers. You should stop reading now and play first. I encourage you to come back to this review once you have played it.

Story

This is a story of android emancipation. The world has androids as servants which are being sold in retail stores. They are used as personal assistants, house maids and so on. However, something has happened and androids have awoken from their blissful subservience into thinking and feeling entities. Herein lies the opening of this story and the game.

Stories vs Gameplay

Let’s take a step back just a little from this game and analyze its broader genre within the game industry. The story versus gameplay war has been waged in earnest for the last 10 years, particularly when Quantic Dream released Heavy Rain on the PS3 in 2010. Note that there have been a semblance of these kinds of cinematic games going all the way back to the Amiga days with Rocket Ranger and Defender of the Crown. But, these full blown episodic TV games arrived with Heavy Rain. With the release of Heavy Rain came a game where you effectively watched a TV show unfold with periodic button choices thrown in to change the flow of the narrative.

Well, that’s exactly Detroit: Become Human. In fact, the story that’s being told in Detroit seems like a failed TV series turned into a video game. In reality, that’s what it is. That’s not to say there’s not actual button-press game play in this game, but these segments are so infrequent as to feel less like a game and more like watching a TV show with an interactive narrative component.

Note that there have been a number of episodic style games released very similar to Detroit. In addition to Heavy Rain, these include The Last Of Us, Quantum Break, L.A. Noire, Beyond Two Souls and the Alan Wake series. Note that Quantum Break took this whole idea one step further by including 20 minute (or longer) live actor-filmed episodic TV segments as part of your reward for finishing a game segment. That game was truly like watching episodic TV. Detroit doesn’t make this leap, but does the next best thing by trying to make its rendering as photo realistic as possible on the PS4.

Choices

As with all Quantic Dream games, the game is reasonably chock full of gamer choices. That is, choices that you make that affect whether a character lives or dies or whether you uncover an important detail or not. Though, even Quantic Dream’s stories are not unlimited and must follow a certain limited path to the end. Yes, there may be two or three outcomes, but ultimately the outcomes don’t drastically affect the next segment or, indeed, the entire plot. In fact, the choices may not affect much at all.

Chapters

The game breaks each ‘episode’ into chapters. Each chapter focuses on a specific character and their role in that particular story segment. Occasionally, the chapter switches between two or three different characters… and even less frequently, sometimes the characters meet.

What is the story?

The story is much like I, Robot. It’s about androids that become self-aware and, instead of simply being a utilitarian “thing” now wish all of the equality that humans have. Effectively, it’s a modern day slave story… where humans enslave androids for utilitarian purposes, yet they wake up and become aware that they no longer want this and wish to live free.

As a result, Markus (an android hero of this story) rises up to revolt against humans and bring the android freedom cause front and center. How you make that cause unfold is up to the gamer. You can effectively go pacifist or violent. If you go violent, the story unfolds a certain way. If you go the pacifist way, then the story takes a different turn. It’s left up to the gamer to choose the path.

Story Inconsistencies and Contrivances

Unfortunately, Quantic Dream’s writers failed in a number of important ways. For one, the story establishes that androids have direct contact memory probe capabilities. One android can probe another android’s “mind” simply through touch. Yet in one segment of the game, there’s a 1.5 minute timer that counts down after an android is revived and before it expires again. In this segment, you’re playing as Connor (an android enlisted to work with the cops to solve ‘Deviant’ murders). A deviant is an android that is no longer obeying its central programming and has become self-aware and can make choices for itself.

In this 1.5 minute countdown timer, an android needs to impart crucial information for Connor’s and Hank’s investigation. It would have been simple for Connor to touch and extract that data he needed in less than a second without saying a word to the android. This would have made the countdown timer pointless, yes. Instead, the game forces you to waste time using speech to try to talk to the android via interrogation. If it had been Hank (Connor’s human partner) forced to do perform this investigation segment, this section would have made sense. But, since it was Connor performing this interrogation, it made no sense at all. It’s these stupid little story details that are a pet peeve and that get in the way of telling the story. It doesn’t matter whether the story is in a game or in a novel, logic must be followed in full. If the story’s details aren’t logically presented, then the story fails.

A second one of these writer failures was after Connor is shot and dies in a previous segment. I won’t say exactly how, when or by whom, but it happens. Yet, in the next chapter, Connor is very much alive, undamaged, dressed in his normal Connor android garb. He looks the same and meets up with Amanda in the garden yet again. Is it the same Connor? *shrug* A tombstone in Amanda’s garden says not, but who erects tombstones for androids and when and why would it have been erected? How would Amanda have even known? There was no story detail to state that Amanda had even known of Connor’s demise. However, the title to the upper right of this segment says ‘Betrayed’ with a down red pointer. Amanda completely ignores this betrayal. Without any explanation, Amanda talks with Connor and inexplicably gives him yet one more chance to quash the android rebellion. If this were a replaced Connor as the tombstone suggests, this replacement would have some significant drawbacks… particularly the rapport that he had built with Hank along with all of the knowledge Connor had built up about the deviants’ hide out. Though, later, another story contrivance shows that androids can somehow transfer their entire memory consciousness in the 2 seconds it takes to fall off of a several story building. If this is the case, then why would Connor be afraid of dying in one section of the game?

A third contrivance is the rA9 moniker that’s found written all over walls and posters during the beginning of the game. In fact, Connor makes a point of stating that rA9 had been written on a wall over 1000 times. Yet, halfway through this game, the thread is dropped never to be heard from again. What the hell, guys? If you’re going to bring it up as an important discussion point, at least close it out at the end of the story! Was Markus the rA9 or not? And, what is an rA9? This one deserves an eye roll.

Unfortunately, much of this game is chock full of such story contrivances… this is why I call this premise a failed TV series. Perhaps it’s time for video game studios to actually hire some seasoned TV writers to write these video game stories, particularly when they are so cinematic in nature. These video game stories need to hold up to logical scrutiny in just the same way as any story arc does. Quantic Dream, you need to hire better writers and you need your games to follow through with every story detail.

Gameplay

Combat is where the game really fails the hardest. For some die-hard Mortal Kombat fans, the combat part of the game might be considered fun. For us casual gamers, where random button presses don’t make sense, this section of the game is not only no fun, it entirely detracts from the game and story being told.

This game intentionally plays mostly like one very long cinematic with only small and brief interruptions for you to control a specific character to accomplish a task, get from point A to B or to make a decision. These small interruptions in the narrative only serve to force the gamer to lead the story down a specific path. However, the majority of the game is like watching episodic TV. Unfortunately, Quantic Dream made the entirely wrong control choice for the combat portions.

Much of the game choices are a casual X press or a motion of the controller or some simple untimed action. These casual selections are perfectly acceptable. However, when it gets into full on combat, this is where the Mortal Kombat style combos take over. A style, I might add, that is entirely no fun and detracts heavily from the story at hand. Not only is the gamer presented with sometimes 15-20 different button presses, six-axis motion, multi-button presses, shoulder button presses or any number of other combo choices, they’re presented with such randomness and in such quick timed succession that unless you have the reflexes of an android, you’re not likely to succeed pressing most of them on time. Frustrating.

In these combat sections, the timers are incredibly short, sometimes less than half a second. The button or movement choice also doesn’t make sense with the action requested. You could press the left arrow joystick to kick then press R1 the next action to kick then press X the third time to kick. There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to why an action ends up on a specific button.

The only saving grace is that these actions are the same in each play through. If you want, you can map them out and then follow them like a script. However, the easier method is to keep pressing pause. This gives you enough time to decipher which button it is, prepare, take it out of pause, press it, then pause again. Whether or not you use pause, this combat system heavily detracts from the story action, so much so you can’t even keep up with what’s going on.

It’s entirely one thing for a developer to assign a specific combat action to a specific button. For example, many games assign X to a sword press or some other melee attack. The left shoulder button button might be block or parry. The triangle button might be kick or jump. When they’re hard mapped, you know what they do. It’s entirely another thing to free form map actions with random abandon. In this game, there is no mapping. The buttons being pressed or the actions being performed have no logical sense to whatever the character is doing. The button or action appears randomly and the gamer is expected to decipher that, process it and press that button all in less than a second. Some gamers are very good at this, many are not. This means that, by choice, Quantic Dream has automatically alienated a lot of gamers who are not good with this style of combat. A style of combat, I might add, that is perfectly placed in Mortal Kombat, but makes zero sense in a narrative driven story like Detroit: Become Human. Who at Quantic Dream thought this was a good idea? The question then is… Do you want your game accessible to all types of gamers or just those who are good at this style of combat? This is QD’s biggest fail in this game.

As gamers, we want predictability in our combat button mapping. We want to know that X is mapped to melee attack. It’s simple to understand why. When we get into combat, we press X naturally. It then becomes second nature pressing X. Most of us don’t want to second guess what’s about to appear on the screen, then try to reach for the button in time. It works fine with Guitar Hero, but it sucks hard in a game like Detroit.

Additionally, the failure with this random combat style is that you don’t know when the next press will appear on the screen. It could come immediately after a previous press or it could be 5 to 10 seconds later. Sometimes you need to wait 1 minute for a bunch of screen action to play out before the next is presented. Sometimes they appear in rapid succession. It’s the combination of this full randomness that is what I consider not only a horrible combat system, but one of the worst I’ve ever encountered in any game. It is also entirely out of place here.

For the gamer who’s trying to remain focused on the story, this gameplay style completely detracts from watching the unfolding story. Not only can you not focus on the story action at hand, you’re so focused on that next button press that that’s all you’re looking for. There’s also no warning when combat starts. It starts without warning and ends without warning. Most recent games have begun adding musical queues to know when you’re going into combat and when you’ve left it. Not here. Worse, there’s no way to succeed in this gameplay section without tunnel vision focus on the button presses. Even then, you’re likely to miss a few. The game doesn’t even let you know if you’ve ‘won’ or ‘lost’ this action scene after missing one or more than one of these moves. In fact, ‘won’ or ‘loss’ is randomly part of the story whether or not you succeed in hitting every move. In this game, these actions are, in fact, entirely pointless.

This, Quantic Dream, is your greatest failure in this narrative. Not only does this combat style entirely detract from the cinematic / TV episodic nature of the story, it forces the gamer to become so tunnel vision focused to avoid missing a button press, the story is lost. You simply cannot watch what the characters are doing AND play the combo button game. Even more than this, when the combat is all over, the character may die anyway because, you know, story. When designing a combat segment, make that combat actually mean something… especially when the gamer has to jump through hoops to get there. Else, just let the combat play out based on previous dialog choices.

To me, this style of combat is on par with fetch quests. They’re a means to an end, yes, but the techniques are forced, contrived and unnecessary… particularly in a game that relies on this level of cinematic storytelling.

Characters battling other Characters — Confusion

Latching onto the previous combat issue presented, this issue extends that problem even further. There are at least two times in the game when two of your characters end up fighting each other. The already convoluted combat system becomes even more convoluted and confusing. I didn’t think that was possible. Yet, on top of the random button presses and actions, now you can’t even decipher to which character the action is attached. Was that last move for Connor or Hank? *shrug* Sometimes you can tell when they’re far enough apart. Most times, they’re struggling with each other, when the button or action appears, you don’t know to which character the action applies. This system is completely detestable.

Seriously, how did this game even get out of beta testing with this level of combat confusion?

Unexpected Choices and Restarting

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to predict the story outcomes from choices you make. The dialog choices which seem the most innocent and the least problematic can turn out the most deadly for your characters. This is frustrating on so many levels. Because of this unpredictability of story, it’s almost impossible to read into a specific dialog choice and assume you know what it might accomplish. This is particularly problematic when dialog choices are strung together one right after the other, but then the outcome playback isn’t seen until after all choices have been made. This is an incredibly poor design choice. Instead, the dialog choices should unfold one at a time immediately after each choice.

Many actions I would have deemed to be the ‘safe’ choice end up getting a character killed or taking the story in the wrong direction. This unpredictability, while good in one way, is a horrible idea in the long run. You do want some character predictability. Characters should act in specific ways, or more specifically, show a certain type of moral bent. If I want to keep that character on that same moral path, that shouldn’t lead to death for other characters. I shouldn’t have to compromise my character’s morals to keep some other character alive. The AI should understand this ideal and uphold it for each character. Should you decide to take a character down a path that’s nefarious intentionally, then the consequences should be problematic.

I find the storytelling problems disturbing on so many levels with Detroit. If taking a specific action leads to certain death for a character, or at least a high probability for danger, that choice should be called out in the dialog by flagging it with a red color. At least let me know that the choice that I’m about to make won’t necessarily end well. In reality, the game should offer at least some level of foreshadowing in the choices. For example, if you drink too much then choose to drive, the dangers of this outcome are quite apparent. Let’s offer at least this level of forewarning in game choices.

This also leads to a broader problem with this game. If you make a choice during a long episodic segment, there is no way way to save your game, reload and remake that choice a different way. Instead, you have to cancel out of the entire segment back to the title screen and start the whole segment over. Or, alternatively, you need to wait for the chapter to play out in full, then exit to the title screen and redo whatever checkpoint is available forward to the end. The game makes you jump through unnecessary hoops to start levels over. This is a horrible design choice.

This game mechanic is also quite stupid. If you’re designing your game to enforce an unpredictable choice mechanism, then damn well give me an easy way to restart and remake those choices. Don’t force me to wait up to 15 minutes through an unexpected choice only to spend even more minutes and play through again. This is my time you are wasting. It’s a game, give me the option to abort where I am and start over at some recent checkpoint. I know that the game designers intended you to play it through in one long stretch, but that’s not how I want spend loads of my time (backtracking and starting over)… especially when the obviously ‘safest’ choice isn’t. If you can’t offer reasonable dialog choices that offer some semblance of sane outcome, then you need to offer a compensating control to allow restarting the segment quick and painless. Without one or the other game mechanism, it actually turns this game into a chore to play.

And no, I’m not going to listen to the title screen character telling me to give it a play through in some random way the first time. I’m going to play this game in the way I approach all games… I play it in the way that gives me the most satisfaction. If the game intentionally gets in my way of doing that, then the design is crap.

Making Development Choices

Quantic Dream needs to take a drastic change to its play style choice in its next game title. You have a decision to make. Is this to be a TV show or a game? Trying to marry both concepts into a single whole doesn’t work in many ways. You need to rethink the current combat button play style. In this game, you’d already added the computational component to the game. This component, like VATS, allows the player to pre-calculate the odds of success to a particular string of movements. This play style allows the player to play the scenario out to see the success or failure outcome before commencing the real movements.

This would have been the ideal combat method for this game. Get rid of the quick succession button presses and let Markus (or whomever) calculate the odds of success in advance with a particular combat strategy. Then, unleash the action and let it play out just as it did in other sections of the game. This way, the gamer gets to watch the entire action unfold with his/her strategy choices without unnecessary constant button press distractions. You already had this system in the game, it simply needed to be added to the combat.

After all, these are androids. Let them do what they do best… calculate. Again, this goes back to narrative logic failure. The writers simply did not impress story logic enough upon the game developers … and enforce the significance of the android in this gaming narrative. This, in fact, would have not only shown more of what the androids are capable (cold calculated combat), it would have decidedly ensured a terrifying outcome of exactly how dangerous the androids are. Quantic Dream entirely missed this incredibly important story point.

Title Screen Taunting

This is an issue that’s been progressing at a rapid pace in the video game industry and this title is no exception. When you reach the title screen, an android’s face appears (Chloe) and begins prompting you to do things and even goes so far as to tell you how you should play the game. To her I say, “shut the hell up”. I don’t want to hear what you have to say. If you want to be there and fidget or blink or do whatever, that’s fine. But, don’t intrude on my game and try to tell me how to play it or that I missed a crucial element or that one of my story’s characters died. I already know this. You don’t need to further “rub it in” by telling me this again. Keep in mind that part of the reason a character may have died was due to a stupid decision by the story designer to turn an innocuous dialog choice into a massacre.

This is my game and it’s my choice how I play it. Give me those tools to play the game in the way that I choose. If I want to quit out of the middle of a segment and restart it, that’s my choice. I don’t want to hear taunts from the title screen character telling me in no uncertain terms just how I eff’d up. I’m there trying to work through the story again to correct that mistake. A mistake, I might add, that had nothing to do with me, but had to do with the story designers who chose to turn a dialog choice or action deadly. To me, that’s both poor story design and poor game design.

Skipping Cinematics

Any game that offers long cinematics (by long, I define that as longer than 1 minute) needs to offer a way to skip them. This game does not offer that. There is no button to skip watching very long and, after you’ve seen them once, unnecessary cinematics. Once is most definitely enough in this game. This is, again, a waste of time.

One of the first things a game designer needs to learn is not to waste the gamer’s time. If we want to skip past a long unnecessary segment, give us the option to do so. Quantic Dream has not yet figured this out. By this game, they should have.

Characters and Guns

Here’s yet another thing that chaps me. A character finds a gun on the ground and we are given the choice to pick it up. Yet, the character is never given the opportunity to use the weapon at all… not via dialog choices, not via actions and not via any other means. Why have a character find a weapon then not be given the choice to use it? I shake my head here because this is one of the weakest designs I’ve yet seen in a game. If it’s important enough to have a character do something, then it’s important enough to bring it back into the game later.

Graphics and Sound

This is the single brightest point of Detroit: Become Human. The rendering engine is probably one of the most realistic I’ve yet seen on a console. The models, unfortunately, are a bit stilted in places (hands and mouths), but that only adds to the androidiness of the whole thing. If they were entirely realistic to the point you couldn’t tell them apart from the humans, that might make for a more compelling story, but at the same time, it’s kind of already been done in various TV series including Westworld.

Detroit: Become Human™_20180527171319

Keeping the game a bit less than real only serves to enhance the android idea and to allow buy-in for this world. That’s not to say that the graphics couldn’t be better. Of course, they can always be better. Where this game falls down is mouth movements for speech. I’ve seen so much better mouth movement in video games, it’s surprising this part is so stilted and poorly done. It’s long past time for a developer to produce a mouth phoneme movement kit for the industry as a whole. With rendering engines that look as realistic as Quantic Dream’s games, you’d think they would have spent the little bit extra time to develop a better mouth movement toolkit? Nope. The mouth movement is particularly bad on the main screen android because her mouth is front-and-center. It’s really the only thing you can look at. In-game mouth movement is allowed to be a little off because most times we’re not seeing it. Quantic Dream, spend a little more time when you’re building title screen animations.

The sound quality is very cinematic, particularly the music which ebbs and flows perfectly with the scenes. Unfortunately, the musical themes don’t end properly at times. The music ends abruptly when the task is done. At least get your composers to write an outro for the segment that seamlessly flows with the music already playing… or, at least fade it out. Do something a little more professional than just abruptly stopping the music in the middle.

Movie Replay

I was expecting that by the time we reached the end of creating our narrative that we would be able to replay the full movie without interruption. Alas, no. Quantic Dream doesn’t offer that level of game foresight. When you get to the end of your narrative, it’s over. There’s nothing else to do but replay parts of it again. Again, I shake my head.

Overall

I give Detroit: Become Human 6 out of 10 stars. It’s not game of the year in my book. But, with a few patches, they could fix up some of the deficiencies. Though, it’s doubtful they can patch the story problems or the failed combat system. Though, they might be able to introduce the playback system as an extra.

My recommendation is to rent this. You can get through the entire narrative in about a day. It’s very, very short and definitely not worth $60. The ending isn’t really an ending. It’s more of a cliffhanger. There are also story elements simply left unclosed. Also, Quantic Dream is not known for offering up sequels. I wouldn’t expect one here.

If you liked Quantic Dream’s other games like Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls, you’ll probably like Detroit: Become Human. But, don’t expect perfection. If you like heavy story driven games (to the point of almost being episodic TV replete with monologues and touching scenes), then you’ll probably like this game. However, don’t set your hopes high for the game play elements.

Graphics: 9 out of 10
Sound: 9 out of 10
Gameplay: 7 out of 10
Combat System: 1.5 out of 10
Story: 8 out of 10
Fun Factor: 6 out of 10
Stability: 9.5 out of 10
Length: 3 out of 10 (main story takes no more than a day to get through)

Overall: 6 out of 10 (It’s way too short, rent it).

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Game Review: Assassin’s Creed Origins

Posted in reviews, video game by commorancy on May 14, 2018

Assassin’s Creed Origins is an attempt by Ubisoft to milk this tired franchise for more money. With each new iteration, they are making more and more mistakes and the games make less and less sense. This game’s sole purpose to exist seems to be a money grab. Let’s explore.

Bayek and Aya

In Assassin’s Creed Origins, you play as the Medjay (pronounced madge-eye) hero Bayek. He’s a nobody really, but the game makes you think he’s somebody. Unlike Altair and Ezio, who were at least well respected for who they were in their respective communities, Bayek is a small-town-kid… kind of like Connor in Assassin’s Creed 3. Unfortunately, this plot device has already worn thin by this franchise. At least come up with something different.

Bayek’s wife is Aya. She only appears in the game in tiny sections and you do get to play as her (sort of) during a boat mission and a handful of other smaller end missions. In fact, Aya takes on a crucial role in one of the final assassinations taking away that pleasure from Bayek unnecessarily. However, you don’t get to do something truly unique and switch between (or choose to play as) either of the characters. Come on Ubisoft, get with the program.
Bayek-ACO

Bayek is conflicted all throughout the game because his kid was killed by who really knows for whatever unnecessary reason. This is intended to give Bayek motivation to become an assassin and kill for revenge (among other reasons).

Storylines

This is as good a time as any to talk about the stories presented. Bayek must find and kill 8 (or so) different individuals along the main quest. Most of them are temple priests who’ve done wrong… or at least, so the game tells us. Aya kills one of the primary baddies as well.

The side quests consist of fetch quests as well as a few side assassination quests, occasionally taking the time out to do racing or fighting. Unlike the original Assassin’s Creed, there is no run-climb racing. The stories are average and uninspired for an Assassin’s Creed title. The ending is forced and really explains nothing. The stories can be fun the first few times doing a task, but ultimately it’s the same things over and over… especially if you’ve already played the Desmond versions. It would be great if Ubisoft could figure out a way to make the stories more dynamic, fresh, less fetch-questy or fighty and do something different. Yes, it does have assassin in the name of the game, but that doesn’t mean everything in the game needs to be a fight. The majority of the stories have nothing to do with assassinations or being stealthy. The ones that do are so weakly written, they might as well just tell you who to kill and put a map pointer. Why bother with the crap setup? Let’s just get to the activity and be done with it.

Taking it to the Next Level

To revitalize this Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft needs to take this franchise to the next level by extending Assassin’s Creed into a full blown RPG. It’s nearly there, but it needs so much more. First, it needs to abandon the idea of a specific character’s look. Instead, let us choose our character’s look through various presets (head, body, body shape, height, facial features, etc). Second, let the player choose a class and focus on it (fighter, seer, magic user, etc).

While the main quest can be primarily about assassinations and then seeing the bad guys one last time in the Duat (the place between life and death) to give them their final send off, the second part of the primary quest should be about present day and the importance of the animus experience to the present day (something lost in this version). The rest of the time the stories should focus on assassinations. It can be side quests or it can be quests that are required to give you an item that let you finish the main quest. There are so many ways to improve the game into a full blown RPG.

After this, they will need to add auto-generating / regenerating dungeons to dive into with random loot. This gives the possibility of finding some really great weapons and armor during the game.

The game would need functional armor, not just costumes that look pretty when worn. In Origins, you can effectively wear nothing or steel armor and it doesn’t reduce your ability to take damage. Armor needs to protect the player character from damage in increasing amounts when worn.

Armor needs to be broken into pieces (chest, legs, arms, head, feet, etc). You should also be able to find or forge armor for your steed. This not only lets you increase your armor in levels, you can mix and match armor to create your own unique costumes. Right now, it’s a look-pretty situation. The costumes look great, but they’re not functional in the game. Also, whatever happened to dying the costumes? Where did that feature go? There is a dye shop in the game, but it can’t be used.

Weapons do have individual strength, but are leveled. That’s fine for the first pass. This method can be carried over. But, I’d like to see a way to craft and improve weapons from in-game materials (brass, copper, etc). The raw materials are in the game, but you can’t really do anything with them. Crafting is only in ACO in a tiny little way. It needs to be fully expanded. Also, having weapons break and wear out allows you to overpower an enemy and wear their weapons, shields and armor out, thus disarming them and gaining the advantage.

The side quests are fine, but lose the fetch quest idea as much as possible. I really tire of having to “go get” something for an NPC. They have legs and can get access to a horse, let them go get it. If it’s a fetch quest type that ends as the item in payment for my service, then I’m okay with that.. particularly if the item is a worthy weapon or piece of armor. But, I don’t want to have to carry it all the way back only to get a piece of food or some silly trinket. Let me keep the stuff I find or let me get it back in some way.

Co-op and group dungeons should be added. Let’s get back to the idea of multiplayer in an RPG. This means I can find and assemble a team to go into a group dungeon to take on a swarm of enemies that can’t be taken alone. This encourages team play.

Item and building interactions must be more complete. Instead of these facades that sit on the ground and do nothing (other than as obstacles to climb), the buildings need to allow for entry into new dungeons to master. Items on the ground should offer much more interactivity. There are so many containers that can’t be opened or checked. Instead, let the game choose which container types to fill with random loot.

This is by no means to be taken as an exhaustive list of ideas for turning Assassin’s Creed into an RPG. It’s nearly there already, it just needs to take the next step. This is exactly what the AC series needs take it to the next level and let it rival that of Bethesda RPG games. However, it’s going to need an entirely new exact game save system by abandoning the current checkpoint save system in Origins.

Random NPC Banter

This just needs to go away. The NPCs have, at most, 3-5 phrases they can say when you pass by them and using the same voices over and over. Don’t do this. Unless you plan to spend the time to create hundreds of different audio clips that can be randomly said by NPCs, just leave them silent. Hearing the same phrases over and over is just plain annoying and unnecessary.

Fighting

Unfortunately, this is probably the worst part of the game. While Assassin’s Creed 2 practically got the fighting aspect 100% right, Assassin’s Creed Origin gets it almost 100% wrong. The fights are not in any way fun. Let me just make this clear. Fighting should be extremely fun in a game like this, but no. There are two tactics the enemies use that just drive me absolutely crazy. It doesn’t matter if it’s an animal or an NPC, they both use this tactic.

Backing Up as an AI combat strategy

While I realize walking backward could be used occasionally by an enemy, it is entirely overused in this game. This tactic always has the enemy moving just out of reach of even your longest weapon. There’s absolutely no point in this AI tactic. It wasn’t in any other AC game, why is it here? It just wastes time and serves to frustrate. This crap tactic is at the top of my least favorite AI fighting tactics in a video game. I’ve never played any other game where this tactic is used by enemy AI. I don’t even know how to rant enough on this particular tactic, but it drives me bat shit crazy.

Note, I’ve seen this tactic employed with human NPCs, lions, tigers, hyenas and practically any other ground combat. Ubisoft, get rid of this tactic. It doesn’t make the game fun, it only makes the combat incredible shite.

Shields

While I realize some NPC’s have shields, the only tactic to get around the bigger shields is try and flank the enemy (almost impossible because they turn around instantaneously) or try to press and hold with a large sword (power attack). The problem I have with these two suggested combat tactics is that they rarely ever work. Yes, the game gives them to you, but by the time you attempt a power attack, the enemy has either stabbed you repeatedly several times or knocked you on the ground and stabbed you. Press and hold attacks are worthless.

Worse, it’s almost impossible to break through a shield on an enemy. The strategy I end up using is climbing and performing a top down assassination over trying to do a break on a shield. Again, Ubisoft got this part totally wrong. Let me at least pull that stupid shield out of their hands and disarm them. Nope, no such feature in the game. Disarming an NPC is just a basic maneuver in any fighting simulator, why is it not here Ubisoft? How about letting me me break their shield in half? Nope, not here either. Shields don’t take damage.

Worse, when I try to use a shield, it’s not nearly as strong as when an NPC uses it. This is the dreaded one-sided fighting behavior that I absolutely abhor in games. If you’re going to make a fighting game, at least have the decency to make it a fair fight. When you tilt the fighting towards the NPC and away from the player, that’s just a shit tactic, Ubisoft.

Finally, shields should eventually break. If I keep hammering on it with my sword, the NPC shield should eventually disintegrate. Nope, these NPC shields are entirely invincible. I shake my head at this crap design.

Combat Mode

In this game, it’s way too easy to trigger combat mode and almost impossible to shut it down short of running far, far away… and even then that doesn’t work if the enemy is on a horse or in a chariot. For whatever reason, an enemy’s horse is always about 25% faster than yours. This is yet another unfair cheat tactic on the part of the game. Horses should either be of equal speed or … what the hell Ubisoft? … let us upgrade our horses to be faster than theirs. Yet another craptacular design failure.

Can’t break out of animations

This should be self-explanatory, but I’ll go ahead and explain it anyway. When you’re in the middle of combat, if you attempt to do certain moves, you can’t do anything else until the animation plays out in full. I’ve had enemies desync the game because I inadvertently triggered a long combat animation sequence that you cannot stop. Because there is no way to break out of an animation sequence, you always have to let it play out in full, enemies can come in and stab or hammer or poke you.

This is even more commonly frustrating because sometimes if you’ve got two or three enemies, they can gang up on you and prevent you from getting out of their fighting tactics. If they hit you in just the right order, even dodging is impossible because the taking wounds animations have to completely play out and cannot be broken out of.

This is crap game design. The player character should always be able to regain control over the situation without waiting for a long-ish animation to complete. All animations need to be broken out of and stopped.

Leveled Characters

So I get that Ubisoft finally added numbers and character levels to the NPC’s in the game. It’s been a long time coming. But, the way this is implemented is entirely and complete garbage… especially for an assassin.

Some enemies are, for all intents and purposes, invincible. These appear with a skull in a red shield above their head. I shake my head at this crap. To simulate real people, the hero should be able to assassinate anyone at any level. Knives don’t discriminate based on level. Assassination is assassination. Level doesn’t matter to a knife. Levels should only matter for melee combat where skill is involved. A stealth assassination from behind or above should always kill the enemy regardless of level. I should rain down from above, knock them down then assassinate any NPC in the game regardless of level. This is how a knife works, Ubisoft. Unfortunately, Ubisoft sets it up so that whenever an enemy is ‘too strong’ (or too high a level), they are invincible from either weapon’s attacks or knife assassination. In fact, a sword that might kill someone at your same level, an invincible enemy might take at most 90 damage.

Again, this crap drives me absolutely bat shit crazy. It’s such a crap design. Ubisoft, stop, learn and listen… and STOP playing these stupid games with your franchises. If you can’t do leveled characters right, then don’t do them at all.

Worse, there’s a preference that allows you to set NPCs to fight at or around your level. Yet, when you turn this setting on, it does absolutely nothing. Characters who were weaker are always weaker. Characters who are leveled way above you stay leveled way above you. If you’re going to add this setting to the menu, Ubisoft can you at least make it work?

Can’t Kill Citizens

In past games, you could kill civilians, but if you killed more than 5, the game would desync. In this game, you can rarely do this. They are simply unkillable in many cases. He’s an assassin. Blades should work equally well on enemies and on civilians alike. Go back to desyncing if you don’t want us doing it. Don’t just prevent the blades from working at all. Though I have found places in the game where civilians can be killed, I’ve also found places where they cannot. This was an unnecessary addition to the game engine.

Horrible combat button placement

For whatever reason, Ubisoft has decided to muck with all of the previous combat button placement. In past games, attack was always on the ABXY or X⃝△▢ buttons in some manner. In Origins, Ubisoft decided to move them to the trigger buttons by default. Wait… what crap is this? Who ever designs games with attack on shoulder or trigger buttons? Thankfully, they offer an alternative mapping that at least puts them on X and Y. No, it’s not optimal placement, but it’s at least it’s on these buttons. Why would you put combat on X and Y over A and B? These combat moves should always be on A and B buttons (Xbox) or X and O buttons (PS4)… like every other game on the planet.

This is always called messing with a good thing and Ubisoft is now firmly guilty of screwing with this game just to screw with it and for no other reason. Bad design.

Smoke Bombs

In past games, you had the ability to get and drop smoke bombs at will. In this game, smoke bombs are tied to combat. To drop a smoke bomb in this game, you now have to perform some kind of combat maneuver, then following that maneuver, press the A button quickly to drop a smoke bomb. No No No NO NO! Dropping a smoke bomb should be a button on its own. Never tie it to a combat move. If I just want to drop a smoke bomb for no reason, that’s my choice. Stupid design.

Perfect Aim

This is one of those complaints I’ve had for a very long time and it keeps coming back time and time again. Every enemy has perfect aim and infinite line of sight. No one ever misses hitting you unless you’re overly good at dodging. Even then, arrows still seem to make their target even after dodging. Yes, you can use your shield to protect yourself, but if that works 50% of the time, you’re lucky. Some enemy is always knocking you back and typically enemies swarm making it impossible to use the shield effectively.

Swarming and moving out of range

Enemies in this game always want to come in swarms. When you climb to avoid the swarms, the NPCs (animals or humans) move just out of range of your ranged weapons if they can’t reach you. This means you can’t shoot arrows at them. This is plain out cheating by the developers. Don’t move NPCs just out of range because they can’t get to you. I’ve seen this tactic in other games and it is entirely unnecessary. Once again, stupid design.

Boat Battles

This is easily the weakest and most unnecessary parts of this game. Several times you’re on board a ship with Aya and random NPC schmoes who don’t make a difference to the story (other than Cleopatra in one battle). You’re tasked to sink ever increasing sized warships. These activities are stupid, unnecessary and overly hard to control. I didn’t find this part of the game at all fun. In fact, I would have preferred skipping this entire section of the game and have the game take me to the final destination. In fact, I almost abandoned the game entirely at this point. I managed to get through this lame, unskippable section of the game through some unnecessary tactics. If you can’t do boat battles right, don’t do them at all… or, at least let us skip the entire activity.

Seriously, what does a boat battle have to do with being an assassin?

Climbing Activities

As with other Assassin’s Creed games, climbing was the gimmick that made Assassin’s Creed work. It’s still in this game as well, but not explained as to how this character does it. He just does. As with other AC titles, climbing sometimes works, but sometimes doesn’t. It depends on what you’re trying to do.

In most cases, the camera gets in the way. Because climbing direction is heavily dependent on which way the camera is facing, when the camera randomly moves, you’ll end up careening off in the wrong direction and setting off a bunch of guards in the process. This is, in fact, one of THE most frustrating aspects of this game (and really, any AC game).

For utilitarian purposes, climbing works fine. For stealthy assassinations, I could swear that the game cheats and sends me careening right in the middle of a load of guards simply to alert them. I’ve learned never to use climbing as an assassination strategy unless there’s plenty of room to maneuver. Even then, it can all go horribly wrong.

Ignoring all of the combat problems, this is one of the games top problems. Though, I’ve had this complaint with just about every Assassin’s Creed game ever made. Though, this game seems to be worse about it than others.

Senu

In lieu of the previous semi-magical “Eagle Vision” that simply just existed, they replaced it with, you know, a pun. They give you “Senu”, a flying Eagle with ‘Vision’. It circles overhead like a vulture. When you activate Senu, you can control him to fly around and over various encampments to identify enemies, loot chests and various other identifiers.

Senu was an unnecessary addition to the game and does nothing to explain the other version of “Eagle Vision”. Instead, they should have simply used the tried-and-true Eagle Vision that had been long established in every prior game. It needed no explaining. Adding this eagle served no purpose other than to make a pun, which wasn’t funny. Senu could have been a great help if it could have not only stunned enemies, but actually damaged them by dive bombing them and/or pecking / scratching them. If you’re going to give us a companion (and since you’re already making this world completely unrealistic anyway), then while you’re at it, let us use Senu as a weapon against enemies right from the start. Such a waste.

Leveling Up

Yes, there is the ability to level up, but it’s so limited as to really not be helpful. You get enough experience points to level up timely enough, but it really doesn’t help make you stronger or better or faster most of the time. The majority of the perks are worthless. There are a few that help (poison darts, smoke bombs), but most don’t do anything to help make Bayek stronger, better or faster. In other words, the majority of the perks do nothing, with only a few having any real purpose. The few that do have purpose are so buried behind the ones that do nothing, you waste a ton perk points just to get to them.

Photo Mode

The photo mode in this game is nice enough, but doesn’t have near enough filters to make it worthwhile with depth of field being the best of the effects. Overall, it’s a nice enough feature, but it’s not worth playing this game just to use it.

Frame Rates, Audio Problems, Crashing, Lost Quests

Frame Rate Problems

One of the things I’ll say about the Xbox 360 versions of this game is that the frame rates were always consistent, particularly with climbing a synchronization point. When you get to the top, the camera circles the player character. This has always been a particularly smooth animation. Not in Assassin’s Creed Origins. Every single synchronization point animation is herky jerky and choppy… and this is at 1080p. I’m not even trying to run this game at 4K. I can’t even imagine what this animation looks like in 4K.

I only recently started playing this game because of a backlog of games I wanted to play first. I also thought that waiting would give Ubisoft enough time to patch stupid bugs. Well, they haven’t. This game is chock full of bugs and problems.

Lost Quests

This is a problem that also drives me insane. I’m playing along, select a quest and I’m on the way there to pick it up or finish it. There are two ways quests are lost here. The first way is I’m traveling a road and an invincible enemy appears and immediately spots me. Invincible enemies are an entirely stupid concept (see above), but they are also on horses that run far faster than mine does… which doesn’t make sense. So, they inevitably catch Bayek and desync. BTW, a single arrow shot or sword swing from an invincible enemy is nearly enough to desync. A second swing or shot and the game always desyncs. Upon respawning, the quest is gone. No where to be found. You can’t find it and you don’t know where it went.

The second place where quests get lost is when the game locks up and/or crashes. Upon restarting the game, the quest is gone. This one is just insanely stupid. It’s not like the game doesn’t have autosaves turned on all throughout. Even if the game just saved seconds before, the quest is gone. Worse, when you respawn, you can end up a long ways away from where you were.

I don’t know how many quests I’ve lost as a result of either of these two problems. Probably 15 to 20. This problem stems from the way this game chooses to save games (see below).

Audio Problems

This is a known problem. Ubisoft has had many reports of this problem going to late 2017. Yet, Ubisoft still hasn’t fixed this issue. I’ve run into it several times. After I’m done playing the game, I then sleep the Xbox One for a period of time. When I wake up the console, there’s no sound at all. When I attempt to change any audio settings in the game to bring it back, I only get an audio chirp about every 5 seconds. Note, the console itself has no problems producing sound as I get that from the Home screen and Cortana and other apps. This problem is entirely a bug in Assassin’s Creed Origins.

Crashing

Most games today crash occasionally. However, this game is well more buggy, crashing way more frequently than average. I’ve had hangs that turn into crashes. I’ve had hangs that recover. I’ve had random crashes with no hang. Since I’ve started playing, I’ve had at least one crash every 1-2 days. This game is not at all stable. Thankfully, the game saves frequently enough that you don’t lose what you’ve already collected. But, you may lose your active quest.

Game Saves

This game chooses to checkpoint save randomly. It makes a noise whenever it saves. I could really do without that noise. If you want to save a game, leave the noises off. Just save the game and put a visual notification. That’s all that’s needed.

You’d think that the game saves would do you a favor. In fact, they don’t. If you desync for any reason, you have to start whatever it was you are doing over from the beginning. The only thing that seems to be saved is chests you may have looted. These seem to remain looted after a desync. Other than that, your character respawns usually far away from the location where you were. This is annoyingly frustrating.

What is the point in a game save if not to recover exactly where you left off? Ubisoft, checkpoint saves are stupid. Get rid of them. Let us save exactly where we are and let us save at will. Let us start right back where we left off… in the middle of battle if necessary. Don’t throw us a long distance away and make us start that activity completely over. Stupid design

Graphics and Sound

While the cities and NPCs are ironically unrealistic in their actions, the visual world itself, particularly the sand dunes, the deserts and the oases are look reasonably realistic. Bayek’s character model is particularly well done. The same for the anime character seen in “Gift from the Gods” quest. I’m not even sure what that quest was about, but the character was straight out of a game like Final Fantasy. For less than 5 minutes on the screen, someone spent an inordinate amount of time modeling that character for the game.

The underwater action is well done and the water movement is better than most games of this type. As with most games today, these hyper-realistic game engines fall down in many small ways… specifically, low res models. While the lighting is well done, the statues and other models are just too low poly. Worse, the flags at the top of the temples are downright horrid. They fly and flap fine, but the edges of the flags look like something out of an 8-bit SuperMario game.

There is one sound thing that drives me insane in this game. It’s when Bayek has to constantly prompt the gamer to go do whatever urgent task is at hand. I don’t need or want that prompting. At least let me turn it off from the settings menu. Additionally, the enemies constantly taunt that the player’s imminent demise. I don’t want to hear this either. Let me shut off those taunting remarks from the enemies. These audio comments are entirely worthless. Either that or turnabout is fair play. If they NPCs can taunt, then let me taunt back with Bayek. Either that, or shut that stupid and repetitive taunting off.

DLC and Season Passes

As if I haven’t railed enough on this game already. Well, let me rail just a little bit more. The season pass costs $40, in addition to the $60 you’ve already paid. Yes, the Season Pass offers the following:

  • The Hidden Ones (Land add-on)
  • The Curse of the Pharaohs (Land add-on)
  • The worthless Calamity blade
  • The Horus Pack (outfit)
  • The Roman Centurion Pack (outfit)
  • 500 Helix credits

Questionably, Ubisoft has excluded certain DLC from this season pass (see below). This is where I begin my rant. What the hell, Ubisoft? First, you add critical game features (levels 41-45) as add-on content instead of actually, you know, patching the game where we already paid $60. I argue features such as increasing character level caps of the original game a critical game patch… not a DLC add-on. At least raise the level cap for everyone in any game version as prep for DLC add-ons. Tying this patch to a DLC is just asinine.

Second, you exclude certain DLC (e.g., the Deluxe Pack) from the season pass entirely? Why is this? All DLC world add-ons should be part of the season pass eventually, including whatever is in release day Deluxe Packs. Excluding these is just an unnecessary money grab. Sure, you can make a deluxe pack be exclusive for a month or two, but they should eventually make their way into season pass holder content. Shit, that’s an extra $10 on top of the $30 we’re expected to spend? Season passes are already questionable enough investments considering it’s possible that no further content will release for that $40 season pass price. Season passes are already a gamble for the gamer as there’s no guarantee of content quality, availability or indeed anything purchasing a season pass on game release day.

Present Day

As with most Assassin’s Creed games, Ubisoft throws in the animus portion as an afterthought. In fact, the story line almost identically follows the Lucy story line in the Desmond stories. Can you guys not think up anything original? The first time through it was fine, but a second time is pointless.

Perhaps it’s finally time to switch the roles around? Make the in-animus games as the afterthought and the out-of-animus present day the actual assassination area. I’d like to see an assassin scale a 50 story building and jump off into a dumpster below or use a parachute. I’d like to see then use the present day as a means to an end. It is fun to see these time period pieces, but let’s not lose sight of the story goal here. If you’re trying to tell a story about Abstergo, then let’s do that.

The in-game ancient temples were almost entirely worthless quest lines in the game as they never come full circle back to the present with Layla. Ubisoft, you guys have a lot of work ahead to actually turn Origins into something better than it currently is.

Overall

The game play mechanics are average. When the mechanics work, they work okay, but occasionally the collision detection is intensely bad. I can see the weapon connect with the enemy, yet nothing. This means extra work just to kill an enemy because the game didn’t detect it. Sometimes it means desync and forced restarting. The enemies who use the back up tactic just drive me absolutely insane. This tactic needs to be removed from the NPC combat AI. It doesn’t serve any purpose other than to frustrate. It doesn’t make the combat harder, it’s just plain stupid.

The stories are twice told tales that don’t really lead anywhere of any specific nature. The only story that ties it all in is when you exit the animus with Layla… Layla being a cheap knockoff of Lucy from Assassin’s Creed. However, what is she really doing there in the first place? We’ve already established the animus as a commercial thing that people can buy and use at home. Why are we going back to these coffin shaped devices? The only storyline that seems to tie it all in are the too few and far between temples were Bayek enables a pedestal which talks of Desmond and the imminent world destruction… not that Bayek will understand any of that… nor does he ever make any comments under his breath afterwards.

Worse, all of that modern day gibberish was inserted into the genetic code replay by the animus as a bug/feature rather than being an actual genetic memory from Bayek’s original story. Yet, Ubisoft completely ignored this leaving the gamer to assume that Bayek actually encountered that information. Sure, I believe he may have visited those temples, but I don’t believe he actually encountered that information during the reign of the Pharaohs. Why should I believe this? The story gives me more reason to believe the animus added that story element than Bayek actually having encountered it for real.

As for multiplayer, what multiplayer? Past AC games have had multiplayer elements, but this game has no direct multiplayer aspects. The only hint of multiplayer are the revenge quests which have you examine a body of a multiplayer in your world. Then, take on a revenge against the in-game enemies who killed that other player in their game. This is of very little consolation for the lack of multiplayer. It’s not like Ubisoft hasn’t offered multiplayer in past AC games. So, I’m befuddled why it was not in Origins.

This game could have been much, much better.

Graphics: 8.9 out of 10
Sound: 6 out of 10
Game Saves: 1 out of 10
Gameplay: 4 out of 10
Controls: 4 out of 10
Combat: 3 out of 10
Stories: 5 out of 10
Multiplayer: 0 out of 10 (there is no direct multiplayer or co-op).
Stability: 2 out of 10

Final Rating: 4.5 stars out of 10
Buy this game at $20 or less from the bargain bin or, if possible, rent it.

Skylanders Trap Team: Review + Kaos Trap?

Posted in botch, video game, video gaming by commorancy on January 9, 2015

trap-team-compatibility-logo[Update 3: 4/6/2015]: Gamestop.com has several Kaos Trap bundles now available online for purchase. Not only do they now have the same 3 trap bundle as on Amazon for $15.99 (only available in stores), Gamestop.com also carries 3 additional Kaos Trap bundles (online only) that Gamestop has created (Kaos-Water-Magic, Kaos-Water-Earth & Kaos-Water-Life) containing 3 trap singles as a bundle for $17.97. If you’re looking for the individual trap (not as part of a 3 pack), this is the best and least costly way to get it. Now I know why Gamestop has been hoarding Kaos Traps from their case packs at their warehouse instead of sending them to the stores. They have been stockpiling these Kaos Traps to create these 3 trap single bundles for online sales. Retailers should not be allowed to break case packs open and hold out stock for months for the purpose of creating bundles. All I can say is, if you want this trap, hurry.

[Update 2: 4/1/2015]: It seems Amazon’s stock of the 3 trap bundle has been temporarily depleted at $14.99. Try back in a day or two as Amazon refreshes their stock every day. However, don’t limit yourself to Amazon. All retailers are likely to get this 3 pack. Try looking at (or calling) Best Buy, Walmart, Gamestop, Target, Kmart, Toys R Us or any other retailer near you that carries Skylander’s toys.

[Update 1: 4/1/2015]: If you’re looking for the Kaos Trap, it is now included in a 3 trap bundle (Air, Kaos, Earth) for KaosTrapBundle$14.99 available now at Amazon. Be sure to choose the Amazon version marked at $14.99. Amazon has a tendency to put items in stock as the first item in the listing (even if it’s a higher price). Choose the Amazon item at $14.99 even if it says it ships later. If you don’t see a $14.99 listing, it means Amazon’s stock has been depleted and their listing has been temporarily removed. Try back again another day.

Skylanders Trap Team

While I have to give kudos yet again to Activision for producing a top notch installment to the Skylanders franchise, there is one huge peeve I have with this series. What is Skylanders you ask? Let’s explore.

Skylanders Video Game and RFID

This game is relatively simple video game with a brilliant gimmick that parents all over the country are cursing their wallet. This is exactly how it was designed by Activision. So, what is it?

It’s simple, it’s basically a cartoon turned into an action fighting game with characters that you must purchase separately. Each figure you purchase has its own strengths and weaknesses in battle. These are determined by the character’s abilities. Once you buy a character toy, you place it on the Traptanium Portal (included with the Starter Pack) and an RFID reader pulls character information stored on the toy into the game. So, the more you play with that character, the higher it levels up and the stronger it becomes.

In fact, it’s a brilliant use of RFID technology and video games. I’d love to see more RPG games use this idea. For example, a series like the Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect or even Star Wars RPGs could benefit from this. Instead of relying on finding items in the world, you would buy them at the store and level them up on your character. The item could then be added to any character you own. There are so many uses for this idea in gaming, it’s sad that it’s not being used more. I think it’s absolutely brilliant for gaming.

Toys and Scarcity

My peeve.. Activision has taken the approach of releasing toys in waves and at random times throughout the year. This does a couple of things. First, withholding some toys means that you can’t play parts of the game until the toy is released. Second, some of the toys are intentionally hard to find so that parts of the game cannot even be completed until you manage to find it or you are willing to pay the highly inflated price on eBay or Amazon.

For Skylanders, this approach is extremely frustrating and introduces kids into the fray of toy collecting early. But, unfortunately, kids don’t have the money to locate or pay for these toys. The parents are firmly on the hook for locating and placating their child’s video game play.

To this I say, “Shame on you Activision”. This series appeals to children at an age that have little concept of collectible toys or scarcity of toys on the shelves. What am I talking about here?

Skylanders Traps

The latest Skylanders game is titled Trap Team. The concept behind this game is that not only can you buy and use toy characters, you can now trap the villains you defeat and they become good characters you can use to defeat new villains and trap them. But, this is not just about any old trap. I’m specifically talking about the Kaos trap. Note that there are 40 or so villains in the game. This also means you need to invest in about 40 traps to to entrap the villains. What is a trap? It’s a small toy that looks like a crystal. It is initially empty, but once you trap a villain, it becomes associated with that specific toy trap. So, everytime you place that trap into the portal, it recalls that same villain. If you take that crystal and put it in someone else’s game, it will also pull in that villain into their game.

In addition to buying small traps, there are different elements (earth, air, water, fire, life, tech, magic, undead, light and dark). Each of these element types requires a special trap that is color coded. So, unless you have one of these specific types of traps, you cannot trap a villain of that type. More specifically, the main villain in the game is Kaos. He has his own personal trap type called, creatively enough, the Kaos trap. This trap can only ever hold Kaos. Once you trap Kaos, you can use him as a character in battle.

KaosTrapUnfortunately, Activision has dropped the ball heavily with this game in this area. While it’s easy to find Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Tech, Life, Magic and Undead traps pretty much everywhere, the Kaos trap is extremely hard to find. In fact, in a case of 20-30 traps, there may be only 3 Kaos traps. This means the store gets a boatload of these easy-to-find elements and Kaos trap immediately sells out. Because Kaos can only be trapped in a Kaos trap, you have to find that trap or your child cannot play as Kaos. Kaos is the absolutely strongest villain in the game, so having him to use in battle is extremely useful.

Note, a lot of people believe this trap has never been released. It has. It was released when all of the traps first released. However, there are so few in the retailer case packs that you’re unlikely to ever see it in the store. What I recommend at this point is to buy the Dark Edition Starter Pack which contains an Ultimate Kaos trap. This will at least let your child play as Kaos. The Dark Edition is a whole lot more expensive than buying the Kaos trap at retail price, but this trap is almost impossible to find in any retailer. At this point, to buy the Kaos trap alone aftermarket might cost you $50. Though, that’s cheaper than buying the Dark Edition Starter pack. But, if you’re buying the game brand new, I highly recommend buying the Dark Edition set. If you’ve got an existing a game you’ve already purchased, then buying an aftermarket trap may be the only answer. I’d also suggest filing a complaint with Activision on the scarcity of this trap.

Light and Dark Traps

The reason I excluded the Light and Dark traps from the above is that both of these sets were released immediately prior to Christmas. These traps are a bit hard to find because they are brand new. But, they can be obtained in the light and dark adventure packs that also contain the new level, the trap and a trap master. The light (Sunscraper Spire) and dark (Midnight Museum) adventure sets can be found periodically on Amazon. Note, make sure that it says you’re buying these from Amazon and not a third party seller to get the lowest price. When Amazon (or any store) has these in stock, they should cost around $29.

Activision’s Game Clock

There is absolutely no reason the Kaos trap is so hard to find. Activision could ship retailers cases entirely of the Kaos trap and completely eliminate the scarcity of this trap. In fact, there is no reason this trap is so scarce. This is an artificial scarcity that Activision has introduced into the series, but this type of scarcity doesn’t belong with this game. This is a completely mistaken and asinine strategy. If this were a series aimed at adults (and specifically adult collectors), such as The Elder Scrolls series, this situation is perfectly acceptable. Unfortunately, this game is targeted completely at children. This scarcity of the Kaos trap is likely backfiring on Activision hard and ruining their PR, but they seem oblivious to this issue.

Parents have no interest in playing this game (other than getting things for their children) and will ultimately take the game away from little Timmy when it becomes too costly and problematic. That means, no more money to Activision from that family. More and more families are pulling the plug on this game in their household because of this exact scarcity issue. To avoid disappointments in children, you take away the thing that’s causing it. Worse, children don’t have the longest attention span in the first place. So, when a child can’t do what they want to do in the game, they’re going to give up on it sooner rather than later and never come back to it. Meaning, if they can’t get the Kaos trap to play as Kaos when they need it, they’ll give up on the game and forget all about it by the time the Kaos traps do arrive.

Shelf Life of Games

Games typically have a 6 month or so shelf life at the longest before a newer more compelling game is released. Seeing as this game released October 4th, 2014, the clock is firmly ticking on Activision to make these toys more readily available. If Activision cannot solve this Kaos scarcity problem, assuming the parents haven’t already pulled the plug on the game, the kids will lose interest by the time the next game arrives.

Kaos Arena Game Play

What’s worse is not only the shelf life, but the replay-ability. This game is short. It doesn’t take long to get through the entire story piece. Getting through the arena levels takes only slightly longer. However, if you want to open every door and unlock every treasure, that takes substantially longer. Unfortunately, you can’t easily do this because Activision was, until recently, withholding critical toys to make this a reality. But, in gaming, not everyone is a completionist, let alone assuming this of children. While some children may want to finish the entire game and get every medal, not everyone will.

In reality, once you get through the story entirely, you’re pretty much done with the game. You don’t learn anything new or gain any new story by completing everything. So, it’s a stretch to ask kids to wait months to get the final content they need to complete the game. In fact, Activision is stretching it if they think they can stretch this game’s lifespan longer with this slow drip toy strategy. Activision will be lucky if many kids are still playing this game come March. Timing is everything with this game and Activision not delivering critical pieces of the game within a few weeks of the release of this game is really not a great strategy.

Costly

SkylandersDarkEditionOne aspect of this game that I haven’t yet touched on is cost. To really play this game properly, in addition to buying the Starter Pack Edition game kit (around $50) or the Dark Edition Kit (around $125), you need a Trap Master of every element and purchase traps of every element. Like Skylanders Swap Force required purchasing characters that you could swap their top and bottoms, you also needed every element and every power type to complete Swap Force. The same goes with Trap Team. Not only do you need a Trap Master of every element (of which Magic, Light and Dark are the hardest to find), you also need to buy a trap to contain each villain to be a completionist. That entails purchasing 40 traps in addition to 10 trap masters. Traps cost around $6 a piece and trap masters anywhere from $12.99 to $14.99, though Toys R Us puts them on sale at buy one get one 40% off regularly. So, you can reduce the cost by taking advantage of this deal. You can also save a little money if you buy the bulk trap packs that contain 3 or 8 traps bundled together.

And don’t think you can get away just with purchasing the toys. No. You’ll need to organize and store them. So, you’ll also need to purchase a chest for the traps and a case to hold the figures to keep them organized and stored.

EliteChopChopIt doesn’t stop there, there are also standard toy characters that you can buy to battle with and more powerful characters called Eon’s Elites (which are primarily collectibles and only available at Gamestop and EB Games in North America, Australia and New Zealand, and select retailers in Europe). They also appear to be limited. Be prepared to call Gamestop or EB Games looking for these Elites if you need to find them. There are adventure packs to add new levels to the game which usually retail around $30-35.

This is a fairly substantial investment for a game. Most games cost $60 with at most $10-20 worth of DLC. But, Skylanders can run you into the hundreds of dollars with all of the toys and add-ons. I’d recommend that, unless absolutely necessary, the toys should remain in their packaging. This will retain the value of the toy. So, when the game is done, you can put it on eBay and sell it off at a reasonably good value. People are willing to buy figures still in the package, so it’s always wise to do this when possible. Keep in mind that this is impossible to do for the traps. The traps have to be extracted from their packages to be used. But, the Trap Masters and most of the characters will play just fine if left in the package. The only exception to this is the Light and Dark adventure packs that include traps that must be extracted to be used. So, you have to rip open these packages for the traps.

Overall

The game is reasonably fun and plays like watching a cartoon. The voice acting is superb and the story is well written. But, it does require a costly investment in toys and extras. Unless you have the means and you are willing and able to run around or call stores constantly to find that ever-elusive toy or trap, you might not want to consider this game for your child. It could end up being a huge source of frustration. Else, you’re likely to find yourself spending a lot of time running around looking for the elusive trap, toy or character. And, these waves of new toys don’t stop. There are many variations of trap shapes (well more than there are villains). Toys will continue to show up in stores until Activision releases the next version of Skylanders. However, you will be able to use these toys in the next Skylander’s game, but Activision will require a new gimmick to force repurchase of an entirely new set of toys. Ultimately, the game itself is fun, but not overly replayable. However, for some children Trap Team may offer some level of replay.

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Call of Duty – Advanced Warfare Review: Good, but a mixed bag

Posted in reviews, video gaming by commorancy on November 8, 2014

CallOfDutyLogoCubeMost previous Call of Duty titles were more-or-less grounded in some reality close to today. Well, Advanced Warfare finally tosses all of that aside and goes straight for a fantasy shooter. No longer are we looking at real world locations with real world weapons, we’re now firmly looking at some distant future where there are robotic suits you can strap on, flying drones with machine gun weapons, magnetic wall crawling abilities and more. This is definitely not the Call of Duty of yore.

Story

Your character, Jack Mitchell, is an ex-military war vet with a missing arm lost in a botched mission. As you’re being washed out of the military, Atlas corporation enlists you to give you a second chance with a prosthetic arm (and to become a mercenary). No sooner is the prosthetic arm strapped on than is Atlas sending you into a training simulation, to which you fail because the ‘arm isn’t ready’ (part of the story). As soon as you get the arm repaired, you are sent in a second time (yes, you do this mission twice) and you succeed the second time.

From here, you find out that the owner of Atlas, Jonathan Irons (Kevin Spacey), likes what you have to offer Atlas and continues to court you into their team. From here, the story begins.

Kevin Spacey as Jonathan Irons

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Kevin Spacey as Jonathan Irons

I’m mixed about this whole let’s-make-a-main-character-look-like-an-actor gimmick. In reality, the first and only thing I see each time I see this character is Kevin Spacey, not Jonathan Irons. In fact, Jonathan’s name is so not mentioned in the story that you really don’t ever know what this character’s name really is. Note, Spacey’s character name is so badly unmentioned in this game that I had to actually go Google his name to write this review. Unfortunately, that lack of namedropping doesn’t help this character to become more menacing. In fact, because he’s not in most of the game and because you don’t even know his name, what makes the writers think this character is even worthy of being a villain? I mean, one way or the other, this character had to die in the game. It was inevitable based on the way the story was set up. But, the character development around this villain is seriously lacking.

The rest of the story

Though, the story is less about Jonathan and more about you and Gideon’s (your sidekick) missions. It’s what drives the game and keeps the action interesting. The story is reasonably decent, but is centered around distinct missions that are distanced by time. So, the cohesion of the story isn’t always as good as it could have been. But, the action and lack of repetition does keep the story and environments quite interesting.

Story Choice and Player Character

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Cormack and Mitchell

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Gideon and Mitchell

Let’s just bluntly say, there are none. The story is linear. There are no choices that you can make that impact the outcome of any of the segments or the final ending. So, if you want to let someone live vs die, there are no choices in this game like this. You’re dragged through the story, more or less, as a tag-along for the entire game. While your character is made to seem important by Atlas, the missions treat you as a rookie who barely knows his way around a training coarse. The game does not at all treat you like you’re the well respected and experienced soldier that you formerly were.

Linear Shooter

The downside to this game is that it is a completely linear shooter. What I mean by that is that it has absolutely no open world elements. It’s a firmly closed world kept in check mostly by Mitchell’s death. Meaning, if you stray from the mission, Mitchell is dead. If you do the wrong thing, Mitchell is dead. If you lag, Mitchell is dead. If you do anything other than what the story requires, Mitchell dies or the mission fails and ends. If it’s not your character who dies, then it’s one of your sidekicks. If they die, your mission is over. If you’re looking for more of an open world to play around in, don’t look here. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is not the game for you.

Graphics

10525368_932844880078066_7906915004664649843_oOn the other hand, this game on the PS4 is absolutely stunning visually. From the detailed suits that everyone wears to the vehicles, to the landscapes, to the buildings, the signage, everything. There’s not a detail in this world that wasn’t painstakingly made in high res. Combining all of that with near perfect naturalistic lighting, and you have some amazing scenes in the game. In fact, the cut scenes may have been produced on the PS4 and recorded. The graphics on the PS4 are so close in look to the cut scenes, it seems they likely were recorded on the PS4. Even as visually stunning as this game is, it can’t overcome the forced linear nature of the gameplay.

Gameplay

For the most part, I like the game play. The controls are simple, they work well and the button layouts are perfectly placed. However, that’s not the real problem here. The real problem is the inconsistent nature of the suit (see Exo Suit section below). This game borrows heavily from games like Killzone Shadowfall (futuristic look and feel plus some story elements), Halo 3 (vehicle, weapons and shield) and Crysis (the suit and lighting). Unfortunately, as much as they borrow, it doesn’t help the gameplay that much because of the linear nature. In fact, the gameplay is so linear, it might as well have been a rail shooter. Why even let us wander off at all? Just put up barriers. Nope, instead, they let you wander off but then give you a warning message ‘You are about to abandon your team’.  If you stray far enough for long enough, the mission fails.

This is the most problematic portion of this game. Here the artists have created an absolutely stunning world with well developed characters using amazing character models, and we’re stuck being a tag along.  Though, the character AI on the sidekicks has to be some of the worst I’ve seen in a game. Gideon’s aim is about as good as a Stormtrooper in Star Wars. That is, he couldn’t hit the side of a barn if it were 5 feet away. Seriously, the game entirely relies on your aim and your gun skills to kill anything and everything that moves. The other characters do occasionally manage to kill an enemy or two, but usually only at close range by melee. Not usually by killing them with a gun.

There are also times in the game where Gideon’s voice work is truly and utterly annoying. There’s one mission where you have to cross what amounts to a highway with continual cars and buses speeding by. At times, I felt like Frogger. Anyway, what’s most annoying about this scene is Gideon says ‘Get across the road’ every 2 seconds. Literally, every 2 seconds he’s chiming in telling you to get across the road. But, there are like 10 enemies on the median waiting to pop a cap in you. So, the first thing you need to do is sniper them all off considering Gideon’s (lack of) ability to actually shoot a gun. In among his constantly annoying chatter, you’re trying to pick off these enemies. It’s like, “Dude, shut the hell up and shoot these people first. Then, we’ll worry about getting across the damned road.”  And even worse, just a few feet away from you is a pedestrian overpass. If you try to go over to the overpass to get a higher vantage point, you can’t. The game simply won’t let you. In fact, if you try, it will warn that you’re about to abandon your mission. So, where is that ‘use whatever you can to get an advantage’ strategy that Call of Duty was so previously famous for?

Simulations and Checkpoint Saves

1956906_932045896824631_5119604728357774203_oAs with most Call of Duty games, the developers like to throw in a lot of different game modes to keep the game from becoming stale. In this case, there are flight simulators, suit jetpacks, jumping super high, a hover bike, hover tank simulator, mech suits, drone machine gun control, etc. These are some of the various additions. These are few and far between. In fact, you’ll only get one chance at each of these. For the flying simulator, that’s actually a good thing. The flight simulator in this game is probably one of the most horrible flight sims I’ve ever played. It’s so bad, in fact, that it feels like you’re flying about 2 MPH and you can’t keep yourself from running into anything and everything in the environment. Sometimes the developers just don’t get these pieces right.

On the hover bike level, I actually failed at a point where I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to finish. Because you’re supposed to be following Gideon on his bike, the save check point saved my game at a point where I was just too far away. So, every time it restarted my game, I didn’t have enough time to catch up to him. I finally found a trick that somewhat reset the fail timer and let me finally get past this level without restarting. I had this same exact problem on the hover tank level with the checkpoint save. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any tricks for the hover tank and I restarted the entire mission from the beginning. In this game, checkpoint saves aren’t always your friend.

Exo Suit

The suit itself is kind of cool, but a little too derivative of other suits like the Crysis Nanosuit. Though the initial suit was more or less a skeleton that attached to your body (rather than full body coverings), later in the game you get a full body suit that is much more reminiscent of the suit in Crysis (cloak included).

The suit has a lot of cool features, but the enemies always appear to have technologies that conveniently counter some of the most useful of the suit’s capabilities, like the cloak.  I mean, why even offer a cloak in the game when you can’t even use it most of the time? Seriously, why spend the time building the feature in the game when it cannot even be used for much of the game?

The secondary problem with the Exo Suit is that the features of the suit are turned on and off by the story and level segment. So, while you do have a drone you can use, you can only used it at specific limited times. If you want to jump high, that’s only available at limited times. If you want to use the grappling hook, that’s only available on limited levels. Instead of adding more and more to your suit, the designers chose to enable the suit features only when the gameplay warranted their use, not when the gamer chooses to use them.

Overall

1522580_932845190078035_8037699168592533202_oIn among all of the above problems, I enjoyed the game’s campaign and story. The main problem with this game, just like Killzone Shadowfall, the campaign is very very short.  You can expect to finish the entire campaign in under 3 days casually playing. If you are a hard core gamer, you can probably finish it in under 24 hours. For $60, this is far too short. This is also the exact same way I felt about Killzone Shadowfall. It also has a great campaign game, but is too short. Halo 3’s campaign is much more lengthy.  It took me at least a couple weeks or longer to get through Halo 3, not to mention all the easter eggs all over the level (i.e., the skulls).

It seems with the next generation games, short gameplay is the number one problem. To produce these visually stunning, nearly photo real and human motion accurate games, the gameplay and story are sacrificed. This leaves the story no more than 2-3 days worth of play value. It’s unfortunate, I’d rather have a less pretty experience and a much more lengthy campaign that might take a month to complete. For that $60, I want to have a long and lengthy story experience. I want to walk away feeling like I’ve just experienced the equivalent of a visual novel. I want to walk away also knowing I got my $60 worth of play.

Unless you are a really devoted fan of multiplayer games, I’d recommend that for the reason of shortness, you rent it. Though, the game does look amazing.

Graphics: 10/10
Sound: 9/10
Gameplay: 7/10 (flight sim was horrible, suit lacks consistent abilities)
Overall: 7.5/10

Bioshock Infinite: Crap game design 101?

Posted in video gaming by commorancy on March 29, 2013

Bioshock Infinite

[Update 10/27/2015: This update note is way overdue. Irrational Games closed their doors in Feb 2014. Ken Levine decided he needed to work on smaller projects and closed Irrational Game Studios. In reality, Bioshock Infinite’s continued development problems and final released result are likely what directly led to Irrational’s closure. This game will ultimately go down in history as the game that sank the Bioshock franchise.]

Seriously, I don’t get big gaming companies like EA and 2K. Do they seriously hire pre-teen game designers to build their games? What makes anyone think that levels like the Prophet’s First Lady Airship level in Bioshock Infinite is in any way fun?

First Lady Airship

So, here’s a major game design faux pas. Even above the fact that Bioshock Infinite is clearly a 4.5 out of 10 star game, the levels are so trite, cliche and predictable that they’re not really even a challenge. Oh, they’re challenging from the point that you have limited ammo, limited health, your character dies at the drop of a hat and they keep throwing wave after wave of enemies at you. The enemies are just so lame. The trouble is, when you get to the Prophet’s airship, the whole game completely unravels into an unmitigated disaster.

The Airship level is stupid long and seemingly unending. Here is one of those levels where you are ‘traveling’ (or basically just waiting) to get some place and wave after wave after seemingly infinite wave of enemies just continue to bombard your ship’s health and you. I mean, who thinks this crap up? Worse, what person in their right mind would even think that this type of level is the remotest bit fun? It’s not like this type of level hasn’t been done before and done better in older games. Essentially, all you’re doing is continually running out of ammo, running out of health and being revived and the level is practically impossible (even on easy). There’s absolutely no strategy here and, for whatever reason, your character keeps falling off of the deck. Worse, you’ve got annoying Elizabeth constantly and inexplicably interrupting the game play to throw you salts and ammo (which forces the camera to turn away from the action making it impossible to keep your focus on completing the level). And, her interruptions usually happen at the most inopportune times, but not when you really need it.

Then, trying to use the Song Bird to complete the level only seems to make the game spawn even more enemies at once. And it’s not like the Song Bird is that much of a help with that stupid slow timer. What’s the point in the timer anyway? Just let me use that blessed bird any time I want!

Silly Stupid Levels

On some levels, there’s a vending machine about every 2 steps. On other levels, there is not a vending machine to be found. The game designers have no concept of how to place things around the levels. It’s all hapazard and randomly placed. They might as well just let you spawn them at your own choosing.

Unexpected from 2k / Irrational Games

This type of crap gaming is not something I’d expect at all from 2k Games. But, here we are. I’m willing to forgive some stupidity in a game, but this just so trite, cliche and asinine that this is it for my involvement in this franchise. I will not be buying any more Bioshock games. The last few Bioshock games taxed my patience, but I never felt like I do with Infinite. This game is just intentionally stupidly designed. Did the designers rip a page from the ‘Video game book of crappy design’ or something?

Gone are the familiars

Looking for Big Daddy?  Gone.  Looking for Splicers?  Gone.  Looking for Little or Big Sisters?  Gone.  Nothing of the familiar remains from Bioshock. Not even ADAM. This is an all new incarnation, a rewrite or, as some might say, a prequel.  Although, if it is a prequel, it has almost no elements that tie this to the underwater environments of Bioshock.  Unfortunately, the familiar is what made Bioshock into Bioshock.  Removing all of these elements and the dark moody watery environments for a sunny blue sky carnival atmosphere just doesn’t really work. It tries to be creepy, but it fails.  It tries to feel like the old Bioshock, but it tries way too hard and fails. The Rollercoaster rails are just not sufficient to replace the familiars. In fact, the rails just didn’t really even work that well as a travelling method.  You can’t do much with them or on them.

The story is haphazard and fractured throughout the game.  Instead, the designers rely way too much on the gameplay itself to carry this Bioshock wannabe.  Unfortunately, the gameplay is far too generic of a shooter to really hold up to the Bioshock standard. 2k and Irrational should have just left well enough alone and closed out this series with a Bioshock 3 (set in Rapture). This game should have been called something entirely new.  They should have just let Infinite stand as its own name, game and brand.  Tying Infinite to the Bioshock franchise was just a money play in hopes that gamers wouldn’t see through this ploy.  I’m definitely here to say that this ploy didn’t work.  Although, I can definitely understand the need to tie Infinite to the Bioshock brand because this game would have failed on its own.

Overall

The best part of this game is the Steampunk ambience. Unfortunately, that’s where it really ends. The game is so amazingly repetitive and stupidly designed, I just can’t believe that someone at 2K even gave the green light to this turd. Basically, the only resemblance to Bioshock is the name and the Vigors. Everything else is so foreign, it just doesn’t work. Then, when you get to levels like the First Lady airship and the ghost cemetery level, you’ll feel like you’ve played this game already at least 3 times before. Worse, you probably have!

There is no originality in this game and the levels are so bland and uninspired, it’s not even worth playing. While Bioshock 1 and 2 felt unique and had at least some cool features, all of that was tossed completely out the window when they designed Bioshock Infinite. I’m hoping this is the last in this franchise as this game feels like a game designed by a company where this is their first title ever published. It doesn’t feel like a big name company produced this game or spent any real amount of time or care on this title. It really just feels like a quick throw-together to make quick cash.

If you’re a Bioshock fan, this game might be worth renting.  However, if you’re not a fan of this franchise, I’d urge you to steer clear of this disaster. There’s nothing fun here and the story is just not really compelling. In fact, the game feels so much like Fallout New Vegas in style, you’d swear they ripped off most of their ideas from both Obsidian and Bethesda. But, beyond the style of it, that’s where the similarity ends.  Fallout New Vegas is a much much better game than Bioshock Infinite has any hope of being.

[Update: If you haven’t played the game, I’d recommend not playing the following video as it will spoil the game ending].  Since it’s been sometime since I have updated this review, I think it’s time to show the ending of this game (such that it is), of which I personally think is one immense fail on the part of the writers. The ending happens right after the lame airship level is completed. It took the game designers about 15 minutes to explain off the entire plot premise and even then it wasn’t very successful. I’ll leave it up to you to watch and decide, though…  I’ve also written another Randosity article entitled Bioshock Infinite: Or, why circular time paradoxes suck! that explains why this ending (and this game) sucks so hard and rightly deserves the 4.5 star rating.

Recommendation: Rent, don’t buy.  Skip if you’re not a fan.

Stars: 4.5/10 (needs a lot of work)

Game Studio: Irrational Games / 2K

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