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Game Review: The Outer Worlds

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on October 29, 2019

The Outer Worlds_20191024235517While I hadn’t specifically heard that Obsidian was building “The Outer Worlds”, I was certain that this studio must have something in the works. I only came to find out about The Outer Worlds a week before its release. Due to other commitments, I hadn’t actually been keeping up with game releases for 2019. Let’s explore this game.

The Engine

Let’s start with the brightest star of this game. Unlike other RPG game studios that will remain nam… oh, that’s never gonna work. Bethesda. Ok, I said it. Bethesda… Happy now? Anyway, as I was saying, unlike other RPG game studios like Bethesda, Obsidian’s engine driving this game is rock stable. By “rock stable”, I mean nary a crash, glitch, frame rate drop or any other odd artifact have I run into while playing this game. The engine delivers a solid, fully functional, fully realized gaming system that seems free of major bugs or defects. Definitely a welcome change in the game development industry. That doesn’t mean this game is “bug free”… oh, no no no, my friends, but it does mean that unlike Bethesda, Obsidian seems to actually employ real game testers and a real QA team who do their jobs correctly. The bugs you are likely to run into are small, super edge cases you’re almost never likely to run into. The bugs you’ll find are also not at all likely to be showstoppers. Inconvenient occasionally, yes, but we can all live with an occasional minor bug.

What that means in this game is a poster child and a shining example to pretty much every other bug laden studio out there. The Outer Worlds proves that, yes, games CAN be written without glitching and crashing every 30 minutes. Obsidian definitely shows us and the industry that this level of software development is, in fact, possible. No, you don’t have to rely on your users to beta test your games and file bug reports. You can, instead, employ actual teams designed to locate, spot and eliminate these bugs before players ever venture into your story or your game world.

However, while this reliability and stability is a shining spot in The Outer Worlds, let’s talk about the features of this game including what it is and what isn’t… and believe me, there’s a lot to talk about here.

Role Playing Game?

The Outer Worlds_20191029024841

The Outer Worlds_20191029043959While The Outer Worlds does employ a number of role playing elements, it isn’t really a role playing game in the truest sense. In effect, The Outer Worlds is a party/team-based first person shooter. Sure, there’s looting, skill-building and limited workbench activities, but that’s really where the “Role Playing” ends. It has about as much a role playing in the game as the Resident Evil series.

A “role” playing game usually indicates that there are, in fact, multiple role types available. In Skyrim, for example, you could choose your race and your class. These features are typical in role playing systems. In Skyrim, you could make your character a Khajit Magic User or a Breton Warrior. It was up to you how you set up your character. If you set your character up as a warrior, this would increase certain “warrior” attributes up front and decrease others. This meant you had certain types of attacks which were very strong and certain attacks that were very weak. That’s the point in an RPG. Setting up your character to perform a certain way in specific combat situations.

In The Outer Worlds, there are no classes or character types. You are who you are and what you are. In this case, you’re human and you’re a colonist on a failed transport mission. It is now your mission to free your fellow colonists still stuck in the transport. That’s the pretext. The rest of the game is about leveling up your character, learning about the enemies and foes, negotiating with them (yeah, we’ll talk about this shortly) and sometimes killing them.

Anyone classifying this game as a true role playing game doesn’t fundamentally understand what an RPG is. It is, in fact, a first person shooter containing limited RPG elements. I liken it to Mass Effect in this way.

Space Epic

Here’s another area where it’s difficult to quantify this game. It purports to be a space epic, yet it has almost nothing to indicate it even takes place in space. Sure, you’re aboard a “space ship”, but not once do we get to see any space battles, scenes of landing on planets, no cut scenes, nothing to indicate the ship is, in fact, space faring.

The Outer Worlds_20191029035434All we get is a small galaxy map that when your ship travels, a tiny little sprite representation moves across the map and then, bam, you’re there. No space scenes. No faster than light travel scenes. No cut scenes. No waiting on travel. One second you’re in one location and the next you’re in another.

It’s entirely disappointing that being a space epic, you have absolutely no space flying scenes at all. Not a single one. The only cut scene that indicates space travel is the very first one that opens the story. After that, nothing.

Dialog

The Outer Worlds_20191028235233Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), within The Outer Worlds the dialog abounds… and boy does it ever! If you love having random conversations with random NPCs, this is your game. The amount of dialog in this game is astounding. You can have several multi-minute long conversations about nothing in particular with an NPC that really makes no difference to the outcome of the story. Sure, it might make a difference to your “charisma” with that specific character, but the dialog is shallow and pointless.

For the same reason that Bethesda expects you to spend minutes tooling around listening to pointless holotapes full of “lore”, Obsidian expects you to tool around for minutes in dialog with pointless NPCs. Worse, too much of the dialog is dry and really doesn’t do anything specific.

The only reason to even converse with random NPCs is to, hopefully, receive a new quest so you can get loot and gain more experience. Not that that’s really required as you can get loot and experience simply by joining random skirmishes in the landscape.

If you’re really happy about seeing tons of dialog throughout a game, well then this is your game! For me, there’s a tipping point to too much dialog. Dialog should be equally nestled into a solid gaming experience. Dialog should only be used to advance the story, but never to sidetrack the player into pointless dialog experiences. Unfortunately, The Outer Worlds falls far into the “too much dialog” trap.

Voice Actors

While there are a few solid voice actors in the roster of characters within The Outer Worlds, there are a number of voices that are outright bad. There’s nothing worse than trying to dig through dialog choices when the voice actor is so bad you have to cringe. It only makes the dialog experience worse. If you’re going to rely so heavily on dialog in a game, you should also make darn sure that your voice actors are up to that task.

Visuals

The Outer Worlds_20191029035151Here’s where this game gets rough. I’m not talking about stability here, I’m talking about lighting, textures and stylistic design. What I mean here is that the game’s visuals are problematic. First, there’s an odd choice of heavily relying on chromatic aberration over the entire screen without the option to turn it off. Not only is this effect hard on the eyes, it’s tiresome to look at constantly, it dulls the image and makes the image muddy. It’s fine to put a screen effect on as long as it can be disabled in a setting. If I don’t want chromatic aberration on the screen, let me turn it off.

Night scenes with low lighting fare even worse with this effect. The textures don’t read, become lower res and generally look bad. This is a rendering issue in the chosen engine. This game isn’t very realistic as it is, but certain lighting conditions look particularly bad. The above Stellar Bay image looks reasonably okay, but clicking to enlarge that image will show off the chromatic aberration problem.

Second, the game adds an odd color hue filter over the screen to not only give the world a color cast, it also dulls the scene by reducing contrast. Instead of the visuals popping because of contrasts, it all remains a similar monotonous contrast range.

Third, the game is chock full of “fake” product placements. In fact, that’s part of the story. These products are strewn all over the world on tables, in containers, in vending machines and so on. You can buy them, you can find them and you can even steal them. There are so many food and drink items in this game, it’s almost confusing what’s available. It’s just the opposite of Fallout, where you basically have only Nuka Cola and Blamco Mac and Cheese. The rest of the food’s labels are so degraded, the maker has been lost. In The Outer Worlds, there are at least 4 different vending machine types selling at least 4 different types of “branded” products. You can find these items strewn all over the world in containers, but you can also buy them.

On the one hand, I appreciate all of the “brand” artwork that was built to make this world seem (and is the key word here) grounded, but too many branded products means overkill… and in this game, there’s plenty of overkill.. but not for the…

Combat

Here’s where the game gets really weak. The combat system in this game is completely last gen. While it does offer a tactical time dilation (TTD — time slowing) gimmick, unfortunately that gimmick just isn’t very useful. It doesn’t increase damage output. It doesn’t help you aim. It doesn’t provide auto-aim. In fact, the only thing it does is slow down movement… and not even for very long. Yes, it might help you target the enemy’s head better, but that’s about where the benefit of TTD ends. It’s a “wannabe” VATs, but fails to work like VATs on just about every level.

As for straight up combat, it’s average. It’s no better than just about any other shooter and it relies heavily on the player’s ability to use the controller to aim. If you’re good with movement and aiming, you’ll do fine in combat. If you aren’t good at aiming, your character will die often and you’ll need to employ other strategies to win. Also, the combat is repetitive, but not in the way you might be thinking. It’s repetitive because the skirmish locations are entirely predictable, coupled with always being manned with the same exact enemies in the same quantities and strength. It’s simply monotonous after the first skirmish.

Perks and Skills

As with any modern first person shooter, the game wouldn’t be complete without some form of leveling system. To that end, the game offers you both perk and skill points. Perks offer your character an ability that enhances your character or your companion(s) in some way. For example, you can apply a perk that increases your carry weight, increases TTD duration, decreases cool downs, allows you to fast travel while overencumbered and so on. There are many perks that can enhance your play experience. However, you are limited to one perk point every few levels. This means these perk points take a very long time to achieve.

Skill points, on the other hand, enhance your character’s attributes, such as persuasion, lying and dialog. It can also help your melee skills, your ranged weapon skills and others. However, until level 50, you can only apply skill points by section. This then applies one point per each item in that section. Once skill points reach 50 in a section, you can then apply points individually to specific skills. Skill points are issued at every single level up where perk points are only issued every now and then.

Additionally, you can also find wearable items that can enhance your character’s skills without the need to add points or wait for a level up. For example, a pair of goggles might add +5 to sneak or tech.

Crafting

The Outer Worlds_20191029053258Here’s another place where the game is extremely light. There is a single workbench in the game. This workbench allows you to modify, break down, repair and enhance existing weapons and armor. This is as far as crafting in this game goes. You can’t actually craft anything in this game, you can only fix, modify, destroy or upgrade existing items that you find. Destroying something only returns components which are needed to repair items, which wear down.

Weapons and Armor both wear down rapidly in this game. Without perks equipped which reduce the speed of damage, you’ll find yourself at a workbench after one or two skirmishes to repair your gear. This means you’ll need to break down lots of stuff to have enough components to perform these repairs. This means grinding and lots and lots of looting. Don’t pass dead enemies or containers by without checking. You’ll need to do this to progress in this game.

Unfortunately, while the planets team with plant life, you can use none the plant life to create potions, foods or healing serums. Expect that you’ll need to loot or buy your health items at vendors. I found this lack of health item crafting a huge miss for this game (and, in general, a miss for a modern RPG style game). There also aren’t specific health containers in this shooter. You’ll have to open buildings and loot kitchens for items. Even then, you will more than likely need to buy health inhalers and such from vending machines… so expect to grind, loot and then sell, sell, sell to get enough bits to buy this stuff. Same for amor.

Assigning Weapons and Health

You can assign weapons to 4 slots and toggle through them one at a time. You can also assign health items to slots which can then be used when you press the “emergency medical inhaler” key. You’ve got to manually remember to go assign these, though. If you forget, you’re going to be doing this in the heat of battle.

Autosave and Character Death

The game offers only a limited Autosave feature, it only saves when you exit certain buildings. There’s no way to trigger an autosave manually. These only trigger under specific limited conditions.

When your character dies, there is no “respawning”. This is a game where character death means “game over”. This means you need to reload a previous save from the saved games area. The game doesn’t automatically reload from that save. Instead, you are forced to stop what you are doing, open the save game area and reload… waiting for the game to reload the whole area again.

This is much more than a mere inconvenience. I also consider this a huge miss in game design. Most modern games are designed with at least minimal respawn capabilities. How hard is it to hold a save location somewhere in reserve, then use it to automatically reload the game after a player character’s death? We’ll come to why this is important shortly.

Quests and Currency

Many game designers seem to think that putting up a huge hurdle to overcome at the beginning of the game is a smart choice. It’s not. However, Obsidian decided to use this idea and run with it. Within the first four main questlines, your character is required to come up with 18,000 bits (in-game credits) to buy two mostly nonsensical items. Let’s understand why this is such a bad idea and such a miss.

In a game where your character is just barely getting its footing with armor and weapons, the game throws two main quests at you basically forcing you to gather 18,000 bits (in addition to the bits you’re going to need to buy weapons, armor and health). Being new to the game, you have to make a choice. Do you hold all of your bits and not spend any so you can get through these quests or do you spend your bits and upgrade your character properly? That the designers forced gamers into making this choice very early in the game, it means that those who want to progress the main quest must leave their characters and companions weak until past these quests.

This type of quest shouldn’t have appeared in this game until at least halfway through when, by sheer volume of questing alone, you will already have amassed that many bits organically rather than being forced to do so. It makes absolutely no sense to throw these “reach for the stars” kinds of quests at the gamer 3 and 4 quests into the game. This is not only a huge miss, it’s a poorly designed quest choice.

Modern Video Game Design

The Outer Worlds_20191029035555The Outer Worlds seems as if it had begun its design phase back when the Xbox 360 was an active current console. It seems that this game was designed to operate on a lesser console platform like the Xbox 360. A console with lower res graphics, limited audio, lower res textures, lesser speed CPUs, lesser ram and so on.

This game doesn’t in any way seem or feel modern. It feels like The Elder Scrolls Oblivion (or more aptly) Fallout New Vegas in look and feel. These latter games were designed to operate on the Xbox 360’s limited constraints with none of the “modern conveniences” being designed into today’s bigger, bolder and brighter games. The Outer Worlds seems to have been designed using the same creative mindset as Oblivion and New Vegas.

Instead, The Outer Worlds is a lightly designed game with a light operational framework offering few modern conveniences. It’s like thinking you’re buying a Tesla only to find that you really bought a bare bones Toyota Camry. Sure, both are cars, both get you from point A to B, but instead of that cool innovative touch screen LCD computer panel to guide you on your way, you are disappointed to find an antiquated illuminated speedometer with a needle. Not exactly what you were expecting… and, thus, this is The Outer Worlds in a nutshell. That doesn’t make The Outer Worlds bad, but it does make The Outer Worlds a less than modern gaming experience.

Missing Modern Conveniences

Unlike many recent games which have sought to solidify and define both the PS4’s and the Xbox One’s next gen gaming standards, The Outer Worlds seems intent to break many of these existing standards and revert back to older days. For example, on the PS4, this game’s control scheme is upended. Whether this was intentional by Obsidian or simply ignorance, I don’t know. Back when a game like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was published, such button control standards were only just becoming defined.

Today, controller standards are well defined. Placing “back” onto the O button and “interact” on X is as natural as tying your shoelaces. When a developer comes along and moves the Interact function to a button where it doesn’t belong or places jump onto the X button, it seems well out of place. And, out of place it is. Even switching to the alternative predefined controller maps on the PS4 doesn’t completely solve this problem. For example, the more or less useless and single purpose Tactical Time Dilation is oddly placed onto the X button when using the “Modern” or “Legacy” remapping. This odd choice of button placement gives me pause to consider Obsidian’s gaming ideals. Why would they choose to NOT map interact onto X in at least one controller mapping when this is pretty much the industry standard today? It’s a small peeve, but it is a concern for this game.

Another questionable choice is the lack of a manual Quicksave feature. Instead of spending time hopping through multiple layers of menus simply to save a game, you could press “Quicksave” at the top of the Save Game menu. You could then perform a quicksave and be on your way. You don’t need to stop everything you’re doing, then press “Save Game” and go through a bunch of dialog boxes simply to save a game. Additionally, on character death, you are summarily thrown to the “Load Game” screen. You are then forced to navigate through your saved games and load one of them. You have no choice. It’s an odd play. The convenience of Quicksaves in games like these is both readily apparent and a necessary modern convenience. That this convenience is inexplicably missing from this game is, again, an odd play.

For this reason, this is why I continually feel that this game must have be begun its development roots back sometime between 2005 and 2011 when this project was, for some reason, shelved. It seems like this game was then pulled off of a shelf by Obsidian, polished and released in 2019. It feels every bit like a game designed over a decade ago, spit polished to look somewhat modern. Even the liquidy-looking health and TTD UI elements hearken back to games from day’s past, though I can’t recall which exact game used a similar UI element.

As another example, when you press the pause button, the entire screen blacks out to a small menu. This is something that would have been used back in the days of the Xbox 360. Today, game designers use much more modern, sophisticated approaches to drawing a menu screen. For example, most developers use depth of field to blur the game imagery and then place a menu over the top of a blurred and darkened screen. It’s a modern approach to this screen. Not only does it make the game look more polished, it shows that the developers are aware of the importance of continuing to show the game imagery. When you black a screen out, you can’t see at all where your characters are, where the camera is or anything else about the game. You must exit the pause screen to see anything. A blurred version of the screen is much more informative than having nothing at all. It is an innovation and convenience that has helped retain the action of the game. That it’s not here is yet another odd play.

The “Inventory” screen also has its fair share of problems. For example, it doesn’t remember where you were when you last left it. When you enter the inventory screen, it always throws you back into “Inventory”. If you were formerly on the map screen and you exit the screen, then reenter it, you are back on “Inventory”. It doesn’t remember which tab you were on. This is yet another convenience that’s missing. These kinds of UI problems existed in games back in 2006, but haven’t existed in modern games since about 2013 (when the PS4 launched). That this game has reverted back to the days of 2006 seems odd.

Additionally, the use of hand drawn icons in the inventory instead of rendering an actual 3D model is something games back in 2006 would also have used, back when memory was short and showing 3D models in small places wasn’t something that was easy to do. Today, showing 3D models all over the screen is a common and regular occurrence. That Obsidian opted for hand drawn art in the inventory screen seems antiquated and, again, odd. It is also another indicator that this game may have begun its development lifecycle back in 2006.

Innovation (or Lack thereof)

Not using modern conveniences is actually only half the problem in The Outer Worlds. The other half is the lack of adding any modern innovation to the game. Other than TTD (which isn’t very modern nor innovative), that’s the extent of the gimmicks I’ve so far found. For example, there is lack of innovation in the dialog system. It’s straight forward and simplistic. Not only does the game zoom in for a bust shot of the other character, it locks the camera to a fixed position. Games haven’t done this for many years. In most modern games, when you’re taking to an NPC character, you can continue to walk around and talk to them so long as you don’t wander too far off. As long as you remain in the talk circle, you can continue to converse with them without the screen being locked into a fixed position.

Additionally to this, most games now voice the main character as a modern standard. This means that when the main character asks a question, you get to hear the main character say the words audibly. Then, the NPC character responds with their words. This mechanic makes the game more genuine, conversational and realistic. In The Outer Worlds, the protagonist is not voiced at all. In fact, the only thing you get to choose is the text in a menu of dialog. Again, an odd choice. Yes, some people complained that Fallout 4’s main character’s acting and wasn’t great. But, it did add to the experience of the overall game. That this is missing in The Outer Worlds makes it seem like Obsidian cut more than a few corners.

Other innovations that were missed included the use of individual armor pieces (left arm, right arm, left leg, right leg, chest and helmet). Instead, armor is full body and helmet only. Again, oddly not innovative.

Cutting Corners

In fact, let’s jump right into the heart of the issue with this game. The corner cutting in this game is palpable. These cut corners make The Outer Worlds seem less than a modern gaming experience. Indeed, the lack of being able to change much of the appearance of the main character is odd, though you do get limited customization. Worse, there seem to be a total of about 4 to 6 each male and female character models in the game. What this means is that the game uses and reuses these models with all NPCs. In fact, several character models are overused so many times, it’s almost like talking to clones all over this universe. It’s, once again, an odd play. Modern games typically utilize custom models for primary characters to avoid this “clone” problem. Yet, here we are.

Nothing makes a game seem less realistic than continually reusing the same 3D character models over and over on main story characters.

Space Scenes

Let’s talk about space scenes. Earlier, I discussed that this is a space epic. How can this be a space epic when there are no space scenes at all? It’s a space ship, yet the only places of interest are planets? What about space battles? What about other space ships? Again, it seems that Obsidian may have cut corners here to get this game produced. Instead of focusing on space scenes, the game focuses on ground play and combat. In fact, there are pretty much two things that this game heavily relies on… dialog and ground skirmishes. Fetch quests are obviously part of the reason for the ground skirmishes, after all there’s no reason to run around over the terrain without a reason. Hence, fetch quests.

Simplistic Quests

With questing, there seem to be even more corners cut. Most of the quests are simplistic at best. Get quest from A, go to B and get thing, return to A and tell of success (ABA). The vast majority the quests given in this game are of the ABA variety. There are very few extra steps, options or things to do along the way (other than skirmish). These are not in any way deep, thoughtful quests. They are, instead, simplistic and straightforward. Even then, when skirmishing, the skirmishes are predictable, simplistic and straightforward.

Is it fun?

Well, that entirely depends on your idea of fun. If running around doing another NPC’s bidding is fun, then maybe. The difficulty with the quests in this game is that they are simplistic, short and somewhat nonsensical. For example, Udom on the Groundbreaker has you run over to a shop just mere steps from where he is sitting and has you spend 8000 of your own bits (in-game currency) to retrieve his “stamp”… a task which I am quite sure he not only has bits to handle, but one that he can walk over himself and resolve. Why is the “hero” the one who has to go gather said bits and spend them on another NPC’s behalf? This is but one example of similarly poorly written quests. Another is getting “auntie-biotics” for a guy. When you exit the shop, a nosy ne’er-do-well eavesdrops on your conversation who also wants these “auntie-biotics” for her own purposes. As cliché a quest setup as I’ve ever seen. And yet, also a very simplistic ABA quest.

Lack of Multiplayer

With all of that said above, the game also doesn’t sport a multiplayer mode. It’s still early in this game’s lifecycle, so there is a possibility for DLC to add this feature (and other multiplayer features). However, in this first release, there is no multiplayer anything this game. It is as single player as a single player game gets.

Overall

For as relatively antiquated as this first person shooter game seems, its rock stable engine helps this one along tremendously. We’ve ALL grown tired of having games crash every few minutes, particularly Bethesda’s games. The Outer Worlds’ stability is definitely a welcome relief from this level of bugginess and is a step in the right direction. Yet, there is so much unfulfilled potential in this antiquated game, it’s really hard to rate this one.

What I will say about The Outer Worlds is to be cautious when considering a purchase. If you like the simplistic nature of earlier Xbox 360 RPGs and significant amounts of dialog, you might like The Outer Worlds. If you’re looking for more complex questing, complex combat situations, unique space combat or a useful crafting system, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Graphics: 5 out of 10 (decent, but chromatic aberration is hard on the eyes)
Gameplay: 6 out of 10 (fair, game is predictable, all planets look the same, no crafting)
Voice Acting: 5 out of 10 (ranges from very good to very bad)
Music: 8 out of 10
Combat: 5 out of 10 (too much of the same thing every time)
Stability: 10 out of 10

Overall: 6 out of 10 (wait for a sale or rent)

Should we believe social media influencers?

Posted in advice, Google, scams, youtube by commorancy on May 14, 2019

There are many, many YouTubers (and Instagramers) who claim to profess knowledge of a given topic. By far, a vast majority are in the beauty industry. After all, beauty sells. Unfortunately, while they may be pretty, many have few brain cells in their heads. Let’s explore.

Social Media Sites: YouTube and Instagram

With the advent of social media sites, many young people have rabidly jumped on board to create content for these platforms. Some of these people (dare I say ‘kids’) have chosen to specialize in specific areas, like beauty products. I’ll focus on these ‘influencers’ in this article. Can these (or any) ‘influencers’ be trusted?

The short answer to this question is, no. These are young people (many aged between 18 and 21) who have acquired just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Yet, they in no way should be considered “professional”, let alone “knowledgeable”. I won’t name any names here. Even if I wanted to name names, there are actually far too many of these types of beauty channels to even point out a single one. Suffice it to say, there are many, many far too young beauty advocates on YouTube who may already have money, a palette of makeup and very strong opinions, yet actually have no skill or talent at all. Instead, with their limited talent at applying makeup, they have managed to amass a large following of young followers. Some have gained enough followers that they have been able to get product endorsements, sponsorships, monetization or have been approached to create product lines. Gaining followers is actually what they are good at, not applying the makeup, not creating the hairstyles, not selling makeup brushes.

In fact, many of their ideas can be downright dangerous. What they are actually good at is…

Hawking Products

And… that’s not a reason to celebrate or follow anyone. As these “kids” become “personalities” on screen, what you’re buying into isn’t the their products, but their drama. Watching an 18 year old drag queen apply makeup like a pro may seem enthralling, but the reality is you have no idea how many times that person may have applied it until they got the application just perfect. Maybe they even hired someone to apply it on them pretending as though they applied it. As we all know, “Practice Makes Perfect.” No where is this concept more important than on YouTube. Yet, fakery is everywhere, even in these beauty videos.

YouTube videos make the application of beauty products seem like a breeze. What you aren’t seeing is all of days worth of practice and product testing that the YouTube “personality” (and I use that term very loosely) endured to make that video appear perfect. Even then, give them a few months and they couldn’t even reproduce that look, if they even produced it the first time. Who knows if they even really applied the makeup themselves?

Unfortunately, the goal of being a celebrity is the want of money. In fact, many YouTuber’s goals are to make money from the platform. That’s their #1 goal. It’s not about you, the viewer. It is about you, the consumer funneling money into their channel (and eventually into their products). Whether that money is via clicking advertisements or via Patreon or buying into their sponsored products.

This is why the once “down to earth” YouTuber turns into a flamboyant, loud, arrogant, controversial dramatic personality trying to get you to buy the latest Morphe brush set that you don’t really need. It’s about making THEM money and parting you from yours. It’s not about reality, it’s about sales and fakery.

Drama Advertising

YouTube drama and scandals are quite commonplace in the YouTube beauty arena. On the one hand you have a seeming drag queen who’s boisterous, loud and obnoxious. On the other, you have another large personality who feels they are also entitled. When the two clash, it becomes a huge social media blow up. It ends up all over Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and, yes, YouTube.

The scandal and drama fuels their channels with tons of new subscribers, viewers and brings their brand front and center. Effectively, it’s ‘dramadvertising’. The question is, is whether all of that drama is …

Fake

One of the problems with YouTube is that so much of what you see is fake. With perfect cuts between takes, filters, expensive lighting and cameras and, yes, even the perfect application of makeup, the camera can make someone appear flawless.

With the makeup (or more specifically, fakeup), when you turn the ring lights off and take that person out into natural lighting, not only will the makeup application look like crap, you’ll be able to see very crease, flaw and imperfection in the application. Even then, the makeup is so overbearing, you wouldn’t really want to wear it anyway. With the right lighting and cameras, you can hide just about any imperfection. With the wrong lighting, let’s just say that the personality is an amateur.

Additionally, much of the drama that shows up on YouTube is entirely fake and is staged as a publicity stunt. Just like YouTube celebs sometimes have seeming congenial collabs with one another, they can also script scandals in the same way. It’s so easy for two personalities to meet and agree (to publicly disagree), to make a scene on social media designed to get their channels more viewers, more divisive comments and basically stir the pot. Sometimes stirring the pot is the only way to gain more viewers.

Several large beauty personalities have tried this approach in the recent past. Again, I won’t name names as they don’t deserve to be named on Randocity. I won’t give them the satisfaction of increasing their channel’s membership at the cost of my time spent writing this article. No. If you want to find those scandals from the recent past, you’ll need to head on over to Google and do some searching.

Knowledge, Age and Acting

I’m not going to say there aren’t prodigies in this world. There are. Unfortunately, none of them are on YouTube hawking beauty products. What you see on YouTube is random, usually “pretty” young guys and girls who have gained a following because of their seeming talents. Oh, they have a talent, but it’s not teaching you beauty techniques. Oh, no no. The talent they have is parting you from your money and being a general scam artist.

At 19, I didn’t have enough knowledge enough in any subject to be considered “professional” at anything. These same aged personalities on YouTube are also in this same boat. If they have any knowledge, it’s likely because they paid for it by hiring someone to show it to them, or more likely, do it for them. That’s not knowledge acquisition, that’s acting… and not even very good acting at that.

In fact, anyone on YouTube who has a channel is acting. Some of that acting is, in general, for the betterment of the viewers by showing the viewers something interesting. This should be considered entertainment, not advice.

While I can buy into an actor on stage telling me a story, I can’t buy into an actor behind a camera trying to sell me Morphe brushes. This was tried in the 90s via many, many…

Infomercials

Before YouTube became a thing, infomercials ruled. The talent that might have jumped in front of a camera for YouTube instead did so for Guthy Renker or other similar production companies. These companies have hawked all sorts of garbage throughout the 90s and 00s on late night TV.

These things including psychic readings, beauty products, acne products, hair care products, kitchen gadgets and even money making books. The array of crap advertised on infomercials is as varied as it is endless. Thankfully, infomercials were typically one-and-done. Meaning, only one infomercial was ever produced and when its run finally ran out months (or years later), the product disappeared from the airwaves.

YouTube

With YouTube, we now have a situation where the same crap that was hawked via late night infomercials has moved to YouTube as a daily, biweekly or weekly “show” (again, I use this term loosely). Because many of these personalities produce their own material, the structure of the video is random and chaotic. The one thing that isn’t random is their want for money.

Worse, viewers seem to buy into this random chaos from a random “young” person. It makes them see more “real”. Don’t kid yourself, there’s nothing at all real about a guy dressing up in drag for a camera. That’s a show.

In all likelihood, when that “kid” gets home, the makeup, nails and hair all goes away and they go back to being average kid living with their parents. It’s all for the camera.

This is the fallacy of YouTube. It’s not real. It’s not genuine. It’s not even accurate. It’s fakery and deception at its finest. The “Hi Guys… I appreciate you so, so much” is so disingenuous, it makes me want to gag. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard a similar phrase from a YouTuber. It’s all superficial and fake. Many of these kids turned personalities are likely even mentally disturbed. Yet, they can somehow compose themselves enough in front of a camera to appear ‘sane’ and ‘normal’. These are people who are not and should never be role models, let alone ever consider befriending in real life.

Yet, companies like Morphe extend sponsorships to these damaged folks, not because they’re good role models, but because they have 1 million or more YouTube subscribers… in other words, for all of the wrong reasons.

What is your damage?

An age old question, but very applicable to many YouTube personalities. Far too many of them, in fact. I simply do not feel comfortable taking advice from someone I don’t know, let alone from a drag queen whose claim to fame is putting on flawless makeup using a social platform without any formal training. Really? You expect me to believe what you have to say simply because you’re “famous” or because you look like you know what you’re doing? No.

YouTube Fame

Many YouTubers seem to think that being famous on YouTube actually means something. It doesn’t. If you want to be famous, and I mean seriously famous, you train to become an actor and you get hired in a blockbuster a film or highly rated TV series… then put on a performance that wins awards. That’s fame. And, that’s fame for all the “right” reasons… including displaying actual talent.

Being on YouTube because you can run a camera isn’t fame. It isn’t even celebrity. If anything it’s considered being a “minor” celebrity… and that’s being extremely generous. Being on YouTube doesn’t require skill, it only requires a camera, an idea and your opinions. Again, I won’t name any channels because the point of this article isn’t to send you off to a YouTube channel to become a subscriber, it’s to point out the problems with YouTube as a platform… and where YouTube stands today.

It’s called YouTube with a YOU

There’s a ‘YOU’ in the name. Which means, it’s about you. The real you. Not about a sponsor. Not about your cat. Not about makeup. Not about advertising. It’s about YOU. I think the platform has lost its reason why it came to be. When YouTube became about making money and lost actually being about ‘YOU’, then it became yet another lame commercial platform to sell stuff. And, that’s exactly what it’s become. One big advertising platform… from the embedded ads in the videos to the ads served up verbally in the videos by the creators.

In fact, it should probably be renamed ‘AdTube’ as that’s what it has become. It’s not about the ‘YOU’, it’s about the ‘advertising’, making money and selling you, the viewer, something, anything.

I used to go to YouTube to find interesting people doing interesting things. To find funny, amateur videos. Today, it’s about selling you something and making the creator money. When I go into a video and within 1-3 minutes a strategic product placement appears, I click away. Too many videos are now following this format.

With YouTube’s crackdown on monetization, that’s making even the biggest channels less and less money. I’m all for that. If YouTube turned off monetization tomorrow, it wouldn’t make many creators happy, but it would bring the platform back to its roots… the reason the ‘YOU’ in YouTube exists.

YouTube should move the the highly commercial channels into a new network called AdTube. Get them off the YouTube platform and let YouTube go back to its roots. Turn AdTube into the network that allows these highly commercial, highly sponsored, advertising heavy videos (and channels) to operate. YouTube doesn’t need these. In fact, because YouTube has basically degraded so badly, it’s really just a matter of time before the platform ultimately implodes under its own weight and stigma. Google needs to make a choice and they need to make it fast.

Making Choices

We, as consumers, need to wake up and stop following (and buying stuff from) brainless YouTubers who have no skills or talents other than holding a camera. You have a choice to watch or click away. You don’t even have to visit YouTube. Use your own critical thinking and stop watching channels that have 5, 10, 15 ads along with paid sponsorships in the video. That’s not what YouTube is about, that’s what both YouTube and Instagram have become.

You don’t have to watch this drivel. You have choices. Turn it off and spend time doing something creative or with your friends or family. Learn something… like how to draw or paint or play a guitar. Pick up something that you can do and learn to do it. You don’t need to watch someone on YouTube to be creative. In fact, watching YouTube does the opposite of making you creative. It robs you of precious time that you could be learning a skill, craft or how to play music. Spend that time bettering yourself rather than giving your money to someone and wishing you could be like them.

In fact, you don’t want to be like them. They may appear wholesome and friendly on YouTube, but chances are they are far, far different from what they portray themselves to be. As I said, they’re actors putting on a character. It’s not real. It’s not genuine. It’s a character designed to rope you in and have you spend money on them.

Authentic YouTubers

Just to clarify, this article is not intending to rail against every YouTuber. I’m specifically calling out the big 1, 2, 10 and 50 million subscriber channels playing every trick in the book to get you to spend money. And more specifically, this article is aimed squarely at the beauty industry channels. These very large, seemingly successful channels are solely about one thing. Getting you to buy something. Chances are, if you do buy that something, that channel stands to make a hefty cut of the profits and you’re left with a mediocre product you likely can’t return and may not even be able to use.

If you want to buy products, do it at a store. Try the product out and then decide if you want it. Use your OWN judgement to see if it works for you. Don’t believe the hype a beauty channel spouts. Believe what you see in person… at a store.

I’m not at all saying not to watch YouTube or even Instagram with the right frame of mind. Consider all social media channels as strictly entertainment. If it makes you laugh or gives you some other emotional response, great. But, don’t get invested in the channel as if it were real or believable or even an authority. It’s none of that. It’s simply entertainment, plain and simple. In fact, this part applies to ANY YouTube channel. They’re all simply entertainment with fallible and inaccurate information offered in video form, even with the most well meaning of intentions. As the saying goes, “Take it with a grain of salt.” Which ultimately means, disregard the information as inaccurate and only watch as you would pure fictional entertainment. If the video content peaks your interest, go Google the topic and find out more from reputable sources.

From this perspective, YouTube is fine to watch… but don’t invest money into the channel or into products hawked on the channel solely because you feel some kind of responsibility to the channel creator or because you believe what they say. Definitely, no. Simply by watching a YouTube channel does not obligate you to anything. The creator spent time putting together the video, yes. But you have no obligation to give them any money in return for watching their content. It was on them that they created and posted. Don’t let the creator “guilt” you into feeling like you “need” to give them money. You don’t. You also don’t need to buy anything advertised on any channel.

If you do decide to donate to a channel or buy products from them, do it because you sincerely want to do it, not out of some sense of duty (or guilt) because you “watched” their videos. No, YouTube and Instagram and all other social media should be considered strictly entertainment. You don’t need to open your wallet to any social media influencer… and you probably shouldn’t.

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Should I beta test Fallout 76?

Posted in best practices, botch, business, video gaming by commorancy on November 1, 2018

ps4-pro-500-million-dualshock-4-crWhile I know that beta testing for Fallout 76 is already underway, let’s explore what it means to beta test a game and whether or not you should participate.

Fallout 76

Before I get into the nitty gritty details of beta testing, let’s talk about Fallout 76. Fallout 76, like The Elder Scrolls Online before it, is a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). Like The Elder Scrolls Online which offered an Elder Scrolls themed universe, Fallout 76 will offer a Fallout themed universe in an online landscape.

How the game ultimately releases is yet to be determine, but a beta test gives you a solid taste of how it will all work. Personally, I didn’t like The Elder Scrolls Online much. While it had the flavor and flair of an Elder Scrolls game entry, the whole thing felt hollow and unconnected to the franchise. It also meant that Bethesda spent some very valuable time building this online game when they could have been building the next installment of the Elder Scrolls.

It is as yet undetermined how these online games play into the canon of The Elder Scrolls or, in Fallout 76’s case, in the Fallout universe. Personally, I see them as offshoots with only a distant connection. For example, The Elder Scrolls Online felt Elder Scrollsy, but without the deep solid connections and stories that go with building that universe. Instead, it was merely a multiplayer playground that felt like The Elder Scrolls in theme, but everything else was just fluff. I’m deeply concerned that we’ll get this same treatment from Fallout 76.

The Problem with Online Games

Online games have, in recent years, gotten a bad rap… and for good reason. The reason that this is so is because the game developers focus on the inclusion of silly things like character emoting and taking selfies. While these are fun little inclusions, they are by no means intrinsic to the fundamental game play of an actual game.

Games should be about the story that unfolds… about why your character is there and how your character is important in that universe. When the game expands to include an online component, now it’s perhaps tens of thousands of people all on the server at the same time. So, how can each of these characters be important to that universe? The answer is, they can’t.

Having many characters all running around doing the “same” things in the universe all being told by the game that they are “the most important thing” to the survival of that universe is just ludicrous.

This leads to the “importance syndrome” which is present in any MMORPG. As a developer, you either acknowledge the importance syndrome and avoid it by producing a shallow multiplayer experience that entirely avoids player importance (i.e., Fortnite, Overwatch, Destiny, etc) or you make everyone important each in their own game (i.e., The Elder Scrolls Online). Basically, the game is either a bunch of people running around doing nothing important at all and simply trying to survive whatever match battles have been set up (boring and repetitive) or the game treats each user as if they are individually important in their own single player game, except there are a bunch of other users online, all doing the same exact thing.

The Elder Scrolls Online fell into the latter camp which made the game weird and disconnected, to say the least. It also made the game feel less like an Elder Scrolls game and more like any cheap and cheesy iPad knockoff game you can download for free… except you’ve paid $60 + DLC + online fees for it.

I’ve played other MMORPG games similar to The Elder Scrolls Online including Defiance. In fact, Defiance played so much like The Elder Scrolls Online, I could swear that Bethesda simply took Defiance’s MMORPG engine and adapted it to The Elder Scrolls Online.

Environments and Users

The secondary problem is how to deal with online users. Both in the Elder Scrolls Online and Defiance, there were areas that included player versus environment (PvE). PvE environments mean that players cannot attack other players. Only NPCs can attack your player or your character can die by the environment (i.e., falling onto spikes). There were also some areas of the online map that were player versus player (PvP). PvP means any online player can attack any other online player in any way they wish.

In The Elder Scrolls Online, the PvP area was Cyrodiil, which was unfortunate for ESO. The PvP made this territory mostly a dead zone for the game. Even though there were a few caves in the area and some exploring you could do, you simply couldn’t go dungeon diving there because as soon as you tried, some player would show up and kill your player. Yes, the NPCs and AI enemies could also show up and kill your player, but so could online players.

The difficulty with Cyrodiil was that if another player killed your player in the PvP area, that player death was treated entirely differently than if they died by the environment. If another player killed your character, you had to respawn at a fort, which would force your character to respawn perhaps half a map away from where you presently were. If your character died by the environment or another NPC, you could respawn in the same location where your character died. This different treatment in handling the character death was frustrating, to say the least.

With Fallout 76, I’m unsure how all of this will work, but it’s likely that Bethesda will adopt a similar strategy from what they learned in building The Elder Scrolls Online. This likely means both PvE areas and PvP area(s). Note that ESO only had one PvP zone, but had many PvE zones. This made questing easier in the PvE zones, but also caused the “importance syndrome”. This syndrome doesn’t exist in single player offline games, but is omnipresent in MMORPGs.

MMORPGs and Characters

The difficulty with MMORPGs is that they’re primarily just clients of a server based environment. The client might be a heavier client that includes handling rendering character and environment graphics, but it is still nonetheless a client. This means that to use an MMORPG, you must log into the server to play. When you login, your character information, bank account, level ups, weapons, armor and so on are kept on the server.

This means that you can’t save off your character information. It also means you can’t mod your game or mod your character through game mods. Online games are strict about how you can change or manage your game and your character. In fact, these systems are so strict that if a new version of the game comes out, you must first download and install the game before they’ll let you back onto the server… unlike standalone games that let you play the game even if networking components are disabled. This means that you cannot play an MMORPG until your client is most current, which could mean 50GB and hours later.

This means that you’ll need an always on Internet connection to play Fallout 76 and you’ll need to be able to handle very large client downloads (even if you own the game disc).

Beta Testing

Many game producers like to offer, particularly if it’s a server based MMORPG, the chance for players to beta test their new game. Most online games allow for this.

However, I refuse to do this for game developers. They have a team they’ve hired to beta test their environments, quests and landscapes. I just don’t see any benefit for my player to get early access to their game environment. Sometimes, characters you build and grow in a beta won’t even carry over into the released game. This means that whatever loot you have found and leveling you may have done may be lost when release day comes. For that early access, the developer will also expect you to submit bug reports. I won’t do that for them. I also don’t want to feel obligated to do so.

Bethesda stands to make millions of dollars off of this game. Yet, they’re asking me to log into their game early, potentially endure huge bugs preventing quest progress, potentially lose my character and all of its progress and also spend time submitting bug reports? Then, spend $60 to buy the game when it arrives? Then, rebuild my character again from scratch?

No, I don’t think so. I’m not about to spend $60 for the privilege of spending my time running into bugs and submitting bug reports for that game. You, the game developer, stand to make millions from this game. So, hire people to beta test it for you. Or, give beta testers free copies of the game in compensation for the work they’re doing for you.

If you’re a gamer thinking of participating in beta testing, you should think twice. Not only are you helping Bethesda to make millions of dollars, you’re not going to see a dime of that money and you’re doing that work for free. In addition, you’re still going to be expected to spend $60 + DLC costs to participate in the final released game. No, I won’t do that. If I’m doing work for you, you should pay me as a contractor. How you pay me for that work is entirely up to you, but the minimum payment should consist of a free copy of the game. You can tie that payment to work efforts if you like.

For example, for each report submitted and verified as a new bug, the beta tester will get $5 in credit towards the cost of the game up to the full price of the game. This encourages beta testers to actually submit useful bug reports (i.e., duplicates or useless reports won’t count). This also means you earn your game as you report valid and useful bugs. It also means that you won’t have to pay for the game if you create enough useful, genuine reports.

Unfortunately, none of these game developers offer such incentive programs and they simply expect gamers to do it “generously” and “out of the kindness of their hearts”. No, I’m not doing that for you for free. Pay me or I’ll wait until the game is released.

Should I Participate in Beta Tests?

As a gamer, this is why you should not participate in beta tests. Just say no to them. If enough gamers say no and fail to participate in beta releases, this will force game developers to encourage gamers to participate with incentive programs such as what I suggest above.

Unfortunately, there are far too many unwitting gamers who are more than willing to see the environment early without thinking through the ramifications of what they are doing. For all of the above reasons, this is why you should NEVER participate (and this is why I do not participate) in any high dollar game beta tests.

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Game Review: Spider-Man

Posted in botch, video game, video game design by commorancy on September 8, 2018

SpiderMan2Here’s Randocity’s review of Sony’s 2018 Spider-Man (Insomniac Games) exclusively for the PS4. Unlike so many other game magazines, this review will be brutally honest. Unfortunately, other than photo mode, there’s not a lot to like here. This review will also be short and sweet and somewhat brutal. Let’s explore.

No Holds Barred

SpiderMan1To be perfectly fair, I wanted to like this game. I really did. Unfortunately, this game is one of the worst Spider-Man games I’ve ever played. The absolute worst Spider-Man game being Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions. Dimensions looked great, played like crap. Same problem here, well mostly. Not only is Spider-Man incredibly weak, he dies at the drop of the hat even on casual play. Dying wouldn’t be quite so bad if it didn’t take ages to reload the game. Absolutely worse, the whole game simply devolves into a button masher. This is not why I buy Spider-Man games. I buy Spider-Man games to swing around the city and occasionally get in brawls. I don’t want to spend 90% of my time brawling as a button masher. Basically, this game effing sucks rocks.

Controls

The controls are, in fact, most of the reason this game sucks. I’m all for web slinging fun, but this goes way beyond into craptacular territory. The first mission is practically impossible to complete, even on easy mode. The game simply doesn’t give you enough moves (or health) to take these guys out quickly. The AI on the enemies is frustrating and nonsensical. Worse, the controls make so many mistakes. When I try to get away from enemy, instead, the game chooses to perform a slide under which puts me right next to the enemy… the exact opposite of what I’m trying to do.

Focus

The “focus” game mechanic is entirely unnecessary, distracting and so lamely implemented that it actually prevents you from using it as intended. What is focus for? Healing. In fact, you gain focus so slowly, you can’t even use it to heal. There is no other way to heal other than spending focus. Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

SpiderMan5

What the hell is with healing through focus, anyway? Whose brilliantly crappy game mechanic idea was this? Just let Spider-Man heal naturally on his own. Don’t make me have to take action to heal him. If Spider-Man needs healing by external means, then put first aid kits around the levels and let me just automatically pick them up and apply them. This whole gaining Focus mechanic is so sloppily implemented, I don’t even know how the game designers thought it would be useful. Why not just use health pickups, you know, like practically every other game? Why throw in something so convoluted that it’s useless?

Distracting Game Mechanics

Here’s my biggest pet peeve with these distracting and unnecessary game mechanics. While I understand that Insomniac wanted something new to add to their repertoire of features, game designers should never implement a new game mechanic solely because it’s new. Instead, game mechanics must enhance the game, not detract from it. Why does the focus mechanism fail so badly? It fails because now you’re requiring gamers to watch the focus and health bars constantly. This means moving your eyes away from an ever changing play field of AI enemies.

In this game, even taking your eyes off of the, admittedly, poorly designed and unrealistic AI enemy combat moves, will see your health drop from 100 to 20 (or less) in one blow (even on easy mode). Ignoring the fact that Spider-Man is a superhero in the Marvel universe, has super strength and is super resistant to injury, there should never ever be a mechanic designed that forces the gamer to take his/her eyes off of the combat field and then manually apply health.

Instead, if you’re planning on forcing a health recovery system, then the health system should either auto-regenerate or self-apply at critically low levels. I shouldn’t have to monitor my character’s weak health and manually apply anything. Spider-Man is a superhero… a Marvel SUPERHERO! Treat him as such and at least give him some level of auto-health generation. Seriously, what is the point in manual application of health in this game? It is absolutely not a challenge, it’s just stupid design.

Web Slinging Cooldown

What was the point in this game mechanic? You have six bars of web action that when depleted means you can’t use your web to subdue any more enemies. No NO NO! Why is there an arbitrary count of how many times you can use your web? Again, this doesn’t make the game challenging, it makes the game stupid. If he has the ability to create web, then it should work 100% of the time or until he runs out of web solution. If you plan to add a game mechanic here, then make it a mechanic that sees him run out of web entirely and need to change his web canisters. At least, that’s realistic. Though, why even do that? This isn’t intended to be a simulation, it’s intended to be a superhero game. Just let Spider-Man sling webs infinitely. There’s no point in this web cooldown system at all.

Spider-Man is Weak

The other big problem I have with this game is that Spider-Man isn’t treated like a Marvel superhero at all. He’s like a random schmoe who picked up a costume and decided to be a vigilante. Not only does it take many blows on an enemy to finally knock them out, Spider-Man loses health at an incredibly rapid rate, even from just one bullet or one enemy punch. This is entirely ridiculous. He’s a Marvel superhero, not a random normal guy in a costume.

Insomniac treated this version of the Spider-Man character with all of the grace of a bull in a china shop, bumbling their developmental way through to a game that, in my opinion, barely resembles Spider-Man.

Photo Mode

The one and only one redeeming feature of this game is photo mode. If you’ve used photo mode on Assassin’s Creed Origins, then you’ll feel right at home in this one as photo mode looks and behaves nearly identical. This feature doesn’t make the game worth playing by a long shot. But, the composition tool does have some cool overlays (see the first image in this article), assuming you can actually play enough into the game to use these overlays in some real way.

Overall

My rating for this game is 3 out of 10. It needs a whole lot more developmental time and it needed better usability play testing. It’s not worth playing. If you must play it, then rent it from Redbox or rent it someplace else. Or, wait for it to get to $15 at Gamestop. Don’t waste your money buying this trite piece of Sony garbage unless you truly enjoy torturing yourself with really bad games. If Insomniac can push out patches that can address all of these identified problems (doubtful), then maybe this game might improve. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

For me, this game goes back to Gamestop as a trade-in. I’ll wait until the game drops in price which will have given Insomniac plenty of time to release more patches… not that that will improve this game. Though, I’m willing to give it a second shot much later in the future.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Audio: 8 out of 10
Voice Acting: 8 out of 10
Gameplay: 2 out of 10 (repetitive, nothing new)
Combat: 1 out of 10 (enemies swarm in unrealistic ways, manual health application)
Overall: 2 out of 10 (rent only)

If this article helped you, please leave a comment below.

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Hottest Video Games for 2018

Posted in video gaming by commorancy on August 31, 2018

The fall of the year is always the time when the majority of video games release. After all, kids are back in school and the holidays are right around the corner. The game industry waits until August to begin trickling out their biggest games, building momentum until the end of the year. As always, there are a number of games this year to consider. Let’s explore.

Video Game Inclusion Criteria

The games selected for Randocity’s top games list for 2018 only include games that I feel will be of high quality, will be fun and will offer the best play value for your money. Nothing is implied about any game that didn’t make this list. The lack of inclusion simply means that the game isn’t likely to offer the best play value for your money. Those other games are also usually for gamers who specifically look for those kinds of games. This is especially true if you’re considering using this as a gift guide. With pretty much any of these games you cannot go wrong giving them as a gift, with the exception of Fallout 76 due to its MMORPG nature. Without further adieu…

Randocity’s Top Video Game Picks for Fall 2018

PS4, Xbox One and Multiplatform Games

Game Platform(s) Release Date Rating Publisher
Destiny 2 PS4, Xbox One September 4th Bungie
Spider-Man PS4 Exclusive September 7th Sony Interactive Entertainment
Life Is Strange 2 PS4, Xbox One September 27th Rating Square Enix
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey PS4, Xbox One October 2nd Rating Ubisoft
Mega Man 11 PS4, Xbox One, Switch October 2nd Rating Ubisoft
Call of Duty: Black Ops IV PS4, Xbox One October 12th Rating Activision / Treyarch
Red Dead Redemption 2 PS4, Xbox One October 26th Rating Rockstar Games
Hitman 2 PS4, Xbox One November 9th Rating Warner Bros. Interactive Ent.
Fallout 76 (requires Internet)
PS4, Xbox One November 14th Rating Bethesda / Zenimax
Battlefield V PS4, Xbox One November 20th Rating Electronic Arts
Darksiders III PS4, Xbox One November 27th Rating THQ
Just Cause 4 PS4, Xbox One December 4th Rating Square Enix

Nintendo Switch Games

Game Platform Release Date Rating Publisher
Lifeless Planet: Premiere Edition Nintendo Switch September 5h Stage 2 Studios
Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut Nintendo Switch September 13th Rating InXile Entertainment
Super Mario Party Nintendo Switch Exclusive October 5th Rating Nintendo
Child of Light Nintendo Switch October 11th Rating Ubisoft
Dark Souls Remastered Nintendo Switch October 19th Rating Namco Bandai Games
Project Highrise: Architect’s Edition Nintendo Switch October 23rd Rating Kalypso
Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee! Nintendo Switch Exclusive November 16th Rating Nintendo
Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! Nintendo Switch Exclusive November 16th Rating Nintendo
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Nintendo Switch Exclusive December 7th Rating Nintendo

The games listed above are not all of the games that will release this year, but they are on this list because they will work well as gifts for just about any gamer. Note, some of the games on the Switch may have previously released on other console platforms. This particular year there’s not a whole lot of games that really stand out as must play games. But, there are a few… specifically Pokémon, Super Smash Brothers, Fallout 76 and Red Dead Redemption 2. These are the only true must play games on this list.

The rest of the games will likely be fun, but they’re not games that I feel must be owned day one. Though, they do make great gift ideas. Note that Fallout 76 is an MMORPG in similar form to The Elder Scrolls Online. It requires an internet connection and Xbox Live if playing on an Xbox One. Be careful when considering this game as a gift item if you don’t know whether the recipient has always-on Internet or Xbox Live. If you’re not sure whether your recipient meets these game requirements, you might should consider other games on this list. All of the other games should be safe without Internet, but always read the back of the box to be absolutely sure.

Enjoy!

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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.

ffmpeg: A recipe for HD video on portables

Posted in video conversion by commorancy on May 17, 2015

The first thing people are likely to ask about this article is how to rip a blu-ray disk. Unfortunately, I’ll have to leave that task for you to figure out. There are plenty of places on the net to find this information. I’d suggest you visit www.doom9.org and poke around there to find your answer. Once you have your HD video ripped, that’s where this article will help you produce a high quality portable video experience for your tablet or phone.

What is ffmpeg?

I’ll start with an analogy. What sox is to audio, ffmpeg is to video (and audio). Sox is a great tool if you need to manage wave files, mp3s or au files. But, these audio formats are not so great when you want to use it as a soundtrack in a video. That’s where ffmpeg shines.

Ffmpeg is a tool that converts one video + audio format into another. For example, a blu-ray disk contains a file format known as m2ts. This is a type of container that holds various types of video, audio, chapter and subtitle information (many times, several of these). However, the m2ts file, while playable with VLC, is not so playable on an iPad, iPod or a Samsung Galaxy Tab. In fact, portables won’t play the formats contained in an m2ts container. Of course, it’s not that you’d want to play this format on your tablet because an m2ts file can be 25G-40G in size. Considering an iPad has, at most, 128GB, you’d only be able to store about 3 of these honking videos.. not that you’d actually be able to play them as the format is incompatible. To the rescue, ffmpeg.

ffmpeg and video containers

The format of choice that Apple prefers is H264 + AAC. The first thing I will say about this is that the libraries needed to get ffmpeg to produce this format are not in the pre-compiled version. Instead, you’ll need to set aside a weekend to compile up the latest version of ffmpeg with the non-free libraries. By ‘non-free’, that means these libraries are potentially encumbered by copyrighted or patented code. For this reason, the pre-compiled versions do not contain such code. Therefore, it’s impossible to produce an H264 + AAC mp4 video file with the pre-compiled versions. This means you have to compile it yourself.

Explaining how to compile ffmpeg is a bit beyond the scope of this article. If you are interested in this topic, please leave a comment below and let me know that you’re interested in such an article. I will state, of compiling this, that the –enable-free option when running configure on ffmpeg is only half the battle. You first need to go get the non-free libraries and compile them up separately. Then, when compiling ffmpeg, reference the already compiled non-free AAC shared libraries so that ffmpeg can link with them. ‘Nuf said about compiling it.

The good thing about ffmpeg is that this tool understands nearly every video container type out there. This includes VOB (DVD format) and m2ts (blu-ray format). For what it’s worth, it also understands HD-DVD format even though this format is long dead.

Converting with ffmpeg

There are what seem like a ton of options when you type in ‘ffmpeg –help’. In fact, the help is so daunting as to turn off many beginners who might look for something else. Yes, there are tons of options that can tweak the resulting video file output. That’s why this article is here. I have found what I believe to be the perfect video conversion method from 30GB m2ts format to around 3GB files that fit quite comfortably on an iPad or Galaxy TabS and still retain HD quality. Without further adieu, let’s get to the recipe:

Pass 1

/usr/local/bin/ffmpeg -y -i “/path/to/input.m2ts” -f mp4 -metadata title=”movie_title” -vcodec libx264 -level 31 -s 1920×1080 -vf crop=1920:800:0:140 -b:v 3600k -bt 1024k -bufsize 10M -maxrate 10M -g 250 -coder 0 -partitions 0 -me_method dia -subq 1 -trellis 0 -refs 1 -flags +loop -cmp +chroma -me_range 16 -keyint_min 25 -sc_threshold 40 -i_qfactor 0.71 -qcomp 0.6 -qmin $qmin -qmax $qmax -qdiff 4 number_of_cpu_cores -pass 1 -acodec libfdk_aac -cutoff 20000 -ab 192k -ac 2 “/path/to/output.mp4

Pass 2

/usr/local/bin/ffmpeg -y -i “/path/to/input.m2ts” -f mp4 -metadata title=”movie_title” -vcodec libx264 -level 31 -s 1920×1080 -vf crop=1920:800:0:140 -b:v 3600k -bt 1024k -bufsize 10M -maxrate 10M -g 250 -coder 0 -partitions 0 -me_method dia -subq 1 -trellis 0 -refs 1 -flags +loop -cmp +chroma -me_range 16 -keyint_min 25 -sc_threshold 40 -i_qfactor 0.71 -qcomp 0.6 -qmin $qmin -qmax $qmax -qdiff 4 number_of_cpu_cores -pass 2 -acodec libfdk_aac -cutoff 20000 -ab 192k -ac 2 10 “/path/to/output.mp4

Note that the libfdk_aac is a non-free library which will not be in the free and pre-compiled version.

Two Passes? Doesn’t that take longer? 

Yes, it does. Two passes are necessary to provide the best motion quality in the video. The first pass retrieves statistics about each frame transition of the film and stores it in a statistics file. The second pass reads this very large first-pass-created (~2 GB) statistic file and uses it to creates smooth transitions between each frame of the output video. For this reason, you need to make sure to have plenty of disk space free. This two-pass system removes the herky-jerky video experience (especially with horizontal camera pans). Ultimately, what you’ll find is that the recipe above gives the absolute best quality and size I’ve yet to find from any conversion. For a 90-120 minute film, you’re looking at around a 2.5G-4G resulting mp4 for full 1080p + stereo audio. This file is compatible with the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy series.

Conversion of 90-120 minute films can take anywhere between 40 to 70 minutes for each movie conversion. You can run them in parallel on your system, but you’ll need to run them in separate directories to keep the statistics files in the first pass separate.

Stereo audio? Why Stereo?

I always convert down to stereo for good reason. These videos are intended to be used on portable devices. I’ve yet to see any tablet, computer or phone support 5.1 or 7.1 audio with the built-in audio hardware. Leaving the multi-channel audio intact is basically pointless and consumes extra disk space. Sure, if you want to export the video and audio to something like the Apple TV, it might be handy to have. But then, you’d probably want to stream the m2ts file rather than a slightly more sucky mp4. After all, converting to mp4 is equivalent to ripping a CD audio to mp3. It makes the size of the file much smaller, but is also lossy. However, in this case, sucky isn’t sucky at all and most portable devices support stereo.

In other words, the output is stereo because portable devices don’t support multichannel audio. At least, not yet.

How good is the video quality?

Excellent. It’s will not be exactly the same quality as the m2ts file (that’s not possible considering it is being compressed), but when viewing on a portable, it’s practically like watching a blu-ray disk. The video is still 1080p. It’s that good, all in about 3GB size. Note the crop size above. It is designed to remove the black bars from the top and bottom. When blu-rays are encoded, they are encoded full 16:9 even when the video may be wide screen. This means that the black bars are stored as extra video information in the video file. Removing this unnecessary black space eliminates encoding this blank video, thus reducing the size of the output file. Because these black bars are totally unnecessary, it also makes for a better viewing experience when watching the video in a picture-in-picture style window.

However, the crop value given is intended to be used with widescreen 2.35:1 and 2.39:1 films that have been produced since the mid-1970s. Widescreen films produced in the 1960s and before have a different aspect ratio and using this crop value will cut off pieces of the top and bottom. There are also some films that use unique and creative aspect ratios that may not work with that crop value. Also, many animated films are full 16:9, so you’ll want to remove the -vf crop=1920:800:0:140 argument entirely to prevent ffmpeg from cropping.

Calculate Crop

To calculate crop, here’s how to do it. The arguments are crop=:::. Here’s the table:

  • hwidth = horizontal width of input video
  • vheight = vertical height of video
  • hoffset = how much to move the video horizontally (into frame)
  • voffset = how much to move the video vertically (into frame)

Note that my crop recipe above does no horizontal cropping, but it can be done just as vertical cropping. For the vertical cropping, note that I’ve reduced the frame canvas size from 1080 to 800 to make the frame the proper aspect ratio. But, reducing the frame size from 1080 to 800 only changes the size of the video canvas. It doesn’t move the content back into frame, yet. To do that, you need hoffset and voffset. To calculate the voffset value and move the video into the newly sized canvas, you need to fill in the voffset value. To do that, subtract 800 from 1080. So, 1080 – 800 = 280. Then, divide that subtracted value by 2. So, 280 / 2 = 140. The voffset value is 140.  About cropping, one thing is important to note. If you divide the value and get floating point number like 141.2222. You can’t use this. You need to adjust the voffset value so that it is always a whole number. To do this, ensure when you subtract your vertical size from 1080, it always results in an even number so that the division by 2 also results in a whole number.

VBV underflow warnings?

Note that when converting some content, the conversion output may occasionally show VBV underflow. This is intentional. While it is possible to get rid of these warnings by raising or removing the -bufsize and -maxrate options, raising this value may also increase the size of the output movie file. This underflow warning means that there’s just too much input to be stored in the requested output bitrate. That’s why I say this video won’t be exactly identical to the input file. This selected settings given provide the perfect marriage between size, quality and functionality. If you raise or eliminate the -maxrate option to get rid of the warnings, so too will the size increase of the output video file. Because I prefer the mp4 file sizes to remain in the 2.5-4GB size range and because the VBV underflow warnings do not materially impact the resulting output file, I have chosen not fix this issue. However, if you would like to get rid of these warnings, you can remove the arguments -bufsize 10M -maxrate 10M or increase these values as you see fit. However, you might want to read this wiki article describing the interrelationships between -b:v, -bufsize and -maxrate.

Because I also want the final videos to have the most steady bitrate possible (very important for any kind of streaming), I allow the VBV underflow warnings. Removing the -maxrate and -bufsize options (to get rid of the warnings) will allow the bitrate to vary wildly at times. This can cause unsteady or choppy playback in some players, especially when network streaming. To avoid wild variability in the bitrate, I intentionally force -bufsize and -maxrate to be a specific size.

Enjoy the recipe. Hopefully, it’s helpful. If you get good results from these ffmpeg recipes, please leave a comment below. Also, feel free to tweak the recipes with however you see fit. If you find something even better than what I show above, please post a comment below and let me know what you did. I’m always interested in seeing what people can do with ffmpeg.

Random song of the Week: Playmate to Jesus by Aqua

Posted in music by commorancy on April 5, 2015
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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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Game Review: Defiance MMO on Xbox

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on April 29, 2013

Defiance While I really want to like Trion’s Defiance on the Xbox 360 and in some ways I do like it, it also has some highly annoying design ideas, features, levels and quirks. Before I begin, you need to know that Defiance is an online multiplayer game only and requires a subscription to Xbox Live Gold. Don’t buy this game unless you plan to buy or already have a subscription to Xbox Live (which, of course, requires broadband Internet access). Additionally, this game is completely dependent on Trion’s servers being continually available. If Trion’s servers go down (and they do regularly), you cannot play the game AT ALL. Anyway, grab a cup of coffee and let’s get going.

Disclaimer: Be careful buying used copies of Defiance. If Trion folds or they shut down the Defiance servers, the game disk will become a coaster. The game disk has no standalone content. The Defiance game relies 100% on Trion to operate the servers and stay in business. The business of gaming is fickle. If this game doesn’t last longer than a year in operation or the TV series is cancelled, don’t be surprised if you can’t play the game. If you are reading this review a year (or later) since it has been written, do some research before investing in a used copy of the game. 

What is an MMO?

MMO stands for massive mutiplayer online. Basically, it’s a multiplayer game. It isn’t really a single player campaign game. Basically, what Defiance is to 3D gaming, a MUSH is to text-based gaming. Basically, it’s a large map environment with a load of players from all over all playing the game together.

What’s good about Defiance?

Defiance is not your standard third-person 3D Campaign based shooter or even a standard 3D death match style multiplayer game. Defiance mixes both single player campaign with multiplayer coop seemlessly.  In fact, it’s really the first game I’ve played to do so. Granted, I have not played World of Warcraft, so this game may offer that level of play, also. Basically, you and your friends can join in and all defeat an enemy or boss together… at least, sometimes. Yes, there are missions where coop is not possible. It really is a pretty cool idea. The trouble is, the idea of it is pretty much where the coolness ends.  The way it’s designed could be way better.

What’s bad about Defiance?

It’s highly repetitive.  

As you’re driving around, you see a whole bunch of different missions on the roads.  But, you’ll see the same drive-by road side missions time and time again. These drive-by missions are distinctly different from those that appear on your map as an exclamation point in a diamond. Once you’ve played several of those drive by missions, you don’t really want to do it again… and again.. and again. It’s not cool. Also, it’s the same enemies over and over. So, even though it’s a new mission, it’s the same enemies with all of the same tactics.  Tactics, I might add, which can be highly boring after defeating them several times. It’s okay when you’re doing it for the first time. But, after you’ve played the same enemies and tactics about 5 times or more, it gets old really fast.

Leveling up is very s l o w.

As you level up, you get more and bigger weapons and perks. So, at least you do get stronger weapons as time progresses. But, expect that progression to go very s l o w l y. Don’t expect to get the biggest weapons really quick unless you play the game non-stop. However, even getting to Level 650 doesn’t seem much different than being at level 200 or even level 0 in terms of health or shield. You character still becomes incapacitated just easily. So, effectively all you are really getting out of leveling up is somewhat stronger weapons, maybe.

Boss Levels have no checkpoints

Single player boss levels have no save points during battle. If your character becomes incapacitated, you start the entire boss over from scratch just outside of the room.  In other words, you could lose up to 30 minutes of play time whittling the boss’ health down only for one missile to incapacitate you and you have to completely redo the whole thing again and again and again. This is entirely frustrating and time wasting. Basically, you are forced to play the boss level on the game designer’s terms, not yours. If you decide that you want to use stealth and sniper tactics, you can’t. The only strategy given is the one forced upon you by the designers… which usually entails running away from the enemy in hopes you can strike them with enough to kill them before they incapacitate you. It’s all trial and error and timing. There’s no strategy involved.

No way to change weapon load out quickly

Due to the frustrating menu system, you cannot change your weapon load out while in the middle of any battle, let alone a boss battle. Otherwise, you will be incapacitated. If you don’t load out correctly before going in, expect your character to die early and often.

Scrip and other currency types

Scrip is one type money in this game.  There are vendors that sell cars, weapons, weapon mods, shields and lock boxes.  Unfortunately, there are other forms of currency in this game which include bits, resources, reputation and keys.

  • Scrip is obtained by completing any mission or selling goods at vendors
  • Bits are obtained by buying them with Microsoft points (i.e., real money).
  • Resources are obtained by completing missions or by breaking down objects into resources
  • Keys are obtained by completing arkfalls and other missions
    • Unfortunately, there is a severe limit on how many keys you can hold (my limit is 75)
  • Reputation is obtained by completing multiplayer co-op missions (requires 4 players to participate)

Some items for purchase require a mixture of the above currencies to obtain that item from a vendor. So, some specialized weapons may require 200 reputation plus some Scrip to get that item. Getting that many reputation points requires participating in many 4 player coop missions.

Main Missions

The main missions consist of a story that seems to be leading someplace, but I’ve not yet figured out exactly where. Sure, your character is being ‘groomed’ for something big, but who knows really what. At a point early in the game, you meet a character that looks very similar to a Borg (and sounds like one, actually) named Nim Shondu. Later on, you have to kill him. Believe me, this boss level is nearly impossible to beat unless you come into it with the correct weapons dealing a high amount of damage combined with overcharge.  Even then, expect to spend loads of time with this room. There’s no hiding place in the room, so you can’t get away from his sword and special attacks or his EGO moves. He moves so fast that you can’t block his attacks. So, the best you can do is try to stay away from his attacks just long enough to kill him. Worse, you have to kill him 3 times. Good luck with that unless you are equipped correctly. Worse, you won’t know his tactics until you enter the room.  And, by then it’s too late to go find the right weapon let alone equip it. Even worse than all of this, the game still charges you an extraction fee each time you die and can’t self-revive. Truly, a poorly designed level

So far, this story has been about rag tag missions that seem to just open up more missions and more side missions. I don’t really see where the story is going at this point.  So, let’s hope the writers have a cohesive story arc in mind.

Weapons and Shields, but no Armor

Unlike other military games which allow you to level up and find weapons, armor, shields and clothing modifiers, Defiance only offers shields and weapons, which isn’t really enough for this type of game.  Of the shields you can find, they are all weak. Basically, there are two types of shields you can find:

  1. A shield with a low threshold for damage (1000 points or less) and recovers fast (1-3 seconds)
  2. A shield with a high threshold for damage (1500 points or higher) and recovers very slowly (delay 7-9 seconds)

Some shields are augmented with other traits (like better protection from fire damage, your own weapon damage, biodamage, etc).  I’ve yet to find a shield that has offers a high threshold for damage and recovers quickly. There might be one in the game somewhere, but I’ve yet to see it or find it.  Even still, it only takes about two Dark Matter troops firing their weapons at you to completely wipe out your shield with about 5 shots and another 5 will wipe out your health and incapacitate you. Worse, you cannot augment shields with any mods at all, even though the game lets you mod weapons.

Arkfalls and Side Missions

There are basically three types of side missions. Random encounters, marked side missions and Arkfalls.

Random Encounters

Random encounters are basically roadside missions.  That is, you drive by and see something blocking the road.  It might be Raiders, 99ers, Dark Matter, Scrappers or Hellbugs.  That’s basically the list of enemies in the game.  So, it will be one of these enemies that pops out of a road side mission. In fact, it’s the only type of enemies that will pop out of any of the missions including Arkfalls.

Side Missions

These mission types are marked on your map with an exclamation point in a diamond shape. These give small amounts of scrip (money) and small amounts of experience points.  They usually ask you to locate and obtain something and sometimes drop it off.  It might ask you to plant explosives.  It might ask you to clear out a Hellbug nest or kill all of the Raiders in a camp.

Arkfalls

Other than multiplayer coop maps, these are the truly massively multiplayer exeperiences in this game. When an ‘ark’ falls and hits the ground, ark hunters swoop in and scour it for parts to be sold.  In the game, when an ark falls, it’s just a mechanism to create a huge Hellbug or Scrapper to kill.  Each Arkfall starts off small (destroying crystals in two or three waves) or killing the enemies in an area.  As the smaller arkfall crystals are destroyed, this leads up to the big boss arkfall. You might have to do two or three small arkfalls before the big boss appears. Once the boss appears, all of the online players congregate and use whatever weapons they have to whittle the health down of the boss until it’s destroyed.  At the end of the arkfall, a panel appears showing who did the most damage in an ordered list.

These usually give about 6500XP experience. So, if you want to gain experience and scrip fast, join arkfalls regularly. Also, do the main missions. These gain you a lot of scrip.

Incapacitation

This is one of the sore spots in this game and is poorly designed.  I understand what they were trying to achieve with this part of the game, but it just doesn’t really work. So, you’ve lost all your shield and your health is now drained.  Once this happens, you fall to the ground and become incapacitated. Sometimes you get two options (self-revive or extraction).  Self-revive is as it states, you revive in place and pick up right where you left off.  Extraction means you start over at the extraction point. Self-revive only becomes available after 5 minutes or so of playtime after the last self-revive was used.  So, if you fall quickly after a self-revive, you have to pay scrip to get extracted.

When you’re in the world, extraction is generally cool (other than you lose a percentage of your ‘Scrip’ for being extracted).. except when your closest extraction point happens to be halfway across the map.  I’ll discuss extraction points next. However, when you’re at the boss level in a dungeon, it’s not fine. In fact, it’s damn right annoying and frustrating.  Worse, when you’re on a boss level, the game doesn’t even give you the option of using self-revive. You are forced to defeat the boss in one complete perfectly executed go or you fail and start over. There’s no help, no reviving, no one there to help you revive.  In the case of the Borg, you’re have to completely kill him in one single go with the weapons you have in hand or you start the boss level over again.  Worse, if you abandon the mission, you have to completely replay the entire intro of the level over again to get back to the boss level inside the dungeon. That may involve 20 minutes of lead-up to get into the dungeon again.

But, if you didn’t enter the level equipped with the correct shield or weapon load out, don’t bother trying to do that in combat.  We’ll discuss weapon load outs shortly.

Extraction points

This game ‘binds’ your character to an extraction point that are post-like markers with a purple light (and an ammo dispenser near it). Once you get close to one of these markers, your character will become bound to it. If you extract, your character will end up back at one of these markers.  As you drive by the markers, your character will become bound to them.  Note, however, that these markers only appear on major roads. So, if you drive off-road all of the time or fast travel, you could leave yourself vulnerable to an extraction point that is a very long way away from where you presently are. So, if you’re doing an arkfall and you extract, you’re going to end up a very long way away from that arkfall and will have to spend the time to drive all the way back over there.

This is really one of the sore points of this game.  There should be twice as many extraction points as there are.  In fact, when an arkfall goes up, an extraction point should appear for the duration of the arkfall. So, if you have to extract, you end up somewhere close to the arkfall again. Better, if you’re in an arkfall, it should bind you to the arkfall until it’s done. Just extract me into the arkfall location where I previously was.  Why force me to drive a huge distance just to get back to it? Not very well thought out.

Weapon Load Outs from the Menu

The menu system in this game is also poorly designed. In most games like this, you would have a weapon wheel where you can assign your favorite weapons for easy access during active combat. Not in this game. You have to open a menu (which can take 10-20 seconds to completely draw), then you have to select the slot and dig through a scrolling list of weapons to place into the weapon slot (another 5-10 seconds).  The entire screen is completely covered with the menu so you cannot see any live actoin at all. Yet, everything remains live. There is no pause. So, your character is completely vulnerable while you diddle in the menu.

Bad bad BAD. This is one of the worst combat menu systems I’ve seen in a game like this. If you need access to weapons/grenades and shields easily and quickly, you NEED a selection wheel that pops up right inside the game over the top of the live gameplay. Sure, let us fill this wheel with our own weapons of choice, but after that, we can easily choose the weapon we want to use.  Instead, you have a completely cumbersome menu system that completely obscures live combat and that takes 30 seconds (or longer) to walk through. Even then, you can only get easy access to two weapons at a time.

The game offers alternative weapon load outs by pressing Y in the menu and will cycle through 3 different loadout presets, but even that isn’t fast enough to work. This game desperately needs a weapon wheel preset overlay.

Inventory and Menu

Menu System

The menu includes everything to manage your weapons, weapon features, and everything in your inventory. The menu system is really overloaded. Once you get into the menu, you have the base menu which is what appears when you press the start button.  But, there’s even another menu when you press the left trigger.  That pops up a wheel that contains more submenus to get to things like the Defiance Store, Social, Stats, etc.  Then there are the RB and LB sub menus of the main menu which cycles you through weapon modification, EGO powers, and more stats. Why they needed both the wheel menu and the RB menu system, I don’t know. It’s not intuitive and it’s confusing.

One thing, though, is that even with all of these menus, once you have created the look of your character, you’re stuck.  You can’t easily change that look if you don’t like it.  If it’s in the menu system somewhere, it’s well hidden. Suffice it to say that I’ve not found it.

Inventory

Inventory is severely limited.  When you first start out, you get something like 12 slots which you quickly fill. Note, anything you hold takes an inventory slot (shield, weapon or mod). I don’t understand why there’s even a limit in this game. But, it’s here and it severely limits what you can pick up. I’m forever destroying objects to be able to pick up something that’s fallen from an enemy. It’s highly frustrating and highly annoying to constantly have to destroy things to get new things.

Additionally, there is no lock box, locker or any kind of storage system for extra stuff. You constantly have to carry everything with you. You can’t offload your stuff into something you own (a house or a locker or any kind of personal offline storage). The closest you get is the ‘Claim Items’ in the Defiance Store. But, that only holds stuff that won’t fit into your inventory at the time that some quest tries to give it to you. You can’t place anything into the claims item area. It only takes overflow items so you don’t lose it.

No Armor, Only Shields (and they’re limited at that)

This game has no concept of armor.  Only shields.  Once your shields are drained, your health starts draining and then you become incapacitated. With any combat game, armor and armor rating should be a huge part of this game. Even at level 650, your character incapacitates as easily as a level 1 character. The shields you find just really do nothing.  Worse, you cannot modify shields by augmenting their protection levels. This game completely fails for character protection. There’s nothing you can do to help fortify your character’s health or protection. You’re completely at the mercy of the game to provide this protection which it does not do.

Multiplayer and Chat

Don’t bother to try and text chat in this world. The chat window is complete junk. The chat system in this game is never used by anyone because you simply can’t use it. To bring up the chat, you press the D-Pad to the right which opens a small menu, then you have to select the chat window which takes over the whole screen. Then you have to use the Xbox controller chat pad (if you have it) to enter your text. Otherwise, you’re limited to that horrible move-the-cursor-and-press-letters-thing (which is even worse).

If you do decide to chat in the Xbox version, get the controller chat pad. Even that is not enough to make this system work. Instead, grab a headset and plug that in. Voice chat is the only way to do this game. Even still, there aren’t that many people using that. So, what you end up with is most people doing their own things without discussions (except where clans are involved).

TV Show Defiance Tie-In

After the shows air, the game is supposed to change its play in-world to accommodate the changes to the series. So far, I’ve seen none of this. Granted, we’re only 2 episodes in as of this writing, still I see no changes in the world or in any of the missions. So, I’m still waiting for these changes to show. Personally, it looks like hype to me.

Audio and Graphics

The graphics are reasonably decent in most cases but there are a few brilliant places. Mostly, the graphics are average.  The lighting is adequate, but not spectacular. The surface textures are good, but could be better.  The graphics can be glitchy, especially where other online players are concerned.  Players disappear, jump from place to place or just don’t work correctly when other online players are doing their thing. The graphics are mostly smooth when it comes to your player, but it can be glitchy and jumpy at times even then.

The audio soundtrack works quite well. The audio voiceovers are mostly well done, but there are some bugs.  For example, EGO says ‘Shoot it in its hideous Moths’ (you know, those white things that fly around at night) when it specifically means the word Mouth (which is printed on the screen). Trion has not yet corrected this audio track. When dealing with side missions, EGO’s phrases are so generic they sometimes don’t make sense.  EGO also pops in at very inopportune times to say things. Sometimes, I wish she’d just shut up. Also, there are audio drop outs where EGO is supposed to chime in and doesn’t, but the audio volume lowers for up to 5 minutes until something else brings the volume back up. You also get these audio dropouts when entering and leaving buildings.

Overall

Defiance on the Xbox 360 is fun to a point, but is a bit too clumsy and has too many quirks and problems.  After you’ve played it for about a day, it gets old and repetitive really fast. The terrain is small and there’s really very little to do other than arkfalls which also become repetitive and boring. The menu system is cumbersome and annoying. The inventory system is overblown and convoluted, but doesn’t hold nearly enough. There are no long term storage lockers, so you have to destroy items frequently. The lack of a weapon menu wheel severely hampers the combat playability in Defiance. The lack of checkpoints makes playing the game a chore in places, especially boss levels.

I’m giving this game 4.5 stars out of 10.  It needed a whole lot more careful design treatment with playability testing and didn’t get it.

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