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Game Anatomy: Jump Kits

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Copyright Respawn Entertainment and EA

Movement in first person shooters, outside of a handful of gimmicks, is largely what it has been since the first Call of Duty in the early 2000s.  It’s relatively slow, focusing on staying away from fire and linear.  It differs from the 90s era FPS games by being a bit slower and focusing on cover, as well as higher precision from weaponry.  While high level play may or may not reflect this, I wouldn’t know I don’t participate, Call of Duty was designed in mind with quick, rapid precise shots instead of rocket spam.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, mind, but it does create a very specific type of shooter, and it’s one of the reasons Call of Duty, as a series, was so much more linear as an experience than its predecessors like Quake or Doom, and one of the reasons why the most recent id Software games have been considered so successful.  However, what’s interesting is that the people that created this type of FPS movement were also the people to innovate upon it, and that’s where we get the Titanfall Jump Kits, devices that bring platforming to that really precise and deliberate sort of shooting, marrying them in ways that make for a very engaging and original type of gameplay.

Titanfall 2’s campaign is one of the best military first person shooters I’ve had the experience playing.  It’s not Doom 2016 or the New Order Wolfenstein games, but it’s a lot better than every other FPS that’s come out, period, since probably Modern Warfare 2.  A lot of that can be attributed to the Titans themselves.  The game feels very Battletech in its approach, but a lot more fun than any Battletech game I’ve ever played.  The Titans move really well, each loadout feels different and gives a different approach to gameplay, it’s very cool.  However, after a while, I found I was having a lot more fun just playing as Jack instead of being in the giant robot, and while normally this might be seen as a failure of the campaign, it actually winds up saving it.  The Titans are great, but the multiplayer, of  which the campaign unfortunately serves as something of an extended tutorial for, is designed for on foot combat with the Titan combat being a reward for success.  As such, the campaign requires that the player will need to get used to fighting on foot, so basing that “on foot” around using the Jump Kit was perfect.

The Jump Kit is simple.  It allows the player to double jump, run horizontally across vertical surfaces and jump off of walls, and yes, there is Strider-style triangle jumping.  The verticality here allows the player to explore more complex means of combat, and the game’s level design does a good job of facilitating it.  At first, they throw a handful of soldiers at the player with limited cover, then, to wean them off of relying heavily on cover, those enemy soldiers break the first rule of cover based shooters.  They flank the player and go around the cover, so the player has to keep moving.  After getting used to jumping over their heads and getting around them, the game starts to throw walls and enemies with more movement options themselves at the player.  Then they start adding in enemies with portal shield walls that move with them and then it goes on from there.  The game uses the obvious story element to work with this, the player is a rookie, and as the player gets better, it’s reflected in the story.  Very Mega Man X in design.  It’s a shame the story just sort of ends right when Jack, the main character gets to play with all of the toys, but that’s a different article.

What makes the Jump Kit shine, though, is that the movement allows for the player to find their own strategies for dealing with different packs of enemies, and gives the player a whole lot of power and agency without requiring too much work from the developers.  There are a lot of great things to say about Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and it remains one of the best military FPS games of all time, but it’s design is very set piece based.  There’s a script the player is going to follow, and it’s an awesome script, but there’s a reason why the term “corridor shooter” went from being a more positive term for the still-being-named FPS genre than “Doom clone” to a derisive term for Call of Duty and the various rip offs.  There are a few options, but they’re mostly expected.  With the Jump Kit, there are tons of different ways to play out a fight, and none of them require a script from the designer.

It’s almost like an action game done in first person mode.  It doesn’t have the depth of, say, Baynetta or Neir: Automata, but that’s the same idea.  Throw enemies at the player, and have the player use their own kit and skill to deal with them as they see fit.  It makes for a different approach than a super shooter, like Halo, Doom or Wolfenstein or a military shooter like Call of Duty.  It’s fun and while it’s not exactly unique, it’s something that stands on its own.  Now, if only the campaign was more than 5 hours long.

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Game Anatomy: Breath of the Wild Horses

It has been way too long since I had a chance to do one of these.  Part of it is that I’ve only been playing Final Fantasy games and World of Warcraft for the past couple of months, so I need to break away from RPGs.  I also need to play more Final Fantasy IX, because I really want to finish that.  I’m really liking it.  Anyway, enough blogging.

I have a stable full of horses in Breath of the Wild, but there’s one in particular that stands out to me.  Her name is Paladin, and she’s a white horse, and if the quest text is to believed, she’s a descendant of Princess Zelda’s horse.  I had to hunt her down, only knowing of her existence because a random stable hand told me a story about beautiful white horses, and I found her among a pack of other horses.  She was a gorgeous, tall horse with a blonde mane and she nearly threw me off when I came to find her.  When I found her, I immediately rode her back to the stable, and from then on, she was at my side.  When I fought the Dark Beast Ganon, it was her that rode with me.  When I traveled to the coldest parts of Hyrule, or rode up to the top of a mountain to fight a dragon of wisdom, she took me as far as she could go.  I love that horse.  She has great stats, some of the best of any horse that I have, but that’s not what made her special.  I found her, I tamed her, and she became my companion throughout the latter part of the game.

White-horse

Copyright Nintendo and Zelda Dungeon (https://www.zeldadungeon.net/wiki/White_Horse)

I have another horse who is almost as important.  His name is Warlock, and he’s the giant horse, descended, possibly, from Gannodorf’s black stallion, and the last of his kind.  He did throw me, several times, and one of those times, I wound up getting killed by a lynel because I couldn’t tame him.  He isn’t as graceful as Paladin, but when I absolutely need to mow down every single bokoblin that comes after me, I mount up Warlock and I take them down.

Paladin, though, was my main horse.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is possibly the most peopled Zelda game in the series.  It has more towns, more characters and stories than any other game in the series, but it’s fundamentally a lonely game.  Sure, Link can get a house (that might have just been his old house…) and hang out with all sorts of colorful characters, but Link spends the majority of his adventure alone.  No one goes with him and he comes from a completely different era and time.  The closest thing Link has to a friend or traveling companion throughout his journey are the spells granted to him by the spirits of his dead friends, and his memories of Zelda.  Link stands apart from everyone else on his journey in every sense of the word, physically, emotionally and in time as well.

In a lot of ways, it’s a melancholy sort of game because of this.  Link journeys through a vast kingdom, much of which lies in ruins because of his personal failure, and he comes from a world that almost no one remembers and he is forever disconnected from, and he does this alone.  This is where Paladin comes in.  When I found Paladin, I felt like I had a connection.  She can’t talk, Hell, I’m actually assuming Paladin is a “her” based solely on the fact Zelda’s horse was female, and she can’t really fight or do anything more than cart me around, but I have a connection to her more than any other horse in any other game I’ve ever played.  Shadowmere, Epona, Roach, none of them hold a candle to Paladin and this is due to a couple of reasons.

First, she’s my one companion.  This can be true of any horse in the game, I’m just using Paladin because Paladin was special to me.  The horse is the one thing you can take with you.  Purah isn’t going to leave her lab, and Impa and her family aren’t leaving Kakariko Village.  Your horse, though, is going to go with you no matter what.  Once the horse is tamed, they follow you anywhere, until you leave them at a stable or they die.  See, that’s the thing, the horses can die.  Any horse can die, even unique horses like the Giant Horse, and while Malanya can wish them back, the Horse God is way out in the boonies and it’s not cheap to bring them back.  As such, that means your horse, your loyal friend, needs to be protected.  I can ride Paladin into battle, or out of it, but an errant couple of guardian lasers can kill the poor girl easily.  Epona, in other games, can’t die, Roach doesn’t die and Shadowmere can reform in 10 in game days in Skyrim and is immortal in Oblivion.  Paladin can die.  Paladin is as mortal as I am, and that gives me a connection to her in a way that no other horse ever has.  She’s not a fantasy themed car or motorcycle, she’s a living being, and I have to protect her.

Even more, the horse isn’t simply given to the player.  It’s possible, if somewhat tedious, to play the whole game without a horse.  In order to have such a companion, the player has to seek one out, tame the horse, and then build a bond with the horse.  Sure, there’s the common Pokemon way of bonding with the horse, and that’s by riding it everywhere, but the real way to build trust with a horse is to feed them apples and carrots, ride with them all over the place and always, always give them pets whenever possible.  However, it’s the finding part that’s important.

To get a horse companion, the player has to sneak up, jump on and ride the horse like a bucking bronco tapping the run button over and over, and hoping that there’s enough stamina left over.  To do that, though, finding a horse is important too.  That makes the horse the player’s horse.  Even without an “official” quest to find a horse, like I had with Paladin, finding a horse is a quest all in of itself.  It’s the perfect kind of quest for a game like this, where the world is the player’s to explore in.  Very few things fit as well into the type of game that Breath of the Wild is more than the horses.

Game Anatomy: Leviathan Axe

So, before we go on, I am going to say that I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but I can’t promise anything.  I’m not done with the game, but I’m about halfway through the game, so I do know some things.  Also, a student spoiled part of the ending for me, because that’s how things go when you deal with teenagers.  However, considering what I am discussing, there is one major spoiler for the midpoint of the game.  I don’t know if it ruins something, but it might make the scene this blog posts spoils a little less impactful.

So, as a warning, there are pretty big spoilers in this blog post.  Please read with caution.

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Copyright Sony Entertainment

Once again, there will be some major midpoint spoilers in this post.  Please be cautious.

God of War is not a game I would have expected to be good.  I loved the first two games so much I actually played one of the PSP games.  It was awful.  I also beat it in, like, two weeks due to sheer determination.  The third game was way too much, just sort of an awful, bloody slog through some of the worst writing.  When the Dad of War stuff came out, I didn’t care, I thought they were just trying to go after Naughty Dog and do another Last of Us.  Nope.  God of War turned out to be something great, and it felt like a God of War game in ways I never imagined.  One of the best things about this is Kratos’s new Leviathan Axe, a winter weapon of frozen death that shakes up not just the gameplay, but the story, too, in many great ways.

Obviously, the Leviathan Axe is not the Blades of Chaos (or Athena or Exile).  It’s personal, more brutal and brings Kratos closer to the action.  In the old God of War games, the Blades of Chaos had huge range, able to strike enemies from a distance, which really made the combat in God of War really engaging, especially considering how the game used camera scaling to pit Kratos against things that were sometimes literally the size of a mountain.  However, the new God of War is up close and personal, and that isn’t something the Blades of Chaos were known for.  By introducing the players to the Leviathan Axe right at the beginning, it shows the players that this is going to be a completely different God of War, more interested in being like Dark Souls than being like the older games.

The game is much closer, more personal, than it’s ever been.  The camera no longer scales, even when Kratos is fighting something an order of magnitude larger than him.  This means the game requires a melee weapon that is up close and personal, because that’s what the game is trying to convey.  This is a very personal game, because it’s about not just Kratos and his relationship with his son Atraeus, but it’s about Kratos exploring, perhaps for the first time in his long, long life, just who he is exactly.  It’s a very up close and personal examination of who he is as a man, and as a god.  Giving Kratos a weapon that plays into the new camera, and tying it all into the more personal journey is absolutely necessary.

While the Leviathan Axe is a closer, more brutal and personal weapon, it also does a lot to transform the gameplay.  The Blades of Chaos are very combo heavy, with lots of complex moves requiring specific button presses, mix ups and memorization, and that’s something that worked for the original games in the series, which are closer to spectacle brawlers like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta.  With the way combat and exploration are set up, requiring more precise usage of shields and avoidance, an aggressive weapon doesn’t work.  The Leviathan Axe is slower, each strike being more deliberate and pointed than simply mashing tons of enemies into powder by hammering on the attack button with the Blades.  It’s not Dark Souls, it’s still God of War, but it definitely is more Dark Souls adjacent than the series has ever been.

With the slower, more deliberately paced combat, we’re able to set  up a nice dichotomy between the Kratos of old and the Kratos we have now.  It does a good job of showing who Kratos can be, because it’s a weapon focused on precision, not overt violence.  Kratos is a more tempered man now, and the combat reflects this.  This continues on, until, and these are the spoilers, Kratos gets the Blades of Chaos again.

This should completely upend the game, especially since the Blades have all of the same abilities that they had originally and they play exactly the same, but instead, it doesn’t.  This is where the Leviathan Axe comes into play.  See, like I said, the combat in this game is much more complex and deliberate than before, and if they were to just give the player the Blades right at the start, it wouldn’t feel right.  Kratos would run in and get slaughtered, and he wouldn’t feel like a big bad ass at all.  Instead, with the new, more personal system, Kratos has to build his way up and get used to the flow and feel of fighting before they throw in the hyper aggressive Blades.

However, Sony Santa Monica takes it a step further by keeping the Leviathan Axe just as important to the game as it was at the beginning.  Not only do they use the fire and ice motifs to tell more about the story and the competing balances in Kratos’s life, which feeds into the gameplay since Kratos finally has a way to kill Hel-draugr, but they also make sure it’s still a really good weapon for combat.  The Blades are great for sweeping a room, but they swing and have a huge arc.  When needing to get up close and personal, the Leviathan Axe is the better choice.  It’s more defensive, and it’s easier to use a shield with.  Also, it’s a lot easier not to go full on berserker mode using the Axe.

Game Anatomy: Super Combos

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Copyright Bandai Namco, Toei Animation, Arc System Works, and Akira Toriayama (please support the official release)

Back in high school, Guilty Gear X was my jam.  I picked it up second hand when I was a junior in high school, tired of playing Smash Bros. Melee.  I had never really gotten into Street Fighter like I wanted to, and once the shock of blood and guts wore off, I grew tired of Mortal Kombat almost immediately.  Guilty Gear, being a slick anime fighting game where the game looked and played like my favorite cartoons stuck with me, and it helped that Arc System Works gave the system a ton of depth.  It wasn’t Virtua Fighter depth, but it made Street Fighter II look like a baby’s game.  Look, that shit was important when I was 17 years old.  Guilty Gear XX, which I picked up a year later, was even better, with more complexity and cooler characters added in.  I always felt like I was getting better, like there was more to master, but eventually, I hit a wall after a couple of years of playing.

Part of this is because I never got much in the way of competition.  I’m the only one in my circle of friends who bought fighting games, and at the time, online wasn’t really a thing.  Nor were arcades.  The other thing, though, was that the depth and complexity of Guilty Gear was insane.  Arc System Works made everything more complicated with Blaz Blue, and a year ago, I even tried out Guilty Gear Xrd and felt left behind.  I had come to the understanding that depth and complexity didn’t have to be the same thing, and this is where Dragon Ball FighterZ comes in.  That is the worst title ever.

Dragon Ball FighterZ (ugh!) might be the best fighting game ever because it does something that seems like it would be counter intuitive and would cut down the games depth and skill ceiling drastically.  It makes it so all of the characters use the same inputs, and, more importantly, combos can be made just by tapping one button, or a simple combination of buttons, over and over again.  It sounds like button mashing, like the little brother system of game design, but it actually works.

The game does have a traditional combo system, yes, and it can chain different combos together, but the main bread and butter of the system is the Super Combo system.  I use an X-Box One controller, so I can tap X over and over again, which can give me a strong, five to ten hit combo, provided I keep up the rhythm.  This sounds cheap, but since I’m using X, I can generally keep the enemy staggered long enough to do the whole combo, it’s a light attack, so the damage is lower.  It’s fast, sure, but it’s also easier to block the initial attack, and because it’s so fast, if I do get blocked, my recovery is going to be slower.  A lot of this will be due to human error, because I’m likely to assume I hit before I even finish the inputs, hammering on the X button, instead of blocking their inevitable counter attack, but there are mechanical issues as well.  If I miss, I’m open, and if I’m open, they can do the same to me.

Even more, the Super Combo system looks cool.  Each attack in the string is contextual, and it changes the animation.  This means it’s much easier to get the spectacular looking combos that people see in the anime all the time.  The whole fight is literal wall to wall best of Dragonball Z, with crazy blasts and huge, multi-hit combos the whole time.  By stringing together animations, which change based on where the player is, what attack in the string their doing, and what their previous attack was, it makes the game seem much more inviting.  Yes, even the newbie scrub can do the cool attacks, which incentives the players into staying.  The simplicity of the Super Combo means that even new players can do things that look cool, which will teach them to continue to working at the game in order to do more cool stuff.

What works best about it, though, is the simplicity.  Sure, it doesn’t have the crazy amount of stuff you can do as in something like Guilty Gear XX, but so much of that extra stuff is super high level, and very difficult and finicky to input.  I’ve NEVER done a Roman Cancel in a Guilty Gear game.  I can’t even remember how to do, and even when I did, I couldn’t get it right, because doing it was so complicated.  The Super Combo system has none of that.  Much like Smash Bros., the game instead focuses on stringing together basic attacks, and making combos from that.  This means the fighting is more focused on mind games, positioning and reflexes.  Anyone can do the same stuff, and it’s all on the same layout, so who can do it the fastest?  Who can use the right Super Combo or Super Attack at the right moment?  Who better able to string a special move or Super Attack into a Super Combo?  Those questions become more important at a higher level than anything else, making the depth much more accessible and easily explored without sacrificing a skill ceiling.  Daigo is going to tear me apart, period, no matter how fast I can hammer X.

Now, the game has only been out for a couple of weeks, so it’s hard to say if this will be as successful at the competitive scene as it seems, but so far, fighting game veterans are saying the simplicity means they can do more with less.  That’s a good thing, and a good direction for fighting games to go into.

Top Ten Games of All Time

Hey everyone.  I’m actually about to sign off for a long weekend after a long semester.  I finished up what might be the final draft of my novel, started up the next one and began planning a third.  I didn’t really know what to write, since this is going to be my last bit of writing (not counting some D&D notes) for probably the next four days, and it’s kind of been a shitty day.  So, to right some wrongs and go out on a positive note, I decided to get down and write out my Ten Favorite Games of All Time.  This is the 2017 list, and it’s a list that gets updated all of the time.  Hell, there are games on here from this year, last year and the year before.  I can’t remember the last time that happened.  So, it’s less of “All Time” and more “of All Time until something I like more comes out and removes a game from the list.”  I have no rules to this, no one franchise only things or any of that.  Just my favorite games of all time, in reverse order.  Enjoy and yell at me about my bad taste in the comments.

Fire Emblem Awakening

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Image Copyright Nintendo

The title at the bottom of the list was Shining Force II.  I love tactical RPGs, but too often, Yasumi Matsuno makes them too complicated.  I love the idea of Final Fantasy Tactics, but I could never get into it, mostly in thanks to it taking 3 menus to decide on character actions.  Also the cheating AI.  So, I just continued to love Shining Force II for 25 years.  Then, when I had a bit of free time over the summer, I finally played this game, and it was everything I ever wanted in a tactical RPG, without being way too complicated.  I loved all of the class switching and interesting things you could do with your characters in Final Fantasy Tactics, I just didn’t like playing it.  The game feel is kind of awful.  Fire Emblem Awakening takes that complexity and gives it Shining Force style game feel.

I know there are bunch of other Fire Emblem games, but this was the first one I could really get into.  The characters were fun and interesting and there was a ton of love poured into this game.  Hell, it even made grinding fun, since the way the battles and maps were set up, it made for a lot of fun.  Maybe there are other Fire Emblem games that might scratch the itch more than Awakening does, but I haven’t found them yet.  This is it, the perfect balance of Shining Forces’s more traditional JPRG gameplay with the complex character building of Final Fantasy Tactics.  Also, it’s got, like 5/7 of the Critical Role cast in it.  Just no Marisha or Ashley.

Mega Man X

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Copyright Capcom

I love Mega Man.  I listen to music about Mega Man.  I’ve had the Blue Bomber as a keychain since 2015, making it the longest lasting keychain I’ve ever had.  Like, Mega Man is a great game.  It handles great, you can jump, shoot, slide, steal weapons, it’s awesome.  Without counting the strange X7, Mega Man 8 is the worst Mega Man game ever made, and it’s still a really kick ass game.  Like, that should say something about this series, especially since all of the games are basically the same, gameplay wise.  Mega Man X, though, is just the best Mega Man game.  It takes everything Mega Man ever did right, does it better and cuts out a lot of crap.

The X series gets a bad rap for going way too anime way too fast, and I think it sort of deserves that a bit, but the X series also had a lot of really awesome ideas and ways to improve and alter the series.  I like that.  I also really like how unique and varied the levels are, the excellent opening stage and lots of really cool Mavericks.  I’ve explored a lot of Mega Man in my life, but the first X game is the only one I stayed up with a buddy and a bottle of adult beverages to beat at four in the morning.  Can’t say that about Mega Man 3.

Dishonored 2

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Copyright Arkane Studios and Bethesda Softworks

I love stealth games a whole lot.  This isn’t going to be the last stealth game on this list.  Dishonored was my favorite.  Great combat system, great level design, excellent stealth mechanics, a real evolution of games like Thief and System Shock.  Both of those were games that were sort of before my time, PC game wise, so I never got into them, but I do appreciate the legacy they left, and Dishonored quickly became one of my favorite games of all time.  Sure, the story left a lot to be desired, but that only mattered when I went back to look at it.  While playing, the whole thing feels great.  Then, Dishonored 2 game out, and it had the clockwork mansion.  Best level ever, 10/10.

I was pretty hard on Dishonored 2 when it came out, because it was very much like the original game, without a lot of changes, other than Emily’s cool new powers.  Then, Arkane decided they were going to add a bunch of cool stuff, like the ability to mix and match Corvo and Emily’s powers, custom difficulty modes and a few gameplay improvements.  It’s still iterative, but it’s an improvement on an already awesome game.  Plus, you know, clockwork mansion.  I even got the achievement of breaking in without anyone ever knowing.  So worth it, even if it took six retries to actually kill the bastard.

Metal Gear Solid 5: the Phantom Pain

This is not exactly the best box art

Copyright Konami

I wasn’t kidding when I said Dishonored wasn’t the only stealth game on this list.  I love this game.  I spent a good chunk of 2015 and 2016 writing about how much I love it.  I replayed it after my Playstation 4 got stolen and lost all my progress.  I haven’t been able to finish it, because of all the great games that have come out this year (some of which might edge out other games on this list, Persona and Mario are so good, you guys), but it’s still great.  Hell, it’s even better the second time through.  The twist is so much better than I remember it being, and the story is actually really good.  Shame about the ending getting cut, but the rest is great.

Seriously, it’s the best open world stealth combat game out there.  The sheer depth of what the player can do in this game is unrivaled.  Sneak in, exfiltrate the prisoners without being seen?  Okay.  Go in guns blazing and play like this is Gears of War, that’s also possible.  Play Gears of War with nonlethal weapons?  Sure, this is Metal Gear, after all.  I love this game.  I guess 3 has a better realized story.  I should probably mention that, but, whatever.  I still like this one more.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

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Copyright Nintendo

I’m, uh, a bit surprised as some readers might be.  This was seriously my number three of all time, and when I wrote this list the first time, this is where Breath of the Wild was (so, uh, spoilers?).  However, in the couple of months I’ve been working on this list, Breath of the Wild really has become my favorite Zelda game.  Maybe it’s because it hits the mark in ways I wanted the Witcher 3 to, or maybe it’s because it’s shiny and new and I haven’t played a Link to the Past in years.  Whatever, this is the definitive 2D Zelda game.  Nothing has come close to being as good as this is, except for a Link Between Worlds, which I might actually like more than this, but I’ve also not played it since it came out.  Also, I think Worlds loses some points for reusing the LttP map.

This has great dungeons, a huge, sprawling world and it defined how Zelda games worked for 26 years.  Like, until Breath of the Wild came out, Zelda games followed the format laid out in this game, and this game did it better than all of them.  Ganon’s Tower, Turtle Rock, Misery Mire, holy shit, those are some awesome dungeons, and they were capped off with some of the most inventive bosses in the series.  It’s a shame the 2D games were relegated to the much less powerful handhelds, because they followed a much weaker format.  This is what inspired Ocarina of Time, and it never had a boss like Helmasaur King or Trinexx.  Those were some kick ass bosses that defined how video game bosses should be.  Holy crap.

Dark Souls III

DARKSOUL_facebook_mini

Image copyright From Software and Namco Bandai

Someone told me Dark Souls was a horror game.  I guess the idea was that since the main character is basically a well trained dude taking on gods, and it has this Gothic, decrepit aesthetic, people just assume it’s a horror game.  I don’t think I would grin manically while I charged a monster called Old Demon King in a horror game.  Seriously, this game hits me on so many levels, to an emotional core, that it’s actually difficult to explain.  Like, okay, I blocked a hit from a giant person who turned himself into a dragon with my shield.  He’s a sorcerer and he has a staff three times my size and I blocked it like it was whatever, I’ve got a shield.  Holy crap did that feel awesome.  I stabbed a dragon in the brain.  I stared down an army of the undead and killed them, killed their masters, went into the center of the confluence of the apocalypse and I snuffed out the flame of life.  Holy shit is this game bad ass.

I love it.  Like, I love it so much.  I didn’t like Demon’s Souls, I didn’t like Dark Souls or Dark Souls 2, because they were both too slow, but I did like Bloodborne, and so I liked this game.  I grabbed a sword, a bit of magic, a shield and made myself look as awesome as possible and I murdered a god.  Sure, I died a lot doing it, but holy shit, how many games can I say that, and feel like I kind of actually did it?  Not many.  My only regret is that my save file got erased before I got to play the Ringed City.

Mass Effect 2

MassEffect2_cover

Copyright Bioware and EA

Mass Effect is such a disappointing series.  I love it, I love the characters, I love the design, I love the idea.  It was science fiction in an era when there was no Star Trek, Star Wars was bad and the best we had was Halo.  Then there was 3.  Then Andromeda was basically the best thing that could have come from the series after that.  I don’t want to talk about that, I want to talk about 2.  It’s the best.  I love it.  Sure, it’s basically a cover shooter mixed with a dating sim, but it’s the best part of both of those things, with a kick ass science fiction setting and a nice, dark turn for the series.  Yes, it was quite a difference from the last game, but whatever, it had Thane and Miranda and it didn’t have Liara.  That made it great.

Plus, it has the Suicide Mission.  Mass Effect 2 has a lot of great levels, and there are a lot of great final levels, but nothing is as good as the Suicide Mission.  It’s the best level in Mass Effect 2 and it’s the best final level.  Not only is it a challenge that tests the player on everything they’ve learned about the game, it’s also thematically the most appropriate final level I’ve ever played, and it finally delivers on the “consequences” that RPGs have been promising since Ultima in ’81.  Seriously, people can die, and it will be your fault, you monster.  Plus, it’s got Lair of the Shadowbroker, possibly the best piece of Bioware DLC.

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

BreathoftheWildFinalCover

Copyright Nintendo

I guess I spoiled this one.  Yeah, it’s my favorite Zelda.  I think I knew that as soon as I stepped outside of the Shrine of Resurrection.  It’s game of the year, too.  I mean, obviously it is.  I’m still doing the in depth write up next month, but, let’s be honest, this is the best game.  It’s everything I wanted Dragon Age: Inquisition, Skyrim and the Witcher III: the Wild Hunt to be.  It’s an action packed exploration game with great exploration mechanics, a lot of fun combat and so much to see and do.

Sure, korok seeds kind of suck, but that’s like the only flaw in the game.  I don’t even care about korok seeds, man.  I just want to climb mountains, find lynels on the peaks and fight them.  Like, I would just do that, for hours.  I didn’t always win, and it was awesome.  Like, I have a horse called Paladin, and it’s my second favorite horse in video games (I still love you, Nightmare, even though I will probably never play World of Warcraft ever again) and I loved jumping off it and shooting moblins in the face with a bow.  I haven’t played the DLC yet, but that looks like it adds so much cool stuff.  No, it doesn’t bother me that there aren’t a lot of traditional Zelda dungeons or bosses or whatever the fuck.  I don’t care about that shit.  I care that I can go anywhere, fight anything and see the best rendition of Zelda while riding on Paladin.  Oh yeah, I also liked the story.  It wasn’t, you know, Ulysses or anything, but it was cute and fun and nice to see, especially since most of the games on this list are filled with death and apocalypses.

Final Fantasy XII

Final_Fantasy_XII

Copyright Square Enix

This is my favorite Final Fantasy.  VI gets to be my 11th favorite game, and I love me some Kefka, but this game has inspired me more than any video game ever.  I based my D&D setting on this.  I love almost everything about this, except for the optional super bosses, which I don’t care about anyway.  I love Final Fantasy, and this one has my favorite characters, my favorite story and the best lore.  Also, Yasumi Matsuno didn’t make it overly complicated.

Vayne and Venat anre’t my favorite Final Fantasy villains (it’s Kefka, to no one’s surprise), but they’re the reason it’s my favorite Final Fantasy.  They’re regular people with real desires, ones that I can believe in, even if they’re couched in a lot of fantasy mumbo jumbo.  Sure, Vayne is a prince and Venat is an ethereal immortal creature that was once part of a group of ethereal immortal creatures who claimed to be gods, but what they want is relatable and they’re sort of right.  They’re terrible people, but they’re people, and they have the right idea.  The story is touching and subtle, and it’s all about character development.  Balthier learning to stop running, Vaan growing up, Basch taking his stand, Ashe becoming a true queen, they’re all great, and that’s just the good guys.  The bad guys get development, and they feel like people.  Hell, even disposable woman Judge Drace manages to become a bad ass one scene wonder by cramming six hours of awesome into her three minutes of on-screen appearance.  That’s saying something.

alucard

I mean, hell, this is the cover in most regions.  Copyright Konami

It’s been my favorite game for years.  I only wish the sprites were better, and even then, I kinda don’t?  Like, they’re great for 1997, I only want them better because I want this game to exist forever.  It’s beautiful and I love it.  I mean, that’s it.  Like, great soundtrack, excellent level design that takes into account the fact you’ll be walking on the ceiling for half of the game, cool enemies, the best bosses in the series, playing as Alucard, a bit of depth to the action platforming in the form of spells and RPG mechanics.  The only flaw?  Gear and loot.  I guess it’s unbalanced, but I never use the Shield Rod, because that isn’t fun.  I guess that should be a flaw?  Whatever, I don’t care.  It’s great, and I’ve bought it like four times.  I even have the original PS1 game.

Game Anatomy: FreeFlow Combat

ArkhamCity

Copyright WB Games and Rocksteady

One of the things a lot of western developers have had difficulty finding is a way to make a good brawler.  At least in the 3D era.  Rockstar made the Warriors in 2005, and there was that awful Final FIght game, Streetwise that was a reboot of the series, a sequel to 3, might be in Street Fighter/Final Fight continuity and inexplicably features Cammy, but nothing really worked.  There was the possibility that they could just copy Devil May Cry, but that has a very Japanese design, and a lot of what makes that game work tends to be eschewed by a lot of Western developers for various reasons, both good and bad.  What finally worked was a small game called Batman: Arkham Asylum, which introduced the FreeFlow combat system, a combat system that was based more on Dance Dance Revolution than a fighting or action game.  It’s legacy, lately, has been a bit tarnished, but it was successful in making the Asylum games work as well as they did.

I wasn’t being entirely silly when I called Arkham Asylum a “small game.”  It was a bit of a gamble because at the time, superhero games were seen as shitty tie ins for their bigger movies.  This is actually still kind of a problem, mostly because super heroes are extremely powerful, and doing something other than putting them in a fighting game and mostly ignoring how powerful they actually are for anything other than “Superman is like Zangief” is kind of the only way it works.  Rocksteady, though, wanted to make a game where the player felt like Batman, all that power and ability, and they did so by focusing on fighting large groups of people, and making combat easy (but not unchallenging).  One of the best descriptions of the game I’ve ever seen is that no matter how bad a player is, the bad guys have already lost because they brought a knife to a Batman fight.  Being Batman means that the player needs to feel like they can drop into a room of armed goons and take out all of them, while simultaneously feeling like they’re the most badass martial artist in the world, and that was the goal of the FreeFlow combat system.

In order to do this, the goal was simplicity.  One of the coolest things about Devil May Cry is that everything Dante can do in this video, so can the player.  However, it requires precise button inputs, usage of combos and a deep understanding of an extremely deep combat system, one more akin to a fighting game than an action game.  This works for the sort of game that Devil May Cry is, but it’s not Batman, so simplicity needs to win out.  So, Batman has four commands: strike, cape, dodge and parry, each one connected to each of the face buttons, each one given a special prompt in order to work, cluing the player in on what they’re supposed to be doing, as well as giving a large wind up in animations, and other visual cues (such as body armor, weapon type, etc.) in order to make the player aware of what’s going on and what they need to do.  More importantly, the prompt indicating that Batman needs to do something specific will disappear once the game registers the player’s input, informing the player they no longer need to parry or dodge, even if Batman is in the middle of another animation of combat.

It’s not Dark Souls, but it’s not trying to be.  Dark Souls isn’t what I’d call a horror game, but it is a game where the player is punching upwards, trying to kill dragons or gods.  Batman is a game about punching downwards.  Batman IS a Dark Souls boss, and the player needs the tools to be one, but that doesn’t mean the game sacrifices depth.  Certainly, it’s not as deep as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, but it has it’s own combo system, and manages to have more depth than its contemporaries like God of War.  What works is that Batman has a lot of tools beyond the four basic inputs, and what those can do aren’t binary.  Strike and Parry can only do so much, but Cape stuns enemies, leaving them open for a Beatdown combo, but also keeps them from being able to attack for a moment, while Dodge allows the player to not just get away from an opponent, but can be used to remove obstacles and get them so they’re lost in a sea of their own allies.  Then, of course, there are the gadgets, with add in their own abilities, such as the grapple gun’s Scorpion style “Get over Here” ability, the Batarangs that can cause damage at a distance and stun stronger enemies, and so on.  Each of these abilities are easy to use, again, tied in with a single button, or a combination of a trigger button and a face button.

This level of simplicity means that each individual mook or goon is no threat to Batman, and can only be in great numbers.  However, since the game requires great numbers to be a challenge to Batman, it means the game is going to throw great numbers at Batman.  This means the game can’t be unfair about it, so that means Batman has to be able to react quickly to various attacks.  As such, Batman can’t move during animations, but he can Parry or Dodge out of one, jump past enemies to Strike enemies far away, and can set up friendly fire.  That’s not to say that enemies will open fire on Batman if they have a gun and their buddy is in the way, but bigger or metahuman enemies can be tricked into knocking down swaths of regular goons, and the taser gun can be used to spin certain armed enemies around to hit their opponents.  It’s kind of funny, actually, to do stuff like that.

What this combination does is it makes Batman seem powerful, competent and intelligent.  By focusing on simplicity, Batman can wipe the floor with tons of enemies in a variety of ways.  It does sacrifice the depth of combat that Japanese brawlers have, but it’s not going for that.  Instead, here, Batman gets to feel like Batman, like a super hero.  What’s interesting to note, is that it’s something that translates really well to other similar games, where the player takes on the shoes of a similarly overpowered character.  That’s overpowered in that they are more powerful than the people they fight, not that Batman is OP and needs to be nerfed.  I’m a big fan of Batgod, myself, actually.  Because Batman is supposed to be able to take out a group of big, strong dudes, he needs a system where the regular goon, or even four or five, can’t be a threat, and that’s what the FreeFlow system does.  I’m at at almost 1200 words here, so I might need a part two to go into how the dance game inspiration makes it work, but that’s basically what it comes down to.  Simplicity, large groups of enemies, and allowing Batman to cancel makes him feel powerful.

Fixing Mass Effect 3

mass-effect-3-the-real-female-shepard

Image copyright EA, Bioware and Bleeding Cool

Mass Effect 3 was a disaster, perhaps one of the worst disasters in the current history of the medium.  Not only did it have one of the worst, most nonsensical endings of all time, across any medium, it also just wasn’t a very good game in general and probably made it so any follow up would be terrible.  There was no escaping for Mass Effect Andromeda, it had no chance to become anything but what it did, and it’s thanks to Mass Effect 3.  Outside of Tuchanka and Rannoch, there really isn’t anything good about the game.  It starts with a terrible mission, the game doesn’t pick up until Tuchanka and most of the game are just ways to funnel the player into its terrible multiplayer game (yes, it’s terrible).  Still, I can’t help but think it could have been salvageable.  Obviously, the game has tons of great ideas, but the question isn’t if it had potential, the question is if it could have worked in the first place.  I think it could, and for the past five years, I’ve been working a few things they could have done.  This might not be my definitive list, but it’s time I got this written down.  So, here are the ways that Mass Effect 3 could have been fixed.

I won’t be talking about story, though.  That needs to be fixed, obviously, but the fixes to those are obvious.  Make the ending not suck (Reapers lose, Citadel space is hurt, but can rebuild, no fucking ending choice) and generally find a way to make the Illusive Man not a stooge of the Reapers, but some bastard who’s trying to profit on the good guys winning.  Actually, just do that.  Make him a bastard who’s trying to sweep in after Shepard so he can rule over Citadel space after the Reapers are gone.

Oh, and this one is a freebie.  Previous choices have to matter.  Anderson stays as ambassador.  Rachni are dead.  Human council.  The Collector Base is destroyed.  It doesn’t really matter what got picked, just stick with those.  If it means you don’t get to do the shitty Rachni mission with Grunt, whatever.  Hell, just make it a slightly different mission with Grunt.  Christ.

The first issue is that of the cast.  It’s probably the worst of the trilogy, and you can probably include Andromeda in there, too.  Andromeda had Vetra.  It’s basically the Mass Effect 1 cast, but with Wrex gone with James to replace him, and EDI to replace whoever died on Virmire.  James is great, but the Virmire Survivor is much less cool now that Mass Effect 2 made them into a dick and EDI is just the worst as a party member.  She’s still great as EDI, though.  It also brings back Liara.  I don’t like her, but she’s popular and she’s not cool like Miranda or Samara, but whatever, she’s a pure biotic and the cast is pretty short on those unless Shepard is one, and even then, the story doesn’t care if she is or not.  Virmire Survivor is a necessity, since they have a bunch of plots to resolve at this point and a new character to fill in for the big guy is great, so James can stay.  EDI needs to go.  Her sex bot gynoid body is weird and kinda creepy, and she’s just useless as a character.  She only exists so she and Joker can bone, so, whatever, add that to the end.  It doesn’t fill any other plot requirement.

The best thing to do would be to add a few characters from 2 into the mix.  That game has the best cast of pretty much any BioWare game, except maybe Baldur’s Gate 2 (high praise from me, I don’t like that game), and that’s thanks to some really interesting characters.  Oh, but they can all die and you won’t get them?  Yeah, Tali and Garrus can die too.  So can Wrex, Miranda Mordin, Jack and Thane, and they all have major plot points in this game.  Miranda Lawson is the obvious choice, because she has so many plot points that aren’t tied up that there’s a whole subplot devoted to her in the game already, as well as a major role in one of the last story missions.  A story mission that is almost good.  Miranda is also a really cool character in that she fills a role of being your second in command, which no other character does right.  Miranda as Shepard’s XO works really well, and it’s portrayed through the gameplay with her unique set up.  Especially if they found a way to tweak them to make them a little bit better.  The second choice is Jack.  She’s more unique as a pure biotic character than Liara, plus she leans a bit towards Vanguard, so it’s not overkill to have both.  I’d round out the party, giving the game nine companions, with Kasumi.  I don’t care if she was DLC in 2, she’s unique and should be given a chance to expand her character and gameplay in this game.  Also, much like Miranda, she fills a unique niche in story that no one else does.  Mordin does too, but he’s got to die, so we can’t have him in the party.  He should have been a temporary party member on Tuchanka, though.

Second, we need to remove Kai Leng.  He’s lame.  I mean, seriously, look at this Nightwing ripoff mother fucker:

Kai_Leng_amongst_two_Cerberus_Phantoms

Copyright BioWare and Electronic Arts

Fuck him.  He doesn’t get to exist in the Mass Effect universe.  Retcon the damn novels out of existence while we’re at it.  Seriously, he uses a sword.  That’s so lame.

Third, smaller missions should be more like Grissom Academy.  That’s probably the one good mission that isn’t a part of the Tuchanka and Rannoch clusters.  It’s a story based mission that has a time limit, consequences and some serious gameplay challenges.  Sure, there are a few other missions that are single maps like Grissom Academy, like the one with Miranda’s dad (surprise, he works for Cerberus.  Jesus) and the Citadel mission, but most of them are literally just multiplayer maps, and the goal is to literally do a game of the multiplayer, only offline and not with some shitty rando griefing your game.  I may have had bad experiences with Mass Effect multiplayer.

Still, even the single map missions that aren’t just horde mode advertisements for the multiplayer are mostly pretty bad.  The stories are pretty shit, especially the one involving Miranda and her dad and the one where you go to the Illusive Man’s house.  Part of this does involve terrible writing and screwing over your choices in game (oh, wait, you thought blowing up the Collector Base would mean something?  Nope, TIM still has it, somehow).  What each of those missions needed were consequences to go along with their story.  If you don’t get to Jack in time, she can die.  So can her kids.  Hell, if you don’t do the mission itself fast enough, she gets mind wiped and turned into one of those awful ninja Cerberus bad guys (they also use swords, they are so lame), and all of the kids die, or are turned into Cerberus troops.  I forget which.  It’s great, and while it was clearly a set up to recruit Jack (despite the fact you can’t recruit her), it should serve as a template for the smaller missions.

Fourth, most of the Priority Missions, specifically Palaven, Earth and probably TIM’s house, should be set up as mission clusters like Tuchanka and Rannoch.  Yes, the great writing and pay offs from both of those games are sort of what made Tuchanka and Rannoch work, but what also really worked was that the player, as Shepard, had to make a plan of attack, like they were fighting a war.  You know, like they were doing in the game.  Hell, making Palaven a losing battle would be a great way to introduce the threat of the Reaper invasion full force.  Making it so rescuing one city means sacrificing another would be a great way to set up the consequences throughout, as well as showing that your actions would have consequences during later Priority Missions.  It would also make Priority Earth not terrible.

Palaven is probably where I realized that the game was going to suck.  It’s mostly a point defense mission, and while that’s not bad for a mission or two, that’s all it is.  You show up, pick up the President (Primarch, whatever) and fly off with him and Garrus.  Nothing with Garrus’s dad or sister is dealt with (except in a FUCKING EMAIL), we don’t get to see any of the Turian homeworld since it all takes place actually on the moon of Palaven and it just feels helpless.  Yeah, it’s fine that Shepard fails, sort of, but it’s just a pick up mission.  It’s boring and it doesn’t give Shepard a chance to be heroic.  Have her drop in at a city and cover an escape, but that means another city burns.  She saves people, she gets some glory, but she can’t save everyone.  It’s great mission structure.  Plus, it doesn’t even have to be long like Tuchanka and Rannoch.  Those are about five or six missions, but this could be done in four, with the last one being sort of a short boss fight.  Also, it would be nice to have decent boss fights, but this is BioWare.  That might be a ship too far.

Fifth and finally, do something with some of the side characters.  Most of them, both former PCs and NPCs might get a scene, then do nothing.  The person who gets it the worst is either Jacob or Bailey, hard to say which.  An extended cameo sucks, but ruining their character is worse.  I’m not sure what to do with each one, but giving Jacob, Samara and Bailey something to do would be nice.  Hell, put Jacob on the Citadel and have him run multiplayer or something.  I don’t know.  Just have him do something.