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Of all the pretentious…:NieR Automata Review

Nier_Automata_Cover_JP

Copyright Platinum Games and Square Enix

I probably should wait a few days before writing this, but I am not happy.  Maybe in a week I’ll have a different review.

I thought the days of pretentious anime games were over.  I’m not sure why, there are always going to be pretentious artists who think that whatever vague, semi-philosophic garbage they can cram into their writing is the most important thing in the world, generally mangling some form of postmodernism into a twisted shape in order to say something stupid.  After all, we did have Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice come out last year.  NieR: Automata, the sequel to 2010’s NieR, which was a spin off of a secret ending of the Drakengard series, is also, once again, a bunch of pretentious crap, info dumped at the end of the game to make a point about a theme that didn’t really exist until the game decided to give it to the player 2/3s of the way into the game.  Combat is pretty fun, though.

NieR: Automata takes place some 9,000 years after the events of the original NieR, with machine lifeforms sent by an alien race having taken over the earth.  Artificially created people known as Androids (despite most of them being female…) fight against the machine lifeforms on Earth, while the last vestiges of humanity control them from a base on the moon.  The player takes on 2B, a combat Androids, and her scouting companion 9S, as they fight to protect mankind and destroy some sort of thing the machine lifeforms create.  The twists and turns on this will get stupid.

As a game, NieR is an interesting hybrid of high octane, Platinum style action games, bullet hell shoot ’em ups reminiscent of Capcom’s old 1940 series and more Western style open world RPGs.  The game manages to seamlessly switch between all of these types more or less on the fly, although being that this is a Platinum game, the high flying combat is the most prominent, and the most well developed.  The game plays a lot like Bayonetta, in that it’s heavily focused on offense, with dodging as the primary form of defense.  Dodge properly, and the player sets up a counter attack that punishes the enemy for massive damage.  Combat isn’t particularly deep, at least when compared to the kings of the stylish action genre, but it is engaging.  Mostly by throwing horde after horde of enemies at the player, and making them relatively easy to tear through, without taking away the challenge.  It’s easy to dodge out of the way of melee attacks, cut through the right particle attack with a katana or jump out of the way of giant laser beams, but because the battlefield can literally be covered with enemies, one dodge could mean falling into the trap of getting pinned up against the wall and murdered by robots.  However, once it’s all said and done, and 2B (or one of the lesser characters the game makes you play later in the game) stands above the corpses of machines, the game delivers on giving the player a feeling of victory in a way most games just can’t hope to pull off.

The other parts of the game are much less developed.  The bullet hell sections are common, and with the way the enemies use ranged attack, is somewhat incorporated into the melee combat.  However, it’s still just pretty standard Gradius or 1940 style shoot ’em up gameplay here, maybe getting as advanced as Einhander.  The bullet hell sections are more distractions to the normal gameplay, to add something when travelling from one story mission to another, or to allow for some bosses to be way outside what 2B and 9S would be able to take care of on their own, despite their own personal combat abilities.  This is cool, but it does make some parts drag at certain points of the game.  Ultimately, however, they are fun, if that’s the sort of gameplay someone likes.  I found it to be a welcome addition, but it’s also something that requires a completely different skill set from the rest of the game, so it’s something that could completely wreck another player’s enjoyment all together, especially when going for the final “True” ending of the game.  The worst part, and perhaps the most trying part of the game, is the attempt at making it more like an open world RPG, and combining both the stylish action and bullet hell elements into that Western style open world sort of gameplay.  Now, if the world was interesting or well laid out, this wouldn’t be a problem, but NieR runs into nearly every large problem that an open world has, without any of the good things.

The only real virtue of the world map of NieR is that it’s small.  This is a good thing, because one of the biggest problems with the game, especially early on before the fast travel locations open up, is that many of the missions, and not just side missions, require the player to navigate the entire map just to get anything done.  A lot of the game is set up as a bunch of fetch quests.  It’s really not until the third playthrough, which honestly is where the actual game kind of starts, before the game actually stops making most of the main story into fetch quests, until the end, when it goes back to having the characters run around the whole map again.  It’s an interesting attempt at an open world, and all of the sins committed are done more out of ignorance rather than any actual bad design, but making it where back tracking to the other side of the overworld map just to progress the story made me put my controller down and find something else to do on more than one occasion.  This was only caused by a side mission once.

Along the way, I also encountered several bugs and smaller technical issues.  Part of this was playing on the PC, where playing in fullscreen mode led to framerate drops during cutscenes and blurry, downscaled graphics.  Also, several times throughout A story, I had several side quests fail to work.  That was annoying.

The worst part, though, is the story.  Not only is it bleak and nihilistic, it’s done in a pretentious, bullshit sort of way, reminding me heavily of Neon Genesis Evangelion.  It tries to make a point about the future or life or something, but since so much is hidden from the player, including the things some of the characters actually know, it’s hard to make heads or tails of what is actually going on.  The game refers to things that the player should probably know, and while some of them are references to NieR or Drakengard, most of them are things that are only revealed during the final ending, if even then.  Several things I only know because I looked them up while I was writing this very thing, but it commits one of the biggest sins of storytelling by holding off until the end to give any revelations at all.  Nearly everything of importance is only revealed at the end, and while some of it is seeded throughout the B and C stories (there’s nothing in A story unless the player already knows what to look for, and even then, it’s not great at foreshadowing), most of it is just an endgame revelation, or it fails at foreshadowing what’s coming up.  There’s a certain amount of “importance” the game thinks it has, and I don’t want to dismiss it by saying it’s a game about sexy robots fighting each other, because importance can come from anywhere, including video games where you play as a sexy robot.  Here, there really is no importance.  It’s just a game about sexy robots that throws in some stuff from philosophy and a few Biblical and classic literature references, hoping that’s all it needs to be deep.  It doesn’t even fail in an interesting way, like Xenosaga did.  It just has these things, with a somewhat bleak and ambiguous story, and acts like that’s all it needs.

That said, the ambiguity of the story did push me to keep playing, but it also caused me to delete my game as soon as I got the final ending, so it’s hard to say if it was worth it.

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Game Anatomy: The Plan

DmC_box_art

Copyright Capcom and Ninja Theory

It’s honestly surprising that I’ve never really talked much about this game, although it came out during my hiatus on this blog, so that’s probably why.  DMC: Devil May Cry is a strange beast of a game, and it’s really hard to discuss thanks to all of the baggage the game has accumulated over the past 7 years (or that the last main series game came out almost a decade ago), but ultimately, it’s not really all that bad.  I’m a bit of a strange fan, considering I hated it until the fourth game came out, which totally revised my entire view on the series (except for 2, 2 sucks), but I am a fan of the flashy, stylish, anime as Hell series, and when I got a chance to pick up the game on Playstation Plus, I really enjoyed it.  It’s sort of a better version of the first game, and that’s really good.

Yeah, it has really terrible art direction, bad character designs and the story is terrible even from the perspective of the series, but the action is really good, the platforming is really cool and the level design is the best in the series.  That last one doesn’t sound like much of a barrier, because Devil May Cry level design is terrible, but seriously, it’s really, really good here.  In fact, the levels do a great job of servicing the combat, which is admittedly a downgrade from 3 and 4, because it’s much more than a funnel to take Dante from one fight to the next.  The levels are complex and interesting, breaking into platforming and combat sections in a way that feels natural, and sometimes, if rarely, blending them in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or stupid.  It’s great, and it also allows for encounters that really utilize the weapon switching of the combat.  One level stands above the rest though, and that’s Mission 16: the Plan.

For very stupid plot reasons, Dante and Virgil are raiding the building of the main bad guy, and killing all of his elite troops.  What’s cool, but not what makes the level so good, is that it’s set up in a way so that Dante and Virgil each have their own thing going on, and while the player is Dante, it’s possible to see Virgil’s progress mirroring the player’s own.  It’s not exactly in real time, but it does feel like it’s in real time, the few times you can see Virgil doing his thing.  Also, it solidifies the relationship between the brothers in a way the game hasn’t managed to at this point, which will make their eventual falling out that much stronger at the end of the game.  However, what’s really cool is that the level is set up like a heist movie, with Kat, the kind of boring witch love interest, narrating the entire level.

See, in the cutscene before the level, the player isn’t shown what the plan is, and instead, the level is narrated all the way through by Kat, with commentary by Virgil and Dante, for what the brothers are supposed to do.  Much like the execution scenes at the end of Ocean’s Eleven, Kat explains to Dante and Virgil what they’re supposed to do while they’re doing it, complete with the drawings of her plans being superimposed over the gameplay while its being explained to the player.  What’s really cool about this, other than it being one of the few examples of this in the medium, it also does a good job of explaining to the player where to go and what to do.  Sure, the levels aren’t particularly complex or anything, but it does throw a lot of very, very difficult enemies at you, but it does also have a few places where the player can screw up and wind up having to face a horde of very difficult monsters all at once.

That happened to me.  Kat was specific about not doing something.  I could have avoided it and I wound up dodging into a hole and falling right onto the floor where I shouldn’t have been.  What’s great is is that not only did I get a little scene were Dante chastises himself for being an idiot, it was also something specifically called out to me not to do, I did it, and I got something different happening.  It’s rare that we actually get a chance to see something that interesting in a video game, but to make it in where failure can be well incorporated into the game itself.  It’s very cool.

However, what also really works is the storytelling.  Like I mentioned before, the plot in his game is really bad.  It’s like a bad combination of the worst of White Wolf stuff, and when smug American comic book creators remake manga in order to prove that Japanese comics are stupid and Western comics are inherently superior.  Yes, that’s a thing, and DMC: Devil May Cry is the video game equivalent of that.  It’s disdainful of the source material and goes out of its way to actually insult the previous games, and no, I’m not talking about the infamous mop scene.  It’s a game that takes itself incredibly seriously, so certain it’s the future of the series and so much better than it’s anime bullshit predecessor, but it’s also a game that features abortion via sniper rifle and fighting an demonic Bill O’Reily (which is legitimately the best fight in the series and will be its own Game Anatomy).  However, one of the things that works really well is the relationship between Dante and Virgil, which we never actually get to see in the main series.  The way it becomes strained and fractured, mostly by Virgil’s growing fanaticism, and the brothers slowly switching their views on life and their destiny is really great, plus it’s done very organically, without Virgil suddenly becoming an asshole at the end.  The Mission does a really good job of highlighting all of it, and does a good job of both showing how much the Sons of Sparda care about each other, but also how much their relationship is falling apart.  This level does take place after Virgil shot a pregnant demon in her womb with a sniper rifle.  Jesus, that’s a sentence I’ve written.

By allowing the player to watch Virgil do what he does, and give us a few scenes where Vigil and Dante interact, plus their narration commentary while Kat is detailing the plan (as they’re doing it, I remind) does a lot for characterization without taking control away from the player.  A lot can be said about what you can do with cutscenes, but by just allowing it to work while the player is actually playing the game, that’s pretty cool.

What the Hell Happened: Uncharted

This is a new thing I’m going to try.  I know I try to focus on the positive here at Cluttered Mind, ever since I decided to change up the format a few years ago.  However, there are a few franchises out there that have just managed to fall apart over the past few years, and I want to try looking at them from the perspective of where a series went wrong, and maybe how it could be improved in the future.  This time, we’re going to start with the Uncharted series by Naughty Dog.

Uncharted_Drake's_Fortune

Copyright Naughty Dog and Sony

Uncharted first appeared on the Playstation 3 in 2007, which was something of a banner year for new IPs, since it saw the genesis of Mass Effect, Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed.  It was also the beginning of the Seventh Generation of Video Game consoles, and was a time when that generation was actually beginning to hit its stride.  American games had developed a niche, thanks in no small part to Gears of War and Call of Duty 2 (and, ironically, Resident Evil 4 before them), and we were beginning to see the dominance of Western developed games throughout the entire console cycle.  Uncharted was an interesting game.  Developed by Naughty Dog after years of working on the Jak and Daxter games, Uncharted was a new kind of 3D action platformer.  Taking cues from Tomb Raider, as well as their own platformers, the aforementioned Jak and Crash Bandicoot before that, Uncharted was a cinematic shooter/platformer hybrid that tried to capture the pulp movie feel of the Indiana Jones games.

It was something cool, something that really hadn’t been done in video games quite as well as it had been done here.  It had rough edges, but it was a lot of fun and looked gorgeous.  Most importantly, it felt like playing a movie.  That’s not a complaint.  For years, Western developers had promised interactive movies, and with Uncharted, they got it right, seamlessly moving from dialogue cutscene to action heavy set pieces that were actually played by the player.  See, this is what a lot of games do wrong.  All of the cool stuff that Nathan Drake does in the game, mostly, is actually performed by the player, and utilizing really clever level design, they were able to hide that the set pieces are sort of scripted.  There’s an optimal route, and today, ten years after the game had come out, it’s pretty obvious what the developers wanted the player to do, but at the time, it felt like, for once, getting to play a cutscene instead of watching.

The first Uncharted wasn’t polished and had a lot of stupid and cheap bullshit tacked on to it, even on Normal difficulty.  The second game managed to polish it up and fix a few of the issues.  It felt more like what the developers wanted to make, at least from my perspective, and it felt more like playing an action movie.  Going from cutscenes to gameplay felt more seamless, combat was more intense and a bit more open and it was a lot less cheap (although they did add those shotgun wielding guys in riot armor).  It was cool, but it was basically where the series came to an end.  Or, maybe should have come to an end.

A big issue is that the second Uncharted game basically has the same plot.  Drake gets caught up trying to steal some artifact, gets betrayed by a friend, the artifact winds up being a lot different than the legends say, Elena shows up, Drake fights some wannabe world conquerer.  Seriously, it’s in all four games.  I guess the bad guy in 4 doesn’t want to conquer the world, but he’s basically a rich douchebag version of Lex Luthor, so he’s still a megalomaniacal asshole, so it’s kind of the same thing.  Drake goes through the same character arc (hey, maybe talk to your wife, don’t be a selfish dick, friends are important) and that would be fine, if the games weren’t always so focused on the stories and the characters.

Worse, the gameplay sort of stagnates after the second game.  Some things get polished a bit, mostly melee combat, but it’s the same over the shoulder shooter with some platforming and some puzzle solving.  Every single game uses the same mechanics.  It’s something of a microcosm for nearly every Western developer during the Seventh Console Generation.  So many games managed to find this awesome way to make third person shooters work, and it got crammed into everything when they found it could work with everything.  By the end of the generation, it felt like nearly every game was just a third person shooter with a handful RPG elements stapled to it for a good skinner box (especially in multiplayer) and while that wasn’t true, it did make gaming feel really  boring by the time the generation ended.

This is the big problem with Uncharted.  It just kept going and it never did a single new thing.  It’s itteriative and boring, and it’s a shame, because the ideas are all there, but they’ve never managed to do anything with it.  Maybe now that they’ve retired Nate, they can follow along with someone else for the time being.

Best in the World: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review

BreathoftheWildFinalCover

Copyright Nintendo

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve been updating my “Top 10 games of all time” and while that’s an article for another time, something struck me.  In the past two years, I’ve added two new games to that list from the past two years.  Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain and Dark Souls 3 are easily some of my favorite games of all time, and are only getting better as time goes on (even if I don’t like leveling a pyromancer).  What’s really crazy, is that it’s march, and I’ve added another game to the list for the third year in a row.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn’t just the best Zelda game since Link to the Past, nor is it the future of Zelda titles, but it’s the future of open world titles.

This Zelda opens up 100 years after Ganon has already defeated Link and Zelda, with Hyrule in decay and all of the realm’s champions presumed dead.  That same Link, having spent 100 years being magically rejuvenated, awakes after hearing Zelda’s voice and embarks to finish what he started 100 years ago.  However, this Hyrule is different, unlike any other Hyrule we’ve seen before.  It’s not just big, it’s huge, and as soon as Link walks out of the Shrine of Resurrection, it is his to explore.

Breath of the Wild completely remakes the entire open world genre.  While other games with an open world follow Skyrim’s model, the previous title holder of “re inventor of open world genre,” Breath of the Wild does its own thing.  The world truly is open right at the start of the game.  Sure, there’s a bit of a tutorial area, but that tutorial area is so large, it’s hard not to see at as a big, open world.  There’s so much to do, see and experiment with right in the tutorial zone, that it makes many other games in the genre seem restricted.  Need to cross a ravine?  Cut down a tree.  Need to get to a shrine at the top of the mountain?  Climb it.  See a bunch of enemies that will overwhelm you in a fight?  Set the grass on fire or push a boulder on them.  Then, once the full world opens up, it’s completely up to the player to what they want to do.

Other Zelda games tend have the illusion of openness, allowing the player to tackle some of the dungeons in a less than optimal order.  The last Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds, made it so each section of the game could be completed how the player wants.  Here, Link doesn’t even have to complete the dungeons and can charge headlong against Ganon right at the start of the game.  It’s not optimal, but it’s a possibility, and the main dungeons, too, can be approached in any order.  Nintendo does have a recommended order, but that’s just the easiest order.  I didn’t even follow that order.  Even then, there are so many ways to approach even getting to those places, that it’s insane.  It’s not because the combat system is deep, or because there’s a big world, like many other open world games, but it does one thing differently than anything else: it totally revolutionizes movement by adding climbing.

Climbing isn’t new to open world games, hell every Assassins Creed game is based around it, but Breath of the Wild lets the player climb literally everything, which allows them to go anywhere at any time, and go do anything.  Consider trying to get to the top of the Throat of the World in Skyrim.  There’s a long, winding staircase, which is cool and has tones of lore connected to it, but it also takes forever.  In Breath of the Wild, if I want to get to the top of the mountain, I’m just going to climb it.  Then, instead of fast traveling to the bottom, I’ve got a paraglider, so I’ll just fly down.  That’s so much cooler than having to walk down when I can just jump.

For all the gushing I’m doing, the game isn’t perfect.  There aren’t enough dungeons, and thanks to the completely open world aspect of the game, Nintendo is still trying to figure out what they want to do in regards to dungeons.  Each of the four big dungeons is generally made up of one gimmick, and it’s a cool gimmick that uses a lot of spatial awareness that hasn’t otherwise been used in the series, but it’s still sort of the same thing done over and over again.  The game tries to use the 120 shrines, which vary in size and approach, to make up the difference, but it’s not quite the same.  A lot of them are hard to find, there are seriously way too many of them, and the reward is visually cool (a 3D representation of the outfit Link wore in the original Legend of Zelda), but is mechanically inferior to pretty much everything else in the game.

There is the other elephant in the room, as well, the fragility of the weapons.  Normally, I find weapon breakage to be a stupid, pointless mechanic, but here, Nintendo has mostly made it work.  This is because there are a wide variety of weapons, across three categories, each doing various amounts and types of damage, with elemental strengths and weaknesses thrown in for good measure.  It’s rare that Link will be without a weapon, and scavenging them up does fit in with the game’s thematics, but the weapons are seriously way too fragile.  Honestly, there’s probably no good fix for this, either, since anything short of indestructible would probably not be enough.  On one hand, it is cool to switch between weapons, but it would be better if the difference between weapon groups wasn’t just based on a trade off between damage and speed of attacks.  Maybe if there was an actual reason to use a club over a sword, or if a spear could pierce armor.  That would be an improvement over what we have been given.  At least, however, the elemental damages do something different.

I was tempted to just start the review by saying “It’s the best since Link to the Past, end of review,” because it honestly feels that way.  However, there is so much that this game does right, and a few rough edges that need to be smoothed over.  Zelda games and open world games really needed a kick in the ass, and I’m hoping that everyone will see this as the right place to build from.

2016 Biggest Disappointment (In Gaming): Uncharted 4

Uncharted_4_box_artwork

Image copyright Sony and Naughty Dog

Uncharted 4 gets to be the biggest gaming disappointment, and disaster, of the year, because not only was it the worst game I played that came out this year, it also ruined one of my favorite game series from the last generation.  Not because it ended the series, or because it did anything particularly bad, but because it showed me that Naughty Dog just doesn’t care that much about making video games, and are more interested in making B-grade knock offs of B-movies.

I’m one of the six people in the world that didn’t really like the Last of Us that much.  Sure, Summer was a great start, and Winter would have made a nice second act, but the whole game felt like the team was more interested in making a movie, a movie that wasn’t particularly good, than making a functional game.  At the same time, the Last of Us at least had a game that was worth playing in there.  Sure, it was a pretty mid-tier stealth game with some half-assed survival mechanics bolted on, but that actually kind of made the game worth playing through and enjoyable to experience, even if I didn’t like it.  Uncharted 4 doesn’t even have that.  Everything that’s playable is just the same as it’s been since the second game.  No improvements, not alterations, no real push to the genre to bring it forward.

In my review, I mentioned it did manage to blend platforming in combat in a way that the series has tried, and failed, to do since the original, and it does do that.  It’s the one shining thing in the game, the perfect blend of the game’s cover based shooting and platforming, which would be great, if the game actually made a point of using it more than a handful of times.  Most combat is like it’s always been, with Nate outnumbered by way too many, and the best strategy is to hide behind cover, line up a head shot, and then move when they’re not shooting and trying to flank.  There are a few set pieces where the player can use the new improvements to combat, but it’s only a handful of them, giving a glimpse of what might have been if they had the time to actually make something out of the game.

See, one of Uncharted’s biggest failings is that it’s all about going from set piece to set piece, and honestly, set pieces are fine, as long as there is something to it.  Doom had a similar issue, but Doom also managed to kick ass and be a lot of fun, so it’s more of a minor issue than it is here.  When this game is on, it feels like it’s scripted, and then I die because I did something “off script.”  All of the big set pieces seem to only work when I follow the correct route and do things the right way.  It’s not that this is actually the case, the multi-tiered combat zones actually give the player a lot of freedom, but the game feel and enemy placement does a lot to punish the player for experimenting.  So while it does give a lot of chances for the player to stretch out their problem solving skills, it also packs in so many enemies and Nate still has the hit points of a wet piece of tissue paper, so it becomes in practice, an exercise in frustration.

Other than combat, though, everything is just a straight line.  All of the Uncharted games have been linear and have basically told the player where to go, but there is something particularly egregious about this entry, and it’s hard to pin down as to why.  Part of it, that I imagine, is because of the huge, sprawling landscapes that look like they’re open to the player, but are just background, or the obviously fake “open sections” where Nate and his worthless brother are parked and have to solve a puzzle.  There’s generally a pretty big place to wander around in, but mostly it’s to obfuscate the answer to the puzzle rather to actually allow the player to explore.

Finally, the story is probably the worst in the series.  The lack of magical elements, strangely, is one of the few saving graces, but the whole story is “Nate’s past comes back to haunt him,” which would be great if that wasn’t already the plot to 2, and second, if these characters, who are apparently so important to Nate, were ever mentioned before.  2 utilizes flashbacks, and the fact its the second in the series, thus still able to establish new stuff for the world and its characters, in order to make the past seem threatening.  Here, we have an established game world and suddenly we have Nate’s brother, never mentioned, and the psychopath who nearly got them killed, never mentioned, all coming back to complicate his life because he’s unhappy in retirement.  At least the ending manages to work out.  Sort of.

Maybe I’m the one person in the world who thinks this, but I hated Uncharted 4, nearly every bit of it.  At least it’s the end.  No reason to play the same game for the fifth (or sixth time, I never played the Vita game), after all.

Game Anatomy: Dance Party Ending

The following post has uncensored discussions of the endings of Mass Effect 3 and Saints Row IV.  While these games are several years old, I don’t want to be an asshole.  This is your warning for spoilers.

It is very, very hard to overstate how bad the ending of Mass Effect 3 is.  It’s been done, but it’s telling that, four and a half years later, people are still mad about it, and people are still wary about how Mass Effect Andromeda will turn out, no matter how positive a response fans had to Dragon Age: Inquisition after the mess that was Dragon Age 2.  Mass Effect 3’s ending isn’t bad just because of what it did within in context of the series, although even in a vacuum, it would be possibly one of the worst endings in fiction, but it also stands as a problem that plagued video games throughout the seventh generation of video game consoles, an attempt to make the ending more “real,” less “video gamey” and an attempt at some sort of “legitimacy.”  Games abandoned what made them good, and what worked as a medium, almost en masse (a trend that Metal Gear Solid 4 hilarious lampooned before it had even gotten as bad as it would), in order to essentially look like a pale imitation of bad film, and Mass Effect 3’s ending went as bad as it did (and, actually, almost all of Priority: Earth and the Charnel House as well) was because Mac Walters and Casey Hudson were so concerned with how legitimate the game felt, and wanted to strip away the parts they felt were too video gamey.  While this did spare us from what would have been a terrible, solo, boss battle against the Illusive Man, it also meant we got the ghost child and specially colored endings.  It was not a good decision.

Saint’s Row IV spent the entire game making fun of a lot of the tropes Bioware uses in Mass Effect, whether it’s the one button romances, the silly loyalty missions or the goofy costume changes after the missions are complete.  It’s funny, with criticism mixed with praise, and it really makes the game shine when it really, really shouldn’t.  However, the ending is where they stop being nice, and it manages to ramp the game up to having one of the best endings in video games.  Not only does it completely subvert the ending of Mass Effect 3, by literally having a sociopathic criminal become the savior of the galaxy through the power of friendship, it also viciously mocks the creators, the concept of how “dark” Mass Effect got and how self important the ending felt by literally having the characters have a dance party in the penthouse from Saints Row the Third.  Then they rescue Jane Austen, because Saints Row manages to be more literary than Mass Effect 3.

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Chose Pierce because most of them were Kinzie. This isn’t a family blog, but her dance is kinda sexual. Image Copyright Deep Silver and Volition, Inc.

Saints Row IV is not a game where the good guys win by default.  Despite being the most powerful woman on the planet, the Boss still gets abducted by Zinyak, the White House is destroyed, her friends are captured, and very soon after, Earth is destroyed.  There’s no getting Earth back, billions of people die and the bad guy is so ridiculously powerful, he’s almost a god.  Centuries old, possessing incomparable technology and super powers unlike anyone else has demonstrated in the series, Zinyak does not fuck around.  As tough as the Reapers sounded like, they never managed to blow up Earth (or really anything, although I guess they killed Keith David in that one, but here he gets super powers).  Zinyak has weight, he actually brings the characters to their darkest hour, taking literally everything from them when they’re at their most powerful, because whatever the Saints have in that instance, it’s nothing compared to him.  Then he blows their planet up at the end of Act 1.

In a lot of ways, this is what makes the Dance Party ending work so well.  Saints Row has never been a difficult series (and 4 might actually be the easiest in the series), but from a narrative standpoint, the Dance Party is earned.  The Boss goes from not even being able to hurt Zinayk in their first encounter to taking their revenge, taking everything away from them and, eventually, killing them.  It’s awesome, it’s one of the best final missions in the game, and when it’s over, the dance party is perfect, tying directly into the themes of the series.  This is a game about friendship, and while they can never bring Earth back, they can at least celebrate their well earned victory.

However, it’s not just a, well deserved, jab at Mass Effect, but at the industry as a whole.  Saints Row games have always been funny, but they’ve also reveled in the fact they were video games, structuring themselves in such a way as to tell their stories, which admittedly could get silly more often than it didn’t.  Still, they didn’t try to be bad movies, they knew they were video games, and they used the medium to tell the story.  It’s part of the reason why the game works as well as it does.  So, instead of going full on dark and serious like a lot of games were doing in the early 2010s, Saints Row IV goes full on hilarious and ends with the heroes getting a clean win and celebrating by dancing and unfreezing Jane Austen.  Gaming needed that in 2013, and only now does it seem that the industry might be getting the point.

MMORPGs of the Future

I’m really loving Legion so far.  Like, I’m loving it as much as when I pulled into the Howling Fjord for the first time, and saw Utgarde Keep, the flaming wreckage and the vrykul settlements.  Wrath of the Lich King sticks with me, more than most other games because of that scene, and Legion is hitting me right in the same way that Wrath of the Lich King did.  It’s pulling me into, and making me love, a game that is normally just comfort food in video game form.  It’s a wonderful experience, so far, and I’ve already got a few good memories, just from grabbing a handful of artifact weapons.

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Also breaking into Stormwind to ride the tram. Finding ways to get to Eastern Kingdoms Legion Invasions during the prepatch on my Horde character was fun.

At the same time, I’m reminded that I thought Warlords of Draenor’s leveling, at least in Shadowmoon Valley, was really good.  At the time, I called it “the best questing experience” World of Warcraft had ever done.  For Shadowmoon Valley, I stand by those words, at the time.  Legion’s zones are actually a little bit better, and their nonlinear structure is great, and will make leveling my 8 characters a lot less of a grind than when I did it in Warlords of Draenor.  However, it’s not the quest zones that’s making it interesting, and what has made it interesting is something that’s been tugging at the back of my mind for years.  What has gotten me hooked are the Class Halls Campaigns, individual storylines set up for each class.  The game feels more like an RPG in these segments than it ever has, and it makes me wonder if the traditional MMORPG elements have been holding it back.

To a friend of mine, as well in an essay I wrote to myself privately (which was actually the first draft of these thoughts), I said WoW as a bad game, and it was a bad game not because of anything in particular, but because it was old, and it was trying to do things that was well outside of its design sensibilities.  It wanted to be an action game, but it didn’t have any of the action elements to actually make it work, since a lot of the mechanics are cribbed more from their real time strategy games, then scaled down to the single hero unit level.  It wants to be an RPG telling an epic story, but with literally millions of players, and to serve the ideas of community that have grown up in the MMORPG community over the past 20 years, it’s hard to explain or justify why and how each Joe Schmo running around is also the dude that killed the Lich King.  Also, Blizzard’s insistence of forcing their terrible lore character down our throat, that gets in the way too.  It’s never been able to marry these ideas, and it leads to a lot of the time the developers having their reach exceeding their grasp.

It’s not that the game is not fun, it’s that the game isn’t living up to what it wants to be.  With the Class Hall Campaigns for the RPG elements, and somewhat with the Artifacts for the action elements (although the game still isn’t quite as action-y as they want, the spell cullings in this expansion were most likely due to wanting to make the game feel more action oriented), it’s almost like they’re starting to get there.  The class campaigns are specifically tailored to each class, offering a detailed, if direct, story that puts the PC front and center and treats them like they’re actually in charge of a major element of the fight against the Legion.  This is very cool.  It’s also counter to the idea of an MMORPG, because it turns the game into a pretty awesome solo RPG.

I like this more.  I like this a lot more.  It’s not that I don’t like playing with people, or even pulling in a bunch of randos to run a dungeon, but so much of the game is based on meeting up with huge groups of people to tackle big bosses, and for me, that’s always been more work than fun.  Ironically, I’ve only enjoyed playing the game when I had someone to play with, but now, I’m totally fine to play by myself, and group up with my friends when I can.  It’s like playing Diablo, but not boring, because I find the gameplay and story telling to actually be engaging, unlike how I feel about Diablo.

The prevailing wisdom is that the MMORPG is dead, and if WoW’s massive success didn’t kill it, it definitely weakened it enough for League of Legends, Defense of the Ancients and Overwatch to kill it.  However, I don’t know if it is.  Maybe the massive element, but multiplayer RPGs definitely have a niche.  It’s what people got wrong about the Elder Scrolls MMO.  People want to play Skyrim with their friends, not necessarily play it with a bunch of other people.  Maybe it’s possible for World of Warcraft, or whatever next roleplaying game Blizzard makes, to transition towards that.  Maybe that’s not something that will work, but right now, it’s what I’m liking.  We’ll see if it’s more than a passing fancy of mine.