Grand Theft Auto V

Well, what I’ve actually been playing for the last few months is Grand Theft Auto V. I’ve been a fan of the series since the first game, and even dipped my toes into GTA V when my partner would occasionally recruit me to help her with her playthrough years ago, so I knew I’d be playing it eventually. Despite owning an Xbox 360 copy of it for years now, it showing up on Game Pass at just the right time inspired me to finally take the plunge and install the Xbox One version. Of course, it was removed from Game Pass well before I was finished, and by then purchasing it was incredibly easy to justify. Congratulations Microsoft, your insidious plot to make us buy games by giving them to us for free totally worked! *shakes fist*

Back behind the wheel again!
“Back behind the wheel again!”

I’d say it should be no surprise to readers of this blog, but honestly, my game logs from GTA IV (along with The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony) weren’t really as positive here as they are in my head. Perhaps I focused a little too much on my criticisms? To save you some reading and myself any further explanation, let me just summarize by saying that I loved GTA IV. It wasn’t without its flaws, not by a long shot, but it was an amazing game. Thinking back to almost 10 years ago when I first played it, here are the prevailing impressions it left, in no particular order: the absolutely incredible job Rockstar did on Liberty City and its various simulated systems; the numerous improvements and additions to the series’s core gameplay systems (the cell phone, the GPS, improved combat, better mission checkpoints, etc.); the brilliant Niko Bellic and the noticeable “Ludonarrative Dissonance” around his story; the weird, weighty physics to everything, particularly when controlling vehicles; and the busted pacing of the story, which sometimes felt a bit aimless and certainly seemed to fail to really push most players through to the end. Obviously, those aren’t all positives. There I go again!

Well, I’m happy to say that it’s follow-up addresses or otherwise enhances every single thing on that list, and much more. I think that Rockstar might have literally bulleted every major complaint people had about GTA IV and used that list as the foundation for their design documentation. Really! It would be incredibly blatant if they weren’t improving what was an already great game.

GTA V's San Andreas is a technical and artistic achievement.
“GTA V’s San Andreas is a technical and artistic achievement.”

Going back through my list, to start, GTA V’s San Andreas is just as incredible as Liberty City was, and for every one of the simulated systems that’s been slightly dumbed down, another has been added. Plus, we have the expansive desert area to the north of the city, and even the underwater areas of the map (and keep in mind San Andreas is a coastal city) have been fully fleshed out. It definitely takes some cues from Red Dead Redemption, with more scenic outdoors areas, better natural lightning, and more wildlife than ever before. While I wouldn’t call it perfect, it is without a doubt an astounding technical feat. While I may not end up having the same long term emotional associations with San Andreas as I do with Liberty City, I’d chalk that up to my personal connections with the real-life locations those in-game cities are based on and not any fault of the games themselves.

Systems wise, pretty much every last thing I complained about from GTA IV has been “fixed” in GTA V, and even the major improvements GTA IV introduced have been yet further improved. For instance, the cell phone is less intrusive and more usable, the GPS is less finicky and much easier to read, the combat is even smoother, with things like targeting and the cover system being a lot easier to use, and mission checkpoints continue the trend of GTA IV’s DLC episodes (and the later Red Dead Redemption) of being more conveniently placed to make failing and/or dying on a mission way less of a headache. Every mission is also scored and easily replayable, not to mention better integrated into the open world in the first place. Perhaps my only real complaint in this department is that more and more of the side systems have become buried as the series has gone on. As an example, I didn’t even realize I could “hang out” with characters in GTA V until near the end of the story because it simply isn’t a feature that factors into the core gameplay. This has always been a thing in Grand Theft Auto though, and maybe it’s better than the alternative of the game forcing these little fun diversions on you by awkwardly shoehorning them into story missions.

Trevor being... Trevor?
“Trevor being… Trevor?”

While I wouldn’t claim there’s zero story and gameplay segregation issues with GTA V, Rockstar largely solves this problem by giving you three characters to play with their own personalities, backgrounds, and motivations, all of which can, to some degree, justifiably engage in those classic Grand Theft Auto open world rampages. This certainly helps avoid situations like Niko complaining about how he just wants to live in peace and start a new life sandwiched in between the massacre of hundreds of cops and the slaughter of half of Liberty City’s gang population. Hell, the infamous Trevor Phillips seems to be largely designed to represent that most chaotic side of player tendencies, and they even brought back the old “kill frenzy” system in the form of side missions for him. These new player characters are a little divisive it seems, but I can’t really relate to most people’s criticisms of them and their particular parts of the story, as I found them all perfectly enjoyably, even if Trevor’s violent insanity sometimes slips from being hilarious to feeling genuinely disturbing. Hell, you’re introduced to him brutally beating Johnny from The Lost and Damned to death in probably the series’s most WTF moment, at least for fans of that story.

GTA IV’s weird take on “realistic” physics are, for all intents and purposes, totally gone. The game still feels a bit more grounded in reality than previous GTAs which is probably necessary to maintain Rockstar’s priority for strong player immersion with this engine, but driving feels more like an arcade racer yet again, and it really seems like everything has been repurposed with a focus of being, you know, actually fun, in mind. What a concept! Speaking of which, planes are back! There’s even submarines!

But there's still a bit of moody crime drama too...
“But there’s still a bit of moody crime drama too…”

Finally, the story definitely meanders a lot less than GTA IV and doesn’t run out of steam before the end despite being around the same length overall, if not a tiny bit longer by the time you throw in a healthy heaping of side missions. No, it’s not flawless. Everything you’d been doing in San Andreas comes to a screeching halt as you end up in a new setting and with a new cast of characters when Trevor’s first introduced, for example. Still, it didn’t feel like it dragged on anything close to as badly as GTA IV did. Despite being able to swap between 3 protagonists at will, the mission structure is more linear which helps a lot with this, and the missions themselves tend to be much less linear as a nice trade off. Tonally, it feels a lot more like The Ballad of Gay Tony than GTA IV proper, which is to say a little more action movie than moody crime drama, though, in keeping with that similarity, the missions are a lot more over the top (and a lot more fun) as a result. Besides, Rockstar has Red Dead Redemption for that mature, serious storytelling stuff now, right?

In the end, GTA V feels like a great summation of the entire series, with the best overall versions of almost all of its systems, a ton of throwbacks and references to earlier games, and quite a lot of fun to be had. I could go on and on about this game. I mean, I haven’t even talked about the new first person mode, the excellent soundtrack and radio stations, all of the new side activities, or hell, GTA fucking Online, but I’ll just finish up here by saying that I absolutely love Grand Theft Auto V!

PC screenshots car jacked from random Steam Community users! Braaap braaaaaap!


I’ve had a few of the more well-known survival games in my backlog for a while now. No Man’s Sky has had my eye since it was first released, well before it was patched into a reportedly vastly improved experience, I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about Subnautica, and can’t wait to dig into that one, but it was Astroneer I decided to go with this time. Between the three, Astroneer looked like a much more casual experience, and I didn’t want to dedicate myself to some massive galaxy spanning adventure or spending several tense hours cowering from giant alien shark-beasts in some underwater cave. Not yet, at least.

Caverns of fun!
“Caverns of fun!”

As luck would have it, it turns out that Astroneer actually scratches an itch that I don’t believe either of those games would have. That would be the same very basic mining and caving gameplay loop that Minecraft’s survival mode employs. While plenty of other games have implemented much deeper and/or more interesting survival modes since Minecraft first blew up, that particular aspect of it has always been left by the wayside. Whenever I’ve gone back to Minecraft, that always seems to be the most compelling component for me. Playing cooperatively with my girlfriend, she’d often be the one crafting and building, while I’d spend almost all of my time digging out elaborate mines and exploring the game’s massive, randomly generated cave systems when I’d encounter them. When it comes to those aspects, Astroneer absolutely delivers.

The basic premise of the game is that you’re some sort of an astronaut dropped onto a planet and, well, it’s not readily apparent what the fictional reason for your mission actually is, something vaguely related to gathering research, I guess? From a gameplay perspective you’re immediately thrown into a classic loop of gathering material to build upgrades, to gather better materials, to build better upgrades, and so on that just about every survival game incorporates to some degree. The difference is that Astroneer focuses entirely on that loop – there’s no additional survival elements related to eating food or water, staying warm, etc. nor are there enemies or many other direct threats to your character. Your only survival concerns are oxygen and the occasional dangerous variety of plantlife, which are usually easy to avoid once you’re aware of them.

I spent countless hours trekking around the surface too.
“I spent countless hours trekking around the surface too.”

So, that pretty much leaves you with mining, exploring and scavenging, and upgrading your base and equipment. Eventually this has you even leaving your starting planet to head to another one of the other 6 planets and moons in the solar system for a change of scenery and access to some new resources to mine or otherwise gather. It’s a relatively simple and fairly open-ended game, with little in the way over any sort of overarching goals that you don’t set yourself, which, when combined with the game’s beautifully clean, stylized visuals and excellent, minimalist soundtrack, make for an extremely relaxing experience, whether played alone or cooperatively. I spent way too many nights unaware of how much time had been flying by while I was deep into a grinding session.

Sure, there can be some stress, like when you accidentally fall into a cavern, breaking your connection to your oxygen tether network, or end up getting lost for hours while exploring (damn you, shitty beacon system!) but overall Astroneer really nails owning this particular corner of the survival genre like nothing else I’ve played. I do have some other complaints, like the lack of split screen coop on the console version, and some fairly serious performance issues that seem to relate to the number of objects in the world (and likely those two things are directly related) but nothing close to a deal breaker.

...and when you get bored of that stuff, you can GTFO!
“…and when you get bored of that stuff, you can GTFO!”

That said, I’ve had my fill for now. While I wouldn’t say I “completed” the game, I accomplished enough to feel like I had more or less mastered most of the systems before it all started feeling too repetitive. I got most of my tech to tier 2 (of 3) and beyond, visited every planet, unlocked some cores, and just basically got a healthy taste of almost everything on offer. The biggest compliment I can give the game is that I absolutely think I’ll be back to Astroneer instead of Minecraft the next time I’m feeling a strange, primal urge to go delving into deep in pursuit of rare materials.

For a bit of a palate cleanser, I followed that up with a quick dip into Supergiant’s now something of a classic action RPG, Bastion.

In a stroke of innovation, NPCs with quests have exclamation marks over their heads!
“In a stroke of innovation, NPCs with quests have exclamation marks over their heads!”

Bastion was one of the darlings of the wave of new, sexy indie games hitting Xbox Live Arcade back in the Xbox 360’s heyday, and it seemed like everyone was playing it for a time, the ever-present and extremely divisive narrator being a hot topic on every podcast I listened to. Having always enjoyed narration and frankly surprised it hasn’t been done in more modern games (cue flashbacks to Dungeons and Dragons Online) I was quite looking forward to it myself. A huge Diablo fan, I was far more skeptical about playing a colorful, consolefied take on the ARPG genre, which was honestly probably the main reason I hadn’t got around to playing it until now.

Immediately upon jumping in you’re treated to the game’s sublime visuals. A painted, colorful floating world filled with squat, cartoony characters that evoke isometric Japanese tactical RPGs from the 90s more than Diablo and its ilk is assembled around as you walk through it to cool effect. Then the narrator comes in and… well, that wasn’t what I was expecting at all! Instead of a narrator chiming in here and there, and feeling fairly removed from the game world like an overwatching dungeon master or the hilarious narrator from a Sierra adventure game, the narrator in Bastion is actually another character in the world with his own personality, and he really is ever-present, chiming in about every other little thing your character does. It’s not that it wasn’t cool, it just wasn’t what I had in my head for all these years.

Even Bastion's junk yards are beautiful.
“Even Bastion’s junk yards are beautiful.”

Then I got into the action and, eh… it was fine. Nothing too particular to complain about, but something about it just didn’t click with me. I knew it was a short game, so I figured I’d keep playing it and at worst, have to write a fairly negative review. Then, maybe my third session in with the game, out of nowhere I found myself having a ton of fun. I think a big part of my enjoyment came from the extremely smooth pacing. Having such bite-sized levels was genius, making it feel effortless to dive in and out, which ends up being vitally important as you start unlocking new weapons, weapon upgrades, spirits, and secret skills to play with.

I’m the type of person who typically settles on one good loadout in a game like this and won’t deviate from it all too often outside of a cursory test of any new items and abilities I pick up, but Bastion absolutely nails its upgrade and loadout systems. Soon I found myself experimenting wildly to find the best ways to best each of the weapon challenge areas and the “Who Knows Where” wave attack arenas. I was actually having some of the most fun I’d had with a game like this in recent memory.

When in doubt, use a shotgun.
“When in doubt, use a shotgun.”

Once I was hooked on the combat and the progression, the intrigue of the story, the aforementioned beautiful art style, the amazing soundtrack, and really, just an overall highly tuned experience from front to back, brought me the rest of the way to the end of the game. I ended up enjoying it so much that I went from barely interested to now committed to trying some of Supergiant’s other games, like their 2014 follow-up, Transistor. Hell, I even briefly considered giving the new game+ a go, something I almost never do. In the end I settled on being happy with as close to 100 percenting the game as you can get in a single playthrough, and calling it a day. Still, that was a pleasant surprise!

Screenshots are from the PC versions of these games, stolen from random users on the Steam Community pages for these games.

Twenty Twenty

I can’t believe I haven’t posted anything since December. Extra unbelievable considering I’ve had my next gaming log written for months now. Honestly, there are several overlapping reasons for why I’ve been slacking so much more than usual.

First and foremost, I started a second blog last summer that is geared specifically towards retro computing, particularly towards BBSing, which is something I’ve been heavily involved with since I was a teenager and still love today. This new blog aims, in part, to document my experiences related to some very esoteric subjects, such as programs I’ve written and projects I’ve been involved with, and that honestly feels like a more worthy use of my time. It doesn’t help that most of the regular readers of this blog (largely friends) have dropped off over time, while my new blog is slowly growing. This all led me to question whether I’d even want to keep going over here. I ultimately concluded that I still love putting together the quick “gaming logs” that dominate this blog, so I’ve decided to continue on with those and the occasional article (of which I’ve got quite a few on the back burner.)

That said, my new blog also covers more general retro computing subjects, and I’ve been tossing around the idea of moving my retro gaming reviews over there to take advantage of that growing niche audience. To complicate that, I’ve long wanted to post more of them, more frequently, but that would have to involve some kind of a major format change. Right now, they take way too much time to research, play through, and write up. I’m still trying to decide exactly what that new format might look like, but likely it’ll take a less structured approach, more closely resembling my gaming logs. Regardless of being my favorite part of this blog, retro reviews will always be massive time sinks for me, and with the time I’m spending gaming at a low lately, I can at least try to spend less time writing them.

I’ll post my long overdue next gaming log very soon. Thank you to all of those regular readers who are still dropping by, and to those of you who stumble upon this blog randomly and take the time to read some of my ramblings. ❤