Self Similar self similar’s personal gaming nonsense blog

3Aug/180

Out of the Fire

I’ve been intrigued by Firewatch since it was first announced. Not only have I been a longtime fan of many of the the Idle Thumbs podcasts, of which three members are key Campo Santo employees, but I loved The Walking Dead, and two of those three employees were its project leads and writers. I've also enjoyed my few forays into the “walking simulator” genre thus far, and the previews of the game made the basic themes look appealing as well. Despite buying it on PC the first time it ever went on sale on Steam, I only finally got around to playing it last month, buying the Xbox One version so I could more easily share the experience with my girlfriend from the comfort of our living room couch.

Home sweet home.
"Home sweet home."

Right off the bat Firewatch hits you with a bizarre “choose your own adventure” like interactive story about your character Henry’s backstory. A bit jarring, it feels a little low budget and isn’t anything like the experience I was gearing myself up for. Still, it has an interesting function – you immediately start the game with a good idea of who your character is, what he’s gone through, and having customized his backstory a little in the process, even a bit of a connection to him.

Once in the game proper, you find Henry in the beautiful Wyoming wilderness where he’ll be manning a fire tower for the season. We have fire lookout towers not too dissimilar to the ones featured in Firewatch out here in and around the southern Appalachian Mountains and, having had the opportunity to climb several of them over the years, I’ve always been fascinated by what manning one of them must have been like back when they were in full-use. The Campo Santo team did a fabulous job bringing those towers and the surrounding wilderness to life. The stylized art and the engine’s lighting system steal the show, but it all comes together just perfectly, producing beautiful vistas filled with swaying trees and grass among rolling hills and rocky peaks. Combined with the forced first-person perspective and minimalist, mostly in-game-world UI, I quickly found myself totally immersed in the setting.

The lighting really brings the whole presentation together.
"The lighting really brings the whole presentation together."

Firewatch’s world is fairly open, and while there is some gating and the occasional invisible wall, I never found them to take me too far out of the experience. This is likely because I was always too busy either checking out the amazing views, looking for the next interesting detail, or looking at my map and compass to try to figure out where in the hell I was. On top of that, I often felt a sense of urgency to try to complete my objectives before the sun went down and I’d be forced to wander my way back to my tower in near pitch-black darkness. Those objectives felt important to me most of the time too, so going off and exploring far beyond where I needed to be never made a lot of sense to me.

A lot of the user reviews I glanced at while writing this seemed to mention bugs and performance issues but for me the fact that the game ran so smoothly with such a degree of polish was absolutely a part of why I was able to really get into the experience. Maybe the Xbox One port is better than some of the others or perhaps I’m benefiting from being a late adopter here, but in any case, I think it bears mentioning that I didn’t have any such issues.

I hope you like looking at maps!
"I hope you like looking at maps!"

Anyway, so far, I’ve just described a game about a guy wandering around in the woods. Obviously, I’m leaving out a massive part of the game here: Delilah. Your character has a nearly-constant companion over the radio, something along the lines of Atlas helping you out in Bioshock, though a little less manipulative. The conversations between Henry and Delilah, both in terms of writing and voice acting, are what really push Firewatch into excellence. These chats are unusually funny, heartwarming, realistically written, and full of character. The dialog system has both the urgency of a Telltale adventure game, in which you might have a limited time to respond and your lack of a response is, in and of itself, interpreted as a response, and unlike most modern games with dialog systems, isn’t tied to story decisions or moral choices but mostly just serves to further develop your own personalization of the characterization of Henry. I can only guess that how well this all came together must have surprised even the developers themselves.

I was more than a little disappointed about not having the option to order prints of my pictures in the Xbox One version.
"I was more than a little disappointed about not having the option to order prints of my pictures in the Xbox One version."

Through the friendship that grows between Henry and Delilah, the mysteries they unravel and personal baggage they unpack together, we eventually reach a conclusion that is, as with the dialog, rather realistic. I won’t spoil it or go into any in-depth analysis of the ending, despite how desperate I was to discuss it when first finishing the game, but I will say that like so many others I was a bit disappointed in the ending. At the same time, I felt like I understood, at some very deep emotional level, what Campo Santo was aiming to achieve, and I got it. I got it. I didn’t like it, maybe because it was a bit too real, but in some way, it made me respect the entire experience all the more for it. What a fantastic game.

One player distracts the guard, the other unclogs the toilet.
"One player distracts the guard, the other unclogs the toilet."

At some point while playing Firewatch we stumbled upon A Way Out in the Microsoft Store. From watching trailers and listening to some podcast banter about it, all I really knew was that it was a game about two convicts working together to escape a prison, and that the whole game was based around being a two-person co-op experience. I could also see that the game looked fantastic, with a simplified but realistic art style, and a lot of interesting, very cinematic camera work. Overall the art and presentation is somewhat reminiscent of the last couple of Grand Theft Auto titles, which is a good thing.

Starting the game, we found ourselves quickly engaged, as we had to decide which of the two distinct characters we’d want to play and then, after a brief cutscene, were set off on two different paths. The fact the game starts off with your two characters not even knowing each other was unexpected, and despite the beginning being a little slow, made for some interesting development as the two characters met and the story progressed.

Wandering the yard.
"Wandering the yard."

Having each player working on separate goals via split-screen, interspersed by the occasional use of clever timing to trigger cutscenes and events involving both characters together is the game’s central novelty, in fact. Sometimes these events are little mini-games meant to allow the players to interact and the characters to bond a bit, and other times they’re simple cooperative puzzles, like needing both players’ input to lift a heavy object or to climb up an otherwise unreachable ledge. Occasionally the players must decide between two different approaches to solving a situation, which was kind of cool. I do wish there was a little more depth to these mechanics, as your interactions with NPCs are short and mostly only serve as fluff, the exploration is very limited, and the cooperative puzzles are almost all exceedingly basic. I suppose the simplicity is in service of being an approachable co-op experience, so I can largely overlook that. Besides, early on, it was mainly the story and the characters that had me hooked.

You can choose to handle a lot of situation Leo's way, or Vincent's way. You'll figure out what that means quite quickly.
"You can choose to handle a lot of situation Leo's way, or Vincent's way. You'll figure out what that means quite quickly."

Unfortunately, the story is really nothing too special. The fact that almost every aspect of it was swiped from genre tropes is a common complaint but I personally didn’t really find that to be distracting or problematic. Instead, my main problem is that while the game does a good job at giving you a sense of who both characters are, in fact watching them interact as the story unfolded really seemed like it was going to be something very special, it ends up squandering the opportunity for some real character development and an impactful story. This is especially true when the plot takes a sharp turn from being about our characters escaping prison and reuniting with their families to being about them seeking revenge on the person who put them there. It just goes a bit off the rails.

Revenge certainly could have been an interesting angle, of course, but when the game suddenly devolved from what felt more like a narrative heavy adventure game, not completely dissimilar to the aforementioned Firewatch, into a mediocre third person shooter, it kind of lost me. By this point in the story we had learned that neither one of our two characters were what you’d call "violent criminals" yet they suddenly engage in the wanton slaughter that makes up this next to last scene of the game without batting an eye. Talk about ludonarrative dissonance! That, and the twist at the end, while mechanically kind of cool, just wasn’t at all where I felt like the story was taking me early on.

There's always time for Connect 4!
"There's always time for Connect 4!"

Despite the disappointing finale, I liked A Way Out overall. The presentation, the characters, and the co-op centric gameplay really impressed, even if my great early impressions didn’t quite last throughout the game. There aren’t a lot of games out there that rely on cooperative gameplay, especially split-screen cooperative gameplay, and A Way Out even lets a second person play online without owning the game, which is awesome! If the negatives in this little review here don’t sound like they’d outweigh the positives for you then it is probably easily worth your money. At the very least, Hazelight Studios’ next project will have my full attention. I hope it’s not something entirely different as I really do see a lot of potential in A Way Out’s style of gameplay.

As usual, I've stolen my Xbox One screenshots from aimlessly scouring the Internet for decent ones. Apologies for not having individual credits for each of them!

13Jan/110

Covered Up

I’m down two more Xbox 360 games from my oh so intimidating backlog of games.

First, I finally got around to playing through Gears of War 2. I did so cooperatively and I have to say it was a pretty polished and fun experience. The game still has excellent graphics despite its age and whether or not it does anything for you personally, a unique visual style. As a sequel it felt like “more of the same” of the first game in pretty much every way. Of course, I haven’t played the first game for quite a long time so that impression might be slightly skewed. My only real complaint other than the typical observations about the meathead characters and hole filled plot was that as a cooperative game I’m not sure I appreciate the designers’ decision to constantly try to separate the players by making them take separate paths. I’m pretty sure they were attempting to force you to work together by completing different but related goals to help foster some kind of greater feeling of cooperation but more often than not it just garnered a disappointed “aww, they’re making us split up AGAIN?” response from us. It felt like the game was attempting to keep us apart half the time and exactly what kind of co-op experience is that?!

Football sure has changed in the future...
"Football sure has changed in the future..."

I also dusted off my copy of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow 6: Vegas 2. Damn, that’s a long title.

Immediately Vegas 2 came off as very dated compared to most newer FPSes. It took me a while to get familiar with the controls which work fine for the most part but are definitely different enough from the Halos and Call of Duties of late to screw you up for a bit – I chucked plenty of grenades at my own feet early on. Once I got over that curve I started to appreciate the brutal, tactical nature of the combat over any lack of modern polish. I haven’t talked about it a lot here since I haven’t played much of it lately but I am a big fan of the more realistic, Tactical FPS genre of games so I suppose it started scratching an itch that I haven’t had scratched in a while. Having overcome that I struggled to remember how the hell the story of the first game ended. I knew it ended with a “To be continued…” sort of thing but Vegas 2 definitely doesn’t pick up feeling like a direct continuation. Then again this is a Tom Clancy brand game and I’ve played enough of those by now to not have to worry too much about the story.

While I had a lot of fun ordering my squad mates around, clearing rooms with well-timed flash-bangs and flawless shots through thermal goggles, sniping from afar in the pitch dark, and otherwise being on the enjoyable end of a lot of face pwning, it wasn’t all puppies and rainbows. I actually became quite frustrated with the game more than a few times during the run. Silly stuff, like unevenly placed checkpoints, including a major pet peeve of mine: checkpoints right before scripted events or cut scenes. Probably the most of annoying of these was right before the final major firefight of the game. I must have had to watch that damn thing play out 20 times before finally surviving the fight long enough to make it to the end scene of the game. Most of the checkpoints were placed decently early on but it definitely seemed to go downhill the later into the game I got.

Rainbow 6 prefers to conduct most of its firefights in crowded city streets.
"Rainbow 6 prefers to conduct most of its firefights in crowded city streets."

Of bugs, the generally fairly well received cover system of Vegas seemed a bit less reliable in Vegas 2 than I recall it being in the first game. I found myself flipping out of cover, leaning out of cover on my own, and generally not behaving as expected a bit more than I was comfortable with. This seldom resulted in any fatalities though so I guess I can’t bash on it too much. I also ran into one part of the game which I had to replay about 5 times due to the cut scene at the end the level not triggering after completing my object of clearing an area despite wasting tons of time trying every trick in the book to avoid having to reload. Arghhhh!

Your squad mates are still hilariously stupid at times. They often fail to do a good job checking corners when entering rooms or taking up good defensive positions when ordered to move to certain places which contrasts sharply to how well they do these things at other times. Probably my favorite example of their stupidity is that when one squad member is injured (which itself is frequently the result of something pretty shockingly dumb occurring) the other will usually make their way their location as if to secure them BUT won’t actually try to save their life without being manually ordered to. This can create some pretty tense situations if you decide to split yourself up from your two squad mates to employee some more creative flanking tactics, as the game encourages you to do from time to time. Dashing around to try to get a clear shot of my downed team mate to issue the “heal” command in time resulted in at least a few deaths of my own during the campaign… oh, and despite how easy it is to heal your squad mates they’re apparently completely incapable of healing you. Why?! Oh, I guess because you’re not alive to explicitly tell them to. Pfft…

My squadmate decides to investigate an explosion face-first while I intelligently take cover behind a barrel of highly flammable liquid.
"My squadmate decides to investigate an explosion face-first while I intelligently take cover behind a barrel of highly flammable liquid."

My other biggest complaint about Vegas 2 is probably the difficulty. Yeah, yeah, I know I just praised it for its brutal combat two paragraphs ago, but honestly, damage and ballistic models aside, most of the more difficult sections of the game felt only difficult because of the sheer number of enemies they pack into some of these areas, and most often, the absolutely painful choke-points and scripted scenarios they expose you to along the way. In other words, it oftentimes only felt difficult because the designers’ went out of their way to make it overly difficult in those particular spots. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a good Tactical FPS doesn’t need a ton of enemies to be fun! If the damage and weapons models are “realistic” enough, 2 enemies in a room is a challenge… and that challenge usually feels much fairer than, say, the scripted hordes of unlimited NPCs games like Call of Duty 4 throw at you. Combining that, however, with having to have your 3 man squad off 50 terrorists in one level encourages you to run through quickly rather than carefully entering and clearing rooms, only adding to potential frustration while minimizing the tactical gameplay the series is supposedly built around.

Despite all of those negatives playing through Vegas 2 did in fact feel fairly satisfying and refreshingly different alongside other FPSes I’ve played through recently. I highly doubt I’d volunteer to play through it again anytime soon but it might indeed inspire me to play through some of my favorite oldies such as SWAT 4.

Ahh, one last thing… when I played the original Vegas I didn’t have an Xbox Live Vision cam so I couldn't test out the awesome ability to map your own face to your in-game character. Thank god for that! After my several attempts to get it working at all I was greeted by some horrible looking, wax golem-like facsimile of myself. Yes, even more hideous than the real thing. Yikes!

As usual for console games, not my screenshots.

13Nov/100

Reaching for a Good Pun to Use as a Title

Well it certainly has been quite a while since my last update. Unfortunately I don't have any great excuse for why I haven't posted in the last 2+ months but honestly writing for this blog is probably one of the lesser of responsibilities I've shirked recently. Perhaps one possible explanation is that I haven't done a lot of gaming during this time, and indeed I've done (relatively) little, yet all together I've certainly done more than enough to report on:

Enjoy General Knoxx's millions and millions of miles of less than scenic highway!
"Enjoy General Knoxx's millions and millions of miles of less than scenic highway!"

I worked my way through both The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned and The Secret Armory of General Knoxx expansion packs for Borderlands via local co-op. Other than not realizing I had to manually select to go back to "playthrough 1" which resulted in us having to replay the first 10 minutes of the single player campaign, and then have our brains instantly devoured by living dead who horribly out-leveled us, Zombie Island was pretty fun. Perhaps a bit monotonous, but no more so than the rest of the Borderlands tends to be to me. General Knoxx was a little more fun, or at least it would have been if it weren't for the obnoxious driving requirements in lieu of the absence of fast travel. I appreciate them wanting to put more emphasis on vehicles for that expansion but since I generally consider the vehicles in Borderlands to be godawful, the effort seems to have been a bit of a waste. I'd wager that even if you somehow enjoyed the vehicle sections of the game the lengthy back and forth travel required for many of the quests combined with many long, road centric areas and annoying, respawning enemies probably at least grated on you a little. We never got around to going after Crawmerax (our characters are still relatively low level) but we've still got a Robot Revolution to possibly investigate sooner or later. Despite all my seemingly negative comments I'd say that if you're any sort of a Borderlands fan you should probably own all of these, period.

No stupid caption, just Jun looking like a badass.
"No stupid caption, just Jun looking like a badass."

What else? I've started playing World of Warcraft again way too heavily which has included me finally getting my "main" to level 80, making several new "alts" (including one who I've been leveling exclusively via the Random Dungeon Finder) and even making it into the Cataclysm closed beta for some so, so sweet early access to these hotly anticipated new changes and additions. More on WoW later in some separate updates but hopefully I won't burn myself out again before I get too far into the proper release of Catacylsm next month.

Finally, and most importantly for this update, Halo: Reach has fallen from the heavens into our unworthy hands. Being a Halo fan since playing the first game on my brother's newly purchased Xbox back in 2001, and continuing to enjoy the latest additions to the franchise in the form of Halo 3 and ODST, I was definitely anticipating Reach. Of course it was also an insanely safe purchase to make both because of Bungie's great track record and the Halo franchise's long, long legs on Xbox Live.

Us owning some Covenant in the campaign.
"Us owning some Covenant in the campaign."

It has been such a long time now since it was released that my analysis of the game is going to be a bit more muted than it might have been if I had actually posted about it in a bit more of a timely fashion. I'll sum up the single player pretty quickly though: continuing Bungie's high level of production value and polish combined with improvements made from lessons learned in all previous Halo iterations, including ODST, yet never straying all too far from the conventions of the series, Halo Reach is almost certainly the best of the Halo single player campaigns so far. It may not be my personal favorite campaign (Halo: Combat Evolved holds a lot of fond memories for me and I'm idiotically nostalgic after all) and I might have been a tiny bit disappointed that I didn't get the Rainbow 6, Ghost Recon, or SWAT style squad based, tactical experience that my imagination ran wild with when we got our first glimpses of Reach early on, I do concede that it might be the best Halo yet. The action, story, variety and the pacing, etc. - it's all awesome. That's not to say it is perfect - we had some pretty funky AI issues with the other Noble Team members in particular when playing the game via co-op, and some other bizarre occurrences, but I chalk most of those up to Halo charm rather than any sort of real annoyance.

Jet pack melee kills are one of my favorite additions!
"Jet pack melee kills are one of my favorite additions!"

The aforementioned Xbox Live goodies are amazing too with Bungie continuing to raise the bar on console multiplayer experiences. The changes, as subtle as many of them probably seem to casual fans of the franchise, make a huge difference. The changes to Halo 3's equipment being the most notable, particularly with the addition of the ever popular jet pack. Once you start to master the use of some of the new items you'll probably wonder how you ever stood playing Halo 3 and who doesn't love jet pack stomping on someone's face? Bungie also took some nice cues from Call of Duty 4 and Modern Warfare 2 (amongst others, of course) with their persistent stat tracking and career advancement and, while it isn't as over the top as it is in those games, it is definitely an improvement. The new Forge (and Forge World) is incredible as well - I personally spent a few hours in it recreating a very sad approximation of one of my favorite old Doom deathmatch maps (available here!) I feel like I've gotten my money's worth with the multiplayer alone and I've barely played any of the new Invasion mode and haven't even tried the new Firefight yet. Awesome!

An interesting facet of the release of the game that has almost nothing to do with the game itself is that fans of the series are now left to wonder about both the future of the Halo franchise now that Bungie is doing new things, and exactly what new things Bungie will be getting up to. Rumors of MMOs and perhaps returns to older franchises (Myth, mainly) abound, but in any case it is definitely going to be a fascinating few years while we watch both situations unwrap.

More posts soon!