Tag Archives: Xbox Live Arcade

Buried in Sand, Hand in Hand

Another long overdue update!

Having burnt myself out on PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and still yearning for a relatively tactical FPS on PC that I might be able to recruit some of my friends into playing, I had caught wind of Insurgency: Sandstorm. I played the original version of Insurgency a fair bit when it was still a Source mod and really enjoyed the combination of tactical squad combat and its brutally (if not totally unrealistic) pin-point accurate ballistics model. Insurgency turned into a standalone retail product at some point but I never got around to trying that version, though it was fairly well received. Insurgency: Sandstorm is its long awaited sequel. Watching a trailer and some preview coverage on YouTube it really looked like it was shaping up to be something amazing; the type of shooter that the grognards who still cherish a return to the days of the original Ghost Recon might go all in on, and as such it’s been on my watch list for quite a while now.

Sloppily bounding towards our objective.
“Sloppily bounding towards our objective.”

This, unfortunately, might be one of those cases of something looking notably better when viewed from afar. Entering its final early access beta, I eagerly bought Sandstorm and jumped in to play some bot matches and was immediately shocked by how janky it’s previously slick looking gameplay actually felt and, if I’m totally honest, how ugly it looked in action (mostly the character models and animations) relative to the beautiful preview footage I had seen. After playing a few matches I started to enjoy the weighty feeling movement and the deadliness of the combat, being quite a departure from any of the other FPSes I’d been playing recently and something I’d dearly missed since the good old days of America’s Army 3. Still, knowing that there was no damn way I could successfully convince any of my friends that this didn’t, in fact, totally suck, I ended up quickly uninstalling the game and considering pursuing a refund.

This was just before launch, back in December, so to give it a fairer shake (to ease my regret for not getting that refund if nothing else) I’ll probably check it out in the future after its had a little bit longer to mature. In fact, installing it to grab a few screenshots has already left me with a better impression than I had last time around, and viewing update notes leaves me believing that it’s still being improved and supported quite well. For now though, the game mostly serves to remind me that I’m still quite capable for falling victim to my own hype. I should really know better by now.

Sandstorm's damage model is quite brutal - a single direct hit pretty much takes care of things.
“Sandstorm’s damage model is quite brutal – a single direct hit pretty much takes care of things.”

Speaking of which, at around the same time I was randomly drawn to Conan Exiles. I honestly can’t tell you what it was that suddenly caused my interest to perk up, but I’ve always been a fan of Conan and I really liked the art style and overall conceit of the game. Seeing no real interest in playing this sort of game from any of my online crew, I generated a single player world and hopped in solo. For several intense days, including a couple of days during which I was stuck at home miserably sick, I was completely enthralled (*rim shot!*) but once I got the basic gameplay loop worked out, with a small but stable base of operations, and had seen a little bit of the world and what the game generally had to offer, I’d pretty much had my fill of what was increasingly becoming overly repetitive.

Despite abandoning the game pretty quickly, I actually really liked what I played. The graphics and overall design of the world were awesome, and the construction and tech trees were really cool. I admit, the world felt a little lonely when playing solo, but that’s on me more than the developers since it’s clearly designed to be played online. Honestly, I can easily imagine this being a game I’d have totally fallen in love with if I had played it online with a group of friends on an active, highly competitive server, not unlike the experiences I’d described in the past about my brief but memorable time with Rust (though with perhaps even more nudity!) Really, in so many ways, Conan Exiles is basically just a version of Rust with more polish and a setting that caters to my personal tastes a bit more, which is much more of a compliment than it probably sounds like it is.

Religion and slaves, check. Game over?
“Religion and slaves, check. Game over?”

Likely, I’ll install Conan Exiles again at some point, though probably with some mods installed to make the grind of playing solo a little more tolerable, and if any of my friends ever show any interest in playing I’d jump at the opportunity to hop back in and reinstall it in a heartbeat.

Shifting over to console, I’d been tempted to look at Xbox Game Pass since I first heard about it. The original allure was unlimited access to all of Microsoft’s first party Xbox One titles, which is fairly compelling in and of itself, but they’ve continued to add more and more great content to the subscription. Of course, they cycle it in AND back out from time to time, and they don’t really announce how often things get removed, so it’s a little hard to judge exactly what else you’re getting access to at any point in the future. Even still, as long as there’s at least a couple of games you intend on playing in the future, it feels like a no-brainer. I finally signed up and jumped into my first game not too long after, though I’m still working on that one so I’ll wait to talk more about it in my next one of these updates.

There are plenty of first party games I’m excited to play though: I want to get caught up on the Gears of War games, having enjoyed the first couple. I need to play Halo 5 finally, and also at least the first Halo Wars. State of Decay 2 is still looming large in my backlog too, and I’m sure there are many more. Being more than a little bit of a “patient gamer” I do find it disappointing to see some of the 3rd party games that originally convinced me to subscribe to Game Pass already leaving before I’d had a chance to play them, but I guess that’s just a part of the package.

Insert corporate tagline here!
“Insert corporate tagline here!”

Oh, and shortly after signing up Microsoft announced Xbox Game Pass Ultimate which is more or less just a combination of Xbox Live Gold and Xbox Game Pass. Even more of a no-brainer! Plus they’ve cleverly tried to tempt us to switch our accounts over by combining remaining Xbox Gold and Xbox Game Pass time for Ultimate credit. This lead to a lot of people scheming to buy up as much Xbox Gold and Xbox Game Pass time as they could before switching over to take full advantage of the generous conversion policy. A huge win for Microsoft, as they’re surely looking to lock more people into their ecosystem in advance of the release of the next Xbox console (currently dubbed Project Scarlett) in 2020.

Traversing the ruins of our childhoods...
“Traversing the ruins of our childhoods…”

One game I did complete thanks to Game Pass is The Gardens Between. I hadn’t heard of this little indie gem at all until it appeared on The Computer Game Show podcast, where it unexpectedly ended up stealing their 2018 game of the year spot. I was already intrigued by the discussion and the fact that it was supposedly a relatively quick play, but then to find out I already had it on Game Pass? Sold!

The game’s first impression, with its vibrant, whimsical, and slightly cartoony art style, is definitely very positive, but indie games with brilliant graphics are (awesomely) becoming less and less of a standout quality these days. More unique, The Gardens Between’s gameplay is something else entirely. First, despite how it might appear from screenshots and videos, this game is a puzzle game first and foremost. Your two characters automatically traverse a series of small, surrealistic stages somewhat akin to an “auto-runner”. They’ll run into obstacles of various types while trying to reach the end of the stage and your role is to try to figure out how to get them around those obstacles – to solve the puzzle, in other words.

Trickier than it looks, I promise!
“Trickier than it looks, I promise!”

You don’t control your characters’ movements directly, rather your control comes from forwarding and rewinding time. I once heard someone describe this as being something like Braid minus the platforming which feels pretty apt. Even though your characters will follow the same path forward as long as possible, the obstacles in the world survive your time related antics which allows you to manipulate the environment around them. For example, one of your characters runs into a raised drawbridge where they get stuck but your other character ends up near a lever that lowers the bridge a little later. You then rewind time so that the first character can then cross the now lowered bridge. As you might imagine, these scenarios can get much, much more complicated, with you needing to carefully line up objects and movements typically quite a few times per stage, often taking some real lateral thinking. It can be a bit trial and error oriented too but given the ability to rewind time those “errors” are never really all that punitive.

There is also a narrative here. Involving childhood friendship, it clearly attempts to play on some fairly universal emotions. From some reviews and impressions I’ve heard from other people the game is plenty capable of really affecting you though beyond being overall fairly charming it didn’t quite pull my heartstrings in any major way. It did leave me wondering where it was going the entire time though which was interesting in a different way though. Still, all said and done, it was a great little game that I’d recommend if you need a palate cleanser between longer games or if you just love these sorts of odd puzzle games.

More soon!

The Gardens Between shots were stolen from Google Images.

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!

Grubbin Cold War

I’m a little bit behind with my normal game log updates so this is a bit of a catch up session.

Around Halloween last year I decided to grab Double Fine’s Costume Quest 2 off of XBLA. As a side note, I don’t think they call it Xbox Live Arcade anymore, do they? Whatever man, I’m a die hard! Anyway, I gushed quite a bit about the first one on here, so I felt pretty confident about grabbing the second one.

Dentists should be portrayed as villains far more often.
“Dentists should be portrayed as villains far more often.”

Gameplay hasn’t shifted significantly in the sequel. It’s still basically a simplified take on classic JRPGs, with the game divided into wandering an “overworld” exploring, looting a little and talking to the odd NPC, and then moving into turn based, party versus party battles when you encounter enemies. The overworld is mostly the same, though some costumes have special abilities which are used to solve simple puzzles while navigating. Really, they’re more about gating you based on whether you have the costume or not than presenting any sort of challenging puzzle to solve though. The combat system itself a bit different, with a greater focus on timed attacks and blocks and the addition of special ability cards, but it all still feels very JRPG-inspired, and while you may prefer one system over the other, the difference isn’t all too compelling to me.

The real appeal of Costume Quest is its quaint charm and humor. Unfortunately, while the overall plot might be better realized this time around, the writing struck me as far drier. I didn’t get nearly as strong of a genuine sibling vibe from the main characters, for one, and it’s hard to put my finger on why, but I also didn’t think the game was quite as funny as the first one. Maybe I’m just in a drastically different headspace than I was a few years back, or perhaps the formula has just worn out its welcome. The gameplay also started to wear out its welcome though. In the end, the repetition of exploring the overworld and getting pounded with so many random battles really took a toll on me, and I had to drag myself to the finish line. For a game that’s only 8 or 9 hours long, that’s definitely not a great thing.

Dream
“Dream team: Gandalf, Thomas Jefferson, and a fucking pterodactyl!”

I hear a Costume Quest 3 is in development now but unless they make some major changes to the basic formula I may give that one a pass.

I started a second game from the dusty corners of XBLA at around the same time as I started Costume Quest 2; the sequel to another game that I absolutely loved, Toy Soldiers. I was actually a lot less confident about Toy Soldiers: Cold War because of what seemed like a new focus on special “barrage” attacks, especially the new Rambo inspired playable commando, who was featured constantly in all of the media surrounding the game. I’m happy to report that I was wrong, and Toy Soldiers: Cold War is about as direct a sequel as you could ever want while still allowing for some tweaks to the formula.

Sometimes it's just too easy...
“Sometimes it’s just too easy…”

So about the game. Well, I’m just going to steal, almost verbatim, what I said about the original Toy Soldiers here. Toy Soldiers: Cold War takes the classic, simple tower defense gameplay, gives it an awesome Cold War/Vietnam era meets kid’s toy box theme, and adds in the ability to control towers and other special units (tanks, helicopters, and jets) by hand to up their effectiveness and/or your score. It’s a very simple concept but executed almost perfectly with an awesome presentation and a healthy layer of polish.

As with the first game’s World War I theme, the cold war era doesn’t get used too often in video games, and the variety and selection units is even cooler and funner to play with in my opinion. The fact that these are toys means how “realistic” it might be for a Huey gunship to duel a MIG-23, for example, is almost entirely irrelevant. That said, like the first game, everything being a “toy” of some sort, and the fact that you’re fighting in some kid’s bedroom, hardly detracts from the gritty war experience. I quickly forgot that my M1 Abrams tank had an radio control antenna sticking out of it, or that the mass of troops I was brutally gunning down were supposed to be toy soldiers at all.

These (toy) BMP-1s don't stand a chance against my (toy) Abrams.
“These (toy) BMP-1s don’t stand a chance against my (toy) Abrams.”

The aforementioned barrages, which are awarded for certain conditions, actually rarely come into play, though I suppose you could optimize your play to get awarded them more frequently than I did. Besides the commando unit I mentioned, most of these are powerful air strikes, some controllable and some not, and can really help turn the tide during a particularly nasty wave. The special controllable units, tanks, helicopters, and the occasional jet, feel more powerful in Cold War, but now have batteries, effectively meaning you can only use them for a short durations, having to wait for them to recharge between uses. Timing your use of these units can make or break your success in certain waves, and can greatly make up for a lack of certain turrets or upgrades.

I completed the entire campaign on the default difficulty, and also ran though both DLC campaigns. The DLC campaigns are short and sweet and seemed more focused on adding more maps rather than changing up the gameplay too much, despite one of the campaigns letting you play as the USSR, but if you really like the base game, perhaps more maps to play is incentive enough to pick them.

I’m ashamed to say that, like the first game, I still didn’t end up trying the multiplayer modes. One of these days. They look awesome, feature glorious split screen, and you can even play through the entire campaign co-op.

The Commando doing what he does best, which is apparently effortlessly shooting down Mi24 Hinds!
“The Commando doing what he does best, which is apparently effortlessly shooting down Mi24 Hinds!”

Signal Studios keeps knocking these games out of the park for me, and I’m already planning on picking up the latest game in the series, Toy Soldiers: War Chest. War Chest looks to really push the fun toys angle of the series over the edge, and even includes licensed toys like He-Man and G.I. Joe this time around. Seriously? Dude.

Last, and least, I’ve been playing Bungie’s Destiny 2 here and there. I know it’s been out for months already, but I’m going to hold off on talking about it until I play through the campaign a second time and can put together some more coherent conclusions on it, but I’ve definitely enjoyed my time with it so far. Stay tuned for that!

As usual, the screenshots here are mostly stolen from other places. Despite scouring Steam Community for what felt like hours, I’m not too satisfied with the Cold War screenshots. Sure, they’re cool, but they don’t represent that game’s core tower defense gameplay too well. What can I say? The flashier action stuff just makes for better pictures.