Tag Archives: Xbox Live Arcade

Big Robots and Bigger Grinds

As mentioned when I wrote about Iron Brigade originally, I bought the game’s DLC expansion, Rise of the Martian Bear, shortly after completing the main campaign. I didn’t immediately dive into it and actually ended up taking an even longer break than originally planned. In fact, it had been so long that I considered not even playing through it since I’d surely lost whatever skills I’d managed to build up over the course of the original campaign, and I’d read that the expansion was notably harder than the original campaign to boot. Alas, despite some reservations, I finally talked myself into it.

Back in the trenches again!
“Back in the trenches again!”

When I finally got around to playing it I discovered that the game had been pulled from Game Pass, popping up a licensing error when I went to launch it. Not entirely unexpected. What was unexpected was my inability to actually purchase the damn thing! When I went to the game’s store page I received a weird message that the game was only purchasable on Xbox 360 or on xbox.com. Ok? At first I thought maybe this was an odd side effect of having already had the game installed, so I went ahead and uninstalled it and tried again. No dice. I begrudgingly went to my PC and pulled up the Microsoft Store webpage. Oddly, I got the same error there. Finally I had to resort to booting up my old Xbox 360 and buying the game there, at which point it worked normally on my Xbox One once again. This whole thing was absolutely bizarre and I have no idea what the issue actually was – I could buy some other Xbox 360 games on my Xbox One, just not Iron Brigade. Perhaps this is some sort of licensing issue but that’d be even weirder since Double Fine is owned my Microsoft these days.

Anyway, onto the game. First, if you’ve read my original blurb on Iron Brigade, Rise of the Martian Bear doesn’t really change anything I had to say about the game back then. Instead, it adds a 5 mission sort-of epilogue to the original campaign and expands the level cap, adding a fairly large amount of new, higher level loot to compensate. The new maps are, of course, playable cooperatively as well as in Survival mode. And that’s about it! That was plenty for me though, and just like with the original campaign I replayed every level until I managed to get a gold rating on it.

Fuck. This. Map.
“Fuck. This. Map.”

Getting gold on these maps was no easy feat given how rusty I was at that game. In fact, I was stuck on the DLC’s third level, Settlement, for quite a long time, trying a mind boggling number of variations in strategy and loadout before I finally nailed it. Things got so desperate that I even briefly dipped into Survival mode to try to score of the game’s more exotic, mode exclusive rewards to buff my damage output. Eventually I succeeded and brought my time with Iron Brigade to an end. For the record, a combination of carefully placed sniper turrets, a few machine guns turrets to help mop up Knobs, and aggressively running my dual Muerte Fiesta Numero 6’d engineering trench around the map to do as much of the actual Tube elimination legwork as possible myself was the key.

Rise of the Martian Bear doesn’t really do anything significantly interesting and the ridiculous story is perhaps even more throwaway than the original campaign, but it’s basically just a content pack, so if you really liked the base game (or absolutely loved it in my case) the expansion pack isn’t a hard sell. If you didn’t, well then there’s absolutely nothing redeeming for you here.

Besides that, the other game taking up a lot of my time lately is, of all things, World of Warcraft Classic.

Checking out the original Dwarf model. D'aww!
“Checking out the original Dwarf model. D’aww!”

During a long and tedious build up that seemingly started from the moment the game was first patched and continued with consistent nostalgic whinging about “the good old days” of so-called vanilla WoW (and increasingly, the Burning Crusade expansion and even later eras) on every relevant forum out there and culminating with Blizzard finally caving and announcing WoW Classic, I never really owned that particular pair of rose colored glasses. Sure, I had some great memories of the early days of WoW and yes, some of the changes subsequent patches and expansions made were debatably negative, but there were also innumerable improvements, some quite major, along the way too. As I saw it, I was fine with the glory days of World of Warcraft remaining confined to exaggerated “back in my day” anecdotes and as an effortless yardstick to compare other, newer MMORPGs against.

In the summer of 2018 I changed jobs, going from working in IT departments consisting of just a couple of dozen people at best to working alongside literally thousands of fellow geeks. As the launch of Classic approached we ended up with more than a dozen people on my team alone signed on to play and I figured jumping on the bandwagon could be a lot of fun. When Classic finally launched and I joined my co-workers on Discord, I was surprised to discover that a lot of the members of my original World of Warcraft guild from back in vanilla along with numerous other friends I’d known over the years also logged in fighting the same launch day queues as we were. Remarkably, it seems like almost every last one of my online gaming buddies was drawn back into the fold. How long most of them stuck it out, I can’t say, but despite most of the gaming media I follow dismissing Classic, it seemed like it was actually a fairly big deal in my circles.

I accidentally screenshotted hitting level 2. Also, sorry boars...
“I accidentally screenshotted hitting level 2. Also, sorry boars…”

After a lot of internal debate I decided to fully embrace my nostalgia, creating a character absolutely identical to the character I “mained” in vanilla – the same race and overall appearance, the same class, and I even managed to score the same name despite it coming from the in-game name generator. Gulmorok the orcish rogue was reborn (the original having since been converted into a dwarf and moved between servers multiple times in WoW proper, as discussed before.)

Personally, jumping back into what seems to be a pretty damn solid recreation of original World of Warcraft has been an absolute trip. It’s amazing how well I remember the zones, the enemies and the particulars of many of the quests, and even the idiosyncrasies of various mechanics. The original 2004 era graphics and sounds still hold up incredibly well too, which surprised me after long since getting used to the newer character models. What doesn’t hold up quite as well is the actual gameplay. In 2004 the design, a fairly shameless mass market friendly iteration on the EverQuest style of theme park MMORPG, felt pretty damn great if you were in to those types of games back then. Having long since moved on to successors like The Old Republic, Elder Scrolls Online, hell, even newer World of Warcraft expansions, the design of vanilla WoW certainly feels as dated as it sounds to describe it like that. It’s not so much “hard” as it feels like it’s been designed to just utterly disrespect the player’s time – tedious, grinding quests, huge amounts of travel between different areas, a poorly structured quest content flow, and of course the ever present joy of constantly bumping up against the poverty line, are all things probably best left in the past.

Much, much later, grinding in the Alterac Mountains.
“Much, much later, grinding in the Alterac Mountains.”

Case in point, in my mid 30s, I’m having to constantly bounce between zones to do quests that are actually level appropriate (a luxury largely enabled by third party addons and data dump websites, by the way) and I know that, just like in 2004, I’m quickly approaching the level range where a lack of ANY appropriate quests becomes the problem, requiring grinding dungeons or mobs to stay properly leveled and geared. Adding to that, I’m playing on a PVP server for the first time in years and Blizzard just turned on the honor system, meaning that people’s willingness to go out of their way to gank you while you’re busy trying to complete a quest or otherwise mind your own business is at a peak. Of course as a rogue I’m uniquely equipped to deal with these assholes, or at least take opportunistic revenge on them, but it’s still annoying. Fun times!

While I have been tempted more than a few times to jump off the treadmill and devote my limited free time to playing through more single player games, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t having fun. The Azeroth that Blizzard built with World of Warcraft remains still somehow compelling to me, and looking forward to when PVP battlegrounds are finally launched and my co-workers and I can put together some “premade” groups is keeping a lot of us going for now.

In the meantime, Blizzard just announced yet another World of Warcraft expansion and Diablo-fucking-4, both of which have my attention. Despite being increasingly clear that they’re no longer the same company I fell in love with, Blizzard is still somehow managing to make a case for its relevance in my gaming life.

Settlement map screenshot taken from from misc. places on the Interwebz. The in game shot is actually mine though. An original Xbox 360 screenshot on here? Is this the end of an era?! Probably not!

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!