Fun Isn’t Everything

By William Shelton

At E3 this year Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aimé said something I want to talk about. It was something I was glad to hear him say and something I think speaks deeply to Nintendo’s core design philosophy, but none the less it is a statement I hate. He said “if [a game] isn’t fun, why bother?” While I’m not try and argue that video games need to stop being fun, that would be ludicrous, I do have to ask why this line of thought is so prevalent in the gaming community. Every other form of Art has its masterpieces that are not meant to be enjoyed in a way you could call “fun”. From Bosch’s “A Violent Forcing of the Frog” to Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”, a lot of great art can be unenjoyable and even downright hard to sit through. Not only do I think games are capable of this as well, a few have ready proven it can be done.

Spec Ops: The Line is a great example of this, if a little cliche to talk about. In a lot of ways the game is a complete mess. The controls are far from tight, enemies act in predictable ways and spawn in obvious “video game-y” locations. On top of that, it had it’s fair share of bugs as well. I remember spending 10 minutes trying to shoot out a window in order to move the plot along, only to restart the mission and have it break almost instantly. There just isn’t a lot of enjoyment to get out of “Spec Ops: The Line”.

But it is a game I think every one should play. Released in 2012, Spec Ops: The Line came out near the height of the “Modern Warfare” craze and was a damning critique of both the genre and the culture that made it one of the biggest phenomenons in entertainment. While it would be easy to look at the games mechanical flaws and say it was shoddily made, in fact almost every part of it was expertly crafted. The poor controls and obvious enemy spawns help reinforce to the player that they are in fact playing a game. Unlike most other games were the control scheme is made to help the player forget about the hunk of plastic in their hands, Spec Ops never wants you to forget that you’re playing a game. It wants that fact in your mind at all times. Because the game soon starts asking you to do things that are meant to feel wrong. The games enemies are American soldiers, Not just that, they are the player characters countrymen. Through out the game you are constantly killing your own people, and you’re aware of that from the nearly the very start of the game. Then there is the games famous white phosphorus scene, when you kill hundreds of civilians. The question is, why? Why do you do these horrid things? Because the game tells you too. The game asks you to commit war crimes, and you do, because the game told you to and thus it must be the right thing, right? Spec Ops: The Line was designed not to be fun in order to ask why a game about armed warfare should be considered fun in the first place.

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Some have argued that Spec Ops failed in it’s message by not offering the player a choice. I’d argue that it did: You chose to keep playing.

Another game well worth you’re time despite not being a whole lot of fun is Loneliness by creator Jordan Magnuson. Loneliness is a masterpiece of minimalism and a game that taught me a lot about myself. You play as a single pixel and you can beat the entire game in about 5 minutes by simply holding the up key. As you play other pixels appear, all of whom scatter as you approach. After constant rejection you may choose to stop interacting with the other pixels, much like I did. Or maybe you hold on to hope, enthusiastically greeting each new cluster as they appear. There is no wrong way to play Loneliness, but how you choose too speaks volumes. I never realized just how poorly I handle rejection and abandonment until I played Loneliness and was forced to confront it. After the second group ran off I started to avoid any other groups I saw. Just like in real life, I had been hurt and I isolated myself in return.

I don’t think it is passable to create an experience like this that manages to be fun. Loneliness, depression and isolation are not fun emotions. As such, really getting a player into that head space requires engaging them in ways that are atypical to gaming and antithetical to being “fun”.

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Loneliness is mechanically boring, but i highly recommend giving it the five minutes it asks for.

I don’t want to see a world without my big dumb action games in it. I will take all the Uncharted’s, Overwatch’s and Mario’s this industry wants to throw at me. But there is a whole host of human emotions and experiences that games can address, and I also don’t want to live in a world were developers chose not to engage with that material because they don’t know how to make it fun. Fun is great, it’s important. But it isn’t everything.

Playtonic to JonTron: Nazi Punks Fuck Off

It would seem that Playtonic had once brought on famed Youtuber and recently self-exposed Xenophobe Jontron for some voice work in their up coming game Yooka-Laylee. That partnership seems to have been ended after JonTron…well…you know….went on a racist rant about how immigrant are evil. While the games odd language and vocal distortions could have made it easy to hard hide the fact Playtonic were working with him, it’s nice to see people taking a stand against this kind of hatred and bigotry. Really the only bad thing about this story was i couldn’t settle on which version of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” to post, so i had to use both. And that’s a good problem to have.

Law Breakers goes into Closed Beta This Month

Hey, look! Some actual gaming news that’s worth talking about. That’s rare. Okay, enough jokes. March 16-19, right after PAX, Lawbreakers  will be entering into a closed beta. Ever since i fell in love with Overwatch and heard this was its gory, M-Rated sister i’ve been interested in getting my hands on it. Granted that may not be until the player base dies down to just the overly dedicated and the game becomes inaccessible to new players due to poverty and a lack of free time. But hey, what matters is that i’ll always have overwatch to go back too once i’m inevitably driven off, right? But for those of you with some free time (please leave a comment telling me what that’s like), you can sign up for the open beta HERE . And for those of you with money, email me for my address, i take cash and checks.

Yooka Laylee Capital Cashino Trailer

The more i see of this game the more the exact same issue pops out at me: the levels seem almost lifeless. I’ve said before that in game that may not be an issue and that i can’t say for sure until i get my hands on it. That remains true now, but this trailer does help illustrate why i’m concerned. Look at the part at around 23 seconds in when the character pulls the lever on the slot machine. Look at the vast empty space that surrounds it. Look at how there are almost never more that three enemies on screen in big open spaces. I really hope i’m wrong about this: i really enjoyed what little i played of Banjo Kazooie as a kid and want to see more games like it and after Mighty No. 9 i’d really appreciate one of these throwback games to…you know…good. But for right now, i’m worried. i would love, LOVE, to be wrong but until i hear from reviewers i trust that it’s good i’ going to have to lower my expectations.

Aragami Review

By William Shelton

Release Date: October 4, 2016
Systems: PS4, Xbox One, PC (Reviewed), Mac
Developer: Lince Works
Publisher: Lince Works, Merge Games Ltd., Maximum Games
Rating: M
Obtained By: Review Code Provided by Lince Works

Aragami is not a bad game, but I think it will be mistaken for one by a lot of people. The stealth action gameplay is flawed but enjoyable….for a while. For the first few hours I was having a blast, but by the mid-point, were I stopped, I just wasn’t anymore. Nothing had changed and it took me a little to figure out just why I wasn’t enjoying my self as much any more. Then it hit me: nothing had changed. After the first few missions the game just runs out of steam and new ideas.
You play as an Aragami, a vengeful spirit, summoned by a young girl named Yamiko to free her from captivity and bring ruin upon those who killed her people and imprisoned her. In order to do this you must collect several talismans before the night ends and the light kills the Aragami. This is Video Games 101 story stuff: kidnapped girl, eight macguffins, ticking clock, go. Hell, change a few names around and this could be the gritty reboot of Zelda. Yamiko even accompanies you as a ball of light and actually says “hey, listen” at one point.

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“Hey, Reference!”

The classical nature of the games story doesn’t hut it as much as it’s predictability. When you obtain one of the talismans the Aragami is hit with a rush of memories that are supposed to be foreshadowing a future twist, but I guessed it almost instantly. This had me wishing the game would cut the pretense and get to the point. Or at the very least they could have done a little better in the sound department to make the story more enjoyable to sit through.
Okay, it’s unfair to blame the entire sound department. The issue is the voice work for the two leads. The actors for Yamiko and the Aragami might have done a fine job but I wouldn’t know as the developers put on a thick layer of echo on each one of them. I get what Lince was aiming for, making it sound like these two come from different planes of existence, but I found it got on my nerves pretty fast. Everything else works just fine: the music has a nice traditionally Asian sound to it, the kills are cartoonishly gruesome which fits nicely with the stylized visual aesthetic and your main power (a short distance teleport) has a subdued “whoosh” that conveys the speed and stealth ninjas are associated with.
The gameplay fairs better for the most part. In the way only stealth or horror games can get away with, the player character is incredibly weak and most foes can kill the player in one hit. Because of this it’s best to keep out of sight and in the shadows. To reinforce this, shadows are now more important than they are in most other stealth games. The Aragami has several supernatural powers at his disposal that deplete energy which can only be refilled by standing in shadows. And that teleport you have from the beginning can only transport you to a shadow covered area. With all of this combined I really did feel like a stealthy badass once I got into the games rhythm. Getting into that rhythm was part of the problem however.

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One of the few skills that are useful….when it’s not less covenant than just stabbing a dude.

Most of the skills available you have to unlock by finding a certain number of scrolls hidden throughout each level. Because of that, unless you search every nook and cranny of every level it can take you longer than it should to unlock basic stealth mechanics. For example, one skill allows you to dissolve bodies in shadows, but until you unlock that ability there’s no way to deal with the corpses you leave in your wake. In the early game that meant I was constantly putting guards in high alert as they found their fallen comrades.
Not helping matters is how many of the powers are more or less useless. After unlocking three or four of the abilities I really didn’t feel a particular need to unlock any more. And the ones I did were, once again, standard mechanics for the stealth genre.
The game makes up for this short coming, at least in the early hours, by being really well made and a lot of fun. While the controls took some getting use too (“Space” to kill? “F” to interact? Who came up with this control scheme?) once I got the hang of it I was never too bothered. But like I said at the start of the review, after a while the game just kind of runs out of ideas. The levels get bigger, but you face off against the exact same enemy types throughout and you’re doing the exact same thing in each level, breaking the power source for a light shield so you can move on to the next area. In the last mission I played before stopping to right this review they added the first new enemy type since the second level: a proximity mine that’s too easy to avoid. This is part of the reason so many of the powers feel useless; the player is never asked to adapt. Only once in my play time was I ever put into a situation that felt like it was shaking up the gameplay and that was dropped once I beat that part of the level. That’s why I think this is going to be misjudged as a bad game by a lot of people: if you play too much of it at once it begins to feel tedious and it’s easy to forget just how good the stealth is.

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The game has some great visual shorthand to convay information to the player.

Special mention has to go to how not only how good the game looks, but how well the interface in handled. The cell-shaded look of the game is simply beautiful, and the hand drawn look of the flashbacks complement it well. And you never have to stop paying attention to how gorges the game is to check visibility meters or manna points as that’s all a part of the character. The Aragami’s cape tells you how much manna you have and the character darkens when hidden in shadows. Any and all information you need to know can be found with a single look at the character, and I really appreciated that.
In the end, a lot of bad choices keeps Aragami from being a great game, but it was an enjoyable enough. It’ll probably be even more enjoyable when played right, in short burst every now and again. I am very much looking forward to going back and completing the game, just not right now.

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ClusterTruck Review

By William Shelton

Release Date: September 16, 2016

Systems: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Mac

Developer: Landfall Games

Publisher: tinyBuild

Rating: E

Obtained By: Review Code Provided by tinyBuild

ClusterTruck is an annoying game to try and review. While the game is truly great (in fact, it would make my top 5 easy if I bothered to do the whole “game of the year” thing), it only really does one thing throughout making it kind of a pain to talk about. Sure, the team at Landfall Games polished that one thing to a mirror shine and created one of the most fun and chaotic games i’ve every played…but how do I stretch that basic idea into a review worth reading? Truck if I know, but I’m going to anyways.

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In ClusterTruck you play as Laurence Fishburne circa 2003 as he undergoes a verity of different stunts while the Wachowski’s slowly make up their mind on how they want the highway section of The Matrix Reloaded to end. That’s…not even remotely true. But it’s a better story than the one the game actually provides. When I said ClusterTruck sticks to one core idea I meant it, and that one idea is not “tell a compelling story.” Once you hit “Play” you’re thrown right into the gameplay with nary a rhyme or reason.

And what is that game play that I’ve been trying not to talk about in order to give this review a…semi….decent length? Well, it’s a platformer where you jump from one semi-truck to another until you reach the goal at the end. I know, that sounds suuuuuper exciting, but the real fun comes from just how much chaos the team at Landfall games manage to ring out of that idea. The trucks drive into each other, off cliffs and pushed around like paper planes in a hurricane. If you hit the ground or any other parts of the world, you start the level over. While this is already a pretty cliché way too put it, ClusterTruck really does feel like a particularly hectic game of “The Floor is Lava”. Be that as it may, I think the comparison is rather apt.

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Touch the ground: dead. Touch the Houses: dead. Touch the gears held up by your suspension of disbelief: dead.

 

Really the only way I can truly describe ClusterTruck is “childish”. Everything form the core idea to the name of the game (get it guys, it sounds like FUCK, haha) feels like the kind of thing a hyperactive six-year-old would think up. And just like that hyperactive six-year-old, just existing in the lunacy is enough to have a good time. ClusterTruck isn’t deep or moving or emotional, but it is a blast. It is made with a childs energy and creativity and a professionals talent and skill.

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Ever wanted to play trough the Laser Scene from Resident Evil?

The only place where the game falters, even a little, is in how unpredictable it can be. While the stages never reach roguelike levels of randomness, the physics engine doesn’t always react the same way to the same stimuli. While it was possible to plan out who to reach the goal, the in game trucks weren’t always were I thought they should be as they didn’t react to the hazards I was planing around the same way they did when I made my plan. This lead to a lot of deaths that I didn’t feel were my fault. But, while that could have been really frustrating the super fast respawn time gave me almost no chance to think about it. Save for those times when the respawn happened so fast that I ended up jumping or using an ability right out the gate and died instantly again.

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This will be a common sight fairly quickly

I haven’t beaten the game yet, I’m about half way through world 8 (each world have 10 levels) and I haven’t even touched the seasonal maps yet. That’s been making writing this review that much harder as every time I sit down and think about the game all I want to do is go back and play some more of it. The soundtrack is just as much fun to listen too as the game is too play, and the unlockable abilities (like double jump, “bullet time” (you are playing a Matrix character, after all), and a jetpack), while pretty much useless, offer incentive too keep playing. I can’t tell you if it’s worth the $15 asking price, but I wouldn’t have minded paying for it. Now, excuse me as I get the Truck outta here and go play some more.

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Overwatch: Sombra Introduction and Back Story

If you’re like me you probably spend way too much time playing Overwatch. And if you’re like me, you’ve probably gotten to the point where you’re not playing as your main much these days to spice up the game a bit more.  Well, as if they knew we might be getting just a little tired of the game, Blizzard finally announces their newest cast member: Sombra. Personally i’m really excited for this one as she looks right up my ally. While Ana is the only support character i’ll play as, i don’t often play support so her arrival didn’t impact the game too much for me. Sombra looks like a character i may be putting quite a few hours into.

Personally i’m really looking forward to playing with that teleporter. As much as i like Tracer as a character and would like to be good with her, more often than not her blink confuses me and it takes to long for me to readjust myself. This seems like, by using a similar but toned down effect, will be as fun to use while negating that internal confusion. The only thing that worries me is her hacking ability. I think it’s a cool idea, but i have to wonder what the cooldown/duration of effect will have to be to make it both not overpowered and still worth using. I’m sure Blizzard has this down to a science by now but until i get my hands on the character it’s still a matter of concern. Like, i’m all for being able to bring down an opponent Reinhardts shied, but if that’s only going to last a second or two, i may as well just shoot at him. But if it lasts too long, the character is too over powered. And then, what about hacking health packs? It’s a cool idea being able to take away resources from the opposing team, but that needs to be balanced perfectly to not feel cheap.

Overall though, yeah, i’m excited. I wish they had added when the character will be live for players, but i’m going to play the hell out of her once she’s available.