Skyrim Special Edition Review: Shallow & Pedantic

What can be said about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that hasn’t already been said? Probably not a whole lot, but bear with me, because I’m going to try to give my perspective anyway. Much of this review naturally applies to the non-special edition, or, if you prefer:

  • Skyrim: The Mundane Edition
  • Skyrim: The Unfinished Edition
  • Skyrim: The “We Could Have Done Better” Edition
  • Skyrim: The Fuck You Edition
  • Skyrim: The Purchased Piecemeal Edition

One has to marvel at the audacity of re-releasing Skyrim in Fallout 4‘s graphical engine as a new product, but here I have to give Bethesda credit that they wholly deserve: the Special Edition of Skyrim is (was?) available for free to everyone who owned the PC version and all its DLC. What can I say? Bethesda knows where its customers are, and this is no small thing. I was a bit irritated when I learned that Skyrim was going to be re-released in Fallout 4‘s enhanced engine, and was supremely and pleasantly surprised to learn that it was going to be available at no cost to anyone who owned the original game and its three pieces of DLC. That’s shocking.

Kudos, Bethesda. In an age where publishers and developers are cutting their games into bits and pieces to squeeze every penny out of customers that they can, your actions stand in stark contrast, and I can’t praise you enough for this decision.

Now, all of that said, my review of the Special Edition is actually going to be pretty brief.

Skyrim: Special Edition

Why would anyone in their right mind go back to unmodded Skyrim? Maybe this is less of an issue with console players, but I can’t imagine any circumstances wherein I would choose to go back to playing Skyrim without the nine million mods that I’m accustomed to. It’s here that the Special Edition falls flat, and will continue to fall flat. The people who made the Skyrim Script Extender have stated they have no intention of releasing one for Special Edition, which severely limits what mods can do.

Additionally, the makers of SkyUI have stated they have no intention of porting their mod to the Special Edition, and all of this is certainly understandable. These people made these things for fun and as personal challenges to themselves. They’ve been there, and they’ve done that. They’ve climbed Everest and see no reason that they should climb it again. While they are willing to allow others to port their mods to Special Edition, it is looking increasingly unlikely that anyone is going to step forward to do it, and I can’t say that I blame them–not when Skyrim is as old as it is. That’s a lot of work to be doing on a game that is very old and not particularly exciting these days.

Without the SKSE, SkyUI can’t function. Without SkyUI, the Mods Configuration Menu can’t function. Without that, things like Warzones, Simple Multiple Followers, Companion Overhaul, Relationship Dialogue Overhaul, and many others either can’t function or can’t be easily changed. Moreover, I have to question Bethesda’s decision to make the mod menu much more like Civilization V‘s, in that it seems to happen primarily from the menus within game instead of externally. Maybe it’s because I’m a PC player, but I prefer to be in charge of the mod installation process. While I’m sure this is still possible, as it was for Civilization V even with its built-in mod browser and installer, it’s a questionable decision nonetheless to include this console feature on PC. It may be elitist, but if you can’t figure out how to Google and learn to install mods for Skyrim, then you probably shouldn’t be playing the game on PC anyway.

Take a good look at that image. It’s at the very beginning of the game, when Ulfric and Rolaf are about to be executed. This is the scene that is presented to the player. This is it. This is Skyrim: Special Edition. There’s a fucking horse’s schnoz taking up half the screen. And, needless to say, this is unmodded. This is the sort of slap-dash thing that can be expected from Special Edition–things added and implemented without much forethought or testing put into them. This image sums up better than anything I could say the entire Skyrim: Special Edition.

Back to Skyrim: Mundane Edition

So because anyone who has played Skyrim on PC before likely finds the idea of playing the game unmodded about as appealing as a root canal, and perhaps just as painful, I found myself almost instantly returning to what I’m going to continue calling Skyrim: The Mundane Edition. Why not? It’s not the Special Edition. What’s the opposite of special? Mundane. It’s a tacit admission from Bethesda that they released a mundane version of the game, isn’t it? Just like the Komplete Edition of Mortal Kombat 9 is an admission that they initially released an inKomplete version.

So let’s tear into the game.

Graphics

Unmodded, Skyrim is pretty. Modded, it can be among the most breathtaking games anyone has ever played. 4k retextures are common, and one of my all-time favorite mods adjusts the lighting so that it’s absolutely necessary to wander dungeons with a torch or the Candlelight spell. The mod I’m using for Serana makes her one of the most beautiful people in any video game ever.

Not to mention that I use a mod that causes snow to accumulate on clothes and bodies–because it only makes sense–and a mod that causes us to leave footprints in the snow.

There’s Serana in her Forsworn Armor–because what else would that gorgeous woman wear?–acting rather more naturally than companions do in the base game. I’m also using a mod that replaced PC skeletons so that females run and walk more like females. I even downloaded and installed a mod that served no purpose other than to put pigeons in Whiterun. I also use a mod that allowed me to marry Serana, because she’s probably the best crafted NPC that Bethesda ever made. Who wouldn’t want to marry Serana?

To be clear, neither I nor Serana continue to wear Forsworn Armor. Instead, I’ve used a mod that makes female armor a tad more revealing–Chainmail Bikini in full effect. My only gripe with it is that, as the Dragon Age: Origins mod that I use did, it went way too far. I think the Forsworn Armor should be used as a guideline as the most revealing piece of armor in the game. Instead, these mods take it and run with it, making the Forsworn Armor look positively conservative. I like half-naked women, I will not lie, but something has to be left to the imagination.

All that said, between the plethora of mods available and the naturally good graphics–although they weren’t really that much better than those of Gothic 3, which released long before Skyrim did–the graphics in Skyrim aren’t just great: they’re whatever the player wants them to be.

Aural Experiences

The default sounds of Skyrim, like the graphics, are good. It’s easy to get pumped up by some of the music and find yourself charging headfirst into a dragon, only to be bitten in half like the guards who once adventured until they took an arrow in the knee stopped adventuring. However, mods again come to the rescue and turn the Skyrim: Mundane Edition into the Skyrim: WHAT IS THIS EVEN HAS ANYONE EVER BEEN SO FAR AS DECIDED TO EVEN GO LOOK MORE LIKE Edition.

From sounds in the wilderness to lightning strikes during storms, wild animals, and ambient creepy noises in dungeons, mods take the ordinary Skyrim experience and turn it into something that borders on marvelous. In fact, Skyrim: Mundane Edition comes off more like a community-made game by the end of it, with Bethesda doing little more than providing the framework for everyone to add their own things to it. Sure, Skyrim: Special Edition has a better base to work with–in theory, at least–but the best have already moved on. I can’t belabor that point enough. There will never be a SkyUI for Special Edition. It’s not “in the works.” It’s not “check back in a few months.” It’s not happening.

All in all, Skyrim: Mundane Edition does a fantastic job of communicating information to the player. This is the job of graphics and sound, after all, and everything from distance detail to surrounding enemies to atmosphere are conveyed adequately and expertly. There’s not much to complain about. Everything else, however, takes a sharp plummet into shoddy territory.

Gameplay A: Quests

I hate Quest Systems. They were invented by MMOs in order to give the player something to do while minimizing the effects of the player’s actions. That’s what they were designed to do, and that’s what they do. The advantage is that the player can do a task for someone and be rewarded; thus, the player will feel as though they have achieved something. Additionally, the limited nature of the quest means that the only thing that changes is that NPC’s dialogue. It’s easy to see why MMOs need this: we can’t have players in MMOs all actually being the Chosen One and saving the world, after all. If players could impact any sort of meaningful change to the world, then the server would be horrifically unstable as it tried to figure out which of two players actually did something, and tried to adjust the world accordingly. Besides, if the game world changed, then those ten kobolds that Player A killed would mean that Player B would never be able to do that quest.

Blizzard has attempted to solve this problem with phasing, a point I bring up only to highlight that it is a problem with the Quest System. Players never see the impact they are having on the world. No matter what they do, those kobolds will respawn. The player is incapable of having any meaningful effect on the world, and the Quest System is the reason why. In MMOs, this is both important and critical. That single-player RPGs have borrowed it is nothing short of lazy and tedious.

If I took it upon myself to clear out every Bandit keep in the game, it wouldn’t matter. Skyrim would never react to my having done so. No NPC would ever remark that there don’t seem to be many bandits running around these days. Not only will bandits respawn–another feature typical of MMOs–but some of the keeps can’t be permanently cleared. There is an infinite number of quests in Skyrim, in fact–questing for a Jarl in a hold will ensure that a dragon or group of bandits is always respawning, and that the player can never actually do anything to change the world.

*Spoiler Warning: Dark Brotherhood*

Skyrim takes this and runs with it, becoming the most shallow game I’ve ever played. After going through the Dark Brotherhood questline and killing the Emperor, nothing happened. And I mean: nothing happened. The Emperor died, but that was it–it was no different from killing any other NPC in the game. While fighting the Civil War with the Stormcloaks, I, the mighty Dragonborn, killed the freaking Emperor! Talk about an instant victory in the civil war, right? No. Nothing happened. I don’t think that it was even mentioned when we wrapped up the civil war. It was like I hadn’t even done it. A few NPCs remarked from time to time about the Emperor’s death, but contrast it to the Emperor’s death in Final Fantasy VI to see what I mean. That had consequences–huge, incalculable consequences. The game world changes in Final Fantasy VI rather drastically as a result of Emperor Gestahl’s death. In Skyrim, nothing changes as a result of the Emperor’s death.

*End Dark Brotherhood Spoiler*

Nowhere is the shallow nature of Skyrim more evident than with marriage, another reason that I choose to marry Serana: by the end of the Dawnguard questline, she and I have forged a genuine bond. We’ve stood together and fought together, and even the most jaded of players will probably have to admit that there is genuine chemistry and emotion between Serana and the Dragonborn. Yet canonically Serana can’t be married; it takes a mod to fix that ridiculousness.

Generally, marriage in Skyrim works like this. You do a quest for someone, and then you go the Temple of Mara in Riften and tell the dude there that you want to get married. He sells you an amulet. You wear the amulet and talk to the person for whom you did the quest, and this gives you the dialogue option to propose to them, regardless of their sex or your sex, because everyone is bisexual–which I’ve talked about before. They say “Yes” and you’re married the next day. That’s it.

The official guide lampshades this by saying that, because of how dangerous life is in Skyrim, people tend to live for the moment and are eager to get married and have a partner. The Hearthfire addon adds the ability to adopt children–but one can’t actually have children, presumably because getting pregnant and spending 9 months with an avatar that is gradually growing larger was too much depth for Bethesda, even though even The Sims has managed to do it without much complication… And that could really add an interesting dynamic, especially if the Dragonborn is the one pregnant, since the Housecarl and allies would then be critical in protecting the Dragonborn while she was seven months pregnant. So many possibilities.

Adoption is also shallow–awkwardly and embarrassingly so. If players see a child they want to adopt, and the child is eligible, the dialogue goes like this:

Dragonborn: “How would you like to be adopted?”

Child: “That would be great!”

Dragonborn: “Well come along, daughter/son.”

Child: “Yay, momma/daddy!”

That’s seriously it. The hamfisted way that the Dragonborn says “son/daughter” toward the end of the dialogue is so awkward that I’m genuinely embarrassed for whatever poor sap wrote it. Not only is it painfully expositional–and stupidly so, since we literally just adopted the kid and probably haven’t forgotten that already–but it happens way too quickly.

That’s Skyrim‘s modus operandi, though. Speed, speed, speed! No time for development! It was jarring to join the Companions the first time and find myself as the leader of their order less than one in-game week later, after doing only three or four quests for them. I hadn’t even met some of them, yet this random person out of nowhere was suddenly their leader. The Dark Brotherhood, Thieves’ Guild, Mages’ College, and everything else follows that same pattern. There’s no time to form a genuine relationship with any of the characters or organizations; before the player knows it, they’ll be totally in charge of that organization.

It’s why the Dawnguard expansion stands out so much. Being devoted almost completely to one single questline, it’s able to show off what Skyrim could have been, if Bethesda had opted for quality instead of quantity. The gameworld does change as a result of what the player does in Dawnguard–the vampire scourge that annoyingly harasses the player after nearly every fast travel comes to an end, for one. Serana’s mother returns home, and they have some semblance of a happy family again. It’s not much, but it doesn’t have to go full World of Balance / World of Ruin for the player’s actions to actually have an impact on the world.

Another good example is the main quest, which I must confess I’ve never bothered to complete. Because of the player’s actions–but only because the game is player-driven, really…–dragons begin appearing all over the place. By moving forward with the quest, the player changes the world by unleashing all those dragons.

*Spoiler Alert: Civil War*

And then the Civil War questline totally drops the ball. By far, the most disappointing part happens directly after the Battle of Whiterun–which has its own problems. After taking and defeating the center of the entire region of Skyrim, the player is told to just kinda “do their own thing.” What the hell sort of military is this? There was so much potential here to take on a sort of simplistic Civilization or Age of Empires type of thing, where the player directed military forces here and there to hold off the Empire’s counter attacks and to gain territory.

I’m almost positive there is a mod that does this, by the way, but Bethesda should have implemented it. Having to choose between dispatching a unit to protect supply lines or risk that unit flanking the enemy and cutting off the Empire’s support… None of this would have been hard to do. Instead, the player is relegated to some sort of solo strike force, attacks a few holds, and then that’s it. Skyrim gains its independence, Ulfric is appointed High King, and… that’s it. Nothing changes.

* End Civil War Spoiler*

A mod can’t fix what is fundamentally broken, and Bethesda’s zeal for quantity over quality is Skyrim’s biggest problem. Now that I’ve completed Dawnguard and Dragonborn, I find myself not really having anything to do. Oh, there are plenty of quests that I could do–hundreds, perhaps even thousands. But they’re all functionally identical. They’re MMO quests. Kill these people, collect this thing, collect ten of these, go explore this place, deliver this message…

It’s true that a few of them are sequential chests, but these, too, are shallow and ultimately meaningless. “Ooh, I found Meridia’s Beacon and need to deliver it to a temple… Holy shit! She’s a daedra! Oh. She wants me to clear out the undead in her temple. Yeah, that’s new. I’ve only done that nineteen times since Bleakfall Burrows… Oh, look, druagr. Those are new. Neat. A legendary weapon that I don’t need because I can craft better stuff. And that’s the end of the quest. Hooray.”

This is 99% of Skyrim, these meaningless, trite quests that are identical to every other meaningless and trite quest in the game. The worst offender is the Thieves’ Guild quest, which ends with the forced option to sell one’s soul to the daedra Nocturnal to join the Nightingales. Let me reiterate: this role-playing game doesn’t provide the player the option to refuse to sell their soul and take their chances fighting someone. This is indicative of Skyrim as a whole: the only choice is to do a quest or not to do a quest. Quests happen exactly as Bethesda wanted, or they simply don’t get done. That’s disgusting for a role-playing game.

Gameplay B: Emergent Gameplay

Aside from my various adventures with Serana, one of the most memorable experiences for me was when Lydia and I stumbled across a keep of bandits. This was before I was using a mod to give my followers a mount–honestly, how did Bethesda not include that in the core game? We wandered into the keep mostly by accident. Archers killed my horse. I turned to flee, knowing that we were outnumbered and outmaneuvered, and I looked just in time to watch Lydia fall to the ground, dying. I rushed to her with Healing Hands equipped, but I wasn’t fast enough. An arrow pierced her heart, and my weak healing magic was no match for the steel-tipped projectile.

I was furious. I took my Werewolf form, and I went on a roaring rampage of revenge. I killed everyone in that keep, and then I ate them for good measure. I stormed through that keep like a maniac, ignoring the arrows they were firing at me, and slashing wildly. I smacked them into walls, tore them limb from limb, and then devoured their hearts. I exacted my vengeance decisively, and when it was over I was left with a sort of empty feeling, knowing that Lydia and my horse were still gone, and were never coming back.

Revenge had felt good, but it offered no long-term satisfaction.

But the memory has always stuck with me. I felt Lydia’s death and wanted vengeance much more powerfully than I had when Sephiroth dropped in from above and killed Aerith. I think this was because Aerith had to die–Lydia didn’t. Lydia’s death wasn’t the plot’s fault; it was my fault. I was the one who brought us to that part of the woods, not the story. I was the one who chose to take on the bandits instead of fleeing the moment I realized we were attacking a defended fort. Lydia, who had been with me through many adventures, right by my side and tanking for me while I threw spells and fired arrows from a distance, was dead.

Because of me.

She died doing her duty to her thane.

That sort of thing can’t be scripted, and stories like that aren’t uncommon when people discuss Skyrim. The only gripe I have is that the Quest System puts too much script into the game, and those scripts get in the way of emergent gameplay. This is also something that developers are aware of–it’s why Notch has explicitly refused to put any sort of quests into Minecraft, which, of course, is a game that thrives solely on emergent gameplay.

For reasons surely psychological in nature, if you give players a checklist of things to do, they don’t wander off that checklist. Consider The Legend of Zelda versus The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. How many players spent any serious amount of time exploring dig caverns and side passages in Twilight Princess? If you give a player a list of things to do, then they’ll simply do the things on that list. They’ll hesitate to go into a new, unexplored area before the game gives them an item on that list to go there, because in the back of their mind, they’ll know that somewhere in the game is a person who will add that item to their checklist, and so there’s no point in exploring it now–they’ll just wait until someone tells the player to go explore it.

People like to say about Skyrim that you can just pick a direction and go explore it, and eventually you’ll find a cave or some dungeon or something. That’s true, but how many people have actually done that? And how many players actually do it routinely? I’d wager that fewer than 10% of players have “picked a direction and started walking” and that fewer than 1% of that 10% actually do it regularly. Why go and explore Cave A when you have a quest to go and explore Cave B? Why go and explore a cave of your own volition when you can talk to a few people in a town and get a quest to go explore a particular cave?

So what’s the grand result of all this? Skyrim: Mundane Edition is a great game, but it has some serious flaws with the gameplay–without even getting into how broken and unbalanced it is. Destruction magic is a joke, even with mods that make it better, and I’d venture the guess that everyone ends up playing a sneaking archer by the end of it. Meanwhile, Skyrim: Special Edition brings with it a host of new flaws and carries one major caveat that makes it look pale when compared to Mundane Edition: a lack of mods.

Skyrim: Mundane Edition – 3.5 stars

Skyrim: Special Edition – 2 stars

The (Apparently) Accidental Brilliance of FNAF, and Why FNAF2-5 Aren’t As Good

There was a mechanic in Five Nights At Freddy’s that was almost universally hated, and you already know what I’m talking about: the power mechanic. Everything the player did consumed power, including sitting there doing nothing because a fan constantly ran and couldn’t be turned off. I have to admit that I, too, initially hated the mechanic, but the more I played the more I began to see its subtle brilliance. Before we get into that, though, we have to talk about something more overarching:

What Makes Games Hard?

There are two types of difficulty: fake and real. Fake difficulty is heavily reliant upon trial and error. Anyone who has played I Wanna Be the Guy has taken a primer course in Fake Difficulty. Much of I Wanna Be The Guy is also genuinely difficult, but it’s Fake Difficulty when a Delicious Fruit flies up to kill you, or when Dracula in a cutscene kills you by throwing a goblet at you.

Most specifically, I want to talk about the primary difficulty: resource management. There is resource management in a lot of games that may surprise you. RPGs, in their current state, are nothing more than resource management games. It’s all about swapping out a number in the MP column to do a number of damage to the enemy to earn enough Experience to gain a level and have a higher MP pool while also earning enough money to buy an MP restoring item. This is precisely why RPGs are notoriously harder at the beginning and become increasingly easy as progress is made: the player acquires not only more resources, but more types of resources.

At early levels, a player may swap out 4 MP to do 75 damage to an enemy with 150 HP that gives 5 gold, while a healing item that restores 20 MP costs 10 gold. As you can see, if there were no other factors, the player would have to kill two of those enemies–burning 16 MP–to earn enough money to buy one MP restoring item. That leaves one extra spell cast, and that’s not much room for screwing up. Later in the game, though, the player is using 45 MP to do 4,320 damage to an enemy with 3,000 HP and earning 150 gold for doing it, while an item that restores 250 MP only costs 125 gold. The ratios become more and more balanced as the game progresses until the scale tips firmly in the player’s favor.

Even more specifically, I want to talk about Resident Evil 2.

You see, Resident Evil 2 had finite resources. The number of bullets in the game never changed. Enemies didn’t drop bullets, and if the player exhausted their supply, that was it. There were no more. At all. While there were more than enough bullets to cover the game, that didn’t change the fact that a trigger happy idiot with terrible aim would have an extremely difficult time beating the game until they learned to conserve and save ammo. This was real difficulty, and it could result in a game that was practically unwinnable because the player was extraordinarily careless and… bad at the game.

Yes, a player who runs around emptying an entire clip into a single zombie is bad at Resident Evil 2, and the game is going to severely punish them for that. They’re going to die, and there’s no way to recover those bullets. The only way to undo it is to start over and git gud. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the finite amount of save points that were in the game. That’s correct: the player could only save the game a certain number of times, because each save used an ink ribbon, and there was a limited number of them. Not only could the player burn through their ammo, but they could back themselves into a corner where they had to navigate the last 20% of the game with no saving and very little ammo. No room for error. They had to buckle down and give it everything they had.

When that failed, they had to restart the game, putting what they had learned to use, and improving.

FNAF

My experience with Five Nights At Freddy’s went exactly like this.

I died on the first night. I burned through my power because I had my cameras up constantly. This is what initially earned my ire about the game. It was fun to be creeped out watching the cameras, but the power mechanic punished me for doing it; the power mechanic punished me for having fun. However, it was so much more brilliant than that, and I just hadn’t grasped it yet. I naturally ran out of power.

Or I was killed by one of the animatronics. I don’t remember any longer, but I didn’t know that I could just not check the camera and would still live.

Regardless, the first time I completed the first night, it was with very little energy remaining. I died on the second night. A few attempts later, I survived the second night with very little energy remaining. Now that I’d gotten a decent feel for it, I made it through most of the third night until I ran out of power at 3 AM. Shit! Then 4 AM. Damn! Then 5 AM. Fuck! Then I finally had the clock roll over while I was out of power.

It wasn’t accidental, of course. Each time I played, I got a little bit better at conserving power and doing what was necessary without going overboard. The fourth night played out exactly the same way. Foxy really screwed me over for a while, because I wasn’t checking the cameras enough, and man… When he bangs on that door, it murders your remaining power. So I ran out of power early. Then I made it a little further, and then a little further. Then I was again saved after losing power by the clock rolling over.

This happened again on the fifth and sixth nights. It didn’t happen on 20/20/20/20, because the movement formula for that is so precise that there isn’t any room for individual variance, but there was absolutely no doubt. Each night forced me to get better at the game. And it worked beautifully. I not only mastered Five Nights At Freddy’s, but something else became apparent.

The Brilliance of FNAF

Because of the power mechanic, Five Nights At Freddy’s literally forces players to do nothing. It forces players to sit on the edge of their seats, almost biting their fingernails, with their hearts pounding and their tension high, and doing absolutely nothing to defend themselves or even watch out for the animatronics. Those moments of doing nothing are remarkable, because they’re necessary.

This is a game where things are constantly coming to kill you, and the game forces you to sit there and do nothing about it at regular intervals. These periods of doing nothing feel like they last forever. Have you ever heard someone doing a livestream or a YouTube video say, “I have to force myself to wait 5 seconds before doing anything else” and then counting off to five? Their “seconds” are never seconds. Most of the time only 2 or 3 seconds elapse while they count to five, because their heart is pounding. Those moments of doing nothing are extremely intense, and at literally any one of those milliseconds an animatronic could pop its head into the door.

And the player won’t know it because the player can’t know it, because the player must sit there in silence and darkness or will run out of power. There’s nothing like sitting there for five “seconds” doing nothing and then attempting to check a light, only to hear the buzzer that means an animatronic is inside and that death is inevitable.

That is what made Five Nights At Freddy’s so amazing. It wasn’t just the jumpscares, although I’ll admit that, for the first few times I played, the jumpscares themselves were very well done. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though. What is truly terrifying about Five Nights At Freddy’s was the one mechanic that everyone loved to hate: the power mechanic. The one that forced players to sit there helplessly, knowing full well that things were coming for them.

FNAF 2-5

This is also the element that has been missing from every Five Nights At Freddy’s game since, though FNAF3 came closest to imitating it with the machinery that intermittently breaks down. Unfortunately, the actual mechanics of FNAF3 were so convoluted and unexplained that the malfunctioning equipment becomes little more than an annoyance. The wind-up box in FNAF2 was another attempt to do the same thing–force the player into a helpless position–but we all know why that was such an annoyance.

Don’t even get me started in the tedious Sister Location that only upped the complexity and made the stages longer and more annoying. FNAF 2 and 3 both had the right idea; Scott knew that the forced period of helplessness was what made the original so terrifying, even if the average player didn’t. However, he handled them in poor ways. The second game saw the wind-up toy and an overabundance of animatronics. I may be atypical, but I don’t think anything more than the original 4 were really necessary… I never paid much attention to which was which between Chica and Bonnie.

Forcing the player to constantly open the camera to wind up a toy was an interesting reversal of the first game and how it forced the player to constantly put down the camera. Since frontal and side assaults were the biggest threats, rather than Freddy, it worked, even if it was as criticized as the first game’s power mechanic. It was a clever way of doing the same thing without pissing off players with the same power mechanic.

In the first, of course, failing to look at the cameras would send Foxy down the hallway to either kill the player or drain power by banging on the door. Additionally, watching Freddy through the camera would lock him in place and prevent him from moving. However, while the player was looking through the camera, Bonnie or Chica could come in and kill the player as soon as the camera was lowered. This is almost certainly what killed everyone the first few times they played Five Nights At Freddy’s.

In the second game, however, failing to check the hallway in front of the player or the vent lights to the left and right would result in certain death, and the only defense was donning a Freddy mask quickly. Foxy or Mangle regularly popped up in the hallway, requiring the light to be shone down them, and the cameras became completely useless. In fact, they became worse than useless, as they blocked your view and meant that you weren’t checking the hallway or the vents. The solution was to force players to open the cameras, and so the remote wind-up box was added, forcing players to make themselves helpless.

I’d venture the guess that the wind-up boxes is hated a little less than the power mechanic because opening the camera to wind up the box is doing something, while putting the cameras down and sitting in silence was not. Though it was probably better received, it also wasn’t anywhere nearly as terrifying. Sure, the player is frantic and rushed while pulling up the camera to wind the box, and is every bit as helpless while doing it as they were while doing nothing in the original, but there’s still a large psychological difference between “doing something” and “doing absolutely nothing.”

Winding up the box is frantic, panicked, and rushed.

Sitting and waiting is terrifying.

FNAF3 forced helplessness by having the equipment randomly stop working–except it wasn’t really random. I think the voice player broke after three uses or something like that. I’m not really sure, because I loathed FNAF3. The mechanics were too complex for a game like that. There are five nights, each of which lasts ten minutes, and dying a few minutes from 6:00 AM on the third night leaves players not having any idea what they did wrong. Or maybe the ventilation just stopped working at the worst possible time. Who knows? The game is too poorly explained for mechanics that complicated.

That was FNAF3’s biggest problem: the helplessness was unpredictable. The player couldn’t just improve their management and make progress, because there were too many variables and too many things that at least seem luck-based. When I die in Five Nights At Freddy’s 1 or 2, I know exactly why, I know what killed me, and I know what I should have done better. Often, I know that I’m dead before I die. This was even true before I mastered the game; to be fair, now when I die, I know exactly why, without fail. Even before that, though, I knew it was my mistake, I knew what I’d done wrong, and I knew what to do to fix it. This was usually “consume less power.”

That meant “Take on more helplessness.”

That meant intentionally putting myself in a state of helplessness.

That’s terrifying.

This was rarely the case in Five Nights At Freddy’s 2. I don’t think that I’ve ever been killed by the Puppet, and I suspect that this is true of most people. And because we’re engaged in the act of doing something–looking through the camera and winding the box–we don’t feel helpless. We just feel annoyed.

Five Nights at Freddy’s 3 was better, as I said, because it was true helplessness. You had to reboot the systems, and that took a while. During that time, it was very likely that Springtrap was going to get very close to you. And if he was already close to you, then you were probably looking at a death. This time, however, the powerlessness was beyond the player’s control. It happened when it happened, and there was nothing that could be done about it. While this could have been scarier, it’s not, primarily because it was forced upon players.

Players making themselves helpless and dying because of it is one thing. The game making players helpless and then killing them is another thing entirely. Players were forced to be helpless, instead of forcing it upon themselves. I lack the expertise to explain why the latter is so much more intense, but it absolutely is.

FNAF4

Then Scott decided that musicians shouldn’t be able to play his games any longer. Look, my computer is run through a Sony surround sound system that cost me about $700 back when I worked at Harrah’s. On top of that, I purchased two supplemental speakers, each of which contains a 15″, a 6″, and a 2″. There’s a reason that it’s my primary device for music. It sounds amazing. And with the enhanced subwoofer and rear speakers, it gets louder than most people would guess.

Yet even turning it to full blast and cranking up gain on everything, I cannot hear the opening crickets of Five Nights At Freddy’s 4. Irritated, I unplugged my sound system and plugged in headphones. What happened? I still couldn’t hear the crickets. I attempted to play the game, but never heard anything that could be described as “breathing.”

I’m a rock musician. From 18 to 27 years old, I stood in front of 8 twelve-inch Celestion speakers in a Marshall cabinet playing guitar. I’m not hard of hearing by any means, but my hearing is certainly not what it should be. Five Nights At Freddy’s 4 relies entirely on sound cues. I heard something while listening at the doors, but none of it could have been described as “breathing.” There’s too much ambiance noise for a child’s bedroom. There shouldn’t be music at all, if that’s what he’s going for. How am I supposed to listen for breathing anyway, if the music swells in random places? Are you kidding me? That’s terrible game design.

And it’s all in the name of jump scares, isn’t it? That’s the trick. Make the player listen real closely to every little squeak and sound, every tiny, low-volume noise, get really quiet, and then RAWR SCREAM REAL LOUD IN THE PLAYER’S EARS.

“Scary” right?

“Bullshit” would be more accurate.

Sister Location lost me midway through the second night by adding even more complexity than FNAF3 had. These games are made in Clickteam Fusion, or something like that. They are not suitable for complex game mechanics. They’re simple games made in simple programs using simple concepts. Adding in a bunch of complexity isn’t a good idea, and I would have thought FNAF3 would have taught people that. One of the FNAF YouTubers I like got to Night 4 in FNAF3 without having any idea what he was doing or what he was supposed to be doing. When he died, he had no idea why, or what he had done wrong.

More to the point, though, the fear is gone. The terror is gone.

It wasn’t the jumpscares that made Five Nights At Freddy’s so nail-biting. It was the player-forced helplessness. It was knowing that you were in a dangerous situation, yet knowing that you had to sit there quietly and doing nothing if you wanted any chance of surviving. Five Nights At Freddy’s was brilliant for that, but the follow-up titles make me think that it was accidental brilliance. I’d love to see the series return to its initial glory, not chase after complexity and whore-ish jump scares.

Don’t make me strain my ears just so you can randomly blow a horn in my face and startle me.

Terrify me.

Turok 2: A Moderately Painful Blast From the Past

I have a love/hate relationship with the first two Turok games. On the one hand, they’re terrible from almost every perspective. On the other, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was the first N64 game I owned, and it was my mother who bought it for me. So I can’t truly hate  Dinosaur Hunter… I can’t hate anything that’s attached to my mother. But, holy crap, I do not like it.

The game consisted of only seven or eight levels, only the first of which was I ever able to complete, and they are positively gargantuan. The first two Turok games (I simply don’t know about the third game) might actually contain the longest stages found in any video game, with the possible exception of some of the N64 collectathons. Even a reasonably skilled player is going to spend two or three hours simply traveling from one end of the stage to another.

The biggest problem with Turok: Dinosaur Hunter is that the stages are bland, empty, and uninteresting. Nothing sticks out as interesting or worthy of attention, and the first two stages both take place in a largely nondescript jungle with just a few textures painfully and obviously repeated on everything–not that you can see it through the absurd amount of fog meant to mask the N64’s low draw distance.

The sequel attempted to fix this by adding variety to the stages as well as mission objectives, which were implemented masterfully by Goldeneye. Following Rare’s FPS masterpiece, which held Nintendo Power’s #1 spot for nearly as long as Ocarina of Time (which, incidentally, was the game that finally dethroned 007), the flaws of Dinosaur Hunter were all the more apparent, so Acclaim valiantly attempted to improve the experience. Though I never owned this game, I borrowed it extensively (along with a useless Brady Games strategy guide), but, again, never managed to complete anything but the first level.

Turok 2: Seeds of Evil has now been remastered and released on Steam, so it seemed a perfect time to revisit it.

All of the problems that plagued the first game made their way into the second, as they evidently were the core of what a Turok game is. There is slightly more variety to the textures, and each stage has its own environmental feel, but it’s nowhere near enough to fix what is fundamentally bland design. There are, from what I’ve been able to tell, merely six stages this time around, and they still take a ridiculous amount of time to slog through.

Even knowing what I was doing, completing the first stage still took me more than two hours, made worse because I somehow missed two children. Believe it or not, the in-game map is less useful now than ever, as portals, doors, and the like are no longer clearly differentiated, and that the maps consist of nothing more than lines is an inexcusable remnant of days long passed. Would it have killed them to add a mini-map, and a Zelda-style map that can be opened?

Before I’d completed the first stage, though, a problem bigger than the stages presented itself: performance is abysmal. While I’m in need of a new graphics card (but have so much going wrong these days that a new card isn’t even on my radar), everything else in my system is top notch, and I’m well above the recommended specs anyway. I can play much more recent and graphically demanding games like The Witcher 2 [I didn’t care for it, so haven’t played The Witcher 3] without problem, but Turok 2: Seeds of Evil  regularly stays around 25 frames per second, and gets as low as 1 frame pre second. This game is like fifteen years old! The graphics were not improved nearly enough to tax my hardware.

Common complaints on the forum are from AMD users, of which I am one, and it honestly seems like the game was not tested on AMD hardware. This wouldn’t be the first time; Mass Effect was tested on only one sound card and one video card. I don’t know what else to think when I can open Project64 and emulate the game perfectly at 1920×1080 with all graphical features maxed out, but the PC version hiccups along at 20 frames per second at lower resolutions and with fancy settings disabled. There’s no excuse for this lack of optimization, and it hinges on making the game unplayable at times.

For the most part, however, it is playable, and I’m fairly sure the stages have been redesigned and made more linear, thank the freaking gods. Stage design comes off much more like modern games, like Resident Evil 6, Final Fantasy XIII, and Tomb Raider (2013) in that each stage is basically a gigantic tunnel with occasional and very brief alcoves off the main path that lead to largely inconsequential treasures. Here the treasures are of more use than another Potion or the second of three useless collectibles and the branches are a bit longer (taking 3-5 minutes to explore instead of 20-30 seconds), but it’s fundamentally the same. If the treasure here isn’t a new weapon, then it’s a level key or mission objective. This can actually be more annoying, though, because there’s no way to tell which of two paths proceeds through the level and which leads to a mandatory objective, forcing the player to travel quite a ways down both paths before knowing.

Once more, these levels are fucking massive. This is not a good thing. It’s better now, since one can save anywhere instead of only at designated spots, but it doesn’t help those times when I’d like to play the game but remember before launching it that I’m about halfway through, and just can’t bring myself to laboriously trawl through another seventeen tunnels across five warp portals to reach the next mission objective.

Image from N64 version

Without anything else being close, the marathon stages–which once were Turok 2‘s greatest strength–are its biggest detriment. The only saving grace is the nice collection of weapons, which do at least make it interesting to do nothing but kill one enemy every one hundred feet, but the initial offerings are boring, and the more exciting weapons aren’t found until later stages and then don’t have a great deal of ammo lying around.

The Cerebral Bore is the best example of a fascinating weapon, producing some sort of projectile that burrows into the enemy’s head and causes it to explode. It’s every bit as horrific as one might think, and it’s reasonably jarring to actually sit back and ponder what just happened–did that monster who is really just defending his nest from you really deserve to have its head bored into and exploded from within?

The story of the stages–and, indeed, overall game–don’t really offer up enough justification for Turok’s wanton slaughter through aliens’ homeworlds. And what of the dinosaurs who are just trying to catch a meal? If Turok is supposed to be the good that balances out the darkness–or something to that effect, because it isn’t explained very well–then he probably shouldn’t be pounding velociraptors in the face with rocket launchers. The most egregious case, however, are the levels that require the player to actually destroy embryos and egg nests. That’s called “genocide.”

These may seem silly complaints about an old game made as a justification to give players lots of weapons to blow things up, but there’s not much else to do while trekking through the hours-long stages except ponder the implications of mass murder and gross violations of the Geneva Convention. At least the bad guys only imprisoned children. Turok murders their children. Is the Primagen really the bad guy, if he’s trying to stay the hand of a mass murdering psychopath who shoots baby aliens in the throat with nuclear guns?

Also known as: “The best weapon you’re going to have for a very, very long time”

As players wander from one end of a thousand mile journey to the other, they will have to complete a handful of objectives for each stage; counted individually, one stage has seven whole objectives, but most end up with only three or four. These objectives, of course, are scattered almost randomly across the levels, which often results in thirty minute traversals across empty terrain sparsely populated by enemies with absolutely nothing being accomplished. It would be like if the opening level of Goldeneye scattered its four alarms sporadically across a stage that takes two hours to finish.

Good luck finding that one alarm that you missed somewhere along the way, especially with no useful in-game map and virtually no logical placement of the objectives. Why in the name of sanity would they place an Ammo Depot at the top of a gigantic pillar in The Death Marshes?

A few of the stages require an hour of play before even the first objective is reached; that’s not an exaggeration. By the time I’d killed my first Sister of Despair, I was certain that the entire level would have to be played again, because I’d accomplished none of the objectives but knew intuitively I’d gone through about 65% or more of the stage. The three beacons in the Port of Adia are within ten or fifteen minutes of each other, so the bulk of the stage is simply an attempt to find two more children who are located somewhere along the remaining 85% of the stage.

This might have been fun to some people during the N64 era, but it wasn’t particularly fun for me, nor is it exciting now. The only reason that I’m continuing to play Turok 2: Seeds of Evil is that I refuse to accept that I can’t beat it, which is what I believed to be the case until the remaster. I didn’t think it was possible to complete the game on N64, even with a helpful guide, at least not without extraordinary amounts of not fun backtracking and aimless wandering through levels that are ten times larger than they need to be.

There is enjoyment to be had here, but it’s going to be limited to people who enjoyed Turok 2 already. A gamer who grew up with more modern shooters will likely find it utterly unplayable, and an older gamer will likely find it playable but tedious.

What were they thinking with the Lair of the Blind Ones?!

The music is actually better than I remember, or perhaps just better than I noticed when I was a stupid kid, but the same can’t be said of the sound effects. The weapon sound effects are appropriate, but environmental sounds are atrocious. Through most of Hive of the Mantid, there is a horrible whirring sound that relentlessly emanates from places on the map, which means the terrible sound constantly gets louder and quieter, but it’s almost omnipresent. I had to delete almost all of the gameplay footage from Hive of the Mantid because I screamed about that noise through nearly the entire stage, which was almost as annoying as the sound itself.

Almost.

It was always apparent to me that “NTHGTHDGDCRTDRTK” spelled something, but I was never able to figure out what. I thought “NTHG” meant “NoTHiG,” though “TRK” was obviously “Turok,” and so wasn’t able to deduce it. As it happens, it’s “oN THe eiGTH Day, GoD CReaTeD TuRoK. Seeds of Evil sees the simpler “BewareOblivionIsAtHand” as its code, and activating “The Big Cheat” makes the game moderately more entertaining once players get sick of crawling through the boring stages. Achievements can’t be earned while cheats are active, but the achievements themselves also show off the weird mindset that goes into making a Turok game.

For example, there’s simply one achievement for finding secret areas: finding all thirty of them. That’s the big issue with Turok, alright: nothing is optional. In order to even beat the game, a player must find all five feathers, all six pieces of the Primagen Ship Key, must get all Talismans, must complete every objective, and must find all the level keys. This means anyone who has beaten Turok 2 at all has effectively 100%’d the game. As someone who enjoys 100%ing games, I’m actually put off when it’s mandatory. Being able to swim through lava isn’t a reward for carefully searching the land; it’s a requirement for even reaching the final boss.

That’s bad game design, and it should have been fixed.

Something else that should have been fixed is the notable lack of permanent upgrades. Shortly after entering the Death Marshes, I found myself thinking of none other than Diakatana, and how I should have gained some kind of permanent power-up to my Health, Armor, ammo capacity, or weapon damage. Enemies get stronger, but Turok doesn’t really become stronger, and even the more powerful weapons are so crippled on ammo that they don’t make up for the enemies that take six blasts of the Plasma Cannon to kill. The pistol and bows become useless; even a way to choose the loadout when I enter a stage would be great, since I could leave the pistol, shotgun, PFM Layer, Tranquilizer, and ordinary Bow behind instead of having to tediously cycle through them to get to a weapon that will actually be useful against the enemy shooting rockets at me. It really wouldn’t have been difficult to implement something like this, and anyone who wants a “pure Turok 2” experience is going to emulate the N64 version we grew up with anyway.

If an enemy in stage 5 is going to take 45 bullets fired from the Mag 60 before it dies, then I should have gained the ability to carry more than 50 bullets somewhere on my journey to level 5.

A remaster should serve as more than just a graphical update. The gameplay itself should be modernized, at least within reason. Adding the ability to save anywhere–that’s an example of modernization (which might also have been present in the original PC version, I’m not sure). Adding mission objectives to the UI–which aren’t as useful as one might think, since the radius of their appearance is very low–is yet another example of modernization. I am also pretty sure the stage layouts were altered and made more linear; I wasn’t that dumb and impatient as a kid.

Turok 2 desperately needed a bit more modernization, though, especially at a $20 price point.

1.5 / 5 stars

 

RPGs, Battles, & Game Length

Before we begin, you should probably read this background article I wrote at Cubed3, because I’m going to be building a bit from that, though I’ll be repeating some of it, too, so I’m not sure how critical that article will be. With that out of the way, I’m just going to dive into it, because the millions of thoughts I had for this article as I lie in the bed this morning trying to fall asleep are fast attempting to escape.

RPGs Are Long

We all know that RPGs constitute the longest video games out there. Whatever form it comes in, from the improperly-named “Strategy RPG” that is more appropriately called a Tactical RPG, to the Action RPG to the Western RPG to the Eastern RPG, some of these types of game can take upward of 40 hours just to finish the main story, and sometimes well over 200 to fully complete the game.

In fact, this has always been the case, but I’m not really sure that what constitutes an “RPG” these days truly qualifies any of these games as Role-Playing Games, and they are all at least 80% fluff: mindless grinding and repetitious battles. This has also always been the case, from the earliest console RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, if you cut out the grinding for gold and experience, then the games can be completed almost as quickly as a speedrun of Super Mario Bros.

In other words, these games take a long time to play, but they aren’t actually very long games. Using Hex Editing, it isn’t too difficult to start a new playthrough of Dragon Warrior on NES at level 30, with 50,000 gold. Doing this results in a game that takes about 15 minutes to beat. The only necessary parts are visiting Garinham for the harp, rescuing the princess, getting the three tokens, and defeating the Dragonlord. While that sounds like a lot, most of these are just out-of-the-way places that are protected not by a large amount of landmass but by obscenely powerful enemies that force the player to grind to have even the smallest chance of reaching them. Contrast this to games like Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, where there actually is a huge amount of “landmass” that must be traversed separating the player from the goals.

ultima3-extras-cover4Maybe Dragon Quest is a bad example. What about other RPGs? What about Ultima: Exodus, on NES or PC? This game is firmly 99% grinding. If we remove everything that isn’t canonically a part of the story and start the characters at level 25 and with max stats, the game can be beaten in less than ten minutes. Both Ultima: Exodus and Dragon Warrior, however, are RPGs that can take a player twenty or thirty hours to beat. That’s a huge amount of tedious grinding that serves only to keep the player busy.

Final Fantasy follows the same pattern. Cutting out combat yields a game that is slightly longer than either Dragon Warrior or Ultima: Exodus, but not by a whole lot.

Does this trend continue today?

Bethesda’s developers always have an in-house competition before a game is released, where the programmers play against the game designers and race to the finish, to see who can finish the game first. If I recall correctly, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim took a little under three hours. Part of this is that much of the game’s content is optional, but if we’re removing combat then we’re also removing all the quests that involve combat, and that cuts the game down substantially. With all monsters and monster-slaying quests removed, except the ones that involve dragons because they’re canonical, it’s likely that Skyrim could be finished in under an hour, and completed in less than five.

An RPG Without the Combat

For years, perhaps even a decade, I’ve rolled my eyes and mocked people who classify the Zelda games as RPGs. They’re not RPGs. They’re Action Adventure games. However, they’re just as fairly called RPGs as any of the games I’ve mentioned above. As I wrote in the Cubed3 article, an RPG isn’t defined by having things like character levels, a strength stat, a defense stat, and things like that; those are just the tropes and cliched gameplay mechanics. An RPG is defined as a role-playing game. In the Zelda games, yes, players play the role of Link just as much as they play the role of Mario in Mario games, and just as they play the role of the Dragonborn in Skyrim.

An RPG with the turn-based combat and leveling systems removed would look exactly like the Zelda series, in fact. The reason I bring this up is that, aside from the entire genre of RPGs, what is the longest type of video game? Zelda games, hands down. The original Legend of Zelda was huge for its time, and even being an expert player it takes me about an hour to 100% the first quest. They’ve only gotten longer as time has gone on, and removing the combat from Zelda games would only knock off a little bit of that–and then only in the first game. By the time A Link to the Past rolls around, the game itself is enormous, and even running through the game uncontested would have it taking several hours to finish. Ditto with Ocarina of Time.

The same is true of most well-developed games. Super Mario 64, without its combat, would still take a considerable amount of time, as would Super Meat Boy and, honestly, the majority of games. No other genre of game has its overall playtime impacted nearly as much as RPGs when combat is removed.

RPGs Re-Imagined

So let’s return to square one: we want to make a role-playing game. Adding character levels, character stats, and turn-based combat won’t be enough to qualify our game as an RPG any longer; in fact, people are so tired of those that they would just call our game a Calculator Simulator, or a Wall Street Kid duplicate where players spend their time watching animations that swap a number in one column from a slightly larger number in another column with the aim of producing a gain in net resources. Just as players accomplished this in Wall Street Kid by selling a bunch of stocks and buying other stocks, players in RPGs accomplish it by using a magic spell to do x damage to this enemy to earn y gold and z experience, which eventually increase m MP available for that character as well as x damage. Stripped down, it’s nothing more than a numbers game.

I hate puzzles. I tolerate them in Zelda games, but I generally don’t play video games because I want to do a lot of thinking. Most puzzles in Zelda games are okay, but others–like the dual statue puzzle in Twilight Princess–are irritating and overkill. I roll my eyes in frustrated anger when I have to do the stupid Fade in Dragon Age: Origins, or in Dragon Age 2, or in Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening when presented with the stupid ring of fire puzzle. You can’t give players mindless, repetitious combat and then interrupt it with a puzzle. Without fail, I simply look on the Internet how to do these puzzles, because I can’t be bothered to even try to figure them out–although, as a member of MENSA, it’s pretty definitive that I could if I wanted to. The Wind Waker is the first Zelda game since A Link to the Past that had puzzles that weren’t overkill, in my opinion. Twilight Princess also had absolutely ridiculous ice block sliding puzzles that were atrociously tedious.

Besides, would a Zelda game that features a challenging puzzle in every single room of every dungeon really qualify as anything more than a Puzzle Game that forced players to move a Link-shaped cursor from one puzzle room to the next? Would such a game really be any different from hacking Link into Blek? Not by my estimation. But, to be fair, by my estimation Final Fantasy XIII was nothing more than an overly elaborate DVD menu that, instead of having people press up and enter on a remote to trigger the next scene, required people to hold up for x seconds and then press A y times before the next scene triggered.

In fact, one of the best role-playing games that I can think of is none other than Stardew Valley.

“Role Playing Game? Aria, you lunatic. That’s a Harvest Moon clone, not an RPG.”

But think about it. One of the biggest things we would need to add to our new RPG in order to even allow players to actually craft and play a role, are lots of complex NPCs with whom the player can form relationships. The interplay of the player and NPCs in Stardew Valley is no different at all from the interplay of the player and PCs in Dragon Age 2. The mechanics are simply different, Dragon Age 2 features voice acting, and Dragon Age 2, being a AAA title, rightly includes more robust dialogue trees and interaction options.

We’re wanting to let the player play the role of a character in some video game world that we’re creating. The exact mechanics of interacting with the world aren’t terribly important, but it is critical that we provide the player with the tools to craft their character to their liking. This is far more than just cosmetic options, and this is the point that Dragon Age 2 nails with its dialogue trees and Stardew Valley nails with its robust cast of characters: choice. In fact, because of the wider plethora of options available, I would hazard the statement that Stardew Valley actually beats out Dragon Age 2 in this category.

In Dragon Age 2, if you want to be a gay male, then Anders is your only option. If you want to be a lesbian, then the sexy but slutty Isabella is the only option. Possibly Merril, honestly. I don’t remember; it’s been years since I played, and Isabella is so hot that she’s irresistible as a love interest. However, once the player has made their choice, interacting with that other character is where Dragon Age 2 tops out Stardew Valley. While Stardew Valley contains a known ten male love interests and ten female love interests, the selection in Dragon Age 2… is extremely limited compared to this indie game made by one dude. Moreover, every NPC in the game can be romanced by any gender of character, which brings me to a side issue I want to discuss.

Not Everyone is Bi

In order to avoid dealing with controversy from the inordinately powerful LGBTQ group in the United States, most developers choose instead to simply have every romance option be bisexual. This is not only unrealistic, as a transsexual lesbian I argue that this is offensive and exclusive of straight people. There have been countless females I’ve been interested in, just through the last year, with whom I could not pursue a relationship because they weren’t interested in another woman or a transsexual woman. It sucks, but it’s the real world.

People would make the argument, “But what does it matter? If a player is playing their game and wants to romance a character of the same sex, it doesn’t affect anyone but that player. It’s messed up to deny a player an option that they’d like simply because some people are straight.”

And that’s true to an extent, but a very narrow way of viewing the world in others. In fact, the converse is easily just as true: “But what does it matter? If a player is playing their game and wants to romance a straight character, it doesn’t affect anyone but that player. It’s messed up to deny a player an option that they’d like simply because some people are bisexual.”

*sigh*

*sigh*

It seems to come as a surprise to SJWs and the LGBTQ community, but straight people exist, and if a person is bisexual then they aren’t straight. There are lots of men who wouldn’t want to have a relationship with a woman they knew had enjoyed same sex relationships in the past. Such a woman is, by any definitiion, not straight. Bisexual is not some middleground to make straight and gay people happy; it’s a distinct sexual leaning in its own right. If a person is gay, then they aren’t bisexual and they aren’t straight. If a person is a lesbian, then they aren’t bisexual and they aren’t straight. If a person is bisexual, then they aren’t straight and they aren’t homosexual; they’re bisexual. Having zero heterosexual characters in a video game is exclusive to straight people. Every character being bisexual is not some happy middleground to please both straight and gay people. How can my female Dragonborn sleep next to her “straight” husband knowing that her “straight” husband is actually bisexual and has possibly been fucked more times than she has? It’s an absurd question, yes, but it underscores the point: bisexual isn’t straight.

Back to RPGs

Dragon Age 2 was panned by a lot of people as being a Dating Simulator, and I suppose that’s a fair criticism, but what else could any true role-playing game do in order to allow a player to actually roleplay? Again, as I pointed out in the Cubed3 article, we’ve forgotten what the “RP” in “RPG” stands for. It quite obviously stands for “role-playing.” Instead, we think an RPG is a video game where the player avatar has a character level and a bunch of other numbers attached to him/her that go into complex damage algorithms a la buying and selling in Drug Wars or Wall Street Kid.

That RPGs are so naked was revealed to me by the Paper Mario series, where that is literally what players do, though the actions are accompanied by flashy animations. Players expend one SP to do one damage to the enemy and gain one coin and one EXP point. Players take one damage from the enemy and from their pool of 10 HP, meaning they can be hit ten times before dying. Since each enemy dies in one hit, this means that they can kill 19 enemies before having to use a healing item that restores 10 HP and costs 10 coins. Voila! The smart and skilled player makes a net gain of 9 coins and 19 Experience, which accumulate and increase the player’s pool of HP to 15, thereby allowing them to take more hits before having to use a healing item and making an even greater profit while swapping numbers in one column for columns in another.

It’s exactly like Wall Street Kid. The only difference is that there are more resource types, the Buying/Selling mechanics are a bit more convoluted and masked as Attacking/Defending, but it’s otherwise exactly the same. In fact, our little complex relationship system is the only thing truly unique to RPGs, and thus the only things that can qualify a game as an RPG.

I actually have to end this here to do something else. I didn’t even get to the main point, which is that RPGs need a severe overhaul, and need to stop wasting players’ time for the purpose of padding out gameplay. Yes, there can be action elements in an RPG that take the form of battles. Yes, there can be abilities, spells, strength stats, and hit points. But the “brunt of the gameplay” shouldn’t consist of that.

How To Fix Civilization 6

civilization_vi_cover_artI’m absolutely shocked by the extremely positive reception that Civilization VI is receiving. Those familiar with me know that I have a long history with the series, and have been playing since Civ III–apparently, whenever you attempt to criticize one of the games, you must point out how long you’ve been playing the series, and if you can’t at least claim to have started with 3 then your opinion becomes invalid. This is rather like how people can’t criticize Final Fantasy X unless they started with Final Fantasy VII or earlier–on that note, I started with Final Fantasy. No number. Beat that.

I am doing a full review of the game for Cubed3, and I’m going to post what I have so far here, but I’m going to be a bit more honest afterward. Anyway, here’s the yet-to-be-finished review. Please ignore the BBCode:

[i]Civilization VI[/i] is a game where players attempt to build cities while a psychotic AI declares war on the player, marches its troops up to the city centers, and then politely stands there while its army is bombarded to death. Much has been said about the awful AI, but given that diplomacy is such a critical part of the game, it’s nothing short of disgraceful that the AI-controlled players seem to have no idea how to play the game.

 

It’s not uncommon to hear complaints that, before the one hundredth turn, every single civilization on the player’s starting continent had declared war on the player. In a few games, enemy civilizations were [i]introduced[/i] to me—they hadn’t yet been discovered—by declaring war on me. “Oh, hello there, Brazil. It is a pleasure to meet—[i]we have had enough of your insolence![/i]” None of the games in the series have had intelligence that could remotely qualify as “intelligence” by even the most under-achieving programmer’s standards, but this reaches absolutely remarkable levels of [url=http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ArtificialStupidity]Artificial Stupidity[/url].

 

Diplomacy as a gameplay mechanic is such a cool concept, but it continues to elude Firaxis on how to implement it. Not only is the AI horrendously stupid, but the only options presented in diplomacy are trade deals and war declarations. This is such an enormous step backward from the ability to tell rival civilizations not to build so closely, not to send their missionaries, and things of that nature. Again, the Community Patch Project rightly expanded the options of the predecessor, such that they were as extensive as those found in Civ IV, but [i]Civilization VI[/i] represents a gigantic step backward from even vanilla CiV.

 

It’s difficult to convey, but in one game I built a second city to claim a natural wonder I’d found. The very next turn, England contacted me to request that I not build cities that close to them. That was no problem, as I generally expand empires circularly, as opposed to growing in one direction. Everything seemed fine—diplomatic crisis averted—until the next turn, when Victoria declared war on me, saying that she could not tolerate my behavior any longer, and sent almost one whole warrior to conquer my capital. She proceeded to send an entire warrior to punish me for several turns, at which point I grew tired of her nonsense, surrounded London with archers, and eliminated her from the game. As my archers rained doom upon her city, she contacted me just about every other turn offering me a peace deal, and there was still no button to say, “You brought this upon yourself. Now die with dignity; I’ll not receive your diplomats again.”

 

AI lunacy knows no bounds this time around, and that’s not getting into the glitches, bugs, and other oddities that gamers have now come to expect from new, expensive video games. Perhaps the most interesting of these is when Gandhi is contacted by Gandhi to declare that Gandhi will no longer put up with Gandhi’s aggressive behavior, and that Gandhi thereby declares war on himself. For bonus points, this can happen with any civilization, and to the player, though there appears to be no in-game effect. Aside from that, it’s not uncommon to end a war and immediately be contacted by the loser stating that they’ve noticed the army on their borders, and they’d like to know if this means war. The best cases are when a nation on the other side of the world declares war on the player, and then offers a peace deal a dozen turns later offering up a bunch of gold. It’s bad in ways bizarre and embarrassing.

 

The focus is said to be on the multiplayer experience, but it was notoriously prone to desyncs and crashes upon launch, and the game, for this reviewer, has always been best single-player. Maybe the AI doesn’t always offer the best challenge, but there are few things more rewarding than starting a new Civilization game on a lower difficulty—to get accustomed to the new systems—and gradually work back up to King or Emperor. For years, I was stuck at Lord difficulty in [i]Civilization V[/i], and then I made the breakthrough of managing my city specialists; the next thing I knew, I was up to Emperor.

 

1UPT (One Unit Per Tile) worked very well in this game’s predecessor, although there were some flaws that had to be ironed out. It was up to the Community Patch Project to fix the civilian traffic jams that irritated everyone, but this time around the civilization traffic jams appear to be there by design, not by accident. Missionaries and apostles are the worst offenders, though there were many occasions throughout the reign of CiV that it was necessary to declare war on someone because their missionaries stood blithely in the way. Given the religious fervor on display by nearly all the world leaders, it’s sure to be a problem through every playthrough.

About to get my head kicked in on CiV.

About to get my head kicked in on CiV.

 

One advantage the predecessor had with 1UPT was that movement costs were clear and easily understood. Planning an attack against a city surrounded by jungle on one side and mountains on the other took tactical work, and it was fun for that reason; it was a genuine and fairly real-to-life representation of why the United States didn’t stand a chance in Vietnam. Building roads across the empire didn’t just connect cities; it was crucial to allow armies to get where they needed to be in a reasonable time frame. Much has been written about the changing of Workers into Builders, how roads are constructed by Caravans, and other gameplay changes, but there were always going to be such changes to the formula; it happens every game. Remember when each city was a mess of roads because every tile had to be connected to the city for its resources to be used? Change is fine. The real problem here is that it’s almost guesswork, moving armies across the world and over various terrains, and the caravan-constructed road appears to have no effect on movement cost.

 

It was once feared that culture and policies were doomed to become an alternative technology tree and that, based on the trends of [i]Civilization V[/i], everything was ultimately going to “become a technology tree.” Civics policies certainly did so, and each civic gives the player a few civic policy cards that can be activated. Government types have returned, too, and different government types, in addition to providing their own bonuses, allow for different combinations of cards to be used. For example, the Classical Republic government allows for two Economic Policy cards, but no Military Policy cards. It’s a neat, modular system that provides lots of ways to ensure that the government is maximized for the land and people.

 

Cities no longer occupy a single tile, and this is certainly a change for the better. It’s “the” feature of [i]Civilization VI[/i], just as 1UPT was “the” feature of CiV. Rather than simply building a Barracks, one must select a tile within the city’s borders and build an Encampment upon it, after which a Barracks can be built in the Encampment. As a nice touch, units then constructed by the city then appear on the tile that contains the Encampment, rather than the City Center, which makes tile selection all the more important.

Graphics have changed from the realistic style of V to a cartoonish style heavily reminiscent of [i]Civilization IV[/i], largely regarded as the apex of the series. The UI is the best yet for a Civilization game, though information can be a bit hard to find. Whether one likes or dislikes the style will be a matter of preference, but the Fog of War is absolutely terrible. Rather than lowering the brightness on tiles not currently within view of a unit, here they are colored brown and bereft of distinguishing details, a look that is drawn from medieval maps. It looks absolutely [i]terrible[/i] to have a sea of brown wash over the land like it’s [i]Dragon Age: Origins[/i].

mess

 

The terrain is more important than ever. It became extremely important with the advent of 1UPT, but now it’s of critical significance—[i]the[/i] deciding factor in the game. Placing districts upon a tile obviously means that tile cannot have a refinement constructed by a builder, and there are interesting ways that the districts and improvements work off each other. A bit of logic is all that’s really needed to take advantage of this, though. Don’t throw an Encampment right in the middle of a bunch of Farms, for example. Rivers, it has been noted, are important once again, instead of simply being the early game movement hindrance they were in the last entry; in Civ IV, of course, rivers were vital for forming free trade routes between cities. In CiV, they were an irritant that slowed movement through the early game and then dictated whether the city could build a Water Mill. That’s basically what they do here, except it’s more complex than the Boolean question of whether the city center is on a river.

 

The district concept doesn’t change the gameplay nearly as much as 1UPT did, and the result is that this feels like the sort of addition that would come via an expansion. Whether the player builds a Barracks or designates a tile to be the military district and [i]then[/i] builds a Barracks isn’t very different from simply building the Barracks. It’s a cool idea, and the synergies between the terrain, districts, and improvements offer plenty of possibilities for maximizing productivity, but it doesn’t actually represent a fundamental departure from how cities are constructed.

In fact, the whole District thing is pretty much the meat & potatoes of the game. Beyond that, it’s just Civilization V with worsened AI and changes to city-states and religion. Well, I say “changes” to religion, but it wasn’t really changed; the only difference is that you can now only construct religious units like missionaries in a city where you’ve made a religious district and plopped a temple or something there.

It was when I was building my third Commerce District that I realized what was going on. This isn’t anything even remotely new; it’s just a slightly different way of doing it. See, in ages past, it was always best for the player to have a few specialized cities: one that focused on culture buildings, one that focused on economic buildings, one that focused on military units, and, most importantly, one that focused on production. There’s an obvious flaw in the system here, isn’t there? That’s right, because Production is a generic resource that is used to build economic buildings, military units, culture buildings, and pretty much everything else except missionaries. And that is where Civilization 6 screws up.

The only way they could have made this District system truly shine is if they added a few new currencies to the game. Why not? There are already several: Science, Production, Food, Culture, Gold, Faith, Great Person Points, and probably some others I am not thinking of at the moment. The obvious flaw in this problem is that an industrial city–that is, a city that focuses heavily on production, subsumes all the others. Production is king, because production is literally used to build all the other things. What good will it do the player to have a bustling Cultural District if it takes 57 turns to build the next cultural building because the city’s a cultural powerhouse, not a production powerhouse?

A city that focused on culture, for example, will have a bunch of culture buildings that it has built over the last 60~ turns to produce 31 culture per turn. That’s a bit high, but whatever. It’s not important. If that city comes under attack because some long-standing ally like Genghis Khan decided to straight-up betray you–as he tends to do–and your army is going to take 5 or more turns to get there, then that city is gone. All of that culture will do nothing to cut down on the 24 turns it takes to build one freaking Crossbowman. If, however, it was  Production City, then it would be able to produce those 7 culture buildings in 35-40 turns and would be able to produce the crossbowman in 3 or 4 turns. It’s the core of how the game is designed: Production is King, because Production is literally what allows the player to increase everything else. Production is at the heart of it.

Need to build a Market to increase Gold? Then you need Production to build it. Need to build an Amphitheater to increase Culture? Then you need Production to build it. Need to build a University to increase Science? Then you need Production to build it. Need to build a Crossbowman to pick of Gayghis Khan’s army? Then you need Production to build it. This is the nature of the game, and, as I said, I’ve been playing Civilization since my senior year of high school. Before that I was busy playing in a rock band and dating the hottest girl at the school, so you’ll excuse me for not nerding it out with Civ 1 and 2.

With each new release, I begin at the lower difficulty settings to familiarize myself with the new mechanics, and I work my way back up to Emperor or Deity–whatever the hardest difficulty is named. I’ve got a video somewhere of me easily claiming a Domination Victory on Emperor in Civilization V, and that’s no small feat, considering the entire Happiness system of V is meant to discourage Domination Victories. Of the victory possibilities, Diplomacy is the easiest by a huge margin; without even trying, it’s easy to become Allies with most of the city-states in the game by the time the United Nations is formed, and every time the vote occurs the two civilizations who ranked highest receive 2 additional delegates; it becomes a matter of three or four more sessions, at the most, before the Diplomacy Victory is won. Cultural Victory is probably the hardest to pull off, but primarily because it’s so freaking boring and tedious.

The point is: I know how to play Civilization games, and I’m damned good at them. I love Civilization V the most because it finally added a tactical layer to the game, making it much more in-line with chess in being a combination of strategy and tactics, and yes–I’m even including Civilization IV: BTS in that estimation. I think a lot of people who say that Civ IV is the best would be very surprised if they went back to it and tried to give it another go. It’s terrible compared to V. Don’t get me wrong. BTS was perfection itself when it was in its prime, but we are a long way from that. The ridiculously overpowered religion dictating all diplomatic efforts was a particular problem, never mind the Stacks of Doom.

Civilization VI aims to prevent this problem of Production being King… by forcing players to specialize cities whether they like it or not. I still ended up with an Industrial District in every city, because otherwise build times were absolutely ridiculous. It comes back to that point above: What is the reason for having a Cultural City if it takes 25 turns to build the next Culture building, if I can specialize it in Production and take 17 turns to pump out all the cultural buildings?

There isn’t one. It’s just a broken gimmick and a half-baked idea.

The only way it could have worked is if:

  1. The new currency Conscription was added to the game. This is basically Production,but it can only be used to build military units and military buildings, in the same way that religious units can only be purchased with Faith. Valor, Bravery, Conscription–whatever Firaxis wanted to call it. This way, there’s actually a point in specializing a military city. It would produce more Valor, and since Valor is used to build military units and military buildings, it doesn’t hurt the city to specialize in it instead of Production.
    1. As an addition to this, obviously, military units could still be constructed with raw production. The Encampment District would specifically allow x per turn Valor to be generated, and additional construction of buildings could be done with either Valor or Production. Districts, of course, are built only with Production. Each Armory increases the Valor yield of the city by +2, each Barracks by +1, and so on. A Swordsman can be built with 180 Production–or however the hell much it costs–or with 5 Valor Points. The same rule would still apply that only one unit can be constructed at a time–the city couldn’t build a Swordsman with its Valor while building a Commerce District with its Production.
      1. Or why couldn’t it? Isn’t that the point of building the Districts, after all? This would actually be a fantastic way of handling it, and giving the Districts actual utility versus being boolean triggers that allow the production of specialized buildings as they are now. Why can’t I use the new Valor resource to build my Musketman while the City Center uses its Production to build a Commerce District on the other side of town? However, Production could not be split: one could not use 30% of the Production to build the Swordsman and 70% to build the Commerce District; each currency can only be used for one thing at a time. This makes the Districts far more valuable, as not only would it be faster to build a Swordsman with Valor, but using Valor to build the Swordsman also frees up the City Center to use its Production to build something. Come on, Firaxis, how did you guys not come up with this?
  2. The new currency Artistry was added to the game. This is basically Production, but it can only be used to build cultural buildings and cultural units. The game is not comprised only of Great Generals, and neither is Planet Earth. There should probably be normal Artist, Musician, and Writer units that can be used in much the same way as Missionaries, except that they generate one-time cultural bonuses or one-time tourism bonuses. Obviously, all of these units would be stackable with each other, but not with themselves. We don’t want to increase the roadblocks, traffic jams, and choke points. An Artist can occupy the same tile as an Archer and a Missionary.
    1. Similar to the above, the Artistry being produced in the city’s Cultural District could be used to build a Musician or a Concert Hall while the Valor in the city’s Military District could be used to build a Swordsman or an Armory and while the City Center could be using its Production to construct a new Holy District.

The Culture Tech Tree needs to be completely reworked so that it’s… not a tech tree. C’mon, Firaxis. This was the concern we expressed when we saw the Civic Policies of Civilization V! This is precisely what we said: “It’s cool, but we’re worried that culture is going to become just another tech tree.” And voila–the next game releases, and culture is just another tech tree, and tied strangely to government systems and civic policies. I realize that the connection between government systems, civic policies, and culture has been in place for a very long time, but it’s time to separate the things, especially now that Culture Victory is a serious thing. There is no logical relationship between a people’s culture and their governmental systems or their civic possibilities. I realize that you need a gameplay currency that allows for the progressive unlocking of governmental systems, and that it didn’t go over so well when they were tied to technology as they were in the past, but that should tell you that you’re barking up the wrong trees.

As an anarchist, I would actually argue that you’re looking at it backward, as governmental systems are the primary stifling force against cultural growth, but that’s another matter.

I don’t have an alternative system for the Civic system here in VI, but please get rid of the tech tree that it has become. That was exactly what we were worried would happen after Civilization V. I’m sure you can still find posts about it in the CivFanatics forum.

Map clutter has to go, too. Holy crap, why is the map so freaking cluttered? It is borderline impossible to tell what anything is, and I had resources sitting on my map for hundreds of years going unused because:

  1. I’m honestly not sure whether there’s even a benefit to grabbing yet another resource of tea or cows. In previous games, this information was presented clearly and unambiguously. “Build a pasture = +1 Production.” It’s a no-brainer, even if I had a billion cows already. And even though I never build mounted units, except the occasional Knight, I have dozens upon dozens of horses.
  2. The map makes it terribly unclear whether the resource has been improved or not.
  3. And never freaking mind searching the map for non-descript icons washed in the hideous brown of the Fog of War to see if there is some coal or oil I could grab. Who on the development team came up with that? “Hey, let’s wash the entire Fog of War in shit.” “What do you mean?” “I mean let’s take all the color and replace it with the color of shit.” “Wow! You deserve a promotion!”

Civilization V was a bloody mess at launch, too. It was, in fact, the last game that I bought on launch day, until Dragon Age: Inquisition came along and reminded me keenly why I stopped buying games until they’d been patched a few times. After lots of patches and a few expansions, Civilization V proved to be an excellent game–my favorite in the series, though I think I have fonder memories of IV. If you take my advice and add some new currencies to actually give value to these districts besides making them pointless gateways to other buildings, then I think Civilization 6 could go on to rival Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword. And fix the Fog of War. It’s ridiculous.

But that’s all the Districts are now: gateways that determine what type of buildings can and can’t be built in a city. They’re methods of forcing specialized cities onto the player, even though nothing was done to curve the awesome power of Production–and thus every city gets an Industrial district and becomes specialized not in Culture but Industry & Culture, not in Military but Industry & Military, and not in commerce but Industry & Commerce. It’s a gimmick that limits what the player can do, rather than giving the player new ways to improve.

And that is the very definition of “bad game design.”

 

 

Why Can’t Games Work?

I hate Apple products. I hate everything about Apple. But I’ve gotten a new appreciation for their old tagline of “It just works,” because… PC games don’t. It’s gotten to the point where I prefer reviewing Indie and low budget games for Cubed3, because they are so much more likely to work correctly than AAA games. It’s completely unacceptable. I’ve been saying for years that console gaming is fucking retarded because they’re nothing more than gimped, uncustomizable, unupgradeable PCs, but developers’ total inability to release working games on PC is really making me do a double-take at console gaming. Their games can be pretty fucked up, too, but it seems like PC has a higher “this game doesn’t work” rate.

I’m currently reviewing Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition for Cubed3, and I’ve gotten about 2 hours into the game. This isn’t the first time I’ve played Darksiders 2, but it is the first time I had to play it, to review it, and I’m not particularly excited about that because the non-definitive, and therefore inferior version that was sold for years, bored the fucking hell out of me. I never even got past the first world.

Detour: Definitive and Complete Editions

I recently purchased Mortal Kombat: Komplete Edition on Steam for like $5. By all rights, this game shouldn’t exist. I remember when DLC was first discussed by PC gamers a decade ago, and we expressed the worry that they would release games as incomplete, and would then sell us DLC that completed them. Now they’re doing exactly that, and they’re not even trying to hide it. Mortal Kombat: Komplete Edition means literally that everyone who purchased the game had to buy all the DLC to have a complete experience, and that’s not okay. DLC should complement the experience, not complete it.

We’re not arguing semantics here, because look at Batman: Arkham City and how the Catwoman sections were treated. Parts of the main story, critical to completion of the main story, were sectioned off and sold to players. We’ll come back to this topic one day, about why in the world developers think they’re entitled to be paid twice for one copy of a product, but for now let’s just bask in the glory that is the fact that we were sold an incomplete game for full price, and then had to buy shit on top of that if we wanted to complete it.

Complete Editions are tacit admissions that we’re getting fucked over, robbed, and cheated by games that are being sold to us incomplete. Definitive Editions are bald-faced admissions that we were, until this version, being sold an inferior product. None of this is okay. I don’t care how developers and publishers–and confused gamers who don’t understand whose side they’re on–think that this is okay. It’s not. Back to the main point.

Ah, That New Game Smell

A few weeks ago, I was looking into starting my YouTube channel for DiMezzo Gaming–and I’m still going to do that, but it’s going to be a little while. I don’t want to launch too many things at once. The first video will be me standing there. Something shorts out off-camera, electricity buzzes are heard, and then grey-black smoke wafts upward. I wave the smoke into my face with a gesture, close my eyes, and euphorically say, “Ah… That new game smell…” I’m still going to make this video, but it’s going to be a few weeks. Between house shopping, car shopping, reviewing for Cubed3, talking with literary agents, launching this site, and running my I.T. firm, I’m a tad busy right now and can’t devote the time to YouTube that would be warranted by opening a channel.

It was Tomb Raider that spurred this idea, though I don’t recall now what issues I was having with it. Oh, yeah, I do. It wouldn’t run for more than ten minutes. The framerate steadily dropped until it was running at 10 frames per second. Despite my joking about framerate, I actually do care a bit about it. But it’s consistency that I care about, and it doesn’t really matter to me if a game runs at 30 or 60 frames per second–as long as it is stable at that rate. Tomb Raider (I’ll update this post when my Cubed3 review is posted; it’s with the editors right now, and they’ve got quite a backlog of reviews from me) is not stable.

Mega Man Legacy Collection was completely unplayable, showing me only a black screen and what might have been a Wingdings font in white. Research indicated that installing a particular Windows 7 update would resolve the problem–and it did, but it should never have been necessary. I intentionally refrain from updating my Operating System; I own a tech firm, after all, and no one has seen more damage caused by Windows updates than I. Even with this update, it still crashes a lot.

Then there are games like They Bleed Pixels, which work flawlessly. And who could forget the legendarily awesome Super Meat Boy, which also works flawlessly? Even this stupid piece of shit works. There is also the glorious Orcs Must Die! 2, so incredible that it has spurred me to take part in my first-ever preview series. All of these games work.

Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition doesn’t, and it doesn’t seem that I’m the only person with this problem. I have no idea what’s causing it; it did work just fine. But now it doesn’t. So you can imagine what kind of review the game is going to get. I show no mercy to games that don’t work, and Darksiders 2 was never particularly good in the first place. I held nothing back on SDK Paint, and I’ll hold nothing back on Darksiders II. Because the asinine argument about hardware and software types making compatibility a problem is not valid and has not been valid since 1999.

We have two types of CPU, two types of graphics card, 3 types of RAM (that matter: ddr2, ddr3, and ddr5), and one type of sound device. Everyone is sporting AMD/AMD or Intel/Nvidia. I’m in the former group; I love me some AMD. But hardware is no longer an issue, and it hasn’t been in a very long time.

Fuck Off, Square-Enix

On November 22, I purchased Tomb Raider from Steam for $19.99. On November 25, Square-Enix released a bundle on Steam, and the bundle contained every single Tomb Raider PC game and all the DLC available for the price of $19.99. The version of Tomb Raider that I bought, of course, contained no DLC. If there were pre-sale announcements, I might have known that the game I was about to buy would shortly be sold with ten other full games and all DLC for the same price, but no such thing exists regarding Steam.

After researching the issue about, three things struck me as obvious. First, this would not have happened if there was a pre-sale catalog that allows players to peruse upcoming sales and, perhaps, wait to purchase a game if it’s going to be available cheaper. I understand why publishers wouldn’t want to do this–why tell players that they’re about to knock 75% off a game, when they can sell it today for full price and you’re generally left with no recourse? But this is incredibly anti-consumer, and that isn’t a mentality we should allow developers and publishers to put into action.

Secondly, there should already be an official system in place for dealing with this, because this is not the first time this has happened to me. When I bought the Legendary Edition of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, it went on sale less than two weeks later for 75% off–a difference of $30. I was not anxious to replay Skyrim, and I certainly would have waited. When I bought the Game of the Year version of Batman: Arkham City, it went on sale that very weekend for $5, causing me to lose out on $15 because I didn’t know. I bought Portal for $2.99 and Portal 2 for $4.99, and days later they were bundled together for $2.99. In the short span of about two months, I could have saved between 50% and 75% and still had the same gaming library I have today–with a bank account some $120-150 heavier. When you’re purchasing your own games to review because you refuse to take part in the behind-the-scenes back-scratching, these numbers matter.

The long-term effects of this behavior have been obvious: users across Reddit report that they won’t even purchase a game on Steam unless it’s 50% off or more, because the odds that it is about to go on sale are extremely high. Players are left guessing entirely in order to prevent paying double what they have to in order to get the game, and they solve this problem by refusing to ever pay full price; they’ve been burned too many times and have burned away too much money because sales are not announced priorily. If, on the other hand, players knew, beyond any doubt, that Fallout 3 is not going to drop 50% in the next two weeks, they will be more likely to go ahead and buy it, because 2+ weeks starts getting into the timeframes where many players would rather go ahead and enjoy the game now and pay a bit more. But buying a game on Steam at full price has become a gamble, because consumers have no assurance that it won’t go on sale the moment after they click “buy.”

Thirdly, this is not actually the responsibility of the distributor to handle, because this is not retail. If this was the world of retail and Wal-Mart was putting games on sale in order to get rid of some of its stock, I would fully agree that any issue with price drops and bundles needs to be taken to Wal-Mart. That is not, however, the way Steam works; Valve doesn’t have a stock of game keys, and they don’t arbitrarily decide to lower the price of games. In fact, Valve has no control over what bundles and prices are listed on the Steam Store. Steam is merely the distribution channel. Publishers are the ones who create the bundles, who set the MSRPs, and who initiate the sales.

When this happened, I did research into the matter, and the general consensus appeared to be that most people “knew of” someone experiencing this, contacting Valve, and having the issue handled satisfactorily, but there were not very many forthcoming firsthand accounts of this happening. Seeing as I thought the matter through and realized that the interaction took place almost entirely between myself and Square-Enix and that Valve/Steam was simply the vehicle through which that interaction occurred, I opted to contact Square-Enix and Valve, but I admit I only contacted Valve because the Reddit users suggested it had been successful.

Within 48 hours, Valve responded to my support request by issuing a refund on Tomb Raider. Because the sale was Limited Time Only, Valve bypassed the otherwise-mandatory 4-7 day waiting period to receive funds acquired through refund, and I was immediately able to turn around and purchase the Tomb Raider bundle. So basically, they “took back” the initial purchase, gave me back my money, and sold me the bundle. Except… they didn’t really, did they? No, they just cleaned up Square-Enix’s mess. And kudos to Valve for that–I have a great deal of respect and love for Valve overall. I greatly appreciate their willingness to fix something that was, by all rights, Square-Enix’s responsibility, and Valve earned +1 Respect that day.

Yesterday, December 2 (the day after the bundle sale ended, it’s worth mentioning), Square-Enix replied to my support request, saying:

We apologize for the trouble. We would like to clarify that unfortunately we cannot offer you a refund for this game under any circumstances. We do recommend approaching the place of purchase for a refund. We understand that you are not happy with the Steam’s lack of notice of pre-sale advertising and this feedback will be forwarded to my superiors.

This is in flagrant disregard of the fact that I told them I did not want a refund, and that what I wanted was for them to address the issue by giving me keys for the other items included in the bundle–which they most certainly could do. They’re the fucking publishers, mate. They’re the ones with the product keys. They’re the ones who own the right to distribute the product. That’s what a publisher is. And let’s be absolutely clear here: they received the money for the purchase. There might be some sort of delay between when Valve takes my money and when it gets to the publisher, but make absolutely no mistake: this is not retail. Steam is not being reimbursed for copies of the game they purchased from Square-Enix, as would be the case, usually, in the retail world. Steam is merely acting as the agent through which Square-Enix sells its games almost directly to consumers.

Seeing as Valve and their excellent customer service and general customer-oriented mindset had already satisfactorily handled the issue, I replied back to Square-Enix:

I see. Well, that’s okay. I mean, I’m working on the review of Final Fantasy V on PC for a gaming site aggregated by OpenCritic, MetaCritic, and Gamefaqs, so I’ll just “let slip” of your anti-consumer practices during the review. Have a good day.

And while that’s certainly a bluff on my end, it serves a few purposes. First, I want to see how it affects Square-Enix’s treatment of me. I have routinely see developers and publishers change their attitudes fast when they learn that I’m actually a reviewer for an actually aggregated gaming site, that they’re not just fucking over “any old customer” but one with a voice that actually gets heard by lots and lots of people. You have my word that I have NEVER allowed a publisher or developer to actually give me special treatment for this; when they have attempted to, I have spit in their face for being the wretched pigs they are.

For example, Nintendo and I had an issue over a piece of shit shovelware “game” called SDK Paint on the Nintendo Pee-U. I contacted them as a concerned consumer, suggesting that they pull the title from the eShop because it didn’t fucking work. Like it literally didn’t fucking work, and I was the only reviewer to catch that because I was the only reviewer who covered it with the fucking integrity to do more than pop it open for thirty seconds, verify that it functioned, and bang out a quickie. Instead, I actually spent nine hours with that abomination, and it honestly crashed like clockwork every ten minutes. This means (because the issue is a known bug, and it was then ubiquitous) that none of the other 3 “professional” reviewers even spent ten continuous minutes with this software they scored as average.

Nintendo replied with a lot of bullshit, suggesting that I power down and reboot the Pee-U, and unplug it for 30 seconds, trying a different user profile, and all of that asinine stuff that I don’t have to try because I own an I.T. consultant firm and I’ve got a pretty good handle on this whole “technology thing.” And, as I told them in the initial message, I had already tried the standard troubleshooting steps; it was a software issue. I can identify a software issue a mile off; anyone who has been in the field for seven years can. Around the time I replied “Nevermind,” I’d updated my email signature to include a reference to the review site, and the tonal shift in Nintendo’s message was immediate. While their first message had taken more than a day to arrive, every message they sent after that came within minutes, and they were far more cordial, up to and including offering for me to ship my Pee-U to them at their expense so that they could verify there was nothing wrong with my console. They jumped through a lot of hoops to keep me from writing a review that said “Nintendo allowed this non-working shit software to be sold in their eShop.”

But that’s exactly what I wrote, because that’s exactly what they did, and the average consumer who bought SDK Paint wouldn’t have gotten the offer from Nintendo to diagnose their console at no cost; the average consumer would have been told to ship it in and pay a $75 diagnostic fee, and then it wouldn’t have done any good because the simple fact was that SDK Paint didn’t work.

Endemic to the Industry

I mentioned earlier that I have a habit of rejecting review codes when they are available. This is particularly true with free-to-play games. I admit that I don’t always reject review codes; it really depends on the status of DiMezzo Gaming’s finances, to be honest, how expensive the game is, and what the review code entails. I don’t like reviewing Free to Play games, because they present a bit of a problem for anyone with integrity.

When I reviewed Magicka: Wizard Wars with two other reviewers, we used review codes that gave us something called “Press Kit”. After getting into the game, it almost immediately became obvious that this Press Kit gave us a shitload of overpowered weapons, armor, and enough gold to buy literally everything in the store. After a bit of arithmetic, I learned that the review codes we were given equated to about $120 of free shit per player. That meant that we weren’t getting the experience someone playing it for free would get; someone could only get an experience on par with ours if they were willing to shell out enough money to otherwise purchase two full-release console games. I was appalled.

So I created a new account, a free account, and poured no money into the game. The findings were staggering. While my Press character routinely racked up 20+ kills with less than 5 deaths per match, my free character was almost exactly the opposite, averaging 6 kills per match and 17 deaths per match. The difference was overwhelming. I was no longer steamrolling people and earning more points than the rest of my team combined. I was still leading my teams, but the margins were extremely narrow, and it was nowhere near as enjoyable.

For all intents and purposes, we had been bribed.

I am going to be brutally honest in every direction; it’s kinda my thing. So when a developer goes for broke by giving the press a special package of candy valued at more than $100 that drastically alters the gameplay experience, I am going to take that bitter taste left in my mouth from the candy and remove it by forcing myself to get rid of all of it, and to instead play the game as the average player would. And when idiotic consumers pre-ordered Arkham Knight and a Season Pass despite knowing damned well how WB handled Arkham Origins, I’m not going to feel any pity or sympathy for them, and I’m going to say that consumer responsibility must enter into the equation at some point. I am on consumers’ sides, because I am a consumer, but I will gladly choose honesty over loyalty–because sometimes, in order to be truly loyal to people, you have to tell them what they don’t want to hear: what they need to hear. Yes, if you got burned on Arkham Knight and its Season Pass and you had experience with the PC version of Arkham Origins, it is your own fault.

Back to Square-Enix

While I won’t actually mention the anti-consumer shifting of responsibility that Square-Enix has displayed over the Tomb Raider matter in my review of the PC version of Final Fantasy V, that’s partially because it isn’t necessary. Final Fantasy V shows Square-Enix’s disdain for consumers directly; I don’t need to go into long diatribes about Steam and consumer rights. The PC port of Final Fantasy V is INFERIOR to the mobile version. That tells you everything you need to know. Don’t give it a free pass to be a shitty port because “hur hur hur its final fantasy v tho so u cant give it a 3.”

Bullshit. I just gave it a 3. Because the PC port has no reason to exist. And if it absolutely must exist, then gamers deserve more effort than that. So look out, Square-Enix. You have riled Aria DiMezzo, and she’s going to systematically take you to task for it. You better mind your Ps and Qs, because I’m looking for you to fuck up. I won’t fabricate shit, obviously, but I will use every single one of your mistakes against you. I will highlight every mistake, every failing, every screw-up, and I will broadcast them to anyone who will listen. When you slip and fall, I will be there–laughing and pointing. Every time you do something stupid, every time you show your outright contempt for gamers, every time you spit in our faces, I will be there, keeping notes, because you may be a AAA publisher right now, Square-Enix, but things change. Look at Atari. Look at John Romero. Look at Nintendo. Look at Microsoft. You, EA, Ubisoft, and WB are on borrowed time, and the rise of the indie scene is going to overthrow you. Watch your back, Square-Enix, because consumers won’t blind themselves to your behavior forever.