Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

If you have been reading me for any length of time, you know I am one of those die-hard Sega Dreamcast hipsters. I was “there man” on day 1 to pick up my pre-ordered DC and experience the online console gaming revolution from the beginning. Every year, on 9/9, I celebrate the Dreamcast’s birthday by busting mine out and playing whatever new homebrew software or unreleased game has popped up in the past year.

This year was kind of a disappointment, not gonna lie. Don’t get me wrong, there was an unreleased, almost complete DC game dug up this past year. Millennium Racer is in fact a real game that never came out. It’s also pretty not-fun to play. I remember seeing this game in E3 videos when the DC was new and really not caring. The devs may have just decided not to release this fully playable game out of apathy.

So after giving it a solid 45 tedious minutes a few months ago, I considered and rejected the idea of putting a video up playing it. I nobody likes lame birthday parties. The Dreamcast turned 18 this year and is now an adult, so here is your list of fancy grown-up things you can do with it. I’m totally not talking about watching porn online, don’t be gross.

 

New and Improved Version!

Several games have had more optimized, user modified backups created in the past few years. If you are not aware, almost all Dreamcast systems can play games off self-booting CDs. So if you have a DC, you too can burn and play these games. If you have the original version (or honestly, even if you don’t), Sega is not likely to come after you for playing modified DC rips that allow you to go online again or speed up loading times. Search for all of these on theisozone.com

Resident Evil: Code Veronica Complete (adds the bonus features only seen on PS2 and newer versions in the U.S.)

Phantasy Star Online ver2 Enhanced etc. etc. new update (fixes a bunch of bugs that have existed for years, finally almost perfect version if you want to play on DC vs. Windows for some reason, connects to private servers automatically)

Frame Gride in English (similar to Armored Core, same devs, more swords)

Dead or Alive 2 Ultimate updated (I can’t even stand the annoying voices long enough to be creeped out by the boobs, but apparently they fixed more stuff)

 

Modified DC Bios and Consoles

I’m not going to summarize modifying your DC bios here, because I don’t want non-experts going out and wrecking their precious Dreamcasts. I’m pretty hardware savvy and I’m not doing this to my DC. I’m going to do what I recommend you to do (unless you are one of few, you know who you are) and buy a finished one on eBay. Systems with a modified bios can do simple things like play foreign games without a boot disc, or amazing things like support physical mods like an add-in hard drive or SD card slot. Depending on how many of these physical mods you want it to come with, modified DCs are going for about $100-200 right now. A fully loaded one will have built in VGA out, 3.5mm headphone jack, HDD or SD slot, a custom loader and switches on the back to go between VGA/AV and another for bios setting.

As a method of enjoying your DC games without wearing out your original hardware, these modified systems are pretty primo. The ability to load games from a hard drive completely eliminates drive wear and the risk of scratching disks. If you do have some rare game that is not backed up online, you can always play it, regardless of region. This frees you from going the other (previously most authentic) way of buying a drive capable of ripping and burning DC games and just playing full backups of your own games on very expensive gigabyte discs. Since CD backups available to most of us are often incapable of holding full-quality rips, this is now a better and cheaper route to playing your DC games authentically without wearing them out.

 

Best time ever for a Mouse and Keyboard

Since dial-up internet is mostly dead and the DC broadband adapter is nearly unobtainable, the Dreamcast mouse and keyboard peripherals are near rock-bottom value. They are nice to have as a collector, but more importantly, you can actually play many of the FPS games like Outtrigger and Quake 3 with them. I picked up a sealed DC mouse for $10 in a local shop that is normally overpriced vs. eBay or Amazon. It was the first sealed DC peripheral I have opened since a VMU about 5 years ago. Very satisfying and I now have the set to have a few nostalgic bot matches.

 

That’s really all I can think of at the moment for DC developments this year. The Dreamcast is still far from dead, with new homebrew software still being developed and unreleased games still popping up from time to time. Hopefully next year we’ll see something a little more exciting than a game that is to F-Zero like Dante’s Inferno is to God of War.

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Final Fantasy XV: The game that keeps on giving.

Posted: August 22, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features, Off-topic

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When I originally completed FFXV, my feelings were that I was amazed it turned out so well. With the almost 10 years of horror stories coming out of the game’s development, I expected a complete trainwreck. What I got was a very decent FF game with a few blemishes, that were completely drowned out by a great cast and a killer ending. Fast forward to almost a year later and Final Fantasy XV is on its way to becoming one of my very favorite FF games. No, it’s not nostalgia growing on me at an accelerated rate; it’s actually the fact that Square-Enix has improved and expanded the game so much, that it’s twice the game it launched as.

In the past 10 months, FFXV has received countless patches that improve gameplay, 2 side story DLCs (with one more coming late this year), a bi-annual carnival event, a multiplayer beta and the ability to turn your car into a f*cking monster truck of all things. Most of these are things that I do not even expect or ask for from a single-player JRPG. When I spent $25 on the season pass, I expected 3 short story DLCs and maybe some free weapons. I did not expect the developers to create a multiplayer mode and a VR fishing simulator out of nowhere and give them to me for that same cost. Beyond that, the game has probably received 7 or 8 patches already, that were specifically aimed at fixing any and every complaint against the game. Everything from additional dialogue and gameplay, to additional graphics settings has been added through free patches. Compared to games like Mass Effect or Fallout, this is an unheard of level of free stuff.

To explain this odd corporate behavior, let’s rewind to before the game came out. Reports have surfaced that Square-Enix was more than a little worried about how FFXV would fare out in the wild. To say the game had a long and troubled development is an almost comedic understatement. After at least two changes of the game engine and at least one near total re-write of the story (under 2 directors)6, it’s a wonder this game was good. So being no strangers to the game business, they were preparing themselves for backlash if the game didn’t meet the sky-high expectations. It’s hard to estimate the development cost of FFXV, but if you add estimates for marketing and the cost of developing those 2 game engines, it’s likely FFXV had to sell 2-3 million copies just to break even. That would make it on of the middle performing FF games, but a better seller than any JRPG recently. So Square-Enix were wise to fear that a game with an imperfect reputation might struggle in a tough market.

Surprising a lot of people, Final Fantasy XV launched to good reviews and seems to have sold almost 5 million copies by the end of last year, making it immediately profitable for Square-Enix. Apparently they were really, really thankful for this. Early in 2017, Hajime Tabata (the game’s final director) announced that players would be getting a year+ of FFXV updates and that development of the game would continue above and beyond planned content. At the time people were kind of like “huh?” This is pretty unheard of for a single player RPG of any kind. We’re used to 2-3 planned DLCs and maybe a bug fix or two, but this sounded like something different. Months later, after playing all the stuff above, I can tell you this is definitely something different.

For those of you who haven’t been convinced to play the game yet, or those waiting for the finally announced PC version, here’s what’s been (or will be) added to FFXV:

 

“Bro Episodes”

A lot of people were disappointed initially when Episode Gladiolus released, because we expected the story DLCs to carry over data to and from the main game. The Bro Eps are more like side games, with their own gameplay style and no saved data carried over. Rather than being like most DLC expansions, that let you increase your power beyond the previous max, these are intended more as a look at the supporting characters. They are pretty short, so if we weren’t getting all the other content, it would be a ripoff for the cost of the season pass. For plot though, they have been excellent. The side stories have featured more screen time for fan favorite characters like Cor and Aranea, as well as the beloved villain Ardyn. Beyond that they feature some very fun gameplay gimmicks that are a neat break from the main game.

 

The Choco-Mog Carnival

So when you were playing the single player RPGs of the past 10 years, did you always wish that there was an in-game event like FF7’s Gold Saucer that was timed like WoW’s Darkmoon Faire? Yeah, me neither, but apparently Hajime Tabata did. That’s basically what the Choco-Mog Carnival is. Twice a year (so far), the city of Altissia hosts a carnival event that allows you to play minigames and win unique prizes. A timed event like this would feel right at home in an MMO, but is downright bizarre in a single player JRPG. This whole idea that we would be rewarded to keep playing the game is a novel concept to JRPG fans. The Carnival is actually a blast. It features activities based on the best parts of the game and while the prizes are not for the most part essential, they are often fun.

 

Comrades Multiplayer

In yet another completely unexpected announcement, Square-Enix decided that FFXV should have multiplayer too. Because why not? Pretty much everyone scratched their heads as to what kind of game this could even be. We should have guessed from the constant nods to Monster Hunter throughout FFXV. Comrades is pretty much a Monster Hunter isnpired mini-game that up to four players can participate in. Like in that series, you meet up in camp, then go on an instanced mission to accomplish a set goal. Players can create their own avatar and gain experience and items separate from the main game. So far we’ve only seen the beta, but chances are the final version won’t be too different. While the beta had some hiccups and the game is pretty basic, it’s a completely unexpected multiplayer component that is actually pretty fun.

 

And here are a few even more unexpected upcoming releases:

 

Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV

When Square-Enix announced that FFXV would have a VR spinoff, I think we were all a bit puzzled. What would it be like? Would it be a crappy promotional “experience”? Some of us held out hope that it would be a deep and satisfying fishing simulator and… WTF? Really!? It is in fact a deep and fully developed VR fishing simulator. According to the people who have played it, it’s actually awesome and could easily stand alone as one of the best PSVR games. Once again… bravo FFXV, bravo. Word is that this will ALSO be free for owners of the season pass of the main game.

 

Final Fantasy XV: Windows Edition

I shouldn’t really say this is unexpected in itself. PC ports of Square-Enix games (of varying quality) are inevitable at some point. A supposedly solid port, developed by the original team, a little over a year after release on consoles, is amazing. Once again FFXV is proving to be the model that future JRPGs should follow. Tabata immediately stated after launch that a PC port was a priority, but they wouldn’t half-ass it. It appears they are going to deliver, because reports say the game is already running smoothly at 4k resolution, with all the graphics settings PC users expect.

 

Final Fantasy XV Pocket Edition

In today’s edition of “what will they do with FFXV next?”, Square-Enix has decided to remake FFXV with a cute appearance for mobile. Apparently deciding that they don’t need Telltale to do it for them, they have made their own cute-ified version of their world that strongly resembles the mobile Kingdom Hearts game in art style. Little is known about this game (it was just announced today), but if it is even as good as the worst of their other mobile games, it should be a hit.

 

And finally, a huge blemish on the otherwise excellent FFXV series:

Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire

This mobile game showed up with little press earlier this summer. It is exactly what it looks like: a clone of Clash of Clans, just like the Star Wars, Marvel and every other licensed versions you see all over the mobile stores. This game appears to have been completely outsourced by Square-Enix and you have to wonder if they even know what is being done with their license. You see, FFXV: ANE has the distinction of being probably the most heavy-handed and transparent as a cash-grab, even among those infamous peers. The monetization of FFXV’s mobile strategy game was so absurd, it drew a flood of bad press immediately on release. Here’s hoping this one just goes away.

 

Who knows what else will come out of this game before they move on to FFXVI…

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A lot of people who are WoW curmudgeons will tell you the older version the better. Their reasoning pretty much boils down to the fact that WoW has gotten progressively easier and they feel that unskilled players have ruined the game. While I can definitely understand that point of view, my reasons for missing the original World of Warcraft are a little more nuanced than that.

My wife and I are avid players of whatever 1.12.1 private server we can find that is stable and remains in operation. Gaming media seems to think for some reason that Nostalrius was one of very few Vanilla WoW servers, but there are actually hundreds. Most of them are just run on someone’s home server and barely meet the definition of playable. As someone who started playing right before TBC was released, I remember how the game played and want something at least close to that experience. Fortunately there are always at least a few 1.12.1 servers in operation that meet my standards.

If you consider private servers piracy, I can live with that. If Blizzard would make this content available in any way, I would gladly pay for it. You see, when Cataclysm was released in 2010, the entire original map was remade. Besides a few time-travel instances, there is no way to access any of this content anymore. So it isn’t just a few old players wanting to go back to older versions of spells and talents, we actually can’t even play the quests anymore that we fondly remember. So that is why I have been begging Blizzard to re-release this content (preferably for a one time charge, with no monthly fee) on any platform. This article is about some of the reasons that even people new to it would love a chance to play Vanilla WoW.

 

Story and Lore, front and center.

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If you have only been playing WoW in recent years, it may be hard to believe that there was a time when it had really interesting original lore. Recent versions have pretty much filled every quest and dialogue with pop culture references and clear nods to movies and television. While there is still definitely a central plot, it doesn’t really concern itself with adhering to any central lore. The WoW universe has become like the Marvel and DC universes, where killing characters and bringing them back to life can be done for convenience.

The Warcraft universe has always taken some inspiration from other series, most notably Warhammer and Lord of the Rings. At its core though, it has always had an original universe filled with different history and factions. It used to be important to know who these people were and what they were doing. If you were a dwarf, the feud with the Dark Iron dwarves was part of your history. Players would recognize factions like the Argent Dawn and the Steamwheedle Cartel that were featured in the plot of previous Warcraft games. You could even decide for yourself how to interact with neutral factions. If you decided that you hated pirates, you could go into your character panel and mark all neutral pirate factions as hostile, so your character would attack them on sight. In modern WoW all of this has become completely irrelevant.

The thing I really miss about Vanilla WoW, was how each race and quest had a plotline that really made you feel that role. Your starting areas would establish your culture, often creating traits that permanently molded your character and how you play them. As you progressed from 1-60, your class quests were also much more intense and personal. While the class quests of today are basically glorified tutorials for the new abilities you get, old class quests really tested your dedication to your role. You were expected to do things like infiltrate higher level areas, using your class skills to avoid certain death. The rewards were actually relevant too, because dungeons were much harder to farm for better loot.

Even some of the things people complained the most about, like globe-trotting quests and quests that required huge spending of gold, often fit in with the plot and made sense. As a servant of your chosen order, it makes sense that your boss would send you with an important message to Theramore, even though you are questing in Stranglethorn Vale. It also helped you discover flight paths and other dungeons, since you were not automatically given the former and there was no Dungeon Finder. Besides word of mouth, these random annoying quests were often the way you discovered new parts of the game.

Overall it just felt more like a real, living world. The reason it was so easy for so many of us to get lost in the World of Warcraft, was because it was such a compelling and deep universe to immerse in. The farmers and their never-ending need for bear asses were still annoying, but the game did a better job of making them seem like people who mattered. I remember fondly the first time I completed the level 12 paladin quest line. One of the steps required you to give a bunch of cloth to the guy walking around begging for cloth for the orphans. He tells you this should be enough to last them all year, but since the game had no instancing then, he goes right back to begging for cloth right after. So we decided he was a scammer and spent the next 10 minutes following him around Ironforge and warning people not to get scammed. It was pure RP gold.

 

Classes felt unique.

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World of Warcraft has really become a disgustingly simple game at the basic level. I’m not mocking the skill of high ranking players, the toughest content is still a challenge. But in the most basic sense, WoW classes have been reduced to different flavors of the roles Healer, Damage and Tank. While other MMORPGs like Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV have fully developed support and crowd-control classes, in WoW these are just secondary functions that most classes can choose to help with. It doesn’t really matter that much if you are a Druid tank or a Warrior tank, as long as you can hold enough threat.

It used to be very, very different. It’s not even just combat balancing either. Classes used to be balanced across the entire game, but not in each aspect. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in some ways and that’s why it isn’t like that anymore. Basically, it’s easiest to explain like this: A mage was undeniably better in PvP than a Warlock, but a Warlock got a free mount at level 40. Since mounts cost 80g, which was almost inconceivable back then, this was an enormous bonus. So yes, the Mage could annihilate the Warlock in a duel, but the Warlock was already galloping from dungeon to dungeon, while the Mage was grinding gold to purchase a mount. It was the same with Warriors vs. Paladins. Other classes were balanced in ways like Priests were by far the best healers, but Paladins and Druids could also tank if needed.

There’s also something to be said for the fact that being able to create a portal was once a skill that would make you rich. Before flying mounts, long range travel was a humongous pain in the ass. I could go on and on. There was just this strange sort of balance across all parts of the game, that really required you to get to know a competent player of each class.

 

Crafting and Professions were actually fun.

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These days it’s difficult to understand why crafting even exists in WoW, besides achievements. It has become little more than a boring chore to attend to between expansions, when you have absolutely nothing better to do. Blizzard has even so much as admitted this with recent expansions, by allowing you to craft plot-based weapons that are totally separate from and superior to traditional crafted gear. This all started when level progression got faster and faster. Crafting has been streamlined somewhat to keep up, but it’s like a turtle and hare race. You will blast up to whatever the current level cap is long before you can craft anything useful, then spend hours in low-level zones catching up your crafting to eventually make things that are moderately useful in endgame content (mostly consumables).

Would you believe me if I told you there was a time when even fishing was fun? There are a lot of changes in gameplay that have slowly made professions the awful tedium they are today. The faster progression is the biggest, but not the only one. There is also the fact that before Dungeon Finder, everyone wasn’t farming every instance for the very best gear. These days every single level 40 player is walking around with the best complete set for their class. In the old days, those random green items you would get from your professions would actually be useful. Not only that, the stuff you were crafting was actually useful, because your gear wasn’t already OP. The party leatherworker unlocking the next level of armor kit could literally be the difference that allowed you to complete a dungeon.

It’s really hard to even explain all the ways that WoW has gotten easier and made professions obsolete. Getting adequate bag space used to cost a fortune, so knowing a tailor was almost necessary. Basic potions were essential, even at low levels. There were also far fewer consumables in the game, so things like bandages and the many gimmicks made by engineers, were really useful items to have. This is another area where I could just go on and on. There are so many items and practices that are just made completely pointless in modern WoW and many of them relate to crafting.

 

Now I want to touch on a few things that are both good and bad. Most of these are things we remember fondly, but have been changed for obvious reasons as games have evolved. There are some things that people just plain will not tolerate, because standards have changed.

 

World PvP

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In Vanilla WoW, there were only what are known today as PvP servers. While in modern WoW, this mostly marks a server where players are focused on competition, it also means that players of opposite factions can fight in contested areas. In Vanilla WoW, this was the only way to play and there were a lot more contested areas. Basically anywhere outside of your starting area, it was open season for the Alliance and Horde to go at it. This was parodied famously in the South Park episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft”. That episode may not make a lot of sense to people anymore, as nobody has participated in much world PvP in years. It’s honestly just more fun to do it in many battlegrounds WoW has made available, with their various level ranges. Just the effort to get enough people in one (non-instanced) place to have any lengthy combat is almost prohibitive today.

There are a lot of good reasons for this. While it’s fun to remember those massive battles we had in The Barrens and the Hillsbrad Foothills, that was like 2% of the time. What constant PvP mostly involved, was higher level players of the enemy faction camping in questing zones and griefing people for hours on end. It was super annoying and caused many a keyboard to be broken and account to be cancelled. So these days, anyone who wants to enjoy the quests and content should just go to a PvE or RP server and avoid this entirely.

In order to bring old players back and introduce new ones, something would have to be done about this. I think it’s essential to bring that conflict back for a successful Vanilla revival, but it would have to eliminate the griefing issue. The best methods I can think of is by making battles timed events, like Battlegrounds, to draw players in to compete at certain times. The other would be to just make certain zones contested only at certain times. Say for example you could have contested zones become PvP during peak hours on a server. So if you are questing in one of these zones and it hits about 7-10pm local time, you know it’s time to evacuate if you don’t want to fight.

 

Some Classes Sucked

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What I said up above about class skills balancing out combat effectiveness is true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s also the part where you go into a dungeon and all of that is useless. If you are playing a Warlock or a Paladin, it’s easy to look around at the other classes and their abilities and just think “F**k, why do I even exist?”. That was just the reality back then. For Warlocks especially, you were pretty much the black sheep of the whole community. Nobody wanted you in a party if one of the many other classes who could do everything better than you were around. Sure, they would take you if there wasn’t already a rogue and a mage, but you would never be selected over another class unless you were an absolutely godlike player.

Now that is a really sh*tty feeling.

I think for the most part, the class balance by patch 1.12 was decent, but there are a few changes that really should be made. Warlocks should be slightly better in general and Paladins should be able to excel in a role as long as they specialize. There is a reason that Paladins are now focused by moving the best bonuses way down each talent tree. The first solution Blizzard tried during WotLK was to just make them better, which lead to broken tanks that could also cast Lay on Hands every 20 seconds. It was really great after sucking for so long, but I admit it was a terrible solution. You could just have a party of 3 Paladins, that could steamroll anything intended for a party of 5. For Warlocks though, it worked very well, because they just got screwed on everything besides the mount.

 

The Graphics need the “Rose Tinted Shades” effect.

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There is a practice in re-releases and remakes that I like to call the “Rose Tinted Shades” effect, after the similar term in psychology. Basically this means you shine up the graphics enough to not be an eyesore, while still preserving the look of the original. Nintendo did probably the best example of this with Wind Waker HD. The game looks exactly the way you remember it, without the crappy tube tv effects it actually had back then.

It would be pretty easy to put in things like better looking water and shadows, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. Really all Vanilla WoW needs to be functional on modern hardware is an HD facelift. To my mind that would mostly have to do with draw distances and textures. On modern higher resolution monitors, it’s easier to make out just how awful the terrain in the distance looks. It’s also quite noticeable when NPCs pop into view. Just a few little tweaks (much like what can be achieved with console commands already) could make it very playable, even by modern standards. Similarly it would be very easy to upscale the menus and UI a bit.

 

Make Meeting Stones Matter

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You may have noticed those funny looking obelisks with Hearthstone emblems on them near Dungeons. Those actually used to do something. You see, before Dungeon Finder, someone would trek out to the Dungeon (often in hostile territory) and put out the call for their friends to join them. It was a pretty crude system, but it lead to many fun and frustrating moments. Obviously there were too many of the latter and that’s why we don’t use them anymore. I’m not saying I have the solution, but something would need to be tweaked.

I would be strongly against just adding Dungeon Finder. I think that was probably the biggest thing that changed how it feels to play WoW. There must be baby steps we could take in between though. Like maybe making it possible to create portals to meeting stones with a consumable item or something like that. If players didn’t have to spend up to an hour and risk death to get a party together, it would make the experience much more approachable. Not saying I don’t miss some of those random conflicts around Deadmines and Wailing Caverns, but it was definitely something best left in the past.

 

I just want to wrap up me love letter to classic WoW by saying it is just plain stupid not to make money on this content. Almost every other game Blizzard has made is available for sale in some shape or form, yet there is no way to play a version of WoW that is only 13 years old (well besides private servers of course). Sure, I can see that you would not want to cannibalize sales of modern WoW, but that’s not very realistic. Nobody is going to only play the tiny bit of content in Vanilla vs. the giant buffet that is modern WoW. Realistically it should have no monthly cost or be included with a retail WoW subscription. I would totally see it as an experience like Diablo being patched to run on modern systems. You may crack out on it for a while, but you aren’t going to stop playing newer games.

Realistically, Vanilla Wow could run on mobile platforms, but it would still require a keyboard. Most tablets can be equipped with one though, so I don’t really see this as a significant barrier. In an ideal world, it would work similar to Gameloft’s very WoW-like Order and Chaos, where you can play it on both PC and mobile, preferably on the same servers.

I’m not really expecting Blizzard to read these posts, but if you read them and also want to play Vanilla WoW again, spread the idea!

VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD FOR PREY, BIOSHOCK SERIES AND SYSTEM SHOCK SERIES.

It’s hard sometimes to go back and remember what it felt like when you were first playing a game you loved. The memories tend to grow on us and also subsequent playthroughs and press coverage change the way we view the game later. I can however, remember almost exactly what it felt like to experience the major plot twist in each Shock game. Whether it was revelations about Shodan in the original series, or the secret of “would you kindly?” in the Bioshock series inspired by System Shock, they always leave an impression.

So anyone going into the very Shock-like Prey would expect a major twister in there somewhere. The game does not disappoint, well actually it does. Prey completely drops the ball on timing, if not content of the major plot twist. I’ll get back to this later, but first I want to explain how important the timing has been for each past game. If you think back to the final act of each Shock game, then remove the story parts, you will probably realize something: on the surface they’re kind of weak. It’s really hard to come up with good challenges for the player once they have all the best upgrades. So the final acts of these games often just involve throwing lots of the toughest enemies at you, in difficult situations. Since you are just trying to chase the plot at this point, it totally works. Then at just about the point where you would get sick of it, some amazing revelation happens, followed by some mind-blowing cutscenes.

This is pretty much the final act of every game ever ending with Shock, as well as the similar Deus Ex series. We expect it at this point. I guess Prey does not end with Shock or Ex, so maybe it’s just me that feels it carries this heritage. Regardless, Prey totally botches its late-game reveals. The plot twists taking place at the end are really predictable and accompanied by some awful room-clearing segments that feel straight out of Aliens: Colonial Marines (no, that is not too harsh). The boring, kill waves of enemies gameplay is actually not that different from the end of the previously mentioned games. It’s just that what is happening to drive you forward is nowhere near as interesting.

And then, after you have spent 10 minutes watching the credits and debating with yourself if you just wasted your time, the post-credits scene has a totally awesome plot twist. Like, after many people probably pulled the disc out and returned it to the store. As cool as it was when it finally happened, that is almost tragically bad placement. Making me play through a nearly worthless 2 hours at the end that almost made me hate a game I was loving, then finally, if I watch the credits, blowing my mind. Makes no sense at all to me.

I often wonder what games looked like in the minds of their creators, at various stages of development. I wonder how many huge cuts and changes completely altered the final experience. Prey made me wonder this intensely. In the end, the alarming and exciting twist came too late to save my experience of the game. I would have almost preferred to have a shorter game that didn’t include the extra tedium.

Regardless of how it happened, the timing of the major plot twist made all the difference in my gaming experience. It took Prey from what I would have called the next Shock game, to something I will probably move on from quickly.

Hellpoint: there is life after Dark Souls

Posted: April 25, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features

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For many of us, the conclusion of the Dark Souls series left us, for lack of a less punny term, feeling a bit hollow.  Personally I would search constantly for new games that would scratch that itch for a complex, difficult, dark and cryptic game.  Every time I would end up disappointed, finding nothing but games that took all the most basic aspects of From’s seminal series, but none of the genius.

Then, last Sunday afternoon, I discovered the answer to my muttered prayers to dark deities: Hellpoint.

The thing that sets Hellpoint apart from the many pretenders to the abandoned throne, is its dark and mysterious tone and lore.  I don’t want to imply it’s just a ripoff of the approach taken by From either.  CradleGames had developed their own dark mythology, with complementary gameplay systems to match.  Hellpoint has a new and unique approach to spooky NPCs, creepy locations and obscure lore.  What’s more, it doesn’t steal Dark Souls’ gimmicks, just its basic gameplay style.  The Quantic System used to determine timed game events and enemy behavior is similar to, but completely more interesting than Demon’s Souls’ soul attribute system.  It has the potential to suddenly unbalance gameplay, but not in a poorly designed way like Breath of the Wild’s blood moons that broke the game at launch.

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The most important thing that Hellpoint nails absolutely perfectly, is the give and take of Souls combat.  I think most of us can agree that other Souls pretenders, like Lords of the Fallen, fail at that absolutely essential thing.  Hellpoint pulls it off effortlessly, even in the current pre-alpha state.  Combat has that same frenzied, give and take feel that is not unlike real fencing.  Although the gameplay is not an exact copy (and features a dedicated jump button!), I felt immediately at home.

While the currently available demo is in a very early state, I honestly had more fun playing it than all of the From Software betas I have participated in.  One of the biggest reasons for that, I saved for halfway through the article to share.  This game has drop in couch co-op.  Yes, that thing that only Salt and Sanctuary has managed to bring to hungry fans.  You may have to steel yourself for the horrors of the singularity, but you don’t have to do it alone.  CradleGames even has all sorts of mischief in mind for PvE and PvP features that are inspired by, yet unique from what we are used to from Souls games.

The final main thing that Hellpoint does that others don’t, is creep you out with quality dark art design.  Everything in the game looks like something that crawled out of a Clive Barker movie or the equally evil black hole in Event Horizon.  It’s definitely reminiscent of what a mix between Dark Souls and Dead Space would look like, but still with a horror all its own.

Hellpoint is currently a little over halfway through their Kickstarter and a little more than halfway funded.  They already have a demo up, that has swallowed almost 20 hours of my life.  If you have a giant, black, Dark Souls sized hole in your heart, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Hellpoint Kickstarter:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hellpoint/hellpoint-a-dark-sci-fi-rpg/description

Hellpoint Steam Page:

http://store.steampowered.com/app/628670/

True Guru Tips for Buying Computers and Parts

Posted: January 31, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features, Off-topic, Technology

There are many articles that discuss commonly held wisdom about buying and selling electronics.  I have written several myself.  This is going beyond that to the realm of instinct and “kicking the tires” so to speak.  If you’ve read all the basic stuff about “do not buy below (A) graphics card for gaming at (X) resolution” and all that, this is the guide for you.

 

Read, read and re-read the full listing before buying.

I know this doesn’t seem like an advanced tip at all, but I want you to really let it sink in.  Even I have allowed myself to be duped by an incorrect listing and then been tempted to be that asshole complaining about it in the reviews.  Trust your common sense madam or sir, you know there is no such thing as a GTX 960 with 2048 shader cores.  Do not let your greed to find some impossible deal trick you.  Because you will have just fooled yourself.  You have done the basic research, you knew better, you just hoped against hope you could game the system.

Now this totally goes both ways.  There are totally such things as “unicorn parts” and if you think you have found one, try to verify by part number or reviews and BUY IMMEDIATELY.  Allow me to give a couple of examples I have bought.

The first was a Geforce GTX 460 that was some sort of odd developer edition.  It was overspecced over OEM in every way (more cores, faster speeds etc) and yet it had only one 6-pin PCIe requirement.  If you are familiar with the Fermi series cards you know this is effing nonsense.  Yet it was, and the results are still on some forum somewhere as the internet went from suspicion to awe as I was like “wtf is this thing!?”  It completely outperformed everything in range at significantly lower wattage.  No idea where it came from, but so glad that some e-recycler got ahold of it somehow and put it on eBay.

The second was a completely unlocked Haswell revision b CPU for testing.  It said right on the die cap that this was absolutely not to ever leave the Intel factory.  Some enterprising gentleperson in China went through some epic adventure to get it out, as evidenced by the battle damage on the cap.  It still booted just fine though and I gave them terrific feedback.  This is one of the chips they use to test what the released ones will be set at.  Every single setting of the CPU is unlocked, because the techs at Intel need to be able to toggle every switch for testing.  With the right custom bios, you can turn on and off some very interesting features on these.  You can also overclock the hell out of it on good cooling, which is all I cared about.  I guess I shouldn’t recommend that you try to get one of these, because Intel would probably have me killed if I still had it in my possession writing this.  But if you, wink wink, nudge nudge happened to find one, it was like eating gelato in a computer part.

 

Sometimes refurbished is good!

I frequently say the biggest problem with computers now is they aren’t made with love, by human hands.  That sounds corny, but it’s as simple as the guy in the factory pulls a big level that dunks the heatsink in thermal paste and slams it on a laptop logic board.  That is no way to apply paste, plain and simple.  Many of the problems that cause all of those angry reviews come from the simple byproducts of automation.  It makes total sense, they can sell it much cheaper and when you return it, they just have a tech open it up and fix a simple problem and it never happens again.  They can just re-sell it for a little less as refurbished and it’s usually only a small percentage that actually have issues.

Let’s rewind a couple sentences: “…and it never happens again.”  This is the part that’s important.  When you buy a device that has been properly refurbished, you are getting a device that has been opened up by a person more qualified than anyone involved in manufacturing it.  They have actually touched it with their gloved hands and even the laziest tech will usually blow out plastic shavings and do other basic fixes, without even mentioning it.  This means that you have a device that is actually less likely to ever fail again than the other units that didn’t fail.  The other units could still have a wire that is too close to something, it just didn’t fail within warranty.

This goes very counter to common thought, that if there are a lot of refurbished models available, it must be garbage.  That really isn’t true anymore.  Most problems with electronic devices these days are caused by minor things that can be easily fixed.  Oftentimes manufacturers will even go to the effort of refurbishing (though not actually having to fix anything) units that have been returned for any reason.  It’s pretty rational really, you say you just returned it because you didn’t like it, but maybe you just cleaned up the cat vomit really, really well.  Might as well have a tech open it up just to be safe, don’t want to be that really, really horrifying Amazon review.  This goes like any of these, just do your research and read as many reviews of the refurbisher as possible.

 

Never trust reviews by people who sound like jerks.

Unreasonable people generally behave unreasonably.  That’s not some deep wisdom, it’s just the obvious.  The people who have emotional outbursts about a Chromebook not having a DVD drive, are usually the kind of people that put diesel in their gas car and blame the gas station.  You have nothing useful to learn from these people in this situation.  Focus on the reviews that calmly and rationally cover the pros and cons of the device at hand.  They are unfortunately few and far between sometimes, but keep looking and you should find a few.

On the flipside of this, if you are reviewing something, try to be rational.  Your personal emotions about the situation are irrelevant to anyone but you.  What matters is how long you used the thing and how it functioned during that time.  The purpose of reviews is to inform other potential buyers, not vent at the manufacturer.  At best the only company employee who will read it is an intern and you may get a canned response.

Also nobody cares how you feel about the brand in general.  This device was probably made in a different factory than the last device you bought by that manufacturer and the company has probably changed hands five times.  Brand loyalty or hate is the most irrelevant, stupid thing you could waste your time on when we are talking about the product itself.  I want to just hammer that home with the example of my wife’s 2014 Macbook Pro 15.  It’s the fully loaded one with all the bells and whistles.  Now you may have your gripes about Apple in general, but I’ve taken apart a lot of their devices and they are usually pretty good about engineering.  The late 14 MBP15 has the huge design flaw, in that it is incapable of using its own dedicated GPU by the laws of thermodynamics.  I kid you not, we’ve replaced the logic board twice, it’s just that simple.  You start using a 3D application, it overheats.  Every. Single. Time.  That is the sort of thing you should be specific about in a review.  It’s only the model with dGPU and it’s not nearly as common on other years.  People need to know that someone at Apple messed up on that model and that they should buy a different one.  Not that all Apple computers are bad, because the 2011 iMac 27″ is still trucking fantastically right next to it.  I’ve experienced the same with Asus, HP and Dell, brands I generally really approve of.  Every brand makes a few lemons, but there’s a reason that those companies are the big names; they generally make products people really like.

 

Be aware of what sacrifices are necessary.

Owning technology has laws, much like gravity and magnetism.  These laws are things like your technology will only be as good as you put time or money into it.  This is an absolute, unbreakable relationship that can only be cheated in one way, which I will mention later.  You either have to put time into researching and maintaining everything yourself, or you have to throw money at it.  You either have to know exactly what you can get away with cutting corners on, or you have to just buy the most expensive one and trust the warranty.  You cannot expect to just spend ten minutes browsing Amazon, order the first thing that looks too-good-to-be-true and hope it turns out well.  You will probably end up with a laptop with a keyboard in a language nobody speaks.

If you are an average consumer, your only hope to get a really good deal on current technology is to really read up on it and catch a good sale.  If something looks too cheap, it probably has some major flaw.  If something is much cheaper than others of the same thing, it is probably damaged in some way or being sold for parts.  It is possible to save money over just buying the first thing recommended to you, but it will take time and effort.  I know how it feels to get something super cheap on Amazon or eBay, but I also know how it feels to find out it’s the wrong thing and I only have myself to blame.  The important thing to keep in mind is that unless you are a master scammer, you are probably not going to game the system all that much without someone realizing it.  Don’t be too quick to think you’ve outsmarted people who have been separating people from money for a long time.

Finally, if you are not the average consumer, you may qualify for that method of cheating the system I mentioned above.  Guess what?  It also takes work.  If you become a top-tier tech, you will have the ability to make machines do things that the average user could only dream of.  As a general rule, any system I build beats official benchmarks of the same parts by 15% or more.  It’s not magic, I just do 100 things or more to optimize performance that take years of experience to learn.  So you are avoiding the work each time you buy something, by investing it up front with knowledge.  There is no easy path to this.  If you just try to copy what an expert does, you will have catastrophic failure like Mickey in Fantasia.  There is no way around learning the hard way when it comes to technology, but I highly recommend it.  If you are passionate about your technology, you truly cannot buy the peace of mind that comes from building and caring for your own devices.  You can also get a $500 computer to out-bench a $1000 computer if you know what you’re doing.

 

Never, ever feel rushed.  There is always another deal.

It’s easy to get caught up in sales and rebates on sites like Newegg and Amazon.  That’s the whole point.  They are trying to convince you that today’s deal is something special, when a simple graph of their prices would show that everything goes up and down constantly.  The other thing to be aware of is that new parts are releasing constantly.  This not only gives you more options, but also causes the previous parts to drop in value.  The older parts are still just as useful as they were before the new thing arrived, so it often saves you a lot to go with the previous model.

There is a flip side to this as well.  If you keep hesitating, waiting for the next deal or new product, you don’t have a system the entire time you wait.  People have a hard time understanding this, but the most cost-effective way to PC game is to build a new mid-range system every 6 months to a year.  If you build it yourself, it will be worth at least what it cost you 6 months later.  You just need to build it barely powerful enough to run current games well, knowing that you won’t have it in a year.  So the cycle pays for itself and you spend absolutely nothing but time and the effort of building a couple of PCs a year, which I find relaxing.

 

 

I think that about wraps up this edition in this long-running series.  I may think of a few tips to add later.

 

 

 

 

Final Fantasy XV First Impressions

Posted: December 1, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features, Reviews

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I don’t think I’ll do a full review, as I wasn’t able to get the game early.  I’m just going to try to hit the important points all in one place.

I won’t make you wait to find out if I like it or not.  I love this game so far.  I would say it lives up to my personal expectations and is more fun to play than any RPG since Xenoblade Chronicles.  The key points of a good FF game are all there, from fun battle system to stellar graphics and music.  I really like the more understated plot, but there’s a major issue with it I’ll go into a bit later.  I’m about 16 hours in and in Altissia, so I’m a good chunk in, but not nearly far enough to give any final impression.

 

Some Experience Required

This is the first Final Fantasy game where the additional media products are required, rather than not really necessary and enjoyable.  By comparison, several other FF games  (especially VII) have had movies or animated shorts associated with them.  These were sometimes decent, but in no way were required to enjoy the game.  If you do not watch Kingsglaive and Brotherhood, the first hours of FFXV will be marred by a feeling of confusion.  Most fans will have already watched Brotherhood online and forked out the extra cash for Kingsglaive either with a bundle or separately, but any “first timers” may find themselves a little in the dark.

It’s really debatable how much of a strategy vs blunder this is, as it may be the perfect level of story for mainstream gamers that just don’t care.  Many people may find that the unobtrusiveness of the plot was perfect.  For me personally, I found that by watching both before playing, I had a pretty good idea of who everyone was and what was happening.  So kind of a YMMV thing, but if you want to know some of the most important plot details, you are required to seek out additional products.

 

Pro in Perspective

Now that I finally have a game developed to take advantage of this new PS4 Pro, I can finally explore its benefits.  Final Fantasy XV has pretty good PS4 Pro support, though at the moment it’s marred by frame pacing issues on the high setting.  There are two modes, high and low.  The low appears to be the way the game runs on the regular PS4, while the high is rendered at 1800p with higher effects and up or downsampled to your monitor resolution.

I didn’t have an original PS4 on hand anymore to compare to or a means of benchmarking my consoles, but the low mode appears to run between 40-60 frames per second.  The high setting, regardless of your screen resolution, seems to sit at about 30 with really annoying stuttering.  It looks absolutely fantastic on high, with better lighting, textures and anti-aliasing, but the ugly stuttering makes it unplayable in my opinion at the moment.  Hopefully a patch will address this shortly.

The next issue I had was HDR.  My TV doesn’t support it and in my experience at least, the game seems to almost require it.  Even with the HDR setting off, the game has a very harsh internal contrast that seems designed to show off HDR.  At times it gives a convincing illusion of HDR on a screen that doesn’t support it, but in low light areas it was annoying and required tweaking of TV settings.  I imagine it looks absolutely stellar though on an OLED screen that supports HDR.

 

The Boys and the Road

You can expect to hear this from any review of this game, but the road trip aspect is the best part of this game.  My favorite thing in gaming these days is emergent gameplay.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term, this is when moments occur in a game engine that are just created by the player interacting with a complex system and the result being fun.  It isn’t scripted, it wasn’t planned by the creators, it just happened because you pushed the right buttons.  The road trip parts of this game nail emergent gameplay in a way that I hope will become more common.

It’s the little things that make it such a personal experience.  I once coasted into a gas station after running out of fuel.  The guys got out to push (complaining of course) right as the car rolled within range of the pump.  It was such a surreal moment, that it filled me with the same joy that such a feat with my real buddies would.  For both Mike’s and my bachelor parties, we went on very similar road trips, so it hit close to home.  Experiences like this will be the norm, and will be created from a combination of factors like what route you choose and what detours you choose to make.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Laguna years ago about Final Fantasy VIII.  Much like XV, VIII had a very serious plot that was only interrupted by interludes about these dudes on a trip.  Laguna isn’t a huge fan of dark, brooding RPGs, so for him the first Laguna and co. sequence was like this light from the heavens showing him he could like this game.  He identified so much with Laguna Loire, as well as resembling him, that we call him Laguna to this day.  This is finally another FF game where you can develop a connection like that.  Fortunately they also improved on the dark and brooding to bro trip ratio.

 

The Prince and the Pauper

Another thing everyone who plays this game can agree on is how effing expensive everything is.  Maybe the point is that life is hard outside your palace, but the economy in this game is ridiculous.  For example, the pay you receive for killing a rare monster is barely enough to buy salmon burgers at a roadside diner.  You would think the clothes off my royal back would be worth a fortune, but there appears to be no way for Noctis to access any of his royal funds or come up with a better financial plan than squandering his godlike power on killing varmints.  If this was Grand Theft Auto, I would just rob the gas station, because ya know, I could just flatten the whole town.

Money is pretty much the greatest issue you will face in this game.  I have so far been overpowered in  every other way, but way behind in gear, because just buying a few healing items breaks the bank.  It makes it kind of frustrating to do the plot, because none of the quests will give you money and they will often force you into a long string of events that deplete your very expensive resources.  The only solution I’ve found is to grind like crazy between plot missions to keep my stock of phoenix downs and elixers as full as possible.

This would be my other highest priority for future patches.  Such an otherwise polished game should not be dragged down by being too poor to buy basic items.

 

That’s all for now.  Gotta get back to playing.