Game blogging update and Baseball HOFs

I’m going to move future game blogging to my Patreon page. I will occasionally make comments about non-gaming (i.e. sports stuff) here, but the gaming stuff fits more over there. I’ll be starting my YouTube channel soon, so keep an eye out for that!

As far as the Hall of Fame voting, in all honesty, there weren’t that many surprises, unless you count Pudge sailing in despite the controversies of his career. I was pleasantly surprised to see Manny surpass 25% and Bonds and Clemens to break 50%, which means good things for their candidacies. Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman now look like locks, although the 2018 class has some strong first time candidates (Chipper Jones and Jim Thome strike me as definite first ballot guys, and I expect Scott Rolen will get in eventually). My favorite case for next year is Jamie Moyer; he won 260+ games, so we’ll have to see what kind of voting he gets. Vizquel will get traction, but probably not make it the first time.

Jorge Posada did better than I expected, getting almost enough to stay on the ballot, but I’m surprised Drew or Orlando Cabrera didn’t get a vote. The Boston thing must not be as strong as I thought.

 

 

Game design and Uplink [A partial review you can use [TM] ]

In the Steam Summer sale, I picked up an upgrade for Prison Architect that also got me the entire back catalog of Introversion. One of those games was Uplink. Uplink is a hacking game; it’s somewhat similar to Hacknet, which is much newer and text based (and in my opinion, the better game), but there’s an odd design flaw in it. At least, I consider it a flaw.

One of the story missions has you hack into somebody’s LAN. Every time you access the main file server, the system admin will sign on and kick you off. The problem is that there’s no way to avoid this, because you need files off the server. What frustrates me is that it’s repetitive and dull; if you know what you’re doing, it isn’t the least bit dangerous, just dull.

I mention Uplink for another, better reason: unobtrusive tutorials. Now, back in the days of yore, I was an aficionado of the printed manual. The SimAnt manual remained in my possession far longer than the game did. Today, that’s replaced by a tutorial. Now, sometimes tutorials can be terrific: for example, the intro to Skyrim is really well done. The idea of being thrust into Big Things Happening feels very dynamic and fresh. Prison Architect’s campaign mode is a fun little tutorial that gives you the basics without holding your hand too much. The same thing is true for Uplink (and Hacknet). There’s plenty to discover, even if you’re not quite sure how things work.

Since this is a review, I should probably tell you whether or not to get Uplink instead of just musing about it. Uplink is a little dated but a quality title. If you’re clever, you can make the game ridiculously easy, but until then you will have plenty of entertaining failures. The story is surprisingly dull, to be honest. In fact, you can miss the story entirely without trying too hard. That doesn’t make it a bad game by any means, and it has enjoyable moments, but the replay value is somewhat minimal.

So long, Barkevious

I am an acknowledged fan of Barkevious Mingo, both in Madden and in real life. However, apart from his ridiculously awesome name, he produced surprisingly little on the field. He is now a New England Patriot for the price of a fifth round pick. The Patriots think he can contribute on special teams and/or act as depth. I myself suggested Mingo was a pure pass rusher and not likely to provide much else of value; it turns out he couldn’t even do that very well.

That was a pretty lousy draft for Cleveland, which is fair given the number of picks we had, but at least Armonty Bryant turned out to have some talent. He’s suspended for four games, but he’s far and away the best player from the class, so… yay?

This War of Mine: The Review You Can Use [TM]

This War of Mine is the hardest PC game I’ve ever played.

I do not mean that it’s difficult, although it is. I mean that some of the most heart-wrenching moments I’ve ever experienced in gaming occurred while I was playing it.

This War of Mine is a fairly simple premise: you control a group of up to five survivors trying to live through a civil war. The specific war is fictional, but it is pretty clear that the game is inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo. As a setting, it’s certainly unusual, since only GTA IV (of all games that I know) covered that conflict with even the lightest touch. You have one goal: survive until the ceasefire.

The actual gameplay is quite simple; it works well on a tablet (only $2.99 as of this post on the Android store!), so on a PC, it runs buttery smooth. You click on a character, then click on what you want them to do, whether it’s cook, work on the shelter, grow vegetables, or bait a rat trap with fertilizer.

The day/night cycle is what makes the game the work. During the day, you stay in the shelter and work on stuff. During the night, you scavenge for supplies, guard the shelter, or just sleep. Each character has a special skill that is of value. My starting three were Bruno, Pavle, and Katia. Bruno was a former TV chef (and a good cook), Pavle was a fast runner (I don’t remember his background), and Katia was a journalist with the ability to make better deals when trading. Other characters have other skills; you can have up to five in the shelter, but the most I ever got to was three. You start with a random three, then gain new survivors randomly.

Note that I said “was” for all three of them. My first full playthrough was a failure. I made it to around 40 days of survival, but “survival” is used very loosely. Only Katia made it to the end, and by “made it”, I mean that all the people she had murdered in order to survive, the friends she saw die in the shelter, and one final raid by criminals caused her to kill herself. Katia spent most of her last week alive trying to treat and save another survivor, who had a horrible illness; he was fatally wounded in another raid.

The most gripping moment in the game, the one that made me stop and think for a moment, was being desperate for food. One of the scavenging locations is a house owned by an elderly couple. Katia snuck into the house to rob as much as she could, but when I tried to steal their food, I surprised the old couple. They initially just asked me to leave, but when I stayed, they got their son. I killed the son and a his father with a shovel, while the elderly lady cried over her dead husband. I killed her too, just on the off chance she might have a little more food. Katia was depressed for almost a week, but we survived.

I’ve killed millions, possibly billions of people in video games. You probably have too. But for some reason, killing the elderly couple bothered me.

I highly recommend this game, both because it’s well designed and very slick, but also because it’s an amazing emotional experience. The music is amazing, yet understated. It’s so different from most war games that it’s worth playing. Purely as a game, it’s remarkable deep, and that’s without the “Little Ones” DLC, which adds children to the game (although I had one in the base game). In one of the nicest touches, if you buy that DLC, a portion goes to support orphaned war children. You can even just use Steam to buy the War Child DLC, which donates $1 to the charity and adds some street art to the game.

Thoughts on Stellaris and game design

It’s been out now for about two weeks, but this is the first chance I’ve had to write about Stellaris, the space 4X/grand strategy developed by Paradox Development Studios. If you haven’t played a PDS game yet, Stellaris is very accessible, more so than almost any other game PDS has ever done (Crusader Kings II is the possible exception). It’s, overall, an excellent compromise between complex systems and presenting those systems in a logical way. The basic premise is that you control a race of your choosing (which includes species and all manner of personality traits) and explore the galaxy, sometimes fighting, sometimes sciencing, sometimes discussing trade.

It’s extremely polished and relatively bug-free. I had one persistent error that had an easy workaround (play the game in windowed mode) and has since been hotfixed. The next two Stellaris patches, codenamed Clarke and Asimov, are going to address some balancing issues, add meat to the mid-game, and generally improve the UI.

The mid-game is currently Stellaris’s greatest weakness. There’s tons to do in the early game and the end game, but not in the middle. I was glad to hear about end game work, which is persistently a weakness of PDS games (depending on your play style), but the mid game just doesn’t have a lot to do. I’m at a point where I’m waiting to develop new technology so I can keep expanding my interstellar empire, but my management is mostly negligible. I’m thriving and have hit my colonization limit. The only power in the game that could threaten me is my ally (and the Fallen Empires, which are very scary but thankfully very far away). There’s tons of space to expand to (pun definitely intended) but said expansion has slowed to a crawl because I can’t directly colonize and accumulating influence enough to build frontier stations is a matter of watching the clock tick.

Influence is the game mechanic that I find most frustrating. It’s almost always in short supply, yet there’s little a player can do to increase the amount (and a lot you can do to decrease it). You just get your drip of four or five points a month (a frontier station is 200 points, so that’s over four years to get a new one, roughly 20 minutes to a half hour real time). Other PDS games have mechanics like this, such as EUIV, but there’s still tons to do in those games. There are three such “buckets” (if you will) in EUIV, but they’re staggered, and there’s more you can do to increase the drip. Not so in Stellaris.

I understand the desire to reduce blobbing (where one empire or another gets too big), and hopefully future patches will flesh out the mid game, but for now, while I do like Stellaris, it’s currently partially shelved. For those curious, I’m on an adventure game kick, currently playing through Broken Age on PS4, after getting a platinum trophy in GTA 3 and dabbling in Vice City.

Gaming update

I haven’t talked about games in what seems like forever, so I’ll do a quick hits style thing of what I’ve been playing lately.

— XCOM 2 remains entertaining and enjoyable. Some needed improvements over the previous one, good tone, good overall plot. I like that it assumes failure in the previous game, which leads to a more entertaining game. I mean “We beat the aliens and they all went home forever” doesn’t really leave much to the imagination, does it?

— I picked up the Assassin’s Creed: Chronicles trilogy for like $20 a while ago. It’s a very different take on the genre, but has some good moments. China, the first game, has boring characters and a story that is neither new nor interesting, but the gameplay is solid. India, the second one, has a much more enjoyable main character and is much more colorful, although I’m not far into it.

— I really needed a space sim to tide me over until No Man’s Sky, and Rebel Galaxy fills the bill nicely. It’s made by the people who did Torchlight. It’s very accessible, easy to control, and the galaxy feels big but not too big. There are lots of nice touches, but it does lack a certain amount of depth. Most missions are “blow this up” or “take this stuff over to this planet, where people will try to blow you up.” I don’t quite get the sense of freedom that I got from Freelancer, but it’s close. A nice pickup for PC/PS4.

— OOTP 17 is a nice upgrade over OOTP 16. Trading is much more intuitive, for example, and AI is generally more reasonable. 3D mode has moving players, but it crashed on me the one time I tried it, so I haven’t tried it much since. They have every minor league player in the history of baseball now, even the ones who didn’t make the majors, which allows for some impressive historical players. Finally, there are historical exhibition games, where you can have the 1927 Yankees take on the 1966 Dodgers, for example. I’m frankly worried they’re running out of things to improve, and it isn’t like 16 was chopped liver.

— Competing with OOTP 17 and XCOM 2 for my PC gaming time remains Prison Architect, which continues to improve. I don’t remember the last time I had this much fun with a simulator (Game Dev Tycoon was fun for a bit, but the lack of depth kind of killed it) not made by Paradox. Banished is good too, but Prison Architect fills the sweet spot of easy to play, hard to master.

— I had high hopes for Cities: Skylines, but while I like the game, some parts of it were so frustrating and so poorly documented (exactly where water lines need to be placed) that I’ve put on the virtual shelf for the present. I have 90+ games on Steam, so I don’t know when I’ll get back to it.

— Speaking of games I’m not currently playing, Morrowind is another one I’m struggling to play. It asks a pretty big investment in time for a world that I don’t find all that interesting yet. However, I’ve spent a lot of time on side quests and not much on the story, so maybe when my schedule frees up, I can give it another shot.

— Fallout 4 is my Morrowind for PS4, the difference being that I do want to play to it, but just don’t have long enough blocks of time.

— Far Cry 4 is enjoyable, with a great villain, but it’s another one I can’t commit to. (I’m a sucker for sales).

— Finally, we have my two remaining sports games on PS4: WWE 2k16 (best of the series so far) and NHL 16 (ditto). NHL 16 was briefly irritating to me until I realized that there was no auto-save mechanic. I was playing the exact same games over and over again. Once I sorted that out, I had a lot more fun. Rookie mode seems too easy, but I’m only playing junior league hockey, so I don’t know if it’s me outclassing the competition or what. We’ll see what happens.

If there’s a specific game you want to hear more about, let me know and I’ll do a full work up. I even forgot some, I’m sure, like LEGO Marvel Super Heroes (very enjoyable for the most part, easy platinum). This is over the last few months or so, so it isn’t like my life is nothing but gaming.

 

End of Madden 16

I haven’t officially traded it in yet, but I’ve deleted it from the PS4, so there’s that. I thought I’d share some final thoughts about Madden 16 and what could be improved for next year.

— The email system needs an overhaul. I would love to get useful emails, like “Joe Thomas retired and entered the Hall of Fame” instead of “you won your game 56-14.” The game I just finished.

— The franchise UI could use an overhaul too, but I consider it less important than a working email/news system. I gradually figured out where stuff was. Now, I hope they don’t completely change it again next year.

— Defensive XP needs to be addressed. They added Franchise sliders in the last patch, which is a good short term fix, but for next season, it needs rebalancing. The problem is unrealistic defensive stat goals; your season/weekly goals give you most of your XP, but if you’re playing 10 minute quarters, you’ll never get 100+ tackles. Interceptions are so hit or miss that you can’t rely on them; same for passes defensed. The result of the present system is that defensive players rarely get a lot better unless they’re heavy pass rushers. I don’t know how useful the franchise sliders might have been to fix this problem, but I would definitely set them to the highest possible setting to try to mitigate the fact that you’ll probably never hit most of the goals unless you play straight 15 minute quarters.

— The game doesn’t keep track of past awards any more, which is kind of sad. Stats tracking is equally disappointing; no hurries, no drops (except on a game to game basis), etc.

— I’d like to see a more dynamic contract system, but I think the contract AI is better this year than in years past. Players typically don’t ask for mega contracts unless they deserve one. I’d like to be able to restructure contracts, but honestly, it’s hard to get into cap troubles without seriously pigging out on free agents. Build through the draft and you’ll be fine.

— Speaking of the draft, I think it’s really well done. You can try to trade for picks, trade down, etc. It’s harder to dump picks, because the AI is smarter at figuring out your likely pick value. I can’t win three Super Bowls and expect the AI to automatically think my pick is worth a #5 overall. Smart scouting will still find you steals. I would love to see UDFAs automatically added to your team from time to time; I miss cut day being meaningful. They also tell you immediately what your pick is worth after choosing; I like that, but also miss finding out how good they are over the course of the preseason. It made the preseason feel relevant.

— I would like scouting to be slightly more in depth. Finding out the top three skills is nice, and helps you get a good amount of info on every player. I like bringing back the Combine stats. What I’d really like is a) shortlists so I can remember which players I liked and b) a way to get a little more information if I invest more heavily into one or two players. If I need a linebacker, I want to be able to scout nothing but linebackers and get lots of information.

— As far as gameplay goes, I played on Pro with no slider tweaks. In past years, I’ve used sliders to optimize my experience, but this year I was more or less okay with the base experience. Once I figured out the playbook and maximized the west coast offense’s potential, I won most games pretty easily. However, the stunted defensive growth meant that, in season 4, I was scoring 50+ but allowing 30 points a game. Stopping the run was usually easy enough, but stopping the pass was much harder. The biggest problem is dumb cornerback play. Basically, the key to stopping the other guy is a consistent pass rush. If you can’t get it, you have to rely on your DBs to make great plays, and they just don’t. I appreciate the amount of time that went into individual wide receiver/cornerback battles. It’s added a new dimension to the game. However, when your 90+ OVR cornerback consistently misjudges the ball, it’s disappointing. I can’t tell you how many times Joe Haden would try to jump the pass instead of playing the receiver and fail, miserably. Goal line passes almost always work against me because the DBs would always stand at the very back of the endzone. I almost never saw linemen get their hands up. Also, every tight end is Rob Gronkowski unless you have the greatest middle linebackers in the world. Tight ends shredded me regularly because nobody could cover them. I don’t deny that part of the problem might have been my low quality linebackers and young corners, but I shouldn’t be utterly helpless without a pass rush.

— They desperately need to bring back defensive assignments. There’s a lack of easy ways to make substitutions, especially if you choose your plays by play type. Unless I go into one of the other playbook modes, I can’t easily bench my HB without altering the depth chart for a few plays. Because auto-subs don’t work, unless you use your depth chart smartly, or purposefully choose low stamina guys, you’ll have a guy who gets 300+ carries every year.

— Speaking of making defensive adjustments, I hate how hard it is to make them in-game. In the past, for example, receiver spotlight (make your team pay more attention to a single player) was R2 + the receiver’s button. Now, it’s four different button presses. You might be able to get that in before the AI snaps, but probably not, and you certainly couldn’t make other adjustments. Offensive adjustments are much easier, and I like that they introduced offensive line shifts this season. It shows you play art for audibles before you choose them, which I also like. Defense requires more effort, which is a shame, because it’s defensive adjustments that need the most help.

— All of the above said, Madden 16 simulates football better than any other game I know. Gang tackling works beautifully. Timing the snap count on defense is tricky, but usually worth it. The receiver battles do make the game more exciting and makes tall receivers very much worth having. The depth chart you access in the Franchise screen is wonderful, provides a lot of information, and helps you see your team’s strengths and weaknesses easily.

— Since I’m much better at running an offense than a defense in Madden 16, a few pointers there. First, learn your scheme and target players for your scheme. Confidence is important, and players who fit will play better than players who don’t. You can afford a misfit or two, but by and large, stick to your scheme. The game helpfully labels every player in the game, so if I want a West Coast QB, I can find them easily. Second, your QB determines your offense. For example, for seasons 1-3, I had weak armed QBs. Speedy receivers who couldn’t jump were worthless, because I couldn’t throw far enough to lead them significantly. In season 4, I got a strong armed QB (who was still considered West Coast because his base deep accuracy stunk), and my goodness, did it open up my options. I couldn’t fit balls into tight spaces, and he wouldn’t always be on target, but he could actually lead receivers enough that the DBs were helpless. All three of my QBs had clear advantages and disadvantages. Third, use speed burst judiciously. Wait for holes to open before you hit them. Try to save it for when you need just a bit of extra speed to get past a defense.

I might have more thoughts later on, and I’m happy to answer questions if you have them, but otherwise, this will probably my last post on Madden 16.