Crackdown 3: (Self)-Destructible Environments

There have been many promises made over the development cycle of Crackdown 3. Now that the game has finally been released it’s time to see if those promises have been kept.

The quick answer? Eh, sort of.

In short, Crackdown 3 is a game that has suffered from bad timing. Partially due to the business dealings of the publisher Microsoft, and partially due to the apathetic fates that ignore our petty existence, the world that Crackdown 3 found itself born into was not the world it was conceived in.

PUBG, Fortnite, and Overwatch have changed the way online deathmatch is played, for better or worse. There’s very little room left in the market for a casual, unpolished, options-lite online multiplayer experience. Unfortunately that’s exactly what Wrecking Zone, Crackdown 3’s deathmatch mode, has presented.

With astronomical load times, spartan options, little-to-no customization, and continuous issues with freezing, stuttering, and crashing, it is fair to think that this is a dish that needed to spend a little more time in the oven.

Dated Character Model
This is every option you have in Wrecking Zone. There are no more screens.

A huge blow to its desirability is the lack of server selection and squading up. There is no solo play, only squad vs. squad. So it is a bit puzzling when you discover that you and your friends can not play together on one of these squads. You can’t even pick a server instance to make joining up randomly a little easier. It’s just you and some randos, and good luck with that.

Not allowing friends lists or group invites to a squad-only multiplayer game makes no sense. There is no chance of unbalanced play. No reason to stop people from ganging up on others. There are always two teams, and ONLY two teams. To hamstring your enjoyment by removing play with your friends is an insane oversight.

The long-promised destructible environments are here in this mode–and in this mode only–and although they do deliver a fresh and unique approach to deathmatch problem solving (Enemy up above you? Just shoot the ceiling out! Need to get to street-level fast? Just shoot the floor out!) the innate problems with server instability and everyone-has-a-lock-on-shooting-mechanic do too much to counteract that bit of success.

Destructible Environments
Watching a big stone statue crumble before you IS a pretty satisfying experience. 

Perhaps where the game will find a temporary home in the hearts of gamers is in the campaign mode. Chock-full of simple arcadey action and momentum-based exploration, there is lots to enjoy for an afternoon or weekend. Collecting orbs and watching your parkour skills improve is a satisfying if mindless time-killer that will send you off course to greedily gobble up more and more glowing globes like some modern acrobatic Pac-Man. Increasing your arsenal of weapons, gadgets, vehicles, and agents will provide short-term goals and constantly-changing combat techniques.

There seems to be a large design focus on vehicles, which makes it all the more surprising that the actual driving mechanics are buggy, confusing, and unrewarding. It’s almost always more efficient–and because of hidden orbs, beneficial–to go everywhere on foot. Jumping from rooftop to rooftop is the most pleasurable experience in this game, so you will seldom find the need to switch into a clunky driving mechanic that slows and confounds you.

Combat encounters lack the uniqueness of the original Crackdown. There are basically three different setups that you will constantly be revisiting, and the lack of variety in enemy types and environments will turn them into a samey-samey grind after not too long. Random wandering enemies has been replaced by a “wanted level” mechanic that continuously sends waves of enemies to your location until you FAST TRAVEL AWAY. Seriously, the game tells you to leave the area you are purposely exploring in order to make this nuisance stop. It’s an interruption to the flow and pacing of the game that serves little purpose other than to increase how long you have to play in order to accomplish your goals.

And speaking of interruptions, let’s talk about cut-scenes. They are NONSTOP. Picked up a DNA strand? Cut-scene. Killed some people? Cut-scene. Climbed a tower? Cut-scene. Got too close to a map marker? Cu–well, you get the picture. Play is constantly being interrupted, sometimes mid-fight. This has the added bonus frustration of sometimes teleporting you to a new location, leaving you disoriented and without that orb you were just about to grab. And all the while your actions have running commentary and un-followable exposition by not just one, but TWO narrators. You spend more time wondering what you just missed than you do gleaning anything valuable about the storyline or game world.

The game does have a sort of beauty to its environments, but it feels like a dated beauty. They’ve stuck close to the aesthetics that are known and loved from the original titles–which is a good thing–but the character models feel like they came from 2012 instead of 2019. There’s a bit of overly-simplistic level design, but it is interrupted with quick moments of brilliance with momentum climbing and lore-friendly signage that allow for it to be by-and-large forgiven.

Nice View
Sunset, palm trees, and…a big multi-platform tower that moves around for some reason?

Running the campaign mode cooperatively with friends is definitely a huge boon. You may not find a ton of difference in the actual way you play as opposed to solo, but getting into a firefight with a buddy is always a rife environment for humor and excitement. This is one thing the Crackdown games have always got right, and although there are still way too many server issues even when playing the campaign, it’s the mode that should likely have the most draw.

The base of what makes the Crackdown franchise good simple fun is still here, it just lacks the polish we as gamers have come to expect from a big publisher like Xbox Game Studios. Clearly it needed more time, which leads one to wonder after considering how many times the release date was pushed back by months and years: What were they doing all that time?

 

VIDEO LINKS:

Wrecking Zone First Look: https://youtu.be/65W4DBn8nZY

Humorous Co-op Campaign (Explicit Version): https://youtu.be/ubpglOowvaA

Humorous Co-op Campaign (Censored Version): https://youtu.be/Cjecao4yi48

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How To Make The Pro Bowl Fun

As a gamer and strategy junkie, I have a high-octane love for the sport of American Football.

That probably surprises some people that are used to hearing me talk about Dungeons and Dragons and the Fallout franchise. But the truth is, football is a real-time strategy board game using the most dynamic pawns imaginable: humans.

There’s a stereotype that football is only for meatheads, jocks, and Average Joe’s, and no self-respecting Geek would associate with such a brutish display of <gasp> physical competition.

But listen, haters: Football is cerebral first and physical second. The field is a chess board. Player positions mirror class systems in an RPG. And if you’ve ever planted a bomb in your enemy’s base in an MMO, you’ve scored a Touchdown.

You might not see it if you only read the headlines about off-field behavior, or catch highlight reels on accident when the news comes on after The Orville. But there is a depth to this game that only true brilliance can comprehend (Go). There is beauty in its play-calling, personnel groupings, and situational theory (Final Fantasy). It’s a game of math and statistics (D&D), and physics and wit (Portal). It’s outsmarting your opponents (Chess), supplanting their expectations (Werewolf), and matching up skill sets in order to eliminate threats (Magic: The Gathering).

But it’s human. There is heart, and RNG, and chaos. It’s the ultimate 4X/Roguelike mash-up.

Okay. Now that we have that bit of business out of the way, let’s get to the topic at hand.

Let’s talk about the NFL’s greatest failure as an organization: The Pro Bowl.

There are very few things that the Pro Bowl does well, so we’ll start there. The highlight (sadly) is Scheduling. Fitting the game in on the otherwise vacant weekend between the Conference Championship and the Super Bowl is the right move. Before 2009 the Probowl was played AFTER the Super Bowl, which encouraged its irrelevance. The Super Bowl is a natural bookend to the season, and fans can mentally and emotionally decompress when it’s over. Playing one more “just for fun” game afterwards doesn’t make sense, and besides, there’s an empty week just sitting there between the conference finals and the Big Game. Kudos on their recent scheduling placement, it should remain.

Likewise, moving the game out of Hawaii has been the right move. Football should be played in its relevant market, and although the fine denizens of Hawaii probably enjoyed getting a taste, it felt too removed from the action for most NFL fans. (Take note International Series schedulers!)

This leads directly into our first area that needs to change:

1. Location. Orlando is not a traditional NFL market. Let an NFL stadium have the honor of hosting the game. Let it be played in a city that has an established and excited fanbase. Make it Super Bowl Junior.

2. Skill Challenges. The Skills Showdown is the most exciting and interesting part of the event. So it’s completely baffling that they show it on Thursday evening when nobody is around to watch it. This is fun, relaxing, entertaining tv; It’s Saturday afternoon programming. Move the skills section to a reasonable time slot on the weekend and watch the ratings climb.

3. MORE Skills Challenges. While we’re on the topic, let’s just say it: The actual Pro Bowl game is boring. So let’s spruce it up by adding more of the fun and excitement! Add more interesting events, trick catch competitions, showcases and rivalries. Hell, throw some Combine events in there, let us see what these All-Stars can really do. This should be the focus of the event; a fan-friendly entertaining circus of hijinks and next-level competition. Think Slam Dunk Contest with footballs.

4. Rules. We all know why the rules are the way they are in the Pro Bowl. Nobody wants to see their favorite player get injured in a meaningless game. But remember that this is an exhibition match, it only exists to entertain fans. So if the players aren’t going to be going full speed, let’s give them something fun to do. Add 4-point Field Goal zones near the sidelines. Allow Holding and Pass Interference. Let each team forward lateral once per down. And as far as making the players themselves more in to it, I propose…

5. The Swap. The highlight of this year’s game was seeing offensive players on defence and defensive players getting carries. Instead of just peppering this in for a couple of plays, let’s bake it right into the game: In the second half, offense and defense switch. It would turn the game on its head, fill the arena with cheers and laughs, and give fans something special to look forward to. And plus, what defensive back hasn’t dreamed of being placed out wide on offense and burning the competition for a receiving touchdown?! Maybe the Tight End has a sack-dance all queued up for a wild occasion. This is the type of thing that can create memories.

And finally,

6. The Fans. It’s no secret that most great hobbies (and cultures!) are ruined by the very people that Stan them. There is no greater enemy to the NFL than the fans themselves. By giving them a third of the votes you can be guaranteed to see the likes of Jason Garrett on the sidelines even if his team goes 4-12. Why? Because the fans, especially in big markets, just vote in their guys instead of the actual best and most deserving players in the league. It devolves into a popularity contest, or a war of populations. Neither of these things are conducive to accurately producing a best-of-the-season lineup in the so-called All-Star game. Give them, say, a fifth of the vote. Or let a qualified committee whittle it down to two choices at each position and let the fans be the tie-breaker. This isn’t Prom, it’s a reward for outstanding play.

Do I think any of these changes will someday be implemented? Probably not. But there is nothing outlandish or unreasonable here (except maybe that forward lateral thing.) But one thing is certain: Something’s gotta change, or this game will end up being just a footnote in NFL history for the next generation.

*Matty usually writes about board games, video games, and scifi/fantasy media. He only devolves into a football troglodyte for 5 months out of the year.

Thief Of Seas (Sea Of Thieves Review)

As a self-described landlubber that is just now playing (and reviewing) a game that came out close to 10 months ago, I don’t know if I have anything truly original to add to the discussion. Sea Of Thieves, by now, has been reviewed and dissected and “Let’s Played” a rum-barrel’s worth already, so repeating what seems to be a common consensus of observations feels almost pointless. Still, I’m gonna do it. ‘Cause I want to. It’s MY blog, and I’m Captain here! So hoist that anchor and swab the sails or whatever!

For some background in case you haven’t seen the game, you and your friends (or other players online if you are the kind of pirate that sails alone) work as the crew of a pirate vessel, manning the sails and setting courses, out to uncover buried treasure and defeat other pirates along the way.  You design your pirate, pick your ship, gather your crew, and set out into the open ocean, seeking the island on your treasure map to fill your coffers. It’s a fun concept, and one that thematically comes with some well-recognized and built-in tropes.

The first thing you are likely to notice is that the game is absolutely beautiful. Rare has done a phenomenal job here with everything from water textures to fish scales. It’s also an incredible social experiment for teamwork and group role play. These points are pretty much universally agreed upon, but there are short-comings that pop up across the board, too: It does feel like an unfinished game. It plays more like an early-access title, where the bones are in place and the skin is holding everything where it should be, but there just aren’t that many organs in the body yet. It’s missing content, and a variety of content, to be specific.

One of many beautiful islands you’ll encounter out on the high seas.

One place the game falls short is in the item system. You essentially start the game with every item you will ever use, from shovel, to concertina, to flintlock. You can spend in-game gold to purchase new skins for these items, but you can never augment them, change them mechanically in any way, or ever encounter new items to use. An upgrade system patched in for tools, weapons, or your pirate in general would go along way to making this a return-play title. As it stands you only make money in order to buy more cosmetic skins, which is not a recipe for a long life cycle. If those skins meant something–if buying a different flintlock pistol had an actual in-game effect for damage or rate of fire or accuracy–then grinding it out would feel more beneficial. I’d spend 5,000 gold for a spyglass that zoomed in farther; I’m not so inclined to pay it for an identical spyglass that just has a different color trim.

A very strong positive in the item discussion is the music aspect. Having musical instruments to play during down-times–in harmony together no less!– is absolutely fantastic. It’s my favorite innovation for any game in years. The bottom line, however, is that like many other things in the game, there just isn’t enough of it. There are only three instruments and four songs, so you will burn through the variety quickly. If I had my druthers there would be a few more instruments and a ton more songs. This isn’t just a passing thought, I’ve thought a lot about how it could be implemented in a more engaging way! First, you would start with only one instrument, and have several more that you could buy, giving you a reason to spend your hard-pillaged gold when you get back to port. New songs could be unlocked from quests, or by leveling up with a certain faction, and having an option to purchase or uncover sheet music would be interesting. Perhaps new songs could be unlocked when you buy new instruments (or new skins for your existing instruments.) THEN it would mean something. Hell, I’d grind for weeks just to unlock new songs.

Mash play on that jambox!

Interaction with other crews can be a fun and rewarding experience. I was boarded by another crew once that just wanted to make an alliance with me, and after agreeing we shared our subsequent gold rewards for the remainder of the play session. When encountering others in-game there’s this moment of “Are we going to be friends or enemies?” where you size each other up, swords drawn, apprehensive and wary. And then when the voice chat kicks in, which is directional and area based (use game chat, not party chat!) you can diplomacize your way through.

Of course, this is a game about pirates! So often times you’ll be scrapping and broadsiding and looting and killing each other. It can occasionally be frustrating when, for the third mission in a row, another crew sinks your ship or runs off with your treasure chests before you can turn them in, but that’s part of what the game is all about. Sometimes the best way to defend against pirates is to become a pirate.

The act of sailing itself feels very rewarding and almost therapeutic. Working together to navigate, keep the wind, and decide when and where to drop anchor gives a rush of excitement to each and every mission, even if its just to collect chickens. You might find yourselves at each other’s throats one moment, and reveling in your impressive synergy the next. It’s a tiny social experiment each time you set sail for a new destination.

You’ll find each crew member must fill a role. The helmsman can’t see where they’re going, so the navigator will have to bark cardinal directions and headings from the map room, while the lookout in the crows nest or up on the bow tells them how to avoid rocks and unmarked land masses and other ships, while the deck hand raises, lowers, and angles the sails for optimal speed and handling. It forces you to work together and communicate clearly, and when it doesn’t work you could be in for hilarious results. As good as it feels to get your crew working together like a well-oiled machine, it is sometimes even more entertaining to fight over directions and crash your ship into a jetty of rocks.

Rare has put a lot of their strengths into this game, which is to say creating bright, fun, cartoony visuals and lighthearted comedic fun. But don’t let that superficial take fool you: Sea Of Thieves is chock-full of some of the most amazing and shockingly beautiful visuals you’re likely to see in a video game. The rolling waves and water spray are hands down the best I’ve ever seen, and there have been a multitude of sunrises, sunsets, and storms that took my breath away. I often found myself staring into the distance, mystified, instead of steering my galleon away from the rocks that were about to kill us all.

Overall the game is just a little too friendly.  Dying, and even sinking your ship, has absolutely no penalty associated with it other than the loss of time. You don’t lose gold, you don’t lose stats, you don’t lose reputation. Just the time it takes to regenerate your ship. You don’t even have to buy a new one! Ships are free! Of course any treasure chests you had on board will sink too, but you’ll get a resupply of bananas and cannonballs and wood for free, and there are always new chests to uncover. But this no-consequences approach coupled with the fact that there are absolutely no upgrades or perks for items or sailors, makes for a “beginner friendly” feeling at all points of the game. You don’t feel rewarded for grinding, and PVP will always be the same equal experience. It’s a bit of a let down.

And then, of course, there are the huge difficulty swings. While this almost makes the last paragraph seem dubious, the game sets you up to feel comfortable and fair, with your experience being hamstringed by PVP balance, only to suddenly dump you into a fight with a Kraken on the edge of an erupting volcano where you have absolutely no chance of victory. And since you’ll never upgrade your ship or equipment, there’s no clear path for overcoming these high-difficulty obstacles. It seems greatly imbalanced for a game that has presented itself as “all about balance.”

There are a few other personal gripes I have about the way you interact with the world. For example, when you’re on an island you can’t see what the island’s name is, even if you have the map in your hand. It tells you on-screen when you approach but there isn’t any other way to check it once you do. The mission picking mechanic doesn’t work well, either. There’s some missions that use the captain’s table for a vote and others that don’t. You can’t highlight what mission you’re on. You can’t put multiple missions down to vote on. It needs to be addressed.

Pushing rowboats around needs fixed. We managed to get several of them stuck over a couple days of playing, with no way to back them up or push them off the spit. There also doesn’t seem to be a way to pivot around in place or row backwards (at least we couldn’t discover a way.)

The interface does a lot of heavy lifting, but there are some minor inconveniences.  It’s hard to switch to bananas, your only healing agent, when you’re in the middle of a fight, something you’ll most certainly have to do. Patching holes in your ship is also unintuitive, as it forces you to highlight wood planks in the item wheel specifically instead of just checking if you have any in your inventory. The game doesn’t ask you to take this extra step for loading cannonballs, so it’s a surprising and frustrating discovery when you first go to patch a hole and the UI tells you that you need wood planks, even though you clearly have five.

Item wheel overlayed on screen, which takes up to 3 button presses to switch to an item in real-time.

It would be very nice to have a little feedback for the player when you’re doing damage. You are never shown how much each weapon dishes out, and often you can’t even tell if you hit your opponent or not. It makes some fights drag and feel futile. Players like to weigh the pros and cons of different weapons, and know that when they hit they are actually doing damage.

I also encountered two major bugs while playing. The first one displayed the buttons on screen incorrectly when giving me instructions. For example it might say “Press Y To Sell Chest” but I actually had to press “X” on my controller. This happened on multiple occasions and for different interactions. Secondly, a very major glitch took place that left me unable to interact with objects at all. I couldn’t steer the ship, I couldn’t look at the map, I couldn’t fire the cannons. I was reduced to a glorified look-out for a chunk of my time while other crew members did all the interacting. It seemed like Beta build stuff that shouldn’t be occurring this far into the development cycle.

So how do you suppress those feelings of frustration and anxiety in-game? Well, there’s grog! Grog drinking is fun and immersive, and it’s one of the best “drunk-mode” sequences I’ve seen, with random stumbling and swaying visuals, accompanied by sailor hiccups and burps. But after the first two or so times you’ll probably not do it again, unless it’s to purposefully frustrate your shipmates or your streaming audience. Unlike in real life, there are no mechanical benefits to drinking grog. It’s just funny.

To counteract some of that recent negativity, let me throw down some other positive things. Clouds in the shape of things is awesome. The bullhorn affect on group chat was a fun and surprising detail. I learned Port and Starboard, Bow and Stern! I kinda learned how to sail! Honestly, this game had me looking up terminology and techniques for a real-life skill that I had previously never had an ounce of interest in. That’s pretty cool.

I don’t say this often (in fact, I don’t think I’ve EVER said it before) but Sea Of Thieves would actually benefit from following the Free-2-Play model. It’s an online multiplayer game, after all, with only cosmetic upgrades to spend your in-game currency on. Paying for it like a normal full-release game, even at a reduced price tag…just isn’t reasonable. People will spend money for in-game cosmetics, Fortnite has proven that. You can keep PVP even and fair–you don’t have to venture into that despicable Pay-2-Win category–and still make money off the product. This seems like a game that would become exponentially better the more people were playing it. A Microsoft exclusive release at $60 for an online multiplayer game…Yeah, this was a marketing problem that hopefully hasn’t sunk an otherwise entertaining and well-made game.

The final word is: It’s a terrific game, loaded with fantastic details and interesting concepts and breath-taking vistas and thoughtful interactions. Is it worth playing? Absolutely! I had a BLAST playing it. But will I keep coming back to it? Will it be a return-title that I just can’t help but play over and over again? Probably not. Not in its current state, at any rate. With more content, more depth, and more motivation to upgrade and grind it could be a tremendously addictive game, full of replay value and months of enjoyment, but for now I’ll hang up my captain’s hat and retire from sea life with the riches I’ve already acquired.

 

 

Here’s a gameplay montage of one of my play sessions with friends from my YouTube channel (yeah, go subscribe!) PG-13 for language.

Point-And-Click Lives!

If you grew up in the ’80s or ’90s and you owned a computer, chances are you have a fond lingering memory of playing a Point-and-Click Adventure Game at one time or another. The genre was dominated in the ’80s by Sierra On-Line, bringing adventure games into the mainstream with their King’s Quest, Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry series. And they were prolific. The King’s Quest series alone had 9 games between 1980 and 1998. Leisure Suit Larry had 7.

A still from King’s Quest (1984). In those days you needed your HUD to tell you if the sound was on.

Once the ’90s rolled around another major player burst onto the adventure game scene. LucasArts spent most of the mid-to-late ’80s making action games for Atari and simulation games, sometimes experimenting with ideas like MMOs back in a time when the technology wasn’t available to make them possible. But after dipping their toes into adventure games with Maniac Mansion and Indiana Jones titles, they were posed to take over the genre starting with 1990’s The Secret Of Monkey Island. It was much loved and spawned an immediate sequel, as well as a long list of successful Point-and-Click titles, such as Sam And Max Hit The Road, Full Throttle, and sequels to their Indian Jones and Maniac Mansion games. Their run would last through the end of the ’90s, but advancements in graphic engines and a shift in the culture towards FPS and RPGs seemed to bring the heyday of Point-And-Clicks to an end.

Still from Full Throttle (1995). The soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission.

The 2000’s weren’t all bad, though. Newly founded company Telltale Games released a slew of new Sam and Max games, as well as a brand new Monkey Island game Tales Of Monkey Island. The old Monkey Island games got a remaster and a re-release during this decade, too.

So if Point-And-Click ignited in the ’80s, exploded in the ’90s, and saw fading afterglow in the ’00s, it would seem that the genre has finally run out of momentum by the ’10s, right?

Don’t be ridiculous. Didn’t you see the title of this post? Point-and-Click lives!

(NOTE: This will not go into detail of the “New Adventure” genre that Telltale Games has perfected this decade with titles such as The Wolf Among Us, The Walking Dead, Tales From The Borderlands, Game Of Thrones, or Minecraft: Story Mode. And it certainly won’t go into the recent financial downfall of that company. That’s for another post!)

There are lots of new IPs out there in the Point-and-Click genre, and even more remakes, remasters, and long-awaited sequels (see The Odd Gentlemen’s King Quest and the re-release of Full Throttle). But, since I can only review so much, I’m going to focus on two that are fresh in my mind: MechaNika, and The Inner World. Both come from small developers and feature hand-drawn graphics, and can be picked up for a very reasonable price, making them terrific titles for gamers new to the genre or tentative veterans looking to wade back in.

MechaNika

Something so cute containing so much malice.
MechaNika – Mango Protocol, Spain – 2015

MechaNika is a very short, very accessible, and very dark adventure game. Those are it’s bad points.

You won’t spend more than a few hours on this one, but with a Steam price-point of $3.99 ($5.99 on Xbox) you will be getting your money’s worth. Every character, every background, every object you interact with in the game is hand-drawn in a cute, vibrant, and pseudo-anime cartoon network style. Think Adventure Time or Teen Titans Go made in MSPaint. MechaNika has a decidedly darker edge to it, however, and it’s this duality of cutesy innocence coupled with disenchanted angst that gives the game its unique feel. At times the game gets, admittedly, too dark.

Nika is a 7-year old that drinks cognac and wants to kill and destroy everything that she doesn’t deem “cool.” This is perhaps a funny subversion of expectations if it was a passing background exposition, but instead this is the main focus of the game. You are a tiny child that spends the game engineering a weapon of mass destruction so that you can kill your family, your schoolmates, your neighbors. You are playing a PSYCHOPATH.

The timing of the release of this game is important to consider (2015). That was perhaps the last year that a game with this theme could fly under the radar without a tidal wave of backlash, and perhaps rightfully so. There is no end to the list of games that have been made–or will be made–where large-scale mass murder is glorified and even expected of the player. But very few focus on a pre-meditated, intimate, fully-realized sense of malice and calculated destruction. Yes, the adults in Nika’s life are impatient, selfish, uncaring, mostly-garbage losers. Yes, life is tough when you’re a misunderstood child (or a misunderstood any age.) Yes, there is a disillusioned psychotic Supervillain living just beneath the surface in all of us that would like to burn the whole place down and start over. And maybe that makes this power-fantasy a little appealing. But should we indulge in those dark thoughts? In THIS climate? I can forgive Mango Protocol for not having the clairvoyance to see what the world would become in the next three years, and if I’m playing this game in 2015 I would appreciate the dark humor and storylines for what they were at the time: Harmless complicated adult themes floating amongst the sea of moral ambiguity that is gaming.

Pictured: The developers impatiently waiting for me to stop lecturing them.

There are several other criticisms I could make in content, especially as it pertains to persons and animals. Often times characters exhibit culturally clumsy stereotypes and prejudices, and it’s hard to differentiate between what is the voice of the creators and what attributed as an intentional character flaw. Homelessness, unemployment, sex-work, cross-dressing, bestiality, homophobia… These topics are used as punch-lines, and often are approached with a tinge of judgement. To be fair, I don’t know anything about the cultural or social climate in Spain, where developer Mango Protocol is based out of. Perhaps people are not challenged to be inclusive or considerate of lifestyles outside of the “norm” in that region. But through the eyes of a conscious and thoughtful modern American, there were more than a few uncomfortable moments.

The controls at times were a little clunky. I assume that this was a problem mostly introduced in the port over to Xbox, as the limitations of a gamepad create intrinsic problems for Point-and-Click games. Still, there were moments when I felt like I was clicking on the same items multiple times in order to get them to be assigned to the correct slot in the backpack. This is a main driving aspect of the game, collecting items that can be used in unique ways in order to build your mech suit. It seemed like it was “highlight, move, assign, confirm” in order to say “Yes use this sharp thing for the sought-out pointy quest item.” It felt like too many steps. On a positive note, a USB flash drive clipped to your backpack controls the save screen, and her famous hip flask of cognac hot chocolate controls the hint screen. These were ingenious details that helped keep you anchored in the world even when you were interacting with menus.

Nika’s backpack, and main inventory screen in the game. Her hip flask and flash drive fit into the display nicely.

Even though its short and socially awkward (like Nika herself!) the game has a lot of redeeming qualities. The sense of adventure as you move through the world, searching for items and discovering things to click on and interact with really drive the game. The cartoony graphics keep it fun and interesting, even when you are crossing the same screens multiple times. It’s a fun environment. There are always interesting ways to use items, or combine items, in ways that give you a sense of accomplishment and pride. When you figure out a puzzle you get that little shot of “I’m so great!” that everyone wants to feel. The music is fantastic, as well, and there is a lot of atmosphere and mood created in each scene and location. Even though the game is short and ends somewhat abruptly (episodic…See Agatha Knife) you will never feel like the game was made cheaply or hurriedly. It wasn’t laziness on the developers part, and the game pretty much feels like it’s as long as it is supposed to be.

If you have read what I’ve stated about dark adult themes and minor insensitivity and aren’t immediately turned off, the game is definitely worth a play for the price. You might not have much replay value outside of achievement hunting, but you will enjoy your time in the world and with the characters. Some more awareness from the developers and a bit more content would make this a fantastic cute adventure. It’s definitely worth it to me to check in on Mango Protocol’s next project, 2017’s Agatha Knife (a character from MechaNika with her own prequel.)

The Inner World

Queue Alladin's
The Inner World – Studio Fizbin, Germany – 2013

If you are looking to be swept away into an immersive fantastic world full of colorful characters and mysterious physics, look no further. The Inner World boasts some of the most beautiful and creative hand-drawn graphics of any game I’ve played. Every detail is accounted for, and the freshness of the made-from-scratch environment will immediately intrigue you. This is not a typical fantasy or scifi setting, and although it seems to draw from some ambiguous European folklore, there is nothing recycled or tired about the universe and its inhabitants. Perhaps the closest comparison I could make would be that the world of Asposia is like a cross between Hyrule and The Brothers Grimm. But underground. And vaguely steampunk.

Really, the time and care that has been put into the world, the backstory, and the artwork is enough to make this game a must-buy at $14.99 for any adventure game enthusiasts. The depth and play-length is arguably longer than that price would predict (although in 2013 dollars it is probably spot-on.) But The Inner World has so much more than graphics that they did right. There’s a cast of characters that are funny, interesting, and seemingly alive and breathing with their own motivations, interests, and faults. While you won’t run into any M. Knight Shyamalan-style plot twists throughout your play, you will never know where the adventure will lead next, and every location and encounter is a new exciting surprise. There is nothing stale or boilerplate about this story.

Robert (left) is your main player-controlled character, with his new companion Laura (right) helping out along the way.

One of the first things you might notice about gameplay in The Inner World is that there are a TON of things in the environment to interact with. This serves two important purposes: to make the world immersive and living, and to make your puzzle-solving more dynamic and less on-rails. If there’s only one thing to click on in a room, like say a drawer, it’s pretty easy to know what you have to do to advance the story. If there are 17 things to click on in a room, well now you have to actually start using your brain and problem-solving skills to move forward. And the amount of detail they have put in…well, you’re gonna want to click on everything in the room anyway, just to see the interaction, or hear the comments the characters make. There are multiple lines for each interaction, and sometimes other characters in the scene will comment when Robert interacts with something near them. This sense of discovery–“collecting” all of the lines of dialogue–is part of what makes adventure games like this great, and Studio Fizbin didn’t cut any corners. The voice acting is top-notch, in a cartoony but cerebral and moody way. Think Rocko’s Modern Life or Invader Zim.

The puzzles in this game can be challenging, but are often fair and rewarding. On occasion, however, it does fall into that common Point-and-Click trap of having a sudden and ridiculous leap in logic. The Inner World focuses largely on combining objects and using them in strange ways, and although it is satisfying to puzzle it out on your own, there are rare moments when I said to myself “I would have NEVER thought to do that.” It doesn’t happen often, but it is there.

A seedy back-alley full of interesting characters to interact with.

This is where the game really innovates: the hint system. Sometimes you just get stuck, and with very little direction in your quest log and TONS of places and items to interact with, it can get overwhelming. Luckily there is a built-in hint system so you don’t have to go running to the internet for a walkthrough. It’s presented in a fantastic way, with cascading hints that slowly point you in the right direction instead of just coming out and saying what you should do. Seriously, there will sometimes be 15 hints of varying levels of clarity, from minor suggestions all the way down to straight forward direction. Sometimes you don’t want the answers given to you, you just need a little shove in the right direction. This system was SO appreciated in my playthrough. Sometimes it was just a simple question–“Have you explored the alley?”–and other times it was cryptic–“Sticks can be used for other things than walking”–but they piece by piece moved you down the path to success without blurting the answers out. I think every game could benefit from a hint system like this, and I appreciate the developer’s sensitivity in this matter.

I truly believe that The Inner World is a game that can be enjoyed by anyone with an appreciation for atmosphere and world-building, not just adventure game enthusiasts. For those that specifically seek out Point-and-Clicks this is 100% a must-own. For myself, Studio Fizbin’s 2017 sequel The Inner World – The Last Windmonk is immediately on top of my gaming wish list.

There are a lot of similarities between these two games, and a lot of good things to take away from both. The main characters are both young and/or naive, and you get a good sense of their motivations very early. MechaNika has its own hint system in the form of Nika’s flask that grants her “inspiration”, but as helpful as it is to have a built-in character-relevant way to progress when you’re stuck, it pales in comparison to The Inner World’s slow step-by-step cascade of knowledge. Even though the themes in MechaNika are more in-your-face, The Inner World does not remain completely free of transgression. There are some moments where I wish Robert wouldn’t make romantically-charged comments, and there is one moment of blatant non-consenting contact that I wish the devs would have cut from the game. In fact, I didn’t need a romantic undercurrent at all. Perhaps its on account of Robert’s naive and sheltered upbringing that it makes sense to the writers, but I feel like the game and character relationships wouldn’t have suffered if it had been completely removed. Both Mango Protocol and Studio Fizbin have provided a mixed-bag on the social front, but likewise have both produced fine products at varying degrees from a pure gaming point-of-view. Fans of hand-drawn artwork would enjoy both, but when it comes down to it, The Inner World is a better game on all fronts.

I’m just excited that Point-and-Click games are still around.

MechaNika – Mango Protocol, Spain – 2015 (Prequel 2017 – Agatha Knife)

The Inner World – Studio Fizbin, Germany – 2013 (Sequel 2017 – The Last Wind Monk)

10 Seconds One Life (One Hour One Life Review)

I found myself wandering all alone on the outskirts of the marshlands, a young Eve of perhaps 16 searching for a new home. I had nothing of my own, not even clothing on my back. My first thought was food, of course, the dull whispering ache in my stomach getting louder with each passing moment in this cold empty frontier. A bush glistening with ripe berries caught my eye, and as I filled my belly I noticed something else glisten in the distance. It was bright gold and forged by man, and as I drew closer I saw that it rested in what was the remnants of a lost civilization. I clothed myself in rabbit furs, and fed upon a forgotten store of carrots hidden in a small shack. Rows of overgrown fields were scattered out back, and seeds and water skins, untouched for an unknown duration, sat in wait for a new farmer to take up the plow. The glistening item revealed itself to be a crown of gold lying in the dirt, a gilded carrot fastened to its center. I placed the crown upon my head and surveyed my new kingdom. It would be a lifetime of work to get it functional again, but perhaps this would be the legacy I would pass down to my children, and to their children. For I was now the Carrot Queen.

No, this was not a drug-induced fever dream, or the opening chapter to a prehistoric fantasy novel written by a weathered survivalist. This was One Hour One Life, the new MMO indie survival game-meets-social-experiment from developer Jason Rohrer.

The game is deceivingly simplistic in its presentation, and this uncluttered UI and singular unspoken instruction (go survive) is part of what gives the game its charm. The cartoony visuals are simultaneously humorous and endearing, from a newborn baby’s lolling tongue to a devil-may-care closed-eye smirk of an elderly person in a wolfskin cap.

That transformation from helpless infant to blasé geriatric is mostly what One Hour One Life is about, and it’s where countless stories will unfold and take form. Its unique take on the stages of life and an individual’s role within a family unit and community is what really sets this game apart from other flashier and more well-known titles in the survival genre.

You enter the game as a newborn baby, and your mother is another real-life player in the game world. This occurs at random anywhere on the server where a suitable “Eve” of the proper age is playing. It’s worth noting that these births are neither planned nor anticipated, as there is no “pregnancy” period that an Eve can prepare for. She is just going about her business trying to survive in this harsh unforgiving environment, and suddenly there is now a new mouth to feed at her feet.

It’s an exceptionally unique entry-level period for a survival game. As a baby you cannot feed yourself, you can not work or pick up items, or contribute to the settlement in any significant way. In fact, you can’t even speak in sentences. You are limited to only a single letter for in-game communication, unable to adequately express your needs or thoughts until you grow. Each “year” of your life you get another letter to your speaking limit, representing your slow grip on language and verbal communication. Those first years you are essentially at the mercy of your mother to be fed and clothed and kept warm, and your very presence is a drain on the tribe you were born into, as you consume both labor hours and resources without returning anything.

Time within the game world is what gives One Hour One Life its title. Each minute of real time represents a year to your character, so by the time you become a teenager you will have been in the game for 13 minutes. The upper limit to an individual’s lifespan is 60 years old, and thus One Hour is One Life. When you die of old age–if you get there at all–it will have seen you through the entirety of that character’s presence in the game. There is no saving, no loading, and when you are reincarnated there is little chance that you will return to the settlement you spent your time building and expanding. You, like all of us, do what you can in the time you are given, and hopefully you have left enough behind for your children and grandchildren to build upon. You will not see the farm become a thriving bakery, or watch as technology evolves into better tools and techniques for survival. You will mine the ore or fill the storehouse so that the next generation has time to forge items or raise a barn. And you likely will have mined that ore with a pickaxe that one of your predecessors crafted and left for you to find.

Since this world is filled with real players and not NPCs, there is no guarantee that they will act in a predictable or even a moral manner, and this is where the social experiment comes in to play. Your mother may not have the skills or instincts to keep you alive long enough for you to take care of yourself. Or she may very plainly tell you “Sry, no bbs” and carry you into the woods to die of starvation alone. And when YOU are older and have a baby of your own you will have to make that same choice. Will I sacrifice the next five minutes feeding this child, even though it lowers my own hunger meter? Will I be able to balance watering the crops with checking on a crying baby every twenty seconds? You can’t carry a baby and an item at the same time, so suddenly you can’t get the water from the well to the fields. Will you abandon the child or care for it? Will you teach it how to farm or how to bake pies, or will you drop it off at the fire and hope some good-hearted surrogate will see them to adulthood?

The potential for griefing in a game like this is immediately apparent, but what you will likely find instead is a small but growing community of helpful players that are both willing to groom newcomers and fill the roles the system has laid out for them. Roleplay is abundant, and the world is surprisingly immersive. The main website for One Hour One Life (which launched off-steam!) speaks about each player taking part in their own story, and I’ve found this to be very true. I recall one run where I was cared for by an exceptional mother that taught me how to craft everything I’d need to contribute to our tribe. She was there by my side as I grew into adulthood, and when she became old and ready to pass on she gathered me and my siblings around to say goodbye and bestow a gift to each of us. Then when her old bones fell to the ground we marched her north to a burial shrine to honor her.

Of course, not all playthroughs will be so smooth and immersive. My very first time playing I spawned to a mother that was running away from a grizzly bear. It immediately caught and ate me, hence the title of this review being Ten Seconds One Life. You will have many misfires, where you forget to eat or your mother forgets to feed you. The learning curve is huge, and perhaps the best advice I can give to new players is to Keep Playing. You’ll learn more and more as you go, and if you aren’t afraid to ask questions you’ll get taught just about every skill you need to survive and thrive.

As for the Carrot Queen and her golden crown, I was surprised to find such a cool item in the game. There are THOUSANDS of craftables in the game and many more planned to be added as civilization grows out of the iron age. Even more to my surprise was how I was able to bring that farm back to a working plantation with just myself and my offspring to work it. My firstborn daughter was a seasoned player that helped forage and build the things that I could not, and soon she had children of her own and every job on the farm was accounted for. When our stores were full of carrots and my 60th year was nearly upon me I gathered my family around the fire to say goodbye. I placed my crown on my littlest newborn granddaughter, named her, and declared her the new Carrot Queen. The family cheered and told me that they loved me, and I knew this story was complete as I passed away from old age after a full life well lived.

I immediately hit the Get Reborn button.

Next Generation

Finally got a chance to introduce my nephews to the glory of tabletop gaming!

I have been feeling that it was time, as they are now 11 and 8. The oldest has been ready for a while, but knowing that I’d never be able to play with him without the younger one joining in, I’ve been putting it off as long as I could.

I let them pick the game, and of course they went after Agricola with its farm theme and colorful pieces. I bought a full aftermarket set of meeples complete with farm animal and resource/produce pieces because they’re a lot more fun than colored discs and paper chits, so they were instantly drawn to it. This worried me; I’ve seen experienced adult gamers recoil at Agricola’s rulebook.

They got it immediately. I couldn’t believe it, even the 8 year old! So much for underestimating the capabilities of a child.

I’m so excited for the next holiday gathering when I can introduce them to some more games, indoctrinating a new generation into the board game lifestyle 😁

Pandemic Legacy

Super stoked to start a campaign of Pandemic Legacy!

If you haven’t played a legacy game, essentially there will be rule changes, special ability upgrades, map location changes, and many other game minutiae effects that carry over from game to game. Think of it as a “campaign” that continues each time your group pulls Pandemic out of the game closet.

We’re playing “Season 2” as the group I play with these days already played season 1 before I moved to town. I’ve played lots of Pandemic in my day, but this is my first legacy game of any kind. I’ve heard friends rave about Risk Legacy for years.

We had a blast playing, enough so that we’re planning a second game night just to devote to it.

The game plays very similar to the original, but sort of in reverse. Instead of traveling to locations to cure their viruses we make sure locations have supplies so that war and famine and disease don’t break out. It’s a new thematic approach, but it feels natural and familiar to veterans.

Pandemic is a cooperative game, which is why it’s one of my favorites. It’s also HARD. That fact hasn’t changed with the Legacy version, and of the two rounds we played last night only one was a success.

Next up we get to explore more of the map, as the game presents a fog-of-war mechanic usually reserved for video games. It’s masterfully done in my opinion, with changes to characters, the game board, and even the rulebook itself completed with stickers or markers, making it a “permanent” change. Each character even has a sort of life bar, hidden behind scratch-ticket silver. You won’t know who can take the most damage until it happens, and character death is permanent.

It took me a while to get on board with the concept of a game being “one use,” but it’s so seamlessly and naturally accomplished that I quickly saw the merit of a permanent option over a recyclable one. You’ll get your money’s worth. Yes, if you want to start a new game with a new group you’ll need a new copy of the game, but it will play so uniquely that it almost doesn’t matter, even to penny-pinchers like myself.

I’ll update as the campaign moves on, but for now my initial review comes with high praise and a strong recommendation to gamers of the genre and even role players and strategy gamers in general.