Late Review: Destiny

Compelling Disappointment

Back when I reviewed the Destiny Beta, I spoke at length about the arrogance of Bungie as a studio. I’m not going to reiterate that here but this review is best consumed with the context of that one in mind. I said that the beta showed a lot of potential but little of what was contained within it was very compelling and hopefully the final game would flesh out the supposedly epic 10 year vision Bungie was promising. What we got in the end was just more of what was in the beta, including all the problems, only multiplied, plus some perplexing new ones thrown in to boot. In so many ways, this is not a good game and it really makes you wonder how much of it’s supposedly $500 million budget actually went into development.

Yet in spite of this, I put at least 30 hours into Destiny, as did many of my friends who also agreed it was full of problems. For the life of me, I can’t really tell you why.

Destiny is broken down into several different game types: Story missions, patrols, strikes, the multiplayer suite and raids, which are considered the big deal of the game but more on that later. The non-multiplayer stuff takes place on several planets within our solar system, all of which consist of one large map that has different start points you’ll be dropped at depending on the mission. Despite this being hundreds, if not thousands of years in the future, humanity has apparently never ventured into deep space. Everything revolves around the standard first-person shooter and light MMO ideas: Shoot various generic alien enemies in the face, get experience, occasionally get loot. Bungie knows how to make a solid, engaging core game play loop and they definitely do that with Destiny. The combat is solid and seeing numbers go up as you get more and more kills is as satisfying as ever. Everything looks real pretty while you do it too, even on the old consoles. That’s really where most of my compliments end though.

The rest of Destiny is a mess and in many ways, it feels as though this game that is technically very polished and was in development for 5+ years was rushed out the door to hit a deadline. In my beta review, I called out the total lack of any context or meat to the story and that hasn’t improved one bit in the final release. Humanity is on the brink again and your job is to save it but you’re given no real back story or motivation for your actions and by the end, it doesn’t feel like you’ve accomplished anything or even learned more about what you were fighting for. As you play, you’ll earn Grimoire Cards which are supposed to explain more but they can only be accessed through Bungie’s web site or the game’s mobile app and only contain a small paragraph of further nebulous text that explains nothing.

Despite pitching itself as an MMO of sorts (right down to the pointless dance emotes), there is no sense of massive scale in Destiny. In the starting areas of missions, you can see a bunch of other random players running around that will help you kill mobs but don’t interact with you in any other meaningful way. When you get near your objective, you enter a never-explained “darkness zone” where things restrict to yourself and the up to 3 friends you can have in your Fire Team. At this point, it’s just another co-op shooter. There’s also a hub area on Earth that you have to go to frequently for various reasons and it’s also full of players but again, it serves no purpose as people only go here to interact with various kinds of vendors and leave again. This would be fine if the missions themselves were in any way interesting but that’s not the case.

Here’s how the majority of story missions in Destiny play out:

  • Pick a mission, get a confusing briefing during the agonisingly long load that explains nothing of value.
  • Spawn on map you’ve likely seen several times before. Receive additional details from your pointless and hyper phoned in Peter Dinklage voiced robotic companion (henceforth known as RoboDinklage).
  • Head to objective as fast as possible as most of the mobs on the map are well below your level and won’t get any experience for killing them.
  • Objective almost always consists of having RoboDinklage hack something while you fend off waves of enemies. It always takes him exactly until the end of the last wave to complete his task.
  • Do this a couple more times. Sometimes, the end of the mission will have a boss fight.
  • Receive another pointless bit of exposition from RoboDinklage while you look over the spoils of your efforts, most of which consists of gear too low level for you to use or nicer gear that’s probably not for your class (even though the classes you can pick from have largely superficial differences.)

You do variants of this for 10 hours or so and you’ve finished the story, likely as confused as when you started. You will level up your character as you go but all of the upgrades are simply tiers, some of which have multiple choices. The amount of actual customisation you can do to your character’s skills, abilities and gear is wafer thin, even compared to a lot of free-to-play MMOs.

Beyond the story, you have strikes which are specialised missions that are co-op focused and very challenging but in theory, more rewarding and patrols which just drop you onto a map to tackle a series of small missions you pick up from beacons lying around, usually involving killing a certain number of things or exploring somewhere. These are little more than padding and aren’t interesting or particularly fun.

Where Bungie has historically shined is in multiplayer, especially with the number of kooky and different modes they come up with. Destiny’s multiplayer is as bog standard as they come with only the usual Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Domination types available. More modes are supposed to come later but there is nothing interesting to be found here and it’s made worse by the fact that most modes allow people to bring in their gear from the campaign which often sends any sense of balance off a cliff.

All of this however, is supposed to lead up to raids. The base game of Destiny has only one raid and more are supposed to come in DLC (one of which is out at time of writing but which I haven’t played and won’t be.) This is a classic example of the kind of bad design where the best part of the game is the part that requires hours and hours of slogging through lesser content to get to it. You have to be fairly high level for the raid to even unlock and you have to have a nearly maxed out party of 6 people you know and at least several hours to even have a chance of completing it.

Your character in Destiny maxes out at level 20 which you’ll hit in no time but can go up to level 30 by wearing specialised gear that contains “light points.” Obtaining the gear you need for this involves hours and hours of grinding the same strike missions or multiplayer matches in the hopes that high-level gear will either drop randomly (which happens very rarely) or earning enough of one of the games 5 different currencies to buy the gear you need. I had intended to do a run of the base game’s raid for Extra Life and after at least 15-20 hours of grinding, I hadn’t earned enough to buy one of at least 3 pieces of gear I would have needed to not be a burden to my team. From what I’ve been told of the raid, it’s far and away the most interesting content of the game, yet it’s been locked away behind barriers so daunting that only the most hardcore players are going to bother trying to reach it. In an era where AAA games have to sell millions to make a profit, gating off the good parts in such a way seems like a recipe for failure. There is no scenario in which you can convince me that “It takes X hours but then the real content opens up.” is good design.

Once I realised I wasn’t going to be able to make the Extra Life raid, I’d had enough and never touched Destiny again, nor do I plan to. The thing is though, much of that 20 hours didn’t entirely feel like the kind of grind I despise and that’s what I’ve heard from a lot of people. So much of Destiny isn’t just not great, it’s out and out bad, yet the core of the game play felt so good that I tolerated a lot more of what was bad than I would have from most other games. So many people agree that Destiny is at best, an extremely flawed product, yet many of those same people but way more time into it than they would almost any other game with similar problems. This is something only a handful of developers could pull off. It’s a weird perversion of the idea of flow and engagement, yet it’s really quite an accomplishment when you think about it.

The problem is, once I got free of that core loop, I realised just how thin everything else in this pretty looking package was and I’m now soured on Destiny pretty bad. Unless the inevitable Destiny II is a massive improvement, Bungie has lost me on this one and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that, especially now that people have seen how little content is in the $20 first DLC…I’m sorry, “expansion” because of course, it’s different when Bungie does it.

Destiny is a pretentious game from a pretentious studio. I can’t see it as anything else when it was hyped up as such a massive thing and the response to most of the criticism hasn’t been “We’ll do better.” but “Just wait for this other stuff we have coming, though you’ll have to pay for it.” It’s nothing less than hubris to think that what they put out is even complete, much less cohesive. Yet, Destiny was still a lot of fun in many ways and it’s really perplexing how they managed to do both at the same time. Fool me once, shame on me but I won’t get fooled again by Bungie and I bet a lot of others won’t either. There’s a good framework for something cool here, now they just need to finish it before asking for more of my money. If you can get Destiny cheap at some point, I think you’ll have fun with it but $60 plus $40 more in “expansions” for a game that leaves you with more questions than answer is a bad deal in my opinion.

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Sunset Overdrive Review: Because It’s A Damn Video Game!

Insomniac Games is one of my favourite developers. Even when they were making pretty much nothing but Ratchet & Clank games, I still loved them because all the games were so polished, funny and mechanically amazing. They were famous for their sense of humour, tight platforming and wacky weapons. Overstrike looked like it was going to be an evolution of that, until EA gutted its soul and turned it into Fuse, yet another bland shooter devoid of anything interesting or memorable. When Sunset Overdrive was announced back at E3 2013, it looked like more of a return to form with colourful visuals, a wacky plot and something that looked akin to a Tony Hawk game meeting a zombie shooter.

I beat Sunset Overdrive and straight away, wanted to go back in for more but not before I immediately bought the DLC season pass. If that doesn’t give you a preview of my opinion, I’ll make it plain: This is among the most fun I’ve had with a game this year.

The plot of Sunset Overdrive is suitably nonsensical. It’s 2027 and an energy drink company called FizzCo has become the dominant corporate force over a world that seems pulled straight out of Idiocracy. A new drink gets its initial release in Sunset City. The problem is, FizzCo bribed their way out of health regulations and testing and unbeknownst to them, the drink turns anyone who consumes it into murderous, addicted mutants. The protagonist is one of your own making, created using the frankly incredible levels of customisation available. He or she works basically as a janitor for FizzCo but after all Hell breaks loose, ends up inheriting the task of saving the city from destruction by a company trying to cover up its epic mistake. You do this with a variety of wacky weapons, power ups known as amps and overdrives and by zipping around the open world by bouncing off cars and air vents, grinding on rails, hydroplaning and more. You’ll have to deal with the mutants but also squatters and eventually, FizzCo’s robotic army, with some other special encounters thrown in for good measure.

How are you able to do all this? What’s the crazy back story of your character that makes him or her knowledgeable of such things? How does a janitor end up saving the city by being Tony Hawk with guns? It’s never really explained. Realistic this ain’t but neither is anything else in Sunset Overdrive and that’s only to its benefit.

So many games try to be realistic and so many of the ones that aren’t still have an inherent need to explain the plausibility of everything they let you do. Sunset Overdrive has no such pretensions. It’s a save the world story but it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously. It doesn’t care whether it’s realistic or whether anything is relatable. Every time it introduced something new, I felt like it was silently proclaiming “Go with it because it’s a damn video game!” Why do you get around by grinding on rails and bouncing 50 feet in the air off cars and A/C vents? Because it’s a damn video game! Why are you using guns that do things like shoot explosive teddy bears or spray acid from dolls? Because it’s a damn video game! What exactly are amps and how are you “equipping” them to yourself? Because shut up, it’s a damn video game! I grew up on games that didn’t need to justify themselves, they just had good ideas of what was fun, made a platform for them and told you to enjoy. That’s exactly what Sunset Overdrive is about and in this era where even goofy games try to play things serious for fear people might actually–gasp–not take them seriously, this is so refreshing. It doesn’t care to explain itself to you, it’s just going to show you why it’s fun.

Much like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (another highlight for me this year), Sunset Overdrive’s open world is big but not so big that you need to pack a lunch to get from one end to the other. Sticking to the ground will get you killed in a hurry and you’re expected to move around the way the game wants you to. Figuring this system out is tricky at first and I think a better job could have been done at getting you used to it. I know I’m not the only one who ended up pretty frustrated for the first hour or so. Stick it out though because once it clicks, you’ll be moving super fast and wreaking havoc while you do it. Few games in recent years have so expertly made use of flow engagement theory. This is one of those games that you’ll sit down to play for half an hour and not realise when you get up that you’ve spent the day with it.

The campaign is a good dozen or more hours, especially if you do the side quests. Beyond that, there are a bunch of challenge missions (with online leaderboards of course) and a frankly insane number of different collectibles, many of which require mastery of the traversal systems to get. I can’t imagine how many hours it took to place all these in the world. These are all optional and if you choose to partake, I could see that easily tripling the length of time you’ll spend with it. Most of the missions have a decent variety of objectives and come attached to some hilariously different factions. Some are more interesting than others but aside from one really tedious series of side quests in the last act, I enjoyed basically every mission. There are only a handful of boss fights but without spoiling anything, they are all very memorable not just in terms of characters but in sheer scope.

Your character can be customised well beyond their appearance, with an huge, Insomniac-esque arsenal of weapons available, all of which are crazy in their own ways and play uniquely. Everything can be leveled up with use and you’re encouraged to experiment and there’s such a variety that it’s easy to ignore the ones you don’t like. You can purchase and equip amps and overdrives which are modifiers that boost the effect of certain types of weapons or traversal moves. It’s a deep system but the amps especially don’t provide significant benefits (it’s usually +1-3% to each statistic modified) and while I kept them up, I think you could easily beat the whole game while ignoring them altogether, especially since buying more requires grinding collectibles. Money is pretty common but some of the stuff you can buy is pricey so if you want some of the bigger ticket items, you’ll have to do some free roaming.

There’s also an online mode which I plan to spend more time with that pairs you up to an eight player party and throws various missions at you that are co-op in nature but can also have a friendly competitive element through the scoring system. These missions build up various team statistics that are used to determine how a night defense mission in the end plays out. The defense missions are absolute bedlam and a ton of fun. At the end of it all, your score is tallied and various bonuses are applied based on secondary objectives in the missions from your session. You get to spin for customisation loot and get more spins for hitting certain score milestones. Multiplayer can be jumped into at any time from the story mode and your same character with all their stats and weapons carries into multiplayer and anything you earn comes back out with you. This is an awesome design trend I hope we see more of.

The writing, humour and attitude of Sunset Overdrive has been divisive and I can see how it’s not for everyone. Everything’s presented with a very “punk” aesthetic from the art which has a very bright, graffiti-like colour palette to the hard punk soundtrack, which features several songs custom written for the game. I’m not normally big on punk music but I loved the energy this brought to things, even if there were far too few songs that resulted in a lot of repetition. If you don’t like rock music at all though, you’ll probably find it aggravating. Every character is unique and has their own distinct personality, making them all memorable, even if it’s for being annoying in some cases.

Many fourth wall breaking jokes are made, including making fun of video games themselves (there’s even a NeoGAF reference) and some even poke fun at what you’re doing in the game itself. There’s a school of thought I normally subscribe to which is that if you’re making fun of bad game design while making someone play it, you’ve missed the point. I get that but this game never really does that and often, it’s making fun of something by giving you the means to subvert it.

I’m also not normally a fan of referential humour, I find it lazy and unoriginal. Where Sunset Overdrive succeeds over say, Borderlands 2 is that it largely uses references to real life pop culture as a basis for original jokes of its own. Borderlands 2 doesn’t, it just points at pop culture references and Internet memes and goes “Remember this? Funny, amirite?” Sunset Overdrive may make a NeoGAF reference but it’s one part of a broader joke, not the entirety of it. This has been a staple of Insomniac Games for many years and they haven’t lost their touch. Anthony Burch should play this game and take notes, maybe one day he’ll learn how to actually write original jokes rather than just being the Ebaum’s World of video games.

This is a world that definitely needed the power of the new consoles to pull off. The draw distance is massive and some battles can have dozens or more enemies on screen at once and I never saw a dip below its locked 30 per second frame rate. Could this have been done on old hardware? Probably but it wouldn’t have been as fun. The load times are also quite short, something notable on the Xbox One which has become famous for making you wait. I never had any technical problems or even any real glitches. Given that this is Insomniac’s first open world game, that’s pretty impressive.

Sunset Overdrive is a breath of fresh air in a Fall release season that has largely seen rehashes of the same old ideas, many of which launched broken as well. This game is polished, runs like a top and is chalk full of original ideas and a personality that any gaming veteran can tell has Insonmiac Games written all over it. The rumour is now that publishers have been shown that tablets and phones aren’t taking over gaming and that people do still want AAA experiences, we’re going to start seeing more original ideas in the next couple of years. I certainly hope that’s true and that Sunset Overdrive is only one example of what’s to come. This is one of the best games I’ve played this year and honestly, I think it’s worth buying an Xbox One for on its own. It’s not getting the attention it deserves but if you’re someone who still plays games for raw fun first and realism second, you need to try this. Why? Because it’s a damn video game!

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Atari: Game Over Review: Big On Fun, Light On History

Much of the gaming world was perplexed when Microsoft announced back in 2012 that they were getting into the film and TV business. It seemed like yet another move by a directionless company to blur their focus, something many consider the Xbox One the personification of. Since the console’s tumultuous launch lead up and subsequent trouncing by Sony, Microsoft has refocused their efforts largely back on games and Xbox Entertainment Studios was dissolved barely a month ago. They hadn’t released very much but one thing was far enough along in production that they decided to let it see the finish line. What we got is a free documentary (to Xbox owners and Xbox Video users at least) called Atari: Game Over, which has little to do with the Xbox at all but is supposed to chronicle the incredible rise and demise of one of the gaming industry’s pioneer companies and the infamous E.T. tie-in game many use as a symbol of the the early 80s game industry crash. I gave it a watch this past Saturday and while it’s an entertaining and well produced hour and a bit, it’s less than stellar at showcasing a pivotal event in the life of the still young game industry.

I won’t recount the entire 80s game industry crash but here’s a quick rundown: The industry flooded the market with too many games, many of which were garbage. This killed consumer confidence and the console side of the industry experienced an almost overnight crash in the early 80s. Many companies went from flying high to cratering, one of which was Atari who were among the first to bring video games into the home. The game that was one of their biggest coffin nails was E.T., a tie-in to the film that ended up being an abysmal game made on an unrealistic deadline and which they manufactured millions more units of than they could sell. Unable to get rid of them, Atari supposedly dumped them in a New Mexico landfill before they went bankrupt shortly after.

Atari: Game Over is centered around the efforts of a few people to find and dig up the mythical dump site. Much ado is made about the noble, supposedly archaeological motivations behind this but even when this film was first announced, I never understood why this was necessary. Despite being a terrible game that bombed, copies of E.T. are plentiful and can be found for peanuts. It’s not like they’re digging up a relic previously thought lost to the ages. The mystery is that the dumping was always portrayed through history as a rumour and something no one’s really sure happened. It’s easy enough to confirm that it did but really, this something some hardcore enthusiast nerds are doing for curiosity’s sake and as one of said nerds, I can respect that. Director Zak Penn is clearly into the idea of digging the site up but he also doesn’t take it super seriously and that helps to keep the film’s tone light and fun. A few “nerd celebrities” are tossed in along the way and it’s entertaining to see them talk about this stuff and what Atari meant to them growing up, though it probably is more meaningful if you can directly relate like I can.

The dig serves as the focal point for what is supposed to be a history lesson of Atari’s almost overnight rise to a household name and its demise which happened almost as quickly. In this regard, Atari: Game Over kind of succeeds but it doesn’t go nearly deep enough. Perhaps the one hour length was a hard limit Zak Penn had to work with but the film really doesn’t do justice to the history and true complexities of the industry crash. Anything related to historical elements feels rushed and huge amounts of detail are given a quick drive-by treatment or glossed over entirely. Many important figures from Atari’s past make appearances and are given plenty of opportunities to speak but as someone familiar with the crash, it just doesn’t feel like it was explained well enough in a film that’s ultimately supposed to be all about it. I get that this is a presentation “for the masses” and you can’t go too deep down the rabbit hole but a lot was missed that I personally think it very important to having a true understanding of what really happened.

Where I will give Atari: Game Over massive props is in the amount of respect it pays to Howard Scott Warshaw. Many (myself included) would consider him not only Atari’s most decorated game designers but indeed, one of the most important figures of Atari period. I know a lot about Warshaw but one thing this film taught me was that he never made a title at Atari that wasn’t a million seller (yes, including E.T.) That’s an incredible statistic as selling a million copies back in the Atari 2600 era is the equivalent of a Call of Duty blockbuster today and it’s a record only Warshaw holds. E.T. was a bad game but he had less than 1/6th the time to make it that he normally did and titles like Yar’s Revenge showed what a talent he truly was when given the time he needed. I was very pleased to see him get so much screen time and get the opportunity to talk about what he did and the interesting life he’s led since.

Rather fittingly, one of Howard Scott Warshaw’s career changes was into that of a documentary filmmaker and long before this film, he released his own amateur chronicle of Atari’s history called Once Upon Atari. I bought it on DVD almost a decade ago and while the production values might be a little cringe-worthy today, it does a great job of going deep on the company’s rise and fall, far better than Atari: Game Over does. I would say it’s geared more towards retro enthusiasts but it’s easy enough to understand for non-gamers as well. If you want a much better history lesson, I highly recommend picking it up for cheap on GOG.

Despite the rather silly premise of Atari: Game Over, you can’t help but root for the efforts of these guys to find their buried treasure. It was well known before this came out that they succeeded so that’s not really a spoiler and the film’s ultimately more about the journey. A surprisingly large crowd gathered at the dump to watch the dig unfold and I did have a pretty big grin on my face when they uncovered the stash of games and everyone cheered. Even if it’s not necessarily the most fruitful endeavour, watching people achieve victory is always enjoyable. As it turns out, they ended up finding more than they bargained for and I won’t spoil that but for someone who is a gaming history nut, it creates a bit of a poignant moment that I didn’t expect and gives more insight into what really happened in the early 80s.

Despite the lack of deep history in Atari: Game Over, it rightfully points out how wrong the common viewpoint of E.T. is. Many people place the blame solely on it for the industry crash and some by extension, blame Warshaw for that, arguably one of the best designers of the era. E.T. and Atari did not cause the crash, they were simply the biggest and most publicly visible symbols of an industry that was deeply in peril already. This film makes this point with a level of bluntness I think is necessary and tries to set the record straight. The myth of E.T. is strong though and I don’t think the truth will ever eclipse it but it’s nice to see the truth stated plainly.

Atari: Game Over isn’t bad by any means, it’s just a bit thin. But hey, it’s free so if you have an Xbox 360, Xbox One or access to Xbox Video, you should take an hour out and decide for yourself. The story around the dig is ultimately fun but the problem is that it only serves as a central point for a history lesson that ultimately falls short and just doesn’t cover enough to tell the whole story. Had it been able to just be 90 minutes instead of 60, I think it could have succeeded fully. If you want the in-depth lesson, Once Upon Atari is worth the cost to get that. If you just want an entertaining hour around a goofy and oddly admirable nerd adventure with some gaming history thrown in, this is a fun time and still miles above the abysmal Video Games: The Movie from earlier this year. I still find it odd that one of the only things to come out of Xbox Entertainment Studios is a documentary about Atari but films about the history of video games are few and far between so I’ll take whatever I can get. As the industry continues to age and the audience grows, I hope we’ll see many more attempts made at this kind of thing in the future.

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Outlast & Whistleblower Late Review: It’s All About Journalistic Terror

I played Outlast and Whistleblower live in a single sitting for Extra Life 2014. You can watch my edited Let’s Play series here.

I’m a complete weak sauce when it comes to anything horror. I’ve never understood the concept of purposefully terrorizing yourself for entertainment. Obviously, a lot of people feel differently as it’s a successful, if niche genre in the scope of gaming. When I do Extra Life, I always make a stretch goal to play through a well known horror game, partially for the hilarity of watching me try to do it but also because it forces me to play a type of game I normally wouldn’t and helps broaden my experience. Two years ago, I played through Amnesia: The Dark Descent and while I found it interesting, it didn’t leave the impression on me it has on many others. Most people I read considered Outlast good but not in the same league. What I discovered was a game that not only scared me more but one I found much more enjoyable.

Outlast comes from small Montreal indie studio Red Barrels which is apparently largely seeded with talent from the AAA industry who are horror fanatics. Outlast was their passion project. You can certainly see that this is a game with a lot of love put in it, if by love you mean mental anguish that probably needs years of therapy. To put it mildly, this game and especially its Whistleblower DLC are fucked up, both in general subject matter and what your characters end up enduring through their different, yet parallel quests to discover the truth.

In the base game, you are playing a journalist who receives a tip from your character in Whistleblower that some seriously deranged science is going down at the Mount Massive Asylum by Merkoff, a stand-in for any number of real-life evil megacorporations. You arrive with little more than your infrared equipped video camera and a determination to expose and take down Merkoff. The story is not overly complex and your progression through the it is very linear but it sets a good tone and fiction for horror set in modern day. It’s peppered with plenty of deranged but unique characters and a twist at the end that surprised me, despite my thinking afterward that it was rather predictable. It’s also relatively short at about 5 hours (plus another 2.5 for Whistleblower) and doesn’t overstay its welcome. You can get the nuts and bolts just by watching cutscenes but there are collectible files strewn about the levels that flesh out the details and back story. You can get by without them but they’re a good way to learn more and best of all, they make collectibles useful and worth finding, as opposed to just something you grab to see some lame concept art.

Like many other popular horror games, you are alone most of the time and your interaction with other characters is only in cutscenes, after which they promptly take off. There are plenty of inmates to be found but not all of them are hostile and while an enemy will sometimes be clearly designated, you’ll sometimes get jumped by someone you thought was passive. Since you’re a journalist and not a supersoldier, all you can do when spotted is run and hide. On the normal difficulty, you have regenerating health and can take a few hits but this doesn’t diminish the terror you feel when running for your life, especially when the route to safety isn’t often clear. Sometimes, enemies will also check hiding spots and find you at random. Some areas of Mount Massive are lit and others require that you use your IR lights on your camera, which have a limited battery supply that depletes fast. Batteries are found randomly about for no particular reason other than “it’s a video game” and at least on normal, they’re common enough that I never ran out. I’ve been told that on higher difficulties, they’re both harder to find and you can carry fewer of them.

Where I feel Outlast really excels over Amnesia: The Dark Descent is in its pacing and the fact that it’s so linear actually helps this. What really bugged me about Amnesia was that too much of the game had nothing going on. There were large sections where there were no enemies (and you always had a clear telegraph when one was nearby) and beyond that, there were large puzzle levels where it was made crystal clear that you’d never be in any danger. The best kinds of horror are ones that keep you riding up and down from terror to calm but Amnesia had too much calm and made it too obvious. Outlast does rely a lot more on jump scares than tension (though it has plenty of that too) but it never lets you relax for very long. Even during some of the calmer areas, there are things that kept you on edge, like a passive enemy that just follows you around or bigger goons behind a locked door, chatting about what they’ll do to you when they catch you later. Even when there’s not much happening, you always feel a need to look over your shoulder. It’s this ability to calm you but still keep you vigilant that really makes Outlast a more enjoyable experience for me over Amnesia, even though I still think that’s an excellent game in its own right.

What I did find frustrating were its attempts at puzzles. These consisted of several points where something had to be activated and it always involved going to two different extremes of the level, doing the same thing in both locations, then returning to the middle and doing something else, all while avoiding patrolling enemies. The tasks you were given often didn’t make a lot of sense a real world context and these sections really felt like padding. They served their purpose as it was still terrifying to be spotted and hear the music swell but they also broke the immersion for me a bit. Some of the later objectives also involve meeting up with someone who refuses to stay in one place and keeps going on ahead, through areas that would really be easier to traverse as a pair. It fits with what the story is trying to do but it’s also kind of silly when you think about it.

The Whistleblower DLC thankfully doesn’t have any of this. It’s a shorter and further focused experience that I enjoyed even more than the base game, though the amount of seriously disturbing subject matter and imagery in it (even compared to the core story) made me really glad it wasn’t longer. The core mechanics are the same (though how it narratively justifies giving you a video camera is kind of hammy) but it’s a very different tale. Without spoiling anything, what I think really sets it apart is that it starts as a prequel to the main story but through some clever narrative tricks, ends up becoming a parallel story and concludes in what I would call a nice full circle with a great “Fuck yeah!” moment near the end as well. It doesn’t give full closure to the Mount Massive story but it does conclude nicely and isn’t a pure setup for a sequel.

Technically, Outlast isn’t state-of-the-art but looks good nonetheless. It’s an Unreal Engine 3 game and while it shows that it was made by a small team, they did well with what they had available to them and still created a dreary and terrifying environment. I played on PS4 and being based on older tech means it ran at 60 frames per second which is a welcome rarity on a console. There were infrequent but very jarringly placed and long load times that reminded me a lot of Half-Life 2 and it twice froze during these, requiring a force close and restart of the game. I would have liked to see these handled more elegantly. The sound design is top notch which I believe is a must in games like this and while the music isn’t something I really remember, it was well done and critical to the “tension and release” cycle they so masterfully executed.

I went into Outlast not really knowing what to expect and though it still hasn’t made me want to play horror games unless I have to, I think it was not only a good horror experience but also a good video game besides. Amnesia: The Dark Descent was good but had pacing issues and was too open for its own good in places. Red Barrels knew what their limitations were in making Outlast and they stayed focused within them, making the best game they could with what they had. What we got was something that played well despite some pacing annoyances, had a simple yet memorable story and without a doubt, scared the shit out of me many times.

Outlast 2 has been confirmed since I played through this and I can’t wait to see what they can do with a bigger budget and maybe newer technology like Unreal Engine 4. If they can get it out by next Fall, it’s definitely going to be my next Extra Life stretch goal. I don’t know if I’ll ever become a horror enthusiast but if stuff like Outlast keeps coming, I think I will enjoy the times I have to partake. If you actually dig horror, this is certainly not one to be missed.

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Watch Me Play Outlast & Whistleblower Like A Wimp for the Kids


Follow the series playlist here.

At last, the time is upon us! My edited version of my November 1st live stream playing through Outlast and its Whistleblower DLC in one sitting for Extra Life 2014 is now on YouTube! Getting this edited down was a bigger process than I thought and pretty much took two weeks of lunch hours but I got er’ done! You can watch the first episode above.

I was a little worried that my “performance” wouldn’t be all that entertaining but having watched almost the whole thing in editing, I think I actually did OK and I laughed at myself getting terrified more than a few times. I’m not sure how well the series will do as this is an older game but I’m hoping people enjoy it. For now, there isn’t just a highlight video of all the times I freaked out as it’s a fair amount of work to put together but I may look at making one later.

Now for some more nitty gritty details. It’s going to be a 16 part Let’s Play series with the first episode going up today and one per day going up at noon for the following 15 days. Each episode is more or less half an hour in length (except a single episode that’s only about 10 minutes cause I couldn’t find a better cut point) and the away breaks I took and whatnot have been edited out. It’s only in 720p at 30 frames per second in lower quality than I’d like because I had to recording using Open Broadcaster and it will only record at whatever settings you’re also streaming with. I hope I can figure out a better solution in the future. I also interacted with my Twitch chat throughout and I wasn’t using an overlay plugin so you can’t see what they were saying but you can guess a lot of it from my responses.

If you want to keep up with the series, you can follow the playlist which will get new episodes as they’re added or better yet, just subscribe to my channel and follow all my stuff! I will still be doing videos from my other on going series as this one rolls out so if you already watch my other content, don’t worry, that’s not stopping.

I hope you all enjoy this. If you do, please thumbs up the videos, comment with your feedback, consider subscribing and more than anything, please tell others. I love doing my YouTube stuff but my channel is still tiny and growing at a snail’s pace given how much content I have and I hope this can push it forward. As terrifying as making this was, I actually had fun and I really enjoyed Outlast. I plan to do a late review blog post of it here before the series concludes. Outlast 2 is apparently in development so who knows, maybe that can be next year’s Extra Life stretch goal!

Thank you once again to the myriad awesome people who donated $1,580 at time of writing time to my Extra Life 2014 campaign. It means an immense amount to me and to sick kids at CHEO. I can’t wait to do Extra Life again next year!

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The Game Industry’s Fall of Foulups (With Video)

2014’s Fall deluge of games is upon us. Stuff is coming out left and right and gamers around the world are super excited to be jumping into a whole pile of new titles and finally justifying their purchases of next-gen machines. Actually no, that’s not what’s happening at all. In a week chalk full of big releases, we’ve had just as many stories about said big releases being horrible messes, locking consumers into purchases of $60 products that don’t work as advertised or in some cases, don’t bloody work at all. This combined with my Xbox One woes this week and a really depressing story about a mobile developer daring to ask for money for something has made it time for a good old rant.

For several years leading up to now, a lot of people in the press and otherwise were questioning if this new generation of consoles and the AAA games that come with them had any chance at all. The mobile boom was in full swing and lots of clueless analysts were talking about how iPads were already as powerful as the last-gen consoles (hint for those geniuses: they still aren’t) and that no one was going to buy the new machines and everyone would be playing everything on tablets in five years. Indeed, I’ve been reading that many big publishers thought similarly and one of the reasons we don’t have as many titles as we’d like on the new machines is that a bunch of new projects weren’t greenlit until these publishers knew if anyone was going to be there to buy them. Once again, I was right and the people who said consoles were over were dead wrong. They’re selling better than the last generation did and supposedly, a bunch of new games are in development. For now though, we had to make due with mostly familiar stuff and I was OK with that but it seems this industry is doing everything it can to shoot itself in the foot right after showing that it was still wanted.

I’ve been an ardent Assassin’s Creed fan since the series launched. I’ve played and beaten every single game in the series except the one on the PSP. I even liked ones people weren’t fond of like Revelations (though I also thought 3 was pretty lame.) I think the stories are pretty dumb but love to explore and run around the incredible worlds they make. I pre-ordered Assassin’s Creed: Unity as I loved Black Flag and was stoked to get the first of these games built from the ground up for the next generation (the old consoles are getting one too but in the form of Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, a totally different game that’s basically more Black Flag.) Well, it turns out Unity is a fucking disaster. Massive performance problems on all platforms, a bad story (even by series standards), no new game play innovation like Black Flag and oh yeah, they filled the game was scummy microtransactions that they purposefully left disabled before launch so reviewers couldn’t know about them. Like Watch Dogs before it, the final product also doesn’t look nearly as good as it was shown in trailers. From what I’ve been told, Rogue (the game built on old tech for old systems) is actually a much better game. As usual, the press is being gentle to Unity and giving it good scores with one side of their mouths while screaming about its issues with the other side.

My copy is still in the shrink wrap and it’s going back to Best Buy for a refund tomorrow.

Congratulations Ubisoft, you’ve taken someone who enthusiastically played every Assassin’s Creed game at launch and turned me into someone who will at best, wait for a 50% off sale on Steam and even then, will only buy the game if you get your shit together and make it run worth a damn. I’m lucky in that I read and watched this coverage before I opened it. Plenty more didn’t and since you can’t return games once they’re opened (even if they don’t work properly), a lot of people are now stuck with a sub-par product at full price. Ubisoft’s many blunders this year are already getting them called The New EA by some people and not unfairly I don’t think.

Their insistence on making a massive open-world game an annual franchise (Hell, a double release this year no less) is clearly something they’re not up to, even with their army of worldwide studios. Say what you will about Call of Duty and I can say plenty but this year’s game runs like a top on every platform. Yet, Assassin’s Creed: Unity was still shoved out the door basically unfinished to hit their date anyway, with scummy embargoes to ensure they kept their precious pre-orders by gagging the press from talking about it until 12 hours after it was out. It’s a complete and total lack of respect for their customers, yet they did it anyway assuming that people will have forgotten by next year.

To follow that, we have Halo: The Master Chief Collection, an exclusive to Xbox One (obviously.) That game came out the same day and at time of writing, some people under certain circumstances might be able to get into multiplayer games. Matchmaking for this title shipped completely broken and though they claim to have been updating it all week, it’s still not properly functional. Sure, you can still play the remastered campaigns but most people bought this (and downloaded the 20 gigabyte day one update) for multiplayer and they can’t. Unfortunately, I stupidly cracked the plastic on this one so I’m stuck with it. I’ve no doubt Microsoft will get matchmaking in order and progress seems to be getting made every day but this is still unacceptable. A full price game was released with a key component broken and once again, the burden was placed solely on the customers, while the developer issues a PR-laden apology and swears they’ll get your product working.

Then there’s my experience getting Master Chief Collection even bloody installed, one which neatly fits in with the fuckups listed above. I bought an Xbox One about two weeks ago, just shy of the platform’s first full year on the market. One of the things I like about it over PS4 is that you can suspend a game you’re playing, turn the console off and when you come back, jump right back in where you left off without having to boot up fresh. PS4 promised this feature for its launch and we’re still waiting for it. Also, the Xbox One is supposed to do game installations from disc and patch downloads in the background, even while the machine is sleeping. After playing some Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare the other night, I put the Master Chief Collection in the drive, hoping to have it install and download the massive patch overnight. I put the disc in, started the install and update process, shut everything off and went to bed hearing the Blu-ray drive whirring away. The next day, I turn the console on, pop out the disc to put Call of Duty back in and see “Installation stopped.” It turns out it didn’t do the install or download the update in the background like it was supposed to. I checked online and a ton of people have this problem with the Xbox One on a regular basis, with no rhyme or reason to it. Microsoft keeps saying it will get fixed in new firmware updates and it never does. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I tried it again last night and it seemed to finish a chunk of the install but tonight, still wasn’t finished and I had to just leave the machine on to complete it. That’s also not including how when I put Call of Duty back in yesterday, it wanted to download an update for that game and froze the whole console after installing it.

These new consoles have been out for a whole year and they’re still riddled with stupid problems. The PS4 just fixed a major bug in the 2.0 firmware that rendered Standby Mode unusable for many (myself included) and my Xbox One still in many ways, feels like a machine in the beta stage. Beyond that, $60 (or $70 in Canada now) AAA games shipping in states many would consider unfinished seems to be becoming the rule rather than the exception. Only a couple of years ago, people said consoles were dead and largely, the console makers proved them wrong but they’re quickly stamping out any good will they still had with consumers. I’m a hardcore gamer and more tolerant of this stuff than many but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people who bought a new machine, saved up and bought Assassin’s Creed: Unity or Master Chief Collection are considering putting their consoles up for sale right about now. It used to be that the PC is where you went if you wanted a high-end experience but needed to tinker but for all its problems, Steam looks like perfection compared to what these “easy” consoles have been.

Maybe Ubisoft finally needs to realise that it’s not realistic to make massive open-world games on a yearly basis. Maybe the Assassin’s Creed teams should be given a year off to get their tech straight and get a chance to write a decent story and maybe they should think about not filling the games with more and more bloated features that no one asked for, take a lesson from Shadow of Mordor and learn how to make a great open-world experience with tighter constraints. If Unity is the best they can do with their current formula and new hardware, they need to do something else. In Microsoft’s case, you can’t afford to have a tent pole release by the company who makes the bloody console be such a broken mess when your system is in a very distant second place. The Xbox One needs to catch up and this isn’t how you do it. Personally, I think everyone who has Master Chief Collection registered on their accounts should get a free month of Xbox Live for their patience but that’s just talking crazy.

On the other side, we have the Monument Valley story. I’m on record as saying that I think most mobile games are creatively bankrupt crap (and they are) but though I haven’t played Monument Valley, it was apparently a bright spot in the mobile cesspool. It’s a pretty puzzle game that apparently has a touching story as well. It came out for $2.99 which on its own, makes it an outlier in the mobile space because almost no one succeeds charging more than $0.99 for mobile games any more. The developers announced an expansion that no one expected was on the way with a bunch of new content and they were going to charge $1.99 for it. Sounds more than reasonable to me. Well, I’m apparently in the minority as a bunch of people took to the app store and bombed the game with 1-star reviews, basically saying that the developers were greedy, they sold the base game with content held back to charge more for it later and how dare they charge more money for more stuff! The developers have been quite upset by it and are apparently now reconsidering their stance. EDIT: It’s since come to my attention that the supposed “review bombing” of Monument Valley consisted of a couple hundred 1-star reviews on a game with thousands of positive ones, something that had little impact on its overall score. Touch Arcade, Giant Bomb and a couple of other sites used a single tweet of the developers mentioning this as a reason to run clickbait stories about poor indies being treated like crap. I should have researched more but my core points made as a result of this story I still think are relevant. The people who wrote stories framing this as a huge deal should be ashamed of themselves and I for one expected a lot better out of Patrick Klepek.

This infuriates me for two reasons. Firstly, that most mobile game consumers’ priorities are so messed up that they will lose their minds about buying a $2 expansion (cheaper than a fancy coffee) for an incredible $4 game that they’re going to play on a $500 tablet that they replace every year or two. Secondly, that the mobile game industry complains about people considering anything that costs more than $0.99 to be a “premium product” when the industry itself made people think this way.

No one saw the rise of mobile games coming. When Apple opened up the iPhone to third-party applications with Android following shortly after, a whole new industry was birthed overnight. People started putting out games on these phones for fun and didn’t think of it as a business really so they didn’t charge much for them. Yet, as the games got more complicated and the technical capabilities of the devices increased, no one thought that maybe they should start charging real money for real products. Instead, they found ways to keep the games cheap but make the money elsewhere, largely through scummy microtransactions. Games that were about creativity first and didn’t want to fund themselves with nefarious micropayments were essentially pushed out of the market and made pariahs by consumers who went “How dare you think to charge money for your game when this other one is free!” Never mind that the free games are largely skinner box trash, casual game consumers don’t know enough to see the difference. It’s gotten so bad that many creative game developers are leaving mobile for PC or even consoles in some cases because on those places, people are used to paying money up front for a good product.

Yet still, this is a problem the industry made for itself and it’s almost the polar opposite of what’s happening in AAA. In mobile, the industry has made it so no one will buy good games for money. In AAA, the industry has people happily willing to shell out $60 or more for complete games but those games ship broken, underdelivering what they promised and in some cases, being filled with the same scummy practices the popular mobile games are! It’s something you almost never see in any other industry. They’ve actually managed to fuck up two complete polar opposites of the spectrum in different ways.

The industry as a whole needs to get its head out of its ass and start thinking about consumers first again. People are getting wiser than ever before and this isn’t going to get tolerated forever. Many have said for years that a new game industry crash was coming and it was mobile that was going to crash consoles. I don’t think that’s the case at all but I think both ends of the industry have got themselves in precarious positions right now. Consumers are wiser to this kind of crap than they’ve ever been and there’s only so much of this kind of corporate abuse they’re going to be willing to take. There are more ways to be entertained than ever before and there are a lot of people out there who play games but would just as soon do something else if gaming becomes too much of a chore for them. Us hardcore gamers like to think that we’re what sustains the industry but we really aren’t. We may be influential tastemakers and we may put more money into the industry per capita than others but it’s the massive army of “casual” players that sustain publishers and console manufacturers. You lose them, you lose everything. At one time, it looked like they were abandoning consoles for phones. It turns out that wasn’t true but right now, the industry is having to lie in the bed its made on two different fronts. They’re different beds, they’re made in different ways but they’re both really uncomfortable.

I’m very thankful that at least for now, I’m in a privileged position that allows me to be able to buy basically all the games I want. However, I feel for people who can only afford maybe a few games a year and got stuck with one of these broken stinkers. Those are the people the industry can’t afford to lose and yet, it seems to not care about making sure they’re happy. These people aren’t guaranteed customers for you, game industry. You need to continue to earn their business and just based on this last week, you’re failing miserably.

A crash could still come. Get your shit together and maybe, just maybe, you won’t be the ones who actually cause it.

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60fps Videos Coming to My YouTube Channel

Announced earlier this year, 60 frames per second support has finally rolled out to YouTube worldwide for videos in HD resolutions! If you follow a lot of the more professional gaming channels, you’ve probably seen it in wide use already. I have to say, I was skeptical if YouTube could make it work well but they seem to have pulled it off very nicely.

I’d been considering whether utilising this new presentation method was a good fit for my channel. I principally cover retro games, many of which don’t run at 60fps or HD resolution for that matter. I also archive all my captured footage and project assets and am into multiple terabytes already, even though most of my first year of videos were only done in SD resolutions. The thought of doubling the bit rate made me wince at how much space that may require. Hard drives are cheap but they ain’t that cheap. One major limitation of this feature as well is that if a video is uploaded to YouTube at 60fps, you are forced to play back at that speed, unless you drop to SD resolutions. This means you have to have a faster connection and download more data in order to view those videos and I was concerned that would be an issue for some of my viewers.

After much thought, testing, reflection, testing, testing and more testing, I’ve decided what I’m going to do and I think it will balance everything out nicely. Going forward, I will record videos in 60fps and 1080p where it makes sense. If a game doesn’t run at 60fps the majority of the time, I won’t waste time and space recording at that rate. Also, if a game doesn’t run natively at 1080p, I also won’t record at that resolution.

I was actually surprised how little additional space is required to record 60fps footage, especially off consoles with my AVerMedia ExtremeCap U3. The files are most certainly larger but not twice the size at all and it’s quite manageable. Even at 1080p, YouTube downscales most of the video on their site to a much lower bit rate in order to save on storage and bandwidth costs. This is why you often see super high quality and most “artsy” videos on Vimeo, where the bit rate can be much higher, thus allowing much higher levels of quality. Most people watching videos on YouTube don’t care though.  By recording at the bit rate YouTube uses, even 1080p/60fps files are much smaller than I expected which is fantastic.

Similarly, I did some testing and while watching a YouTube video at 60fps definitely requires a faster connection and more data, it is also far less than I expected it to be. Clearly, YouTube has spent a lot of time optimising their player to make this possible, which makes sense when you consider they also have to send you more data and again, bandwidth is cheap but it ain’t that cheap. The more I see of how well tuned this is, the more I see why it took so bloody long to get it out there. I don’t give YouTube credit often but on this, they did a great job, aside from not allowing you to drop to 30fps at HD resolutions. Maybe one day, metrics will show this is a good idea and they’ll implement it.

So from now on, you’ll see 60fps and 1080p when it makes sense but only in those cases. Forcing more demanding standards on people for content that doesn’t require it is just wasteful and doesn’t serve the best interests of my audience. However, if I can maximise quality when appropriate, I will do so. The first video to utilise this is my latest Retro Flashback on Midway Arcade Origins:

This was recorded at 720/60fps because the Xbox 360 doesn’t run this game in 1080p and some of the games in the package run at 60fps. I’m very happy with how it turned out. If games I cover in the future normally run at 60fps most of the time (i.e. they don’t experience major slowdown), you can expect to see them at that speed. If you see future games at 30fps, you can assume that it’s because those games don’t run faster than that. Same with 1080p resolution. I have recorded everything in 720p minimum for a while now because I find even older games that don’t run at 720p look crisper and less blurry when presented in HD. I have no way to update older videos without deleting them first so those will remain unchanged. My StarTopia series also started at 30fps and I want to keep it consistent so it will continue to be that until it concludes.

I have a pilot for a potentially new series coming later this week (that will be announced here when it goes up) that’s probably going to be at 1080p/60fps more often than not. The pilot episode definitely will be. I also will start rolling out my Outlast and Whistleblower play through that I did live for Extra Life in the next couple of weeks but again, that was recorded at 720p/30fps (and a lower bit rate for that matter) so that’s going to be presented that way. Recording live streams at 60fps is very tricky and I haven’t figured out the best way to handle that yet. Lastly, the Geek Bravado Ramble will continue to be in 30fps because my webcam won’t do higher than that without dropping to abysmal quality and frankly, does a VLOG really benefit from 60fps? Personally, I don’t think so.

So there you have it. I hope this gives you guys some insights into both the technical challenges of this and my reasoning for approaching it as I am. I think this is a good balance of reducing my own storage requirements (which are substantial, especially for a channel that hasn’t made me a cent in a year and a half) and also making sure the most number of people can easily watch my videos, while also presenting things in the best way possible. I’d love to hear your feedback so please leave a comment here or on one of the videos. As always, I’m looking to improve and my audience is the best source of ways to do that.

Thanks again for continuing to watch my stuff and I hope you enjoy the silky smoothness!

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