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GreatTreeJam Criticizes Games (Latest - MGSV: The Phantom Pain)
Topic Started: Nov 14 2016, 01:46 PM (614 Views)
GreatTreeJam
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The tough critic

I like to envision myself as a harsh but fair critic. I don't review games unless they either grip my attention or leave me wanting to tear them apart. Nonetheless, I figured it would be a good idea to share my thoughts on a few games I've played. I have (admittedly) taken some of these from my own Steam reviews. Nonetheless, they detail what I think makes a game either poor, fair, good, or excellent.

Here's how I rate games. I break them up into categories for story, gameplay, sound, and graphics. If there is something else I'd like to cover, I might consider putting it into another category. The games will be rated according to the following:
  • Poor - fails at the premise/execution
  • Fair - acceptable; may have a good number of flaws, but not enough to warrant a "poor" rating
  • Good - as the category implies; there may be some issues that keep it from being near perfect, but it is a step or two above average
  • Excellent - phenomenal; there may only be a few notable criticisms that would warrant some room for improvement, but the quality is near perfect or fucking amazing

This isn't by any means a complete list. Whatever I play is fair game for criticism. Unless otherwise specified, all reviews below are for PC games.
FTL: Faster Than Light - No ratings applied to this game just yet...I will have to come back and edit this review

FTL is a fun, yet challenging, top-down roguelike space simulator game. The game has a nice retro feel to it, and I found it great to play to see all the different outcomes of one playthrough vs another. This game was developed and published by Subset Games in 2012 for Windows, OS X, Linus, and iOS.

Story
The game's plot has a very simple premise: you are the CO of a military spaceship belonging to a faction known as the Federation, and are in the midst of a war between the Federation and the Rebels, another faction that seeks the utter destruction of the Federation (and, by extension, you). Your crew carries information vital to securing the Federation's victory against the Rebels. You must somehow brave the perils of space and escape a pursuing Rebel fleet in order to reach your fellow Federation allies and mount a desperate attack against the Rebels.

The game does not have an overly complex story, so don't go looking for intricately-crafted narrative here. The beauty, however, is in how each playthrough can have its own different twists and turns. This is where we get to the next section...

Gameplay Summary
At the start of the game, you choose a ship, a randomly generated starting crew, certain systems/subsystems, and some starter weapon(s). Once started, you will then be thrust into a sector of space and left to your own devices. Your ultimate goal is to move from one sector to another before a pursuing rebel fleet catches up to you. This is done by making your ship jump from one adjacent area to another until you reach the goal (almost like moving from one square to another on a board game).

You may order crewmembers around to different areas of a ship. Your crew can man certain ship systems/subsystems to provide passive bonuses to them and patch ship systems/subsystems should your ship sustain damage. Should you get a crew teleporter, you may also move crewmembers onto an enemy ship during combat to damage its systems/subsystems and/or eliminate the enemy crew (but beware, an enemy with a crew teleporter may do the same to you).

Outside of combat, you will have to collect scrap to upgrade your ship's power and system/subsystem capabilities, purchase fuel and resources from stores, and repair your ship’s hull (among other things). Otherwise, your ship will be vulnerable to the dangers of space. This forces you as the player to think ahead and decide whether to plan for the long run or attend to immediate needs.

Combat is dynamic, and enemies may employ different tactics for attempting to defeat your ship and crew. It forces you to think carefully about your attack strategies and decide whether or not to retreat. You may pause time and shunt crewmembers and ship power to various systems at any time if you wish, but all attacks and crewmember movements take place while unpaused. The outcome of a hostile confrontation depends on the effectiveness of ship weaponry and other systems/subsystems. As you encounter different enemies with different systems/subsystems/crew complements, you will have to adjust your combat strategy to contend with new threats. Ship upgrades are necessary since enemies become much tougher towards the late game.

To spice things up, each area of a sector has its own little events and environmental hazards. You may jump to an area that happens to have a store for purchasing resources, encounter a hostile ship, find a station requesting aid from your crew, or various other events. Sometimes, you might find nothing. Having certain ship equipment/upgrades and crew can lead to a positive outcome for some events.Your ship and crewmembers' capabilities will ultimately decide how you choose act in each scenario.

Ultimately, these gameplay aspects mesh together to make a game that is both challenging and dynamic. FTL makes the player think on his/her feet and consider the long run at all times, and requires players to consider their capabilities before committing to a course of action. To make things even more challenging, you have one save file, and that file is automatically overwritten each time you perform an action. One playthough may be drastically different from another in what makes up each journey and how each journey ends. If you enjoy this type of gameplay, you will love FTL.

Graphics/Artwork
The artwork sets a retro and endearing style to the game. The designs for each of in-game ships to the simple sprite animations of each crewmember made me think I might be playing an older game. Nevertheless, I found myself amused by the style.

Soundtrack/Audio
The retro-esque music and sound effects enhance the atmosphere rather than detracting from it. In combat, the music intensifies to enforce a sense of urgency as you endure attack after attack long enough to strike back or escape by jumping away. Combat SFX such as weapons fire and the sounds of shields weakening help heighten the tension of space combat. Outside of combat, the music changes to a softer undertone that can be relaxing or fear-inspiring, depending on what sector you are in.

Final Verdict (not a score)
This game's primary focus is the gameplay and not the narrative. If you want a challenging roguelike game that can change the experience of playing each time, then give FTL a spin. Even if you don't like roguelike games, at least give this game a try. The game has received some new gameplay features that add further challenge, and you'll need to play the game multiple times to unlock different ships for additional playthroughs.
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GreatTreeJam
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The tough critic

The Witcher

This game is definitely worth a try for folks that want a good story, a good RPG, or are really into The Witcher series. It's a bit buggy and unrefined, but the story and characters made my journey through the game worth it. Developed by CD Projekt RED and published by Atari in 2007 for Windows and OS X, The Witcher is a Polish game based on the Polish novel series of the same name by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Story (minor spoilers)
The game begins with an amnesic Geralt of Rivia being found and taken to Kaer Morhen, the stronghold of the School of the Wolf, where he had trained to be a witcher as a lad. Relatively soon after, a group of bandits/mercenaries siege Kaer Morhen and steal the witchers' secrets to their famed mutagens, ingredients crucial to giving witchers their superhuman abilities. Embolden by revenge, Geralt of Rivia sets out on a quest for answers as he struggles to regain his memory and locate the prime conspirator behind the attack. He meets old and new acquaintances along the way, and must decide where he stands regarding several moral and political issues in Temeria. The story is easily one of the best things about this game. It kept me on the edge of my seat, and I appreciated the weight of most of the decisions I made throughout the game. I felt very invested in the adventures of Geralt of Rivia and the dilemmas he faced along the way.

Rating: excellent

Gameplay
As far as the story goes, the game is divided into "chapters," with each adding and/or barring player access to certain areas within the game's world. The game has its fair share of combat, experience griding, and potion crafting. Weapon and armor upgrades are precious, and your new character will spend a great deal of time without better equipment. The combat and movement can be clunky at times, and may take some getting used to. During dialogue with NPCs, the player has some choice regarding dialogue with NPCs, and certain choices may increase/decrease NPC disposition towards you (or, in the worst case, sign your character's death warrant), secure access to certain items, or otherwise follow through with side-questing. There are even some humorous additions to banter and extra lore you can go through on your own time. The game is a time sink, especially since there is essentially no "fast-travel" until Chapter 3...enjoy it while it lasts.

Many folks might find the gameplay tedious after a while.

Rating: fair

Graphics
To be honest, they were only decent for the game's time, but they're not the reason I play this game. Don't expect to be impressed.

Rating: fair

Sound
The music imparts different "personalities" to each area, and there are creepy areas where the music REALLY puts me on the edge of my seat. The soundtrack is one of the best things about this game. The English voiceacting is alright, but there are some areas where it is really bland...and I mean bland.

Rating: fair

Overall
It's an alright game, but expect to dedicate MANY hours to each playthrough. Nonetheless, I found it to be a wonderful addition to my game library. The story and weight of each decision I made encourages me to go back and play again just to see the different outcomes. The sequels greatly improve on this installment.
Edited by GreatTreeJam, Nov 14 2016, 04:46 PM.
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WarpedPixels
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Did you like my sunglasses?

FTL is amazing. You can tell the developers must have tried tons of different systems and features before pairing them down only to the most essential ones that made the game work so well. Its brilliance is in its simplicity. I must have at least 200 hours in the Android version alone.

Also, pretty relevant:

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Really well written and concise piece on the game anyway Tree! I always enjoy hearing your thoughts on games like this. You should consider doing a video series on something similar to this in the future, to go along with your written work. :D
Edited by WarpedPixels, Nov 15 2016, 02:16 AM.
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GreatTreeJam
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The tough critic

WarpedPixels
Nov 15 2016, 02:15 AM
You should consider doing a video series on something similar to this in the future, to go along with your written work. :D
I have thought about doing that, incidentally. Save for streaming, all of my YouTube stuff is on the back burner for now. We'll have to see.

Thanks for the input!
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GreatTreeJam
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The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a decision-driven fantasy RPG released by CD Projekt RED in 2011. Like all The Witcher games, The Witcher 2 is based on The Witcher series of novels by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Story (mild spoilers):
The Witcher 2 (W2) takes places in a fantasy world heavy inspired by Slavic mythology and Polish history. The universe of The Witcher games is steeped in political intrigue and features strange monsters and magical forces that influence people's lives for the better or worse. In this world, a sect of mutant warriors called "witchers" (or hexers) serve as itinerant monster slayers for hire. One of these witchers is the famed Geralt of Rivia, also known as the White Wolf.

The game picks up shortly after the ending of The Witcher (W1), which showed Geralt of Rivia defending King Foltest of Temeria from a mysterious assassin. In the aftermath, King Foltest "orders" Geralt of Rivia to serve as a glorified bodyguard. However, a sinister plot by a mysterious faction compels Geralt to search for answers, reacquainting him with certain figures from his past. Still suffering from amnesia prior to the events of W1, Geralt must regain his memories and find out who is killing the Northern Kingdoms' monarchs.

W2 feels fairly shorter in story length than W1. Nonetheless, the decision-driven storytelling of W2 remains strong, and I found the supporting cast highly memorable. The game presents almost entirely different story paths which start near the end of Chapter 1 and dramatically change your character's quests and location for the majority of Chapter 2. The grey morality surrounding monster slaying, philosophical issues, and political matters remains a key aspect of the decision-driven narrative. The game ends on a bit of a cliffhanger and some plot lines seem unresolved...at least until The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Nonetheless, the narrative remains fairly compelling.

Finally, the import system is not as comprehensive as in games like Mass Effect 1-3, but some decisions (e.g. decisions on Princess Adda, Siegfried [Order] or Yaevinn [Scoi'atel], and a couple other characters) add/change dialogue options and alter certain NPC interactions.

Rating: good

Gameplay:
The timed attack clicks of W1 have been replaced with a more "Dark Souls"-esque combat gameplay style (if you want to use that analogy). Geralt has a basic skill tree alongside three other skill trees for alchemy, swordsmanship, and magic. I favored a build centered around swordsmanship with some perks in magic, but found most of the alchemy tree useless for this build. Like in the first game, your character uses two swords: steel for humans, silver for monsters.

Enemies can feel RELENTLESS early on. You may find yourself underleveled at first, but can become a powerhouse of destruction near the end. This unbalanced difficulty, however, may deter many players.

The alchemy system of W2 does away with alcohol bases for potions in W1. Instead, you simply combine ingredients and voila: a masterpiece. You must have the necessary ingredients and recipes beforehand from looting and finding merchants. Meditation is now required to consume potions, but is offset by being able to meditate almost anywhere outside of combat. In addition, you can utilize bombs, specific sword oils, throwing knives, and traps against your aggressors.

As this is a decision-driven story game, dialogue remains key to discovering info and shaping the outcome of the narrative. You can utilize persuasion/intimidate/axii abilities to steer a conversation to your benefit provided you have the required level for each. Be mindful that your decisions can have drastic story consequences. This game does not hold your hand. You are free to choose the path you believe is right.

The game offers several side quests, from contracts to arm wrestling, brawling, and dice poker. There is no fast travel, so you'll be backtracking a lot to complete these.

Rating: good

Audio:
I played the game in English since that's my primary language. W2's voiceacting has certainly improved since the last game and features quality vocal talent for many NPCs.

The music is AMAZING. It is highly atmospheric and more than captures the mood and identity of each area you're in. Some of the combat music may really get your blood flowing during fights.

Rating: excellent

Graphics:
The game looks gorgeous, especially if you have the hardware to enjoy the lighting FX. On high graphics settings, the environments and character models are bristling with detail.

Rating: excellent

Overall
I loved this game, and it certainly improves over some of The Witcher's shortcomings. My biggest concern was the story, which felt like it was on a slightly smaller scale that that of The Witcher to me. The cliffhanger ending is an obvious setup for The Witcher 3, but I still felt right at home playing this game.
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GreatTreeJam
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Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider (2013) is a third-person action-adventure game developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square Enix, and is the 10th game in the Tomb Raider franchise. This game reboots the franchise and provides a different origin story for Lara Croft, the franchise's iconic main character. The game was released for Windows, OS X, Linux, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.

Story and Characters:
Lara Croft, a recent archaeology graduate, joins a privately-funded expedition to seek the lost treasures of Yamatai, a (fictional) island in the Dragon's Triangle. Lo and behold, things go terribly awry, and the crew of the expedition's vessel is stranded after being shipwrecked by a storm. Stuck on an island controlled by a violent cult, Lara and her crew struggle to survive while Lara attempts to unearth the secrets behind this cult.

The story is fairly simple: stop evil cult, unearth ancient secrets, save the world, and escape the dangerous island. The supporting characters seemed stereotypical and only fairly interesting. The strongest story elements seem to lie with the main character. Lara has a determined personality that only builds as she embraces her talents as a treasure hunter and survivor.

Rating: fair

Soundtrack:
The music is atmospheric and captures the mood and essence of each area well enough.

Rating: good

Graphics:
Definitely gorgeous for its time, depending on hardware specs

Rating: good

Gameplay:
Unless you're in certain segments with quicktime events, you're either gathering collectibles, engaging enemies with your weapons of choice, and navigating different environmental obstacles. As you progress through the game, you'll unlock additional gear that will let you explore new areas or finish off adversaries with greater efficiency. You can upgrade your gear to obtain more powerful weapons (explain how can Lara upgrade a WWII smg to an AK rifle please) or surpass additional obstacles. You may also spend some time raiding "challenge tombs" for extra rewards.

Combat-wise, you may engage hostiles in the traditional gung-ho manner or by stealthily taking as many of them out as possible. If you wish to utilize stealth, then you can use Lara's "survivor" senses to see which enemies can be eliminated without alerting others. Unfortunately, there aren't many rewards for stealthy gameplay, making this feel like a lost opportunity to expand on stealth. Personally, I think the developers should have offered non-lethal takedowns for added challenge to the stealth.

Rating: good

Final Verdict:
Personally, I found this game fairly enjoyable. The story has a simple premise, but is entertaining enough to keep fans of the franchise enthralled. Gameplay seems to be among the strongest aspects of Tomb Raider. I'd say this is about a 7/10 in my book.
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GreatTreeJam
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Rise of the Tomb Raider

Developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square Enix, Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) is a third-person action-adventure game similar in style to its prequel, Tomb Raider (2013).

Story (spoilers)
One year after her experiences on Yamatai in Tomb Raider (2013), Lara Croft has become obsessed with legends surrounding immortality. She delves into her late father’s controversial work on immortality and the “mythical” city of Kitezh, taking her on a wild journey through both Syria (briefly) and Northern Russia. Unfortunately, a nefarious organization called “Trinity” is also searching for Kitezh and is keeping tabs on Lara’s efforts. Lara must ally with the Remnant, a group of natives inhabiting the region near Kitezh, and help them drive back Trinity. With luck, she may be able to discover Kitezh’s secrets before Trinity does…and validate her father’s claims.

All-in-all, the narrative has a somewhat simple premise. Nonetheless, I had a couple of gripes with the story. I took issue with how the game clumsily starts in media res without clearly addressing Lara’s underlying motivations for her expedition beforehand. In addition, some side characters (e.g. Konstantin, Ana) seemed very stereotypical and bland in comparison to Lara. The developers provide limited exposition for these characters through cutscenes, leaving the rest of the backstory for audio/diary entries the player can discover.

Lara herself does not go through much character development. Her brutal experiences from the previous game make her a more capable survivor and explorer this time. Every now and then, Lara will offer insights on her journey in monologue format as she stops at campfires over the course of the game. While these moments may highlight major inner conflicts within Lara, much of her character has already been set in stone. This is not necessarily a negative, but it does make Lara's internal struggles seem somewhat less compelling than in the 2013 prequel.

Rating: fair

Gameplay
The gameplay is multifaceted, and I usually enjoyed it. As Lara Croft, the player will explore different areas of the game world for collectibles and other secrets while utilizing various gear to navigate the environment (scaling walls, zipping across suspended cables/ropes, etc). These areas are divided into distinct zones on the in-game world map, and can easily be re-visited by fast-travelling between any “base camps” the player has discovered. Exploration and certain combat sequences come with their own quicktime events that the player must pass if he/she wishes to survive traps and other "peril" sequences while exploring these zones. Each zone has its own documents, murals, monoliths, and other collectibles that reward the player with resources, experience for skill points, and the locations of hidden items.

Hunting for resources (animal hides, salvage, fuel, etc) is vital to upgrading gear and replenishing supplies. Furthermore, players gradually gain skill points that can be used to unlock exploration and combat abilities. The player will gradually obtain new exploration and combat gear over the course of the game as they explore the world and purchase items via in-game Byzantine coins. Like its prequel, this game also has hidden “challenge tombs” with usually well-designed and straightforward puzzles that can be solved to unlock certain skills. Finally, the game offers various optional challenges and side missions to undertake while exploring each zone. Several of these challenges and side missions can feel fairly “cookie-cutter” and generic at times. Nonetheless, these optional pursuits award experience, while side missions also provide resources and/or new gear.

Players pursuing stealth can sneak past certain enemies using cover and distractions, and lethal-minded players can silently execute enemies. However, players cannot permanently incapacitate enemies non-lethally, and the game does not reward non-lethal gameplay by itself. During combat, players may alternate between bows, firearms, and/or melee attacks to fight different enemies. This arsenal gradually expands to include additional ammo types and ranged weapons. With the prerequisite skills and resources, players can even craft certain ammo types, improvised weapons, and bandages for wounds on the fly. I should note here that the enemy AI is hit-or-miss. While enemies usually respond appropriately to player actions during stealth portions, they can also behave nonsensically in other circumstances. Unarmored charging enemies, for instance, will run right into players' weapon fire as if they had no self-preservation instincts. Furthermore, squads actively searching for the player may not always alert other nearby squads if the latter did not witness hostile actions.

Finally, the game offers optional "expedition" modes for surviving in the wilderness, replaying story missions for high scores, playing user-generated missions, and etc. Players can change up the conditions for expeditions (reduced/increased player damage, gear availability, etc) using special cards that can be unlocked or purchased with in-game credits or real-world money. These expeditions can serve to extend the gameplay experience for those who really enjoy the gameplay.

Rating: good

Graphics
The game looks gorgeous, but can suffer some framerate drops here and there. Even some higher-end machines can have trouble keeping a smooth 60 fps when maxing out settings. Nonetheless, the overall graphical quality really helps flesh out the level design, making environments look quite beautiful.

Rating: good/excellent

Sound
Much of the soundtrack does a great job in setting the stage for Lara’s adventures, although some tracks do feel bland after hearing them over and over again (such as the combat track). Nonetheless, the music does enhance the themes of exploration and danger as the player enters tombs, treks through the wilderness, and approaches enemy encampments.

The voice-acting for the main and major supporting character cast is generally well-polished. There were only a few moments where Lara’s voice acting seemed flat and uninspired, but the majority of the voice acting hits its marks.

Rating: good

Final Thoughts
If you really enjoyed the 2013 prequel and want more, then this game will help fill some of the void. Even though Rise of the Tomb Raider's narrative is a bit messy and unrefined, it offers some satisfying gameplay with impressive visuals and decent sound design.
Edited by GreatTreeJam, Jan 9 2017, 04:28 PM.
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GreatTreeJam
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Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander

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Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander (2016) is a retro space strategy RPG developed and published by Massive Damage, Inc. for the PC, Mac OS X, Linux, and SteamOS.

Story (minor spoilers)
Humanity has become an advanced space-faring race united under The New Terran Federation and plays an important economic, military, and political role in the galaxy (sounds familiar). One day, however, the Federation establishes contact with a mysterious alien race. Soon after, almost all colonies and fleets across Federation space drop out of contact. Only “Halcyon 6,” an ancient alien station, remains as the sole known operational Federation facility. You are left as the ranking officer in charge of the station and all remaining Federation forces. You must maintain diplomatic relations with other sentient spacefaring species, reestablish contact with any remaining Federation outposts, and unearth the true nature of this mysterious race.

The plot has a simple premise, and the game typically does not obsess over providing intricate backstories for every faction. In fact, the game’s writers seem keen on poking light fun at several tropes in sci-fi shows and RPGs. Nonetheless, it offers ample choice regarding which factions to befriend, which events in space to partake in, which battles to fight, and etc. Your decisions will have positive or negative consequences for your relationships with other factions. Push a faction’s anger over the limit, and you may find yourself fighting a new enemy. You must decide how to proceed as Halcyon 6’s starbase commander, and the game’s multiple endings reflect your decisions’ impacts on the future of the Federation and other factions.

Rating: fair

Gameplay
The gameplay combines simple territorial expansion aspects, traditional turn-based battle mechanics, and base management. Multitasking is CRUCIAL to creating a thriving Federation network that will support you in the battles to come. It is therefore wise to increase your team of officers, important personnel for commanding warships and directing various tasks on- and off-base.

Halcyon 6 is situated on the edge of Federation space, close to the edges of other factions’ zones of control. Factions can request for aid, assault the station, or even attack one another, letting you decide where and when to intervene. Within Federation space, you manage several sectors by recommissioning abandoned/ruined sectors, retrieving resources, and improving facilities to increase resource production. Sectors may fall under attack, and you’ll have to decide whether to repel the assailants or evacuate the sectors. In addition, the Halcyon 6 station comes with its own events and research/construction projects that can provide various benefits when completed. The station contains several sections can be fitted with various facilities for power, ship construction, ship repairs, officer training, and etc. Planning facility construction beforehand can help you streamline the base expansion process and allow you to make use of your initially limited construction space.

The key to success in Halcyon 6 is learning to pick your battles and time your fleet deployments while keeping up-to-date with ships and research. Some enemy groups are tough and require some preparation before combat, while other enemies are easily brushed over. Getting into the habit of checking enemy fleet strengths/weaknesses and environmental traits will go a long way towards ensuring success in space battles. Likewise, investing in certain skills for each officer can make space and/or ground combat easier. By understanding your enemies beforehand, you can chain together combos by applying and detonating status effects for massive damage.

The fairly multilayered gameplay offers some amount of replayability. I did run into a few bugs where quest markers on sectors would not always clear from the map even after completing all quest stages, but those did not prevent me from completing the game. Some folks have pointed out that the game’s pacing slows a bit near the end, although I personally didn’t find that too off-putting. I used that time to improve my fleets. In the end, I believe the gameplay has substantial merit.

Rating: good

Graphical Design (mild spoilers)
The graphic designers opted for a pixelated style that works fairly well for characterizing the in-game factions. Each faction has its own predominant color scheme and artwork that permeates ship aesthetics, sprite appearance, base interiors, home planet design, certain weapon effects, and etc. Factions such as the fleshy hive-like Chruul, the treacherous space pirates, the paranoid Xlar-Yanthu, and others end up having their own distinct “personalities.” Combined with some of the writing and music, the artwork can also enhance some of the goofier aspects of the narrative and dialogue when dealing with some groups.

The artwork does well in delivering very atmospheric vibes to various areas of the game, serving both aesthetic and functional roles. There are several background slides for each sector of space you encounter, each denoting predominant resource types or environmental conditions in the area. Planets you land down on will also have different types of surface environments, ranging from tropical beaches to barren canyons. When navigating the various levels of Halcyon 6, you’ll get an overview of the base’s separate compartments. Each compartment can house either facilities with distinct structural designs and color palettes or run-down ruins with ample loose scrap metal.

Rating: good

Audio
On average, I felt the music was alright. I loved the ambient music and found each faction’s theme music fitting, but felt some of the combat tracks were about “average.” The sound effects are okay but don’t deliver anything I don’t already expect from traditional turn-based battle scenarios in other games.

Rating: fair/good

Final Thoughts
I really enjoyed my time with this game, and consider it a nice gem in my Steam library. It’s a nice, endearing, silly romp through space in what could be a somewhat goofy sci-fi show. If the blend of gameplay elements mentioned in the gameplay section sounds interesting to you, then I recommend giving this game a shot.
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GreatTreeJam
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Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

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Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (VTMB) was developed by Troika Games and published by Activision for Microsoft Windows in 2004. It is based on the tabletop RPG Vampire: The Masquerade, which is set within White Wolf Publishing’s World of Darkness universe. This universe houses the collective framework of settings for their supernatural/horror-themed RPG series.

Story (mild spoilers)

“Keep our secret secret and you make things easier on all of us. We’re living in the age of cell phone cameras…fuck-ups ain’t tolerated.” – Smiling Jack

During one eventful night in modern Los Angeles, CA, your character spends a passionate moment in bed with a vampire. After embracing you and draining you of your blood, your vampire partner reanimates you as his/her own vampire “childe.” Unfortunately, your partner does this without first seeking permission from the Camarilla, a vampire political sect that regulates vampire society in LA. Both you and your sire are captured, and your sire is executed. The vampire prince of LA spares you and appoints you to be his lackey, and you are set loose into the night to fulfill his agenda. The night sky is full of tension, however, as you emerge onto a subtle modern battleground between ancient and contemporary factions seeking to wrest control of LA…

Before proceeding, it is important to note that this is NEITHER a story about building your own empire NOR a teen vampire romance story. This is a story about a newly-turned vampire trying to survive the crossfire between vampire factions operating within a modern human cityscape. Almost all vampires follow a code called the “Masquerade,” a series of laws designed to keep the existence of vampires secret from most of humankind. Breaking the Masquerade risks the existence of every vampire, as many vampires would struggle to survive against vampire hunters armed with modern weaponry. This is a lore-rich world brimming with intrigue, and nothing is as it seems in LA’s nightlife. Dark creatures stalk the night, and several vampire factions seek to seize LA for themselves. The Sabbat, the Anarchs, and the Kuei-Jin seek to depose Camarilla leadership and/or eliminate each other. You have significant freedom to resolve situations as you see fit, and the game offers ample time for you to decide how to play the political game. While your early priorities focus on surviving the sometimes subtle crossfire, you will inevitably have to choose your side.

The narrative is fairly linear but compelling. While it initially revolves around struggles for power and your attempt to acclimate to your new life, the arrival of a potentially sinister vampire artifact begins to drive these factions to open warfare. Many of the characters you encounter are used appropriately to advance the plot and several concurrent side quests while also giving life to the LA scene. These elements work together in harmony for the most part, providing an experience that doesn’t take you too far away from the game’s central focus on conspiracies and the supernatural. Combined with some examples of excellent use of atmosphere, and you have a good story-driven experience that can glue you to your seat. I would, however, criticize the game’s ending. The rushed development cycle really shows, as the pacing of the ending seems off. I think it would have helped if the very combat oriented ending had some moments in between to help you really appreciate the breadth of the key decisions you had made over the course of the narrative. Overall, the game’s various endings emphasize the consequences of choosing certain loyalties for your own character, but are too short in my opinion to appreciate the full impacts of your decisions for the rest of LA’s vampire/human community.

Rating: good

Gameplay (basic unofficial patch)
Your character is the quintessential example of an RPG hero that personifies your will in this game’s world. You may choose one of several vampire clans for your origins: Brujah, Gangrel, Malkavian, Nosferatu, Toreador, Tremere, or Ventrue. Each clan comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, and some clans wield unique disciplines that provide certain supernatural powers. The interface for your character sheet allows you to allocate XP points towards your character’s vampire disciplines and regular feats. These feats help determine whether or not you can sway others to do what you want, bypass conventional security measures, excel in combat, obtain attributes from research, and achieve other results. This interface may seem daunting to new players, and certain attributes are noticeably less useful in-game than the character sheet might otherwise suggest. Save for several obligatory main missions, this character creation system facilitates gameplay in which you are relatively free to decide how to use your abilities and which consequences to live with. As you progress through the main narrative, more of LA and it's surrounding areas will unlock and give way to new side quests and NPCs. Some of these quests involve straight-up combat, while many others hinge on your ability to investigate your surroundings and work your way through conversations.

While roaming the streets of LA, you must maintain your character’s humanity and adhere to the Masquerade by hiding your true nature from humans. Your character starts with 5 Masquerade points that represent the maximum number of violations you may commit. Committing violations puts you at risk for encountering vampire hunters, and losing all 5 points will result in an automatic game over. Humanity, the collective ideals and morals that keep your vampire’s personality in check, serve as one important check to “frenzying.” Committing very morally atrocious acts (e.g. murder) will lower your humanity. When low on blood, taking damage, and low on humanity points, your character becomes dangerously prone to frenzying. A frenzied character becomes temporarily uncontrollable and automatically attacks and/or feeds on nearby targets, putting you at risk for Masquerade violations. You will have to feed on humans or rodents and/or utilize blood packs to replenish your blood supply. Human feeding must almost always be done either by discreetly grabbing an unsuspecting person or convincing a person to let you feed.

Unfortunately, VTMB’s gameplay is remarkably unrefined. The physics system is fairly buggy, and you may find yourself getting hung up on the simplest miscellaneous debris. The close-quarters combat is clunky, with blows sometimes failing to register for yourself and enemies. A few quests are badly bugged, and one in particular (“Necromantic”) led to my game freezing outside of the pause menu. The ranged combat is unbalanced over the course of the game. Early-game ranged weapons are grossly underpowered and/or inaccurate, while the decidedly more useful late-game ranged weapons are perhaps crucial to surviving the late-game enemies. Certain talents for manipulating NPCs in conversation (e.g. persuasion) are useful up until the ending, where the points you spent earlier for conversation may feel wasted later in the combat-heavy end portions. Finally, I should mention that sneaking, for the most part, is not particularly difficult unless you are walking through well-lit areas. Even with moderate sneaking skills, I was able to slip by most of the late-game enemies. In many cases, I could literally crouch right in front of an enemy without being seen.

If you intend to play VTMB, then I highly suggest applying the unofficial patches.

Rating: fair

Graphics
I have little to say about the graphics, but it's a mixed bag. It’s clear that VTMB hasn’t aged well in this field. Most quest-essential NPC character face models look good, while less essential NPCs seem just passable in quality. Some NPC animations work well, while many others appear stiff and clunky. The textures for the surrounding environments are a mix between blurry and sufficiently detailed, but they do their job to define the setting. Clutter and other miscellaneous objects are nothing special to look at, which speaks to the time I spent finding objects to throw to distract enemies.

I should mention that the game uses its exterior and interior lighting to effectively enhance the atmosphere of specific levels. There are especially good examples of this in the abandoned downtown hospital, Grout’s mansion, and the Ocean House Hotel.

Rating: fair

Sound
The ambient music really helps set the atmosphere and vibe in several areas, alternating between different urban street scenes, nightclub spots, cult-like lairs, seedy warehouses, and other sets around LA. During combat, the music can either enforce an unnerving atmosphere or just make you feel like a regular action hero. I personally felt more drawn towards the ambient music in this game.

Sound effects such as gunshots, melee strikes, breaking planks, and such serve their purpose. They are mostly serviceable, but are not the be-all-end-all of the FX department.

The voice acting (English) is an example of an area where the game really shines when it comes to major characters. Almost all major characters are extremely well voice-acted, and it is obvious that the powers-that-be singled out individuals with top-notch talent for these roles. Less important characters still have quality voice acting from time-to-time, and I can only think of a few examples where the VA work is remarkably below average.

Rating: good

Other Notes
I mentioned the use of atmosphere in this game, and I cannot stress this enough. VTMB wields some great examples of use of atmosphere in video games. Despite some technical issues with the Source engine, the developers succeeded in using lighting, soundtrack, appropriately scripted events, and environmental design to create some truly disturbing areas in the game. I mentioned the abandoned downtown hospital, Grout’s mansion, and the Ocean House Hotel as a few examples, and I suggest new players stay tuned in for some almost surreal experiences.

Final Thoughts
VTMB is a very flawed gem. If you can look past the myriad of technical issues, you will find a compelling story. The main narrative (save for the ending) is highly intriguing, and there are some very interesting side quests that tie beautifully back into the lore and events of VTMB. If the game’s technical issues were completely fixed and polished, then I would rate this game as one of the best RPGs of all time. Nonetheless, the story alone was more than enough to justify purchasing this game. I'm proud to have this game in my personal collection.
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Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

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Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain (TPP) is a 2015 action-adventure stealth game developed by Kojima Productions and published by Konami. It was preceded by Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes (GZ), a demo-like installment from 2014 that introduced some of the story and gameplay elements. This game was released on Windows, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. It was the final installment in the Metal Gear franchise to be released by Kojima Productions before the studio’s temporary dissolution in 2015.

Story (spoilers):
The Metal Gear Solid franchise is set in a universe similar to our world during the 20th-21st centuries, mixing real world history with often exaggerated versions of world politics, socio-cultural trends, and military conflicts. In TPP, you are a soldier named “Punished Snake” who assumes the role of Big Boss, a title belonging to a legendary mercenary whose actions set the stage for events in many of the other franchise’s installments. The events of GZ culminated in the destruction of the “Mother Base” for Big Boss’ Militaires Sans Frontières (MSF) PMC and a wounded Big Boss entering a coma. TPP picks up in 1984, nine years after the events of GZ. You wake up in a hospital and escape from paramilitary forces responsible for the destruction of the MSF Mother Base. Once outside, you reunite with Ocelot, an ally who was once an enemy in Metal Gear Solid 3. Ocelot helps you rescue your former MSF XO, Kazuhira Miller, and you then take control of a new PMC called Diamond Dogs. Together, you and your allies prepare to strike back at the people who destroyed MSF.

I regret to say that TPP has the weakest story in the franchise. Many of the story missions ended up feeling like repetitive tasks with vague story connections. Many segments feel as if they are missing crucial story details, and especially in Chapter 2 when old missions from Chapter 1 are recycled for the vast majority of the chapter. One mission involving the child soldier “Eli” was incomplete, and thus was wholly removed from non-collector’s editions of the game. There is even evidence to suggest that a 3rd chapter referred to as “Peace” never made it into the game. The end result is an unfinished narrative that fails to deliver on its initial promise of a compelling set of character stories. Furthermore, outside of the optional audio tapes and a few scripted moments, notable characters other than Kazuhira Miller served little more than functional roles at your PMC’s new “Mother Base” and elsewhere where applicable. Too few notable characters were available for face-to-face conversations while I was roaming Mother Base in my free time, and I would’ve loved to speak more with them at leisure outside of missions. Finally, certain scripted moments in the story can carry great emotional weight, but these moments are too few and far in-between to truly carry the main narrative from beginning to end. The optional audio-only tapes help fill in the gaps by showcasing background discussions between major characters, but too often try to replace the storytelling. While the tapes are well voice-acted, more of these tapes should have been required as opposed to optional for the story. I also believe the devs should’ve adapted many of these tapes into more cutscenes. Cutscenes don’t just provide a voiced script for the audience. They also emphasize how characters react to each other during story events through their body language. Body and facial animations (the creasing of someone’s brow, body posture during conversation, etc) are more important than verbal speech when translating the moods of both characters and entire scenes for an audience, which is why cutscenes and camera angles can be amazing for storytelling if done right. The emotional weight and tension of story moments are diminished when they are relegated to audio-only tapes.

While Hideo Kojima stated his wish to reduce cutscene length from the previous franchise installments, he and his team have created the opposite: a game with too few great cinematic moments to really benefit the narrative. In addition, the missing Chapter 2 (and Chapter 3?) missions reinforce the feeling that this story remains largely unfinished.

Rating: poor/fair

Gameplay summary (does not include MGO, spoilers):
This is far from a comprehensive summary, as the gameplay here is some of the most multi-faceted in the series. Once you’ve completed the prologue and initial rescue mission for Kazuhira Miller, you’re relatively free to deploy to the fairly extensive in-game area(s) for field operations. These areas consist of large, open zones in Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border region. Story missions will take place in isolated pockets within each relevant zone, while side ops and other activities can be pursued during “free roam.” A key feature of each zone (especially during free roam) is the relatively generous freedom you have to carry out objectives and explore each area. In the field, you may employ various military gear and your innate character’s skills to undertake various activities. Additional gear may be discovered or developed when prerequisite conditions are met over the course of the game. You may also bring NPC buddies, most of who unlock as you progress through the game, to assist you into the field. You may retrieve wild animals via Fulton balloon to your base’s wildlife platform for money and heroism, while herbs can be hand-picked for research and development at Mother Base.

There are various enemy outposts/bases of various sizes across these zones that can be raided for construction/research materials, vehicles, and enemy soldiers to capture. Enemy personnel, if neutralized non-lethally, may be captured via Fulton balloon to add to your base’s staff so long as weather conditions and any deficiencies in your base’s support team do not prevent it. Enemies on each map can adapt to your tactics (e.g. contacting bases at night, sniping, Fulton-ing where enemies can see it, deploying smoke, sneaking in rather than going loud, etc) in several ways the next time you deploy in the relevant zone. Every region (including your own Mother Base) has a day/night cycle you can exploit to plan out when you will explore different areas and how you will infiltrate/avoid enemy bases. I will take some time here to mention that the hand-to-hand combat system is highly versatile, allowing you to tackle a wide variety of threats from enemy personnel. Whether holding up an enemy with his/her own gun or incapacitating multiple soldiers in a tight group, you get the feeling that your character is a very resourceful force to be reckoned with.

When not conducting field operations, you can explore your own Mother Base for hidden items and interact with some of your on-duty staff for morale. You will need to build your Diamond Dogs PMC by recruiting/kidnapping staff for different platforms that provide a myriad of bonuses for you and your PMC, expanding these platforms, and securing resources. New Diamond Dogs recruits have different skills that make them better suited for certain platforms and may possess certain attributes that either benefit or hinder their fellow platform staff. The aforementioned side ops, missions, and resource procurement will add staff, money (GMP), and construction/research materials. GMP and certain construction/research materials can be earned passively and periodically through your combat and base development platforms. The game has a Forward Operating Base system (the online PvP component outside of Metal Gear Online) that functions as another base and allows you to steal GMP, staff, and other resources from other players. You may forge alliances with other players and defend their FOBs when they are being raided, and can sometimes retaliate when you or your allies’ FOBs are attacked. You may build a nuke to deter players with lower heroism scores from invading your FOB, but players with high enough heroism can invade regardless (more below). Unfortunately, there is no way for players only interested in single-player to turn this feature off besides keeping their game platform offline indefinitely.

Some final summary notes here will focus on the iDroid, character deployment, heroism, and demon points. Whether you are in the field or at your base, your iDroid personal computer and radio is an invaluable tool. You can use it to coordinate base expansion efforts, call in supply drops, summon a chopper for extraction or air support, call for artillery strikes, reassign/dismiss staff, and etc. You may choose Punished Snake or any other combat unit staff to deploy into field zones and what gear they and any NPC buddy will carry. Each deployment costs GMP and other resources, and gear loadout influences how much you’ll be paying each time. Your PMC is affected by the amount of heroism you gain or lose through your actions while playing, with heroism tending towards both altruism and effectiveness on the field (saving POWs, not killing enemies, completing certain objectives, rescuing wildlife, clearing enemy bases/outposts, etc). Higher heroism increases the skill level of volunteers and soldiers you find in the field, and players with high enough heroism can raid FOBs with nukes. On the other hand, the game tracks a separate meter for “demon points” for inhumane acts (killing enemies, killing wounded soldiers, killing POWs, killing animals, developing a nuke for FOB, etc). Higher demon ratings will change the appearance of Punished Snake until he is perpetually bloodstained and has a horn growing from his head. Developing a nuke will add an absurd number of demon points, putting Punished Snake into the aforementioned bloodstained appearance. It’s worth noting that heroism and demon points are not mutually exclusive.

This is some of the most complex gameplay in a Metal Gear game to date. The freedom to pursue in-game activities and flexibility in completing many objectives is complemented by several gameplay mechanics with considerable depth. Despite that, there are a few things I would have liked to see implemented/changed:

  • The open field areas don’t feel enough like contested warzones in their current state. I would’ve liked to see armed groups actually fighting the forces controlling bases/outposts during free roam (Mujahideen vs Soviet Army in Afghanistan, and UNITA vs MPLA in the Angola-Zaire border region) to make each region feel more volatile, and it’d be interesting to have the option of aiding the insurgent faction if you choose. Metal Gear Solid 4 offered something similar to this.
  • Make the FOB system optional. Don’t force it on players who just want to experience single player. The game already incentivizes players who have an FOB with increased income/resources and the ability to research/develop additional gear they couldn’t otherwise produce. That’s plenty of motivation, and the gear you can produce without needing an FOB can still carry you into the end game if you could choose not to build an FOB.
  • R&D project times can be ridiculous, with some projects taking a few real-time days or even much longer than a week in some cases. You can speed it up with MB coins which you can obtain slowly though daily logins or actual money. I don’t know how to feel about this, but it shouldn’t be taking me way more than a week in real-time to complete some R&D project.
  • Apart from enemy combatants and wildlife, the open areas feel somewhat empty. Groups of civilians who are trapped in these warzones are examples of other NPCs you could add to the free roam experience, possibly as part of certain side ops or just as part of random encounters.
  • For much of the game outside of the main missions, the gaming experience can become a repetitive grind fest. Spending time gathering resources and staff to build up your PMC's strength and effectiveness is fine, but sometimes this grinding can feel unbalanced with regards to the rest of the gameplay experience. This becomes especially problematic near the end, and is especially concerning given how empty the in-game field areas feel. There's not much else I can recommend apart from the previous suggestions and fleshing out the story to give players greater reason to become immersed in the gameplay.

Rating: good (although I am tempted to drop the score into the "fair" category because of the aforementioned flaws)

Sound:
There’s not much I can say about the sound. Some combat special effects sound great, while others are alright. The in-game music includes actual music released in the real world, most of which is time-appropriate for the era the game is set in. The themes for infiltration and combat alerts tend to serve their purpose for kicking up tension while you’re evading or engaging enemies, but some tracks such as the one that plays during FOB combat alerts didn’t feel that ground-breaking for me. Nonetheless, I think the game music and real-world music are both great inclusions for this game.

The English voice acting is pretty good all around. I would’ve liked to hear more from Kiefer Sutherland as Punished Snake, as I felt he could’ve used more lines at certain points in the game. However, it seems the devs didn’t implement some lines Sutherland voiced for some cutscenes and certain gameplay elements.

https://www.reddit.com/r/metalgearsolid/comments/3k5u7x/mgsv_spoilers_cut_snake_lines_datamined_from_files/

Rating: good

Graphics:
I’ll keep it short and sweet. The game looks amazing. Some textures for objects and landscape are a bit lower res, but the majority of textures and environments are stunning to behold. The lighting helps enhance the visuals of an already detailed world.

Rating: excellent

Overall, with a Special Mention for Konami:
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this game. It is highly flawed gem that has its merits, but the past news about how Konami is treating current and past employees reflects poorly on Konami's reputation. These acts include, but are not limited to, the following:
  • Using influence to deny ITS Kenpo health insurance coverage to members of the reformed Kojima Productions studio (post-Konami)
  • Pressuring other businesses not to hire ex-Kon employees (ex-Kons)
  • Threatening some ex-Kons who speak to the media with legal action
  • Various troubling reports of employee welfare
https://www.pcmag.com/news/354338/konami-is-making-life-difficult-for-former-employees
https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Companies/The-Konami-exodus?page=1
https://kotaku.com/report-konami-is-treating-its-staff-like-prisoners-1721700073

MGSV: The Phantom Pain is an unfinished product, and the fallout between developer and publisher (and maybe Hideo Kojima's lofty development goals) seems to have taken its toll on the project. This was an ambitious game to create, and I commend the employees of Kojima Productions. That, however, is where my praise for the game’s development cycle stops.

Until Konami changes its workplace ethics, I refuse to recommend this game for others.
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