Review — Starcraft: Legacy of the Void (430)

Starcraft has always had a special place in my heart. I know it’s not accurate, but I do consider it the beginning of Esports and gaming on a competitive level. I never was very good, though. I was probably only about twelve years old when the second true installment of the game, Wings of Liberty, came out. This game has had an enormous impact on the gaming community as a whole, and while I’ve talked about it before, let me give my thoughts on the latest version. Even though it’s already two years old at this point, I hadn’t played through the last chapter until this past month, so cut me some slack.

Protoss is my favorite race. Between the goopy, brooding, and infesting insectoid swarm of the Zerg, the mechanical, sturdy, and militaristic might of the Terran, and the advanced, noble hierarchy of the vengeful Protoss, I’ll take the latter. I don’t like the bug or the hardbitten war aesthetic much, but an ascended race of people who think they’re better than everyone else? Yes please.

So, I think it goes without saying that since Legacy of the Void was the Protoss chapter of Starcraft II, it was definitely my favorite. I have the strongest handle on what my capabilities are with that faction, so I can try a little bit harder and pay more attention to the story than I could before.

And man, Legacy of the Void has some awesome characters and stories. I won’t spoil anything here (though the statute of limitations is definitely over), but it definitely has a lot more character than anything I really felt in the other two campaigns. The previous two objectives were: “save my x-girlfriend”, followed by “figure out who I am then get vengeance”. This time it’s “unite your fractured people, then take down a god”. This campaign felt a lot more impactful than the previous two, even if it is because it’s the “final chapter” of Starcraft II. Obviously I can’t really give credit to the writers here. It’s pretty much comparing the climax to the beginning and middle of a book, which isn’t fair at all.

All that being said, my favorite part about the single player is that it’s totally okay to give the player incredibly powerful abilities because it doesn’t have to be balanced. You’re supposed to win. The way that Legacy of the Void achieves this, through giving your character choices of unique units as well as adjustable in-game abilities (like ‘giant_lazer.exe’). Being able to upgrade and customize the way your character(s) go into a fight is one of my favorite game mechanics, and the fact that the things I’m choosing are all incredibly powerful makes my decisions feel extremely rewarding.

And, of course I can’t talk about Legacy of the Void without mentioning Alarak. (Minor spoilers ahead, but nothing too pivotal to the actual plot.) As far as I know, this character didn’t even exist in the Starcraft universe before this campaign, but he quickly ascended (see what I did there) to one of my favorite characters. You don’t get a lot of ‘Lawful Evil’ characters in any franchise, and even the ones that are aren’t on the good side. Alarak is a good guy, but he would never be mistaken for a good guy, if you know what I mean. Plus, he’s amazing because he’s so condescending, and the way he does it is so funny it’s amazing.

So, is Legacy of the Void worth getting? If you’re a Starcraft player, absolutely, but if that’s the case then you’ve probably already bought it. If you’re new to the RTS genre and want to know where to start, it’s great for that, too. All the complicated strategy stuff is easily tossed aside for new players. It’s mostly there to give veterans a way to amplify their abilities even more.

But, as old as Starcraft II has gotten, I’d imagine the next major installment for the franchise is due somewhat soon. I’d be willing to bet that the next big game release will happen before 2020 ends. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if it was announced by the end of the year, but I don’t expect it to be. Whatever might be the case, this game is great and is very compelling for an eight/nine hour experience!

Review — Heroes of the Storm

As far as the MOBA genre goes, there are quite a few high-end competitors out there. While I’ve never played Dota 2, League of Legends was like the only thing I played from 2011 to 2015. Every popular game (especially on this side of the gaming world) is going to have pros and cons.

Heroes of the Storm isn’t my favorite game. My largest problem with this genre is that the time investments in each individual match is huge compared to other things, and because mistakes are so punishing to the player and their team, it’s very easy to get frustrated (or have teammates hate you every single game).

The single largest reason I didn’t play League of Legends competitively much is because the community in the MOBA genre is so resentful. They will find your mistakes and attack you more viciously than your enemies because you’re bringing them down. It’s absurd to me that many of these people will give up and be hateful rather than being cooperative and working together. This criticism goes for the entire genre, and it’s the main reason why I don’t play these types of games as often as I used to. It tends to make losing very difficult to enjoy, and I prefer games that are always fun rather than the polar opposites of hating it during a defeat and loving it when I’m winning.

This game in particular is a bit better in that respect. Games in HotS tend to be around twenty-ish minutes long (rather than the average League game of thirty to fifty minutes), so each game isn’t as much of a commitment. You also cannot communicate with your enemies, and I think this makes it much easier for the toxicity of teammates not to spread. In my experience, if a teammate is bad people will vent their anger towards the enemy team, telling them how bad their ally is. Since there is no “All chat” in Heroes of the Storm, people can only talk to their teammates and this reduces both the rage from the other team and the potential for your ally to rage at the other team about you.

The biggest problem I have about this game over League of Legends is that when a team starts winning in Heroes, it’s very difficult to turn the tables on them. You will usually be able to tell which team is going to win five minutes into the game, but in League, comebacks are more prevalent and the advantage isn’t established so quickly. This is probably due to the difference in the match length for both games.

My favorite thing about Heroes of the Storm however is something relatively unique for the MOBA genre, and that is the talent system. Rather than accruing gold by killing minions and players to buy items that change your stats, you gather experience to gain levels and earn a choice of talents. Now, the “level system” isn’t exclusive to HotS, but gaining levels and upgrading your abilities to account for the playstyle you want for that match certainly is. Rather than buying different items to counter the enemy team’s characters and abilities, you’re changing your own abilities to have a better control over what you want to do in that game.

Aside from that, the fact that this game has several different maps to play on really adds to the dynamic of playstyle. In a  game of League everything is completely, one hundred percent skill based because the only thing that ever changes is the characters on both teams. Since the map and objectives fluctuate so much in Heroes, players and their characters will tend to be better in some situations and worse at others, and it adds a lot of replay-ability to the game. Also, since the character roster is so much smaller than that of League of Legends (~66 vs. 134) it’s much easier for people to get into and understand.

Between the two games (not having enough experience to judge Dota 2,) I would say Heroes of the Storm is superior in terms of how enjoyable it is on a match to match basis. Is it difficult for me to enjoy when I’m losing? Absolutely, but in Heroes the game will be over in fifteen more minutes, whereas in League it could end up being neck and neck for half an hour only to have victory stolen from you by one simple misplay.

Review — Sunless Sea

Have you ever played a game where the story was hinted at but never the focus of the game? In many single-player games, like Bioshock, or TransistorPortal, etc., you could get through the entire game without paying any attention at all to the story, regardless of how in-depth or thought provoking it may be. I tend to enjoy those games for the gameplay first, and then appreciate the story later. I’ve never been a huge fan of games that require you to know what’s going on, like Myst, because the story-driven games never seem to have interesting stories to compel me to continue.

Sunless Sea is a different story. It combines a lot of elements I love in games: slow progression and upgrades, a rogue-like “start-over with a push forward” theme, and a merciless drive to bring the player onto its knees through harsh and unforgiving rules. But when I bring up this game to other people, I set all of these aside, because in the end its not what this game is about. Sunless Sea is a story-driven, “choose your own adventure” game in a Lovecraftian setting.

In this game, you can choose the way you want to play. You can be a seafaring pirate that attacks anyone on sight, a wealthy merchant ferrying goods (often illegal and unsavory) across the seas to dangerous lands, or a scholar, trying to discover everything about this strange and vast world.

Very few games have made me feel a sense of adventure: like I’m exploring distant and strange lands, in the same way Sunless Sea does. I can find myself on distant shores and stumble upon vast treasures, only to realize I’ll have to spend most of it if I want to ensure a safe journey home.

This game is all about risk and reward. It forces you to take risks without telling you what’s at stake or even what the consequences will be. In a way this can be a little frustrating, but it adds to the feeling that this place is a real world, and in this place is real and it emulates how we often make judgments and important decisions based on the limited information and resources we have available.

I do have two major gripes with this game. The first is that there is a lot going on. The screen has a lot of information that takes time to study in order to understand what you’re looking at, and the interface is never as streamline as I would like it to be. You do learn what’s going on eventually, but the game doesn’t do a great job at telling you on its own.

But my biggest qualm with this game is that after thirty hours of playtime, I still don’t feel like I’ve made it very far. I’ve explored all these vast and interesting places, but I don’t feel as though I’ve made an impact on the world, and I don’t feel like the time I’ve spent has amounted to anything. For example, the boat I currently have is the third largest one available to buy, and the other two might as well not exist for how expensive they are and how savvy I am with trading and the economy.

I’d imagine there’s something about the game that I have simply yet to learn, but the world feels pretty much as mysterious and unknowable as it did when I first discovered all these islands, locales, and ports. In a way, that’s a good thing. It definitely makes me want to keep playing. The game is beautifully crafted, and there’s so much going on that I don’t feel as though I’ve even scratched the surface of how deep this world is. Depth like that is good, but too much makes it daunting.

Review — Minecraft

You’ve probably heard of Minecraft. It’s one of the most famous games of this generation for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it’s so user friendly. Virtually anyone can sit down and enjoy it with no prior knowledge. Even if you don’t know how to make a pickaxe or build a house, you can still run around and have fun exploring. Heck, a five year old can enjoy this game.

Another huge reason why this game is so popular is because there’s so many ways to play it that it simultaneously fills the need of several different gaming communities. If you want to play a game for the creative, building purposes, great! Build whatever your heart desires. If you want to join a server of warring factions, that’s cool, just be careful that the people you’re playing with aren’t jerks. If you want to role-play, Minecraft is great for that! There’s several servers with full cities and stories that people have constructed from scratch. If you’re an aspiring game designer that wants to explore the fundamentals of texturing or adding mods to videogames, what better foundation than a game that is literally a giant three dimensional grid of blocks?

This game is huge because it is what I would call the “gateway drug” to the gaming community. There’s so many diverse cultures and variants in this game that its impact on the entire gaming world is incalculable. Are there better games that allow you to beat other people up in real time? Of course, this game wasn’t designed with a “player vs. player” concept in mind. Are there better games that let you role-play with people around you? Sure. I wouldn’t play Minecraft for the role-play because I personally can’t immerse myself in such a physically blocky world.

This game isn’t “the best” at really anything. Any specific part of the game is done better in some other game. But the majesty in this game is the fact that it weaves together so many things at once that it can please anyone. Of course it will have flaws, and they will all depend on the way that you’re playing it. For example, there’s no “instruction manual” for all the things you can and can’t do, you pretty much have to use a wiki if you want to know how to make X block or how to acquire Y item. If you want to build massive cities, it’s going to take an incredible amount of time. Even large scale stuff is often built one block at a time because using modded commands that allow you to conjure basic shapes or shift specific blocks around can only help so much. As with pretty much any online game you play, the community of people you play it with can be terrible and mean, but that too can vary, depending on how you choose to play the game.

Since this game performs really well for every audience, and the game itself is so easy to access even if you only have a laptop (or, heck, a smartphone), that its no wonder its so popular. what’s more, the game is constantly being updated and there’s so much to explore, that playing it once every several months will guarantee it being a very different experience from the last time you played.

Review — Path of Exile (320)

When I first played this game, a week or so after it first launched, I stopped before I even got halfway through the story. It feels so much more like a sequel to Diablo 2 than Diablo 3 ever has, but it simply wasn’t fun.

But, Diablo 3 wasn’t great when it launched, either. It’s gone through so much changes since then that it’s hardly even the same game, so I thought I might as well give Path of Exile a second chance. While it’s been too long for me to be able to explain why it was fun this time around as opposed to before, I played quite a bit of it. Around thirty hours. So, here’s the pros and cons.

Positives first. This game is (as I said) a great spiritual successor to Diablo 2. If you want a newer game that plays like that one specifically, that’s where you should start. It feels sort of retro in that sense, but at the same time the UI isn’t clunky and you can manipulate things pretty intuitively, apart from the specific part of the system that lets you see stuff on the ground.

It’s also extremely diverse. You can do anything you want in this game. Be a guy that sets everyone on fire? Sure! Be somebody that hurts everybody when he sets himself on fire? Yeah, of course. Explode everything with a single punch like the legendary hero we all know and love: One Punch Man? ONE PAAAANCH! I’m telling you you can do anything in this game, and even after thirty hours of content, I haven’t even gotten to the max level to experience the endgame yet. So I can’t even critique that part. (Another great pro to this game is that the developers are constantly working on it, changing and fixing things, updating content, that sort of stuff. I feel the need to mention that because it’s not every day you have such an active dev team working to make the best game they can.)

There are some big flaws though. The biggest one is that this game is pretty hard to get into if you don’t have other people to help you out. It is daunting in every sense of the word. For example, here is the passive skill tree.  When you level up you get a point to put somewhere here, and every little dot costs a point to obtain. Even experienced players have to look up where to branch with the characters they are currently playing!

What’s more, even when I knew what I was doing and I had people to help me figure out how to play, I still had no concept of how to quantify the quality of pieces of gear. Is this piece an upgrade? I don’t know, they each have seven stats but none of them are similar. Is a huge sack of assorted fruits better than a huge sack of assorted vegetables? That’s what it feels like. Since there’s so many different types of stats every piece of gear can roll, it’s impossible for somebody new to the game to know which one is really “better”.

All that said, the game is fun. I’ve spent all thirty of those hours playing alone just going through all the difficulties of the story (and I’m still not bored with it). It’s mindless fun, which means its the perfect game for getting a sense of progression as well as listen to audiobooks! But overall, this game is kind of bent towards people that enjoy optimizing, number crunching, and looking up strategies. It’s not meant for anyone you couldn’t easily describe a “gamer”.

Me — Video Games (270)

With a past-time as diverse as video games, it’s easy to see why so many people play them. Are mobile apps “video games”? Is Farmville a “video game”? If you widen those gaps, is playing Tic Tac Toe over Windows Paint a “video game”? It’s certainly debatable, but rather than do research on what would technically be defined as a video game (who has the authority to say one way or another, anyway?), I’ll just define what it means to me, and talk about the sorts of games I like and why I like them. (Be warned, this post is twice as long as most). Also the pictures below are all screenshots to help convey what these games really are.

To me, a “video game” is a uniquely digital experience made for the purpose of entertainment. This means that basically everything aforementioned is a video game except Tic Tac Toe. Now, when I define myself as a “gamer”, that means something else entirely. Not having a large enough sample size to know what people do in their spare time, I’d define that simply as “somebody who frequently plays video games in their spare time”. Now that I think about it, I almost can’t conceive what people would do with all their free time if they don’t play video games. I suppose “most” non-gamers would be watching TV or Netflix these days.

But there are so many types of games out there, it’s hard to even define many of their genres. When I pick a game up on Steam, or simply decide which game to play, it is heavily dependent on my mood, how much time I have, how much I want to focus, and whether or not I want to play with people (friends or online).

Even six years ago, I rarely played anything with other people. I played a lot of RPGs at the time, and even the online things I played I never played with friends. I simply never had many school friends and for the longest time we only ever had one console or computer between the three or four of us that wanted to use it.

If I had to pick, I would say my favorite genre is the RPG (role-playing game), but even that is incredibly vague these days. What most genres boil down to though is game mechanics: what can you do in the game and what are the things you do to do it. In an RPG, most often this means to level up, upgrade your weapons and armor, and experience a story. These are games like FalloutSkyrimDragon Quest VIII (no surprise there), and a great many MMO (massively multiplayer online) games like World of WarcraftGuild Wars, or Rift. For single player games, I typically like to have a lot of free time ahead of me before I crack it open. You don’t simply boot up Skyrim and only play for an hour or so; the experience is much better when you can play for three or four.

First person shooters, or FPS games, are probably what many non-gamers think of when they think of our stereotype: a ten year old with a headset screaming obscenities at his TV because he just got shot and killed. There certainly is a lot of that, but when I play those types of games, it probably means I’m playing with friends and trying to waste time having fun. Call of Duty is certainly on this list, sure, but these days for me, FPS games mean Titanfall 2 (if you’re looking for what you would describe as a ‘prototype’ of the genre), Bioshock, and especially Overwatch. People think of FPS games as a guy with a gun shooting somebody else with a gun, but really all FPS defines is the camera angle and weapon.

Without making an absurdly long post of all the specific kinds of games I love (Heroes of Might and Magic won’t make it on this list, unfortunately), it would perhaps be best to condense nearly everything else that is relevant for me as a top-down or platformer game. The only thing these terms define is camera angle here: for top-down, you’re looking at the landscape from a bird’s eye view, or at a slight angle if you’re playing an isometric, and platformers means you’re looking at your character with your eye sight parallel to the ground. Typically that means your character is jumping up on platforms (hence the name). Awesome recent games like this include Transistor (isometric), Stardew Valley (top-down), and Owlboy (a platformer I have not played yet). All of these examples are single player games that offer vastly different experiences from one another, so it’s a little unfair to lump them all together. Oh, well.

The single biggest thing to define here, though is the time sink. When playing a game, you should ask yourself whether or not you can “beat” it. With a game like Final Fantasy, a super popular series of RPG games, you can defeat the final boss, put it down, and never play the game having experienced virtually all there is to experience. These are most often story driven games. You play for the story then walk away when you’re through with it. But with games that involve a lot of people, i.e. MMOs like World of Warcraft or popular FPS games like Call of Duty, there is no experience that “completes” the game for you. There is no end goal. It may sound weird, especially for somebody that doesn’t play games, but in the end its the experience you jump into a game for, so its not inherently bad that online games have infinite replay-ability. It’s like watching a football game: You’re not done with football forever when the Super Bowl ends, because there’s a new season and every individual game you watch will be different. It’s the same thing with online games like Overwatch or League of Legends or Starcraft: every game you play will be distinctly different from the last. That’s why these games are the best games to play with friends: there are no requirements. You don’t have to wait for them to be at the same chapter of a story or anything like that. You simply jump on and play a match, and then another, and another until you don’t want to play anymore. To me, these games are almost exclusively for when I play with friends, because the enjoyment I get out of them when I play alone is minimal.

As a side note, here is a link to an enormous (albeit outdated) picture of a flowchart on picking the “perfect” video game for you (I didn’t simply add it because it’s quite a large picture). Sort of a weird thing to say when I just explained how I play different games based on a ton of different factors, but I also like flowcharts, so here you go.

 

Me — Competitiveness

I think the way I play games ties back to my early childhood and how I was narcissistic and selfish. Back then, I’m told I was both a sore loser and a sore winner, so I was pretty much the worst. The funny thing is, I don’t think I’m really any different than how I was back then, at least internally. The biggest difference is perhaps the fact that I’m not as open with my inner thoughts as I had been.

In everything I do, I’m very competitive, which is sort of annoying because it means I’m bad at relaxing. I don’t like operating at less than maximum efficiency. It’s so bad that I feel guilty for listening to music while playing video games rather than an audiobook. Ridiculous, I know, but I don’t think it’s a terrible flaw.

One of the ways this manifests itself most in my life is that, especially recently, I don’t like getting into new things. I don’t want to learn a new game, I want to get better at the one I already know. And once I’m good at it, I want to take it a few steps further and be the best at it. I don’t like devoting less than one hundred percent to anything, because it feels like I’m slacking if I do. It’s why I rarely play role-playing games anymore, because they require a time investment I don’t want to commit. It’s not that I don’t have the time if I really wanted to, it’s that spending that time means time not practicing and getting ahead in anything anyone else is doing.

I played a lot of League of Legends back in the day. Assuming I won about half of the games I’ve ever been in, I’ve probably played around eight hundred hours, as a rough estimate. That’s about a month’s time. Now, if you’re not a gamer, that may sound like a lot, but it actually seems low to me. Some of it was playing with friends, sure, but I didn’t play all one-hundred-an- whatever of the champions. I probably spent over half of those hours on the same three characters, playing, practicing, and exploring how to get the most out of their potentials.

As far as World of Warcraft goes, I have several websites that I go to constantly regarding how to optimize how I play just so I can be the best. Getting the best gear to make my numbers the highest, learning which buttons to hit in different situations, that sort of thing. If nothing else, I strive to be the best of my class (mage, of course), and playing any other class simply feels wrong because of how much time I spent on that one.

Lastly, devotion is the biggest thing. If the game isn’t multiplayer or there are noncompetitive ways to play it, I prove how good I am by getting one hundred percent completion, or by beating it quickly. That sort of thing.

The worst part is, it permeates all aspects of my life. I kind of need to be the best at everything. The only thing that changes is what I’m focusing on. I lose interest if my devotion isn’t giving me the results I like, which is exactly how I feel about World of Warcraft right now (because everybody else I know simply has so much more time on their hands than I do.)

I suspect I’ll get back into Stardew Valley very soon and build the best farm the universe has ever seen.