Saturday, January 30, 2016

Five Hours With The Division: Beta Impressions  


So The Division originally appeared at E3 back in 2013, but at the time it wasn't exactly clear what it was. 

An MMO? A co-op shooter? An open-world game with online portions? Something else entirely?

Ubisoft wasn't forthcoming with details at the time, and the heavily-scripted trailers featuring players squawking into their headsets were tough to suss out. However, a game can only remain shrouded in mystery (or confusion?) for so long. With an expected street date of March 8th, access to a beta version was given to those who pre-ordered the game. 

Being quite curious about it for all this time, I ponied up a fiver. Here's what I saw.  

(And just FYI, you can click on the images to enlarge them.)

The beta version offers only a portion of the features that will be available in the full product. There were a number of things (perks, crafting, and more) that were greyed-out or otherwise unavailable.

It's also worth mentioning that unlike other so-called 'betas', this one seems like it fits the proper definition -- there were a number of bugs that cropped up, several areas were inaccessible, and all sorts of weirdness was on display. I was dropped from the game a number of times, the game began with Spanish as the default language, sometimes my gun floated five feet in the air above me, and in general, it felt like it was not in a finished, polished state.  

Not a complaint, just an observation. 

At the time I began, I was only able to choose between male/female for my character. The customization options were not enabled and the race was chosen either at random, or perhaps based on the language selected? 

The normal view when a player calls up the map via an AR overlay. 

A zoomed-out view showing the surrounding area. 

From there, things kicked off with an opening cutscene describing a city descending int chaos after a virus was released, and the game quickly rolled me into tutorials. There's a lot going on in The Divison and there are loads of systems. It was overwhelming at first, but things quickly became clear. Well, mostly clear.  

The Division is an open-world, third-person shooter based inside a huge city. 

The core campaign is single-player. 

This may come as a surprise to many since the trailers were so heavily oriented on co-op, but it does seem entirely possible to play as a lone wolf. However, there are at least two flavors of co-op available -- Apparently players can go through the story campaign with one or more partners, working together to restore the city.  

I played the beta partnered up with my wife, but I also ran into a few friends randomly exploring the world. Grouping up with them was as simple as walking up to them, and away we went. No painful hoops to jump through, although there are options for forming more formal parties.  

The other type of co-op was based in a special area of the game's world called The Dark Zone.  In this area, groups of players enter and the game becomes PVP. Squads of friends can stick together and cover each other's backs, but when other groups or real players are encountered, it can get hairy. 

If nobody fires a shot, they can co-exist peacefully while gunning down AI characters carrying loot. But if one group decides to open fire on another, then all hell breaks loose and squads try to take each other down while collecting spoils from the fallen.

This screen shows the different types of gear the player can equip for tactical purposes, and below is the screen for skills. There are also menus for equippable perks, cosmetic appearance, and more.  

Weapons can all be modded in several ways (seen above) adding various effects and qualities.

The open world is quite beautiful and highly detailed, with areas featuring interiors, exteriors, and varied elevations. The weather and lighting are of special note -- the environment regularly cycled through blizzard conditions, sunshine, light and dark with very convincing levels of quality.

In the campaign area, random missions pop up, and completing these give various rewards that can often be put towards restoring the city. 

This poor guy was locked up by looters, so rescuing him (and others like him) was one typical mission.

Miscreants will often terrorize the streets, so something like this is a straightforward cleanup mission.

Several buildings in the world are contaminated with a virus. In these, certain machines must be activated, and then the data uploaded to HQ. A clock counts down for added pressure, and of course, the street toughs try to foul things up as you go. 

When all missions are cleared in the area, reporting back to the 'job board' respawns more events in different areas. Different parts of the city present different threat levels, as seen below. (Small print, you can see it below 'Chelsea') 

There's more to the game that we didn't see in the beta, but this seems to be the general flow of the singleplayer portion. Customizing loadouts, gear and appearance seems to be a big hook, and the co-op was seamless and smooth. It's unclear how long the campaign is, and the value of the Dark Zone's PVP will be of varying worth depending on player preferences, although it's worth noting that the best swag is to be found there.

Looking towards the future, Ubisoft has already announced three expansions to the game available via season pass. 

From Ubisoft PR:

The development team has a complete post-launch plan to keep the experience fresh for all players, including several free updates, new features and functionality, as well as 3 major expansions to provide a renewed gameplay experience after launch.

The free updates to be released for all players will add new game modes such as challenging group-oriented operations to test players’ abilities in co-op mode and win unique rewards.

The 3 paid expansions are included in the Season Pass and will be released over the course of the year. Each expansion builds on The Division, continuing your agent’s journey and progress with new content, gear and gameplay as you fight to take back New York:

•       Expansion I: Underground
This first major expansion opens up a new area to players as they explore the uncharted underworld of New York City with up to 4 friends for intense co-op action

•       Expansion II: Survival
In this expansion, players will have to survive as long as possible in a very hostile environment that will challenge even the most talented agents.

•       Expansion III: Last Stand
Stay tuned for more information.

At launch, Season Pass owners will also unlock the exclusive Sawed-off Shotgun, a unique sidearm customized for short-range destruction. Season Pass owners also receive a set of exclusive outfits and weapon skins, as well as access to special monthly benefits including exclusive content drops and special events.

This is a pretty good summary of the time I spent with the beta and of what we know, but many questions remain. Regarding cross-platform play, there's been no definite answer. My guess is no. 

In terms of the expected lifespan of the game (yes, there's a Destiny-sized elephant in the room) it's hard to say. If the parts of the game that weren't in the beta are as rich as what was, that's pretty promising. Of course, The Division's long-term health will live or die based on the additions and expansions, but it seems to me that the hooks are in place to keep things rolling. New areas seem quite possible, new modes and missions could be slotted, new gear is a no-brainer... I'd say there's a lot of potential here. 

After three years of being a huge question mark, it seems like The Division is coming together quite nicely. I'm planning to jump in on PS4... How about you?


Friday, January 22, 2016

PSN Flash Sale - Ends 1/25  


PSN is having a big Flash Sale right now until January 25th. There's a lot of stuff on the cheap, but with so much to choose from, what are the best picks? Tastes vary, of course, but here's what caught my eye.   

I'm curious about... 
Actual Sunlight
Eiyuu Senki
Steins; Gate

And these are guaranteed good times...
Hand of Fate
Hotline Miami
Race The Sun
Rogue Legacy
Stick It To The man
Tokyo Jungle

If you have a couple of bucks to spare and need to beef up your PS4/PS3/Vita backlogs, now's the time!


Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Second Look At: Dead Space 3, 2013  


Since we’re still in that wonderfully empty-ish zone of downtime after the end of fourth-quarter madness but before the start of the 2016 releases, I'm still happily plinking away at my backlog.

If you follow me on Twitter, then you probably already know that my most recent selection was Dead Space 3 from Visceral Games. Although I’ve played and completed all the other Dead Space titles, I can't say that I really enjoyed them… It's kind of funny because I think they all have a lot of potential that they don't live up to, but I keep coming back to them… Because?

Anyway, I had heard nothing but bad things about Dead Space 3, but I knew that it had a heavy multiplayer focus, and I'm always looking for games to play in co-op with the wife. Making the prospect even more attractive, I got two copies for about three dollars each, and that's a pretty hard price to beat – if it turned out awful, we weren’t out much cash.

At this point I'm about 10 hours in, and getting pretty close to the homestretch, which is just fine. The gameplay is pretty much what I expected… Typical Dead Space shooting, with a hell of a lot of monster closets and surprise attacks. You could basically call this "Watch Out Behind You, Because It’s Always Behind You: The Game” and it would be accurate.

In fact, the gameplay is so dull that I can easily see why a lot of solo players abandoned ship on it and never came back. If I was playing by myself, it would be far too one-note to trudge through, but it really takes on new life with a second player, and not just because you have a buddy to chew the fat with -- the devs have made some really smart decisions that make it shine in cooperative. (And to be clear, this is co-op between two separate 360s. The game offers no splitscreen or couch co-op.)

Sidenote: For whatever reason, the “story-oriented, intentionally co-op” genre has never really taken off on console. Things like Army of Two, Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, and others like them are quite a bit of fun in their intended co-op modes and significantly less so alone. I wonder what it would take for this style of game to flourish on consoles, but that's a question for another day.

The free-flying space sections are pretty great.

So anyway, what does Dead Space 3 do right?

One: The graphics are pretty awesome. Although I’ve been spending a lot of time on PS4 admiring all of the bells and whistles, I was really impressed by how sharp DS3 looks on 360. Of course, it's not really all that old, but even so, it shows just how much life was still left in the old machine. It looks fantastic.

Two: The gun modding. Basically, each gun has eight or ten component parts that can all be interchanged. There's no penalty for experimenting, and a player can do it as often as they wish, which was a really smart move to encourage use of the system. Players will come across different parts as they go through the game, and how they’re assembled can modify how they work.
For example, the player starts off with a basic assault rifle, but adding a different tip turns it into a fully automatic gun, while another one will turn it into a shotgun. It's a little confusing at first, but it doesn't take long to get the hang of it. Once a few more components are collected, it becomes incredibly fun to experiment with different configurations. A fully auto rifle with a flamethrower underslung? Sure. A sawblade shooter with an electric rivet repeater attached? Go for it. Plasma blades with grenades and a blast shield? You bet!

This modding is a strong component of the game, and it’s made better with special co-op focused attachments which share life-ups, ammo, or other effects between players.

Three: So about that co-op. Obviously, the game can be played through in solo mode, and it sports the usual story-oriented campaign with cutscenes and NPC characters. However, the brilliant thing here is that in addition to series star Isaac Clarke, the devs have included a second character called Carver.

Badasses. I love Visceral's armor design.

I'm not sure how often he pops up in the solo campaign, but in the co-op, Carver is always tagging along. In each of the cutscenes, Clarke takes center stage in order to carry the campaign along BUT Carver is always prominently featured behind him, or to the side, or in some other way so it looks like he's present even though he's not actually participating in the story.

Furthermore, the game shows cutscenes from different perspectives. While I expected one section to look identical for both my wife and myself, I was surprised to find out that each of our screens was showing something different. At one point my wife (playing Clarke) was inside the cab of the vehicle that was sliding down a cliff. My character (Carver) was outside the vehicle trying to get her out. She couldn't see me on her screen, but I could see her on mine. That’s just one example, but there are many.  

In other instances, there are weird psychological effects that crop up. At one point, a level we were in was covered in party streamers, presents and birthday cake. I thought it was the weirdest thing ever, but my wife couldn't see any of it, nor could she hear the voices that were playing on my TV. This attempt at approximating Carver having a moment of insanity was really cool, and created a few moments of confusion between the two of us in real life as we were trying to figure out what the hell was going on and why we weren’t seeing the same things.

There aren’t nearly enough of these moments and I think that's a shame considering how strong they are, but even the little bits that we get are pretty brilliant. I can't say that I've seen anything else quite like them in other games.

So where does Dead Space 3 go wrong?

You again? And again? And again?

Well, I think the biggest thing is what I already mentioned -- the action is flatly one-note. Most of the game is walking through hallways of various lengths and taking out monsters which pop out at you from all directions. In ten hours, I think we’ve come across… one boss? Maybe two? It's not especially compelling, and the game is certainly long enough for boredom with this content to set in.

Seriously, ignore this MF'ing thing. 

Otherwise, the story just isn't good. Although I’ve played through all of the Dead Space games, I have a hard time keeping the plot straight in my head… I know there's something about an alien “marker” that turns people into monsters, but then it was really man-made, but then it was actually alien. And, for whatever reason, people keep joining the cult that popped up around the worship of this marker because… I don't know why. I mean, who wants to turn themselves into a corpselike grabby-monster? Dead Space 3 furthers all this somehow, although I couldn’t explain what the point of it is, honestly. Clarke goes after another marker and it’s all hazy after that.

Husband and wife, blasting happily in tandem. 

So, while the downsides are significant and I don’t recommend this game to lone wolves, the interesting, fresh take on co-op and the gun modding in Dead Space 3 are actually both quite good and very creative. I could easily see some of these same mechanics making a big splash in different games that might use them to better effect. In the meantime, if you have $6 for two copies and a buddy willing to commit 15 hours, I’d say Clarke’s final journey is a worthwhile investment.   


Friday, December 25, 2015

A Second Look at: Prince of Persia, 2008  


Although I don't talk about it much these days, the Prince of Persia franchise has been one of my favorites since the 2003 reboot, Sands of Time.

It was a stunning experience on all levels thanks to the Prince’s fantastically acrobatic traversal, a unique time-rewind mechanic, and its storyteller-style voiceovers. It all came together into something fairly magical for me, and I was hooked ever since.

After Sands of Time, I played the two sequels and enjoyed them greatly despite the drastic shift towards a darker, edgier tone. Nu-metal and unnecessary profanity aside, the mechanics were still solid and I was genuinely interested in seeing what would become of the Prince after meddling in powers he couldn’t control.

However, when Ubisoft rebooted the franchise yet again in 2008, I bounced right off of it.

I think I wrote about a paragraph on it at the time, and the @Gamecritics review was a quickie written by someone who popped up and didn't stay with the site. I regret leaving the topic so soon, and I should have been more vocal about it – in a nutshell, the gameplay felt less technical and too simplified, I was not a fan of the empty-feeling open world, and having to collect items to progress the story was the final nail in the coffin.

However, as someone with a substantial soft spot for the Prince, it always bothered me that I never finished the 2008 installment. I've had a copy of it for years, and now that we’re past the fourth quarter madness of holiday review season, it felt like the right time to pull the game out from the bottom of my backlog and give it another try.

I'm glad that I did.

Revisiting the game now, I will say that the character designs and animations are strong. The Prince and his companion Elika are a handsome pair, and the developers have taken quite a bit of time to make sure that they animate fluidly. They display many little flourishes that accentuate the partnership they grow over the course of the game. 

When on a ledge, they quickly leapfrog to switch places if the Prince needs to navigate in the opposite direction, or when standing on a beam, they hold hands and spin around gracefully to trade positions.  In most of these cases, it would've been perfectly fine to have no special animation at all, but by including these quick touches and grasping embraces, the two really do behave like a pair.

Following this theme, I enjoy how the two work together in a functional sense. When the game first released, one of the biggest points of contention was that Elika had magical powers, and whenever the Prince missed a jump or is somehow otherwise doomed, the game immediately cuts to a scene of Elika grabbing his hand and pulling him back to the last safe platform he was on. 

While I do have some issues with other parts of the game’s design, this isn’t one of them.  Rather than seeing it as some sort of handholding or dumbing-down, it’s just an interesting choice that eliminates the need to waste time reloading a save.

In the earlier games, the same sort of "do over" function was a gameplay element that asked the player to rewind time at will, and it was a limited resource – it was the literal sand of time. In 2008, the developers threw this out the window, made it an automatic response to player death and removed the limitation on its use.

I don’t know about you, but I generally re-load a save and keep playing if I die in a game, so removing the time needed to perform a step I’m going to do anyway was welcome. In addition, it’s yet another thing that reinforces the connection between the two main characters, so this is a win-win.

Looking at the characters and their dialogue, the developers recorded a ton of fully-voiced lines between the Prince and Elika. Some of it serious, some of it informational, some is just playful and it’s all enriching. I compliment this writing, but the brilliant part is that most of this dialogue is optional and is only heard when the player pushes the ‘talk now’ button.
Letting the player engage in this narrative at their own pace is an incredibly smart choice - I ignored it in action-heavy sections, and when I hit quiet moments and was ready for a break, I’d chat with Elika for extended periods of time. By leaving it in my hands, it was never intrusive, and never broke up the flow of what was happening at any given moment.

Oh, and about Elika… Looking back, I’m a little surprised that I didn’t hear more about her as a strong female character.  She’s fiercely independent and driven, she doesn’t take a back seat to the Prince during discussions, and she’s the reason why he can accomplish anything at all -- without her magic, he wouldn’t get far. She’s an equal (and even his superior) in most respects, and she’s a big, big part of why my opinion of this game turned around. However, rather than becoming the subject of fandom and cosplay, she vanished. I don’t recall seeing her mentioned as a good example at the time and she’s forgotten now. A true shame!

So, everything I’ve touched on has been positive so far, but if that’s all true then why did I bounce off of it so quickly back then? Well, the game was heavily criticized at the time of release, and many of those criticisms were entirely valid.

For instance, the world feels too empty in general, and while there are certainly some technical sections which require a bit of skill, it's not challenging to complete in any real sense.

Unlike the older games, Prince of Persia 2008 was structured as an open world. This sort of design was still exciting and fairly newish back then, so I can understand why the devs might've wanted to try it, but for a game that’s essentially a highly-structured platformer at heart, it doesn't feel like a natural fit.

With the restriction that the Prince can go to a number of levels in any order and that he may or may not have the appropriate power-up that lets him get to the end of each section, most areas ended up feeling like hallways camouflaged by beautiful skyboxes and interesting bits of impossible architecture – easy to pass through from one end to the other, but with nothing notable happening along the way.  

Another poor choice was requiring the player to collect a certain number of "light seeds" in order to progress.

Certain parts of the world are locked behind the power-ups I just mentioned, and these can only be acquired after collecting seeds scattered throughout the environment. Unfortunately, these seeds don’t exist until an area has been completed.  As such, the player is forced to travel back through the same level again at least once to collect the seeds which appear afterwards.

Going through a level the second time is far less exciting than the first, and doing so for the purpose of collecting arbitrary MacGuffins is poor motivation. Making it even less pleasant, many seeds are tucked in out-of-the-way places that often lack a clear way to return to the main path. Sometimes, there seemed to be no way back at all. It feels like the developers had the idea of wanting players to hunt for things, but never quite figured out how this level-combing was supposed to work in practice.

Speaking of things that don’t work, the combat is… Well, it’s awful.

It could be successfully argued that the Sands of Time titles had excessive combat, but 2008 flies in the opposite direction. The only enemies in the game are a handful of carbon-copy peons and five boss characters which appear over and over. This isn’t enough variety to keep the fights fresh from start to finish, and combat itself is a series of QTEs that rely on the player remembering which move beats what, paper-rock-scissors style. It looks impressive the first few times a combo is successfully pulled off, but it feels so stiff and unpleasant that I wish the developers had done something totally different with it. Thankfully, most fights can be won by pushing the enemy over an edge, so the bulk of them can be ended in a hurry.

While all that stuff is bad, the real doozy is how it finished. No real discussion of Prince 2008 is complete without mention of that ending.

Spoiler warning until the next bolded line.

Over the course of the adventure, the Prince and Elika work to cleanse their lands from evil. The twist is that Elika died before the game began. Her life was bought in exchange for releasing the evil in the first place, so by containing the evil again, she must forfeit her life and die a second time.

I thought this ending was quite touching and bittersweet, until it was revealed that it wasn’t the real ending. Once she’s laid to rest, the game keeps going. Off in the distance, an object beckons. Once there, it’s revealed that the player can re-release the evil and bring Elika back to life – essentially, you’re undoing everything the pair did over the course of the entire game.
Some people have tried to explain this decision away by saying that I could have turned my console off after laying Elika down, but I don’t buy it. The game is OBVIOUSLY still going on, there was no in-game choice to select, there was no ‘the end’ message that scrolled… Who arbitrarily turns a console off and says that they’ve completed the game? Nobody, that’s who. The developers clearly want you to keep playing.

I knew this was not the path I wanted to take but I wanted to see the entirety of what the developers had crafted, so I followed it to the real ending. It was basically “to be continued”, and it felt like the most wrongheaded and financially-driven thing I’ve seen in quite some time. What could have been an intensely poignant and memorable finale turned into a giant raspberry blown in the player’s face, and the entire experience was cheapened. It is an understatement of galactic proportions to say that this ending was a Did Not Like.

End of spoilers!

So, after taking stock of the whole thing from front to back and finally rolling credits on it after all these years, Prince of Persia 2008 is an eccentric, flawed experience… But, don't let that scare you off.  I think the relationship between the Prince and Elika is actually quite special, and the way that it intertwines with the mechanics makes it that much better. And, despite the relative ease of navigation compared to previous installments, it's often entertaining to simply go through the environment and watch the Prince cling to ceilings, make fantastic leaps, or spin around on the top of a crumbling castle while holding Elika’s hand. It may not be my favorite Prince of Persia, but coming back to it now has given me a different perspective, and I appreciate the strengths in spite of its weaknesses more now than I did back then.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! 

And, for more on Prince of Persia 2008, the good men of @CaneAndRinse covered it on their podcast, front to back. Give a listen if you like!


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Blasting Through My PS2 Backlog, Part 1  


Welcome back to Coffeecola!

First off, in case you missed it, I posted my top ten games of 2015 over at @Gamecritics. If you haven't seen it, click on over and let me know what you think of my selections! 

Now, let's get down to business...

So, it sounds a little ridiculous to still have a PS2 backlog now that we're well into the PS4 era, but... Yep... I definitely do have a stack of games from back then that I always meant to play. 

I didn't want to commit to anything big this weekend since I'm working on other reviews, but it felt like the time was right to blow through some of these in rapid-fire style and pack up the ones I'm genuinely never going to play.  

Here are the first four...


Jak & Daxter: The Lost Frontier - 2009

I was a big fan of Naughty Dog’s original Jak & Daxter trilogy, so I picked this one up who knows when because I was hoping for more of the same. For those who’ve never played it, it’s basically a hop-and-bop franchise with some light vehicle and collection elements tossed in.

While it’s got the same stars and it’s set in the same world as the first three titles, it was done by a different studio (High Impact Games) and it was originally built for the PSP, so there are some differences.

For example, the camera doesn't tilt up and down since the PSP didn't have a second stick, there’s aerial combat, and the graphic quality is pretty weird -- it definitely doesn't look like a native PS2 game.  It seems fine enough for what it is, but after having played the original three and after letting so much time go by, I think I'm all right with leaving this franchise in the past.

Verdict: Tossed in storage


Pirates: Legend Of The Black Buccaneer - 2006

I had been looking at this one for a long time, waiting for it to drop to the right price in the bargain bins, but I think it was @AshtonRaze tweeting about it that finally pushed me over the edge into purchase territory. 

The gist is that an escaped slave becomes some sort of evil voodoo queen, and your character is a sailor who’s one of many coming after her treasure. It's got a strong Eurojank vibe to it, and the world seems more complex than I was expecting… I didn’t play long, but I was picking up a bit of old-school Tomb Raider mixed with a dash of Risen.  There was platforming, a quest log, some puzzles… The word felt fairly open-ended, too. Promising! 

On the other hand, I'm not too sure about the themes… casting the antagonist as a black female slave who does voodoo is a little questionable, and the first power the hero (a white guy) earns is the ability to turn into a hulking black voodoo brute. The whole thing feels vaguely racist in some way, but it was good enough to pique my interest.

Verdict: Kept it around to play later.


Summoner 2 - 2002

This one is a bit of a cheat because I did play this when it first released. I seem to remember getting fairly far in it until I hit a big difficulty spike and I put it down. I recall being impressed with the size and scope of it back then so I wanted to give it one last shot, but it hasn’t aged well enough. 

Within the first few minutes of play, I was really turned off by how stiff and unnatural the movement and combat felt, and the graphics weren't nearly as good as some of the other games in my PS2 backlog.

I’m sure there's a lot to the game that I haven't even scratched, but this one’s a little too rough and I don’t think I’m going to be able to commit to this one.  

Verdict: Tossed in storage


Scarface: The World Is Yours - 2006

This one surprised me a bit -- it seems like a pretty legit attempt at horning in on GTA territory and there's definitely some money behind it. It's an open world game with a lot of licensed music and tons of voice acting. 

Speaking of which, the main voice actor isn’t a ringer for Al Pacino, but he definitely gets the tone of the film correct. Within the first few minutes of play, he was swearing a blue streak and had me diving for the remote control so that I wouldn't have to explain to my son what all those words meant.

Things started off on the right foot with a good tutorial and the beginning of the game was strong, showing the fall of Tony Montana and how his wealth and power was stolen away. The enemy count was a wee bit concerning (I think I killed 150 dudes in the first three minutes) and I don't know that I’m necessarily in the market for another open world game after all the other ones I've played this year, but this one had me intrigued.

Verdict: Kept it around to play later.


Friday, November 27, 2015

The Witcher 3 is done, and The Old Hunters is too hard. Also, Chibi-Robo!  


Welcome back to Coffeecoloa, and happy (belated) Thanksgiving!

Before getting to my usual game stuff, I just want to take a minute to express thanks for everything that I have - my wonderful family, a source of income, a warm place to live, enough food to eat… things like these aren’t a given, and not everyone is fortunate enough to have them. I mean, I know a lot of people who struggle in just getting by, and here I am, lucky enough to spend time playing videogames and writing about them… It's an absolute luxury to be sure, and I'm very aware of that. And I am thankful.

Anyway, I also hope that you have good things in your life, and I hope this holiday was a happy one for you. Now, on with the show!

>Witcher 3 The last time I talked about it, I was just getting back into it after deciding that Bethesda's latest was too boring to stick with, and in the time that's passed since then, I actually completed the game. It seemed like it was going to go on for infinity at times, but there actually is an end to the main storyline, and after wrapping up the entire game, I can say that I'm genuinely glad I came back to it.

Overall, I think the writing was outstanding… Probably the best writing in any game I played this year. Also, many of the quests were interesting and varied, and so much work was put into every aspect of the experience that it's just a monumental effort.

I also thought that the female characters were particularly well done, and I do think it's a great example of strong women in games. Although some people who played the previous Witcher titles said that the devs did quite poorly with their women (and maybe they did) they’ve clearly learned some lessons along the way because the ladies here are fantastic. They’re strong, they have their own motivations, they don't play second fiddle to Geralt, and they feel like well-rounded characters. Great stuff.

Of course, the game does have a few issues. The biggest one is that the pacing is a little insane. The main quest is incredibly long and takes the number of turns. A lot of interesting things happen -- and that's great -- but these days I find it hard to buy into the "urgency" of a main quest when a game takes so many detours. It was also a problem for me because so many of the sidequests were genuinely good, and I didn't want to miss any of them. I felt compelled to do as many as possible in order to avoid having any automatically fail by advancing the story. I realize that there are story events that had to happen in order to have the finale that the devs wanted, but I think it would have been possible to restructure the game and make it a little less arduous to get through.

It's also worth noting that the game takes a few weird stumbles at the end. @SparkyClarkson raised this issue in his second opinion at @Gamecritics, and I think he's absolutely on the money. The game rises to a crescendo with a fantastic battle at the Witcher home base, and rather than ending things there, there's still quite a bit left to do afterwards, except none of it is as compelling or as exciting as that battle. In fact, it even gets a little bit nonsensical, with a last-minute MacGuffin showing up to lead into some some quest stuff that just don't make a lot of sense.

Those are pretty forgivable things when looking at everything else the game gets right, though, and it gets a hell of a lot right. It's a fantastic experience from start to finish, and although it is a significant commitment of time, I do think it's one of the few games that is worth investing in despite how long it is. The developers have absolutely raised the bar when it comes to writing and worldbuilding, and we are now living in a post-Witcher world. Any developer wanting to cover the same territory really needs to bring it.

>Bloodborne: The Old Hunters While I plan on doing the Witcher DLC, I need to take a short break before pushing on, so I decided to drop back into Bloodborne and give the Old Hunters DLC a try.

To be fair, I'm not the biggest Bloodborne fan. The story is a mess to me, I think some of the systems don't work as well as they could, and I don’t think much of the aesthetics. The hunters look great, but the world is too monochromatic and too cluttered with garbage and statues and all sorts of stuff that just ends up being visual noise. So, while I’m definitely not one of the hardcore BB devotees, I am a Fromsoft fan and I was curious to see what they would bring to the table with this new expansion. Unfortunately, what it looks like they brought is an insane level of hardcore difficulty.

Look, I'm not the best player out there, but I think I can generally hold my own and I am quite experienced when it comes to Fromsoft and the Souls games. And besides, I got through Bloodborne by myself with only a few difficult spots here and there, so I thought I would be well-equipped to handle this, but the developers are trolling pretty hard… They've really jacked up the difficulty.

While there are a few brutal enemies (the shark giants in the Fishing Hamlet are a nightmare) and there are a few too many ‘GOT YA!’ moments for my taste, the bosses are the worst offenders. Many do a crazy amount of damage and they're just straight-up difficult to fight. My friend @MikeSuskie (in his review) says that there's no real trick to finding these bosses, the player just has to be good enough to beat them, and I think he's correct. Unfortunately, I think the devs have taken it a little too far this time.

As for the rest of it, well, it's just OK, I suppose. It's interesting that they put an absolute crap-ton of new weapons in this DLC (clearly in response to complaints that there weren’t enough things to choose from in the vanilla game) but it's ironic that in order to get these weapons, players have to be good enough to survive the areas where they are… 

which means they have to be high-level… 

which means they have to have already been through the game. 

Since leveling up weapons takes a lot of resources that aren't just laying around, most of the weapons people will find won't be any use unless they do a lot of farming, or start a new game in order to re-harvest resources. I’d love to try some of these new things out myself, but some of them I just can't equip because my stats aren't set up properly, and the rest are too low to do me any good. I ended up collecting them, putting them aside and using my old standbys. It seems like a missed opportunity here.

Also, a heads-up to anyone who did what I did and missed the first shortcut that leads back to the very first lamp in the Hunter’s Nightmare. I have no idea how in the world I missed it, but I did, and there’s a very important NPC which hangs out in that shortcut… He has quite a bit of information about the world and ends up giving the player a weapon at the end, so if you plan to play this DLC, make sure you talk to that person before moving on. He's at one end of the large bridge spanning the bloody river that's in the starting area. Once you see the giant flea monsters, go up to the bridge and go in the hallway at one end… He's down there.

Overall, I'm feeling pretty mixed about The Old Hunters. On the one hand, I want to keep supporting From as I've been a fan of theirs for a very, very long time. On the other hand, I don't think Bloodborne was that great, and this add-on feels like it's hard for the sake of being hard. I'm pretty sure that a lot of people who struggled to get through the main game will be absolutely destroyed by the level of difficulty here, and I just don't see the point of making it so crushing.

>Random Just a couple of quick notes before I wrap up… 

First, I want to give a shout out to Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash! on 3DS. I haven't heard many people talking about it, and the people who have talked about it don't seem to think very much of it, which is a shame. I'm a fan of the character, and I think that this is a pretty solid outing for him. It’s certainly better than the last game he was in. 

There are a few weird choices and it's not the sort of thing that you want to marathon for hours on end, but I think it's a lot better than people give it credit for, and it's really cute as well. If you're a fan, it's definitely worth picking up, and if you want some solid platforming action, this is a good one to check out.

Finally, I haven't fired my WiiU up for ages, but I've been pretty curious about Xenoblade Chronicles X, out on December 4, and while I’m not going to cover it for review, I am going to pick it up to see what it's all about. 

It looks like it has a Phantasy Star Online vibe to it, and I'm a sucker for anything with giant robots. Some reviewer friends who already have been through the game have told me that they think I'll hate it -- which is very likely possible -- but it sounds like an interesting project that warrants investigation… I'll have more to say on it later.