Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 21: Legal Podcasting

The Texture Pop turns 21 episodes old this week. As everyone knows, 21 is the legal drinking age in America. As a result, we took the podcast on its first wild party.

That might explain what happens every episode. In other news, Garrett is back, but still kinda sick.

0:00:00 Introduction
Title drop already.
We'll get to the Far Cry 3 stuff later.

0:02:50 Viewer Questions
"What are some of your favorite overlooked games?"
Dark Cloud 2 is definitely my favorite overlooked game. It takes from so many genres: RPGs, Action-Adventures, Rogue-likes, and Simulation games. It blends them all together so well that it's amazing.
Wild Arms 3 is another. WA3 does a lot to fix many common problems with JRPGs. Spells have a minimum amount of MP needed to cast them, but they are otherwise free. Characters use Vitality to recover HP after a battle. And there are also the random encounter cancelling mechanics I talked about in the cast.
I'd also like to mention Shadow Hearts as another overlooked game. We've talked about it in previous podcasts. Sam's pick of Atelier Iris reminded me of Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, which I like for similar reasons.
I love questions like this, because they give me opportunities to gush about games I loved from back in the day. You should also pay attention to what the rest of the cast thought. Their picks were as interesting as mine, and it shows you what kind of games we all play.

"Do you guys have an old-school genre of video games that you wish to make a comeback?"
The only things that came to mind are non-Nintendo 3D Platformers. Even then, I'd only like them to make a comeback as smaller, $10-15 budget titles so that they maintain what made them great. This was a difficult question, as there were often many reasons why old genres died out. If they were $60, they'd have to be something like Mirror's Edge, with very high production values.

"Is there anything you'd like to see/not see in the new StarFox game?"
I had nothing to add here. StarFox isn't really my area of expertise.

0:34:50 We give Garrett space to better explain his Game of the Year choices from last week.
Since he wasn't present to do so himself, We tried to do it in his stead, but none of us believe we did his picks justice.
I'm going to let this part stand on its own.

0:42:25 Gaming News
PlayStation Network and Xbox Live got hacked on Christmas Day
The worst part of the whole thing is that the entire reason for the hack is that the hackers thought it was funny. There was no statement to be made. There's no good reason for hacking into a network anyway, but that just makes it hurt that much more.
It is also interesting to note that Sony was hit much worse than Microsoft. Sony really does not seem to have a solid grasp of cyber-security. They should probably get on that. After all, this is far from the first, or even the biggest, hack they've had in recent history.

Hatred reinstated on Steam Greenlight
Since we didn't talk about it last week with the Game of the Year stuff, we talked about it on this episode instead.
I think an interesting debate over the open-garden versus closed-walls approach to marketplace curation. There are merits to both approaches, but Steam doesn't really adhere to either philosophy. Were they to show more consistency, I would be okay with their decision. It's the inconsistency that is the problem.
The argument of censorship is another thing entirely. This isn't censorship, end of discussion.

1:06:50 Sam played Destiny (on Xbox One).
Such is our fate.
It's a good shooter, with solid mechanics. There's just nothing to do with those mechanics.
And nothing to the story at all, except the stuff that you have to look for online.

1:20:00 Garrett has been sick with the flu.
And it sucked. (This is mostly why he couldn't make the podcast for a while.)

1:25:20 Garrett saw Frozen on Ice
And we also talk about me watching the movie, since I did that this week. It's a Disney movie. I don't need to say anything else. I am a sucker for Disney movies, so I loved it. People who dislike Disney movies won't like it either.
I like how it subverts typical heroic and villainous roles by making the Ice Queen the hero and the stalwart knight the villain.
We also detour to discuss movie theaters and other things movie-related.
The Destiny video we talked about during this segment is here.

1:33:00 Garrett talks computers and Steam Sales.
Windows, computer parts, the works. Not much more to add here.

On the topic on Steam Sales, this current sale (as of the time of writing) hasn't really been that great. My wallet has been mostly safe. I bought a couple of things, but nothing worth talking about here.
But Chris did...

1:37:30 Chris played The Walking Dead: Season 2.
And he highlights the two biggest problems of the new season.
First, the new cast doesn't really stand out all that well from every other group of survivors in a generic zombie apocalypse. They don't feel as interesting as the original group from the first season.
Second, we have already wisened up to the Telltale formula, where none of your choices made a difference. It is more of a movie where you affect the tone of the interactions, for better or worse.

1:43:50 Chris had Christmas Oreos.
So we talk Oreos briefly. It took him a whole three days to do it.

1:46:20 Chris discussed his Christmas haul.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Wolfenstein: The New Order
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag
The Ratchet and Clank HD Collection
$10 Nintendo EShop Card (for Megaman X on Wii U)
Guilty Gear Xrd

Not a bad haul. A lot of quality games in this assortment.

1:48:10 Chris played the Ratchet and Clank Collection
It is interesting to see how those games evolved over the years. The first game is easily the worst of the three, and they got so much better over time. Even as the worst, it's still a great Ratchet and Clank game. As they series went on, the developers learned many lessons about both characterization and gameplay. You can see it in the design. The thing we talk about with Ratchet being a huge jerk was one of the biggest problems. Like we said, they performed this same routine better in Tools of Destruction.

The Going Commando/Up Your Arsenal Developer Commentary LP can be found here.

We also discuss HD re-releases in a general sense in this segment.

1:58:50 Chris also got Gears of War: Judgement
He didn't play it, so we didn't discuss it. However, we get into a really interesting conversation about the class of games that exist purely to milk a successful franchises. Games like Gears of War: Judgement, God of War: Ascension, and Halo 4. We all know why these games exist, but it doesn't make it any less annoying.

2:01:10 Chris played a bit of Assassin's Creed 3.
This is, by far, the worst main series Assassin's Creed game. He just finished the best part of the game, and it's all downhill from there.
I absolutely cannot wait until he gets through Sequence 8. Everything after Haytham's segment was bad, but that segment in particular was awful.
The mission design was bad. The story was bad. The protagonist was boring. It is so terrible. Hearing Chris complain about the game will be Catharsis.

2:05:20 I played more Persona Q.
The biggest issue by far with the game is its pacing. It is about the same length as Persona 3/4, but it is purely dungeon-crawling. You can take breaks to talk to the people in your team, which coincidentally happen to be the best parts of the game.
The combat isn't even a problem either. It's fun. The reason the pacing is so bad is because every single floor in the Labyrinth is a massive puzzle that takes about 10 minutes to solve, but about an hour to draw a complete enough map that you can solve it.

2:07:30 I beat both Wolfenstein: The New Order and Far Cry 3.
Which I wrote an article about here. I took a lot from the conversations Sam and I have had in the past when I wrote that.
I spent most of this segment complaining about Far Cry 3, because the story of the game is a bunch of horseshit. Both games play very well. I'd easily recommend them both, but Far Cry 3 grinds my gears. Vaas was easily the best part of the writing. Once he left, the wind was blown right out of the game's sales.
I find the discussion here, comparing Tomb Raider to Far Cry 3, to be very interesting. There are many parallel's between those games. And overall, I found Tomb Raider much more palatable. Having said that, there are merits to both games.

2:22:30 I started my Holiday Movie Binge.
It wasn't anywhere near as trippy as people said it was. Still, it's a great movie. Leonardo DeCaprio and Ellen Page pull off great performances.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
If you like video games, you'll get a huge fan of the film. I really liked it. Micheal Cera plays a great maladjusted mid-20s dude.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I like the difference in tone this movie had to other Marvel movies. It's a bit obvious in terms of social commentary, but overall I loved it. It's still a superhero movie, but a much more "grounded" one.

See above.

Thor: The Dark World
Tom Hiddleston is a great Loki. There really is no other person I would have in the role. Aside from his performance, the movie isn't bad, but it is not as good as the other Marvel movies.

The LEGO Movie
I really enjoyed this movie. Up until the plot twist, it is a very cute movie with great, if obvious, social commentary. Once the plot twist is revealed, it becomes a very emotional story. The movie does so many things right that I would easily recommend it. Everything is awesome!

2:44:30 Wrapping Up.
My Wolfenstein/Far Cry 3 article is here.
Sam's itch.io article is here.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

#80: Far Cry 3 Vs. Wolfenstein: The New Order: A Discussion of Aesops

Though this may surprise the people who read my articles, I play more than just RPGs. Surprisingly enough, the last two games I have beaten have something in common. They attempt to teach similar aesops through their stories. However, one performs this task very well. The other fails so miserably that the writing can only be called marginally better than a David Cage game. These two games are Wolfenstein: The New Order and Far Cry 3. This week, I plan to compare the two in order to help explain how one failed and the other succeeded. The reason is that I strongly feel that they were both making an attempt at the same thing. That is, they wanted to mock the kinds of protagonists we see in the shooters that are released year after year.

To that end, they have a similar tone in terms of gameplay style. Both Wolfenstein and Far Cry 3 have a very arcade-like style to the way they play. By this, I mean that they can throw many enemies at the player and feel reasonably confident that the player has the ability to take them all out. Missions, especially towards the end of the game, tend to have enemies swarm the player in waves. Typically, these enemies die very quickly, but there are a few enemy types that require more skill to take down. Furthermore, because health and ammo do not fully-regenerate, there is an element of resource management required. Players must mind either their total health and/or the number of healing items they have, on top of their body armor and the number of bullets left in their inventory. Excessive use of these resources will make future battles more difficult. Combined, these elements give off a sense of power, but require tactics in order maintain their advantage.
On top of that, both games have sections with stealth elements. In these areas, the objective is to eliminate the opposition before they have the chance to raise the alarm and call for reinforcements. Players can just charge-in guns blazing, but they are better off if they take the time to stay undetected. Various tools in their arsenal can assist them by giving them silent attack options. Minor RPG elements are also included. With them, players can develop their character's skills and physical abilities in order to perform better. They can customize their character in order to best suit their playstyle, be it stealthy assassin, commando, or somewhere in between. With this, both games offer a sense that the protagonist is slowly developing over the course of the game, yet never lacks in skill.

Even in terms of story, there are many similarities. Both games have the player go against foes that are irredeemably evil. Wolfenstein: The New Order, as one might expect, has Nazis as the primary opponent. Far Cry 3 pits the player against kidnappers, slave traders, and drug dealers. In this way, they do not focus on the effects of violence on the enemy you are fighting. Rather, the focus in more towards the protagonist and how they change as a result of being thrown into the violence, becoming an active participant in it. Wolfenstein shows how years of fighting Nazis have affected BJ Blazkowicz's mental health. Meanwhile, Far Cry 3 demonstrates Jason Brody's decent into a spiral of death and violence after being kidnapped and ransomed by Vaas and his pirate crew. Though Far Cry 3 also uses the progression system to better demonstrate the transition, both games take close looks at their player characters.

However, there are crucial differences in these stories. The compound effect of all of these differences helps to explain how one game succeeded while the other game failed. The first difference is in the likability of the protagonist and his supporting cast. In Wolfenstein: The New Order, BJ Blazkowicz is shown in a pretty positive light. Throughout the course of the game, he often goes out of his way to assist the people he fights along-side, and not just in terms of completing missions for them. He is also frequently seen talking with other US Army and Resistance fighters, helping them cope with the realities of the world they live in. For example, early in the game, a younger recruit is visibly shaken by the war with the Nazis. BJ approaches him with tips on how to calm oneself down after going through traumatic events. We are also given reason to care about the supporting cast. Each character has their own quirks, personality, and reasons for fighting the Nazis. While some occasionally slip into jerkwad territory, they always have a reason to do so. The character Fergus, to demonstrate the point, gets a little angst when he realizes that he is an old man and is not able to fight as well as he did way back when, feeling like he is holding the team back. Overall, the characters are very well written.
The same cannot be said for Far Cry 3. In that game, almost every character that is on the protagonist's side, including Jason Brody himself, is insufferable. The game opens with them holding several wild parties and imbibing massive quantities of alcohol, using their rich parents' money. Then, they complain about their love lives and other such nonsense. All of them are the exact same character, just with different faces and genders. Even when Brody changes over the course of the game, he simply becomes another flavor of jerkwad. He transforms from a stupid, rich, white boy into a stupid, rich white boy with drug-induced delusions of being some great warrior. If anything, he becomes even more irritating as the game goes on. Unlike in Wolfenstein, the cast of characters is completely unlikable, which makes it hard to care about them when they go through their ordeals and change as a result.

Another major difference is the time-table for the ordeals in each game. In Wolfenstein, BJ fights against the Nazis for decades. At the end of the game, he reaches a point where he realizes that he has been fighting Nazis for so long, over half of his lifetime, that he can no longer do anything else. As a result, he is okay with sacrificing himself to save the world from their evil. Since he cannot live in the world he helped to save, it is preferable to end it all when he is no longer required to fight. It is a distinctly dark moment, but an important one. Most video game shooter protagonists can experience much horror and return to civilization at the end of the day as if nothing happened. Wolfenstein decided to instead play their protagonist completely straight by having him struggle for decades and realize that he cannot do the same.
Far Cry 3, meanwhile, takes place over the span of at most one or two months. Because of this significantly shorter time-frame, Jason Brody's “growth” from a novice into a full-fledged fighter is much less believable. Vaas, the game's (technically) secondary antagonist, makes a remark that best underscores this point. Paraphrased: “You think that you get a couple of tattoos and a few guns and suddenly you're a 'warrior', white boy!?” Though said by a character who is certifiably insane, this statement is no less true. No matter how much training and conditioning one undergoes in a month, they cannot make such a dramatic change like that. Those fundamental changes take years. The events of Far Cry 3 would be traumatic. However, they would not just turn some nobody into a cold-blooded murderer, at least not so quickly. As a result, any commentary Far Cry 3 is attempting to make on video game protagonists feels meaningless.

Ultimately, though Far Cry 3 is obviously the more well-known and popular of the two, it fails on a much more fundamental level than Wolfenstein: The New Order. Wolfenstein is more successful at subverting its mechanics and teaching the aesop at the center of both games. Even in a general sense, Far Cry 3 is terrible in terms of its storytelling. Having said that, both games are still really fun to play. The stand-alone Blood Dragon DLC for Far Cry 3 better demonstrates this by re-contextualizing the mechanics with a story that takes itself significantly less seriously. It is so much better than I would easily recommend it over the original game. From what I can gather, the writers of Far Cry 4 also learned a lot for the failures of the previous game in the franchise. Wolfenstein is also worth taking a look at, if you can find it at a discounted price.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Texture Pop Presents: Game of the Year Awards

So, as a relatively new video game podcast, it is required by law (Section 1337: Subsection 707: Article 070)  for us to do an end-of-the-year podcast. In order to still keep it in our usual style, we opted to use mostly original "awards". Also, instead of naming our collective "Best Game Ever", we instead each have our own list of winners.

Though this podcast is short, it still has our signature style. Also, Garrett was extremely ill before the recording, so he skipped out. However, he did give us a list to read out during the show. Lastly, if I feel the need to, I will try to pick out any honorable mentions and write about them here as well. So, without further ado:

(Note: Persona 3 was not, in fact, the Game of the Year. In fact, we never even mentioned it in the podcast.)

0:00:00 Introduction
My joke here was a not-so-subtle jab at the VGAs from Geoff Keighley, and its commercialist nature.

0:01:20 Our take on 2014.
Overall, it was a pretty disappointing year. We saw a lot of mediocre games, surprisingly bad games, and glitch-prone games. There were many games, but mostly it felt pretty poor.

0:03:55 Best Presentation
My Pick: Transistor
What can I say. It looks gorgeous, it sounds amazing, and it plays smoothly. That soundtrack is so good, that I still listen to it now.

Chris's Pick: Mario Kart 8
No one can deny that the game looks fantastic. Nintendo games have always looked fantastic. The two biggest things Nintendo always manages to nail is quality in terms of both gameplay and presentation. You can be generally assured that a Nintendo game is a quality game, and Mario Kart 8 is no exception.

Sam's Pick: The Wolf Among Us
The contrast between the harsher blacks and the more saturated color palette is really eye-catching in terms of visuals. The main theme and the other tracks in the soundtrack really match the tone. With stellar vocal performances, it is no wonder it made Sam's top pick for Best Presentation.

Garrett's Pick: Watch_Dogs
I wish Garrett himself could defend this nomination, but I hope we did well in our defense of his pick. The game looks great visually, and the various effects give it a nice look.

0:10:55 Best Character
My Pick: Shay Patrick Cormack (Assassin's Creed: Rogue)
I find him as a character to be immensely fascinating. He was very fleshed out, and given a believable back-story and character motivations. Many other Assassin's Creed protagonists felt a bit more one-note, but Shay has a bit more of a personality to him. This is particularly true when you compare him to Arno in Assassin's Creed: Unity.

Chris's Pick: Shovel Knight (Shovel Knight)
I cannot add any more to this pick than what Chris said, as I have not played it for myself. I will say though, that to make such an impression without voice acting of any kind is an accomplishment.

Sam's Pick: BJ Blazkowicz (Wolfenstein: The New Order)
As someone who just played it myself, I can defend this pick. I found him to be a pretty interesting character. Though the game plays like a fun adventure, the character takes himself so seriously that it is appealing in an odd way. He's more than just a lunkhead.

Garrett's Pick: Pagan Min (Far Cry 4)
I'm just going to let Sam do the defending here. He knows more than I would.

0:18:55 Most Disappointing Game of the Year
My Pick: Watch_Dogs
I was really, really hoping for more of a stealth/hacking game. I thought doing that in the modern day could be really interesting, so I had high hopes. What I got was an okay, somewhat creative third-person shooter with terrible vehicle sections. It is not a bad game, but I was not satisfied. On top of that, the story and Aiden Pearce were both some of the worst pieces of writing I've ever seen.

Sam's Pick: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
This is a pretty good pick. Since Sam is such a big fan of The Lord of the Rings, he must have been massively disappointed by the story and how terrible it is. The main quest missions were also really bad, and the environment is a little empty.

Chris's Pick: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
I don't have much to add, since I've pretty much never enjoyed Borderlands. However, this is the first I've heard of the game ditching the O2 mechanics at the end of the game. I did not know that you go back to Pandora.

Garrett's Pick: The Elder Scrolls: Online
I completely forgot that this came out this year. What more do I have to say? This was a terrible slap in the face to all of the fans of the franchise. Considering the subscription fee on top, there's no wonder people hate it. Excellent pick for this particular award.

0:30:25 Most Underrated Game
My Pick: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
I understand why Sam hates this game so much. Truly, I can. However, I had a lot of fun with it. Sure, it's not amazing. But the gameplay is solid and the Nemesis System is extremely interesting.

Chris's Pick: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
I'll just let his discussion of it stand. Again, I didn't play it.

Garrett's Pick: Transistor
Critically, though the game did well, people did not like it as much as they did Transistor. It is also not as widespread. Despite that, there is a lot to love. It plays well, and there are many layers to the story.

Sam's Pick: Titanfall
People quickly moved away from this game after it came out. Though not a bad game, it is one of those "trendy" games that you need to play on launch day, or else don't waste your time. Since it was multiplayer-only, this was even moreso the case.

My Runners-Up: Assassin's Creed: Unity and Murdered: Soul Suspect
We talked about it on the show, but Assassin's Creed: Unity's technical problems overshadowed all of the good things it did for the series. It was so good at mission design and character customization that I loved it. The side-missions are also really good.
As for Murdered: Soul Suspect, I only thought about it after the show aired. A lot of people wrote off this game when it came out. Although it is really easy, and the "combat" is a pain in the ass, the writing was pretty solid and I grew to like the characters. Also, I'm a sucker for murder-mysteries, so this was up my alley.

0:43:15 Biggest Surprise
My Pick(s): The Walking Dead: Season 2 (and The Wolf Among Us).
I think these two go together because I had the opposite expectation for both games. I expected to fall in love again with The Walking Dead: Season 2, and find The Wolf Among Us pretty mediocre. Instead, The Wolf Among Us greatly impressed me. At the same time, I was underwhelmed by The Walking Dead: Season 2. So yeah, these two picks are together because they're reasons are very closely related.

Chris's Pick: Dragon Age: Inquisition
This is Chris's pick primarily because he was so disappointed with Bioware after Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 3, and The Old Republic. With Inquisition, it seems like they've gotten their mojo back. It's a good thing to see.

Sam's Pick: Wolfenstein: The New Order
It plays well, but Sam was more surprised with how serious and grim in terms of the story. It seemed unlike what one could expect of a Wolfenstein game, so it definitely qualifies as "Biggest Surprise".

Garrett's Pick: Alien: Isolation
Given how Colonial Marines threw the Aliens license into the ground, this is definitely a good choice.

0:52:53 Game of the Year (of the Century, of the Universe, this year)
Sam's Pick: Dark Souls 2
I'm honestly surprised at Sam's apprehension at choosing Dark Souls 2. This has been the game he has come back to over and over again. After losing several saves, and playing tons of it without getting exhausted. The only thing that can stop him from playing Dark Souls 2 is the knowledge that more Dark Souls 2 is coming out soon. That says a lot about the game.

Garrett's Pick: The Evil Within
I really wish Garrett was there. I don't feel like we did justice to the defense of his choice.

Chris's Pick: Hyrule Warriors
Considering the amount of time Chris has spend with Hyrule Warriors, this should come as no surprise. Like Sam and Dark Souls 2, the fact that he has spent so much time with it says a lot about the game itself.

My Pick: Shadowrun: Dragonfall
After playing all sorts of CRPGs, Shadowrun Returns is one of the best ones I have ever played. Dragonfall fixes all of the minor problems I had with it, on top of having an excellent campaign. In terms of CRPGs, it's the closest thing I will get to perfection.
Assassin's Creed: Unity and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor were games I did consider, but ultimately their flaws were too great to overcome. Still, I feel they are worth mentioning as solid runners-up.

1:04:43 Best ATLUS Game (That Brandon Has Played This Year)
(This is mostly a joke, referencing the fact that I played so many ATLUS games this year during my "Season of ATLUS". Still, there's a point in here somewhere.)

Chris's Pick: Persona 4 Golden
I did not play Persona 4: Dancing All Night (since it's not out yet... and I don't care), so this is the next best thing.

My Pick: Shin Megami Tensei IV
Like I said in the cast, once you can choose skills in fusion inheritance, you don't want to go back. Plus, the Press Turn System is really good for quick, decisive battles. Lastly, the game improved a lot on old-school ATLUS game design.
Persona 4 Golden was a close runner-up though. Unfortunately, it created Marie. That is unforgivable.

Sam's Pick: Digital Devil Saga
This was hard, because I didn't play Persona 3 this year. Still, he made a good choice, with the limited information given.

1:06:45 Good-bye.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

#79: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor: Knowing Thy Nemesis (System)

Often, I find myself taking a more critical look at games than I otherwise intend to when writing these articles. Typically, my mind tends to focus on what could have been improved, identifying positive aspects only in passing. In the spirit of the holidays, and in light of what I have been playing recently, I feel it is time to invert this. My topic for this week, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, has much valid criticism that can be levied towards it. However, there is a lot of good that is worth discussing.

In particular, the Nemesis System has a lot of potential for improvement and reiteration. As one might expect from a game with “Middle-Earth” in the title, Shadow of Mordor takes place in the same world as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. Because of this, the game's enemies consist almost entirely of Sauron's Orc Army, including the Captains and Warchiefs. What is interesting about the Nemesis System is that it allows this army to change overtime in a more systematic nature than other video games have been able to do in the past.
Basically, every Captain or Warchief has a Power Rating and a list of combat traits. These traits can consists of strengths, such as bonus attack power or invulnerability to ranged attacks, and weaknesses, like instant death from stealth attacks or a fear of other creatures in the game world. Overtime, by performing feats and gaining recognition for other orcs, these leaders can increase in power. As they do, they will start to lose weaknesses and gain strengths. It is even possible for them to duel other bosses for promotions. Forcing the player to run away, or killing them (the protagonist is immortal, so he will just respawn) will also result in an increase in power. Further, the enemy leader in question will remember any confrontations players have had with them and comment on them in future encounters. Players can also sabotage a commander's attempt to gain power by completing optional side missions.

The most obvious positive of this mechanic is that it allows for storytelling born purely of the system itself, in an emergent manner. Out of all of my friends that also played Shadows of Mordor, many of them can recount the tales of their struggle against one or two particularly powerful orcs, which they know by name. Though my particular example's name has been forever lost, I can distinctly recall my struggles against a powerful orc captain and his poisoned weapon, with increased physical attack power. The more he killed me, the stronger he grew, eventually gaining immunity to both ranger attacks and close-quarters finishing moves.
Each time I fought him, he would mock me for my continuous losses against him and his forces. Eventually, these victories against me gained him the rank of warchief, and two loyal bodyguards. After my seventh attempt, I finally caught him by surprise, diving from my perch, shoving my dagger into his backside. A tense ten minute exchange of hit-and-run tactics eventually turned in my favor, as my final ambush resulted in his stinking head being ripped straight off of his cold, lifeless corpse. It is worth noting that this exchange between myself and the now nameless warchief was not part of the main campaign at all. This was entirely driven by the systems at work, created by my interactions with the game on the fly. Many other such stories were created with this system, and each of them were unique to the player involved.

Another advantage to this system is that it requires very little in terms of explanation. Though the game does tutorialize it during the main campaign, my experience with the game, and those of many others, demonstrates how unnecessary it was. Generally, most of us were already spending so much time fighting captains and warchiefs that we had already figured out the nuances of it before the point in the story where we were supposed to learn. Simply by interacting with the systems, we found that it was fairly easy to understand how these mechanics worked together and how we could interact with them. This is not to say that the tutorials should not exist, as obviously some gamers might take more time and/or teaching to understand what is going on. I am merely stating that the simplicity of the system itself makes achieving said understanding a less arduous task.

The last effect of the Nemesis System, and the most interesting in my opinion, is the ability it gives the player to manipulate and control, both directly and indirectly, the enemies they fight. Through the choices of which side missions to complete, leaders to go after, and how they approach encounters, the flow of power in Sauron's army will be altered. As a result, the player's actions shape what kind of forces they go against. Continuous failures (or inaction) and deaths will result in stronger enemy forces in the area. Conversely, taking out enemy captains and/or stopping them from gaining power will keep them weak and easy to kill. Worth mentioning is that there is no, “You chose X, so Y happened as a result,” like we find in many RPGs. Rather than doing this through some binary choice, is it done in a systematic manner. No one decision will have a dramatic effect, but the player's attitude towards completing objectives will affect how many opportunities the opposition has to grow, giving them indirect control over these leaders.
However, this is not the only way players can assert their influence over their foes. Very late in the game's main story, the protagonist gains the power to “Brand” orcs, giving him control over their thoughts and actions. When they are weakened or scared, it is even possible to do this to the captains and warchiefs in the army. In this way, players can insert spies and double agents into Sauron's army to gain control of portions of it. There is much potential to be had through this mechanic. For example, if a particular warchief is causing trouble, it is possible to brand one of their bodyguards, or get another one of the player's already-controlled captains into that position. When the time comes to strike, these “bodyguards” can be ordered to turn on their own commander, granting the player an extra advantage they may not otherwise have been given.
The addition of Branding also affects the flow of power. Since players do have a hand at indirectly influencing the flow of power, they can use this influence to funnel more of the power to the captains and warchiefs currently under their control. At the same time, they can starve the forces they want to take over or eliminate, by helping their allies get stronger. Instead of participating in side-missions, hoping to prevent the captain's success, they will be assisting him in completing his objective. Much like in Assassin's Creed: Rogue, this is a very interesting inversion of mechanics.

With this Nemesis System in place, Shadow of Mordor shows the power of systematizing elements in the game to give players their own opportunities to affect the game world. Though the game itself suffers from really bad writing, the mechanics are solid. I earnestly feel that given a different lore to work with, and more solid mission design and writing, these systems show great potential. Though fairly simple, I foresee a lot that could be done with this core.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 20: Death By A Two Pound M&M

Another week, another podcast. This one is probably one of, if not the best one yet, in my opinion. It encapsulates pretty much everything that we stand for at The Texture Pop.

Garrett once again had to miss out, but he'll make for it when he gets back! Aside from that, there wasn't much more unusual activity surrounding this cast. The recording just went particularly well.

0:00:00 Introduction.
Brought to you, as usual, by FFXIIIFanfics.
Co-Sponsored by Hot Pockets.
(Note: The lawyer that resides in my head would like to inform you that we do not actual have any sponsors.)

0:04:59 Gaming News
Rise of the Tomb Raider is published by Microsoft
This and the Street Fight V exclusive story really go hand-in-hand. Neither one really seem logical on the part of the developers. On the surface, they appear to lose much more than they would hope to gain. These two franchise sold very well, so they didn't have the same excuse Bayonetta 2 did.

DLC Weapons in the Call of Duty: Advance Warfare.
I don't think we'll be able to determine how good/bad this is until it's out. How they implement this will really determine.

Destiny "Strikes" Locked Behind DLC.
Obligatory Destiny reference.
Yes, it's SHIT! We're all pretty unanimous on this. It's astounding how low this game suck, given that Bungie developed it.
This goes into a broader conversation regarding DLC in gaming.

0:28:30 Sam finished Far Cry 4.
Overall, not bad. For better or worse, it is a lot like Far Cry 3. If you enjoyed the last one, you should probably get this one.

0:32:45 Sam finished The Wolf Among Us.
I do feel like my decision to play it as it was released really hurt my enjoyment of the game. It's a good game, though. I personally found it much stronger than The Walking Dead: Season Two, yet not as strong as The Walking Dead: Season One.
There's nothing inherently wrong with an episodic release. I just feel that for a murder-mystery, it didn't work as well as it does for other genres.
But the episodic format does have it's advantages, as we discuss here.

0:42:30 Sam got further in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
From what I gather, it seems to really improve a lot over the issues I had regarding Origins.
The conversation here regarding RPGs and choices is definitely worth listening to here. We, as people who play lots of games, often see through what they designer is doing. But many people who aren't as familiar think it's incredible, because it is.

0:50:45 Sam bought a few games.
Child of Light
The game is boring and the couples are annoying. And since the gimmick is that ALL of the dialogue is in couplets, it really grates on the nerves.
As for the game, I see it's potential, but I did not find the combat or any of the mechanics interesting.
Still, it's an Ubi-Art game, so it looks amazing.

Lichdom: Battlemage
Not much to discuss beyond the conversation.

The Vanishing of Ethen Carter
This goes into a good point regarding games that refuse to help you. While games like Myst have a good cult following, there is a reason why they did not catch on too greatly. Games need to offer some form of assistance, even if the player does not have to take it.
As a general rule, if I feel the need to visit GameFAQs, something went wrong.

Need for Speed: Rivals
Not much to say.

0:59:35 I played more Persona Q.
I don't want to feel bad for Teddie, but the game makes me feel bad for Teddie.
I do like how the game addresses HP/MP management. Thanks to the Sub-Personae, you basically get an amount of house money to spend before using your actual HP/MP. This Gamasutra article goes into more detail.

1:03:45 I beat Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.
This Destructiod article explores what I mean when I discuss the tutorials.
As for the Branding, I like the idea. I'll be posting something more about it this weekend.
I like the mechanics of the game, but the story does leave much to be desired. It's sloppy writing, and I cannot deny that. Still, the way it plays would still make it worth going through, in my opinion.

It's weird that Sam and I are reversing our usual roles in this discussion. I like a nice change of pace. He's right, the main story is a heaping pile of suck. However, the whole package is pretty strong.

1:16:20 I finished watching The X-Files.
Shame that Garrett couldn't take part in this conversation. Season 7, David Duchovny's last season as a main cast member, was really the pinnacle of the series. Once he left the cast, it kinda all went downhill. The new guys they brought in weren't bad, but the magic that Fox Mulder and Dana Scully had was never recovered. The chemistry between Mulder and Scully never really came across with John Dogget and Monica Reyes.
We were probably a little harsh when talking about Dana Scully's character at the start of this conversation. In the story, Scully often takes a harsher, more skeptical view than she actually has because she feels she needs to balance Mulder's "Everything is real." Later, she does the opposite. When John Dogget joins the team, she takes on more extreme "believer" views than she had, to balance out his skepticism. It makes her a lot more interesting than you'd initially be led to believe.
It's a very interesting series, and the first seven seasons are great. The last two aren't as good, and the finale was terrible.

(And yes, I was playing Binding of Issac during this recording session.)

1:24:30 Chris finishes college.
Congrats to him!

1:25:30 Chris played more Mario Kart.
Them golden tires.
Them time trials.
Such interesting.

1:32:30 Chris saw a 2-pack of Two-Pound Resse Cups (but didn't buy it).
And that's a lot of Resse Cup. You would have to eat it like a Resse Cup Pie.
Kinda makes you reflect on our Hot Pocket conversation at the start, doesn't it.
We talk about all sorts of sweets and candy and other sweet food "stuff" in this segment.

1:40:50 Chris talks pizza.
And he had a LOT of pizza, with buffalo wings.
Chris has a much greater iron stomach than I do.
We also get into a discussion about water and soda prices, and the difference between Coke and Pepsi.
Another discussion regarding movies and my Holiday Movie Habits ensues.

We mostly just shift into a general discussion about the whole franchise at this point, so it's worth labeling as it's own segment.
Then we just talk about Ubisoft in general.

1:53:30 Wrapping up.
And next week will be our Unconventional Games of the Year (That Are Worth Talking About) Commercials.... um... AWARD SHOW! See you then!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 19: I Just Want to Cheat on Myself! Is That So Hard!?

We have a very unique guest with us today. Adonisus, or as you might know him "That one guy who always sends in viewer questions." He has one of the more unique voices on the cast.
Garrett wasn't feeling well, so he skipped out.

Aside from that, you probably won't find anything strange about the podcast. It's shorter than usual, but contains everything you've come to expect.

0:00:00 Introduction
And yet another quote from FFXIII Fanfics.

0:01:17 Gaming News
The VGA Awards was our biggest story of the day. It is was certainly better than previous VGAs, but it still has that VGA soul that I disliked from the Spike awards.
This was completely independent of Spike, and it wasn't even broadcasted on television, so I don't know why this turned out the way it did.
I have nothing further to add to this conversation. It was very comprehensive.
We also detoured briefly to discuss Assassin's Creed: Unity again. To be fair, we had yet to release our last podcast when we recorded this, so many of my thoughts on the game were unknown. These were fair questions to ask.

Afterward, we discussed the PlayStation Experience. Though I have since watched the keynote, my knowledge at the time of this recording was only limited to second hand accounts, so my input was limited. Now that I have watched it, my opinions are parallel to the others. Destiny, once again, gets mentioned.
The Street Fighter V announcement was also part of the PS Exp. What I suspect is going to happen is that Capcom is going to release vanilla SF V to PS4, but later "Super/Ultra" editions will go to all major consoles and PC.

0:29:45 Adonisus got a Wii U.
And we discuss a lot of the good games that are either already out on the Wii U, and coming out for the holiday season.

0:37:50 We discover Adonisus is from Macon, Georgia.
So we talk about the game, because there was no comic or TV show ever.
I really don't think of the comics or TV show when talking about The Walking Dead. They don't even come up in my mind.
As for the location. It's Georgia. Listeners already know what I feel about Georgia.

0:43:10 Adonisus played Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Recent Bioware games have this problem where they are all extremely polarizing. Either you love them, or hate them without any real middle ground. Our discussion at the beginning of this segment is indicative of them.
Still, from what I hear, there is a lot to like about Inquisition. A lot of people enjoy it and I can see why. Hopefully, I will get Dragon Age 2 out of the way so that I can get to it soon.

Sam and Chris asked me about why I like Leliana so much. I think that it just came down to the fact that she's my type. I like girls that are sweet, but able to handle themselves just fine. Leliana is that kind of girl. There's really nothing more to it.
I also like her backstory of being betrayed and going to the church for salvation. I'm not a religious person, but I find those characters interesting.

0:59:30 Sam played South Park: The Stick of Truth.
And not much more to say other than that it's okay. A bit of a shame, really.

1:00:20 Sam got to meet George Weidman aka Super Bunny Hop
If you haven't seen any of Super Bunny Hop's videos, you should watch some of them. They tend to be very informative and interesting for the kind of people who would read this blog or watch the podcast. Check him out.

Since they played Super Smash Bros. and Super Mario 3D World, we spent most of this segment talking about those games.

1:10:20 Chris has been prepping for college finals.
And everyone knows how painful they are. I just finished mine a few days ago as of the time of writing.

1:13:00 Chris got the golden kart in Mario Kart.
Yay, him!
"[Mario Kart's] Grand Prix is very much like a Rogue-like."

1:17:00 Chris talks about the new South Park episode.
It was about YouTubers and Let's Plays. They had PewDiePie in the episode as a character.
I don't watch South Park, so I've not much to say about it.

We also use this segment to discuss the virtue of LPs, and how they can help us preserve older games. After all, our computer's might not be able to run many games after years of innovation.

I also have my own unfinished LP series, Disclosure Alert, which you can watch. It was mentioned in the episode.

1:27:00 I played more Persona Q.
Going back to Persona Q 2: The Reckoning (God Damn It!)
Naoto is Yu Narukami's destined waifu. I will not hear any objections.

1:30:30 I played Shadows of Murder (Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor)
It is a great game bound to a really boring story. From a system's perspective, this is an amazing game worthy of Game of the Year. However, the plot lacks any form of self-awareness and there's nothing noteworthy going on. It feels a lot like a tutorial for the game proper, which is the Nemesis System.

Which is by far the most interesting aspect of the game. The developers managed to create a way for enemies to grow and evolve, memorizing and learning from past events, growing in power, and becoming your rival.

1:40:00 We talk a little about This War of Mine.
Hearing the comparisons of people who have been in similar real world events to those in the game is really fascinating. When it comes down to it, people are very cooperative, and games don't tend to allow that.

1:45:30 Wrapping up, but first viewer questions.
"Did you guys read the novel, 'Ready Player One'?"

"Do you guys miss having an adventure mode in the new Smash Bros.?"
That's a question the others are better off answering.

We kinda just end afterward.

#78: Assassin's Creed: Unity: Giving Players Freedom

Last week, I talked a lot about Assassin's Creed: Unity. Specifically, I went over the myriad of poor decisions that, while not affecting the main game too heavily, brought down the entire package. The inclusion of social media, companion apps, and microtransactions all contributed to the impression that Ubisoft was nickel-and-diming franchise fans for all they were worth. Still, the package as a whole was not bad. There were many positive improvements made to the usual Assassin's Creed formula. It is these that are the subject of this week's piece. I feel that they are worth talking about as much as the negative qualities. Positive criticism is just as much, if not more important than negative criticism, as they say.

The most notable addition to the game is the increased focus on character customization. There are two ways in which this is done: First, through the use of a character progression system. At the beginning of the game, the protagonist is relatively unskilled. He only knows basic parkour and combat abilities. As the player completes missions, the gain skill points. These skill points can be spent unlocking extra health, combat finishers, ranged techniques, and even classic moves like the Double Assassination and the Air Assassination. At first, it seems strange to be locked from many of the franchise's iconic moves. However, there is a clear sense of choice and progression granted to the player as a result. Skills fall into one of four different specialties: Close Combat, Ranged Combat, Health, and Stealth. It is up to the player to invest their points either in one of these specializations, or some combination of them. Whatever they decide on will ultimately determine how they play the game, as there is a notable difference between each choice.
The other way is through equipment. As in previous Assassin's Creed titles, primarily the Ezio trilogy, players can purchase new weapons and armor throughout their playthrough. Back then, those armors were straight upgrades. One armor was objectively better or worse than another piece of armor, and the same could nearly be said of the weapons. In Unity, this is not the case. Every piece of armor has passive abilities that are conferred to the protagonist when worn. Like as was the case with skills, these effects fall into the four categories of Close Combat, Ranged Combat, Health, and Stealth.
Weapons, on the other hand, come in several flavors of their own. The player can have only one melee and one ranged weapon at a time. For melee weapons, players can use a sword for balanced damage and speed, spears for longer range and comparable speed in exchange for less damage, or heavy weapons for extra damage at sword range, but with slower speed. In terms of distance weaponry, the choices are pistols, which come in accurate single or close-range multi-barrelled varieties, and rifles for extra long-range combat. No one piece of equipment is important by itself. When the whole package, including armor and weapons, is combined with the skills as outlined above, it produces a player avatar that is almost wholly unique for that of every other player's. As a result, though the general control scheme is the same for all, each player will be able to craft a protagonist and playstyle that is wholly their own.

This feeds into one of the biggest improvements made in Unity's design, the new take on Assassination Missions. Rather than the more linear, semi-scripted sequences seen in Assassin's Creed 3, Black Flag, and even the recently-released Rogue, the developers took a different approach. Referred to a “Black Box-style”, these segments strongly resemble what one would get from either the original Assassin's Creed. What can best be described as a rudimentary version of Hitman-style “choose your approach” gameplay, Unity's Assassination Missions are more free-form in the way they play out. Instead of following a linear script, with minor deviations, players are just given a zone of operation and the objective “Kill [Target Name]”, along with the number of possible routes, secret routes, and guards on location. Players only fail the mission if die or if the target escapes the area. Though the player is shown a couple of “opportunities”, side missions which they can completely to make the assassination easier, they are given no further direction than that. The game asks them to think for themselves and figure which method they would prefer to take out a target.
This is a fantastic change to the way these missions usually play out. Being able to decide for oneself how to approach a situation is empowering to a significant degree. I personally appreciated the autonomy, as it made me feel like I was an assassin in a way I have not since playing either the original Assassin's Creed or Hitman: Blood Money. Scouting the area to plan the approach, getting close without being detected, and striking at the right moment are all parts of that feeling. Though it is indeed possible to charge in, sword in hand, the player also needs to be careful when making this choice. While it is technically possible to charge in and shiv a target, that is only advisable to someone who has invested heavily in Close Combat and Health. Other characters will lack the damage output and survivability, as combat has taken a turn for the tougher and guards will easily dispatch the careless. Most characters will require more subtlety and thinking in order to accomplish their objective, using a playstyle better suited to their skillset. There are multiple possible methods and approaches, but the game will not judge the player for whatever one they take. Whatever works is a valid option, no matter how silly.

That is the best thing that Unity has done for the formula. Players now have much more freedom to think for themselves and plan out their own approaches to missions and general gameplay. Despite the many, many flaws present in the game, there is a lot of potential here to expand upon these ideas. Still, I fear that after Unity's poor reception, Ubisoft will learn the wrong lesson from this. Rather than expand upon the good of this game, they will simply retreat from it in fear after their technical blunders and unnecessary additions brought the whole thing to its knees. Perhaps another year would have polished off some of the glitches, but the fundamental design decisions talked about last week would not have changed. This seems to be what Ubisoft wants. Until they realize how bad a decision that is, they are going to suffer for it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 18: Going Back to Persona Q

Happy late Thanksgiving from the Texture Pop! We recorded this on the Saturday after Black Friday, so we hope that you were in good spirits to the kickoff of the Holiday Season! We, as usual, were completely out of control.

0:00:00 Introduction
This intro referenced an earlier conversation we were having before the recording stuff.
And we mention Destiny again!

0:03:25 Viewer questions.
"What do you guys think about Sega?"
We jested on the cast, but in all sincerity, Sega has everything they need to be a successful company. However, they do not seem to have the saaviness to produce what audiences outside Japan want. Like many Japanese companies, it seems like they are unable to see too far outside of their national bubble. They've lost touch with the outside world, and they are paying for it. Especially with the release of the new Sonic and the not-release of Valkyria Chronicles 3 outside Japan.
This article talks a bit more about this, regarding Valkyria Chronicles 2.

0:17:20 News time, children.
Assassin's Creed: Unity's Season Pass is no longer on market.
And then we discussed Unity a little more. While this is the correct way to handle the problem, Ubisoft really should not have put themselves in this position.  The microtransaction discussion made us bring up this piece I wrote about Dead Space 3.

Dark Souls 2 coming to next-gen consoles.
And Sam said all that needed to be said.

Nobody is getting review copies of The Crew
Which is never a good sign for a game. This is especially egregious after what happened regarding Assassin's Creed: Unity and its embargo.

Sony is offering $25 rebate to early PS Vita adopters.

Halo: Master Chief Collection is still broken.

0:45:20 Chris has been playing more Hyrule Warriors
They released new DLC, feeding Chris's habits. Yes, Nintendo is very much like a drug lord.
We pretty much just run down the DLC in this segment.
This leads into a conversation about DLC, pricing, and Season Pass.

0:58:40 Chris played Mario Kart.
And again, there's not much to add.

1:02:00 Chris and Garrett played Warframe.
And he get a Destiny reference in. Truly, we are the best Destiny podcast on the internet. It's a lot like Destiny, except not bad.
It's free to play, so if this conversation caught your interest, you should check it out.

1:10:00 Garrett has been playing League.
And eating hi-chews. Also, he has Twitch violate Sly Cooper's copyright.
We also tell Sam about various mythologies and how much he doesn't know about them. Most of those deities are Personas in the Persona series, so I know quite a bit about them.

1:18:00 Garrett has been doing Holiday shopping.
And we talk about credit cards and shopping and stuff.

1:21:00 Garrett watches an anime called "The Devil is a Part-Timer".
Anime. And anime McDonald's clones.
It did remind me of Invader Zim (and my previous job), but that's not worth talking about too much.
And, so course, Sam talks about anime.

1:28:00 Garrett read "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" some more.
I admit, the comparisons between the book and the movie versions are quite interesting, because it highlights the difference between what readers want and what viewers want.

1:31:50 I played the Binding of Issac: Rebirth
When playing on my Vita, I was always constantly trying to minimize screen glare from the sunlight, which really hindered my experience. Further, the screen made some details hard to see even in ideal situation. Just moving to the TV in my room solved a lot of my problems.
But even then, the PS4 controller is so much more suited to playing the game than either KB&M or the Vita. Really, I would say that's the ideal way to play. Either that, or with a controller on the PC. Do not use KB&M, it will hurt you physically.
As on the time of this release, it is no longer free on PS+.

1:40:05 I played Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth.
And you'll quickly see how we came up with this episode's title.
Also, I should not play games in the middle of the cast.

Going back to Persona Q:
If you like Persona 3 and/or Persona 4, this is a game that you need to play. Even if you dislike the Etrian Odyssey stuff, the rest of the package is so great that it is easily worth the asking price. You won't regret it. It feels a lot like an old-school JRPGs, for better or worse. However, someone like myself would be totally fine.
I actually made a mistake in this. I said that Zen/Rei get refunded for their SP they use for exploiting weaknesses. I was wrong, they actually have a skill that regenerates their SP as they walk around the map.

2:05:11 I talked about Black Friday.
(My opinion does not reflect those of my employer.)
For the record, I work retail. (Also, this was recorded on the Saturday after Black Friday.) I worked three shifts from the end of Thanksgiving to the end of the Saturday afterward. It was not great.
Black Friday is an interesting subject to think about, because really wants to do it. It's just the natural consequence of the fact that nobody wants to shop before Thanksgivings, but everyone wants to buy tons of stuff immediately afterward. Shamus Young wrote a really interesting piece on the matter.

2:12:20 Sam played Hatsune Miku... something or other.
You know how it is.

2:13:00 Sam played more Far Cry 4.
And this kinda speaks to the Ubisoft formula. They prefer, for better or worse, small iterations as opposed to large changes. Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, and even Watch_Dogs show how similar the Ubisoft open-worlds are.
If you liked Far Cry 3, you'll like Far Cry 4. If you didn't like Far Cry 3, you won't like Far Cry 4. It is as simple as that.

2:24:10 Sam played Assassin's Creed: Unity.
I am really glad that Sam got the chance to play Unity. The reason is that I have noticed that my viewpoint regarding video games is very critical. Sam is much more optimistic and positive in his viewpoints. As a result, I can play off him and we can talk much more about the positives of the game much more than I'd be able to talk about alone.
Because there is a lot of good to talk about. The character customization is great. The equipment and character development are great. And the assassinations are... amazing. I would almost recommend the game for the assassination missions alone.
So yeah, go optimism!

Sam's article about buying games on launch is here.

In response to Chris's question, if Unity would have been better after one extra year, I would say "No", with a caveat. While many technical issues would have likely been resolved in that year, I would posit that many of the fundamental issues I have with the game would still be present. This is because they mostly come down to design decisions, which I talked about here.

2:53:00 Wrapping Up
And we plan stuff regarding future shows on the air. Such professional!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

#77: Assassin's Creed: Unity: The Broken Shell

There are many different types of games out there. Some of them are astounding bad in all categories. Others do one or two things well, but are brought down by mediocrity in other areas. Still more are games that are excellent, despite minor issues. And then, there are special games. Games with certain aspects done incredibly well and others miserably bad. Assassin's Creed: Unity is one such game. This is a title where the fundamental core of the game is solid, but the systems surrounding it, the shell, if you will allow this analogy, is irreparably terrible. In other words, it is broken. This week, I will tell describe this “broken shell”, and why it is the fundamental reason why Unity has become a laughing stock among gamers in recent history.

The most noticeable section of the broken shell is the Companion App. When the game proper came out, Ubisoft also saw fit to release a companion app for the game, available on both Android and iOS. This is not the first time Ubisoft has done something like this. Watch_Dogs had a companion app as well. C_TOS, as it was called, allowed players to enter the game of, and attack, other players. They could send police and trigger traps to defeat their friends, from anywhere in the world with a solid internet connection. Overall, this was a neat little diversion that was not necessary, but gave players a way of interacting with the game when they were unable to play it.
The Official Assassin's Creed: Unity Companion App works differently. Chief among these differences is the fact that it can only be played while Assassin's Creed: Unity is running on a PS4, Xbox One, or PC. It has several features, including a map of the title's rendering of Paris. Furthermore, a “Nomad” minigame, similar to the Brotherhood mechanic found in previous titles in the franchise. Players can recruit characters to develop their skills and undertake missions to earn resources. These nomads can even be used to open treasure chests scattered through Paris, like those in previous Assassin's Creed games. In fact, and this is perhaps the most egregious part of the whole thing, there are several chests and unlockables that can only be obtained through the use of this companion app. As a result, if one does not want to use it, or (like me) is unable to do so due to technical reasons (my phone will not run it), it is impossible to complete everything in the game. In this way, the app has gone from an interesting way to continuously interact with the game to a necessary component of it.

Another component of this broken shell is the integration with Assassin's Creed: Initiates social network. Not many people are aware of this, but Ubisoft has been pushing this little social network ever since the release of Assassin's Creed 3. Franchise fans can sign up for an account, separate from their Uplay account (though the two need to be synced to make best use of the feature). As they play Assassin's Creed games that have Uplay integration, they gain experience and level up on this profile. This unlocks series lore and information on the website. Furthermore, they may even receive in-game bonuses resources on certain titles.
Assassin's Creed: Unity makes more use of this feature. By syncing their Initiates profile to the game, they can gain Initiates experience by completing challenges in the game. Through tracking both these accomplishments and what players do during the assassination missions in the main story, Initiates will also determine the player's style. By itself, that would be fine. The issue comes from the fact that there are many unlockable outfits, and again treasure chests, that will only open if the player has a sufficient Initiates level. Just like before, this leaves it impossible to completely finish the game without first having such an account. Further, these unlockables are likely out of reach unless said player also goes back to all the older Assassin's Creed games and syncs their progress to Initiates. Unless the player has been a long-time fan of the series, they are unlikely to progress far enough to get much of anything.

The last section of this broken shell is the newly added microtransactions. In Unity, the player can purchase new equipment, which affects their character's abilities, and upgrade it as well. They can, and likely will, spend in-game resources on these items. However, they can also spend Helix Credits, which can be purchased using real-world money. These Helix Credits can also be used, along with UPlay credits (which are acquired in the same way they are in every Ubisoft game), to purchase temporary boosts like “Extra Attack Power for 5 Minutes”. Given that the game already costs $60, it feels a bit like Ubisoft is nickel-and-diming players when they do not have to. It is worth noting that none of these are necessary to complete the game. Most players will never even consider purchasing them. However, the mere existence of this offering is indicative of what I hope is not going to be a trend going forward for the franchise.

I bring all of this up because it feels like many of the critics talking about Assassin's Creed: Unity are mentioning these grips only in passing. Rather, I am hearing many comment on the more obvious technical issues, like the face glitches. Though the technical problems are certainly worth mentioning, too much time is focused on them. They can be easily fixed and do not represent the vision laid out for the game. However, the design issues discussed in this article are representative of Ubisoft's vision. Unfortunately, this part of their vision is ugly. It represents a forced integration of social apps and social networking and a willingness to try and get players to make microtransactions in full retail-priced games. None of this really enters into the structure of the main part of the game, but it brings down all the same. This outer layer, what I call the “broken shell”, is what keeps players from appreciating the core of game. And there is a lot of like about Unity, despite these elements. Next week, I plan to discuss the good parts in more detail.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

#76: Assassin's Creed: Rogue: A Change in Perspective

All the Shin Megami Tensei games on my queue have been completed, for now. I think it is time to get back to basics with a true Press Start to Discuss column. Fortunately for me, Ubisoft has seen fit to continue their pattern of yearly Assassin's Creed releases. I do not know exactly what it is about that franchise, but it strikes the right balance between interesting game mechanics and noticeable flaws that it makes for extremely fascinating discussion, in my opinion. There are always lessons, both good and bad, to be learned from them. Now that Assassin's Creed: Rogue has been released, this week will be dedicated to analyzing it in my signature style. But before we begin, I would like to make clear that I am assume some level of general knowledge regarding the Assassin's Creed franchise. Further, this article will remain spoiler-free, since the game is still very new. Having said that:
One of the central premise of Assassin's Creed: Rogue is that it twists the typical dynamic of the franchise, where players typically take the role of a notable Assassin against the Templar Order. Rather, in this instance, the player character is someone who is trained as an Assassin. However, this character, Shay Patrick Cormack, later abandoned the Assassin Brotherhood after a series of traumatic events, joining the ranks of the Templars. Though parts of the game feels like any other Assassin's Creed adventure, particularly Black Flag, there are a number of ways mechanics are altered such that the player can feel what it is like to be a Templar, going against trained Assassins (aka Player Characters). It is these mechanical twists that I wish to discuss, because they provide the basis for how Rogue differentiates itself.

One of the first, and most obvious, way in which it does that is through the ambushes that are found throughout the open world. When exploring many of the major settlements in the game, like New York, players may begin to hear whispers from somewhere nearby. This is an indicator that an enemy is lying in wait for an ambush. Turning on Eagle Vision during this time will display a compass similar to the one from previous Assassin's Creed games' multiplayer modes. The compass points to the direction of the would-be predator. Getting closer to the enemy will result in the compass's arrow getting wider, and likewise in the reverse direction. Given this knowledge, the player must choose between staying away or trying getting the drop on their wannabe assassin. Failure to do either of these things will result in a successful ambush, and the loss in a great deal of health. Ultimately, this mechanic helps players understand just what it is like for Templars to walk around, constantly in fear of an assassin ambush. Traveling around openly becomes more difficult, and players need to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings.

The second inversion of mechanics exists in the sea-faring mechanics, which came right from Assassin's Creed: Black Flag largely unchanged. As was the case in Black Flag, performing illegal actions at sea will increase the player's notoriety, GTA-style. However, instead of bounty hunters going on the offensive, it will be Assassin vessels that pursue the player. Rather than engage in ship-to-ship combat, Assassin ships will ram into the player's ship, The Morgan, and attempt to board it. Though these enemies are just the same types of foes the player would fight on the high seas, they are given the distinct advantage. This is because the player is robbed of the initiative they would normally be afforded in a boarding section, unable to fire guns and pick foes off before the boarding process. Furthermore, the enemy stuns the player's crew during the attack with smoke, delaying the counterattack. The end result is a greatly increased chance for loss of crew members, heightening the danger of attacking ships in the open. As a whole, this offers a taste for what it is like to be on the other side of the boarding process.

Another interesting way that Rogue shifts perspectives on old mechanics is the Assassin Intercept side-missions. In previous Assassin's Creed games, starting with Assassin's Creed 2, there were a number of pigeon coops scattered throughout the open world. The courier pigeons within had messages which the player could use to activate optional assassination side-quests. Rogue changes this paradigm slightly. Since the protagonist is a Templar, not an Assassin, he has no reason to hunt down these targets. However, he has much reason to keep them alive. When he comes across a courier pigeon, he can capture it and steal the message written on it. At that point, the Assassination Intercept begins. Once the would-be target is located, Shay has a certain amount of time to kill all of the Assassins going after him/her before they begin their attack. If he fails, he will need to resort to defending the target as they are bombarded by all the remaining Assassins. Again, this is interesting because it takes an old mechanic and allows the player to experience it from a new viewpoint.

Even the assassinations play out differently than they usually do. In most Assassin's Creed games, the player will take a target unaware. In story, the intended victim is not aware that they are currently being pursued until the player reveals themselves. That way, the onus is on the player to plan out their approach so that they kill the given target and advance the plot. Rogue tends not to do this. More often than not, the Assassins that the protagonist goes after are well aware that they are about to be attacked soon. As a result, these encounters feel more like boss battles than anything. Each target has an ambush waiting for Shay, dependent on their expertise. It is up to Shay to overcome these ambushes, completing his objective.

And that ultimately ties into why Assassin's Creed: Rogue is so fascinating. The designers were not content to just allow players to go through the motions, just for the other faction. Rather, the mechanics are tailored to the concept of an Assassin going "rogue" and joining the Templars. It explores how the same tasks are different when taken from the another perspective. Even though the controls and overall framework are still the same as they were in Black Flag, the differences are enough such that the feel of Rogue is wholly unique in the context of the franchise. It is one of the more interesting explorations of alternate viewpoints that I have seen. While it will not attract new fans to the franchise, Assassin's Creed: Rogue does well to offer a fresh take on old concepts.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 17: Ubi-bros

Unfortunately, Garrett wasn't feeling very well when we recorded this podcast, so he skipped out. He'll be back next week, but in the meantime the rest of us recorded our usual shenanigans... and called it an episode of The Texture Pop.

BTW, we also had no viewer questions this week. Don't forget to send yours in at thetexturepop@gmail.com .

0:00:00 Introduction
Anime discussions go on. I both show how much I know and how much I don't know about anime. Also, I hijack the host-gig to get this shit started.

0:04:20 Sam talks about some strange idea he got.
It sounds spoopy.
Then we discuss humping monitors?

0:08:30 We struggle to talk about gaming news.
Remember, we are a video game podcast. This should theoretically be easy.
We discuss new releases.
Jim Sterling going indie also came up in conversation, along with its potential implications.

0:17:50 Fuck it! Let's talk about Assassin's Creed: Unity (and start my turn).
It is amazing how it does some things very well, and other things so terribly poorly. It is worth noting though, that there is merit to AC: Unity. It's not irredeemable, but they really will need to step their game up in order to make up for this game's flaws.
Really, this conversation stands on its own. There is no need for me to add anything more to it. Besides, a Press Start to Discuss column will come out in the next few weeks about it, so I can discuss more then.

0:48:50 I also played Assassin's Creed: Rogue.
And if you enjoyed Black Flag, there is a high chance you'll like Rogue. In the way Unity draws much from AC2, Rogue draws much from Black Flag.
Aside from that, the plot is just so much more interesting in Rogue than it was in Unity, that I am surprised that this wasn't the main attraction.

0:59:30 Chris got Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.
And was tempted by Amiibo. After all, we know his history with Disney Infinity. Honestly, the Amiibo's seem pretty worthless to me. Then again, I've never been a huge Nintendo-guy.
On the other hand, the game itself is excellent. Not much more I can add to the conversation here.

1:24:30 Sam has been playing Far Cry 4.
It sounds to me, like FC4 fell victim to what seems to be Ubisoft's new business model. That model is "make the next game almost exactly like the last one, doing little to change things up". It's working, but I doubt it will be sustainable.
It's basically Ubisoft game.

1:41:15 Sam played Dragon Age: Inquisition.
I know I've repeatedly said that I hated Origins. However, if I am being honest, I am intrigued by Inquisition. What I've seen looks interesting enough to play on Easy. Again, I have not played it, so I comment no further.

2:04:00 Sam picked up a new Hatsune Miku: The New One.
And we talk about anime... again.

2:13:40 Wrapping Up.
And I talk about renovating cafes.
And don't forget: thetexturepop@gmail.com

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Impressions #20: Shin Megami Tensei IV

And now, we have reached the end of a long, long “Season of ATLUS”. After investing untold hundreds of hours playing ATLUS games and subsequently writing about them, we have reached the end of my queue. The last game in my list also happens to be one of the first I purchased for my 3DS: Shin Megami Tensei IV (SMT IV). Released in May of 2013, SMT IV attempted to bridge the gap between the classic feel of Shin Megami Tensei and the burgeoning market growing as a result of the success of the third and fourth entries of the Persona franchise. The end result is something that intriguingly shows how ATLUS has grown as a development house over the years.

As a Shin Megami Tensei game, many of the franchise staples have been brought back in full force. Players recruit demons into their party and use them to fight against other demons. The Press Turn System, which I have discussed several times before, makes a return as well. In order to make sure that the player party is as strong as possible, it is also necessary to regularly fuse demons together to create new ones. None of this will be surprising to anybody who has played an SMT game or read about them. These are classic elements one fans have grown to expect.
However, a lot of these elements have been retooled in order to improve the overall accessibility of the game. In particular, the fusion system received a huge update. Previous SMT games had the player go to a specific location in order to fuse demons together. They could also register demons in a compendium to be re-summoned later for a fee. When fusing, old games had a menu displaying all the demons possessed by the player, and it would display the expected result of the fusion. Skills inherited by the result would be semi-random, determined by a compatibility algorithm. Though serviceable, a lot of more casual players bemoaned how difficult is was to learn and master this mechanic. Since it was necessary to do this in order to remain stronger than the enemies, it was a valid complaint.
SMT IV greatly improves the usability of demon fusion, with the intention of giving players a greater degree of control. First off, instead of needing to go to a specific location, players can perform fusion at any time by accessing the main menu. The other major improvements is that the resulting demons skillset is determined by the player. Given the list of the demon's initial skills, and the list of every skill the parents know, players can select the skillset of the result.
Such changes are already a massive upgrade over the old methods, but the improvements extend further. Rather than having to laboriously go through every possible combination to figure out what players want to fuse together, SMT IV utilizes a search function. When the player enters the fusion menu, a list of options appears on screen. These choices all represent all the possible filters that can be used in the search. They range from the inclusion/exclusion of specific demons in the fusion, to specific races, elemental affinities, or skills. It is even possible to include demons from the Demonic Compendium in the list of fusion fodder. The results will be listed in the form of what demons can be made, given the current criteria, and the list of all combinations that will lead to each possible result. Once the fusion combination, and the result's initial skill set, have been determined, then the fusion will commence. As a result of all of these changes, players have a large degree of freedom in how their party develops, more so than in any SMT game before SMT IV. This turning away from random number generators in fusion grants great leeway in how the system works, and even unskilled players will quickly be able to make useful demons in this manner.

Other anti-frustration features include the ability to save anywhere, without needing to find a dedicated save point. At the same time, the game only gives the player two save slots, so some discretion must be advised on how often and where one saves their game. And even should players die in battle, that may not necessarily mean game over. For a small fee, the ferryman Charon will return the protagonist to the world of the living, just before they died. Should the fee be too high, it can be placed on a tab. Upon another death, if the player does not have enough money to pay off the current death, along with the tab, it will be a Game Over. The game is willing to give players leeway, when this is taken into consideration along with changes to demon fusion. However, because of that, it demands more from them in the middle of a fight.

While this is a very accessible SMT game, it is still an SMT game. Battles will often be decided quickly and decisively, thanks to the Press Turn System. Like in previous entries in the franchise, this system rewards smart play and punishes mistakes by giving or removing turns to both the player and the enemy. In order to further this reward/punishment dynamic, a mechanic was added called “Smirk”. If the protagonist or one of his demons exploits an enemy weakness (or blocks/dodges an attack), there is a chance they will smirk. When that happens, their attack power, accuracy, critical chance, and dodge rate are all greatly increased, and any attacks against their weakness are an automatic miss until their next turn. While this bonus is powerful, enemies and bosses can (and will) also gain smirk when they exploit the player's weaknesses. In this way, it becomes even more crucial for players to both discover and exploit enemy vulnerabilities while covering their own.
In any case, most battles, even boss battles, do not take very long. It is relatively easy to see whether or not the player is likely to win a battle by just looking at the state of the battlefield. It is interesting how the convenience features both have the potential to attract many new fans to SMT from the likes of Persona, while also having a chance to alienate them if they come unprepared. Likewise, classic SMT fans may pridefully scorn the convenience features, but enjoy how battles play out.

The story also has the potential to be equally divisive. While the actual story is not worth talking about too much, one of the important factors is that the player is regularly forced to make choices during dialog. Each of these choices shifts their alignment more towards Law, representing a desire to maintain the status quo, or Chaos, representing a desire to impose great change. The three companions that join the protagonist for most of the adventure each represent a viewpoint along this scale: One of Law, Chaos, and Neutrality. Whatever the player's alignment is at the start of the endgame will determine which ending is attained.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, as archaic as it is. However, the execution has a major flaw. Said flaw is that there are many events in the game, required to complete the story, that affect the alignment of the protagonist. For example, accepting one quest as a part of the main plot moves the player closer to Law. However, if the quest is refused, the quest giver will simply tell the player that they will be here if they change their mind. No progress can be made until the quest, and resulting alignment change, is accepted. On the whole, the sum of these events skews heavily towards Law, which means one practically needs a walkthrough in order to be Neutal. For Chaos, it is necessary to heavily commit to Chaos at the start of the game. Since, like most SMT games, Law and Chaos are both different forms of suck, Neutral is clearly the only good ending. This leads to a lot of needless frustration.
On top of that, the characters themselves rarely ever feel like nuanced, dynamic people. Even in the case of the protagonist's friends, most NPCs in the game act more along the lines of caricatures, designed to embody and spout their given life philosophies. For players used to the type of characterization seen in Persona 3 and Persona 4, this can be very disappointing. However, classic SMT fans will probably come in expecting this. Combined with the impact on alignment, the story is very hit-or-miss. I did not mind it, but nor can I say that I thought it was particularly good.

Overall, Shin Megami Tensei represents an intriguing and enjoyable compromise between the notoriously difficult SMT games, and the more approachable Persona games. As someone who enjoyed both, this was a game that entertained me thoroughly. The fusion system is, hands down, the best fusion system that has ever been in an ATLUS game, with a great combat system to boot. Having said that, it is not for everyone. Fans of one franchise looking to break into the other franchise, or those simply looking for an alternative to more slower-paced RPGs, will find themselves welcome. If you consider yourself in any one of these categories, I would strongly recommend giving this game a try. Who knows? It might hook you as much as it did me.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 16: *Skype Call Noises*

0:00:00 Introduction
My quote is courtesy of FF XII Fanfics. It's really one of the best thing I've seen on the internet.

0:01:50 Viewer Questions
For once, we got questions from multiple people. This means we're that much closer to being relevant.

"What is your favorite video game composer / video game soundtrack?"
I don't have much to add to what was said. I stand behind my answers.
     Jesper Kyd, for the soundtracks to the early Hitman and Assassin's Creed games.
     Shoji Meguro, for the soundtracks to... most PS2-era ATLUS games, particularly Persona 4 and Digital Devil Saga 1/2
     And last (but definitely not least) Daniel Korb/Ashley Barrett, for their AMAZING work on Bastion and Transistor.
There are a LOT of good video game soundtracks out there. Great question.

"What games that are either out right now, or coming soon, would you recommend [for the Wii U]?"
I recuse myself from this question.

"Have any of you guys played Terra Battle yet?"
In which I use this question to bitch about sponsored articles. Still, the game sounds interesting.

0:24:10 We discuss Sega and Sonic Boom.
And that's terrible.
But, this allows us to talk about Valkyria Chronicles, which is the good thing that Sega did in recent history. I'm so glad that people are enjoying it. After all, it's one of my favorite games on the PS3.

0:31:50 I have finally beaten Shin Megami Tensei IV.
An Impressions piece on the game will be released in the next few days. Until then, you've heard a lot about my thoughts on this game already.

0:38:15 I have beat playing Assassin's Creed: Rogue.
One thing that I find interesting about Rogue is that it flips some elements of the game, so that you get a feel for what it's like to be a Templar. We touched on that in the cast by talking about Assassin Intercepts and being boarded, but there is another way this happens. As you run around towns, there are assassins who are out there trying to kill you. So you play a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with them, trying to kill them before they kill you.
And then we spend a lot of time talking about the Assassin's Creed franchise.

0:44:30 I've been getting weirdly into Plauge Inc.: Evolved
And the Steam workshop makes it really, really fun to play.
Not much to say, although you can probably get it for cheap and its worth it for a few quick games.

0:46:25 Chris has been (disconnected)
Well... actually we all were. This is because my computer shut off (for a reason I won't discuss) and I was hosting the call. That's why it took me so long to reconnect to the conversation.

0:46:50 Chris has been (not) playing Hyrule Warriors.
And has been getting to his backlog.

0:48:08 Chris has been playing and enjoy Disney Infinity 2.0
And enjoying it.
We talked a bit about Chris Frankin's (aka Campster/Errant Signal) video on the game.
In short, Disney Infinity 2.0 really does address most of the complaints people had regarding the last version.

1:00:50 Garrett has been playing League of Legends.
And I really wish I knew more about League, because it would make my commentary more meaningful.

1:04:00 Garrett did a lot of things this week.
And he's going through them too quickly to comment on.

1:07:45 Sam has been playing Advanced Warfare
And he pressed E to pay respects, with Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey.
So... the story is about as derivative as it sounded.
Then we discuss many other shooters during this time.

1:16:35 Sam has been playing Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within
And The Evil Within earned his ire.
This led into an interesting discussion regarding how horror games elicit different reactions from different people, despite feeding them the same stimuli.
We also discuss stealth games afterward.

1:25:20 Sam played Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
Enslaved is an interesting game, because it's not that fun to play. However, it is still very much worth going through at least once, just to experience the story.
It leads into a discussion regarding how games like ICO and Enslaved use mechanics to help players grow more attached to NPCs.
It's a game that requires a heavy-interest in story, and a willingness to overlook mediocre gameplay.

1:32:00 Sam talks about Valkyria Chronicles.
Which gives me a reason to bitch about Valkyria Chronicles 3 not coming to US.

1:34:30 Sam touched This War of Mine.
And we go into a conversation regarding setting up and violating expectation, and how that can impact the enjoyment one gets from a video game.
I remember an interesting study I saw on the Food Network once. In a supermarket, a man had people taste-test a product, calling it "Salmon Ice Cream." They hated it. When he tried again calling it a "Cold Salmon Spread" and putting it on a bagel, people changed their tune.
When it was labeled "ice cream", people expected something sweet. When that's not what they got, they were disappointed. On the other hand, the different label set up correct expectations, so people were pleased. In terms of games, this might go far in explaining why we all felt disappointed by what This War of Mine turned out to be. Like Dead Island, they set up expectations incorrectly.

1:39:00 Sam played Dragon Age: Origins.
In preparation for Inquisition (which is out, as of the time of this episode's release).
Which makes us talk about Dragon Age. I've gone on record saying how much I dislike Dragon Age.
To be clear, Inquisition wasn't out when we recorded this. This is all speculation based on revealed information.

1:44:15 Sam tried to play more Bayonetta 2.
And we talk about it's few flaws.

1:46:00 Chris brings up Adonisus's question about Shonen Jump.
Sam tells us a story about his first time with Shonen Jump, and his plunge into weeaboo-ness.
Anime gets discussed.

1:55:30 Wrapping Up.