Category Archives: Single Player Games

Humble Freedom Bundle Quick Games Review (All 60 Games)

Holy crap there’s a lot of games in the Humble Freedom Bundle. I’ve taken a short break from MMOs to play all of them this week. I’m glad to say that there aren’t any bad games in the bundle, but sad to say there’s not enough time to play everything fully. As we live in a time of plenty for video games, I’ve sorted all of the games into four tiers to help bundle buyers figure out what to play.

Platinum Games

Everyone should try these out.

the witness

The Witness – WOW! In the Witness you learn how to solve puzzles by completing other puzzles with no instruction. Often times you’ll need to be very observant of your surroundings. Never seen a puzzle game like this.

Stardew Valley – Sandbox builder with dungeon crawl and relationship simulator elements. It’s a better and more modern version of Harvest Moon. The game’s not very challenging, but it is without equal in its genre.

Mini Metro – At first it doesn’t seem like much of a game. After you lose your first game you realize how incredibly deep and challenging the simple gameplay is. It’s essentially a logistics simulator that can be played in a number of ways at a pace that’s right for you.

System Shock Pack – System Shock is a good game but more of a “Silver” quality nowadays. System Shock 2, however, is still perhaps the best FPS/RPG around (with mods). The FPS part hasn’t aged well, but this game holds up due to a great antagonist, fantastic character customization, and tons of atmosphere.

Gold Games

Genre fans definitely should play these and most people probably should.

invisible inc

Invisible Inc. – Showed me that stealth is way better as a tactical RPG than an action shooter. The turn based nature removes waiting for guards to finish their routes and lets you get to core enjoyable element of stealth games. Tons of puzzle solving and creative/critical thinking. Rogue-like randomization provides a ton of replay.

Super Meat Boy – The gold standard for platformers. The levels are short, interesting, and diverse. It’s tough as nails but the deaths rarely feel unfair due to slick controls. Very funny cutscenes to boot.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch – This game sounds incredibly dumb but is actually hilarious. Performing mundane tasks with no dexterity (because you’re an octopus) is surprisingly fun. Great dialogue too. You’ll love it or hate in 10 minutes so give it a try.

Subnautica – Not everyone got this, but those who did and like builder games and exploration need to play these. There’s some Early Access issues (bugs, sound quality, endgame content, etc.), but it’s worth playing now.

Super Hexagon – Do you like testing your reaction time and awesome techno chiptunes? Play this.

The Stanley Parable – Choice as a gameplay mechanic. There’s a lot of freedom that’s not immediately apparent. Discovering that en route to 20 different endings is a unique experience in The Stanley Parable.

The Swapper – Puzzle platformer with genuine horror elements and a good story. Honestly, one of the best atmospheres ever in a 2D side scroller. Cloning puzzles are rarely this good, but everything is well thought out in The Swapper.

Guacamelee – Play as a luchador in this metroidvania brawler with co-op. It’s a unique concept, as long as it works. Luckily, Guacamelee puts it altogether in a package complete that oozes theme at every corner with its dialogue, visuals, and music.

Hand of Fate – In Hand of Fate, players build their upcoming adventure through a deck of cards. The player then encounters these in a random, board-game-like layout. The brilliance here is that players can then adjust decisions based on what they know is left in the deck. The action combat is pretty generic, but the short fights don’t drag the game down much.

Silver Games

Genre fans probably should play these, while others will install just for a rainy day.

guns of icarus online

Guns of Icarus Online – Unique team-centric FPS of manning a Steampunk gunship to bring down opposing airships. The downside is you really need everyone working together so it’s not great for pubbing. The population is also very weak for a multiplayer game.

GRAV – Sci-fi, survival builder game with randomized planets. Sadly doesn’t get updated much but has a good base. Hopefully developers will come back and re-focus on the game’s strength: building more dangerous co-op encounters and tools to combat them.

Song of the Deep – Metroidvania submarine game with a cute story. The narrator is fantastic, and the story moves at a good pace. Map markers keep you from getting lost. It’s a very solid lighter metroidvania, but doesn’t do quite enough awesome things to make it a must play.

Day of the Tentacle Remastered – Do you like old school point and click games? This is one of the best, and the remastered version is great. If you don’t like point and click adventures, this won’t change your mind though.

VVVVV – Challenging platformer with very cool gravity mechanic. Some deaths can feel unfair because of how little of the map loads at a time and going back through the map can be a chore. If it looks fun, you’re the right audience to play it.

Nuclear Throne – Very good roguelike bullet hell shooter. It’s fast and frantic and crazy (all in a good way). The lack of automatic fire on beginning weapons is annoying though considering how many bullets you fire in a bullet hall game. Ultimately, I feel Enter the Gungeon is similar but better.

Mushroom 11 – Neat puzzle anti-platformer that’s hard to put into words. Players move goo through landscape based physics and erasing goo to reform elsewhere. Definitely worth playing if you’ve enjoyed puzzle platformers in the past.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP  – There’s not a lot of actual game here. The music is great and some people will definitely love the experience. Just don’t expect to DO a lot here.

ROCKETSROCKETSROCKETS – Really, this is a local multiplayer only game. Use missiles, bombs, and shields to kill up to three other friends in this aesthetically pleasing, arcade arena game. It’s not a great comparison, but it reminds of Smash Brothers with rockets.

Human Resource Machine – High production value programming puzzles. I love the art style. People who like logic or programming puzzles will love HRM.

Spirits – Remember Lemmings? This is it. If not, it’s a light strategy puzzle game.

Tower of Guns – Frantic Quake style shooting with randomized levels and a number of unlockables. I thought I’d love this but the music and sound effects are way too light to really engage me.

Waking Mars – The voice acting and writing is surprisingly (mostly) good for the mediocre visuals. I guess I’d classify the genre as metroidvania puzzler, but that doesn’t evoke the right feeling for this game. Where Waking Mars earns high marks is its good pacing and continuous evolution of relatively simple core mechanics.

AI Fleet War Command – A high learning curve and a bad UI belie what is a fairly deep 4X-ish strategy game. If you have the patience and want a suitably refreshing and epic strategy game, give this a whirl.

Q.U.B.E. – Good block puzzles. Never gets repetitive. Short game with enough of a story to help things move along.

Rituals – This feels like a graphical version of Zork. If you don’t know what that is or you didn’t like Zork, you probably won’t like Rituals. Otherwise, it’s a decent and short adventure game that doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.

Beat Hazard Ultra – I kill two birds with one stone here. Beat Hazard is my go-to rhythm and shoot ’em up game. This game has been around for a while and is still fun to play in short bursts.

Chroma Squad – The Power Rangers tactical RPG with business management elements. I’m not sure yet if the script is intentionally as bad as Power Rangers, but that’s not really the core element of the game. Skip the story entirely and play this for its solid turn based squad combat.

Bronze Games

Dedicated fans of the genre might want to play these, and everyone else can skip them.

world of goo

World of Goo – Physics bridge building puzzles. You either like them or you don’t. This is more of them.

JumpJet Rex – SNES feeling platform. Where it sets itself apart is in it’s mobility and accessible short level. Players can jump infinitely, dash, and rocket jump all from the get go.

Monsters Love You! – A multiple ending, choose your own adventure monster simulator. I never found myself really caring about my choices, but there are a lot of them that slowly flesh out your monster’s character. This then plays into monster/human interaction and the ending.

Overgrowth – For as long as this has been in development I expected a bit more. Still feels like a tech demo. If you love fighting games, this is worth playing for the limb attack freedom. Otherwise, there’s just too many higher quality fighting games out there. Likewise, there’s much better parkour games available as well.

No Time to Explain Remastered – Platformer and sometimes side scrolling shooter. Nothing innovative except for the hilarious voice acted lines in their relation to the plot.

Thirty Flights of Loving – It’s 10 minute (or less) interactive story. It does a pretty good job of telling a lot in such a short time. But it also ends before you can really care about any of it.

2064: Read Only Memories – Visual novel masquerading as a point and click adventure game. If it’s immediately appealing then go for it. Otherwise, you can pass this up.

A Virus Named TOM – Amusing backstory aside, this is a puzzle strategy game that just isn’t that rewarding to play. I never got the “oh that was really cool” moment found in better puzzle games.

7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat – Board game that wanes quickly as you realize its lack of depth. Might be worth playing until you “figure it out”.

Sproggiwood – Classic feeling rogue-like that was once pretty good but has been surpassed by numerous entries into the genre. Town sim aspect is vastly underutilized.

Hot Tin Roof: The Cat That Wore A Fedora – Dat name doe. The presentation and dialogue is good, but the platformer and puzzle elements are mediocre overall. The controls can also be frustrating.

Retro Game Crunch – A multigame pack that hearkens back to the old NES days. If you grew up in that era, this is worth playing for a fresh sense of nostalgia. Most of the games are solid, but nothing in here is a must play.

Secrets of Rætikon – The art style and the first 30 minutes of this game are the best part. Afterward, things start to get repetitive pretty quickly.

Girls Like Robots – More puzzles! Like A Virus Named TOM, none of them really feel really rewarding. But if you can’t get enough puzzling in your life, here’s more of them.

Ellipsis – Feels more like a time waster tablet game. That’s not to say this minimalist fast moving puzzler is bad. It just doesn’t feel particularly fresh.

Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball – The name really says it all. I encourage everyone to try this game for 5-10 minutes. Hard to recommend playing more except for some silly multiplayer fun with friends.

Ballistick – I felt like I was playing a high quality Kongregate game here. Ballistick does stealth better than action so that’s who should really play this. Regardless, there’s better games available in both departments.

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble – A board game with some interesting concepts that ultimately dulls fairly quickly. The graphics and basic UI in this one don’t help the cause. Don’t let the theme keep you from playing though – it’s fairly irrelevant.

Super Galaxy Squadron EX – It’s a vertical shoot ’em up. If that’s what you want to play, this will more than get the job done.

TIMEframe – Walking simulator to explore the rise and fall of a civilization through time’s rapid lenses. Conceptually sound with good music and atmosphere, it’s disappointing because you never feel like you do much. The distances between locations adds heft but also kills the pace.

Dusty Revenge – A beat ’em up with nice boss fights but regular stages that generally last too long.

Luna’s Wandering Stars – More physics puzzles! Some of these are pretty tricky so it’s certainly worth a play if that’s what you like.

Team Indie – A platformer that takes elements of various indie games to try and create several experiences in one. It works to a degree but not enough to be an enticing experience for people who don’t regularly play platformers.

Streamline – This game relies on a large Twitch community, which it does not have. Some fun parkour elements if you can actually get a game going.

Shutshimi – A horizontal shoot ’em up. It’s OK, but other than co-op doesn’t play differently enough to warrant specifically picking it over all the others.

Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken – Platformer shooter that does everything perfectly fine. There’s obvious silliness, but I wouldn’t say it adds a ton to the game.

Potatoman Seeks the Troof – Clearly not a game to be played for the visuals. It’s a challenging platformer where you jump to avoid things. Nothing fancy.

Ninja Pizza Girl – The platform, parkour speed running parts are good. The rest of the game just detracts from that. Has wider appeal than most “Bronze” games, but I don’t think anything will fall in love with it.

There’s a lot of games in this Humble Freedom Bundle. I have no doubts that somewhere your opinion will differ than mine. I shot for as an objective take as I could make, and I’ll stick by these rankings. Either way, $30 for all of the above has been a great deal. Knowing that money is going to worthwhile charities is all the sweeter. The Freedom Bundle ends 2/20 at 2 pm EST. A few of the games reviewed above also are sold out. Check the full listing before purchasing if certain games will sway your decision.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


More MMO Games Should Treat Us Like Transistor

Maintaining proper perspective on MMO games requires branching out into the unknown from time to time. Transistor, by indie developer Supergiant Games, is my latest foray. It’s a game with few flaws that doesn’t share a lot in common with MMOs but probably should. The story and characters are great. It doesn’t overstay it’s welcome at any point, and the art design melds perfectly with the music to appropriately set the mood. Most importantly though, Transistor treats me how I wish more MMO games treated me. It treats me as an intelligent individual that realizes I know what I want more than the developers. It asks me what I know, rather than telling. This treatment is endearing and typically lacking in MMOs.

transistor mmo combat differences

In the vast majority of modern MMOs, 5 hours of playtime equates to about 5 levels. This adds or upgrades something like 2-4 abilities, for use in a simplistic rotation. Mastery at this stage is a breeze, and the developers come across as coddling parents. Ultimately, you as the player might spend days of real time until the game trusts you enough to play with the ‘grown up’ toys. Then and only then does the it respect you enough to attack with meaningful challenges.

Compared to indie darling Transistor, I can’t help but feel insulted. 5 hours in Transistor is enough time to net all 16 abilities and possibly even complete the game. Only four abilities can be active at a time so it seems unimpressive at first. Your mind quickly changes once you realize that in addition to an active function, abilities can also upgrade other skills or provide passive benefits. By the end of the game, the player has unlocked enough options to provide over 22 trillion combinations to choose between.

Then there’s Limiters, Transistor’s difficulty modifiers. Players can alter things like incoming damage, number of enemies, health regeneration, and more. In exchange for making the game harder, players receive more EXP to level up faster. Different players will inevitably find different Limiters more suited to their playstyle, and it works beautifully in combination with the freeform skill system. By the time new game plus rolls around, the player is fully equipped to play exactly how the player wants to play, not how the developer wants.

Themepark MMOs especially are all too eager to put the player on rails. They’re afraid of losing players by overwhelming them with options. It’s easier to move people through a funnel than an open field. This spills over into character advancement. New or upgraded abilities come at fairly regular intervals which are, frankly, too slow. Yes, I know what you’ll say. If advancements proceeds too quickly, a Guild Wars 2 situation arises where players jump ship when facing a lack of meaningful progression options. It’s an understandable fear but only if the problem is addressed with the same solutions as before.

Developers make two false assumptions. Firstly, they measure our intelligence poorly and often cater to the lowest common denominator. But most of us are smarter than we’re given credit. Barrens chat equivalents can be cesspool of lunacy, but the average player is there to PLAY and not troll online. The vocal minority does not represent than silent majority. Even trolls can be pretty intelligent – they might just also be assholes.

transistor mmo games difficulty compare

Secondly, developers tend to treat vertical progression all too favorably. There’s a simple reason for it. It better aligns with the linear track on which themepark MMOs carry players. It’s hard to justify more options in one area (the ‘what’ of progression) while limiting another (the ‘how’ of of progression). That’s where the beauty of Transistor shines. The indie game shows us how a vastly underused horizontal progression system can be augmented to add the depth of vertical progression without losing any breadth. Abilities can upgrade abilities in very exciting ways. The large number of skills combinations results in an MMO game that is difficult to fully master but without an overly difficult barrier to entry. And that’s exactly what we should want.

Mastery comes in many forms and many players would prefer not to always be learning something new. That’s where the equivalent of Transistor’s limiters come into play. Let players customize the difficulty of their environment with ease. Instanced worlds will be needed to accommodate but that’s nothing new. At least now we would get a gameplay reason instead of a technical reason for server splits.

From the game’s start, Transistor treated me with respect and without presumption. It had a story to tell with challenges to overcome and just enough direction not to get lost. My options felt limitless, yet I only ever had access to just over a dozen skills. The variance and complexity in which I used these skills were all up to me. For a genre about “being who you want”, MMOs could stand to learn a lot from Transistor’s customizable ability and difficulty models.

 

 


Favorite Games of 2016

2016 has come and gone and now it’s time to reminisce about what turned out to be a great year in gaming. Tyler Bro and I have compiled our three favorite games we played in the past year. Most of them didn’t actually release last year, but that only shows one of the great things about gaming. Multiplayer games especially tend to evolve over time and many are in better shape than we’ve ever seen.

The Bro’s Picks:

Elder Scrolls Online
elder scrolls online 2016

I’ve fallen in love with Elder Scrolls Online. There’s so much interesting content here and two months later, I’m just scratching the surface. I tend to get a little ADD when it comes to MMORPGs so the wealth of options is fantastic. There’s a ton of dungeons (with a myriad of difficulties), expansive PvP, crafting, and crazy amount of customization options.

Unlike many other MMORPGs, I don’t feel compelled to play in a particular way. I log on and get rewards for doing whatever it is I find enjoyable. This is not the MMORPG it was when it first launched. ESO took a while to get to the point it’s at now, but One Tamriel really sealed the deal for me. This is my MMORPG of choice for the foreseeable future.

Overwatch

overwatch 2016

Elder Scrolls Online lacks one important multiplayer feature: competitive PvP. This is where Overwatch comes into play. I don’t always want an intense skill based multiplayer game. When I do, Overwatch is just a few clicks away. For a long time, League of Legends was my competitive multiplayer game of choice. With less time to devote to mastery, Overwatch has served as more than a capable replacement.

The characters feel truly unique and most of them offer a different experience from a typical shooter. Using abilities at the right time can mean the difference between a victory and a loss. The pacing of the matches feels just right too. Overwatch is one of the few multiplayer games that really changes things up for a gamer who sometimes feels like they’ve seen it all.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

witcher 3 2016

Of course, sometimes it’s important to just sit back and enjoy a fully immersive single player experience. In that regard, Witcher is hard to beat. I actually played this for the first time in 2015, but I enjoyed it so much I played through it again (with DLC) in 2016. There are some flaws, sure. The pacing is a little off in the main game, and combat isn’t super deep. I don’t think I’ve ever played a perfect game though so I’d qualify these as pretty minor complaints.

I love the characters, story, choices, and world. I can’t say at any point that I lost my sense of immersion in The Witcher 3. Actions and reactions flow in a natural manner, and there is a ton of choice & consequence. Making tough moral decisions is such a great part of the game. I hope to see something similar in that regard in 2017.

Tyler Bro’s picks:

Landmark

A player character in Landmark

Landmark was a pleasant surprise. We were all pretty disappointed by the cancellation of EverQuest Next, but if that was a case of life giving us lemons, Landmark is some pretty fine lemonade.

It’s a pretty simple game — really more of a toolkit than a game — but for what it is it does its job well. There’s almost no limit to what you can create in Landmark, and some of the creativity on display within it is truly awe-inspiring.

It might not be “main game” material, but it’s a nice place to pop into for some relaxation every now and again.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

An Imperial agent character and Lana Beniko in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion

If we’re to measure only by hours spent in-game, SW:TOR was my top game in 2016. Bar a few short breaks here and there, I played it heavily over the entire year. The major changes made by Knights of the Fallen Empire intrigued me, and I wound up getting sucked in for the long haul.

This is actually a bit surprising, even to me, because I’ve never really been a Star Wars fan, and there are some pretty big things about the game that I don’t like, from its business model to its combat.

However, I am a sucker for a good story, and that’s one thing Bioware tends to deliver pretty consistently. Between the class and expansion stories, I had no shortage of plot to keep me engaged, even as I largely ignored the multiplayer and endgame content.

StarCraft II

Nova's ship, the Griffin, in StarCraft II's Nova Covert Ops DLC

Although its last expansion technically launched in 2015, 2016 was still a fantastic year for StarCraft II. Its co-op mode has far exceeded everyone’s expectations, and I can’t even count how many matches I’ve played over the past year. With new maps and commanders coming regularly, it just keeps getting better.

Meanwhile, the Covert Ops DLC also provided a small but very quality dose of story content. I had my doubts about whether Covert Ops could measure up after the excellence of Legacy of the Void’s single-player experience, but it won me over with its intense story, innovative gameplay, and epic challenges. If Covert Ops is truly to be the last story update to StarCraft II, at least they left on a high note.

For all the stumbles made by Blizzard’s other properties in recent times, StarCraft seems to have the Midas touch these days.


Is Blizzard Moving Away from Narrative?

This year’s BlizzCon had a lot of good news, but there was also a lot about it that disappointed me. In particular I was saddened by the continued lack of an expansion for Diablo III. Yes, some updates are planned, but they’re mostly pretty small, and they do nothing to expand the story.

A cutscene from Diablo III's story mode

That combined with other recent developments has planted a disquieting thought in my mind: Could Blizzard be giving up on narrative in its games altogether?

The shift away from story:

Up until quite recently, story was a pillar of every Blizzard game for the past two decades. All of the older Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo games featured extensive story-driven campaigns, without exception.

Now, in the space of a few short years, we’ve reached a point where fully half of Blizzard’s current catalogue has no in-game story to speak of.

In some cases this isn’t a bad thing. I don’t think anyone really expects a single-player campaign for Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm. They’re silly games meant to deliver fun and exciting gameplay, and nothing else.

And that’s fine. Not every game needs to be some narrative-driven work of art. There is a place for games that are purely mechanical.

But then you get to Overwatch, and that’s more worrisome. Like Heroes and Hearthstone, it lacks any kind of story content, but unlike those games, it has lots of potential for a good story. That potential is simply being ignored.

Hearthstone is just a spin-off of Warcraft, so it’s backstory has already been fully fleshed out, and Heroes is just a ridiculous “what if” scenario throwing together random elements of Blizzard’s other games. Overwatch, though, has a pretty rich world, a detailed backstory, and some interesting characters, but none of this is leveraged by the game itself.

The tutorial for Overwatch

Overwatch has all the right ingredients to provide a fantastic narrative experience, but for whatever reason Blizzard doesn’t seem to want to try.

And now it seems like even Blizzard’s older franchises are beginning to leave story by the wayside.

Everyone has spent the last few years expecting a second expansion to Diablo III, but now it’s looking like that might never happen. There are some updates planned, but they won’t do much to advance the story.

This is despite the fact that the ending to the previous expansion, Reaper of Souls, left the story very clearly unfinished. Both the main storyline of the world and many of the characters’ personal stories have been left obviously unfinished. As with Overwatch, there’s plenty of potential for story here; that potential is simply being left to wither on the vine.

And then there’s the news that StarCraft II will not be producing any more mission packs following the conclusion of the Covert Ops storyline later this month — or at least not for the foreseeable future.

At least in this case there isn’t a pressing need for more story content in StarCraft. There’s definitely potential for more stories within the universe — I’d been hoping for some mission packs around Selendis and Alexei Stukov, myself — but after three massive campaigns and a fairly substantive DLC in the form of Covert Ops, you definitely can’t argue StarCraft’s story fans haven’t gotten their due.

The lack of new mission packs for SC2 is mildly disappointing, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d get too worked up about under other circumstances. It’s only when viewed in the context of a potential shift away from story for the company as a whole that it becomes worrying.

A cutscene in the campaign for StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

And then there’s the recent retirement of Chris Metzen to consider. Metzen was the main creative force behind the worlds and stories of every Blizzard game since the early days of the Warcraft strategy games. Blizzard has other writers, and of course the company can continue to produce good stories without him, but I worry his departure might signal a culture shift in the company.

Metzen, so far as I can tell, was the main voice within Blizzard that argued in favor of the importance of lore and narrative. In fact I seem to recall hearing he’d wanted to do a story mode for Overwatch but had been voted down.

Now, I don’t think Metzen quit because he disagreed with the direction of the company, or he was forced out, or anything like that. I’m not that paranoid. But with Metzen gone, I have to wonder how much desire for story there is within Blizzard. Who is left to argue for its importance?

Individually, these things might not be a great cause for concern, but together they seem to form a pattern, and that pattern worries me.

What remains:

Blizzard is still telling stories… but increasingly it seems to be happening outside of their games.

StarCraft just launched a new tie-in novel, Timothy Zahn’s Evolution, and Overwatch has been putting out a steady stream of tie-in content, from digital comics to animated shorts to the upcoming First Strike graphic novel.

I enjoy tie-ins like this — I fully intend to pick up Evolution. But it’s not the same as actual in-game stories. It’s not quite so satisfying. This is especially true for Overwatch. Normally tie-ins like this are meant to supplement the main story, which happens in-game, but when the entire story takes place outside the game, it feels thin and scattered.

A shot from the animated short for Overwatch's new Sombra character

With the way things are going, one could even envision a future where all of Blizzard’s story-telling takes place outside its games, and I think we can all agree that would be a pretty weird situation for a video game company.

Of course, the elephant in the room — as is often the case — is World of Warcraft. There’s no evidence at all that WoW is moving away from telling stories in-game. Quite the opposite, in fact. Legion is probably the most story-driven expansion to date.

But it’s possible that the shift away from narrative simply hasn’t begun to affect Warcraft yet, or that WoW is a legacy of an older version of Blizzard and will continue on as it has out of a sense of tradition, even as the rest of the company’s games abandon in-game stories.

It’s also possible that I am seeing patterns where none exist, and that this entire post is nothing but paranoid nonsense. I remain open to that possibility.

Why it all matters:

“If the gameplay is good, the story doesn’t matter” is an attitude you’ll see a lot of in the gaming community. A lot of people view plot in gaming as an optional frill, nice to have at but hardly essential. That can be true for some people and some games, but I think the importance of a good story is often greatly overlooked within gaming.

You would be surprised how many people I’ve talked to who stopped playing World of Warcraft after Wrath of the Lich King purely because Arthas was dead, and his was the story they cared about. With him gone, they lost their investiture in the game world and simply moved on.

The conclusion of the Dragonwrath quest chain in World of Warcraft, modified by a local void totem

Overwatch has been a big success despite its lack of narrative, but one has to wonder how much bigger it could have been if it had also appealed to story fans. I know it lost my patronage by focusing purely on PvP.

You can cite plenty of other examples of games that succeeded with little or no story, but then again I can also think of more than a few games that succeeded entirely based on the strength of their narrative. You’d hard-pressed to find much praise for the gameplay of the original Mass Effect, yet it’s still considered a classic. We’re even starting to see an increased demand for games that focus entirely on story with little or no gameplay to speak of, such as the much-praised Life Is Strange.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge of fan of the core gameplay of World of Warcraft. It is at best adequate. More than anything else, it’s my love for the world of Azeroth that always keeps me coming back. And this is far from the only time I’ve invested in a game despite lukewarm feelings toward its game mechanics.

Over the past twenty years, Blizzard has built some incredibly deep and vibrant worlds, full of beloved characters and memorable stories. That is a powerful resource, and it would be tremendously wasteful not to capitalize on it.

Blizzard is too much of a juggernaut for the loss of story to be a serious threat to its financial success, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to lose if they leave narrative behind. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will find other games to play if they give up on plot entirely, and putting aside more practical considerations, games lose something special without story. I know I’m going to remember Arthas’ fall a lot longer than that time I got off a good gank in Heroes of the Storm.


BlizzCon 2016 Predictions

BlizzCon 2016 is now just a few weeks away. It’s bound to bring some exciting reveals, but the interesting thing about this year’s BlizzCon is that we don’t have any clear idea what those reveals will be.

BlizzCon 2016 celebrates all things Blizzard Entertainment

While the exact details may be a mystery, we can usually make some ballpark guesses on what the big news at a BlizzCon will be. We might, for example, suspect that a World of Warcraft expansion is being announced, even if we don’t know what specific features it offers.

This year it’s a lot harder to predict.

What we can expect:

There are a few things that are probably a given for BlizzCon 2016, or any BlizzCon these days.

For Heroes of the Storm, we’ll probably hear about some new heroes, and maybe a new map or two. The rumor mill has been floating Warcraft’s King Varian as a likely addition in the near future, so be on the lookout for that.

There have also been some teases about a very “crazy” new hero soon. Fan speculation points at either StarCraft’s Arcturus Mengsk or Warcraft’s Gelbin Mekkatorque for this role, both of those being characters that have been mentioned by Blizzard or found in datamining in the past.

I also wouldn’t be shocked if another Overwatch hero made the jump to Heroes. There’s been rumors of datamined dialogue pointing to D.Va as a possibility.

Heroes just got a couple new maps with the Machines of War event, so more coming soon isn’t too likely, but I wouldn’t entirely rule out some early concepts being announced at BlizzCon. I would have expected the new version of arena mode to be announced at BlizzCon, but that’s already been announced as Heroes Brawl.

The Li-Ming character in Heroes of the Storm

Similar to Heroes, I would expect Overwatch to unveil a few new heroes and/or maps. There’s been a lot of teases for a hacker character named Sombra lately; I expect that she’ll be announced before BlizzCon at the current rate, but if not, expect her then. Even if Sombra’s reveal is at BlizzCon 2016, I would expect to see other reveals, be they heroes, maps, or both.

Personally I would like to see an announcement of some PvE content for Overwatch — maybe even a story mode — but for now Blizzard seems content to remain incredibly unambitious with Overwatch, so I wouldn’t bet on it.

I think another expansion for Hearthstone at BlizzCon 2016 is a very strong possibility. It gets new expansions pretty regularly, so that would hardly be a shocker.

We’re still pretty early into World of Warcraft’s latest expansion, so I wouldn’t expect any terribly big news for it. Expect some previews of upcoming patches — maybe a glimpse of what the next raid might be, though given that all of the launch raids haven’t even been enabled yet, even that’s in question.

There’s a slender chance we might hear about a sequel to the Warcraft film, but it’s probably too soon for that.

So that leaves Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone, and Overwatch as franchises likely to have announcements, but also unlikely to have any earth-shattering news. BlizzCon is an expensive convention to run, though, so they wouldn’t run it without something big to announce.

So just what are they up to?

The Black Rook Hold dungeon in World of Warcraft: Legion

Where the guesswork begins:

By process of elimination, it seems StarCraft and Diablo are the only franchises for which there could be major announcements. I very much doubt they’ll be announcing another new franchise.

The hardest evidence — and that’s not saying much — is for a StarCraft announcement. StarCraft’s in-game rewards for those who purchase a BlizzCon 2016 virtual ticket are being kept a mystery until the convention, and they only do that when rewards are relating to a new announcement that they don’t want to spoil beforehand.

My initial thought was the announcement would be a new mission pack DLC. The timing makes sense, since the final installment of the Nova DLC should be out pretty soon.

However, there’s now word that Blizzard may not be doing any more story DLC, so that idea is out the window.

I think some announcements for co-op may be a good possibility, but that would hardly justify the cloak and dagger attitude around the virtual ticket rewards. The StarCraft II trilogy has wrapped up, so another full expansion being announced is unlikely, and I think it’s far too soon for StarCraft III to be a possibility.

But there is one other option.

There have been fairly credible rumors for a while that Blizzard is planning to announce a remastered version of the original StarCraft. Without a lot of other strong options, that seems the most likely bet… though it is worth noting the virtual ticket page specifically mentions StarCraft II content.

A screenshot from the Mass Recall mod for StarCraft II

The Mass Recall mod already allow players to experience the original campaigns in StarCraft II’s engine.

If a remastered original StarCraft is what’s coming, it will be welcome news for anyone who misses the original StarCraft’s multiplayer scene, but the original campaign was already playable with modern graphics and mechanics via the fan-made Mass Recall mod, so it’s not quite as exciting as it might otherwise be for single-player fans. Personally, I’d be more interested in remastered versions of the old Warcraft games, or maybe even the first two Diablo titles.

Speaking of Diablo, that’s another franchise around which much speculation has been floating. BlizzCon 2016 will also celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Diablo franchise, so it would be a good time for a major announcement.

The obvious option would be another expansion pack for Diablo III. Even before the base game released rumors swirled that Diablo III was slated to receive two expansion packs, and given the huge financial success of both the base game and the Reaper of Souls expansion, a second expansion would seem to make good sense.

However, recent events have thrown that possibility into doubt. It’s been so long now since Reaper of Souls was released that people have begun to despair of ever seeing another expansion, and the fact is we have no evidence to support an expansion announcement beyond the fact that the timing seems right.

It’s also true that Diablo III is the only game in Blizzard’s portfolio with no monetization beyond box sales, so that might discourage them from further development on it.

Further complicating matters is the fact that a number of high profile Diablo-related job postings have appeared on Blizzard’s career page in recent months. They could be for positions working on Diablo III, but it seems more likely they’re for a new game in the franchise, presumably Diablo IV.

A Nephalim Rift in Diablo III

It seems supremely unlikely that a new Diablo game would be ready to be shown at BlizzCon, so if Blizzard’s decided to abandon D3 for a new game, the odds of a major Diablo announcement this year are virtually zero.

That said, it’s also possible that Blizzard is working on both a new game and a new expansion. The severe content drought Diablo III has experienced over the past few months has been interpreted by many as a sign the game is being put on maintenance mode, but it could also be a sign that the team has decided to put all their efforts toward a new expansion.

This would be consistent with Blizzard’s behavior elsewhere. World of Warcraft frequently suffers lengthy content gaps in the lead-up to a new expansion.

Finally, there are also those speculating that BlizzCon 2016 might see the announcement of remastered versions of one or more earlier Diablo games, but there’s no hard evidence to back this up.

For my part, I hope for an expansion announcement. The ending to Reaper of Souls left the story obviously unfinished, and the core gameplay of Diablo III remains strong. I don’t think we need a new game yet.

If we do see an expansion announcement, I’m expecting druid — or something similar to a druid — as a new class. It’s the only archetype from Diablo II that isn’t represented in any way by the D3 class line-up.

There would also undoubtedly be at least one new act of story content, though its setting is anyone’s guess. My hope would be for the northern isle of Xiansai to bring in a nice Eastern flair, but it could be anything, really.

All hopes aside, there remains a strong chance we may see nothing at all significant for Diablo at BlizzCon 2016. Our only real evidence that there might be something is a single tweet by the official Diablo Twitter account saying that BlizzCon will be “cool” this year.

On the whole, BlizzCon 2016 remains shrouded in mystery.


ESO: A Better Single Player RPG Than Skyrim?

eso vs skyrim

While playing a brief, uninspired spell of Skyrim, my mind began to wander. Skyrim was failing to hold my attention once again. Yet it’s brother, Elder Scrolls Online, didn’t have the same failings. And this wasn’t due to friends playing the Tamrielian MMORPG with me. I’ve had plenty of fun playing Elder Scrolls Online by my lonesome. The only times I’ve really managed that with Skyrim lately has been thanks to the mod scene. Then the realization hit me. ESO might just be a better single player RPG than Skyrim. Taking out the interaction with real people, which one plays better?

Combat

Skyrim’s base combat is pretty awful. It’s disappointing that this aspect of the series still lags so far behind other action RPGs. Mods like Wildcat and Combat Evolved add a more visceral and immersive experience but are starting behind the eight ball. Without any mods, Skyrim’s combat is airy, repetitive, and simplistic. High difficulty settings are countered not be better play, but by more frequent inventory usage to chug potions. Inventory management in Skyrim isn’t strategic and it certainly isn’t action filled. So what is it? A mess.

eso combat

By comparison, Elder Scrolls Online is all action. You can’t just pause combat to heal. There is more than one tactic for players to use. Although it’s more action oriented than typical MMORPGs, ESO’s fighting still tends to encapsulate the same MMORPG combat feel. The main differences are limited active abilities, the lack of cooldowns, blocking, and dodging. Regardless, the usage of abilities at key times puts ESO worlds above Skyrim’s combat. Enemies also come with more varied moves in ESO. I wouldn’t call the game particularly challenging, but certain enemies will punish lackadaisical play.

Winner: Elder Scrolls Online

Story/Lore

You don’t really play Elder Scrolls games for a good story. They have their moments (Morrowind main quest, Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood, etc.) but by and large, it’s all about freedom. That said, there is still a lot of lore that’s built up over the course of several games. Elder Scrolls Online makes better use of that lore than Skyrim does. Several quests in ESO are engaging with intriguing plot elements. Instead of ascribing to the MMORPG philosophy of thinly veiled fetch and kill quests, ESO tries to deliver meaningful quest objectives. For the most part, it succeeds. Really, the game is worth playing for the main quest alone. It’s that good. Skyrim, on the other hand, feels pretty lifeless. The quests are bland, the characters are shallow, and the story is weak. For a single player game, Skyrim does very little to advance the lands of Tamriel.

Winner: Elder Scrolls Online

Longevity

MMORPGs are all about longevity. New content for popular MMORPGs is always just around the corner. Elder Scrolls Online frequently releases new high quality DLC. A lot of that content is available for solo players to enjoy. However, without other players the endgame is impossible. Obviously PvP is a no go, and PvE in the form of raids will literally be impossible on your lonesome. There is a lot of content in ESO, but let’s be real here. Skyrim wins every battle with every single player RPG game in terms of longevity. Why? Because Bethesda delivers the modding community the right tools to get the job done. Nearly 50,000 mods reside on Nexusmods alone. As enjoyable as ESO’s DLC has been, it’s just too difficult to keep up with the breadth and depth of Skyrim’s mod scene. And without human interaction, ESO players will find much less to do.

Winner: Skyrim

skyrim dragon shouts

Exploration

Exploration and mods are the two key ingredients that have made the Elder Scrolls series so popular. Neither Skyrim nor ESO fail in this regard. Elder Scrolls Online opens up the entire continent of Tamriel to explore vs. Skyrim focusing on one region. One would think that would give ESO the win right there but no so my eager friend!

The focus on ESO’s story has led to less interesting exploration elements. A lot of the joy of Skyrim comes from going off on your own to see what lies underneath various caves and ruins. You’d find anything from treasure to dragon shouts to enemy hordes and everything in between. You would also do so knowing you’d be challenged by the game’s level scaling. With that, any dungeon in Skyrim could be a dangerous affair. Going off on your own in ESO doesn’t bring that same level of excitement (although it’s better compared to other MMORPGs due to level syncing). The reason to explore in ESO is because a quest brings you there, not because you genuinely care about what’s on the other side of that hill. In addition, the Skyrim modding scene’s lands and dungeons are tough to beat.

Winner: Skyrim

Character Progression

The key difference between The Elder Scrolls Online and Skyrim is the former uses a class system and latter does not. The class system offers a lot of flexibility and decision making in building characters. Character progression in this way reminds me of hack and slash ARPGs. There’s just a lot of joy in building and planning a character. Skill points gained from leveling will generally be spent on an active ability. Since only six can be equipped for each of the two weapon slots, players need to pick and choose. The selection of weapons, armor, and other equipment in ESO is a whole lot more interesting than Skyrim’s gear as well.

eso skill system

Of course, even with a more open class system, it can’t compare to the freedom of a classless system. Characters in Skyrim can be built however the player sees fit. Want to be a plate mail wearing, destruction/restoration mage? Sure. How about a pirate specializing in thievery, stealth, speechcraft, and dueling? OK, no problem. If you can dream it, you can build it. If you play long enough you can transcend mortal classes into practical godhood. However, I find the perks from leveling to be generally underwhelming. It’s great to play any character you can think of, but the lack of interesting choices on level ups means those characters rarely last long.

Winner: Elder Scrolls Online

ESO: A Good Single Player MMORPG

It’s pretty close, but I believe Elder Scrolls Online actually makes a better single player experience than Skyrim. Obviously mods can change things dramatically, especially in a game like Skyrim. But that also brings greater inconsistency in content and burdens on the player to seek these out. Ultimately, I don’t feel strongly enough about it to consider this an open and shut case. They each have their strengths, and player preferences play a huge role. How do you think Skyrim compares to ESO?