Overwatch Beta Impressions

23 11 2015

Over the years, Blizzard has made unexpected but successful forays into various genres outside of their historic areas of expertise starting off with the MMO space with World of Warcraft, then the digital TCG space with Hearthstone. The success of both products speak for themselves cementing the assertion that Blizzard can do a lot more than isometric strategy/adventure games and even do it better than anyone else. Despite their previous successes into new genres their venture into the team FPS game space is still a fairly bold move considering the highly competitive market for such games, dominated by giants like Halo and Call of Duty.

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The immediate comparison one would draw upon seeing Overwatch is to other role-based shooters, primarily Team Fortress 2. 6-person teams go head to head in objective-based maps with each player picking a character that fulfills a role such as a sniper or support class to function and fight effectively as a unit. While there is no mistaking that Overwatch is inspired by such games, it has a lot of fresh approaches and concepts cherry-picked from other genres that make it a refreshingly unique but intuitive experience.

The biggest point of separation from conventional class-based team shooters is that you choose a character rather than a role. While the characters are categorized into different broad categories such as offense, defense, tank, and support, individually they fill niches that can’t be defined so cleanly and offer drastically different approaches and play styles towards being an effective combatant for their team. For example within the “offense” category of characters there is Pharah who is a straightforward character that uses flight in combination with her rocket launcher to pound the enemy in direct confrontations, and then there is Reaper who prefers to avoid head-on fights and uses teleportation and an invulnerable “wraith form” to infiltrate into the midst of enemy teams and ambush high-value targets. The characters have a handful of abilities which all complement each other nicely towards enacting their game plan and can also be used in creative unorthodox ways allowing them flexibility to apply themselves outside of what would appear to be their primary role. Even more intriguing is that the characters’ different abilities can synergize in interesting ways with their comrades that makes you consider the roster of your team and come up with powerful combinations. The slow and powerful Reinhardt becomes suddenly more threatening when paired with Lucio’s speed boost, and Bastion’s turret mode becomes a tremendous threat when paired with Mercy’s damage boosting abilities. As an additional aside, the cast of characters are instantly more interesting than their skill sets; they are a motley crew of actual characters with inspired designs, personalities, and histories, ranging from the intelligent gorilla scientist to the cybernetic ascetic monk. There’s not a single dud amongst the current cast of 21 playable characters with each feeling effective, special, and cool.

Each character also has an ultimate ability that slowly charges over the course of the match. These powerful abilities, such as resurrecting dead teammates or transforming into a literal battle tank, have the potential to shift the momentum of a match and are another point of divergence from traditional team-based shooters. Knowing when and where to utilize your ultimate ability in coordination with the actions of your team give Overwatch a lot of tactical depth, more akin to a MOBA style game such as Heroes Of The Storm.

A final point towards the roster of characters adding a huge element of strategy to the game is that you can switch your character between lives during a match. This introduces an important metagame aspect in which you are able to counter the enemy team’s composition and tactics (sometimes preemptively) by altering your own team’s lineup on the fly. Learning and anticipating the counters to a particular situation will undoubtedly become a huge facet of competitive play as knowledge of the game evolves and expands.

Differences aside, the game is grounded in solid FPS conventions that make it familiar and intuitive as well. The control scheme is simplified and streamlined compared to other modern FPS games which frees up a lot of your thinking to concentrate on your handful of abilities and how best to apply them to the given situation. The maps and arenas are expertly crafted around singular objectives, which funnels the action to particular points and leaves no question as to what you should be trying to do at a given moment while also encouraging team fights which is at the core of the design of the game. One of the subtle things about the game that I recognize and appreciate is its “readability” or transparency. There are a lot of details and clues that give you a greater understanding and awareness of what is happening amidst the chaos of a confrontation including the visual language of the game in terms of characters and their abilities and also the various audio cues such as the sharp gasp that your character emits when they are badly wounded or the distinctive battle cry that they call out when they unleash an ultimate ability. The end result is that everything seems to make sense when things go very right or very wrong rather than you sitting there confused as to what just happened and as a result a player is able to learn the game organically simply from playing matches and encountering new situations.

With a fresh and appealing new IP, Blizzard is poised for another knockout hit. Blizzard has never failed to prove that they can do anything that they want and make it work, and Overwatch is no exception. If you weren’t fortunate enough to make it into the beta period, definitely keep an eye out for this title’s official launch in 2016.





Cards Against Humanity: Design Pack Full Spoiler

2 08 2015

During the fasting periods between the mainline expansions, the Cards Against Humanity team has recently been generously producing little snack-packs to satiate consumer hunger, such as the 90’s Pack and Nostalgia Pack that whet the appetite. While most of the content from those mini-expansions caters to specific tastes, they haven’t generally strayed far from the format and formula of the core game. Not so with the arrival of the recent Design Pack, in which the “Now For Something A Little Different” switch has been flipped.

The Design Pack at first glance appears to contain 29 cards with the familiar white card backs, but upon the turnaround you’ll find that each is adorned with full-bleed, full-color artwork akin to something like the cards from Dixit, albeit with a predictably obscene slant. Each card is unique, and appears to be something of a tribute to George Carlin’s renowned “seven words you can never say on television” bit. As expected the imagery is mostly as “colorful” as the game’s language.

As amusing and unexpected as the content of this mini-expansion is, I have a hard time seeing how it would integrate if one were to mix it with the base game in the way that it is typically intended to be played. I can’t envision these image cards as cogent responses to many of the black card’s prompts. Perhaps it is better to think of this pack as a piece of quaint bonus content, akin to something you would see from one of their holiday promotions. But another exciting possibility is that it is an experiment with the production of full-colored cards for a future project, as the visual quality of these cards is rather impressive.

Speculation aside, if you are curious as to the particulars of the content, hit the link to the next page to see them all laid plain. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this at this point but you probably shouldn’t peek at these if your boss or grandma is watching (unless they’re into it).

GO TO PAGE 2 FOR THE FULL SPOILER. WARNING: NSFW (duh)





Cards Against Humanity: Science Pack Full Spoiler

12 04 2015

Occasionally Cards Against Humanity releases themed mini-expansions such as their yearly holiday packs and one-offs like the 90s Pack or Reject Pack. This time around we’re treated to the Science Pack, filled with informed-sounding jargon and science-y references perfect for you to play with and exchange pretentious knowing glances with your learned friends that “f***ing love science.”

GO TO PAGE 2 FOR THE FULL SPOILER. WARNING: NSFW (duh)





Cards Against Humanity: Sixth Expansion Full Spoiler

4 04 2015

The CAH expansions almost seem to be outpacing the years that pass at this point, which is nothing to complain about unless you’ve got some kind of cognitive disorder. The CAH train seems to be bustling along with their yearly promotional stunts, holiday specials, and even acquisition of vast tracts of land such as “Hawaii 2,” so lets look forward to more releases and success from the CAH team! Unless, you know, you’re a shitty person or something.

Curiously, there are no PICK 2 black cards in the sixth expansion. Perhaps they are trying to adjust the ratio of single-picks to the doubles after the glut of PICK 2s from recent expansions.

If you’re wondering why there’s no 5th expansion spoiler here, it’s because by the time I got around to writing it up I discovered it was already available. Go check out the CAH page on boardgamegeek.com if you want to see it.

GO TO PAGE 2 FOR THE FULL SPOILER. WARNING: NSFW (duh)





Review: Ori And The Blind Forest

21 03 2015

Of the various announcements and upcoming games shown at E3 2014, through the onslaught of sequels and reboots there was a small unassuming flower blossoming amidst the giants. Developed by Moon Studios under Microsoft Games Studios, Ori And The Blind Forest soon became one of the talking points of the show with its captivating graphic style. However any seasoned gamer could tell you that looks aren’t everything and that both style and substance are indispensable with regards to quality games. Is Ori And The Blind Forest a prize bloom or lost amongst the weeds?

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Within the vast forest of Nibel, a small mysterious creature named Ori comes into the world. Happened upon by chance by the benevolent Naru, Ori is taken in and lives a simple but happy life in Naru’s company. However, within the workings of the great forest, all is not well. The land’s beauty begins to fade and shrivel away, and Ori is compelled by a strange and ancient presence to venture deep within the hidden corners of the forest to restore its splendor and save everything that he knows before its brilliance disappears. As Ori leaves the comfort of his old home behind, the shadow of the fearsome and enigmatic Kuro looms over the trees; one who would see the light extinguished forever.

Ori And The Blind Forest is a 2D platformer game with exploration in the style of “metroidvania” games in which the player must traverse a variety of challenging landscapes and as they uncover new abilities and movement options new areas and hidden secrets become accessible. There is also an RPG-esque leveling system that allows players to augment Ori’s combat abilities, exploration methods, and endurance with experience that accumulates from defeating foes or finding hidden boosts tucked away within the different areas. Ori’s adventure is concise and focused without feeling restrictive or railroad-y, taking about 10 hours to complete.

Of all of the things that would draw a player into the experience, the stunning visuals are the main hook. Absolutely magnificent and wondrous to behold, Ori And The Blind Forest may be the most gorgeous game I have ever beheld. Every single moment of the game radiates an incredible sense of beauty and magic; each environment is painted lavishly to have character and visual punch in every aspect. In an era of modern games with heavy emphasis on hyper-realism and graphic fidelity, the painterly look and fantastically rendered world fills a space that was dearly lacking. It is difficult to put to words how unbelievably beautiful the scenery is, so here, have a look for yourself:

Adding to the brilliance of the experience is the wonderful sound design. The majestic and haunting score hits all the right notes at the right moments and is as much a part of the soul of the game as the exquisite visuals. The sound effects of all the different facets of the environments and characters fits perfectly and makes it as much a treat for the ears as for the eyes.

Aesthetics notwithstanding, Ori is a winner in the gameplay department as well. While there’s little that hasn’t been done before in similar platformer-exploration games, Ori And The Blind Forest delivers solidly on its conventions and melds all of its mechanics elegantly. Ori handles well; his movement is natural and responsive making the platforming element of gameplay–which is the core of the experience–a solid foundation demanding just the right amount of planning, reflexes, dexterity, and timing to feel difficult enough to provide a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment but surmountable enough to keep the game’s pace flowing and provide the simple pleasure and sensation of continuous movement. The sense of progression as the player acquires new abilities feels just right, introducing new methods of movement at regular intervals that allow Ori access to previously unreachable areas and offer new approaches to navigating previous sections. Each addition lets you view retreaded segments in a fresh perspective, as dangerous areas become trivial to speed through and enemies become tools for moving around in clever ways. Puzzle elements comprise another large part of Ori’s adventure and are done well, encouraging thoughtfulness and use of Ori’s capabilities in unorthodox ways without being too obtuse. The game is undeniably challenging but rarely punishing due to Ori’s Soul Link ability which allows the player to save the game at virtually any time, allowing instant retries to particularly tricky sections of traversal or combat; there’s no “game over.” During my playthrough I accumulated nearly 230 deaths but never once did I feel like I skipped a beat.

On top of everything else, Ori And The Blind Forest also has a fantastic story woven throughout the game. A simple but powerful, moving narrative of love and sacrifice underlies Ori’s adventure that will strum at your heartstrings as it unfolds through the gorgeous sights and sounds. The plot is mostly storybook affair, but rather than reducing to a simple struggle between light and darkness Ori’s tale rides on some meaningful themes and at times is deeply touching.

There is very little to complain about as far as stumbling points, but at a few times throughout the game the difficulty suddenly seems to jump dramatically and will demand of you one-perfect-run for a lengthy gauntlet of hazards. If there was one feature I would have wished for, it would have been a way to teleport to waypoints across the fairly vast world instead of having to navigate all the way through the areas again to retread for previously inaccessible pickups. There are a few imperfections on the technical side, but they occur so infrequently that they are forgivable. There is very occasional slowdown on the Xbox One version of the game during intense action with lots of particle effects, but almost never in a way that affects the flow of the gameplay or jolts you into fumbling a precise series of maneuvers.

If there was ever a decisive piece of evidence for the games-as-art argument, it is this one. Beautiful in both visuals and play, it can be confused for nothing else but a work of art, and a superb one at that. Every aspect comes together to form a truly amazing game that you never knew you needed until it is in your hands. For the modest asking price of $20, Ori And The Blind Forest is an experience that simply cannot be missed.





Review: Evolve

16 02 2015

From the studio that spawned the Left 4 Dead games comes a new unique breed of FPS shooter aiming to establish itself as a new order in the game kingdom of team-based competitive game where either side is evenly matched, but couldn’t be more different. Will this genetic anomaly be a chapter or a footnote in the xenobiology books?

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The tale of Evolve’s world is played out in deadly confrontations across various sites of the lush but savage planet of Shear, where a few outposts of humanity have emerged to attempt to colonize and tame the new frontier in hopes of establishing a new home for our species. However, the planet is teeming with hostile wildlife and “megafauna” including giant alien super-predators that stalk the crags, swamps, and forests. A crack team of hunters from all corners of the galaxy is dispatched as a countermeasure to combat the threat of these monsters in a bid for control and survival in the unforgiving wilds of Shear.

Evolve is a multiplayer-focused asymmetrical online FPS game. One team of 4 players assume the roles of the hunters, comprised of different roles and specialties that must work together as a cohesive unit against the 5th player, who controls one of the massively powerful monsters in a scenario-based match played in a vast level strewn with vegetation, bizarre wildlife, and monolithic remnants of colonist construction projects. At the onset of each game, the monster is a underdeveloped juvenile, and must evade the team of hunters as it feasts upon prey animals and grows ever-stronger, eventually reaching its full strength and becoming a force of nature that can devastate its enemies within seconds. The hunters and the monster must outmaneuver each other amidst the rocky caverns and vegetation of the expansive maps in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse where the tables can turn at any moment and the line between predator and prey is thin and blurred.

The hunter characters are divided into 4 different classes: Medic, Trapper, Support, and Assault. Each specializes in a different method of combating the monster and has a specific role to fulfill towards their team’s success. Medics dispense healing and keep the team on their feet, and have several other useful tools like tranquilizer guns to sedate the monster and slow its movement. Trappers are integral to containing the monster and prevent it from fleeing a losing battle with their various tracking equipment and harpoon guns. Support is a flexible class that brings an assortment of useful tools to the table, ranging from group cloaking devices, calling in orbital bombardments, to shielding units that can protect teammates from harm. Finally, the Assault class is the front-line fighter that devotes itself solely to dealing heavy damage to the monster to bring it down with excessive firepower. Within the 4 roles, there are 3 different characters per class that each go about their job in a different way and offer some variety to the playstyles and strengths of the class.

Players can choose from 3 different hulking monsters when playing the opposition, each with a different style of play and methodology. The brutish Goliath is an unstoppable juggernaut that relies on its tremendous strength and unwavering toughness to pound the hunters to a pulp, whether it engulfs them with a stream of clinging flame, tears boulders from the ground to fling like a catapult, or simply throws the destructive weight of its bulk crashing into its enemies. The sinister Kraken prefers to fight from afar, bombarding its foes with blasts and bolts of bio-electricity as it hovers aloft like an angry thunder-god, drifting across battlefields with the malicious presence of a boiling storm cloud. Lastly the slippery Wraith rewards stealth and subterfuge as it slithers through the terrain, with its strange warping abilities to use misdirection and its evasiveness to lure hunters into deadly ambushes at the hands of its reaper-like rending talons. Playing as the monster is certainly the most unique and fresh aspect of Evolve, and there’s something primal and satisfying about controlling one of these dread monstrosities that speaks to the soul’s hunger for destruction; the bestial id within that lurks in the darkness of the heart of the player, straining against its cage.

Playing Evolve is a tight and engaging experience that is focused and expertly crafted. The 15 to 20 minute matches are tense and well-paced where lulls in activity foster a sense of dread and the sudden explosion of violence from a run-in with the monster provides a hot, frantic rush of adrenaline. Playing as the monster manages to provide both a sense of progression and a driving immediacy and the solitude of being pitted against 4 other players but still on level playing ground makes you feel both vulnerable and addictively powerful at the same time. There is a slight learning curve to get acclimated to the various tricks and trades of both the monster and hunters that is satisfying to climb and has a sweet-spot balance of depth and intuitive aspects and the diversity of the ability interactions as well as the composition of the various maps presents lots of opportunities for counter-play and outwitting the enemy. The glory of victory is distinctly different whether singlehandedly overpowering your foes as the monster or conquering your quarry with teamwork and synergy as the hunters.

Visually and aurally, the game also shines. The verdant groves and twisting canyons of Shear are as captivating as they are dangerous, with strange alien growths and otherworldly vegetation and mineral formations that crack and shatter against the hide of a rampaging creature or a roaring torrent of high-tech gunfire. The hunters all have personality and simple but pleasing designs, but the monsters are where the game really flexes its visuals. Tooth and nail, spur and scale, the creature cast is fearsome and awesome to behold as they skulk, pounce, and eviscerate with their jagged teeth, undulating tentacles, and tree-snapping tails in tow. The games’ minimal HUD and visual language are concise and unintrusive, never dulling the feast for the eyes but conveying just the important pieces of information. The hunters’ banter, the report of the futuristic weapons, and the gurgling hisses of the creatures all meld together as a visceral treat for the ears.

For all of Evolve’s strong points, there are a few points of contention. Most notably the content seems sparse especially for players just getting their hands wet. Upon initially launching the game, only 1 hunter of each class and 1 monster is available for use and the others must be unlocked by fulfilling various requirements for the characters/creatures preceding the next. While this is probably meant to be a device to get new players well-versed in basic concepts and core aspects of gameplay using the more straightforward characters, it forces players to “grind” and have several repeated runs with the starter selection in order to unlock options to experiment with. Secondly there is already a bevy of additional content for purchase and the aggressive DLC focus is a bit troubling; there is already nearly $87 worth of add-ons available for purchase within the first week of the game’s launch. Granted most of these extras are cosmetic, but with 2 new monsters and 6 new hunters supposedly on the way, with the currently announced pricing there is forseeably $75 worth of gameplay-relevant content alone in the future. Such a high asking price for add-ons is somewhat unprecedented even in this current generation in which DLC has been embraced as commonplace, and there has already been considerable backlash regarding this game’s content release schedule.

Despite a few concerns, Evolve has a great many strengths that send it towards the upper end of the food chain. While it may not be the perfect organism, it represents an interesting mutation of a oft-retreaded genre and a fascinating new experience that stands on its own feet (tentacles?) amidst a fiercely competitive wilderness of FPS games as an evolutionary success. In a land of devour-or-be-devoured, Evolve emerges as a top predator in my bestiary.