Game Reviews

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3 is great, and you should play it immediately.

The Witcher 3 follows closely after the events of The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. Geralt is a witcher (not a witch, or witch-hunter), a human transformed by mutagens and trained to kill monsters that prey on common people. He has recovered his lost memory and is on the search for his love, the sorceress Yennefer. He finds Yennefer in the service of Emhyr var Emreis, the emperor of Nilfgaard. Emreis has a mission for them: to find his daughter (and Geralt’s adopted daughter) Ciri. Ciri has been missing for a long time, but Emreis’s intelligence has spotted her in the conflicted lands of Velen, Novigrad, and Skellige. Ciri is thought to be pursued by the Wild Hunt, a mythical group of spectral riders that bring death everywhere they go. Geralt goes out in search of Ciri and the hunt begins.

If you’ve never played a Witcher game, the most obvious comparison is to a third-person Skyrim. It’s a huge, third-person action RPG with a single character focus. You’re not an avatar of yourself, but Geralt. Geralt has a voice, and history, but his conduct is largely up to the player. Dialog options aren’t restricted to “saint” or “asshole” but several shades in between. Sometimes you can use witcher magic to manipulate conversations, but (in contrast to previous games) this sometimes backfires. Geralt can freely summon a horse, and fast travel is available at semi-regular intervals throughout the world. The main quest is not time-limited, so you’re free to pursue side quests, witcher contracts (monster hunts), and play mini-games. Areas are not auto-leveled to provide a particular challenge and it’s not difficult to wander into a fight you’re not ready for, which gives exploration an appealing degree of danger. The quests in the game are helpfully labeled with a suggested player level, which I found to be mostly accurate to the degree of challenge I expected.

If you played The Witcher 2 (and you should, it’s amazing), then you’re likely pretty familiar with how to play The Witcher 3. It still has two swords, heavy and light attacks, potions, throwables, and magical signs. It has, however, been thoroughly tweaked to make the gameplay a little smoother. Melee attacks are not as easily interrupted. Potions are brewed once (after recipe and ingredients have been found) and then they stay in limited quantities in your inventory and auto-refill with every rest period. Potions don’t last as long as they used to, so they’re more freely chugged during combat. There are no knives to throw, but they’ve been replaced with a crossbow and bombs auto-refill like the potions do. The axii sign (mind control) actually works outside of dialog in The Witcher 3 to stun enemies, and yrden (magical trap) is less of an instant stun and more of an area-of-effect debuff zone. The availability of traps is far, far lower in The Witcher 3, which is great news if you’re still having nightmares about that trap-filled jungle outside of Flotsam. You can freely dodge, block, and parry without worrying about a stamina meter. Signs require a recharge time per casting, but it can be sped up with character development. Overall, some of the rough corners of The Witcher 2‘s main combat loop have been smoothed over in positive ways.

Beyond the mechanics of the gameplay, this is very much an evolution of The Witcher games of the past. No easy choices, and very few of them shake out entirely from the start. You find out hours later how your choices have affected the world. It doesn’t only affect characters either, as the actual world of The Witcher 3 changes. Not in huge ways, but little details such as seeing more soldiers in the streets, or different background conversations as the game progresses.

Quest design is incredible. The main story has a few interesting turns, but some of the side quests almost overshadow it. It felt like the designers got to where most video games would end a quest line, and decided to continue it for a few more beats. Of all the many, many quests I completed, I only ran into one that got stuck on a bug, and even that quest could be completed in another way due to its design. Even beyond quests, the landscape is littered with stuff to do, like destroy monster nests, find hidden treasures, and liberate areas from bandits. There’s a CCG-ish mini game called Gwent that some people are huge fans of. I’m not one of them, but I appreciate it for doing something other than simple dice poker. Secondary quests include Gwent, fist fighting tournaments (like those in The Witcher 2), and horse racing. The amount of stuff to do in the game easily rivals or surpasses the largest RPGs.

There is also a huge amount of little details that The Witcher 3 gets right, where most games do not. There is no unspoken dialog. Every conversation is voiced. Even though the world is absolutely enormous, the parts of it all seem unique and different. Where most games this big might feel like they’ve been cut and paste together, the world of The Witcher 3 feels crafted. Every piece of equipment changes Geralt’s look with very few palette swaps. Cutscenes are all rendered in-game, so every Geralt looks like your Geralt. If you’re riding your horse, you can hold down the run button and the horse will (mostly intelligently) follow the trail you’re on. It’s all of these little touches that add up to The Witcher 3 being an amazingly immersive experience. There’s very little in the game that pulls you out of its world.

If I had to make one complaint about the game, it’s that the crafted narrative experience comes at the expense of having a character that represents the player. Playing the whole game as Geralt simply isn’t going to appeal to every single person, and it doesn’t have to, but it limits the audience. Your Geralt probably differs from mine in many ways, but we’re both still playing as Geralt, not some representation of ourselves. It’s a downside to the improved narrative you get from playing a single character. When you’re playing a character, you can’t play as yourself. Compared its modern RPG contemporaries, such as Pillars of Eternity, Dragon Age, or Skyrim, this makes The Witcher 3 rather limited in choice of player representation.

But if you’re into Geralt, this is the best Witcher game yet. It’s an enormous open world that is fun to explore and live in for the many, many hours you’ll spend in it. It’s an extremely immersive game that sends The Witcher series out on a very high note.

Game Reviews

Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell

I think I’ve played about as much of this as I need to. Saints Row 3 is the last complete original Saints Row. Saints Row 4, though almost as large as SR3, was more or less a rehash of SR3 but with a Matrix twist. Gat Out of Hell is SR4 except on an new arrangement of a smaller landmass. It’s not Steelport, it’s an original map, but everything looks and feels like the previous two games. It feels like we’ve been deriving less interesting games from SR3 ever since THQ folded.

Gat Out of Hell is, at best, a standalone expansion pack. It directly continues from the end of SR4. You can only play as Johnny Gat or Kinzie Kensington. You can’t change their appearance. There’s no licensed music. There’s not much music at all. There are no story missions per se. Once you start the game, you’re given free reign to do any of the multitude of side missions available. They’re all plays on the same missions from previous Saints Rows. Once you complete enough of them, you get the one boss fight in the game, and then the story is more or less done. It takes less than 3 hours to get through.

Afterwards, I spent a couple more hours completing the rest of the side missions, which rewarded me with animated epilogues for the companion characters. They’re no more than 30 seconds of video each. If I were to keep playing, I could pursue the rest of grindy missions like getting 100 kills with a particular weapon or power, or chase collectibles, but the game is over. My clock reads over 7 hours but no more.

The most interesting part of the game is that it offers something like 5 or 6 different endings, a couple of which could clearly lead to a more interesting Saints Row sequel. Hopefully it’s a ways off, because this series desperately needs a shakeup. It feels like they’ve thoroughly exhausted what they started in Saints Row 3.

Game Reviews

Sleeping Dogs: Nightmare at North Point

If the Zodiac Tournament was a kung fu movie, Nightmare at North Point is a cheesy horror movie, steeped in Chinese mythology. An evil spirit kidnaps your date, and you have to fist fight demons and possessed people to get her back, with the help of some mystical tea, and peachwood swords. There are hell money, yaoguai, restless ghosts, jiang shi, and no police so you can run over and stab whomever you wish! It exists outside of the main game, so it goes rather bonkers at times, with possessed people attacking you at random, and the world constantly raining and night time. It’s not the most exciting piece of DLC ever, and it’s kind of short, but it’s cheap. If you want more Sleeping Dogs, or more Chinese myths, go nuts.

Game Reviews

Binary Domain

All of the descriptions of this being a Japanese Gears of War are completely accurate. It’s a third-person cover-based shooter, with a quirk in that you can influence how much your team likes you by speaking to them using your headset. You get prompted with yes/no questions pretty often, and they like/dislike you depending on your performance in combat. Shoot a bunch of robots, they think you’re great! Shoot them, and they complain. Something I didn’t necessarily realize is that the social system affects your ending!

The game looks great. It’s super-smooth, with only a bit of slowdown when I’d have like 10 robots exploding at the same time, and that was really rare. There are a ton of boss fights, but none of them are frustrating as they all subscribe to the “shoot the blinking parts” philosophy. The controls work great with mouse and keyboard. The voice acting isn’t perfect, but your team is composed of soldiers from different nations. Some of the accents are bad, and some are passable, but what thrilled me is that the Japanese police, who would have no business casually speaking English to each other, actually speak Japanese with subtitles! That tiny attention to detail means a lot to me. When Return to Castle Wolfenstein came out and all the Germans spoke English with German accents, I was totally disappointed.

The story is well written. It’s a nice sci-fi, what makes a man yarn. It has a pretty lighthearted tack to it, without being completely cartoonish. It’s more like a good action movie that occasionally asks serious questions. It sets up a sequel, which I’m looking forward to, but I don’t think we’ll see. I don’t think Binary Domain sold all that well, and it’s a serious departure for its creator who previously made all the Yakuza games. I never played any of them, but they have a rather dedicated following.

Next time Binary Domain goes on sale somewhere (I got it from Amazon, Steam-redeemable), you should get it. Don’t be completely turned off by the B grade cover art. It definitely exceeded my expectations.

Game Reviews

Assassin’s Creed

Why Assassin’s Creed is Awesome

  • The process of investigating a target leads to some interesting options. You have to do at least half of the investigations, but doing all of them give you a clearer picture of how you should go about killing the dude you’re supposed to kill.
  • The Middle East crusades setting is a nice change from the typical game setting. Despite being in the Middle East, it’s actually less brown than some other games!
  • The game is really beautiful. Climbing to the tops of tall buildings is required as a gameplay mechanic but it’s also an amazing view.
  • I like that the bulk of gameplay is (in the game) a guy basically playing a video game. It’s a sci-fi premise in a historical fiction setting!
  • There’s a fair amount of non-english spoken dialog, even if all the non-background dialog is in poorly accented english.

Why Assassin’s Creed Fucking Sucks

  • The sword fighting is god awful. There are essentially two options: mash the attack button and hope you win, or hold the block and wait until each attacker takes a swing so you can counter it. And sometimes the counters don’t result in a kill, so you have to do it again.
  • This game is so, so, so repetitive. To complete those investigations, you have to find informants. To find informants, you have to either search every corner of a large city or climb specific tall buildings. Even then, most of the objectives are saving citizens, which involves sword fighting between three and five soldiers. Saving people gives more options to help escape soldiers, which becomes important post-assassination when you’re trying to escape.
  • Some of the actual investigations tasks suck. Stealth archer assassinations are awful because if you fail one, you have to start all over. Escorts, like all escort missions, suck because it’s just more sword fighting spread out into four or five small fights.
  • Beggars, drunks, and crazy. They’re people in the streets who are there to be obstacles. Did you know a slight female beggar can stop a deadly assassin from walking past her entirely? Me neither! And forget about getting past two or three crazies in an alley. because they just push you into each other. It’s awful. And if you punch them to get them out of the way, the city guard takes offense and then it’s time for more sword fighting!
  • The final sequence of events is a series of sword fights. But by that time I’d spent so much time sword fighting that it really just ate up my time as I waited to counter attack 20 separate attackers three or four times in a row.
  • The “real world” ending is really underwhelming. It’s like they just stopped the game right where it was without a lot of resolution.
Game Reviews

Brutal Legend

Oh boy, I sank some time into this one this weekend. Brutal Legend is the definition of a mixed bag. When it starts out, you’re hacking things to death with an axe and blasting them lightning bolts out of your guitar. Soon after, you’ve got a car and it’s an open world game where you’re driving around and doing side missions and collecting stuff. Then you start collecting followers and guiding them into battle. About halfway through, you’ve got a handful of units, you can fly, give orders, build stuff, and it’s a full blown console RTS.

The transition from simple action to RTS is very smooth, and you never lose the open world aspect when you’re not in the middle of a story mission. What is kind of a jarring is that the whole first half of the game is the tutorial into the RTS side. The game has three continents and that whole first half of the game takes places on the first one alone. On top of that, there are two other factions in the game, but you spend that first half fighting against the same units you’re using. You then spend almost the rest of the game fighting the second faction, and you only really fight the third faction in the absolute final mission.

It’s pretty obvious to me that a lot of time and effort went into the first continent and first half of the game, then the rest was cleaned up and rushed through. Everything about the pacing in the second half of the game is off and rushed, and the end drops like a hammer. There’s that final RTS mission and one final action sequence and then you’re done.

Despite this, Brutal Legend is a ton of fun. It’s fun to drive around in. It takes place during the Age of Metal and the backstory and environments and soundtrack are all fantastic. It’s simply a fun world to exist in if you’re into metal. I’m pretty horrible at RTS games, and I still enjoyed the RTS battles. The controls kind of take some getting used to because they focus on your character as a leader, and so you can only issue orders to your units if you’re near them. This is probably why the first half of the game feels like a tutorial, but by time you get off the first continent, you’re definitely proficient at commanding your units.

I don’t know how to recommend this. I was turned off of it when it was released by reviews saying it was half-baked, and not that fun. It is true that it was definitely a rushed release, but it never feels incomplete. Everything is there, it’s just paced poorly. And I definitely had a lot of fun with it. I guess it boils down to whether or not you like metal. If I didn’t enjoy the setting so much, I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time playing it.

Game Reviews

Metro 2033

This game caught me by surprise. It didn’t get much hype and what it did get didn’t excite me. Crawling around in tunnels in the dark, who cares? Then I found out that the developers are the engineers who made S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which I loved. It got pretty positive reviews, with some complaints being about the difficulty and poor gunplay and dumb AI.

I’m pleased to report these complaints are mostly unfounded. Metro 2033 is a beautiful game with a strong narrative, even if Artyom’s motivations are somewhat unclear. I beat the game on normal difficulty without much trouble. The weapons in the game are no less responsive than those in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I knew from the start that bullets were currency in the game, and that crappy bullets existed, but I didn’t figure out how to use those crappy bullets until halfway through the game. The crappy bullets really are crappy, being much louder, less powerful, and more inaccurate. It really makes you value those money bullets and forced me to decide when it was worth shooting my money away.

Around the halfway mark, there’s a vendor who will sell you either heavier armor or stealthier clothing. I had spent nearly all of my good bullets on a better gun, which was poor foresight on my behalf because guns are everywhere. I was duly punished for it though, as I was never offered the opportunity to buy a different armor again.

I got Metro 2033 on sale, and it’s one of those games in which I wish I had bought it on release. The game is short, but it’s really immersive. I hope 4A made enough to keep developing, because I’ll definitely get their next title the minute it comes out.

Game Reviews

Doom 3

Unlike a lot of people, I really enjoyed Doom 3. It’s a big departure from the first two in terms of atmosphere and gameplay, but it holds its own and looks good. I’m doing what feels like my yearly replay of it, except on Veteran (hard) difficulty and I feel like the increased difficulty is really exposing some of the less obvious flaws in the game. I may not even finish this playthrough.

Half of the enemies jump out of closets. It’s one of those obvious flaws that you learn about in the first 15 minutes of the game. On medium, it’s no big deal because you take a hit, turn around, pop them, and they die. On hard, you still take that first hit, and it’s always at least 15% of your health. So you can take two paths with it; you can keep rolling and slowly bleed out from repeated monster closets, or you can quick save after every fight and reload when you find a monster closet so you can better deal with it. It sucks.

Lost souls are the fucking worst. They were an annoyance in Doom 1/2 but never a real threat. In Doom 3, they’re tiny, they hit for at least 15%, they bounce out of the way if you hit them without killing them, and when they hit, your view moves. I died in the first encounter with lost souls. LOST SOULS. Flying, screaming skulls pecked me to death.

The shotgun, which sucks at any range beyond 1 meter in front of you, is the best weapon to kill them with because it’ll almost always kill them in one hit, except you have to wait until it’s charging at you and it’s right in front of your goddamned face before you can think about pulling the trigger. The shotgun only holds 8 rounds, and it takes forever to reload so you better not miss!

And let’s talk about how much the shotgun blows. The shotgun in Doom 1/2 is one of my favorite weapons. It is versatile and possesses a good amount of stopping power. The shotgun in Doom 3 is worthless beyond 1 meter ahead of you. If you are not jamming that shotgun into the bad guy’s face before you pull the trigger, you’re going to have to shoot them twice. That said, it will kill ims, soldiers, zombies, maggots, and those dumb teleporting things  in one shot, so what I’ve found myself doing is dancing around while they shoot at me, and then charging at them before I blast them in the face, then running backwards in case that first shot didn’t do the trick. It’s a huge letdown. It’s horrible. Thankfully the plasma rifle is even more awesome than it was in Doom 1/2.

Even playing on hard, Doom 3 is no more difficult. It is just more annoying. Playing it feels like work. I will probably abort this playthrough, and remind myself next time to play it on medium again, when the game is more fun.