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Bolt Thrower: Gears of War, Bloodborne, Witcher 3

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Welcome to Bolt Thrower, the gaming column that blows your head off. If you’re new to the format, here’s the deal: I link something I’ve written elsewhere and then pontificate a bit on what I’m playing right now that’s not in the review queue.

My link this time round is the first of a new series I’m doing for Gamerati. The column’s called Bytes and Pieces and it’s about dissecting tabletop versions of video game franchises. First under the knife is Gears of War: The Board Game.

It’s great title in spite of my well-known dislike of co-operative games. That’s partly because the setup feels right for a game that made its fame on the back of co-op online play. Indeed, feel is much of what makes the game special. The fast play feels right for a tactical shooter, as does the balance of excitement and strategy, and the weapons and enemies behave as you expect.

Ultimately it has moments where it fails. The biggest being the way pieces can move around irrespective of where enemy figures are on the map. These are so ludicrious that the suspension of disbelief collapses, although it quickly builds again. If you want more detail go read the article.

The big gaming news in my life right now is finally having gotten hold of a PS4. I’m loving my introduction to Sony’s gaming world. It seems so much softer, more flexible, more alluring than the hard black and green squares of Microsoft’s world. And the controller is lovely, aside from the symmetric joysticks. You can find me on PSN as mattthr.

The console came bundled with action RPGs Bloodborne and The Witcher 3. I dived straight into the former and, I have to say, I was a tiny bit disappointed.

Partially that’s because I’ve just come out of a long period of playing little but Dark Souls. I don’t think I was just mentally ready for yet more of that punishment. Especially when Bloodborne is built so you can’t grind through the early areas: you’re prevented from levelling up until you’ve met the first boss.

But even allowing for that, the mechanics felt over-familiar. Sure, you’ve now got a ranged weapon and the ability to make weapon mode switches. Sure, there’s no shield and a health-back mechanic that encourages aggressive play. However, it turns out that one key use of that firearm is to stun enemies mid-attack so you can counter. In reality, that plays a whole lot like raising a shield to block and counter in the Souls games.

The graphics were also a bit disappointing for a new console. It has the same poor ragdoll effects and animation glitches that plagued Souls. And I was surprised by how cluttered and busy the environments looked. Almost like the designers had decided to use all that extra graphics power just to pack as many polygons on the screen as they could, regardless of what they looked like.

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Contrast that to The Witcher 3 which looks absolutely gorgeous. It also has a sense about it like a designer finally got an open world game just right. There’s no fake balancing: if you wander into danger you’ll get a warning and the you’d better run or you’re dead. And a great combination of foot, transport and fast travel means there’s no wandering around for hours just for the sake of it.

The result is a real feeling of wonder and the itch for exploration. The world is rich and believable. It’s easy to follow the main quest if you want. And if you don’t, well, side-quests and mini games are plentiful and mostly short. And if even that’s too much stricture for you there’s a lot of fun to be had looking for bandit camps and monster nests and taking them out.

I’m playing on the second-hardest difficulty and it feels just right. To win battles, you need to scout an area and prepare well with the right potions, spells and equipment. Then make use of your move set and the terrain and good twitch skills. If you lose, you re-load and try again. Often several times. That’s frustrating enough to make it exciting without it feeling brutal.

Having spent so long playing Souls games I can’t help but contrast this approach with the unforgiving nature of their limited save system. The Witcher 3 feels so much more approachable. So much more … fun.

And yet.

And yet, for all the frustration factor of failing battles in The Witcher, it doesn’t make me afraid. Souls and Bloodborne gave me moments of genuine buttock-clenching terror under the pressure of having to get things right, or lose an hour of progress. It’s a terror that felt right at home in Bloodborne’s beautifully realised horror theme. Those moments were unforgettable. The moments of pleasure that came from getting them right were even more so.

So I’ll be back to Bloodborne. But for now, contradictory though it sounds, The Witcher 3 is offering me a well-earned rest.

Forgotten Pleasures

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One of the unexpected effects of regularly reviewing games is how jaded I’ve become. It takes an enormous amount to impress me nowadays. And even for titles that make the grade, it’s rare that they grip me for a long time. Readers demand novelty, so the old makes way for the new.

Sometimes a game still gets its claws in me and demands play time in the face of all competition. The last video game to achieve that was Hearthstone, early last year. The last board games were Wiz-War and X-Wing back in 2012.

It’s even rarer, though, that an unreleased game grabs my attention. Years of exposure to marketing hype has given me a tough crust of cynicism. The advent of Kickstarter and the ensuing failed promises have just made it thicker. Nowadays, I take nothing about a game at face value until I’ve played it and confirmed it for myself.

I can’t even remember the last time I was dizzy with anticipation about a game.

So it’s remarkable that over the last couple of months, one title has managed to break through. That game is Bloodborne, the spiritual successor to Dark Souls from the same design team.

The latter game transformed my understanding of what a role-playing game should be. It was a blend of genres I’d always wanted to see, a game that felt like real-life fantasy combat combined with the salivating skinner box of experience and levelling up. It was brilliant, but often the deliberate difficulty curve got too much.

Early reviews of Bloodborne make it sound like it’s solved that problem by giving players more information and an easier time early in the game. Then ramping up to the more brutal levels expected once players have adjusted. It seems an excellent solution. Plus, the rich graphics, emphasis on offense over blocking and obvious horror theme had me hooked.

The trouble is, I don’t have a PS4. So I can’t play it. And there’s no way I can justify buying one when I’ve still got Gears of War 2, Halo 4 and Red Dead Redemption I want to finish on the 360. Not to mention Dark Souls, which I’m only half-way through.

So I’m left hanging in a trap of my own construction. It’s something I remember well from my teenage years when I just couldn’t afford most of what I wanted. There’s nothing for it but to knuckle down and carry on, trying to ignore that awful itch of desire. That’s what being grown up is all about.

I understand all that. What I didn’t expect was to find that wanting could be so much fun.

It’s the same principle as the ascetic. In denial, one learns to find satisfaction in self control. Except that this is a thousand times better because I know that at the end there will be a sweet reward. There will be a time that I can cave in, get a new console, and enjoy my game.

And when I do, I’ll enjoy it all the more for having waited.

Finding this unexpected pleasure made me yearn for the days when it happened more often. Because make no mistake: this isn’t just about being a games writer. Fans and commentators alike have been decrying the lack of innovation in big-name titles of both video and tabletop games for years. That’s what’s at the root of the malaise lingering over the current console generaiton, at least until Bloodborne came along.

While there’s plenty of creativity amongst independent designers, arguably it takes a big game to engender a big sense of desire. It takes overwhelming production values and an enormous potential play time. It takes a certain level of marketing polish, too.

Other media have already been through this. Blockbuster cinema was floundering a few years ago. That empty space summoned forth white knights to fill it, and alumni like Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan answered the call. I’m not sure who their equivalents might be in the video gaming world, but I’m confident the increasing interplay between big studios and small developers is going to throw up some surprises.

Who, though, is going to break through the tabletop barrier? If my money was on anyone, it’d be Rob Daviau or Vlaada Chvatil. But we’ve heard nothing big from either of them for ages. I hope one of them, or someone else, delivers soon. I want to feel that sharp hope of hype about a cardboard game at least once more before I die.

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