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Brakketology Goes Pimping for Darkest Dungeon

DarkestDungeon_Feast

There are a lot of games in the pipe that I’m excited for. Like really excited for. Like, man, you guys just don’t even know. Pillars of Eternity? Wasteland 2? The Witcher 3? Dragon Age 3? The iOS edition of FTL? I’m pretty much agog for these titles. So when I tell you that, with the possible exception of Witcher 3, there is no game I’m more looking forward to seeing than Darkest Dungeon, take me seriously. Well, maybe not seriously, but perhaps with an extra grain of salt. We don’t want to go overboard here.

The point is, it’s Kickstarter has launched and I don’t just want to see this tactical dungeon crawler meets psychological horror mash-up meet it’s goal of 75k. I want it to leave that goal so far in the rear view mirror that… well that it can’t be seen anymore, I guess. (Well, that line fell apart fast. Ah well.) So, watch the trailer below, check out the plethora of details on the Kickstarter page, and if you are so moved, help this project get made. Sure, it could end up imploding into so much vaporware, but I’ve got a Good Feeling about this one and I’m almost never wrong. Except when I am. But I’m not this time. Mark it down – this is going to be great.

After the break, a link dump…

My schedule has been nutty the past couple weeks, hence the lack of these posts. I’ve been trapped in New York because of snow –in Atlanta– I’ve been sick, I’ve been juggling kids and work because their schools haven’t found a week yet this year that where they didn’t feel the need for multiple delays or outright cancellations. They’re worse than the game industry in this regard and it’s entirely possible my kids will still be in school come July. The point is, there’s been a lot of new shit, man. But I’ve been collecting a lot of links. Lots of ’em. And now I’m dumping them all out so I can start collecting anew. (And free up some bandwidth to write about the amazing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Coming soon.)

Football for one. After quite a long journey, good friend of the blog Bill Harris, released Gridiron Solitaire into the wild. You’ll find it on Steam for a mere $10. Brandon and I talked about it quite a bit on this week’s JtS and while it’s not a perfect game, it is good… and addicting… and maddening. If you take the plunge, Bill (H.) wrote up a new player guide that you’ll find here. Congrats, Bill!

The Wolf Cometh. The second chapter for A Wolf Among Us is out. I haven’t gotten into it yet, but the trailer looks delicious:

Yeah, I’m gonna have to play this:

Saga! If you missed the trademark spat between Stoic Entertainment and King it’s worth catching up. In short, Stoic are the good guys. King is full of terrible people. Done. The Story.King Responds.Stoic says, “Bite me.”

Not Quite Microleague. Well, not yet, but OOTP Developments is finally —finally– taking the franchise in that direction with 3D ballparks and modelling in-game ball flight. The plan is to take it further in the next edition. I’ve wanted this to make it into OOTP for a long time now, so fingers crossed.

Well that only took a year. Tomb Raider is in the black. Here’s a thought for Eidos. SPEND LESS MONEY MAKING GAMES.

Dammit, now I have to buy one. 5 Wii U Lies. I love it when Barnes finds something he really, really likes. Except when it’s going to end up costing me money, which this might.

Nobody tell Bill. There’s a Dark Souls 2 trailer.

I never did play Dark Souls, having lost my mind trying to tackled Demon’s Souls, but this looks like the kind of thing that ought to get a Dark Souls fan excited.

It’s not quite dead. When 2k unceremoniously announced the 2k baseball franchise was kaput it looked like there would be no new America’s Game for Xbox players this year. Not so, because MLB Advanced Media is bringing back RBI baseball! Yes, a game coming out this spring with no screens and no feature list, based on a NES-era franchise that’s been gone for 20 years. Oh yeah, and it’s developed by the MLB itself. What could possibly go wrong? (Hint: Everything.)

Gone Home. Danielle, you all might remember her, wrote something beautiful about Gone Home. Go read it. As much as we miss seeing her voice appear on this blog, I love seeing her byline pop up at Polygon.

Swanky! Stardock recently posted about the new game engine they’ve licensed from Oxide Games. It’s bananas:

Obviously, this is merely a tech demo, but it’s nifty. Anyone else want to see a Robotech game using this engine?

Pillars! Update 70 has a bunch of cool details about Pillars of Eternity.

 

 

Brakketology Plays The Walking Dead: Season 2, Admires Its Shoes

Walking Dead - Clementine

On this week’s JtS, Brandon and I talked a lot, in spoilery details, about the first episode of Telltale’s adventure game, The Walking Dead Season 2. We both like it, but where I cannon-balled into this opening chapter, Brandon though it not as strong as the pilot opener for season 1. It occurs to me that the main reason we differ comes down to the notion that our DNA in these things is entirely different. In season 1, Brandon liked entering a world full of characters he’d never met, getting to know them and their histories and developing Lee from an entirely blank slate. I get that. I think that’s how a majority of players are. Or maybe it’s a question of introvert and extrovert tendencies? Being very much the former, I’ve never been big on discovery. Oh sure, once I discover something and like it, then I wrap it around me and live in it like it were a comfy blanket. So warm. So soft. I am home. And safe.

It’s just very tough for me to get to that point. This is true whether I’m playing games, watching movies, or reading books; especially so when reading books. Part of the reason I used to bury myself in fantasy series like Riftwar, and Wheel of Time and Song of Ice and Fire is because I could live in those worlds for so much longer than I could in your typical modern day work of fiction. There was always another book and I didn’t have to spend time figuring out who everyone was and what they were like. I could just jump in and let the adventure continue. It’s the same reason, when confronted with a Netflix list chock full of movies I’ve never seen, that I’m more likely to seek out a sequel or something by a writer or director I already like, or even something I’ve already seen, than to take a risk on something wholly unknown. And so it is that Season 2 of The Walking Dead plays right into my tendencies.

Even with the past set of character largely absent, the central character of Clementine, the one I am to inhabit this time around, is a character I already know. She’s a character that I’ve already journeyed with, protected, and molded. I know who Clementine is and so, when Telltale tells me it’s time to walk a mile in her shoes, I already know how to do that. This makes season 2’s opening chapter much easier to get into. And what an opening chapter it is. (Modest spoilers to follow.)

The curse of a series like The Walking Dead, regardless of its medium is that it relies on shocking you. Oh my god, can you believe they did that? Oh, that’s so awful, how could they do that? And they’re doing it again, oh my god! Oh shit, they killed Kenny! Bastards!!!

You can get away with that for awhile, but eventually the script flips and the only way to shock your viewer/player is not to shock them. The world of The Walking Dead is brutal and at this point we’re wholly conditioned to accept that. It’s no longer a surprise when the friendly puppy turns feral, or the guy who’s the friendliest to you is the first to get bit. It’s not surprising when zombies appear at the most unlikely and inopportune time. And yet, so far, it still works, and that’s because of Clementine.

Season 1 ensured we invested in this girl. She’s young, yes, but we know she’s not helpless anymore. As Lee, we saw to that (or I did, at least). And so now we take a different kind of journey. The mystery is gone. The world has collapsed and the new equilibrium, such as it is, has settled in. Now it’s truly about how you, as an individual, figure a way to go on living and what you’re going to make of life in this world. Because there’s surviving and there is living.

I’m not sure yet if that’s what Telltale’s end-game is for season 2. It could be I’m reading more into it than is there. Maybe what follows will be another four episodes of torture and human foulness and the worst possible things happening at the worst possible times. Maybe, like the TV show, those are the only bullets they have in their gun and you’ll be able to set your watch by the recurrence of human tragedy. But I don’t think so.

Oh I think that element will be there still –it is The Walking Dead– but I think Telltale has something else to say about humanity and how it handles apocalypse. That journey started with Lee, in the first season. Ultimately, however, Lee only existed to shape and mold Clementine. Now it’s time to see what she’s really learned and how she’ll apply those lessons in the face of new challenges and new tragedies. And it’s precisely because I already know this brave girl so well that, as a player, I already feel well-equipped to help her get there. Clementine’s shoes are worn, but they’re sturdy and comfortable.

This is going to be fun.

Brakketology Goes Ball’n, Gets Soaked

NBA 2k14 - VC

If you’re a JtS listener (and you should be, because we’re still awesome), you know I finally unpacked my, uh, kids’ Xbox One over the holidays. For scientific purposes, I also picked up NBA 2k14. The things I do for science.

Can I just say, right out, that for all the flack we give to EA (wholly deserved) for how ostentatiously they over-monetize their middling products, and treat their customers like drones who should just shut up an pay already, there’s not nearly enough disgust thrown 2k’s way? They’re awful. And consistently so. It’s not just an NBA 2k thing, although 2k14 is by far the most blatant, irritating, and just plain icky swindle so far. But even quality games like Civilization 5 ($5 civilizations and map packs anyone?) and XCOM ($5 to choose armor color?) are not immune.

As a gamer, I’ve lived with it because who really caress about an extra civ here and there? And $30 may suck for an expansion, but the expansions for both Civ and XCOM were extremely good. NBA 2k14, though? Yeah, Brave New World, not so much.

One of the things that used to make sports games great is that, for the longest time, you could play them the way you wanted to. Play a single season? Go ahead. Play an exhibition game? Just set up the playoffs and crown a champ? Knock yourself out. Then we got franchise modes that let us be a virtual GM and that was awesome. And we got a “be a player” type mode and those were cool too, if not particularly deep or interesting to stick with over the long haul. And let’s not forget sliders that let you tweak a game 16,000 ways from Sunday to play how you want. This isn’t all gravy, and sports games of the last 10+ years have had plenty of other things to gripe about, but ultimately, if you paid, you could at least play how you wanted to play. NBA 2k14 wants you to play how it wants you to play and if you don’t, well you can just go get f***ed, I guess.

NBA 2k14 Menu

NBA 2k14 is not a basketball game so much as it is a Virtual Coins (VC) delivery system. Basketball is merely a sideline to get you buying coins. I couldn’t begin to tell you if there’s a single season or a playoff mode in the game because the main menu doesn’t want you to spend time looking for them. It wants you in your MyPlayer or your MyGM or your MyTeam. Not coincidentally, these are the three modes in which advancement and success is almost entirely dependent on the acquisition of 2k’s not-the-least-bit-equally-distributed virtual capital.

Sure, you can earn it for free by achieving success in the game, but in fairly limited quantity that is not in any way tied to the mode you’re in. You can take VC earned in the MyGM mode and put it into your MyPlayer, for example. And it all conveniently ignores the fact that achieving success in any of these modes ultimately depends on upgrading yourself by using… you guessed it, VC! They create the drug, they manufacture and distribute the drug, and they put in place the system that makes you need the drug in the first place. 2k is a cartel at this point.

You can, if you like, download a horribly designed iOS app and get daily access to a VC lottery system that’ll net you a decent amount. That’s annoying as hell, but at least it’s free. But, and what 2k really thinks you should do, is pay $60 for their game and then go into the game and spend even more to load up your GM or your player or your MyTeam with VC so you can advanced them further, faster. It’s a classic-style F2P system without actually being F2P.

It’s ugly, it’s cynical, and it diminishes 2k14 as a basketball game; something it just so happens, the game does as well as ever. (Which is to say, it’s the best option out there, but controlling your player and his momentum is still a giant pain in the ass. Also, you guys forgot to let me skip the cut scenes.)

Under no circumstances whatsoever should you by NBA 2k14. It doesn’t matter that the new MyPlayer system, which puts you in a poorly scripted, but ultimately very entertaining rookie year journey, is easily hooked on. (It’s also very flawed. You cannot sim any games in your rookie year, for example. Again, you must play the game their way or not at all.) It doesn’t matter that the on-court visuals are insane. It doesn’t matter how good the basketball actually feels when everything is clicking (which is at least as often as not).

This is a superb basketball game, sabotaged from the inside by greed, mismanagement, and outright incompetence. Don’t buy it. If you’ve already dropped your 60-bones, you may as well play it. You’ve already taken the hit and the basketball is, as noted, very, very good. Go take your MyPlayer up against Jackson Ellis, keep your agent around because he’s a good guy, and if you get drafted by the Kings, do whatever Derrick Cousins tells you because he’s like a genuine role model and stuff.

Unless he tells you to buy some VC. He hasn’t told me to do that yet, but I’m guessing it’s just a matter of time.

Right, so how was everyone’s holiday? Good? Great! Let’s dispense with some links and forget all about this travesty.

I’m like Charlie Brown with the football. Sega took the wraps off of their next Alien game, which is coming from Total War developer Creative Assembly. And, yeah, it actually looks rather decent:

This looks how you’d want an Alien game to look. But there are so many questions. Can this mechanic hold out and remain fresh for the anticipated 10 hours of gameplay? I believe it’s doable, but in that 15-minute video we see the same three or four sections of game a couple of times each. Or maybe this tense hide-and-run mechanic gets abandoned half-way through in favor of just another shooting gallery?

I absolutely don’t believe this will be the disaster that Colonial Marines was, but that doesn’t mean there’s not an object lesson there. CM was a fiasco, no doubt, but the original teaser hit every note you’d want it to hit. It was awesome. No there was no gameplay (and we now know why), but the teaser made you feel like, “Okay, they get it and that’s step one.” Turns out they didn’t get it. At all. Fortunately this Alien game footage is much more than a teaser and it still gives off a strong “okay, they get it vibe.” Fingers cautiously crossed.

Now with 78% less nausea. The Occulus Rift is making progress:

Low persistence is a trickier beast to tackle, but it basically means the Oculus Rift has erased motion blur, allowing the player to move his head and keep his eyes fixed on one point, as humans do in reality. The Crystal Cove prototype reduces latency to 30 milliseconds from 60 milliseconds in the HD dev kit, though Oculus VR’s goal for a consumer product is 16 to 20 milliseconds.

Being able to move your head but keep your eyes fixed on a point is huge. I have done zero research to back this statement up, but I’d wager this alleviates the motion sickness problems for a wide swath of players who’ve experienced them.

Getting punked by Steam. Steam Machines have come rolling in from CES. I’ve been excited about this for some time. I’m not anymore. This is not to say I’ve checked out, but it’s all too damn nebulous. There are already more than 13 of these things. The controller is receiving, at best, faint praise based solely on future potential. The price points vary from $500 to $6,000 with most in that $1k -$2k window.

We’ve known for awhile there would be a disparity like this and I didn’t think it a problem, but now that product is imminent I’m not so sure. A) I’m not spending top of the line PC money on a console for my basement home theater, which is basically what I’d want a Steam Machine for. Okay, fine. That’s why there’s a $500 product iteration, right? Except then my mind does a funny thing — when confronted with with so many price points it looks at the expensive ones and the mean and the cheapest and says, if the mean and the cheapest are this much more than the cheap-o models, how good can the cheap-o model possibly be? That’s where my brain says, surely it must suck because this is a world in which you get what you pay for.

Five-hundred smack-a-roos is too much to spend on a convenience item that sucks. $1000+ is too much to spend on a convenience item for games that I can already play on my PC. And suddenly I’m out. I suspect this is not the reaction Valve or its partners is hoping for. Law of Unintended Consequences.

Grimrock adventuring. You probably know that Almost Human games has a Grimrock sequel in the works. Did you know they also tapped Wayside Creations to Kickstart an expansion to the world of Grimrock with an adventure game series, Legends of Grimrock? There’s still 17 days to get in on this and they’re only about half-way to their goal, so success is not a given. Obligatory promo video is obligatory:

Truth. He speaks it. The truest thing ever said about Skyrim doesn’t come from a gaming site, but from my very favoritist sports blogger.

*[I finally broke down and played Skyrim. Do not do this. Skyrim is the kind of awful that only reveals itself after you’ve set 60 hours of your life on fire listening to boring conversations and dully hacking things in the face. Their open world is beautiful and soulless, shiny on the outside but hollow in the center. Bethesda’s mechanics are hopelessly broken in every single game they make, and while being able to jump across a continent in Morrowind was charmingly broken, Skyrim’s mechanics invite you to a dull, iron-dagger-laden trudge through one moronically designed UI after another.

Better said than I’ve ever managed. I am both irked and tipping my cap at the same time.

Who needs air, anyway? FTL is getting a new playable race, the Lanius, as part of its forthcoming Advanced Edition. They really suck the air out of the room. Like, literally.

Checking on the Inquisition. Mark Darrah posted a pre-holiday blog update on the status of Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s not, you know, super informative, but there’s some cool asset images and whatnot.

Soft landings. If you miss PAR Report (as I do), you’ll be glad to know that Ben Kuchera landed safely at Polygon, where he is already writing many very Ben Kuchera-y things. Which is to say, both things I agree with and things I think are ridiculous. (Note: What I think is ridiculous is the notion that EA not explaining why they lied about the need for SimCity to be online only is somehow worse than the fact that they lied about it in the first place. We all know why they lied about it.)

World-class trolling. It looks a lot like this:

It’s also why I won’t play multiplayer games with complete strangers. Also, who are the parents of the year that let their obviously too-young kids play CoD? I haven’t seen parenting that bad since watching Frozen. (Seriously, very good movie, but the parents of the sisters were idiots.)

Brakketology Plays Waterdeep, Muses About Theme

Lords of Waterdeep Cover

I’ve bee playing a bit of Playdek’s Lords of Waterdeep on iOS ($7). This wholly competent boardgame adaptation should be right up my alley. It’s D&D-themed, which I like. It’s a worker-placement game, which tends to be the sort of thing I appreciate and excel at. And yet it’s ultimately rather hollow. Not bad, mind you, the core game mechanics are very good and faithfully translated. Playdek, from whom I received a free code to download this game (full-disclosure and all), could not have done a better job of translating this for iOS. The problem is that the D&D aspects of it don’t add anything to the game. At all. And yet, as an iOS port of a game that doesn’t have many Apps Store counterparts, I can’t help but recommend it for fans of worker-placement games. It’s good enough to be worth your time.

More on Waterdeep, as well as thoughts on the PAR closure and some new Elder Scrolls Online trailers, after the break…

Lords of Waterdeep Zoom Out

Waterdeep is a game in which, on behalf of a randomly assigned patron, you must complete quests using hired henchman of the fighter (orange), rogue (black), cleric (white), wizard (purple) variety. In any given turn you have three or four avatars (or whatever they’re called) that you can place in one of a host of locations on the game board. Put one on the inn and you can choose a new quest to pick up. Put one on the Fields of Triumph and you can pickup a couple fighter cubes. Put one on the Builder’s Hall and you can add a building to the town. Build the Yawning Portal and you can grab any two cubes of your choice, paying the owner a bit of rent (in the form of a cube). There’s variety to be sure, but mostly it’s about amassing cubes and gold.

Cubes are color-coded to their class, but the game’s biggest problem is that, ultimately, you’re never going to think about them as rogues and wizards. They’re a collection of colored cubes that you acquire and dispose of to complete a quest. (Completing quests, if you haven’t guessed already, is how you acquire victory points for the end game.) That’s not really what characters in D&D are all about. The fact that neither they nor the various places on the map are particularly memorable is telling. I’m not putting my little avatar guy on Waterdeep Harbor, I’m just putting it in that spot that gives me an Intrigue card.

For me, it all makes an interesting contrast with the Firefly boardgame, which I’ve played a few times of late and that Michael reviewed here last week. Firefly is so strong in theme that it makes everything about the game better. The captain I choose for my ship matters and affects how I go about hiring my crew. The jobs I take impact where I go on the board and what kinds of equipment I need. The mechanics are wonderful too, but flying ’round the ‘verse and picking up crew with characters from the show and items from the series all enhance those mechanics. The whole is worth more than the sum of it parts.

Not so with Waterdeep, where my cubes could well be anything and the locations could be replaced with a modern set or a sci-fi set and it wouldn’t make much difference. That’s rather shocking, given how rife with potential the source-material actually is. Imagine if all those little cubes weren’t so disposable. If they carried some kind of more unique identity (as D&D characters should) and the system allowed them to level and grow more useful over time. There are no, “Hey, look, I just got Drizz’t for my party. You guys are so screwed!” moments to cling to here. It’s all generic and replaceable cubes all the time.

Lords of Waterdeep Close-up

This is not said in an attempt to play amateur designer. It’s just that there’s so obviously a great D&D game lurking in this design, but the team of Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson, despite coming up with a very solid worker-placement game, failed to bring it out out as fully as they needed to. Because of that it really doesn’t so much matter how good a job Playdek did of implementing it for iOS. And, as noted, they did do a good job of that. I haven’t touched the online multiplayer, mostly because this is not the sort of game that suits asynchronous play. But as a pass-and-play game it works well and the AI opponents (set to one of three difficulty levels) do a credible enough job to make any game a challenge, especially while you’re still learning it. (The tutorials, which Playdek has sometimes struggled with in the past, also do a swell job of explaining the game to you. One run through the tutorials and one practice game should be all you need to get comfortable.)

If you like worker-placement games and want a competent one to play on your iPad the, by all means, buy this. It’s solid and competent and, in the absence of much competition, it’s worth owning. Just don’t go in expecting a unique D&D experience.

Elsewhere…

PAR, closed for business. I was shocked (SHOCKED!) to point my Feedly subscription at Penny Arcade Report this weekend, to find an article from Ben Kuchera announcing that Penny Arcade had closed up shop on PAR. (The official explanation from PA, here.) That’s depressing. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Ben’s take on games and the industry at large, but I’ve followed the man since he was at Ars and the fact is, he wrote stuff I was willing to read. Most gaming sites I follow via RSS I click over to read about 1% of what they post. Maybe 3%. PAR and RPS are the exceptions (probably more like 10-20%) and now I have one less reliable place to find quality coverage of the industry that isn’t lumped in with sixteen posts of pure dreck. I doubt you’re reading this, Ben, but you did great work at PAR and we’re all hoping you find a solid place to land in the very near future!

Hey, look! A fantasy MMO! Yay? Speaking of depressing, Elder Scrolls Online has a new trailer:

There’s also this one on class building:

There is nothing about these that tell me why I should be interested in this game. Though it’s true that I’m not an Elder Scrolls guy at heart, I’d sooner load up Skyrim or Oblivion than this.

On the other hand. This Apotheon trailer looks rather nifty:

Makes me think of Mark of the Ninja… in a good way.

Around the web: Telltale will bring us Borderlands and Game of Thrones-licensed games next year. There are trailers for them, though the one for Borderlands shows little and the GoT shows basically nothing. Evidently Telltale aims to monopolize all of my free time next year. Galactic princess looks interesting. Zombie-survival RPG, Dead State, is getting a demo. There’s also a video. GOG wants to let you return your purchased games if they don’t work. I’ve never bought a game from them that hasn’t worked. This actually happens? (rhetorical)

Brakketology Plays The Walking Dead and Enemy Within

XCOM The Final Team

I had a plan. It included skipping Brakketology last week. It’s a holiday and there wasn’t much happening that I was interested in writing about. I mean sure, I did land an Xbox One on launch day, but that’s all considerably less exciting when it’s a gift for the kids that will go unopened until December 25th. (I am trusting you with this secret. Mum is the word.) I’m rather proud of myself, actually, for not so much as opening the box, which I was sorely tempted to do. Not part of the plan was our esteemed Mr. Abner landing the flu Sunday night, forcing us to cancel the podcast. We’re definitely sorry not to have an episode go up yesterday, but Brandon and I will get something recorded this week and up for next Monday.

And so it goes.

In the meantime things are happening…

This was a lie to get you to click over. There is very little happening. Almost nothing remotely interesting at all. So instead of rounding up the Internet in search of boring things, let’s talk about actually playing stuff. Which I’ve been doing! Huzzah! (Fair warning, while I try to be vague in most places, there are spoilers herein.)

walking dead episode 3 review shot 2

Running from the dead. Like, a lot. A couple weeks ago I played through Telltale’s Walking Dead adaptation. It’s every bit as good as you’ve heard about. You have to give Telltale some real credit here because all choice and consequence in a game is illusion and this is one of the most effective efforts I’ve seen at making said illusion feel authentic. The way they weaved characters in and out of the story made it possible for Telltale to keep the interesting choices coming every time conflict arrived (be that conflict be with zombies or between characters). And, yes, having a kid to protect, though easy to botch, always makes things more interesting. The fact that Clementine is not much younger than my own daughter (do they establish her age?) amplified my protective motions ten-fold. I didn’t see little Clementine in danger. I saw my own kids and I made decisions based on what I’d do if it were my own kids in mortal peril.

Now there are your obligatory pitfalls and they mirror the same pitfalls you get from the show. Encounters with walkers coming out of nowhere are all too predictable. Has the story gone for awhile without a zombie? Is this the worst possible time for a zombie to appear in the most unlikely of places? If the answer to those questions is yes, you’re going to find a zombie jump on top of someone, often when all common sense says this would be impossible. Also, because there is need for character drama, characters do bicker and argue and fight for reasons that strain credibility. Not in every instance, but it happens. No one is more emblematic of this than Kenny. There are times he’s a dick and it feels incredibly forced and other times… shudder. What that man endures.

Then there’s the end. You had to know your own fate was coming. There’s just no place else it could’ve gone, but The Bite is a classic example of one of said forced zombie gotcha moments. The fallout from it, however, prevents this contrived moment from derailing the story. How you handle your crew and how it leads into the variable paths in the final chapter is brilliant. (I’m proud to say I kept everyone together upon entering the final chapter.) What I’m less okay with is little Clem on the run. I had it play out such that two of the characters were supposed to be waiting for her at a specified place. She knew where she was to go. Why do I see her wandering in the middle of nowhere in the final shot? Perhaps the 400 Days DLC, which I’ve purchased but haven’t started yet, provides an adequate answer to this question?

XCOM SchnellShot

The enemy. He is within. But not really. I finished the XCOM expansion, Enemy Within, last night. This really doesn’t prevent the game from being great, but the Enemy Within theme is a bit of a red herring. One, there’s the terrorist organization, Exalt. It’s rather insane to think a group like this would have these motivations –Aliens, yay! We say, let ’em win!– and still be anything more than a fringe group gathering in some in a basement or off in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. The notion that they’re a well-funded XCOM rival is ludicrous. Whatever. It does make the gameplay better by presenting you with a few more interesting encounters that force you to adjust your tactics. Exalt squads operate like XCOM squads and that makes them much different to face on the field than the aliens.

Then there’s the gene splicing and meching. You splice and dice your soldiers six ways from Sunday, which you’re supposed to believe creates a moral dilemma in which you wonder if adapting alien DNA and whatnot to human soldiers comes with undesirable consequences. Aside from Chief Engineer Killjoy hemming and hawing every five minutes, it does no such thing. No soldiers are compromised through having their abilities. In terms of gameplay gene splicing and meching out and adding psi abilities is pure win with zero pitfall. This is fine. It’s what best serves the game, but it also makes the Enemy Within framing look silly.

As Ray Stanz will tell you, don’t look at the trap and you’ll be fine, because the game itself is aces. There is no going back to pre-Enemy Within XCOM. Gene-spliced skills are gravy. Properly upgraded and used MECs are essential tools throughout. The only real problem is that XCOM is a game in which the beginning is hard, but if you survive to the middle it gets progressively easier. This is even more true with all these extra tools at your disposal. By the end, playing on Normal difficulty, it’s laughably easy. I had all nations satellite covered with no raised panic levels. I had researched everything I could find. (Either somewhere something didn’t pop or the achievement is wanked in Steam.) I had built everything in the Foundry. I could field two full squads of major/colonel-level troops, complete with maxed out psi abilities and a host of gene mods. I reached the final mission (unchanged after this expansion) and waxed the Ethereal Commander dude two turns after he appears. This is not the climactic battle you were hoping for. (And it would have been one turn had he not deflected my sniper’s epic headshot.)

I understand some of this is that the difficulty level in that Normal is really too easy. My next game will have to bump up to Classic difficulty, which I’ve read is punitively difficult. (There are still too many problems with errant clicking and the occasional crash to make playing on Ironman mode worthwhile.) That’s not the problem, though. The problem is that the difficulty curve actually starts out high and then, as long as you are successful through the midgame, drops precipitously. This doesn’t change with the difficulty. It’s backwards in that it’s all about surviving until you have satellite coverage (no small feat, that) and once you do, you’ll have enough extra resources coming out of your ears to dress up every aspect of your squad(s). It is disappointing that Firaxis didn’t do more to re-balance the curve (and possibly stick a difficulty level in between Normal and Classic, where aliens land ridiculous crits aplenty), but it does not stop this from being a must-play for XCOM fans. Hell, I’ve now played through twice on PC, with about two other half-plays, plus another 2/3 completed game on iOS. This is not something I do with other, non-Bioware, games.

Some other things worth noting:

– Medals are a cool addition, but the game went from dishing them out too often in the early going, to not at all from the mid-point forward. I don’t know if it’s coded this way (which would be odd) or if I hit a bug that prevented them from being awarded. It was a bummer either way.

– Meld, like many facets of the game, is both great and far too plastic. If a mission has Meld it will feature two cannisters of it. The first cannister is always nearby and almost always easy to get to. The second cannister lasts longer but is harder to suss out. You will not have to try hard to have enough Meld to field a couple of fully upgraded MECs and a handful of gene-enhanced squaddies. I think they would have made the decision to go after it or not more difficult if it didn’t act as full-height cover.

– The new maps for random missions were sorely needed and made a huge difference.

– Fire >>> Chrysallids.

– Sectopods == Death (still)

– The scripted missions are better than the ones in vanilla XCOM. The XCOM base invasion is just bananas (in a good way), but I think it was a bit crap to not let you equip your guys before it starts. I see what they’re going for, but equipping your squad is a pain in the butt that is only tolerable because the game establishes that you always get to equip your squad before the mission starts. (The new free up equipment button is a godsend.) Having it throw your guys into the fray based on whatever they had on last (including whether or not they ditched equipment because of injuries) is incredibly dumb and potentially game-killing because if you lose the mission you lose the game. (Ironman players, you are warned.) Then there’s the whale mission. LOL. Hat tip.

– Being able to use international voices for your international soldiers doesn’t change gameplay, but the little extra flavor is worth a lot.

This one is worth the price of admission, folks.

Around the web. It turns out that playing video games probably does not have the same effect on kids as plopping on the couch watching TV. Who woulda thought? Mount & Blade II is coming. I’m in. There’s a D&D-themed Civ 5 mod in the wild that is evidently pretty good.