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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.

Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game Review

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There have been many, many attempts at blending role-playing games and strategy games. Until recently, almost all fell foul of the fundamental mismatch between playing co-operatively in the imagination and competing on a board.

The latest iteration is Pathfinder: the Adventure Card Game. Based on the famous role-playing game of the same name it may be the purest distillation of the adventure game concept yet. It’s smart, simple and packed with potential variety. But for all the benefits it boasts it trips on perhaps the most basic hurdle in game design: it just isn’t terribly interesting to play.

The base game comes in a quite colossal box which is largely empty, leaving space for expansions. It’s entirely card based, which is a good thing. Cards are about the only way you can shoehorn enough colour and variety into a tabletop game to even approach the fecund imaginations of GM’s everywhere.

You prepare by building a lot of decks. Each player selects a character and chooses cards for their decks based on that template. A warrior might be instructed to take lots of weapon and armour cards, while a mage will have spell and blessing card instead. There’s pre-selected decks for those that want them. But trust me: this is the best part of the game, as engaging as putting together a set for your favourite collectible card game. You won’t want to miss out on it.

Then comes the drudgery of preparing location decks. The locations you use depend on the adventure you’re playing. For each location you take a certain number of cards of different types, just like building a character deck. So the Goblin Tunnels have lots of monster and barrier cards, but a farmhouse is more likely to have helpful items and equipment. Unlike the character decks you draw these at random from the box, so the contents of each deck comes as a surprise.

The game then plays out with each player drawing a card from their current location and resolving it. Most cards, after resolving, get removed from the location deck. The final goal is to locate a villain that’s hiding in one of the decks and defeat him. But if you uncover the scoundrel and haven’t yet closed other locations by defeating the henchmen lurking there, he can run away. So you keep hunting until you defeat the big bad or a 30 turn timer runs out.

There’s no denying it’s pretty exciting. No-one has the least idea of what’s in those decks, or where the villain and his henchmen are ensconced. With such a huge selection of cards to pick from, the surprises come thick and fast. Zombies and Shadows mix with Harpies and Ogres. Deadly pit traps can nestle up close to potions and chests of treasure.

So why, then does the game feel so flat once a few turns have passed? The problem is the resolution mechanic. For all the bloated text in the awful rulebook, which makes the game appear far more complex than it is, resolving comes down to one thing. You look at a target number on the card you’ve drawn, pick some corresponding dice off your character card, roll them, total the result and try to beat the target.

That’s it. That’s how it works when your warrior is swinging his longsword at a goblin. That’s how it works when your absyssal sorcerer is force-blasting a skeleton. That’s how the thief picks locks, how the priest heals heroes, how the bard recruits allies.

That is, in effect, the entire game.

As you might expect it’s nowhere near enough to convincingly differentiate all those different cards. The result is that colour and flavour drains out of everything you encounter. All the richness and imagination of a fantasy world that’s been years in development rendered into two-tone by a weak and pointless mechanic.

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After a while it gets so bad that the only difference between turning over a treasure and turning over a monster is whether the encounter hurts or benefits your hero. In both cases you still just look at a number and roll dice to beat it. If the card feels no different in play, why make the effort to differentiate it in your imagination?

It’s made worse by the co-operative nature of the game. I find most co-ops either too random or too predictable but it’s a mechanic that seems comfortable for adventure games. But when the core of the game is so trivial, there’s nothing to co-operate over. Decisions consist of nothing but unguessable risk-reward gambles.

It reminds me a lot of Talisman, a game that suffers from many similar complaints. But the slight extra complexity in Talisman is just enough to bring its fantasy thrillingly to life. The movement on a board gives it an extra element of spatial strategy. And most crucial, its competitive nature ensures the game stays taut and compelling long after Pathfinder has become flatly repetitive.

At this point you’re be justified in asking why such a bland, boring game is riding so high on the popularity wave. I’m glad you asked, because there is a reason. It goes back to where I opened this review with the building of character decks.

After each adventure your characters, naturally, get rewards. Sometimes it’s treasure cards drawn from the box. Sometimes it’s a new feat which allows you to customise your character’s skill and abilities. You’ll have picked up various geegaws during the adventure, too. Either way, you’ll have more cards in your deck than you started with.

But here’s the kicker: you’re still reqired to fit in with the card counts associated with that character template. Some feats increase the amount of different cards you’re allowed in the deck. But you’ll still have to sit down, sort through your loot, and decide what to keep and what to discard.

This is a superb example of how the packed the game is with clean, intuitive yet thematic mechanics. Your deck limit is a brilliant yet simple way to mimic encumbrance. There are lots more. Your deck is also your life pool, and wizard types have a bigger hand size than warrior types. So they go through their cards quicker, making them simultenously more flexible yet more fragile than their brawny brethern.

However, this plethora of breathtaking design makes the central draw, dice, roll mechanic even more infurating. With so much creativity on display elsewhere, why is the core of the game so clunky and pedestrian?

But I digress. One you’ve re-arranged your deck to your liking it’s back to the lather-rinse-repeat tedium of adventuring. But the sense of advancement is palpable. Lots of games succeed in making characters feel more powerful as they play. Only Pathfinder succeeds in making them feel so uniquely personal to the people that play them.

Does the draw of slowly bonding with a character as you tweak their deck to your liking outweigh the dead matter of the adventure itself? Only just. Yet there’s another consideration. Pathfinder was obviously designed to be played as an ongoing campaign, but this starter set contains only a sixth of the required material. There’s another five adventure packs to purchase to complete the story.

Each scenario takes thirty to sixty minutes to play, and there’s maybe 35 scenarios in the campaign. If you find the campaign sounds appealing enough to make you want to invest that kind of time and money, then Pathfinder offers a unique, but flawed, card-based RPG experience. For the rest of us, who want a bit less commitment and a bit more game, we have to carry on waiting for the ultimate marriage of role-playing and strategy.