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Bolt Thrower: Gears of War, Bloodborne, Witcher 3


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.


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


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.

If you enjoyed this piece and would like to see more comment and analysis from the author, please consider backing him on Patreon. Every dollar helps.

Outlast Blows it Within 20 Minutes


Last night I knocked off an inch-think layer of dust from the PS4 to start playing Red Barrels’ Outlast, newly released for the can’t-say-no price of free for PS Plus members. As you may or may not know, I’m a huge fan of horror anything but my tastes run more to stuffy old Hammer horror films and smarty pants spook shows like Rosemary’s Baby than to gore, torture porn and graphic violence. That means, more or less, I’m usually screwed when it comes to getting my horror show kicks through the video games medium.

The game starts out quite promisingly- your character is going to investigate a creepy asylum called Mount Massive and you’re driving up to the front gate. You’ve got a camcorder with a night vision lens and limited battery life. You pull up, go through the front gate and look around. In a window, you see a figure walking by. Lights turn on and off. The atmosphere is thick, chilling and you get a palpable sense of “why the fuck am I going to go into this place?” but you’re compelled to explore. Some military vehicles parked out front aren’t a particularly comforting sight

Of course, the doors are locked so you’ve got to scale some scaffolding to get in through a window. The place is in disarray. Graphics are really good, if not quite up to the vaunted promises of “next gen”. You stumble around for a bit, finding some documents that tell the game’s story. You catch glimpses of someone or something walking around. Your character reveals that he is, in fact, just another horror movie idiot when he sees a busted-out ventilation shaft with a puddle of blood under it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see something like that and think “hey, I should climb up into that.”

But the creep-out is still working at that point, and it looks like Red Barrels are doing something quite interesting- a horror game about exploration and suspense rather than shotgunning zombies or solving silly puzzles. There’s a strong sense of place- it’s not as characteristic as the house from the first Resident Evil and it’s not quite as balls-to-the-wall terrifying as some of the locations from the original Silent Hill, but Mount Massive feels like it’s becoming a character- a character that doesn’t like you. You open its doors slowly, always sure that something is about to jump out at you.

And then something does, and the game totally blows it. All of the delightful dread, suspense and tension are squandered in a silly scene of over-the-top gruesomeness that is sure to tickle the fancies of kids who still think the lacivious covers to death metal records are awesome and the folks that still read Fangoria. All the promise that this game might be a sophisticated, intelligent horror experience working on psychological levels rather than visceral ones goes out the window- just like you do when a zombie mutant “variant” catches you, calling you “little pig” for reasons unknown before a defenestration.

Then there are the eye-rolling clichés- cryptic bullshit written on the wall in blood. Experiments gone wrong, despite somebody saying “hey, let’s don’t do that”. A Nemesis-like super zombie that you probably ought to just run away from. Hiding in a locker while a would-be killer looks for you. A motionless body that suddenly jumps up out of a spooky old wheelchair. I mean, come on.

In a way, the game reminds me at this point of Condemned without all of the punching. The terror (not horror) comes from the threat of realistic violence and brutality- not from encountering the supernatural or unexplainable. I’m not against a little blood and gristle when it drives the horror home. But I’m just not into excessive gore or violence as a shortcut to scare an unsophisticated player. It’s disappointing that video games far too often go for the juvenile shock rather than the high-minded scare.

I haven’t played through the whole game yet, maybe the goofball gameplay trope of having to flip two switches before I can flip a third will give way to something more compelling. Maybe the zombie mutants will reveal something more interesting or emerge as something more gasp-worthy and less cringe-worthy. Maybe there will be an explanation as to why batteries and file folders are the only things you can pick up.

At the very least, I can say that the game is probably better than The Last of Us- at least it’s honest trash and not practically breaking its own back reaching for some kind of artistic validation. And it’s free, so it’s zero risk if you have PS Plus. I’ve loaded it up more than once, which is more than I can say for just about every PS4 title I’ve played so far. But as for a “next gen” horror game, Outlast isn’t really doing much other than trying to scare me with *gasp* decapitated heads and piles of intestines. Hopefully, some developer will one day realize that modeling video game horror after carnival rides and silly haunted houses is definitely the low road.

You want a real horror game? Try Year Walk on IOS, one of the best horror video games I’ve ever played.

Brakketology Waxes Nostalgic


I was innocently strolling through my Feedly feeds a couple days ago, window shopping for things that looked interesting –things that would justify my desire to not have to, you know, be productive– when I ran across a reference to Vale having taken the wraps off their internally-developed Steam box. And then another. And then another. These are, of course, signs that an embargo just lifted.

I can name the number of times I’ve been invited to go behind the scenes to get an early look at something and then write free PR about it. It was always a fun experience just because you got to actually see stuff that only a small group is privileged to see and you got to meet people in the business (almost universally great people) that you would never ever get to meet in any other situation. Getting to sit down and have a casual conversation with someone like Fred Wester (Paradox Sofware) or a Mike Laidlaw (Bioware)? That’s awesome. Getting home and realizing you now have to try and write something unique about an experience that was exactly the same for a dozen other people who saw the same thing and are also about to write about it? Blech. Waking up and seeing them all online at the same time and then coming across the one or two utterly brilliant iterations that aren’t yours and make you feel bad about yourself as a writer? Vomit.

This is all to say that while I miss getting to have some of those experiences, I absolutely do not miss the sheer pointlessness of the work involved. It’s much better to look from afar and call attention to the stuff worthy of your attention. Which I’ll do right now…

All hands on Steam’s box. (Yes, I’m ashamed of myself for typing that.) Of the 90 kajillion pieces on the SteamBox, Sean Hollister’s write-up at The Verge deserves your lov’n eyeballs. In particular, it’s got some fascinating details on the evolution of the controller:

Originally, Valve wanted to revolutionize PC input, but it soon realized it needed to focus on a much more fundamental goal: simply getting the library of existing Steam games to work with a new controller. To do that, the company needed a way to make many PC gaming functions possible on a controller without the 104 keys a keyboard affords. Early on, the team decided to go with a touchscreen that could virtualize those keys instead of adding more buttons. “For all of Valve’s existence, we’ve been a software company, and we wanted as much as possible to have control over the input experience through software,” Coomer explains.

Then, the team decided they wanted the same kind of control over the trackball… but that proved impossible. “You can’t ship a software update to change the diameter of the ball or the mass or anything.”

From there, design evolved organically. The trackball made way for a trackpad, which could be programmed not just to emulate a mouse, but also support gesture control. One trackpad became two (and two became a giant touch surface before Valve came to its senses). Valve added tiny solenoid actuators to provide haptic feedback. The entire shape of the controller went concave so the fleshy base of a user’s thumbs wouldn’t interfere with the touchpads.

That’s a huge chunk of text, more than I’m usually comfortable quoting, but there’s a ton more at the link.

Chris Kohler’s piece at Wired is also particularly good.

And while we’re on a Steam info-orgy, there’s evidence online to suggest that they may be working on allowing Steam to function indefinitely offline, instead of just for a couple weeks. That’d be nice… if it ever actually happens.

Those other consoles. Before Valve released everyone and their brother to write everything they wanted them to about SteamBox, the issue of the day had been all about the PS4 and Xbox One’s ability to work as media servers. Sony took the first lump when they put out their FAQ, which mostly listed things the console can’t do; things they’d somehow managed to not talk about yet. This was entirely predictable. Still, the lack of DNLA support (for streaming audio/video from a networked PC) was shocking, given that the PS3 has it and its one of the console’s more redeeming features. Ben Kuchera has been killing them over it at Penny Arcade Report, culminating in this post about why having easy access to your music should matter to gamers:

Both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 used compatibility with your existing media as a selling point, and offered a variety of ways to use that content or to bring it into your gaming experience.

This is a hell of a thing to lose, and if a multiplatform release comes out that supports custom playlists on one console but not the other, that’s a serious selling point for many gamers. You can also forget about games like Audiosurf 2 that can use your own music; you’ll need to either pay for Sony’s proprietary solution or not use that feature if such games ever come to the PlayStation 4. That’s a massive bummer.

Right on cue, Microsoft comes out and says, “Hey, we love that DNLA stuff.” That sound you’re not hearing is absolutely everybody feeling irked at Sony, but not changing their PS4 pre-order.

SteamBox is looking better and better.


Drifting with the tides. The Torment team has posted their latest project update, in which they discuss the game’s alignment system: Tides. If you’re a backer or prospective buyer, this is worth digging into. It’s not so much a morality system, bur rather a representation of how your view of the world affects your actions:

Rather than focus on moral axes, the Tides look at a person’s legacy, at what they’re remembered for. They are not something people consciously strive for; very few individuals even know they exist. They are more like an invisible force (think magnetism or gravity) driven by people’s actions.

There are five Tides, and I want to walk you through each of them and then talk a little about how they’re used in the game. As you read, remember that the Tides do not care about motives or morality. Each Tide is embodied by heroes, villains, and folks just trying to do their best. The motivations of these people rarely matter; the Tides describe the legacies they leave behind. The Tides are pushed and pulled by action, not motivation.

There’s plenty more, where they detail each of the tides and how they’ll represent in the game. Very cool stuff.

It’s a dungeon, but on your desktop. A couple years ago at the E3 iteration of IndyCade, I got a look at a little dungeon-crawling RPG roguelike by the name of Desktop Dungeons. It had a playable “alpha” that I proceeded to skip in favor of holding out for the final game. I never heard about it again. Until this week. It’s freshly overhauled and it’s out tomorrow. The promo video (below) is all goofy fun and show very little, but if my memory is any indication, it’s worth taking a flyer on.

YouTube video

Adventures. In spaaaaaaaaaace! If you miss the old the Sierra Quest style adventures and want a little more isometric scifi horror in your life, check out the Kickstarter for Stasis. It looks groovy and it has a proof-of-concept demo you can check out. (I haven’t yet.)

Speaking of all things Kickstarter, Joystiq is doing a neat little feature, called Crowdfund Bookie, where they’re tracking the progress of various crowdfounded games. It’s way, way cooler than the shortlived piece I used to write here. It even has charts and graphs! (RimWorld absolutely killed their goal.)

Fear the mowhawk. Soren Johnson, he of Civilization IV fame, has built himself a new home (with a little help from Stardock). Good luck, Soren! I know you’re all about the RTS with your new project, and it sounds awesome, but maybe you’ll make me another turn-based game someday? Also, I could use a decent reliever in the OOTP league. I’ll trade you a starter for one if you also throw in the best prospect you have. Call me!

The Xbox One-Eighty


I swear. You go to see Man of Steel and the whole world changes. James Gandolfini, a man who changed the face of television with his portrayal of Tony Soprano passed away and Microsoft reversed all of their crappy DRM and online check-in policies.

What an afternoon.

I have to say, this reversal was pretty damned shocking. When you’re this involved in gaming, it’s easy to think that the rest of the world feels as strongly as you do about things, but in many cases, it’s just the echo chamber effect and the stuff that you vocally despise isn’t that big of a deal to the greater game buying public. Clearly Microsoft felt that the backlash shown at E3 as well as the love shown to Sony over the PS4 was enough to make them change their minds and not wait until the console launched to see how the public reacted. I don’t have access to pre-order information, so it’s possible that pre-orders were down, but I doubt it. I would imagine that pre-order allocations were low enough to let the hardcore Microsoft fans get their hands on a console at launch as well as let Microsoft PR send out many the press release touting how the Xbox One sold out at launch. I don’t have any hard data to back that up, just things I’ve heard here and there about pre-order allocations at various retail stores.

It’s interesting to see what Microsoft felt was necessary to withhold as a result of the DRM changes, things like family sharing and being able to install the game and just play the installed game. Seems to me that both of those things could still exist, and still exist with a mandatory, once a day check-in, only with the new policy, customers could choose to enable the daily check-in so that they could make use of those features. Microsoft seems to be missing the point that choice is the key word here. If people want to have game sharing, fine, let ’em, but they have to have daily check-ins enabled, as does everyone they share with. Ditto for game installation. This binary set of choices seems arbitrary and a little punitive, to be honest, as if they’re saying, “Oh yeah, well then you don’t get these awesome things here that we haven’t really talked about but trust us, they’re awesome.”

Honestly, I’m not sure what to think about game sharing. You’ve got a blog posting making the rounds today from a supposed Microsoft employee working on the Xbox One that states that Family Sharing was just glorified demos. I’ve got other people saying it was full game sharing. If I had to guess, it was somewhere in between with publishers deciding the level of sharing. I mean, if it was full game sharing and it allowed you and nine other people to split the cost of games, why wouldn’t Microsoft be shouting that from the rooftops? I mean, they can’t be that bad at PR, can they?

As expected, once the reversal was announced, out came all of the people who were for these restrictive policies, even if they never mentioned it in the past. Gizmodo thinks that the Xbox One just got “way worse” as if it were a given that Steam type of sales would come to the Xbox One, you know the same way that the current spate of Xbox OnDemand games are so darn inexpensive. Yes, I would like to download JASF, an 18 month old game for thirty bucks. I mean, why wouldn’t I? It’s not like I can find it cheaper anywhere.

It was also cool to see CliffyB head back to Twitter to tell all of us ungrateful children that this why we can’t have nice things and that tacked on multiplayer and tons of microtransactions are all but inevitable now. Look, I’ll admit that there’s no easy answer to this whole thing but as I’ve said before and will continue to say, you are blaming the consumer for a problem they did not invent. If the only way you can add “value” to your game is with tacked on multiplayer then you didn’t do a very good job making your game. Nintendo said it best when they said that the best way to keep people from trading in games is by making a game they don’t want to trade in. Cliffy also brings up Blood Dragon and Minecraft as games brought to us only via digital distribution and he has an excellent point there, except he’s leaving out one very important detail: cost. Minecraft is twenty bucks and has infinite replayability. Blood Dragon is 15 bucks and gives around 12 hours of content, and good content too. How am I supposed to feel good about buying digital games at 60 bucks a pop when it’s clear publishers can charge less? The lack of tacked on multiplayer and microtransactions is supposed to make me feel better? Never mind the notion that microtransctions going away simply because stuff is digital is patently ridiculous.

I do applaud him for wanting to make sure that every game developer gets paid for every sale of their games, but that’s assuming that publishers aren’t screwing with the numbers in some capacity to minimize the amount of royalties paid out. I don’t want to tell the guy what to do with his spare time, but if you really want to make sure developers get their fair share, maybe work towards removing the horrible practice of tying development bonuses and payment structures to arbitrary Metacritic rankings. Or, and here’s an idea, maybe work towards making sure that those in development and QA have some semblance of a personal life and aren’t made to work in sweatshop conditions for eight months of crunch time only to be fired before their game is released. I’m sure every developer laid off in the time between the game is finished and is released need only wait by the mailbox for the royalty checks that the publisher will undoubtedly send them!

I’m glad that Microsoft changed their policies, because the old ones were so anti-consumer that it bordered on abusive. It doesn’t change anything for me though, my PS4 preorder stands. For one, I don’t like the idea of game developers knowing that they have Kinect at their fingertips. I still remember all of the shitty ways that Sixaxis motion control was tacked on to early PS3 games and I don’t want to be working out and playing an Xbox One game and have to start waving my hands all of sudden, nor do I want Kinect’s ability to read my heart rate to result in an unnecessary call to 911 because it thinks I’m having a stroke.

Second, while I think that this move effectively places Sony and Microsoft in their respective corners in regards to DRM with neither willing to go beyond what they have right now for fear the other will pounce on them about it, I don’t like the fact that this stuff can all be turned back on with a simple software patch. This isn’t me being paranoid, this is simply acknowledging that Microsoft has a clear vision of a digital future, and the Xbox One was a part of that. Their vision hasn’t changed, they’re simply reacting to the rejection of that vision. As time goes on, they may start changing things here and there to take smaller steps to the same place rather than this giant leap. As they take those steps, I may decide that I want to go along with them, but I need some time to see how they manage it rather than blindly trusting them.

Finally, as it should be, it’s all about the games. The PS4 has more exclusives that I want to play. The PS4 also allows indies to self publish, which means I can play Transistor on it. Compare that to the stance towards indies that Microsoft has and it’s not a hard choice to make. Guess not all developers deserve to get as much money as they can from their work, just the AAA development studios.

So yeah, I’m glad that Microsoft reversed their policies because it means that if they keep them reversed, once the console gets a price drop or two as well as some exclusives I care about, I can pick one up and go back to being a two console household. It also means that with the PS4 and the Xbox One on relatively equal policy footing, the competition between the two can go back to being about the games. What it doesn’t mean is that I’m going to fall over myself praising their decision. Like I tell my kids when they complete a chore, I’m not going to congratulate you for doing something that you should be doing in the first place. Microsoft should have done this in the first place. Let’s not forget that.