Batman: Arkham Knight

Game, Review

I loved Batman Arkham Asylum. I liked Batman Arkham City. I did not like this one, Arkham Knight. (I own but I still didn’t play Arkham Origins)

Upon release, Batman: Arkham Knight, was plagued with bugs in its PC appearance. So much that the developer had to pull it off from the shelves to polish it for a bit more time. I was, thankfully, not affected by this incident because I only acquired it much later. That said, I had a lot of issues regarding performance, bugs and crashes. I have faced major crashes during the course of the game. Lame.

 

Visually, the game is more colorful than ever. Definitively it makes use of more modern technology (I believe it uses the latest Unreal Engine). While it seems more realistic, I felt less pleasing. Gotham is too flashy, too busy. There are visual pollution all over the city. Back in the Asylum, the visual was more cartoony but it was consistent. The visual effects and explosions, however, are more impressive than before. I liked it.

Another strange thing that I noticed it that almost all character 3D models changed dramatically. Bruce Wayne, Batman, Harley Quinn, Penguin.. everybody had a substantial visual transformation, like when studios reboot a movie franchise. I felt a little annoyed that my character from previous games simply changed.

Gameplay wise, the Batman Arkham series was migrating from a stealth game towards a very action driven. I remember in the first installment the tutorials were always very serious about being stealth is the way to play. The super vision goggles was implement and was unlimited just to reinforce the behavior into players. Gas bombs, grappling from above or bellow, use of remote gadgets were all crucial for this play style. More than a play style, it was proposed gameplay.

It was all lost with City and mostly Knight. There are so many enemies spread across the map that it is simply not practical anymore to solve problems using stealth. It would take ages to complete the game. Instead, most of the time you will to a frontal assault, eventually using hit-and-run tactical. For me, the open world feature, while amazing at the first glance, was detrimental to the series. It was better when it was confined in compartments. It was about solving puzzles, not brute force your way.

The main attraction of the game is the use of the Batmobile. Unlike the Arkham City, the game encourages the player to traverse the city using the car. I was positively impressed who responsive and fun was to use it. It’s dual mode, car and tank, makes the gameplay very fluid. However the developers force the use of it by inserting several plots into the story that requires it. After a while, it gets repetitive.

The side missions and collectibles are forgettable. The trademark Riddle riddles are more repetitive than ever. After a while I knew that I would not be interested in completing it entirely. I would only go for the main storyline.

Story wide is once again very convoluted. The whole plot is thin and even the twists are not that interesting. So twists are so intense that makes you fell that everything that you did until that moment was kind irrelevant. The same for the villains actions (if he knew that form the start, why he did all this?). Batman is too much powerful to be believable. Even on the brink of the death, the player never fell that he is actually in danger. Joker plots against Batman and Batman plots against the player. The main villains are boring with weird motivations.

Overall, I had a negative experience. I cannot recommend this game, unless you already have played the previous games and really want to give a Batmobile a ride.

My Grade: 4.5

Metacritic: 70

IsThereAnyDeal

Game, Web

A couple of years back I was following a site that had a great insight: track Valve’s Steam prices and point out the best deals over time. It was great because if you are interested in a particular game, it was just matter of waiting to get a big promotional discount! Unless you are super duper fan and want that game now or it has a very heavy multiplayer component, here is no need to buy a $40-$50-$60 game. It will eventually get much cheaper (and much sooner than you imagine).

Unfortunately, I forgot the name of it and I am a lazy writer that is not in the mood to search.

The good side is that is not needed anymore. That site closed doors and I discovered IsThereAnyDeal.com. It follows the same basic idea but in much bigger scale. It tracks Steam, GOG and dozen of other online portals.

Also, it offers a chance to create custom alerts when a desired game get a price bellow a threshold. Indie games are often bellow $5. AAA also often are promoted bellow $10. It opens a great window for great deals. My wanted list now have about 30 games!

It sounds unfair to the creators. But with so many good games in the market right now, I can play them all if I buy them cheap, or choose one one or two with full price. Indies gets much more opportunities this way. The big players, that invest millions on a single title hopping to sell millions at a full release price, will suffer more and will have to adapt.

Just like Netflix, the abundance of games opens great business opportunities for those that have a long tail catalogue instead only high-demand products.

So if you are a game developer, never count on making most of the sales with the full price. Is was not true before and it is even more true now. You projections should include several strategies for promoting your product so 2-3 years at least.

With proper marketing and positioning, companies still can attract audience during launching. Mario, Zelda, Fallout, The Witcher, Doom and many many other titles are recently launched and have massive initial sales. Of course there are always a EA, Ubisoft and Activision that tries to implement some weird and fake mechanism that forces players to buy or play in very specific way. Disasters like SimCity happens to them…

Otherwise: have fun buying!

Limbo

Game, Review

One of the modern day indie classic, Limbo was in my shortlist for quite some time. Some days ago I got it and played from begging to end in a single seat. Here are my impressions. (Spoiler, I like it very much)

The first impression here is how minimalist is is. From the black and white presentation, controls, story and UI. It tries to be simple, but not simplistic. And it succeeds. It is a remarkable achievement. It conveys a lot of emotions with very few images and sounds. The general visual also transmit a sense of creepiness. All characters are have a bit disturbing visual. The enemies even worse.

The game is a simple 2d plataformer. They gameplay focus on puzzle solving a a bit timing action. There is no fights. And dying is a constant. The puzzles are clever but not brain burner. You will fell smart by solving, but not to the point that you can claim better IQ than your friends. It gives a sense of satisfaction and self esteem without felling that you cheated. The action is clever, and due the presentation, represents real threats. Every time the famous spider appears, your heart stops.

The story is minimal, but I felt that it had a begging-middle-end. It is a little open and vague. People say that the “sequel” (not exactly a sequel, but it follows the same vibe, and it is from the same company) is even more vague and confusing. So it seems to be a personal mark.

It took me just a few hours to go thru it entirely. I enjoyed it all the time and I recommend you to play.

My grade: 8

Metacritic: 88

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Game, Review

This 2013 little indie game is pure charm. It tackles a unusual theme for games: father-son and brother-brother relationships. Generally games uses tragically and over dramatic man-woman love and revenge themes, but it is not what is shown here. It is a tale of two brothers trying to save the like of their father, that is just laying sick in bed. No super natural force. No magic. Everything is very mundane.

 

Not only the story is charming. The visuals are also really cute. Even on the depths of the Earth, it still maintains the light color palette and the cute aesthetic. In fact, you can literally sit in a bench and admire the view. It delivers the introspective aspect of the story. Death, family bonds, life… a lot for the kids think about.

The world is not, however, mundane. There are some mystical creatures, monsters and a bit of magic. But the story motion force comes from the inner emotions. The narrative comes from very little dialogues. It is mainly a puzzle adventure game, focusing on the experience of guiding two young kids thru obstacles. It is not very action-driven because most of the puzzles can be solved calmly, without hurries.

The main feature of the game is the ability of controlling both kids at the same time. It uses a very weird control scheme, but it works. It requires some brain rewiring and time to time it fails to be very responsive, but works both thematically and for the sake uniqueness.

The game is very short. I was able to finish it in a single long session. But it left a very fond mark on me.

It is inexpensive very cool adventure. Recommend to play.

My Grade: 7.5

Metacritic: 90

Her Story

Game, Review

Innovative is probably the most common adjective you will read and hear about this game. The gameplay mechanics are very very simple, but the whole thing is very grounded to the theme.

The game is all about just watching a series of videos. They all are about a woman being interrogated by police officers. Each video is a couple of seconds long of the interrogation sessions. Watching them, one by one, will reveal details about what happened. And that’s it! The player is never asked to actually answer any question. It’s only watching the woman.

Well, to be fair, the game do have an interactive aspect. Each video is cataloged using keywords, but you don’t know which are they. So the player have to search for videos writing in a search box. If there is any videos with that keyword, you can watch it.

Her-Story (2)

Performance of Viva Seifert is amazing. She performs more than one character, but due the excellent performance and clever writing, you will be amazed by the result. On each piece of video, your understanding about the whole case changes. It reminds me of Agatha Christie’s books, because we jump to conclusions several several times.

The game itself is very engaging. However when I was about 50% of the way, I started to get bored. In order to find all videos, I started to guess obscure words. It was not super super clear so it leads to frustrating moments of try and error. At 85% or so, I was clear about the whole case. I had my conclusions. However, I had to use some online help to see all videos. I did not changed my mind about the mystery, but definitively it is not the way to finish a game.

Her-Story (3)

Metacritic: 86

My Grade: 7.5

A Study in Transparency: How Board Games Matter

Game, Programming

I just watched a GDC presentation by the same name by the developer Soren Johnson, from Mohawk Games. I’ve agreed almost entirely with him. The basic premise of his presentation is that video games should pay more attention to physical board games, learning that techniques they use in order to create engagement. The motif is: board games have transparent set of rules and transparent implementation of luck. Video games should have such transparency too to engage players.

At the end, when he opened for audience questions, he was nervous to answer and he somewhat backed a bit from this point of view. There was a couple of questions that I want to discuss:

What if the game system is soo complex that you deliberately want to hide it from the player? (watch the original answer)

In Civilization, as pointed in the presentation, the designers opted for displaying each variable or modifier as a series of bullet points in the UI. That is because the list of modifiers is long and complex. When engaging in a diplomatic mission, the player must understand what are affecting the relationship. But hey, it is only one way to solve the problem.

In Shadow of Mordor, the orc leaders challenge themselves for power and status. Each orc also have a list of strengths and weaknesses. All this information is presented to the player is a very elegant way. It exemplifies the Soren’s argument.

But if game is so complex that is really difficult/impossible to present the players all information? Well, it is probably a flaw in the game. If there is too much going on, most likely that the player action only impact slightly in the result. The player will fell that is pure luck. He is just a passenger. It is the game designer’s job to balance it back; otherwise, it will suffer from bad reputation and bad sales. Too shallow or too complex have to be considered equally problems to deal.

Notice that another possible consequence is when the game becomes a cult hit and the players that endured the gameplay formed a community to share information and demystify the obscure rules. A good example is Dwarven Fortress, a super weird and complex game that is loved by many for being weird and complex. My suggestion: do not try this path.

If you expose the whole set of rules and internal numbers, it will become a matter of optimization instead experimentation. (watch the original answer)

It can be a problem, yes. Tic Tac Toe suffers exactly from this problem: you can anticipate the whole match to a point that you CAN guarantee that you will never lose (you cannot guarantee that you will tough).

But as a designer, you can implement counter measures to fight it. Luck and complex decision tree for example.

Luck is the classic solution. By implementing a series of unknown events, it makes very difficult to predict the future. Random numbers, random events, scramble cards. Notice that luck is merely an element that the one cannot control or predict, like weather or a dice roll, or a hidden enemy in a fog of war.

Complex decision tree refers to both make several factors relevant for each decision and a game with several rounds. Think of Chess or Go. There are so many possible movements per round that, while theoretically possible, it is practically impossible to compute all moves in order to make a single best decision.


In general, I am with Soren. I might discourse about it in the future, because most people think that creating games is just a intuition and art. But there a lot of reasoning and logical decisions that should guide the construction of such products.

 

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Game, Review

Shadow of Mordor is one of that type of game that sucks me in in a way that I cannot stop desiring to play. My last love was The Witcher 3, which I slowed played for more than 125 hours during months. But the scope is so much smaller that TW3 that I was determined to finish the game as soon as possible. It took me about half a week but I did it. SoM is officially over. Credits, like in all modern game or movie, are endless. Satisfaction. Because I am a completionist, I still have it installed to allow me to go back to it and at least finish the 100% mark (I would love to do all the Steam achievements too, but some are too obscure).

The mechanics presented here is nothing new. The main character, Talion, is a Assassin’s Creed wanderer. He climbs castles, towers and hills just like any AC character always do. The advantage here is that the enemies, the orcs, are very stupid and lose track of you almost instantaneously. Each to run away from messy situations. The combat is also very derivative of this new generation of third person action games, just as Assassin’s Creed, Batman and God of War. It is very generous on targeting your enemies. The conter attack time window is very broad.

Shadow of Mordor, therefore, is an easy game once you get the general flow. However, it is very fun.

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One of the main features of this game is the nemesis system (it is how the developer calls it). In the game, orcs have an hierarchical military structure and they interact withing the chain quite often. The challenge rivals, assume the vacant position, are promoted. Killing the high command leaders triggers a series of promotions. Player can also induce rebellions, plot assassinations and other situations that actively shapes a new order. It is really interesting mechanics. You will get furious to see an orc getting more powerful and promoted because he killed you. In their culture, it is a demonstration of mighty.

Another cool concept is that any of these orc leaders have strengths and weaknesses that you can, and should, explore. They can be imune to ranged or melee attacks, forcing you master all the combat techniques. They can also have a critical fear of bees, caragors (a thematic tiger) or traitors infiltrated in their outpost. Exploiting such flaw will make them act erratic and try to run away. It will open a great opportunity window for finishing them off. Every time you need to kill one of them, it is imperative to study these character aspects to plan the strategy.

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Graphically the game is stunning. I could run it in full HD in High preset and several times I had to stop just to take a mental photo of the moment. Nothing to comment further: great.

The story, however, it just ok. There are some problems that annoyed me:

  • It is too fragmented: there are some secondary characters that come and go in matter of two missions. Some are genuinely cool, but vanish from the story too soon.
  • The bosses are mini games: there are basically 3 bosses in the game. Without spoiling the story any further, they are merely a mini game. Almost no interaction. And they are not present throughout the game, so I were never engaged to kill them.
  • The main story is essentially a tutorial: the game have a core mechanics that is supposed to be an infinite loop. The main story presents new combat or gameplay features until almost the last mission! And like any tutorial-mission in games, they are always easy on the player.

There is one aspect of the game story that I liked and I fell worth to mention: the lore of the game. While the game is not about the main events of Lord of the Rings (it happens long before the LotR), it crosses with some cool characters and events that made me feel is was part of the famous story.

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I enjoyed Shadow of Mordor very much. I totally recommend you to play it. I was curious when all major game reviewers were telling very good things about the game (they also were surprised). Due the brazilian current ratio, I had to wait for a better price; and it was worthy!

My grade: 8

Metacritic: 84

The Talos Principle

Game, Review

Like almost everybody else, I was not expecting this game being this good. From the makers of the fun but niche FPS Serious Sam, Croteam, a puzzle game this deep have to catch everybody by surprise.

The game is a series of 3D puzzles. You control a character using the ordinary 3D FPS control scheme. Nothing fancy. But there is no combat. None. Some puzzles require some action, like running an synchronizing with other moving elements, like elevators.

The difficulty rate is really nice. At the beginning you face easy puzzles. Eventually one is harder, to keep you interested. Then a new tools or functionality is presented. And the cycle repeats, now mixing the usage of the tools in the levels.

The visuals are super clean but yet super nice. It allowed me to play in my notebook with any reservations. The whole universe feels right. The UI is super minimalistic.

The story is presented thru a inside or head voice, in a God-speaking to you kinda way and thru computers and holograms. Most of them does not clarify anything, but just expose someone’s opinions and points of view. It is up to you, the player, to figure out what the hack is going on. And it is deliberated dual, in the way that there is no one truth to the story. Every player will experience it in a personal way. The whole presentation is a follows the introspective and philosophical themes.

The game is a blast. I struggled in some puzzles but most of them are doable. Some extras are given for those that keep the super hard out-of-the-box puzzles. I saw the solution of some of them on the internet, and my mind exploded. They were super bizarre. I felt that just finishing the game and doing one or other extra puzzle would suffice. But I enjoyed every moment.

And also, I saved the game just before the final moment because I wanted to experience the multiple endings of the game.

Totally recommend it.

My Grade: 8.5

Metacritic: 85

The Witcher 3 – The Wild Hunt

Game, Review

Spoiler alert: It is now my favorite game of all time. Period.

I played The Witcher (1) couple of years ago, after reading an interesting review saying that it was one of the best RPGs ever made. The review also alerted that the game suffered deeply from bad translation and bugs when first came to english markets. The second edition, called Enhanced Edition, fixed most of these issues and indeed enhanced some aspects of the game. When I played, I had to agree that the game and the universe were fantastic. I loved the idea of playing with a anti-hero.

The Witcher 2 came and I also loved it. It departed from the Aurora Engine (used in Obsidian’s classic RPGs like Neverwinter Nights) to a home made. The art direction took a overhaul and started to show the real vision. The general gameplay also transitioned to a more action oriented, with a third person over-the-shoulder camera style.

The Witcher 3 was announced and I had to confess that I was a bit worried about the open world nature. The Witcher main strength, as a series, was the strong story telling. Open world games tend to have a loose and light story. See Bethesda’s Elder Scroll and RockStar’s GTA series.

The closer to the release, the more excited I was getting. It was one of the very few titles that I have ever pre-ordered.

And it delivered!

Since from the very start, the game shows that it has a fantastic story driven gameplay and strong action mechanics. Since from the very start, it will keep your mouth and eyes opened. It is how I stayed for hours of playing. There are 3 pillars that make this game so awesome:

Story

The most surprising good feature is the story elements. As I said before, open world games tend to be a bit light in order to accommodate a generic and open nature of the game. They generally just introduce the gameplay elements. But in Wild Hunt, the main story have a purpose, a true life. The plot is complex and it raises in tension each step.

But what surprised me most is the richness of  the side quests. They did not fall into the trap of creating a bunch of generic side quests, like most Assassin’s Creed or Borderlands, or even Skyrim, with several missions that are purely kill a target or get an item. They are more elaborate, with an introduction of context on each of them, multi stepped and often with resolution with a moral dilemma. Combat and violence is not always the way of resolving things. In summary, they put a lot of effort on creating all of them, avoiding the generic content-fill approach.

The characters fell deep and believable. They have different motivations: some are greedy, some are brutal, some are kind, some are funny. Geralt cannot be defined as good or evil. He is more complex. You can save one beautiful lady by letting dozens die. You can take part of a monster that is counter attacking humans that are invading its territory. You can date some different girls, but notice that for every decision, there are consequences. You will never face a “right” decision.

Gameplay

They listened to the players from previous games and they changed and tweaked The Witcher formula while maintaining the series main concepts. Alchemy is proved to be useful, magic and combat are complementary. The players are constantly forced to change styles and mastering all the techniques. It creates variable combats and protects the players from being a mere button presser, with monotonous single style of play.

The map traversal is fun and interesting. The land is filled with monsters and mysterious characters. Beautiful landscapes. Detailed cities. Do yourself a favor and avoid the main roads and explore the map. The horse Roach is useful and fun. Fast travel is done nicely (altought I hate where the Crow’s Perch).

The developers got almost all the design choices right. All the information is presented clearly and most of the boring aspects, like loot and inventory administration, streamlined.

Graphics

The third element that hooked me also stunned almost everyone in the world: the graphical presentation is absolutely the best. Skyrim did quite a splash when it came out, but it is nothing, nothing compared to The Witcher. They extracted the most of the technology to bring a very detailed and brilliant world even imagined.

They animated EVERY dialog. All the set pieces are cinema like, with moving, talking, gesticulating and vivid characters. For sure they invented some animation editor to allow to procedurally change camera angles and some gestures, but man, it works really well.

The cities are huge. It takes quite a time to cross one city. One of many. The terrain is so beautiful that they put some situations in the story that the main character itself stops and take a moment watching the view.

In the sound department, all the dialogues are voiced, in a enormous production challenge.

Bonus: Customer friendly

Unlike most of today’s businessmen in these industry, the guys from CD Prokect really mean customers-first. They proved in the past, creating the Good Old Game (not only GOG.com) with no DRM, and they proved this time. The game was fixed and really enhanced patch after patch, mostly due the players feedback. They are for me the ultimate inspiration for business management for an digital company. It should definitively a inspiration for Konami or EA heads.

My final thoughts are quite simple: it took me months to complete the 130+ hours of the main campaign. I was delaying it on purpose, fearing it would end. I liked so much that I could say that it is probably my favorite game of all time.

My Grade: 10

Metacritic: 93

Mark of the Ninja

Game, Review

Without any delay, I give it to you: Mark of the Ninja entered to my Top 10 Games of All Time. That is the how much I liked the game.

This beautifully crafted 2D action stealth game. You are asked to go thru the stealthy approach in the entire game, but if you are more willing to make it a blood bath, it is a viable option too.

Mark-of-The-Ninja-4

The controls are sharp and the levels are very well designed. And just like Super Meat Boy, the difficulty level is at the point that it you will get compelled to replay it for a better score.

Music is great, story also very good (makes you wanting to know more about the mysteries ahead). I got really inspired by the Klei production.

I played it until I got almost all the badges and challenges completed. When I finally got almost everything possible, it made me sad to uninstall it.

Mark-of-The-Ninja-2

Metacritics: 91

My Grade: 10