Pokémon Let’s Go Everywhere

I wasn’t completely on board with Pokémon Let’s Go when it was first announced. I liked the concept. I absolutely loved the graphics. I was very happy with the idea of playing with an actual Pokeball as a controller. But between the pricing and the fact that it was just a remake of a game I had already played (Pokémon Yellow), I wasn’t sure I was Going to buy it. Keeping Mew behind a physical accessory paywall made me really angry as well. Ultimately I did buy the game but it was a number of months after the original release and was more because of Pokémon Go than the game itself. It just Goes to show that the current trend of strong arming people into making purchases because of their effects on completely different products really does work.

After 57 hours, I finally completed Pokémon Let’s Go (Eevee). By completion I mean I defeated the Elite Four, caught all 153 Pokémon available in the game (includes Meltan and Melmetal), defeated Blue, Green, and Red, and obtained the Crown accessory. It was an excellent adventure that filled me with fond memories of my childhood.

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While there are a few issues I have with Pokémon Let’s Go, I have to say that I very much enjoyed it. Linking the show to the game by focusing on Jessie and James of Team Rocket while also recreating the general plot of Pokémon Yellow, which is really just a supped up version of Red, Blue, and Green (if that’s how you roll) was very nostalgic. But more importantly, they also managed to turn a long turn based RPG into a 40 hour experience that still allowed me to get the whole story, collect all the Kanto badges, and capture all the Kanto Pokémon. Plus I didn’t even have to buy both versions of the game or find people to trade with because of the connection to Pokémon Go. While I would never say that this was an authentic Pokémon core games experience, I will absolutely say that it summarizes the experience of playing Red, Blue, Green, and/or Yellow quite well. It was also really nice to not have to use Pikachu as my buddy.

What Pokémon Let’s Go achieves is the ability to get the general experience of playing generation one Pokémon games without having to go back and experience generation one hardware, graphics, gameplay, and play times. It’s the perfect catch up game for people who are new to the series and want to play the newest games without completely ignoring the older ones. This is how these games should have been packaged and sold to begin with. It’s also what needs to happen with every other current generation of Pokémon games.

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Pokémon is seven generations long with the eighth generation releasing this year. That’s amazing and also way too burdensome to jump into now. Many younger players don’t go back to older generations. Their first Pokémon game is whatever generation gets released when they’re old enough to play. This is sad, because it means missing out on great stories from the past as well as literally hundreds of Pokémon, but quite effective. But if you’re like me and started playing the games at gen one, then you don’t want to skip everything since then. I played Red, Blue, Yellow, Gold, and Silver. That means that when Pokémon Sword and Shield, which I will buy eventually, releases I will have missed five generations of Pokémon games. For me, that’s a problem. But going back and playing that many older RPGs of the same type is never going to happen. Especially not before Sword and Shield release later this year. But what I would do, having now experienced Pokémon Let’s Go, is play similar games set in every generation of the franchise working my way up to gen eight.

Pokémon Let’s Go streamlines the process of experiencing gen one. It’s easier and shorter than actually playing through the original games. It negates the need to purchase both/all versions of the game in that particular generation. Plus the graphics are really nice. So now I want all the generations to get this treatment. This would turn several hundred hours of games into a much more manageable amount of time. It would give me a reason to keep playing Pokémon GO and it would increase the value of that $50 Pokeball controller. This is of course assuming they don’t force you to buy another one to get the Mew equivalent in each proceeding generation. It’s the perfect solution to a common problem for gamers today. How do you catch people up on franchises without making them buy old hardware or play tons of hours of ports of outdated software? Pokémon Let’s Go provides the solution to that problem.

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I really hope they create Pokémon Let’s Go games for the other six extant generations of Pokémon games now. I’d happily play all of them if they’re made with the same level of quality and focus on narrative that Pokémon Let’s Go was. The real question is do I wait to buy Pokémon Sword until after all these other games get released or do I play Sword first and then play the others as they trickle out? And why is Game Freak/Nintendo doing it in such a disorganized order? It would have made more sense to make the decision based on how Let’s Go performed. When they announced Let’s Go, many people were mad because they wanted a new generation of Pokémon game to release, which was already in development, because Game Freak knows what they’re doing. But what they should have done in light of how successful Let’s Go is was announced Let’s Go – Johto and hold off on Sword and Shield; the Kingdom Hearts way. They could have kept putting out Let’s Go games and then the culmination of that would end with Sword and Shield being announced/released. That would have created peak hype while allowing all current Pokémon players the chance to catch up on the franchise before releasing a new generation. Because now chances are people will jump straight to Sword and Shield and be much less interested buying more Let’s Go games. That game did so well because there were no other Switch Pokémon options, except for Pokémon Quest.

I don’t know what the grand plan is now, but I really do hope they release Pokémon Let’s Go games for every generation. That’s the only way I see myself catching up on the franchise. Let’s Go was way better than I expected and is way more convenient than trying to go back and play the older games. They just need to get a logical release schedule in order.

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DJMMT’S Top 15 Tips for Starting The Division 2

The Division 2 dropped last week and I am loving it. Ubisoft was kind enough to grace me with a copy of the Ultimate Edition. Now normally I would of course write a full review of the game. But because I already wrote a very thorough review of the beta, I decided that it wouldn’t be super productive for my readers to write a review of the full game because much of the experience is the same. That’s not to say that no changes have been made since the beta, because a number of crucial ones have in fact been implemented, to my surprise. But they’re mostly smaller details that don’t warrant an entirely new review. So instead I decided, for really the first time in the history of this blog, that I would write an easy starter guide for the game instead.

My intention here is not to give you a fully encompassing guide to The Division 2. I’m only at level 11 and I’ve only played it for just under 11 hours. There are people who are already much farther along and can give you very specific tips for specific sections of the game. I don’t want to do that. My intention here is that if you haven’t started the game yet, or haven’t really gotten past the tutorial missions, then this guide will help you settle into the game more effectively from the beginning. Now of course these are my opinions on how to most effectively play this game early on. Some of the tips will be obvious, others might be obscure, and not everyone who’s already playing the game will agree on all of them. So take it all with a grain of salt. Just know that I’ve been playing the game solo up to this point, I’m averaging about 1 level up an hour, and while I have died a number of times, it’s not often and it’s rarely a surprise when it happens to me. So without further ado, here are my top 15 tips to starting The Division 2, in no particular order.

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1. Solo Play is A-OK

The Division 2 is sold as a squad based third person loot shooter, and it is, but team based play isn’t a requirement early on. The truth is that other players are a hindrance in many ways when playing a game. They tend to slow you down and aren’t going to necessarily want to do what you care about past the current mission. Thankfully, The Division 2 doesn’t require you to play with others early on. In fact, it discourages it in many ways. You can’t even join a clan until you get to around level 10. It’s not based on level, because it’s a progress/achievement based unlock, but the required challenges have a difficulty minimum of seven with a recommended difficulty of 10. You don’t need a clan to play with randoms via matchmaking and friends, but really you don’t need them early on. You can very comfortably play the game solo for the early portion of the game. I haven’t played with a single other player and I’ve not struggled to clear any missions or side missions. I do die on occasion, but not often. Rather than jump into playing with others, you should use the early stages of the game to get a feel for it and figure out your preferred playstyle, skills, and weapon types.

2. Armor Number Only on Gear (Does NOT Include Weapons)

While there is a large selection of armor with various enhancements of various types, the reality is that none of this matters early on. You should devote no time to looking at buffs, specs, enhancements and so on when choosing gear until you’ve hit at least purple gear and chances are you can probably do that all the way up to gold gear or even post level 30 legendary drops. Just look at the armor number, because the increased defense will do way more for you in the early stages than buffs will. You will find better armor, often with better buffs, literally every time you level up so it doesn’t make any sense to put effort into trying to create a steady build until you hit the armor wall and stop finding better stuff every other mission. Just wear whatever pieces you find with the highest armor stats, change them out for the next better thing frequently, and don’t think about anything else. Ignore colors all together early on because you will often find higher rarity gear with lower defense stats than gear with a lower rarity. Choose the higher armor stat. Rarity only really matters once you start getting mods, which you won’t for quite a while.

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3. Craft Armor (Don’t Buy It)

There are two main reasons for this. The first is that the farther into the map you get, the better stores you’ll find. So purchasing anything from the early vendors is a waste of credits because it’s almost all trash compared to what you’ll find in shops later on. I did see one purple mask in the first vendor early on but it wasn’t worth the price compared to the mask I already had at the time, even though it was only blue rarity. But more importantly, crafting is a lot more affordable. Some crafts do cost credits to complete but the prices are always better than buying directly from the vendor. Your crafting potential corresponds with your level, meaning the higher your level the better gear you can craft. This also means that every time you level up you can potentially improve your gear right away if you don’t want to stick it out for a gear drop, which in my opinion you should. One note about crafting is that, like in the first game, it’s RNG based on a performance range. You should not craft anything unless the minimum armor stat in the range is higher than your maximum armor stat on whatever type of gear you’re considering crafting.

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4. Try Different Weapons

You are going to find a ton of different types of guns. Most of them you will have no point of reference for either in real life or in games. Some of them you might know, and because of that you’ll probably consider sticking to them. Don’t! Everyone’s playstyle is different when it comes to shooters but this is not a traditional shooter. Aim matters, but not as much as in a normal shooter. There are headshots and weak points, but those aren’t required to kill enemies effectively in this game. This is an RPG, which means everything goes by the numbers. You get additional damage and XP for getting headshots, but that shouldn’t be your strategy for how to approach the game. Just use base damage to calculate your effectiveness. Whether you hit center mass, a leg, or a hand, the damage is basically the same. So don’t worry about being super accurate. Instead think about total DPS. The number of shots is technically irrelevant as long as you can kill your target(s) without reloading. That’s not to say that you should just pick up a chain gun and forgo all accuracy. Different guns will feel better or worse for different people. The point is that you should never disregard a gun because it’s not your preferred style of weapon because in a numbers game it may actually do better for you overall. So don’t be afraid to try new guns you pick up while looking for that ideal weapon.

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5. Damage > Range > MAG > RPM

Just like with armor, you are going to find a lot of weapons and be unsure which ones to use. Now as I’ve already said, you should try different types of weapons, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a stat based component to picking which ones to try. As with armor, you should be picking the most baseline effective weapons you can find and upgrading whenever possible. But comparing guns is a lot more complicated than comparing armor. I’ve found that the most effective way to compare guns is by comparing their specs in this order. Damage comes first of course. As I said, this is an RPG. So it’s not about getting one great hit. It’s about getting the most effective combination of hits in the shortest amount of time. I don’t measure effectiveness based on number of shots. I measure it based on number of reloads. Now of course number of shots is a factor of number of reloads, but every gun has a different mag size and will be only as effective as the shooter and situation. You’ll also find some guns that have really great damage but garbage everything else and ultimately aren’t that effective. Shotguns are the worst about this. You will find some amazing shotguns. But their range is usually garbage. If an enemy gets that close to you it’s often already too late. And most shotguns have trash reloading times. So while damage is important, range is only slightly less important. I’ll take a slightly lower damage sniper rifle over a higher damage shotgun any day of the week because you can play from the safety of distance and cover while still getting a large amount of damage and often about the same reload time. Really you want something that’s effective at mid to far range for most instances but easy to aim in close distances as well. My favorite beginner gun is the Classic-RPK because the range is quite good, the damage is fairly good, and it’s fairly stable.

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Next you gotta look at mag size. Now again, it’s not about number of shots fired as much as number of reloads. But the number of shells per a mag defines how often you need to reload. Even if it’s one shot one man, which it rarely is outside of using an SR, that still means that a five shot mag only lets you kill five enemies before having to reload or change guns. Yes you do get to carry two weapons and a pistol at all times, but I wouldn’t recommend hot swapping rather than reloading every mag as a normal method of play. You really should have your second weapon as a special scenario gun, which I’ll get into later on. I can’t tell you what the right number of shots per a mag is for you, but I can tell you that you should be able to kill a group all standing in a cluster without reloading. Whatever weapon you’re using, if a group of enemies maxing out at six people, assuming none of them are heavy armored, aren’t all taken down without reloading, then you’re using the wrong gun. Later on you’ll get mods and buffs that can heavily speed up your reload time, but you shouldn’t rely on that early on because mods won’t be coming for a while and even when they do that’s a high risk way to play the game, and the reason I don’t suggest maining a shotgun. Once you do get good mods though, I’d say sacrificing mag size for better reload speed is worth the trade off in most cases.

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Last but not least. You should consider RPM. While your secondary weapons can have a lower RPM, because it’s a special case weapon, your main weapon really needs to shoot fairly quickly. Again, unless you’re running a one shot one man build, it all comes down to DPS in an RPG. So the faster you can shoot, the more damage you can get, and the faster your enemies will go down. What you really want to do, once you get there, is find a high damage high RPM gun with a decent to high mag size, put on a fast reload mod, at the expense of some mag shots (around 15%), and then you have a powerful gun that’s fairly accurate at mid-range that reloads at a competitive speed and not often. Currently I’m using an M249 B which deals 402 base damage, shoots 550 RPM, and has a 100 shot mag. This is hard to use in green rarity class because of the lack of mod slots, but once you find a blue one and the mods to go with it, it’s a top shelf gun for beginners and veterans alike. But ultimately when comparing any two guns, compare the specs in the order I’ve given even if it means putting down a gun you really like. Chances are you’ll be more effective now and eventually find the gun you like again with better stats in the future.

6. Use a SR as Your Secondary Weapon

I don’t really play too many shooters and because of that my aim is often a bit shaky. I can count all the successful snipe kills in PVP I’ve gotten on my fingers because I’m terrible at it. But the sniping actually feels really good in The Division 2. Like surprisingly good. So good that I’m genuinely starting to feel like I actually have talent. So even if you’re not traditionally a sniper, you should be one in this game. Specifically because of how it affects the rules of engagement. Again, this is an RPG. You don’t need headshots to get kills. They net more XP and damage, but if you have a good SR and you’re not playing above the recommended level threshold you should be getting one to two hit kills for hitting enemies in the finger. The range makes this gun worth using for two main reasons. The first is that a lot of enemies will be trying to snipe you or take you out from long distance. Closing that gap can be difficult, dangerous, and time consuming. It’s way easier just to blow them away from long range. The other reason is that you can engage challenges from outside the challenge area with an SR and the progress counts. Taking control points is a great example of this. If you can find a good location where you can see the enemies clearly without crossing into the control point boundary, you can engage them and they’ll pretty much never come after you. They’ll shoot towards you if they see you but they won’t try to storm you or flank you. They’ll stay in the control point area and let you pick them off like flies. And they will not respawn. Because of this, the SR is one of the most effect tools a solo player can use. And because of the RPG style of gameplay, you literally just have to hit the broadside of a barn to be effective with it.

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When it comes to picking an SR specifically, I say focus on base damage coupled with mag size. RPM and reload speed aren’t as important because you should ideally be getting one to two hit kills. At the same time, there are some lower damage fast action sniper rifles if that’s your preference but these will give your position away quicker and won’t get one hit kills, which gives enemies a chance to take cover.

7. The Junk Function is Life

As with the first game, you’re going to find a lot of junk gear but not want to throw it out right away. You may want to sell it, store it for specific uses, or deconstruct it. At no time should you just throw it away. In The Division 1, every single piece of gear had to be dealt with manually. You had to deconstruct one piece at a time. You had to sell one piece at a time. It was slow and annoying. In this game you have the junk function, as well as the favorite function. You can mark pieces of gear with either a junk or favorite mark. This is helpful for organization but also for efficiency. You can deconstruct all junk in one shot. You can sell all junk in one shot. There is zero reason to deal with trash gear one piece at a time ever again. Once you upgrade your inventory to max capacity, you can just keep collecting and marking junk till the bag is full and then throw it out in one shot for a profit or crafting components. One of the best improvements from the first game.

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8. Cover Is NOT Optional

If you played the first game then you already know this. But this is a guide for noobs so I felt like though it should be obvious it should still be included. This is a cover based shooter. You cannot Destiny or Halo your way through this game and rely on shot accuracy and DPS to get through firefights. You have to use cover. You have to reload while in cover. You have to use the move from cover to cover function. If you’re not in cover that means you’re either sure you’re going to get the kill(s), moving to cover, or about to die. Always be in cover no matter how weak the enemies are.

9. Use Armor Packs at the End of Armor not Life

You can’t refill life in this game. It refills automatically by not taking damage for a certain amount of time. You can refill armor though, with armor packs. Armor is the white bars floating above your life bar. As long as you have armor, you HP won’t be affected. You can carry a limited number of armor packs at any given time as well as find more from enemy drops and certain refill boxes. Armor also restores itself after firefights conclude but refill packs don’t. Your first instinct may be to use armor packs only once your life bar is nearly depleted, believing you can win the fight and save the armor pack for a worse situation. This is the wrong mentality. There are too many stray bullets, hidden snipers, unseen grenades, and other massive damage attacks to take this kind of risk. As soon as your armor is fully depleted, get behind cover and use an armor refill pack. You’ll replace it later. There are also upgrades that increase how many armor refill packs you can carry and automatically refill them in safe houses. I recommend getting all of these upgrades as early as possible.

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10. Early Progression Should be Natural

This genre is known for its XP and loot grind experiences and yes The Division 2 absolutely has that. But it’s in the late/end game. The level cap appears to be 30 currently. You do not need to grind for at least the first third of that if not more. I haven’t done anything a second time unless I failed it the first time. I haven’t gotten stuck in any missions for an extended period of time. I haven’t struggled a ridiculous amount while trying to complete challenges. You can naturally progress through the opening chapters of this game just by completing the challenges available. Do the main missions, do the side missions, collect the SHD caches, and complete the projects at your own pace without forcibly grinding XP. The early game is set up so that it’s very balanced and fair for a solo experience. You should not even be starting the road to grind fatigue for at least the first 10 – 15 levels of the game.

When it comes to entering new areas, each one has a suggested level range. I recommend finishing all the available single completion activities in an area and collecting all the SHD caches before moving to the next area. Based on my experience, you should be at the half way point of the level range at a minimum before entering the next area. So for example, the third area in the game has a level range of 4 – 8. This means you shouldn’t try to go in there till you’ve hit at least level six.

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11. SHD Caches First

Right away the game will deal you lots of different activities including main missions, side missions, random activities, and SHD cache locations. You should absolutely go for SHD caches first. These net XP, but more importantly unlock your permanent upgrades. Upgrades have a huge effect on gameplay. And there are a lot of them to unlock. So before you run into missions or try to take down that special bounty, just take the time to collect the SHD caches first whenever you reach a new area. And on your way to them you can unlock the safe houses. This way you’ll get some easy experience, upgrade faster. and ultimately be more effective overall. Note that almost none of the upgrades have level caps/minimums and the ones that do all have minimums of level 30 because they’re specialty upgrades. This means that from level one you can start unlocking the majority of upgrades as you collect more SHD points.

12. Control Points are Fast Travel Locations

In The Division 1 you only had safe houses, main landmarks, and DZ entrances as fast travel points. You could also fast travel to main missions. In The Division 2 they’ve added control points. These are basically not so safe houses. They are points on the map that you have to liberate through combat and then once liberated they’re occupied by friendlies. You can use these as fast travel locations. This is super convenient because it means now when you die you don’t have to go all the way back to the nearest safe house which is often not really near your last death location. It’s just in the same map area. Control points are placed in much more accessible locations around the map area so you can get back to the action much quicker. You can also lead enemies towards these points and friendly NPCs will help you fight them.

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13. Keep track of Hyena Boxes

In The Division 2 the main villains early in the game are known as hyenas. These are just thugs that wonder around in gas masks terrorizing people. You will get familiar with killing them very quickly. In certain missions you will come across hyena lock boxes. These hold special items but require special keys to open. Sadly keys are very rare and you will almost certainly not have any the first time you find a hyena lock box. In fact, you probably will find a number of lock boxes before getting a key. I still haven’t exactly figured out what nets keys. I only have acquired one so far. But I’ve found multiple lock boxes. It’s for this reason that it’s important to take manual notes about the location of lock boxes. I use screenshots of the map and physical location to keep track of them. Now obviously there will be guides online for this, but if you’re trying to play without walkthroughs then you need to keep track of these yourself due to the game’s lack of a manual map marker function. Really I’d like to see that patched in.

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14. Pop Your Skills Prematurely

One of my favorite improvements from the first game, and the beta, is the addition of number based skill cooldown meters. You can see the exact amount of time it will take for a skill to recharge so you can use it again. But there’s a strategy to this, depending on the specific skill you’re using. There are eight skill types available with multiple versions of each type. Some of them are single use and have to go through an entire cool down cycle. But some of them give you a bit more control of the situation. The turret being the best example. When you use the turret to completion, the cooldown time is 117 seconds. But you can end any skill prematurely by holding down the skill button it’s tied to. Doing this cuts the cooldown time in half. Smart players will use this to their advantage. You can see how much life/time the turret has left before it will disappear. If you destroy it at any time before it dies naturally, the cooldown time is only 59 seconds. That means that if you pop it manually just before it breaks down you can use turrets two times as often. And you can use this trick for any skill that’s not a one off. So obviously it’s not gonna work for the seeker mine because that’s a one off explosion and will always need to fully recharge unless not used at all, which does happen from time to time. It can still die off after being out a certain amount of time so in that situation you should also pop skills as soon as possible to get the reduced cooldown times.

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15. Turret is a Must (For Solo Play)

Of the eight available skills, all of which can be unlocked from the beginning, the basic turret is without a doubt the most effective skill for solo play. It really is like having a second man on the field. It auto-aims but can be directed at specific targets. It lasts a fairly long time unless destroyed. It has a 360 degree view so it can cover from just about anywhere on the battlefield. Its range is fairly decent. And most importantly it gets kills. A lot of AI support in games doesn’t finish the job. It does some of the work but leaves it to you to close the deal. The turret initiates the negotiation, negotiates the deal, and closes the deal all on its own. At the same time though, you can drop it and it won’t engage until you engage first or it’s attacked directly. This means you can set it up as part of a plan of attack without the set up starting the firefight prematurely. It really is the only required skill option for a solo player. Your secondary can be whatever floats your boat. I prefer the seeker mine but I’ve decided to try out other things for science.

That’s it for my start tips for The Division 2. If you have any more questions please leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them as soon as possible. You can also watch me stream the game almost daily on my Twitch channel.

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As always, thanks for reading. Please take the time to follow my blog, leave a comment, and check out some of my other channels if you enjoyed what you read.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! Review – 8.8/10

When I was a young lad, back before the age of internet, always online, and microtransactions, we played many great games that made no sense but were tons of fun and super addictive in a healthy way. I can’t tell you why fat, Italian plumbers jumped on mushrooms or why blue hedgehogs felt compelled to collect golden rings, but I can tell you that the number of mushrooms I squashed and the number of rings I collected is much higher than the number of Fortnite bucks I’ve earned. One of my favorite games from my childhood was the original ToeJam & Earl (1991) for the Sega Genesis.

If I’m honest, I didn’t really understand the game as a kid. It was the original roguelike before that was an established genre. I played it often but never really knew what I was doing. I also don’t remember watching the opening movie so I don’t think I even knew what the premise of the game was back then. What I do remember is that it was one of the games that my father and uncles used to love to play and we all would play it together. I also loved the funky music and the fact that a character was named ToeJam, because that was and still is funny to me for some reason. So when I think about ToeJam & Earl, it’s always with great fondness. I eventually did go back and play the original game years later, actually watched the cutscenes, and completed it. I also completed the ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth (2002) for the XBOX. I tried ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (1993) right after completing the first game, but I really didn’t like the different gameplay style. In any case, I have always cared a great deal about this franchise. That’s why I was ecstatic when I heard that someone was making a new installment after all these years. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to play a new ToeJam & Earl game in 2019. I kind of wish I had gotten the Switch version so I could round up my uncles and father and play it as a family once again.

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ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is both a sequel and a remake of the original game. It is important to understand this going in because it informs a number of design choices that people who aren’t familiar with the original game might not like or understand. As I said previously, it’s a roguelike but it has a number of conventions specific to this franchise and not much else. It’s also important to understand this in the context of judging it. If you’re looking at it strictly as a game being released in 2019, then it’s obviously not going to stand up to most if any top tier games being released today. Or at least that would be the case if we didn’t keep getting dumpster fire AAA releases like Fallout 76 and Anthem. But if we look at this in the context of recreating a game from 1991, then it’s one of the most true to form remakes I’ve ever seen not based on a game from the modern era. That’s the context within which I played and ultimately chose to review this game.

Assuming you have played or at least looked up some footage from the original game before starting Groove!, the  first thing you notice as soon as the opening cutscene starts is that the graphics are vastly improved but true to the original style. It’s like night and day even though they’re both flat environments pretending to have three dimensional qualities. This new game definitely has a bit more depth to it with things like hills and the ability to clearly see the previous level floating beneath the one you’re currently on, but it’s still the same 2D style used in the first game. The vibrant colors stand out so much in this game. Compared to original, it’s like you were looking at a dirty screen and someone finally cleaned it off. Everything is brighter and way more detailed, including ToeJam and Earl themselves. Plus there are a lot of display options. You can play full screen or windowed play in 18 different resolutions.

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There is a literal hoard of earthlings in this game to interact with, both evil and good. The movement is fluid and diverse for all of them. The playable characters move very smoothly as well. There’s no skipping or lost frame rate issues, even when playing with multiple players on or offline. Not only is the movement smooth, but it’s also well animated. What I like most about the game’s graphics is the amount of variety. 68 earthlings, 67 different types of presents, 25 stages with random layouts, nine playable characters, and even multiple environments from level to level. Many of these assets are interactive as well. Even the trees and bushes can be directly interacted with. And this is all randomly generated depending on which mode you’re playing. You do see some repetitive stuff such as enemy assets reskinned in different colors in later stages. But overall there’s a lot going on in Groove! and the game handles it perfectly.

The HUD is simple but effective. You have the level counter on the top center of the screen, which also notifies the player when a piece of the spaceship is on that level. In the bottom right you have the mini-map. With the rest of the HUD being in the bottom left, showing the character’s avatar, the XP bar, the HP bar, and the power up meter. In local coop mode, the HUD for the second player appears in the top left corner of the screen. When playing with four players, the HUDs are distributed to each corner of the screen when playing in a single screen and to the top left of each box when in split screen mode. What’s really nice is you can turn the map and HUD off if you want an extra challenge. You can also make the map larger at any time by holding the map button if you need to examine it in finer detail. But really the mini-map, assuming you have a large enough screen like I do on my PC, is quite adequate. It shows you locations for special things, the entire grid of the current level you’re on, and environmental landmarks such as desert or water. I never once needed to use the enlarge map function during play.

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The menus are done very nicely too. A much better, clearer font than was used in the original game. The manual, which is quite comprehensive, is broken up into clear sections with small blocks of text, making reading through the whole thing very easy to do. It’s not an overwhelmingly graphic intense game. It’s more like an art piece that combines the simplicity of the past with some of the benefits of modern graphic development to make something totally new and beautiful but still definitively retro in nature. You’re not getting the bare bones Sega Genesis graphics but you’re also not going too far and getting something odd looking like ToeJam & Earl III. Ultimately I think it’s a wonderful looking game that delivered exactly what it needed to visually.

The first thing I want to say about the gameplay is that it’s buttery smooth. I was surprised at how smooth the gameplay actually is. Even when using a controller, a DualShock 4 in my case, the input works perfectly. There’s no lag. No input issues. This game works. I was very happy with how it instantly accepted my controller and gave me no issues. Now the game will not revert back to keyboard automatically if your controller gets disconnected during play. My controller ran out of battery in the middle of a game while running away from a group of enemies and I couldn’t pick up with the keyboard. My guy just stopped moving until I got the controller plugged in. The game doesn’t even pause when this happens. And since you spawn in the same spot where you died, I just kept dying until I got the controller working again. A bit of an oversight on the developer’s part, but nothing game breaking and easily fixed with a patch. HumaNature Studios is also really responsive on Twitter and is actively seeking out and listening to feedback for future patches, so this issue may very well be fixed in the near future.

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The gameplay is quite simple in practice. You have to traverse 25 levels in search of 10 spaceship pieces, which are scattered randomly throughout the levels. The 10th piece is always on level 25, as stated in the manual. You traverse these levels by walking around each one trying to find an elevator. You can walk normally or sneak to avoid being seen by bad earthlings. Different presents can affect your movement as well. You also have the ability to swim through water but you can only swim for an amount of time corresponding to your current health. Meaning the larger your life bar, the longer you can swim when you’re at full health. You always start a new game with three lives but can earn more as rewards and through presents along the way. While traversing these levels you can collect money, presents, and food which also all incurs XP. Money is used to pay for services from good earthlings and to use certain items like parking meters. Presents, of which there are 67 different types, can do all sorts of things, both good and bad. They can do things like refill health, give you special powers like flight and better jumping, or reveal parts of the map. They can hurt you as well by doing things like dropping all your items, damaging you, and lowering your rank. Some presents are broken when you find them and have a chance of exploding when opened. You can also drop presents you don’t want.

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You can only carry a limited number of presents at a time based on the character you choose and your current rank. Food can either restore or remove life. Rotten food, which always looks like the same types of food, hurts you while all other food helps you. Different types of food give or take different amounts of health. You can also gain XP. XP is used to increase your rank. Increasing your rank increases your stats like the size of your life bar, walking speed, and number of presents you can carry. There are a total of six stats with each character having their own strengths and weaknesses. You always start at the bottom rank at the beginning of a new game and can work your way up 15 ranks. You don’t level up automatically. Once you’ve collected enough XP, which can be gotten in many different ways, you then have to find a “wiseman” and he will increase your rank free of charge. You don’t have to increase your rank to beat the game. As soon as you find all 10 pieces of the spaceship you’ve won.

The gameplay is very simple to understand but that doesn’t make it easy. The many different enemy earthlings can be quite tricky and they often congregate in groups. Some will chase you or hit you with status effects like freezing you in place. Some will even drop you down to lower levels. Sometimes you’ll intentionally have to jump off levels to get away from enemies, causing you to have to back track and make your way up again. The map for each level always starts off blind and then expands as you explore the level you’re on. Presents are important. It’s necessary to use them often but strategically. The presents do many different things, but many of them are not identified until you’ve used them once. This means every time you find a new type of present you risk it being a bad present if you haven’t already used it previously to identify it. There is also a good earthling you can pay money to identify presents for you. I’m not 100% sure if this is true, but it seems to me that presents you’ve identified in past games will be identified in all future games. But there are also enemies and bad presents that remove your present labels and I’m not sure if this carries over to future games. It’s definitely something that I need to confirm with more research. It could also very well be completely random from game to game.

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The gameplay is always the same but there are three difficulties that can be played across three modes. The “Fixed World” mode has the map stay relatively the same every game. This is a good mode to learn how to play the game once you’ve finished the tutorial. But the real challenge is when you hit “Random World” mode. This is the same gameplay but the layout of the levels changes every time. This is the roguelike experience that was spawned by the original game. There is also “Random World Hard” mode. At the start you only have Fixed World mode and then you have to reach level 10 to unlock Random World mode. But you don’t unlock Random World Hard mode until you complete a Random World run. The Hard mode is harder but not by a huge amount, in my opinion. There aren’t necessarily more enemies but they do more damage. There are also fewer presents around. Or at least that was my experience playing it. I played it in coop with a total of three players so maybe that affected the experience as well. We did manage to beat it though. You also have to take into account difficulty level and character. You can actually change your difficulty mid game whenever you want from the pause menu, but you can’t unlock prizes and achievements unless you’re in normal mode, which is considered the hardest of the three modes. Because of this, I never took the time to play in either of the two easier modes because that would be a complete waste of time. Each of the nine playable characters has their own stats, so it’s important to understand all six stats and choose the character that best fits your play style.

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There are also two mini-games that you play within the game as special occurrences. The Hyperfunk Zone is kind of like a Sonic the Hedgehog style special zone. It’s a 2D side scroller where you continuously run from left to right collecting items until you run out of time or hit an exit portal. There is an ending, and an achievement for reaching it, but it’s quite a ways forward so it’s hard to achieve. It’s fairly simple to play and only requires you to press one button to dodge past exit portals. If you time it wrong then you leave the Hyperfunk Zone before reaching the end. You can also run out of time but picking up clocks extends your time in the zone. When you enter the Hyperfunk zone during coop play, all players are transported there regardless of where they are on the map. Each player plays independently but the running pace is the same. That means if you have two players and one gets out the other player can continue and the player who is out has to wait for all other players to finish.

The second mini-game is kind of like Guitar Hero but with buttons. You have to press corresponding buttons to a beat as they move down the screen. It works OK but the timing isn’t as clear as Guitar Hero and the feedback isn’t there with vibrations or anything so you tend to be too early or late sometimes because your eyes don’t agree with the beat, even though it looks like you were on time. This mini-game is played solo directly on the map so playing doesn’t affect other players during coop.

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Groove! supports both local and online cooperative play. When playing in coop mode, only one person has to be in normal difficulty to unlock prizes at the end. This is really convenient for when playing with younger children or amateur gamers. You can enjoy the game with them while allowing them to play at an easier difficulty without losing out on prizes. Local coop supports up to four players. Each HUD is added to another corner of the screen and the screen splits for local coop so having more than four players would get way too cluttered. Online coop, which doesn’t split the screen, also supports up to four players. You don’t actually see the HUDs for other players in online coop so technically there’s no reason it couldn’t support more, but four is the maximum and honestly that’s enough for the size and scope of this game.

I really like the way the coop works because it’s not limiting like most coop games. You are playing the same game on the same map, but you can work fairly independently of each other. You have your own lives and life bars, money, and presents. But present effects are shared. Or at least some of them are like invisibility. It didn’t seem like physical enhancement presents are shared like wings or rocket boots. When one player runs out of lives they become a ghost and can take a life from another player if that other player agrees to give one up. All players show up on the mini-map so you know where you are in proximity to each other. But if one of you falls down to the previous level the other player isn’t affected. The one limitation is that players can only progress to unvisited floors together. This means that if one player reaches the elevator to the next floor first then they have to wait for the other player(s) before they can progress to the next level, even if that player has fallen down to a previous level. Thankfully though, you are immune from all damage when inside the elevator so you don’t have to worry about dying while waiting for other players to get there. Even the fake elevators give you immunity when waiting for other players in them because they don’t reveal themselves to be fake until all players have entered them.

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During local coop, the game will instantly switch between shared and split screens depending on how close players are to each other. It will also split the screen if one of the players accesses the present or pause menu. The other players are unaffected. The screen splitting is dynamic so it constantly changes back and forth. It’s a horizontal split for two players, a horizontal and a vertical split for three players, and a 2×2 split for four players, all of which work fine for this gameplay. You do need a large enough monitor to play comfortably with that many players though. I can’t imagine trying to play this with four player split screen on the Switch handheld mode screen. The split can be set to dynamic or fixed. Dynamic means the screen will split based on location. The player farthest north on the map will inhabit the top screen in the event of a split. Fixed means the same player, player one, will always be on the top, or top left in the case of four players, whenever the game splits the screen regardless of your specific location on the map. This can be toggled in the pause menu at any time. There is a teleport option in coop mode that allows a player to join the rest of the group instantly but I haven’t figured out exactly what prompts this yet. I think it’s when all but one character is in the elevator waiting to move on to the next level, but I couldn’t recreate this in all situations.

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During coop there is a quick chat function which is fairly easy to use. It’s all preloaded text based comments that appear over the speaking character’s head. These can be used, whether online or offline, to give other players information like where to go or that you’re waiting for them. There is also a verbal cue to tell the other player(s) to look, but that’s only in local coop. In online coop, when characters are near each other, you can see the message appear over the speaking character’s head. When not near each other the message shows up at the bottom of the screen with the avatar of the character/player speaking. In local coop the quick chat message always appears over the speaking character’s head, requiring other players to look at that player’s screen if they’re not near each other and thus in shared screen view.

The drop in and out nature of the gameplay works really well for casual and serious play. Even the online allows people to drop in and out at a whim without ending the game. You can create private and public lobbies and jump into and out of games of any difficulty, including those you haven’t unlocked yet, easily. It will also let you continue if you jump into a game and then the original host leaves for whatever reason. The only issue I experienced with the online was once I joined a game and got all the way to the end but then it disconnected me before I got to claim the prizes. I’m also not entirely sure if players can boot you or not when you join their games so that may be what happened. Normally when you get to the end of an online game, even when you joined late, you get to claim the prizes as you normally would. You do not however, unlock Random World Hard mode by completing it online. You just get the achievement and the prizes but it remains locked in your game until you complete the Random World mode first.

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Overall, the gameplay is quite good. There are a few minor issues that one might consider bugs, but I’ve yet to witness anything game breaking. The gameplay is challenging but fair. There are definitely some balance issues from character to character though. ToeJam is way superior to Earl for example because of his much faster movement speed. There is also some sort of issue I can’t quite figure out where certain player combinations are forced in coop. Like when you try to join a game certain characters will be locked other than the character the host is already using. I’m not sure why this is. It may just be a bug because in local coop I can select any combination of characters I want including both retro and modern ToeJam & Earl at the same time. In any case, it’s a really fun game and I look forward to spending more time with it.

The greatest compliment I can give to Groove! in terms of writing is that it has any at all. Most roguelikes have little to no story for some reason. This game has a full story as well as in game dialog. It’s not a fully immersive, plot focused game by any means. But the fact that HumaNature Studios took the time to actually flesh out an entire narrative is a treat in and of itself. It’s a simple story that’s comprised of only two simple cutscenes and some in game dialog, but it still bookends the gameplay experience in a way that offers the player a reason to start and closure at the end. Really that’s all a game like this needs. The in game dialog is funny and there’s quite a lot of it. It takes place on the elevator rides between levels as well as during gameplay. It changes depending on how many players are in the game and who they are. Even with only one player there is still elevator dialog. It’s mostly funny comments about the game itself. Speech bubbles are also used during gameplay to tell the player things like when you’ve reached your maximum number of presents. At the same time that this happens, audible speech is used by the characters to clue you in when a speech bubble appears. There’s not much in the game as far as writing is concerned, but I’m happy with what was included. As a side note, this game has possibly the most comprehensive in game manual I’ve seen for any indie game ever. It’s split into 12 sections and has a ton of information. Taking the time to read through all of it before actually playing will help you considerably. It’s also important to note that the game can be played in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and/or Portuguese.

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As this is a ToeJam & Earl game, the music is not only important but top shelf. By my count, there are 32 songs in the game. You can actually access all of these in the credits whenever you want. The music is of course quite funky, as it should be. The sound effects and voice acting are good too. Very responsive with no lag and high quality. I was also very happy with the sound mixing. The sound effects are not drowned out by the music. You can set the volume levels of the music and effects separately in increments of 5 from 0 to 100. I keep them both at 100 and it sounds fine. I really don’t have any complaints about the sound in this game and I don’t think anything else needs to be said about it. It does not disappoint.

There’s a surprisingly large amount of replay value in this game. And not just because it has random world generation and three difficulty levels. That plays a factor, as does the fact that there are nine playable characters, three of which have to be unlocked. But really there is just a ton of content to unlock and interact with. Groove! has 49 achievements and 41 unlockable rewards, each having a different effect on the gameplay. Plus you can play with other people both on and offline. There’s just a lot to do if you really want to get your money’s worth. A single game takes about one to two hours maximum depending on the difficulty you’re playing at and your pace. At $20 I think the price is OK but not amazing. You definitely can get 20 hours out of this game if you want to do everything. But if you’re just playing to complete each difficulty once then it’s a four – six hour game at best. So either make of it what you will or wait for a discount. $10 would be more than fair for this game. I give it an A+ for replay value.

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It’s quite a mazing to be reviewing a ToeJam & Earl game in 2019 unironically. It took a long time to get this project started and then another four or so years to get it released after the Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded. HumaNature Studios definitely delivered. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is exactly what it needed to be. It has a few small bugs but really it’s a perfect recreation of the original game with modern conveniences and improvements added in a non-invasive way. I really can’t speak highly enough of this game. I definitely recommend it for people who like games that are just fun. It’s not too challenging. It’s not too intricate and doesn’t require a huge time commitment. It’s just a fun experience worth having and sharing with other people. And that’s really what ToeJam & Earl was always meant to be.

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Target Audience Matters (The Anthem Problem)

Recently Anthem, the new shared world loot shooter from Bioware, released. The review scores have not been kind, but who really cares about that? What I’m more interested in discussing is the split in public reception of the game. I haven’t tracked the numbers by any official means but there seems to be an almost even split between people who really like the game and people who think it’s trash. Usually this isn’t the case. Most of the time the majority of people hold a similar opinion about a game and some outliers think the exact opposite. This is the case with Battleborn (2016). It was a fairly average co-op shooter that came out at the same time as Overwatch. It’s by no means a bad game but it’s fairly forgettable and as such it failed to gain traction over Overwatch. But even today you will still find a few diehard fans of the game that swear it’s way better than it actually was. This is the norm. But every so often you get a game with a hard split down the middle. This appears to be the case with Anthem.

I don’t own Anthem but I played the closed alpha, closed beta, and open beta. Ultimately my experience with those pre-builds made me opt not to buy the game. I did enjoy the basic gunplay and the graphics are quite impressive. But ultimately it was a hollow overall gameplay experience devoid of meaningful narrative structure and riddled with issues such as preposterously long loading screens. That is how it was for me. But even I still could see myself picking it up in year two, which I’ve been advocating since before the game released, as can be seen in this old blog post.

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Anthem is a fairly repetitive loot shooter with bullet sponge enemies that relies on the sensation of playing cooperatively with other players to have a meaningful and enjoyable gameplay experience. That is not a knock to the game but an objective description. I would use the exact same description to describe Destiny, The Division, and a number of other games. That’s the basic tenant of this genre. Some games do it better and some games do it worse but at the end of the day you’re paying for the experience of farming loot with your friends or randoms in order to get better stats so you can farm more loot with your friends or randoms. There is usually a story component to games in this genre but the level of quality and importance of it varies from game to game, just as it varies in necessity from player to player. As far as how Anthem compares to other games in the genre, it’s got its high and low points. The graphics are awesome. And the ability to fly in an iron man suit makes them even more awesome. It has too many loading screens. The classes (Javelins) are very differentiated but you aren’t locked to one class like in Destiny. The coop aspect is important, but playing the game solo is not nearly as fulfilling or manageable as in The Division. The narrative is no worse than that of Destiny.  I could go on, but the point is that it’s not a worse game than the other games as service loot shooters currently leading/exemplifying the genre. It’s more of the same. You just pick your poison and get pretty much the same overall experience. I’m most likely going with The Division 2 this year, if anything, because the alpha and closed beta really impressed me and I very much enjoyed the base game of the first one. But I wouldn’t say that this decision is any more valid than choosing Anthem or Destiny II.

*I keep referencing Destiny instead of Destiny II because I refused to play Destiny II so it would be inappropriate for me to cite it for comparison having not played it.

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While Anthem is a fairly standard iteration of the loot shooter genre, it seems to be getting considerably more hate at release than other games of the same type. Destiny, Destiny II, and The Division all did fairly well at release as far as public reception goes. I personally enjoyed playing Destiny and The Division at release. It’s only a bit later after the base content has run its course and people are stuck with lacking end game and waiting for updates that they start to complain, usually. The pricing/release model for additional content in Destiny is the only reason I chose to wash my hands of the franchise. So why does Anthem seem to be getting considerably more hate during the initial release window? I think it has a lot more to do with BioWare than it does Anthem.

In marketing and product sales, which I do work in professionally, we often use the term “target audience”. You probably already know this term but basically it means who you’re actually trying to sell products to. Often people outside your target audience will purchase the product, and that’s great, but when creating a product and the marketing strategy for said product, or game in this case, the company chooses a specific demographic to focus on based on a number of factors. One of the most important factors in choosing a target audience is past purchasers/loyal consumers. Basically people who have bought products from you in the past and didn’t hate them are more likely to buy more products from you in the future. This is fairly obvious in entertainment. It’s the reason people buy music from the same artists again and again and follow specific actors, writers, and so on. The same is of course true for games. That’s the reason you care when you hear “new game from Naughty Dog” and really don’t care at all when you hear new game from (insert some unknown indie dev you’ve never heard of here). That’s why brand image is so important. But what it also means is that over time as brands build up a loyal consumer base they also become beholden to the expectations and desires of that consumer base. This is why developers tend to develop a consistent style over time and often focus on specific genres or gameplay mechanics. As they establish their base more, that base tends to want more of what they first enjoyed when they joined that base. And they stayed loyal because they kept getting more of what they enjoyed the first time. This makes it fairly easy for studios to figure out what to do to keep their customers happy and more importantly loyal, but it also comes at a cost.

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Having an established and strict product style often means being limited to that style. If developers want to branch out and try new things it’s often met with anger and disdain. This is what happened when CD Projekt Red announced that the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 would be a first person game. After three third person RPGs over the course of eight years culminating with The Witcher 3, arguably the greatest third person RPG ever made by any objective criteria, people came to expect their next great RPG, which they’re already marketing as bigger and better than The Witcher 3, to also be in third person. Because the bulk of their loyal audience are people who like/prefer third person RPGs. I’m personally in this boat. That’s not to say that there isn’t a market for first person RPGs, because the 50 remakes of Skyrim prove that there absolutely is. It’s just that CDPR’s base like their RPGs in third person.  So when CDPR picks/picked their target audience for Cyberpunk 2077, they had to choose between targeting their established fan base, the most common choice for developers today, or they had to risk that base in order to target a new audience. They chose the latter. Again, this doesn’t mean that people they aren’t targeting won’t buy the game. Many absolutely will. It simply means that they decided that their focus audience/market for this new game won’t be their established player base. At least not in totality. And that’s fine but it does come with a risk. In my opinion, the negative repercussions that come with that risk are what’s plaguing Anthem today.

BioWare has been making story focused, character driven long form, single player RPGs for more than 20 years. They brought us hits like Knights of the Old Republic I & II, still the gold standard in Star Wars games, the Mass Effect Trilogy, the Dragon Age series, and the highly acclaimed one off Jade Empire. For the bulk of almost two decades they were the gold standard for single player, story driven western RPGs. Didn’t matter if it was a gun, a sword, magic, or a lightsaber. If you wanted a great single player RPG you bought it from BioWare. Then suddenly they put out a shared world co-op loot shooter with arguably less meaningful story content than The Division with a butt load of preposterously long loading screens and you don’t even get to see what your character looks like outside of the iron man suit. While none of that, other than the loading screens, makes Anthem an objectively bad game, it absolutely makes it a game that’s way outside the interests of BioWare’s usual target audience. But that didn’t necessarily stop all of them from trying/buying it.

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I think this is the real problem Anthem is facing. Destiny was made by Bungie and published by Activision. If you play Activision games, that means you like shooting things, usually people, in first person and much of the time the things you’re shooting are controlled by other players. If you play Bungie games, that means you like shooting things, usually people, in first person and much of the time the things you’re shooting are controlled by other players, but those people you’re shooting aren’t necessarily earthlings. The difference between the two companies’ target audiences and loyal bases are purely cosmetic. It was a marketing match made in heaven and that’s why they were able to make not one but two overrated games that raked in a shit ton of profit they didn’t by all rights deserve. The player base and the target audience were perfectly aligned for both the developer and publisher without either company going too far outside their norm. The only reason the companies recently split was because of disagreements about late stage management of the franchise/installment. The same cannot be said about BioWare, EA, and Anthem.

BioWare made a game for the Destiny crowd. The problem is that the bulk of people who have been buying games from BioWare for the last 20 years aren’t the Destiny crowd. Conversely, much of the Destiny crowd hasn’t been buying BioWare games for the last 20 years either. Obviously EA is involved in all this, but in order to streamline the post/conversation, I’m ignoring that aspect for the most part because it may change the reasons why this happened, but it in no way changes the fact that it did and the results of that decision. What this means is that a bunch of people, let’s say half the current player/purchaser base, who have been playing BioWare games for several years bought a BioWare game expecting the same type of game they’ve grown used to. While the other half of players bought a loot shooter expecting a loot shooter, which they got. To their credit half isn’t bad. The fact that they were able to get about as many people to migrate over from Destiny II and The Division, among other loot shooters and battle royale games, knowing full well that The Division II, which after playing alphas and betas for both games I do have to say is superior overall, is coming out just a month later, as people who traditionally buy BioWare games is fairly impressive. Or sad depending on how you want to look at it. There is still a lot of bad blood over Mass Effect: Andromeda, which personally I don’t get because I thought it was a fun game. But in any case you have about 50% of players enjoying the game because they buy loot shooters and like loot shooter mechanics. But that other half is serious Western RPG players who went in expecting Mass Effect or Dragon Age with Iron Man suits and instead got Destiny with only one planet and fluid classes.

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I truly believe that while Anthem has a number of flaws (I’m gonna keep mentioning those loading screens BioWare) it’s not a bad game. It’s by no means a traditional, or even subpar by comparison, BioWare game for their core fan base. But for a loot shooter it’s fairly decent. Ultimately this is the dilemma for every established studio with a loyal player base. They can’t make outside the box projects because the people who usually provide the bulk of their revenue don’t want to see huge changes to the formula and often won’t stand for it. For creatives this is a pretty depressing deal. They can’t pursue anything radically new or different for fear of angering their loyal customers. And we know this hasn’t only happened to BioWare. Many studios have had similar problems both critically and commercially when trying to do something new. While I’m all for consumers voicing their opinions with their words and their wallets, one must admit that this is why the industry has become more repetitive while delivering less and less risky and interesting content. The reason we’re seeing so many battle royale games is because they’re really easy and cheap to make by comparison to fully fledged games with a story focused campaign. Even the ones that aren’t ultra-successful still tend to make a profit when produced by larger studios with a popular brand attached to them. Even Tetris battle royale is super successful and that cost basically nothing to make by comparison to the last Nintendo first party game. And tons of people are saying it’s worth subscribing to Nintendo Switch Online just to play that one game. It’s a big problem with no clear or easy solution.

So what’s the answer here? If Anthem had been released by a different studio with a more established loot shooter pedigree would it be facing the negative responses it is now? In my opinion the answer is no. It’s still not the top of the line loot shooter so it wouldn’t necessarily be garnering high praise but I think it would be doing a lot better in the public eye. It’s very difficult for a studio to change its stripes this drastically and garner success and positive reception out of the gate. The only truly great example that comes to mind is Guerilla Games with Horizon Zero Dawn. But that’s a much different situation than BioWare and Anthem. Similarly to BioWare, Guerilla Games was known for only one genre of game, FPS, in the 13 years it had existed before HZD. They did release a third person shooter no one remembers in the same year as their first FPS game, but ultimately that IP never went anywhere. They went on to release four more FPS titles in the years leading up to HZD after their first game. But there is one key difference between them and BioWare.

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One of several Killzone games you never played.

All the first person shooters Guerilla Games released are part of the same franchise, Killzone. If you’re not familiar with Killzone, that’s exactly my point. Before HZD, the only thing Guerilla Games was “known” for was a lackluster franchise of PlayStation exclusive FPS titles that pretty much no one was playing. And even if you did know the name Killzone, since it was a release title for at least one PlayStation platform, chances are you didn’t know the name Guerilla Games was attached to it. They simply didn’t have the brand recognition or success with their games that BioWare has had. And BioWare had/has it across multiple IPs. It was way easier for Guerilla Games to make something entirely new for them and be met with open minded consideration because most people went into HZD with no preconceived notions or expectations about the studio. BioWare, and of course EA, do not have such privilege when making games. They’re simply too big and well known to ignore their current player base’s expectations.  This is exactly what’s crippling Anthem. About half the players shouldn’t by all rights have even considered touching the game if not for the developer name attached to it. If anything EA should have stealth released under some new established studio as a dummy brand for BioWare. This of course would never happen, but I’d be willing to bet it would have been met with more positive reception.

There’s a reason Capcom can put out a totally repetitive game about killing monsters in order to get stronger to kill more monsters with the most mediocre story ever and it can win RPG of the year while BioWare can’t put out a loot shooter and get above a 70 on Metacritic. Capcom has been around twice as long and has been making games from a plethora of genres since their inception. The expectations are way different for them even though in many ways they’ve created a similarly repetitive game with its own list of design flaws and issues. And yet I bought Monster Hunter World almost a year ago and still put in more than 20 hours of gameplay in the last two weeks alone. BioWare is in a problematic situation. And with EA pulling the strings, there’s a good chance the studio will be shuttered in the not too distant future. And yet all BioWare is really guilty of, other than getting into bed with EA to begin with, is making something they’ve never made before. Honestly it’s kind of unfair. And yet I’d sooner support the studio closing down than I would consumers being forced to buy a game they don’t want from a studio they’ve supported for years simply to keep that studio open out of no longer deserved loyalty. It’s a shitty situation for everyone involved.

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Devotion Review – 6.9/10 (But definitely worth playing.)

Red Candle Games is a small Taiwanese studio that focuses specifically on producing games that present realistic depictions of Taiwanese culture and beliefs in a narrative focused structure while applying elements of horror. What is so interesting about their games though is that the horror aspects, like everything else in them, are not original concepts. They are realistic depictions of actual Taiwanese beliefs. That’s one of the main reasons their games are so interesting to play and why they appeal to such a diverse audience within Taiwan. Their first game, Detention, appealed to people of all walks of life and ages in Taiwan. It was an excellent 2D point and click that also managed to be quite scary. Now they’ve released their second game, Devotion, and it’s being met with similar appeal. Already there are reviews and videos of the game all over the Taiwanese internet not just from gamers but from a completely random assortment of Taiwanese citizens. This is because once again they have managed to capture an eerily realistic snapshot of Taiwanese life and culture. Even as an African American living in Taiwan and ultimately experiencing the culture as an outsider, I was extremely impressed with how well the game depicts Taiwan. So before getting into the real meat and potatoes of the game review, know that as cultural snapshots of Taiwan both Detention and Devotion are top notch experiences that are informative, entertaining (for horror fans), and highly accurate.

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Gameplay (Left) – My actual tile (Right)

Devotion is a first person walking simulator style game that takes place in a single apartment building located in, I believe, Taipei. The bulk of the game takes place in a single two bedroom apartment but there are a few sequences that have the player explore other parts of the building as well as fantasy locales for sequences taking place in the spirit realm. The graphics are an incredible step up from their previous game. This is a highly detailed 3D environment that takes place across multiple time periods and realms of reality. While it is still an indie game, the visual quality rivals that of some low to mid-tier AAA titles. The atmosphere is a mixture of vibrant hues and gloomy shadows. As the story takes place across several years of a family’s life, there are many ups and downs depicted in the same 3D space. Some moments are happy and inviting while others are scary and induce paranoia within the player. What’s truly impressive about the graphics is just how realistic they are.

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Gameplay (Left) – My actual door (Right)

As someone who actually lives in an apartment in Taiwan, playing Devotion is a very unique experience. I wasn’t aware of just how similar most apartments are in Taiwan before I played this game, but apparently they’re all pretty much the same, otherwise Red Candle Games must have snuck into my apartment for inspiration. So many small details about the game’s setting are pulled right out of my apartment. The entire time I was playing the game, my girlfriend kept commenting on all the objects that look exactly the same. From the floor tiles, to the doorbell, to the doors, to the kitchen, it’s all a bit too real. This is especially stressful when playing a horror game because it’s just too easy to place yourself within the game when it looks almost exactly like the place you actually live in. I think this is one of the main reasons so many people in Taiwan are taken with the game. It would probably be too uncomfortable of an experience to play this game in VR for me because I might end up trapped in an Inception like state of confusion about reality.

Gameplay wise, it’s a slow paced walking simulator that focuses on developing the story and atmosphere rather than on exciting gameplay mechanics. You move, look around, and click on things to interact with them. Occasionally you are required to use a few other buttons to do specific things like pull up your item menu or complete a specific active task for effect, but mostly it’s just looking around and discovering things. There is a single chase sequence that requires you to quickly run through a maze of hallways. This is the only part of the game where you can die, which I did several times. The game quickly reloads to the start of that sequence and has you try again until you’ve finally succeeded. Though this one sequence is different from the entire rest of the game’s gameplay it works just fine and requires little to no adjustment from normal play. Honestly I could have used a few more sequences of this nature to make the overall experience more exciting and increase the fear factor.

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A large part of the gameplay involves reading. There are 33 different documents to find, many of which contain clues that help you figure out how to progress forward. I don’t believe you need to find all of them to complete the game, because there is a trophy/achievement for doing so and not all of them reference specific actions you need to complete. The bulk of them provide you with background information about the narrative as well as culturally specific traditions and legends. As this is a point and click, reading and interpreting clues is paramount to reaching the end. Chances are you will get stuck and have to look over things more than one time before you realize what the game expects you to do. I ran into this situation about midway through the game. This was not an issue of language limitations, as all the text is in English and the dialog, though in Chinese, is all subtitled in English. The roadblock I ran into was cultural. You had to complete a ritual that was probably fairly obvious to most traditional Taiwanese citizens, but as an African American I knew nothing about it. It was only after reading through all the documents I collected along the way that I found the clue I needed to solve the puzzle. Though it can be frustrating while playing, I really like this type of system because it really forces you to use your skills of observation and interpretation to solve puzzles rather than just handing you the answers to move forward. Chances are you will end returning to each of the available time periods more than once before you find and figure out everything you need to finish the game.

While the gameplay is fairly basic at a mechanical level, I highly recommend that you use a keyboard and mouse if playing on PC, which I was. The game supports multiple controller types but the amount of lag when using a controller with the default settings is unbearable. I tried both a Dualshock 4 and a Wii U Pro Controller and both performed unacceptably. The walking movement is laggy and looking around is extremely inconsistent as well. But as soon as I switched to a keyboard and mouse the controls were flawless. Movement is smooth and quick to respond. Commands are highly responsive with pretty much no input lag. You do have the ability to try to change the sensitivity of the controller to make it run better, but not to the standard that it should be running at. I was able to clean up the movement considerably but there was still quite a bit of lag and the movement kept stopping abruptly after raising the sensitivity to account for the lag. You just need to use a keyboard and mouse to play this on PC. At least until some patches are added. Really the only performance problem I had once I gave up on using a controller was that the game crashed once near the end. A simple restart of the application solved the problem and no other ones ever occurred. And with the game’s auto-saving function I lost a maximum of maybe 2 minutes of progress with the restart. The game is also broken up into chapters so you can easily backtrack without having to lose too much progress. You can also use this function post-game to replay specific sequences.

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There are only a few sequences where the gameplay is slightly different from the general experience. The chase scene that I mentioned previously, a few mini-game style moments involving some puzzles, and a storybook fantasy sequence that plays like a platformer. All in all, the gameplay was exactly what it needed to be, but I do feel like there could have been more sequences outside of the traditional point and click mechanics of the normal gameplay.

As with Detention, the writing in Devotion is very personal and culturally specific. The game follows a family, mostly through the eyes of the father but sometimes from the daughter’s perspective as well. The story mixes elements of horror, mystery, and drama to touch on serious themes including parenting, religion, financial insecurity, marriage, and ultimately guilt. Much of the plot is steeped in metaphors and cultural references that don’t all necessarily translate to the larger world. I was lucky enough to be able to play through the whole game alongside a Taiwanese person to explain things to me. While this lack of cultural understanding will absolutely not hinder your ability to complete the game, there are definitely some parts of the narrative that you most likely won’t understand or be able to relate to directly depending on your cultural and religious background. The ending is a good example of this. It’s sort of abrupt and not clear what actually happened. But my girlfriend explained to me that if you read the Chinese text of the game that it’s much more obvious what actually occurred. I won’t spoil that here though. In a way it’s not necessarily a problem for the ending to be vague as the game touches on supernatural themes anyway that can be left up to interpretation by each individual player.

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I was happy with the way the story was presented, but ultimately it was a hollow overall experience for me compared to Detention. The buildup is really good and the atmosphere is very scary. Within the first 10 minutes of the game my girlfriend and I literally jumped out of our seats and yelled because of a specific occurrence. This, along with much of the marketing materials pre-release, led me to believe that this was going to be a true horror game. Sadly it wasn’t. There are a few horror sequences, and they are done fairly well, but the bulk of the game is not scary. Instead the atmosphere is used to make the player expect something scary to happen but that rarely happens throughout the course of the game. The rest of the game is more sad and introspective than terrifying. And that’s not a problem, or at least it wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t been misled into believing I was about to play a horror game. So while the writing was in no way bad, it also lacked the impact I wanted it to have. It was very similar to playing Gone Home (2013), where the game comes off like a haunted house horror game but is really just an emotional journey about the main character’s family problems and learning to accept reality. I would love to see these same visual assets reused to make a proper horror game.

Because I was much more focused on reading subtitles and documents as well as searching for clues, I feel like the sound didn’t have the impact on me it probably could have had while I was playing. There are some great sound effects at times such as the use of knocking on doors to clue you in on where you should be going next. The sound quality of the voice acting was quite good, even if I couldn’t understand it directly. The music, though few and far between, was effective and really helped bring the daughter character to life.  Overall, the sound quality was quite good, but my need to focus on reading detracted from my ability to focus on and ultimately appreciate it. It’s important to note that you could technically play through the whole game with the sound off but you would lose out on the full impact of the voice acting, the music used as part of the narrative, and some of the of the better sound effects.

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I can’t really say that there’s any reason to replay Devotion more than once. You can easily get 100% completion in the first playthrough and if you miss anything it’s easy to load one of the chapters and backtrack to the achievement(s) you missed. This is ultimately how I got the only achievement I missed during my first playthrough. And the chapter load took me right to where I needed to get to complete that achievement. So while the first playthrough is quite good, I really can’t say that there is any real replay value in this game. I have already heard rumors that extra content will be added though. The whole game can be beaten in under 4 hours so I gotta say that the $17 price tag is a bit too steep. It’s definitely worth playing and can be beaten to a 100% completion in one sitting, which I did. But my advice is to wait for a price drop.

While I liked Detention more overall, Devotion was a great step up quality wise for Red Candle Games. The jump in graphics between the two games was mind blowing. The writing, though not as scary, was just as culturally significant and impactful while remaining a personal narrative about specific characters in the world. And the narrative is totally believable. The supernatural stuff is of course open for interpretation but the real life events could be about pretty much any Taiwanese family. The gameplay works, but they really need get the controller performance up to snuff. I’m kind of curious to see how the game will perform on other platforms when it’s inevitably ported like Detention was. While I gave it a 6.9, let me be clear in saying that this score is not because the game isn’t good. It’s because it has issues with controller play, no replay value, and a fairly high opening price point for the amount of actual gameplay. The score is in no way meant to present the game as a bad gameplay experience. I simply can’t in good conscience score it higher with those issues. If the game was at say $5, had more achievements, and no controller issues, we’re looking at something around an 8/10 rating. At the end of the day, I encourage you to try Devotion. It’s an interesting experience that’s much different from the walking simulators and point and clicks you see from Western developers. It’s a solid second installment for the company and certainly worth your time.

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I See You Nintendo (Tetris 99)

In September of last year, I wrote a post calling for a boycott of Nintendo Switch Online. Actually many people were and still are on board. I won’t claim that it was solely because of my blog post because many people posted similar sentiments on various platforms, but the point is that the service Nintendo released at cost was, and still mostly is, a bad service that isn’t worth the money. Even if it is the cheapest online console service currently, that doesn’t somehow magically justify the cost, though many fanboys would make that argument. I’m still boycotting Nintendo Switch Online. I love my Switch. Since that post I’ve purchased Smash Bros Ultimate, Super Mario Party, Pokemon Let’s GO – Eevee, and though I received a review copy and thus didn’t pay for it, I also got Starlink: Battle for Atlas. Every single one of those games is excellent. I would recommend purchasing every one of them. None of them are flawless. But I don’t regret buying/playing any of them. And there are more games on the way that I can’t wait to play.

Nintendo just released a demo for Yoshi’s Crafted World. It’s amazing. It’s exactly what I wanted from the next Yoshi game. I will absolutely be buying it. The point is that I in no way regret purchasing a Switch. There are numerous amazing games to play on it and I have a decent sized backlog of unfinished titles to play. And honestly though it does affect me occasionally, for the most part I’m fine not having access to online PVP. Currently there are only two games that I really want to play online against other people, not counting Super Mario Party, which I absolutely do want to play online against other people, but they don’t have the full board game mode available for online PVP and that’s what I want to play against others. So currently the only argument that can be made for why I should pay Nintendo $20 a year for online multiplayer is Smash Bros. Ultimate and after the latest Nintendo Direct, Tetris 99.

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Tetris 99 is the combination of probably the closest thing to a perfect game ever made and the current battle royale craze. Now personally I hate this BR bullshit. I hate PUBG. I hate Fortnite. I hate Blackout. For many reasons I hate this entire trend and concept. I don’t like the idea that developers can release games with no story and they become super popular and make billions of dollars in loot boxes and skins. That’s everything wrong with the gaming industry and community today. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to projects like Star Wars: Battlefront II. It’s not OK. But Nintendo, being Nintendo, took the concept and made it not suck, innovative, not a cash grab, and for once worth my time . . . maybe?

Tetris 99 is the first BR game I’ve ever had an interest in. For starters, it’s the only BR game to date that can justify not having a story. It’s a simple puzzle game that’s been around since 1984. The game is so old, many games couldn’t have stories back then. It’s justified. It has no loot boxes, microtransactions, or DLC. You download the game and you have the whole game. It’s free. Well it’s not free, but it comes as part of the Nintendo Switch Online subscription so it’s free-ish in the same way that we describe PlayStation Plus games and XBOX Games with Gold games. I haven’t personally played it, because again I’m not a subscriber, but this the first time since the service went live that I really wish I had a Nintendo Switch Online subscription. Or more accurately, I really wish the service was good enough to warrant me subscribing. Tetris 99 is the first step in the right direction. This is the kind of content and release model that I need to see coming from Nintendo consistently, as in on a monthly to bi-monthly basis, for me to consider the service worth my money. What’s important here is that they were able to create a game that I actively want to play. I think about it a lot. I’ve been watching Tetris 99 videos, something I never do. I do not normally just watch other people play games without some specific reason tied to it like I’m stuck in a game or I know the person playing personally. And yet I’ve taken the time on more than one occasion to watch videos of people playing Tetris 99. As a side note, most of you apparently such at Tetris. I’ve been appalled by some of the low quality performances people felt were appropriate to post online. And I know that sounds arrogant and hypocritical considering many of the lackluster gaming performances I’ve posted to my Twitch and/or YouTube channels, but Tetris is not that hard. Granted I have been playing it semi-actively for more than 20 years so maybe I’m just at a level of experience that makes me unable to relate to new players. But I digress.

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This is the kind of content that I want to see from Nintendo Switch Online. This is how you sell me this service. And you don’t touch the current price point. It stays where it’s at or gets lower. So my point with this post is to tip my hat to Nintendo. I see you making moves trying to add value to your online service. I respect that. That’s what I want to see, not just from Nintendo, but from XBOX and PlayStation as well. Make online subscriptions great again. And I’m fine with Nintendo focusing on old games. They said they were gonna do that from the beginning. But this is the first time since the service started that they did it in a way that’s actually interesting and worth my time. I don’t want to take turns playing old NES and SNES titles. I can do that with my SNES Classic without paying a subscription fee. Tetris 99 justifies the need for online PVP access. Now I’m not gonna pay $20 a year just to play Tetris. I wanted to get Tetris Effect, but that won’t happen till that price goes way down. I am not paying $40 to play Tetris. But if every month we got another Tetris 99 style game free as part of the service, I’d definitely sign up. So hopefully this is the beginning of Nintendo Switch Online actually being worth the money. And if and when that’s confirmed, I’ll definitely sign up. So the next question is what’s the next Tetris 99?

I’ve given this only a little bit of thought so far but I do have some ideas that I think would be equally successful, if not more so. The entire concept of Tetris 99 is take an old game that’s simple to understand but, apparently, hard to master that has an indefinite amount of play time and apply some sort of mechanic that allows multiple players to play single player rounds of the game at the same time where a certain occurrence negatively affects the other players in the lobby. Here are just three of the ideas I came up with in a matter of minutes.

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Dr. Mario

This seems fairly obvious. Really it’s just a variation of the Tetris concept with different rules of engagement. Just apply the same multiplayer mechanics and it’s good to go.

Pac-Man

My idea would be exactly the same as Tetris 99 where all 99 players are playing their own game of Pac-Man, still with three lives and the ability to earn more, but it’s only one map/stage. There are no regular pellets. Instead the only task for the player is to survive. More specifically, don’t get eaten by ghosts. Power pellets would still be present and reappear over time, possibly tied to eating a certain number of pieces of fruit. When you use a power pellet and eat ghosts, you send those ghosts to other players’ games. It would work just like Tetris 99 where you can send ghosts to randoms, attackers, those soon to die, and badges, which I haven’t put a lot of time into conceptualizing yet.

Galaga

Similar to my Pac-Man idea, everyone would be playing their own game of Galaga concurrently. When you kill an enemy, you can send it to other players’ games. There would probably need to be some limitations set upon it like the number of enemies that can actually get sent and some sort of limit to how many enemies can be sent to the same player at the same time.

Have you played Tetris 99 yet? What do you think of it? What other games would like to see this concept applied to? Let me know in the comments.

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The Division 2 VIP Beta Review

Let me start by saying that I did not preorder The Division 2. I did play the VIP beta, because I was fortunate enough to obtain a code. But I would never preorder a game in order to demo the game. For me, since demos are now almost completely dead (written as I currently download the Devil May Cry V demo), betas are the new demos. This is even more true when you consider just how little beta feedback actually changes the final game from the beta these days. Betas are the new way we try before we buy. And developers know that which is why they’ve started doing these closed betas that require most participants to pre-order the game. It’s a dumb system and dumb choice to fall into it, but lots of people do it so developers will keep getting away with it. That opening statement was not in any way, shape, or form meant to disparage The Division 2 as a game. It’s merely to comment on current business practices I disagree with while also stating my objectivity with this review because I haven’t spent any money on the game and thus can judge the beta from a neutral position.

The first thing that needs to be said about The Division 2 is that Ubisoft did not reinvent the wheel, and that’s a compliment. I really liked The Division. I liked the core story. I loved the gameplay. I loved the map. I loved the concept of the dark zone. I loved a lot, but not everything, about the gear system. For me it was a great game. The endgame was severely lacking at the start and then by the time it released I had no interest in jumping back into the game so I never really got to experience a lot of the later content. But in general I thought it was an excellent game. Really what I wanted from The Division 2 was the same core game with a lot more polish in a new locale with better endgame content. While I can’t speak to the amount of content in this sequel based on the beta, I can speak to the gameplay and basic mechanics and those are for the most part almost exactly what I wanted.

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Improvements have been made. One of the most noticeable is in the storage. It’s organized now. As soon as you open it, you notice the specific gear type categories. Thank God! So much more convenient. And managing your gear is streamlined as well. You can mark things as junk and leave them in your backpack or stash to return to them later still marked as junk. Or you can press “Deconstruct Junk” from the sub-menu and all your junk gear is instantly deconstructed. I will never go back to manually deconstructing again, because it takes longer to manually deconstruct one item than to just mark the one item as junk and deconstruct it through the sub menu. The gameplay is still really tight, but I think the cover to cover movement is even smoother than in the first game. The weapons and gear system is pretty much the same with the color coding, numbers, and special attributes. And that’s fine. The compare items system works much better than I remember it being in the first game. Maybe I’m just imagining that part though. But in general the gameplay feels better while not totally different. The crafting is still an annoying RNG system though.

The world is much more interesting. I know a lot of people were/are whining that it’s no longer set in New York, but that’s a stupid complaint. What really matters is how alive the setting itself is regardless of where it is. The world of The Division 2 is much more alive . . . with NPCs. There are many more animals in the map now. Not just dogs. There are dear, raccoons, rats, birds, dogs, and probably other things. Hopefully a bear appears at some point. And all the animals are interactive. You can even kill the rats, which I of course tested FOR SCIENCE! There are many more patrols of enemies as well as friendly NPCs roaming the map. You can call for backup from NPCs, which is awesome. You can take control points and then they get guarded and managed by friendlies, who you can then supply with resources to make them stronger. And these control points act as fast travel points so you have a lot more efficiency when traveling around the map, if you want it. At the same time though, the world outside the DZ seemed pretty devoid of other players. I want to believe this was just because it was a closed beta, but I saw plenty of other players in the safe houses. But outside I had very little contact, or even sight of, other players that I wasn’t personally grouped with. And honestly even the DZ wasn’t as populated as I expected/hoped it would be with actual people.

Dead Rat
Rat postmortem.

The lack of players was hopefully the cause of this, but I had so much trouble with the matchmaking. Really that was my only serious complaint about the beta. The entire matchmaking system outside of main missions is/was absolute trash in the beta. The first problem, which the game didn’t notify me about, was that your settings are defaulted to friends and clan members only. The problem with this is that it didn’t tell me which led me to spending over an hour trying to find people to join my group from the matchmaking station with no luck. Someone on Twitter had to tell me to change my settings. But that didn’t even really help. First, the game kept switching back to friends and clan only no matter how many times I set it to open. I’m not sure what was causing this. But even when it was set to open, I had no luck with getting people to join me. I’d sit at the matchmaking station forever and no one would join. I’d get tons of invites to join others but never got anyone to join me. Now usually I don’t care about being the group leader, but because of what I consider a content management flaw, being group leader when you’re actually trying to complete stuff outside of main missions is required.

The matchmaking in main missions works great. You go to the mission start point and the matchmaking station is right there. It works quickly and effectively. And when you complete the mission it’s done for you even if you weren’t the host. The same cannot be said for random map activities. Taking control points is challenging. It’s not impossible to do solo but it is hard. The final control point on my map was too difficult for me to solo with the gear I had at the time. So I opted to try to do it with other people. I joined a random group and we cleared it. Then when I returned to my session it was still unfinished, leaving me stuck still unable to finish it and still unable to get people to join my group. My main issues with the matchmaking come down to a lack of hard controls/customization options.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-02-10 01-53-25

First, why do I have to go to the matchmaking station? It’s 2019. This is supposedly a map full of players constantly roaming around looking for things to do. Why can’t I just initiate matchmaking from anywhere in the world and nearby players can just join up? In Destiny I you would see people running around the map all the time. You could easily work together without being in the same group and easily join up without having to change sessions or forgo your own game’s progress.

Second, why can’t I control specific details of the matchmaking process? I would get countless invites to other groups but no one ever joined mine. Why can’t I set that option in the matchmaking? I should be able to tell the game exactly what I’m looking for, whether or not I want to be the group leader, and what specific type of activity I want to do. The matchmaking station only had six categories: random activity, random main mission, open world exploration, answer the call, and random bounty and dark zone, both of which were not available during the beta. These matchmaking options aren’t specific enough. Random activity truly was completely random. It would just pick a task with no regard to what I actually needed to do on my map and try to toss me into some random group. Random main mission seems completely pointless until/unless you’ve already done everything and are just looking to farm XP. I hope I never need to use that. Open world exploration is too vague. Instead you should be able to choose from a list of available activities on the map like take control points, farm XP/gear, side missions, or any other number of things that can be done on the map. Random bounty gives me hope because bounties are a nice new addition. They’re randomly occurring hunt missions where you have to take down a specific NPC within a time limit for special gear and additional XP. Having a specific matchmaking option for this gives me hope that there will be tons of them constantly running on the map. During the beta I only encountered two or three bounties. A dark zone matchmaking system is of course necessary and will obviously be present in the final game. I just hope they put a matchmaking station in the DZ entrance, since there wasn’t one in the beta, in the final game because the safe houses aren’t near the DZ entrance, which you can fast travel to directly.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-02-10 01-11-01

The answer the call feature is the beginnings of a great idea that I hope works better and easier in the final product. While you can’t match make from anywhere on the map, you can call for help. This is not when you’re bleeding out and hoping for a revive. You can send up a call directly from the map or menu at any time. People can answer your call and randomly join your group to help with whatever activity you’re doing. This was the only time I was able to get someone to join my group. It took a while, but eventually a white knight answered my call. The nice thing about this feature is that you can leave the call on while still playing the game so you’re not just sitting around waiting like at the matchmaking station. And the game notifies you when someone puts out a call nearby. The problem is it doesn’t show you on the map where they are unless you answer the call so you never really know how far it is till you’ve already committed. Another problem with the feature is that I think you have to go to the matchmaking station and use the answer the call feature to help someone else. I kept getting random notifications via ISAC that someone was in need of assistance and had put out a call. And I genuinely wanted to join these players and help them. But I couldn’t figure out how to do that from where I was when getting the notification. I hope I’m wrong and just couldn’t figure it out because the feature will only be effective if at any time from anywhere you can just answer the call, join their group, and run directly to the location of the player in need. If you actually have to go to a safe house and use the matchmaking station first then it’s a wasted concept no better than the open world exploration matchmaking feature. The matchmaking needs to be heavily improved. Being part of the Division is the main crux of the game’s plot/concept. If you can’t easily and effectively team up and work with others then it’s a waste of what’s for the most part an excellent shared world shooter.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-02-10 01-52-21

The Dark Zone seems much improved in some ways and worse in others. There is no longer a single dark zone that everyone plays in. Instead, like the map itself, there are dark zone districts of varying difficulty levels, each with multiple entry points. This is a way better system. It allows players to choose the level of challenge they’ll be facing and better manage their DZ experience. I kind of hope there will be some sort of management controls from Ubisoft’s side that will ensure that super high rank players can’t just roll into the noob DZ and tear through lower level players. That’s the only problem I see with a system that actively tells you where the easy and hard parts of the DZ are. It’s essentially creating a shooting gallery for advanced players. The DZ otherwise works much the same as in the first game. But now there are more marked enemy spawn points and notifications to tell you when they’re occupied so you can better manage your roaming time and not just wonder around hoping to find stuff to do. I didn’t see enough other players in the DZ, but again this was a closed beta so I assume this won’t be a huge issue in the final game. My biggest complaint about the DZ was the frequency of valuable drops. There were not nearly enough air drops taking place. In the time it took me to reach DZ level 10 I saw only two or three total air drops. This is too slow for a populated DZ. They should be happening every five to ten minutes so there’s enough swag for all players to at least have time to get to and try to fight for. And the occupied landmarks weren’t dropping enough valuable stuff at all. Many times I would clear areas and not even get any contaminated gear. While I really liked the fact that you could get some gear in the DZ without having to do the extractions, this shouldn’t be happening at the rate it was compared to finding contaminated gear. And the contaminated gear I was finding was mostly complete trash.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-02-10 02-28-56

Since there was no DZ matchmaking available during the beta, I ran the DZ solo. I liked that I was able to do that effectively. I worked with other random players I found within the DZ without ever officially teaming up with them. The system works and people are able to coordinate well within the DZ without being in groups. I was also able to kill a rogue agent, steal his gear, and extract it solo. I only saw two the entire time I was in the DZ so a 50% success rate is pretty good. The DZ leveling system is nice. You can level up fairly quickly if you stick to farming landmarks. In The Division 2 DZ levels come with special perks that only affect the DZ. There are level tiers every five DZ levels and each tier grants you a perk. Some levels have only one perk and others have you choose which one you want to implement, sacrificing the others in that tier in the process. You can respec your DZ perks but this feature wasn’t available in the beta so I don’t know what the cost or process of doing this is.

In general, I really like how the map is broken down. Each area, including the DZ is clearly marked with level range recommendations/requirements. There are a fair number of fast travel locations in each area, once you’ve unlocked them. There are events constantly appearing to farm additional XP such as bounties, hostage situations, and broadcast hacks. Even if the endgame isn’t super strong, there seems like there will be more efforts to keep the game alive past the base game. But there is definitely going to be what seems to be a lot of end game content as well.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-02-10 02-45-17

Endgame is always the Achilles heel of these types of games. It’s especially difficult when they’re not trying to go the Destiny route of adding plot based expansions at additional cost, which I can’t say will or won’t be the case with The Division 2 at this point. What I can say is that the beta featured a number of endgame clues and teases. There is of course the DZ, which I already discussed. Each mission can also be replayed on a harder difficulty. But that’s not all there is. There are definitely going to be raids because they’re mentioned in the beta’s pause menu. But there are also invasion missions. Invasion missions are replays of old mission maps with completely new enemies and plot tie-ins. But these aren’t just the same enemies with new skins. These enemies are way harder, way smarter, and way different. I finished the final (second) main mission in the beta at level six. The maximum level you could reach during the beta was level seven. That’s regular level as opposed to DZ level. Upon completing the last available main mission you unlocked special access to an invasion mission. This gave you access to three specialty builds that were much higher level and had way better gear. This gear also included an additional (fourth) weapon with a special feature. Examples included a grenade launcher and a compound bow. This mission had enemies set to level 32, more than four times higher than the enemies in the regular mission. They were a special military group that was invading the area and presumably trying to conquer Washington DC. They had crazy stuff including literal attack robots. This mission was difficult. It took me, as part of a four man team, 58 minutes to complete. It was stressful, it was scary, it was exhilarating, it was satisfying as hell once completed. While I don’t love the idea of replaying the same mission maps over and over, calling these the same missions does a disservice to the people that designed them. It is a wholly different experience. In light of all this, I’d say it looks like there is going to be a fair amount of endgame. I just hope it’s available as soon as I reach the end of the base game.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-02-08 03-10-59

Finally, there seems to be a new PVP mode other than the DZ. The Conflict mode was described in one of the tutorial messages, but sadly I didn’t have time to try it before the beta ended. Hopefully I’ll be able to try it in a public beta before the game releases. Based on the little bit the tutorial screen tells about it, I believe it’s a PVP mode with multiple specialized maps and modes that nets rewards. It also has its own leveling system, making a total of three within the game I’ve seen so far. I could also believe that many people were playing this mode which might explain why the map felt so devoid of players to me.

Overall I was really happy with this beta. It showed me the things I needed to see and experience to want to buy the full game. Gold edition seems like it will probably be necessary, but without a content timetable, I can’t say if it’s the best decision for me, as I really didn’t make proper use of the season pass in the first one. I had a good time with this beta and I think this game will do very well. It’s the same core game from the first one with a number of noticeable improvements, added modes, and a new setting. I’m definitely looking forward to retaking Washington DC.

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