Ghost Recon: Breakpoint Closed Beta Review

This is a little late, but as my schedule has been hectic with my wedding and moving in the last few weeks, it’s a wonder I have been able to do any gaming and/or writing at all. A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to try the Ghost Recon: Breakpoint closed beta. While I was only able to play for about 10 hours, I still wanted to take the time to write about my experience since the game will be launching next week.

I really need to commend Ubisoft for creating a shooter franchise that I actually like playing. I don’t like shooters or gun focused games in general. I have played a number of them over the years, but they are never my go to genre. I’ll take a third person shooter over a first person shooter any day of the week but in general I try to avoid shooting games altogether. I do find myself playing them more often in recent years though and mostly from Ubisoft. I played The Division 1 & 2 and I’m currently playing Ghost Recon: Wildlands as I gear up for Breakpoint. Other than that, Mass Effect: Andromeda is the last shooter I can remember playing that wasn’t completely cartoony, a la Ratchet & Clank. There’s probably another one I missed in there somewhere but in general I don’t play them often. I’ve completed a single Halo title (Halo 2), no iteration of COD or Battlefield, and when someone says GOW I automatically think God of War. To Ubisoft’s credit, they produced three of the four shooters I remember playing most recently as well as the next one I’ll be playing. And if you want to count Watch Dogs, then put that on the list for Ubisoft as well, making them 4/4 once Breakpoint drops.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon® Breakpoint Beta2019-9-6-23-12-50I think what I like about Ubisoft shooters is that they don’t feel like traditional shooting games. They’re always in third person, which is my definite preference, but have effective first person sniping, which is always my weapon of choice in shooting games. They lean much more heavily on story and dialog than gameplay and contain RPG elements which differentiate the experience of playing them from traditional shooters. They also don’t require me to have any interactions with other players, outside of raids in The Division, unless I absolutely want to have them, for me to have a fulfilling experience. One of the things that worried me about Wildlands was the four person team. The Division has no AI teammates so I assumed that the AI in Wildlands would either be non-existent or lousy. Even though I’ve owned the game for years, it wasn’t until seeing Breakpoint that I finally decided to actually play Wildlands. I’m happy to say that while it’s by no means a perfect game it’s much more enjoyable for me than I expected it to be.

While this is a review of the Ghost Recon: Breakpoint beta, I think it’s useful to compare it directly to Wildlands, and since I’m playing it right now and started it before the beta, I’m well equipped to do that.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon® Breakpoint Beta2019-9-6-23-30-47While Wildlands is all about the team effort, Breakpoint is about the solo hero. Both games allow you to play solo or as part of a group, but the way the games are constructed for these differences in play are very dissimilar. Wildlands was made to be played as part of a four man squad. It’s the reason they hand you three fairly decent AI teammates from the start of the game. Sure you can abandon them and go it alone but the game isn’t balanced properly for solo play so only very advanced or extremely patient players can play solo effectively. This is why the multiplayer aspect works so well. Playing with others is a smooth experience because it’s how the game was meant to be played. Breakpoint is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Though it has the functions needed to play with a four man squad, it’s not intended to be played that way. The game does not hand you AI teammates and it’s incredibly well balanced for solo play. You can play with other human players, which I did try once, but it doesn’t improve the gameplay experience in the way it does in Wildlands.

Breakpoint was constructed for the solo player and it is really fulfilling to play solo. It’s perfectly balanced to make you feel like a badass without feeling easy. No squad required. The first thing I did once I finished the tutorial and the game opened up for me was buy a sniper rifle from the shop and storm a base. Storming a base in Wildlands is hard even with a squad. You get discovered too quickly even when sniping from afar. Reinforcements show up too quickly and too often. Stealth infiltration is possible but far from practical in many if not most non-mandatory scenarios. All this makes sense given the setting that is a Bolivian narco state crawling with Santa Blanca gang members, working internet connections, and cell phones. The countless enemies, quick communication between them, and overwhelming odds are a feature not a flaw. But that sort of scenario is unruly and unenjoyable for the one man wolf pack player like me. I rely on the AI when playing Wildlands. In Breakpoint, not only do I not need the assistance, I don’t even want it.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon® Breakpoint Beta2019-9-8-0-16-7The setting of Breakpoint is an isolated island with limited connectivity, limited resources for everyone involved, and mostly isolated settlements and facilities scattered around a cluster of islands. It’s the perfect Rambo scenario. You can snipe your way through an entire base without having to worry about reinforcements showing up. You can track entry points from settlement to settlement because of the limited roads on the island that enemies will inevitably take because of their reliance on vehicles. Your drone gets plenty of range for the size and scale of the facilities being infiltrated. You still have to be smart and patient, but you don’t have to be an above average player to bring down a facility without help. And it’s not necessarily that there are fewer enemies. It’s just that the enemies are trained military personnel that aren’t standing around in giant clusters, making them lethal at close range but very manageable at a distance.

Breakpoint’s combat also has a number of quality of life improvements. Sniping, for instance, has a focused breathing function that allows the player to concentrate for a temporarily less shaky scope. Customizing weapons and gear plays a much bigger role in this game. You actually have a gear score which delivers noticeable changes to your ability to succeed. And yet the game is still a straight shooter. Enemy gear scores denote their lethality and armor level, but not your ability to kill them. Whether you’re weaker, evenly matched, or stronger than the human enemies, you can still take them down in one hit with a well-placed shot to the head. But you are not only fighting humans in this game. Drones are the bigger problem in Breakpoint and require a lot better performance and strength to bring down than humans in some cases.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon® Breakpoint Beta2019-9-8-0-15-23I never felt stuck when playing the beta. I never felt lucky. I surveyed the area, made plans, and executed them with little to no surprise. And that’s a good thing. I don’t like it when I take the time to form a plan and it just falls apart for some stupid reason. I enjoy the methodical, calculated approach that allows me as the player to feel like a spec ops agent rather than a thug. The gameplay is clean and reliable. The character development system works, though it could have slightly clearer explanations. I often found myself wondering what certain stats represented because just about everything in the game is represented with non-text symbols and the occasional abbreviation rather than clearly written out explanations. This was true for a number of weapons related things. The game makes a lot of assumptions about your previous experience playing shooters. For instance, I like to use a sniper rifle in most shooting games. But I don’t know much about guns in general and don’t play many shooting games. So while I knew right away that SNR meant sniper rifle in the weapons list, I had no idea what DMR meant. Looking at it I thought it was a sniper rifle, but officially it’s classified as a “designated marksman rifle” in the game. I had to Google it to learn that. This should be written out in the game somewhere. Even a digital manual in game would be fine. The same goes for those weapons stat symbols. Without a legend, I was making assumptions about what I thought they meant. This was one of my only complaints about the entire beta.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon® Breakpoint Beta2019-9-7-23-55-37While the game wasn’t built for playing with others, the multiplayer system works fine. I wasn’t able to try the PVP mode because it wouldn’t load for quite some time until I gave up. But I did try the campaign with a single additional player. Though many will not agree, I feel like playing with another player detracted from my overall experience. During this co-op session, we used the text chat instead of mics. The text chat is way more accessible from a menu navigation standpoint than in other Ubisoft multiplayer games I’ve played on PC. Playing with even just one other player makes a huge difference combat wise. The two of us stormed a facility and easily dominated it by using natural strategy. I found a high point and sniped while he played the ground and drew everyone into my killzone. It was beautiful. It was artistic. It was organized. It was fun. It was a bit too easy. Whereas in Wildlands I have died multiple times while playing with a four man squad (me plus three AI). In Breakpoint, the two of us had no problem storming that base, or anything else. The only two times we died during our session was when I was completely out of ammo and couldn’t find a refill, and when we went up against two ridiculously over powered tank drones. They were so over powered that we managed to die even though we rolled up in a literal tank. While I’m fine with feeling OP in games, I do feel like groups of players will feel the game is too easy.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon® Breakpoint Beta2019-9-8-1-34-46One of the worst aspects of playing with another random player was how this affected the map and navigation aspects of the gameplay. One of the coolest mechanics in Breakpoint is the maps system. In Wildlands, you are handed points of interest on a map. You go to those points and then they reveal other points with missions or special objectives/items. It’s textbook open world Ubisoft and it works fine. But it’s super unrealistic in the fact that the map means absolutely nothing. It’s just a platform to tell you which way to travel and where to fast travel to. In Breakpoint, you have to actually read the map. You aren’t given specific locations from finding intel. Instead you use intel to gather information about the whereabouts of locations based on map landmarks which you then have to find on the map and explore in game to ultimately find your target locations. This was so cool for me. The clues are clear but subtle in nature. They use landmarks and directions like “north of snake river”. Then you mark a point on your map north of the river manually and have to go there. But that doesn’t mean you’ve found your objective. You’re just in the vicinity of it.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon® Breakpoint Beta2019-9-7-15-16-51The game makes you actually explore the area and locate what you’re looking for like you would in real life. That’s actually how I found the first base I stormed accidentally. My objective was near there and when I was exploring I found a base. I thought that was the objective and cleared it out only to discover that it wasn’t my objective at all. While that would probably annoy some players, I thought it was extremely realistic and made the game way more interesting. But unless you’re playing with people who aren’t ahead of you in the game, this aspect of the gameplay is lost. The guy I played with was way ahead of me. I don’t even know why he was playing with me at all. My gear score was at like 19 while his was at 45. He had already cleared pretty much everything in the beta. This meant that every time I initiated a new objective, he already knew where it was. He would just mark it on the map for us and fly a helicopter there. That’s really realistic in a shared intel sort of way. And it’s very efficient when you aren’t in the mood to explore. But the fact that I was losing out on the exploration aspect of the game by playing with him made me want to play the entire game solo.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon® Breakpoint Beta2019-9-7-23-52-25The graphics are quite good. I tried it on both PC and PS4 and was happy with both. PC definitely looked slightly better, but I’m also running a fairly beefy rig. The landscapes are beautiful and the character models, though not Uncharted 4, are quite a bit improved over Wildlands, which was already pretty good. I was also really happy with the sound. Specifically the enemy dialog. You can use it to help pin point enemies and plan strategy around their locations in close quarters. It’s definitely a AAA quality game.

The beta didn’t go too far into the plot but it did establish the seriousness of the situation, justify your lack of an NPC team, and present a villain fairly well and quite expediently. What it didn’t give me was a why. And really that’s what a beta is supposed to do. Peak your interest but not give you enough to warrant passing on the game. I got my John Bernthal moments, though he never officially made contact with me during the beta and I understood the significance of him, a fellow Ghost, being the villain. It was a bit on the nose that your character has personal ties to his character, but in general the dynamic of Ghost vs Ghost plays really well for dramatic effect. What I didn’t get from the beta was any sort of establishment information about the Wolves, the rogue Ghost organization you’re fighting against. What I like about Wildlands a lot is the background videos that tell you about the structure and organization of the cartel. The beta didn’t give me any of that other than a similar character map of the hierarchy of the enemy organization. But at this point I’m not entirely sure if everyone on the map is an enemy or not, which actually makes for better writing, in my opinion.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon® Breakpoint Beta2019-9-6-23-39-25Overall I really enjoyed the Ghost Recon: Breakpoint beta. It played extremely well and got me excited for the full game. I’m fairly certain that I’ll be playing the bulk of the game solo but I can’t speak to the PVP mode since I wasn’t able to get it to work during the closed beta. I think this game will do really well but I can see a number of people complaining that it’s too easy in co-op mode. Sadly I won’t be able to finish Wildlands before it releases but I haven’t decided if I’ll wait to play it or not. I probably will because it feels quite a deal better as far as gameplay and going backwards mechanically in games never feels good.

Thankfully the open beta for Ghost Recon: Breakpoint starts tomorrow, depending on your time zone, so if you’re interested but still on the fence you can try it for yourself. “Sadly” I won’t be able to play the open beta because I’ll be traveling for my honeymoon.

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Can We Be Done With Grinding?

I’ve been playing RPGs for a long time but not the longest time. My first serious RPG that I actually finished was Pokemon Red (1998) on the Gameboy. It’s important to note that as a handheld RPG the experience of playing it is/was much different than that of a home console RPG. It wasn’t until three years later that I beat Final Fantasy X (2001) on the PS2. While this was not the first console RPG I ever played, it was the first one I ever finished. The first one I can remember playing was Digimon World (1999) on the PS1. I put many hours into this game and enjoyed it quite a bit but was ultimately never able to complete it, which I actually blame on design flaws due to the nature of the generation style gameplay. Call me a noob if you want, but that’s not really relevant to this particular discussion. I had been aware of RPGs like the highly prestigious Final Fantasy VII, but I never completed any console RPGs before FFX. I consider this the true start point of my love for RPGs. And I still consider FFX the best FF after having now played FFVII, FFX, FFXII, FFXIII, and some spin off titles.

I would now consider myself a high level RPG enthusiast. I have and continue to play both Western and JRPGs such as SoulsBorne, Nioh, Elder Scrolls, The Division (I’d say it counts), Xenoblade Chronicles, Pokemon, Dragon Age, and of course Kingdom Hearts. This genre has evolved considerably since I first started playing it. Gameplay has changed from turn based to active and real time combat. The level of customization has evolved from a single weapon and armor to countless pieces of gear, accessories, skill trees, and even aesthetic appearance. Dialog has become dynamic and consequential. In a lot of ways we are kind of living through the golden age of RPGs. But one thing has remained consistent over all these generations of consoles and games. I’m of course talking about grinding.

FFX

Grinding, or training as we called it in my youth, is the process of battling enemies over and over again with no relevance to plot progression. It is merely a way to strengthen your character(s) in order to make combat easier. Often this occurs when you’re stuck on a boss or area and can’t progress forward in the plot. But often it’s just for the vanity of reaching the level cap. In any case, it’s the most mindless part of playing any RPG but is required to complete just about all of them, in some form.

Some games handle grinding better than others. The Division 2 did a great job of handling baseline grinding to the level 30 cap, in my opinion. It’s organic, as in you just play through the base game and by the time you clear all the missions and side activities you’re at or above level 30. You don’t have to really grind because you never have to replay any content to reach maximum level. But as this is a loot shooter, you will then spend an exorbitant amount of time replaying missions for better gear, which yes does count as grinding in its own way, but I won’t include it for the purposes of argument in the point I’m trying to make in this particular post.

Tom Clancy's The Division 2 Screenshot 2019.03.18 - 01.39.53.91

Some games meet you in the middle with grinding, where it’s not required, ignoring trophies, but can be used as a tool. Final Fantasy X is like this. You can grind to pretty much unlimited levels, amassing unnecessarily high strength stats, making all bosses a cake walk. But you aren’t required to do this. You can challenge whatever boss you’re at whenever you want. If you’re good enough, by implementing strategy, you can progress without grinding. You will almost certainly have to do at least a bit of grinding though as the bosses get progressively harder and you need better magic spells. In general though, the model used for grinding in the game is very balanced. You don’t have to do it, but you can, and when you do there’s no reason to try to fully max out your characters. You just do it enough to get to the strength level that makes you happy/comfortable.

Finally, some games just shit on the players by forcing them to grind. That doesn’t necessarily mean the game sucks as a whole. It just means that the implementation of grinding within the game is predatory in nature because it acts as a time sink to artificially lengthen the game. This is most often done in games with either level minimums to progress past a certain point in the plot or stat requirements for gear. You see this a lot in Soulsborne games. You find a piece of gear and it’s better than what you currently have equipped but you can’t use it till you reach a higher specific stat. But raising stats is tied to leveling. So you then have to spend a bunch of time grinding out levels just so you can equip a new piece of gear. This is burdensome and honestly pointless. It’s not a level threshold that defines any sort of skill level or ability to move forward in the game. It’s just a wall from content placed behind time played vs dollars spent. Such a system may have been passable back in the days where there were few RPGs and kids needed games to last longer because of cost issues. But the mechanic was never really a good thing as far as objective game design criticism.

Souls series

Making games arbitrarily longer with no ties/relevance to story is simply bad design. The saving grace of Soulsborne games in this instance is that you technically can progress forward without needing to use that piece of gear. Because of mechanics things like summoning help, you don’t actually have to take any time to grind in Soulsborne games if you don’t want to. So From Software took the time to balance their grinding system out, which is why I wouldn’t criticize those games overall on the issue of grinding, even though I’ve used them here to exemplify this predatory grinding mechanic.

As I said, I’ve been playing RPGs for many years and still do. Recently I finished Kingdom Hearts II on Proud Mode. It took me 55 hours including all the bonus stuff I could be asked to do.  I maxed out all the drive forms, defeated Sephiroth, beat all the Organization XIII members/Absent Silhouettes, defeated Lingering Will, grabbed all the puzzle pieces, and solved all the puzzles. So it’s finally time to move on to the next game in the collection as I make my way to Kingdom Hearts III. One of the things I did was reach level 99. I always do this in main Kingdom Hearts games for a few reasons. Part of it is the trophy, part of it is that the amount of time it takes me to get all the materials to fully finish the synthesis list gets me close enough to make it worth going the rest of the way, and part of it is the difficulty of the Sephiroth battle. In the case of KHII, I spent an unnecessary amount of time grinding. Not a preposterous amount like I have in other RPGs, but more time than should have been wasted on mindless grinding. And if you count farming for materials as part of grinding then that amount of wasted hours balloons even more. But I did it because it’s just what you (I) do in these games.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-05-15 00-35-57

As I was finishing up the climb to level 99, I asked myself, “why is this still a thing?” Why are we still being asked to grind in RPGs? For some games, such as the aforementioned Soulsborne titles, you’re not really grinding because death is a key mechanic to the gameplay. So while grinding does happen, you’re never really able to say that you’re mindlessly grinding. And since there isn’t really a level cap, you don’t have any reason to grind other than the need to get stronger. So I don’t really include games like that in the discussion. But in normal xp focused RPGs I don’t see any practical reason for grinding to be a thing in 2019. If I’ve already killed an enemy 100 times, clearly I’ve mastered fighting that enemy. So at that point why not just allow me to automatically level up to wherever I want to be rather that making me refight the same enemies over and over and over again? I know what level I want to get to. I know why I’m leveling up. I’m not looking for any specific items. I just want/need xp to reach my level goals.

It seems preposterous in 2019 to have to waste time mindlessly killing enemies for experience points that you don’t need to progress forward in the game. The fact is that I didn’t need to hit level 99 to finish the game. I probably didn’t even need to hit level 99 to beat Sephiroth. So what is the actual value in taking the time to reach level 99? Or more to the point, why is getting to level 99 such a time sink? It’s just making the game take longer unnecessarily. Now KHII is a game from 14 years ago, so obviously it’s not fair to cast a blanket shadow over the RPGs of today based on that game. But has much about grinding really changed in 14 years? Not really. Some has been done to make the grinding seem more justified like trying to tie it a bit more into the story or gear in order to give it the appearance of legitimacy. But it doesn’t change the fact that in the bulk of RPGs players are still forced to mindlessly battle the same foes over and over for xp, past any point of actual learning. It’s referred to as grinding because it’s a real grind as opposed to an entertaining, educational, or relevant experience. So at that point, why are we still doing it? And note that I’m not asking why as in we as players should stop hitting the level cap. I’m asking why as in developers should remove or streamline this mechanic in games.

FF7 Level Up

I never played Final Fantasy VII as a kid. I played the PS4 HD port last year. And you know what, I’m fairly certain it was way better than the original. The PS4 port has cheats built into it. Not cheats that make the game easier. Just cheats that make the game faster. You can increase the speed of the game as far as how fast everything moves including battles, walking, and text. You can increase the accumulation of xp so you can grind less but level up faster. And you can increase the speed of special move/overdrive accumulation so that special moves don’t require you to go do a bunch of random battles to fill them up. And the best part is you can toggle these on and off at literally any time. This is not an easy mode. These are quality of life changes that the player has full autonomy over at all times. What used to take a hundred or more hours now can be done in under 50. The story isn’t affected. The gameplay isn’t affected. And unless you count the hours spent grinding as part of the difficulty, the challenge of the game isn’t affected. This was a great modern port and I’m glad I got to finally finish FFVII because of it. Which leaves me asking the question, why aren’t more RPGs like this?

I don’t mind farming for materials. It’s annoying but it’s a legitimate part of the challenge of the game. I don’t mind having a level up mechanic. That’s what an RPG is. But in 2019 with a huge backlog of games, many of them being RPGs, I just don’t want to spend tons of hours grinding. I don’t want to do it because it’s not fun and it’s not legitimately challenging. Grinding is not difficulty. It’s a waste of my time. Once I’ve killed an enemy x number of times, just let me pick the level I want to upgrade to so I can move on. Even if it just became an endgame mechanic in RPGs, that would be fine. Like once you hit that open world backtracking portion of the game and a certain minimum level or number of kills has been done, the game should just let you choose what level to upgrade to. Or at the very least let you increase the xp multiplier by a considerable amount. That was one of the things I didn’t know about KHII while playing the bulk of it. You can triple your xp accumulation if you’re using a certain keyblade, which I didn’t get until I was already in the high 80’s but could have gotten back at like level 50. That would have made the endgame way more efficient.

FFX Sphere Grid

As long as it’s fun, I don’t mind. Like if there are new enemies to tackle and rewards to find, then I’m fine with leveling up manually. But if I’m reengaging the same enemies in the same areas countless times for items I absolutely don’t need, like in the case of KHII, then what’s the point? When you don’t have any other games to play and no money, it’s fine. As a kid, spending more than a hundred hours on FFX, Kingdom Hearts I, and The Elder Scroll IV: Oblivion was great. It gave me something to do. But as an adult with The Witcher 2, The Witcher 3, The Surge, Dark Souls 3, Final Fantasy XV, World of Final Fantasy, and Kingdom Hearts III all on my “short” list with countless other games on my backlog in total, I don’t need to waste a single minute on throwaway gameplay. And I shouldn’t have to. I don’t want games to be easier. I don’t even want them to be shorter. I just want them to be meaningful for every minute of the game. If it’s not a meaningful experience or at the very least something I haven’t done before, then I shouldn’t be forced to do it more than a handful of times to reach my goal. This is not a discussion about making Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice easier. That shouldn’t happen. This is a discussion about how a Final Fantasy VII HD Remake won’t be a better game than the original if you still have to pour in countless hours to level up just to fight a bonus boss for a trophy. I guess what I’m saying is can we just be done with grinding?

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Sekiro: Noobs Cry Twice

This post is going to offend many and possibly cost me quite a few followers. I’m fine with that. I’m not here to garner a following. I’m here to incite discussion by making arguments tempered by more than two decades of gaming and being an active part of the gaming community. That being said, my intention with this post, as with all posts, is not to offend but to give an informed opinion about topics in gaming. Really I didn’t want to write this post but I got tired of having the same argument over and over with different people on different platforms so I thought it would make more sense just to write it all out in one place and then link that to people rather than hash it all out for the umpteenth time.

Last month From Software, the makers of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. This is a game that was teased a few years back with the rumor mill believing it was Bloodborne 2. Much later it was revealed that it was a new IP that would take a much different approach to the From Software formula while still delivering an authentic From Software experience. If the internet is any indicator, the studio succeeded in literally every way possible except for the lack of character creation options, which personally I’m fine with.

Sekiro Tease

I have not yet played the release version of Sekiro. I played a pre-build at Taipei Game Show this year, which I discussed briefly in my blog post about the event. I will eventually play the full game though. From what the internet has expressed, Sekiro has all the iconic Soulsborne qualities. Beautiful settings, quality lore, and weird, random stuff. The only key differences between this and past games from the studio, within the same genre, are the presence of an actual character driven narrative and the inability to summon other players for help. The combat style is different, but it’s apparently no different than the difference between Dark Souls and Bloodborne. It’s just another take on that style of gameplay. But what’s most important is that for whatever reason Sekiro seems to be harder than any of their past games.

Difficulty is an interesting topic of discussion in games. What makes a game hard? I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that question. Many developers have addressed this question in different ways. Some people think it’s the amount of life the player character has which is ultimately measured by the number of hits the player can take in a given battle. Others think it’s the amount of life the enemies have which is ultimately measured by the number of hits the player has to deal in a given battle. And still others would say it’s the number of enemies you have to face in a given battle. And this only applies to games where difficulty is measured in combat scenarios. There are many different genres of games that define difficulty in different ways. While most people can’t fully agree on what is or isn’t difficult, a majority of players can agree on one thing: From Software games are hard. And apparently everyone is also in agreement that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the hardest game From Software has ever made.

dark souls is hard

Sekiro is the fifth game in this genre by From Software but I couldn’t even tell you how many total games in this genre now exist. Other companies have started making these games as well such as Koei Tecmo with Nioh, currently my favorite game in the genre, and CI Games S.A. with Lords of the Fallen. So this genre is now well established and iconically difficult. It’s also important to consider that difficulty in games is both relative and comparative. A game is not difficult in a vacuum. It’s difficult compared to other games as defined by the overall experiences of a majority of players. The fact is that if you had never played any video games except games in this genre then you probably wouldn’t think Soulsborne games were hard. You would think they were normal difficulty. It’s only in the context of other games that Sekiro is considered ultra-hard.

Soulsborne games do not have a difficulty setting. Like with classic games such as Super Mario Bros., still one of the hardest games ever made, you just play the game as intended by the developers. There are no easier and harder default modes. The closest thing to a harder mode is new game +, which is completely optional once you’ve already completed it. There’s no hand holding or extra challenging way to play. The game just is. Difficulty levels were introduced to make games more accessible to different styles of play and different levels of ability, or at least that’s how it was sold. I actually think difficulty levels were introduced to games in order to encourage replays. In the arcade era you fed quarters into machines. Games were hard because they wanted to steal your money. But once home consoles became a thing, quarters became a non-factor. Instead games were measured in play hours. So questions about how you keep people playing a game after they’ve already beaten it came up. In my opinion, difficulty levels was one of many answers to this question. But not the only answer. Replay value as a concept is something that developers are constantly trying to figure out in new ways.

Super Mario Bros
Let me tell you about difficulty in games.

The issue we’re now facing is that Sekiro seems to have finally pushed the difficulty barrier too far. A vocal minority of people are claiming the game is just too hard and that an easy mode should be added. Now you have to understand the context in which this discussion is occurring to truly understand the nuances of it. The semi-official motto of Soulsborne games is “Prepare to Die” or “You Will Die”. The point being that From Software markets their games as being difficult as defined by the number of times you will fail before you finally succeed is much higher than in most games in the market today. I’d still say I’ve died more times playing Super Mario Bros. than in any singular Soulsborne title though. But the unofficial motto of Soulsborne games is “git gud” or “get good” if you want a formal English translation. The community sees the games as difficult and relishes that fact. The games are not “too hard”. They simply are hard and you as the player need to get better. Because of this culture of the genre, the idea of demanding From Software, specifically, to add an easy mode has caused a large debate within the community of people who claim to play video games. I worded that in that way intentionally.

prepare to die

Let’s be very honest about who started this “movement”. It was noobs. People who either through a lack of experience, a lack of patience, or a general lack of skill simply don’t want to put the work in to git gud but they paid $60+ to buy a pretty samurai game and now feel entitled to be able to finish it without sinking hundreds of hours into it. This is absolutely entitlement. Is it misplaced entitlement? I don’t know. They did spend $60. But at the same time, they should have been aware of the company making the game and done more research about the game before purchasing. So I don’t necessarily agree that having bought the game entitles anyone to being able to beat the game. I will however say that From Software, and really all developers of all genres of games, should have put out a free demo to allow players to try the game before purchasing. Then people could have made more informed buying decisions and would be solely to blame for being noobs or at least idiots for buying a game they weren’t good enough to beat when they had the option to try it and find that out beforehand. But in any case, this idea that From Software should add an easy mode to Sekiro was started by noobs. There’s no official hashtag for the movement so I couldn’t find the origin of the argument but I did try, just for the record.

As with all controversies on the internet, especially those concerning performance/ability to complete a task, the whiners were blasted. Soulsborne veterans were not having any such nonsense about From Software adding an easy mode to their games. Git gud doesn’t work if you can play on easy mode. And of course, in true internet fashion, when the whiners weren’t agreed with they shifted the argument towards fighting on behalf of a marginalized group. In this case that group was people with physical disabilities.

Sekiro-easy-mode

As an African American, I get extremely irritated when people, and I’ll be honest and say nine times out of ten it’s white people, choose to speak on behalf of my people based on their opinions of how they think things should be that would be better for my people. This is a super common occurrence that literally every group that doesn’t fall under straight, cis, white person has to deal with. They speak for racial minorities. They speak for homosexuals. They speak for physically disabled people. They speak for mental health patients. Rarely do they ask any of us our opinions on an issue and they pretty much never let us control the conversation about our issues. And that is exactly what’s happening here.

The argument, again after shifting the narrative away from lazy noobs, is that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is so difficult that physically disabled gamers aren’t able to play it. First of all, that’s extremely patronizing. People have beaten Dark Souls with Guitar Hero controllers, Rock Band drum sets, and literal bananas. If anything this is proof that the games really aren’t that hard and just require a lot of practice, which is the point of the games to begin with. Learn and improve by doing is the basic gameplay model. So to argue that disabled players simply can’t ever get good enough to beat Sekiro is insulting to them. And second of all, what gives anyone who isn’t disabled the right to speak on behalf of disabled gamers in the first place?

banana controller

I have seen multiple, yes white, people online arguing that the game needs an easy mode because of disabled players. I’ve yet to see a single disabled person voice this argument themselves. I’m not saying none have. I’m just saying that the most outspoken group of people making this argument aren’t disabled themselves. I’m sure some people will argue that this is because disabled people are marginalized and thus don’t have the proper platform to represent themselves, but again patronizing. Everyone can speak on the internet. I’m an African American but I can still write this blog and post tweets just like any able bodied white person can. I don’t need them to speak for me and disabled gamers don’t either in 2019. This is a false flag operation that noobs are using to try to get an easy mode made for themselves.

I want to reiterate a point that I’ve made countless times and have written multiple blog posts about. NOT EVERYTHING IS FOR YOU! More specifically, every piece of entertainment has a target audience and you are not always going to be a part of that target audience. And that’s OK. There are movies for Black people. White people can watch them but they’re not made with the intent of being accessible to them. There are games made for women with focused themes about feminism, gender inequality, and sexism. Men can buy and play them but they’re not made with the intent of being accessible to them. All products, both entertainment and not, are made with a specific target audience in mind. That’s literally how business, and marketing, works. To expect all things to be made for all people to fully enjoy is not only unrealistic but it ultimately lowers the quality of products and over simplifies people’s interests. Some games just aren’t for everyone and that includes you. And yes sometimes that means certain groups won’t be able to enjoy them. That’s not discrimination. It’s targeted product development.

target-audience

Sekiro is not discriminating against disabled gamers. Now if From Software told stores to not allow disabled players to buy the game or asked the player if they were disabled at the start of the game and then locked them out if they answer yes, that would be discrimination against disabled players. At worst, Sekiro simply wasn’t made for disabled players. But it is not actively discriminating against them. And arguing to lower the difficulty of the games for disabled players is not only patronizing, but the incorrect way to solve the problem.

Why might a game be difficult for disabled players specifically? Assuming they have the mental capacity to play and understand the game, then it really comes down to maneuverability and possibly reaction time. By reaction time, I mean players having to move their fingers/hands around the control mechanism quickly enough, not their ability to press buttons quickly once their fingers/hands have reached the button’s location. Reaction time is a part of gaming. Whether it’s Dark Souls, Dance Dance Revolution, or Gran Turismo, the ability to react to the game on time is the main aspect of the gameplay. Any active time game works that way. To remove reaction time from games altogether would severely limit what games could be made going all the way back to Pong. You could pretty much only make turn based games with no action timers if reaction time had to be completely removed from gaming. So in the same way that people aren’t advocating that games add a slow mode for elderly players, it’s not realistic to demand games to slow down for disabled players. What can be fixed is how disabled players interact with a game via control schemes.

xbox adaptive controller
This IS how you make gaming more accessible to disabled players.

Control customization is what really should be discussed if we’re going to talk about making games more accessible for disabled players. The XBOX Adaptive Controller is a great example of this. The problem was/is that a traditional XBOX controller made it harder for disabled players to interact with games effectively. The solution was not to dumb down the games. Because disabled players aren’t dumb. They’re physically limited by comparison to a majority of the population of gamers. So rather than change the games, Microsoft created a controller that would make it easier for disabled players to interact with the games they wanted to play. I think the fact that Fortnite was used in the ad is extremely telling. Fortnite is a PVP shooter that requires not just fast response times but response times and strategic decision making better than that of your human opponents. No one said Fortnite should force players to play slower for disabled people. Because that would be ridiculous. Instead they made controlling Fortnite more accessible for disabled players thus allowing them to play the game at true level. Which is exactly what gamers, disabled or not, want to do. Gamers want to beat games and beat them properly. Noobs want to pass through games as quickly as possible with little to no effort. Just because a person is disabled, that doesn’t make them a noob.

What Sekiro needs isn’t an easy mode. It needs an open button map that allows players, disabled or otherwise, to operate the game in a way that works best for them. I think it says a lot that in my blog post about the demo I commented on how much I, a gamer that isn’t disabled, hated the button map. The problem isn’t the difficulty. It’s the accessibility of the controls. Making more solutions to give disabled players more control is the real answer here. And again, I haven’t played the final build. It may very well be the case that some of the suggestions I’ve made here have already been implemented into the release version of the game.

sekiro-controls-xboxone

I want to be crystal clear, if it’s not already obvious, that I have no problem with disabled gamers or their desire to play Sekiro or any game. I 100% advocate for solutions that will help disabled players enjoy the same games that everyone else does. The operative word being SAME. We should not lower the difficulty threshold of games so more noobs can play them. And again, disabled gamers aren’t noobs. Noobs are noobs whether they’re disabled or not. And I don’t care what noobs want whether they’re disabled or not, because noobs aren’t gamers and shouldn’t be able to dictate what happens to games. But there’s also another serious component to this discussion that’s being overtly ignored. What about the developer(s)?

My mantra for this blog is “I fight for the user.” This has always been and will always be a blog that focuses on consumer sided arguments. But I’m no idiot. I still understand that gaming is a business and that business comes first for developers and publishers. So when things go too far into the realm of ridiculous, I do feel required to address and sometimes advocate for the developer’s side of the discussion. Not publishers though. Screw those greedy bastards.

Souls series

People are arguing that From Software has an obligation to create an easy mode in Sekiro even though many people have already beaten the game. One guy already did a speed run of it. The game is already widely successful, topping the global sales charts. So the question must be asked, what does From Software stand to gain, as a business, from adding an easy mode? Will profits increase? Will the game become more popular than it currently is? Will more top level streamers and reviewers feature the game on their channels? What is the benefit to From Software as a company for spending the time and resources to create an easy mode? And let’s please not pretend that it would be easy to make an easy mode. They are a company that makes a quality product with a certain expectation of experience. They would still work to create an authentic experience that’s just not as hard while preserving the sense of accomplishment for winning. Also factor in how their loyal fans that have been playing their games sense Demon’s Souls would respond. People love to say “it doesn’t affect you so it shouldn’t matter” but we all know that’s not how market pressure works. The truth is that enough people would get angry about the addition of an easy mode that it would affect sales. All of these factors need to be taken into account. It’s not realistic or fair to demand From Software, or really any developer, to devote resources to ultimately lose money.

Even if there was no negative backlash, which is a highly unlikely if not impossible scenario, that still doesn’t mean sales will increase. And if no profit comes from adding an easy mode then it’s a complete waste of time and resources. Resources that could be used to make DLC, patches, fix balance issues, or work on the next project. All of these things would be potentially sacrificed, for a time, in order to create this mode. If adding the mode won’t increase profits then it’s not a mode worth adding. And that still doesn’t address the issue of creative control.

creative control

I believe that markets shape end products. I believe that companies have an obligation to themselves to meet the demands of the public in order to make a profit. But I also believe that companies should be allowed to make the games they want to make. Even if a game/idea is obviously not going to be profitable, I still think a developer has the right to choose to pursue that bad idea if it’s what they want to pursue. Hopefully they pay attention and appropriately react to market pressure but they should never be obligated to. So I take serious issue with the narrative/argument that From Software has an obligation to make an easy mode for literally any group. Whether it’s people with disabilities, noobs, women, people of color, or anyone else, I think it’s both ridiculous and unfair to approach a topic like this from the position of making demands. Developers are artists and they have the right and responsibility to create the art they want to create. If that art isn’t profitable, which is absolutely not the case with Sekiro, that changes nothing. They still have the right to make unprofitable or even terrible art if it’s what they want to make.

I think it’s especially problematic that, as per usual, Americans, again mostly white people, have the nerve to try to dictate what a group of Japanese developers do with their already successful game. That sort of thinking comes from a combination of Western narcissism and privilege. It’s From Software’s game and they have the right to do, or not do, whatever they want with it. So stop whining and try to come up with more creative solutions for how to make gaming controls more accessible for disabled gamers rather than demanding games be easier. And for those who aren’t disabled and just can’t hack it, GIT GUD!

*I actually discovered this article after I finished preparing this post and I thought it was very well done. While I did not change anything about my post because of it, I found it to be insightful, informative, and mostly agreeable with my opinions on the subject. Even better is the fact that it was written by a disabled gamer who works as an accessibility consultant for game developers. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, I highly recommend reading it.

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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.

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.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-02-10 01-48-49

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.

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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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Nioh vs Dark Souls

This past weekend, I finally finished the main story of Nioh. It took me just over 70 hours to complete. I am not finished with the game because there are several post-game missions, an entire new class of items you unlock by finishing the main story, a new game plus mode (which I probably don’t have time to play), and a number of DLC missions, which I do plan on completing. I have to say that this was an excellent game. I have some complaints, which is true for every game I’ve ever played, but overall Nioh was quite the positive gaming experience.

I played both the alpha and beta of the game, but didn’t get around to actually playing it till they had already announced the sequel, which was the main reason I finally got my ass in gear with this one. What I find interesting is that many people I’ve spoken to aren’t fans of Nioh because of their relationship with Dark Souls. I understand but don’t agree with this point of view. First, because the games really are quite different in many respects. And second, because Dark Souls I & II (still haven’t gotten around to III) are no more or less flawed than Nioh. All three of these games, and Bloodborne, all have their own issues which are subjective design choices that some people will like and others will hate, while many won’t care one way or the other. So rather than write a straight review of Nioh, I thought it would be more useful to write a comparison of Nioh to Dark Souls with a focus on some key design choices/differences between the two franchises.

Nioh Souls

Combat

People tend to differentiate Dark Souls from Bloodborne because of the combat pacing/style. Dark Souls is seen as the slower more defense focused game that relies heavily on technique and strategy. While Bloodborne is seen as the faster paced more offense focused game that relies more on real time skill and reaction. Having played both games, I can agree with this assessment on some level. I tend to prefer Dark Souls, which is interesting because I hate blocking in games generally. What I like about Nioh is that it allows the player a lot more differentiation while still keeping it really simple, when it comes to combat. Dark Souls offers you 22 different weapon types with various weapons in each category, but they’re all fairly similar, with the exception of magic. It’s one handed short weapons or two handed great weapons, plus bows for ranged attacks. The combat is focused much more on stats than actual weapon performance other than one handed vs two handed. But you do have a fair amount of control over the pacing of combat between those two differentiations, not to mention you have the option to play with or without a shield. You also have to take weight into account when playing Dark Souls and it has a huge effect on gameplay.

Bloodborne is less varied in specific weapon options with only a single version of each type of weapon, but each of the 15 weapon types is fairly different plus there are 11 different secondary weapons to choose from. You are afforded a lot more variation among the Bloodborne weapons, but the pacing of combat is very similar for all weapon types. Add this to the fact that there are no shields in Bloodborne and weight doesn’t have to be accounted for and you have a very fast paced, but less varied gameplay experience than Dark Souls.

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Tonfa is not available at the start of the game.

The problem with both Dark Souls and Bloodborne, when it comes to combat, is you have a lot of choices, but few options. Ranged attacks and magic aside, Dark Souls really just comes down to one handed vs two handed weapons, shield or no shield in the case of choosing one handed, and weight class, which affects agility. Bloodborne is similar in making you choose between one handed and two handed combat, but it gives the player the option of using any weapon in either way and allows you to change in real time. But with the lack of weight and similar style the weapons carry, you can pretty much commit to a play style early on and ride it out the whole game. For instance, I used two handed axe for probably 85% of the game.

Nioh takes a much different approach to combat differentiation than either Dark Souls or Bloodborne. While those two franchises approach the issue from the style of traditional action games, Nioh is more similar to a JRPG. Rather than bogging you down with tons of weapon types, there are only six: katana, axe, kusarigama, spear, dual-swords, and tonfa. As well as three ranged types: bow, rifle, hand cannon. Each weapon type is wholly different, but true differentiation comes from the fact that there are countless variations of each type of weapon as well as the ability to manipulate, reforge, and evolve them. The speed and style of combat is contingent on numerous factors. You have to account for weapon type, weapon stance (low, mid, high), armor weight, magic and ninja enhancements, natural weapon enhancements/buffs, learned skills/techniques, and you can forge your own buffs into weapons. All while also considering your character’s build. The thing I really like is that the game forces you to take the time to “master” all six weapon types to get maximum character bonuses. This allowed me to find which type of weapon actually works the best for my style of play. You also get to carry two main weapons and two ranged weapons which can be hot swapped at any time. While it’s easy to settle into a specific weapon type, you are still constantly honing and evolving your use of any weapon type as you learn new techniques, magical enhancements, and acquire different/better versions of a weapon type. Combat is never really mastered, so much as it slows down in its evolution.

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Economy

The Souls franchise, spanning all the way back to the original Demon’s Souls (2009), takes its name from the fact that the one and only currency available in the game is souls. You use them to level up, buy things, and upgrade gear. This system works because it’s simple. With a single currency to do everything, you don’t have to worry about exchange rates, what resource to focus on accumulating, or how to manage and distribute your rewards. You have one thing for everything all the time. The problem with this system is that when you die, and fail to reclaim your souls, you are royally screwed. You lose your progress towards everything you’re working towards all at the same time. That level up, those upgrades, that new weapon. It’s all gone in one foul swoop. Realizing this, Nioh went a different way.

Nioh has two currencies, amrita and gold. Amrita is the equivalent of souls but it can only be used to level up. Its sole purpose is to make you physically more capable. Gold is used for everything else. Buying items, selling items, upgrading gear, forging new gear, and pretty much everything else is done with gold. It’s the currency of the game. Amrita is simply the currency of your character’s development. In most games, xp is permanent while gold can be lost/stolen. In Nioh, it’s the reverse.  Just like with Dark Souls, you can lose your amrita when you die and fail to return to your corpse. But your gold is permanent until you spend it.

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What’s nice is that you get both gold and amrita from killing enemies, just at different rates. You can also choose to trade gear for either gold or amrita, depending on what you want. This is why I find this system superior. The player is given a choice in how to prioritize their loot. If you don’t want to level up but want better gear, you can choose to focus on amassing gold. If you want to level up, you focus on amassing amrita. And in the late game this becomes key because leveling up becomes way slower than improving your gear with crafting and upgrades.

There is technically a third currency called glory, which you get from fighting revenants, but it’s not as useful and it’s not required to get through the game. I honestly didn’t use it at all except to buy character transformations, which I’ll address in the appearance section.

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Multiplayer

One of the main selling points of Demon’s Souls, and by extension Dark Souls, was the multiplayer interactions. This includes co-op, PVP, and communication through hints. I have to say that both games franchises/games get a little right and a lot wrong, but in different ways. The worst part about PVP in Dark Souls is that it’s never by choice for the victim of invasion. You can be playing the game with no interest in fighting or even interacting with other players, soon to reach the next bonfire, only to be invaded and often killed by no fault of your own. One of the worst things in the game(s) is that there are invasion hot spots where you literally can’t progress forward because you can be back to back invaded by the same player who’s already proven to be stronger than you. One of the only ways around this is to play offline, but then you lose the ability to summon help, so it leaves you in a catch 22. Nioh doesn’t have this problem.

There is no invasion in Nioh. You never have to fight against anyone you don’t choose to. If you want a PVP match you have to go into the PVP lobby and create/find a match. That’s how it should be. But the regular game is not devoid of special interactions against other players, or at least a version of them. The revenant system is the bridge that connects PVP and PVE. When you die, you leave a corpse. It has your gear, traits, fighting style, and abilities. When other people play through a level, they can see your corpse and choose to challenge it in a duel. If they can defeat it, they get some gear matching the gear you were wearing when you died in that spot. You don’t actually lose any of your gear. What’s great about this system is you can see the level and class of gear of the corpse before battling it so you can decide which fights are worth your time as well as moderate how difficult these opponents are. This allows you to have the PVP experience and rewards without actually having to be bothered by other people or wait for them to be online in order to get rewards from fighting them. And the revenants are different from each other. They have different gear and use different tactics based on the player they’re derived from. Some use magic, some fight more conservatively, some are terribly easy even when they’re a much higher level. It’s a great system that allows everyone to have the encounters they want without negatively affecting those of other players in the process. And just to spice it up a bit, there are moments in the game where revenants are summoned automatically, similar to the bell ringing maidens in Bloodborne. In key areas there are sages playing a Japanese guitar like instrument. This automatically summons any revenant you get too close to within the vicinity of the music. Once you’ve killed the sage, the automatic summoning ceases. What’s really nice is that once the sages are killed they’re dead for good even after you die and respawn.

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Communication between disconnected players is an important part of both Dark Souls and Nioh, but it’s done in completely different ways. In Dark Souls you can leave messages for other players. This is a nice system, but it’s also annoying for everyone involved. As a person leaving a message you have to choose the best spot to leave it so that people will see it. You have to piece together a message with sentence fragments because you aren’t given the ability to just write whatever you want, which is a good thing. Even after all that work people still might not notice or take the time to read your message. And even if they do read your message, if they don’t up-vote it the message will eventually disappear no matter how useful it actually may have been. The person reading the message has to find it, actively read it, interpret the piecemeal language in the context of the current setting, and up-vote it to make sure it doesn’t disappear for other players. Very few people actually want to go through any of this trouble. Not to mention that it’s extremely difficult to leave helpful messages to players that also have to be located in places they will actually see. In reality, the only information players absolutely need in a Soulslike game is how other players died. Missing a chest sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. And if you really want to find all the items, you’ll use an online walkthrough. The only information that will truly affect players is knowing what’s coming to kill them. So Nioh focuses only on conveying information about deaths between players directly. This is also done through the revenant system and it’s way more convenient than the messaging in Dark Souls. When you die and leave a corpse/revenant, players can also see how you died. It’s easy because there aren’t even any commands needed unless you actually want to fight a revenant. Just walking near their corpses instantly tells players how they died, what level they were when they died, and the gear they were carrying. And that’s really all the information you need. Being able to see how other players died gives you a clear hint about what’s coming up to try and kill you so you can be ready.

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Clans are similar to Covenants in Dark Souls

I would say neither Nioh nor Dark Souls handles coop matchmaking well. Both do certain things well, but both also have fundamental flaws to their systems which make things terribly inconvenient for the player(s). Dark Souls has the more convenient summoning system in that you can at any time drop a sign in any location and other players can summon you. You can summon up to three people, which is really convenient. It’s a nice system because you can be playing the game and farming while waiting to be summoned. The hitch is that you can only summon people when you’re alive, which requires using an item or helping someone else beat a boss. Overall thissystem makes it so you never have to waste any time while waiting to get summoned by other people. Nioh fails in this regard. To play coop as the summoner, you can only summon people from in level shrines, which are the equivalent of bonfires. There are two to four per a stage. There is no alive or dead system in Nioh, which is a good thing, but summoning requires single use items, which you find as loot from killing enemies. You can carry up to 99 of these at a time, which is nice, but they are not easy to find early on in the game. So you have struggle alone early on if you actually want/need summons to move forward. Personally, I think Nioh is easier than Dark Souls and I didn’t summon anyone to beat the main story. This was not the case for Dark Souls I & II or Bloodborne for me. What’s really annoying about the system in Nioh is that you have to do it at a shrine, meaning you have to reset all the enemies you’ve already cleared to summon someone and you can’t summon from the boss door like you can in Dark Souls. But thankfully you can go back to shrines while a summon is active, refilling all yours and their health and items. Being summoned is even more inconvenient in Nioh. You can’t just drop a sign or ring a bell and go on with your day until summoned. You have to go to a menu on the world map and enter a summoning lobby. You then have to wait until you’re summoned to play in a stage. On the flip side, you can set parameters for summons such as which stage you’d liked to be summoned to and difficulty level. But if no one wants to summon then you just sit and wait rather than farming while you’re waiting. And you can be rejected by players once summoned, which might happen for various reasons.

What I find superior about summoning in Nioh compared to both Dark Souls and Bloodborne is that there are no level caps or level scaling. If you are on the first stage as a level 5 and you want to summon a friend who is level 150 and has already beaten the game, you can do that. If you want to bring in a high level player to stomp the boss for you, the game doesn’t scale them down to your level. It lets them play to the full extent of their power and abilities. And that’s how it should be. If you want to earn it, that should be your choice as the player. If you want your friends to help you, then that should be your choice as well. But you can only summon one player in Nioh as opposed to three in Dark Souls.

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Level Structure

Dark Souls and Bloodborne are full open world games where you make your way across the land finding bonfires or lanterns along the way, which can then be used as warp points. There isn’t really a right way to go, but you have to figure out where to go to move forward in the story. I find the system inconvenient because you have no real direction. Many people enjoy this style of play because they like feeling in control, but I find it a large waste of my time for games like this. Nioh is broken into missions. There is a world map with clearly defined main missions and sub-missions. Each individual mission is a contained open world that you can freely explore within the confines of, but there is an entrance. The only way out is by completing the mission objective, which is usually but not always to defeat a specific enemy, usually a boss. I prefer this system. The game has the same level of stress as any other Soulslike game while you’re in the thick of it, but you don’t always have to be in the thick of it. There is structure and clearly defined goals. You can skip sub-missions or play them all. You don’t accidentally miss bonus bosses before beating the game. You control everything because it’s all clearly laid out on a world map. This also makes organizing your matchmaking easier, even though the system in general is inferior, because you don’t have to deal with the trying to put your spot down in the right area problem you get in Dark Souls. You can handle all of that from the world map.

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Character Development

Character development at base level is similar between Dark Souls and Nioh. In Dark Souls you have nine stats that can be advanced one at a time in exchange for souls. In Nioh you have eight. These stats improve certain specific features of your character and make them better able to handle certain weapons, armor, skills, and general performance. It’s the same system. But the gear development and aesthetics systems are much more robust and user friendly in Nioh.

Developing weapons in Dark Souls is done by going to a black smith and trading materials and souls to level up a weapon. You can slightly differentiate the development of weapons by using different materials to take new development paths. The weapon’s performance is based solely on stats depending on the development paths you’ve taken with the specific weapon. In Nioh, you don’t level up weapons until the end game/NG+ when you get divine weapons, but that’s not relevant to a first play through. Weapons are split into five categories based on rarity (color in menu) which kind of translates to potential. The same is true for armor in all respects except familiarity, which I’ll explain. You can get the same piece of gear at any of the five rarity types. The rarity level defines how many natural enhancements it has and its maximum familiarity potential. Familiarity is essentially how much the attack stat on any weapon can increase with use. The highest possible familiarity is 999, but this is only available on divine items after beating the final main story missions. During the first playthrough, 900 is the maximum possible familiarity. So your goal is to get purple, the rarest type, rarity gear for all your items because it offers the highest familiarity bonus for weapons and the most natural enhancements on gear. Natural enhancements can be anything. Sometimes it’s more damage against certain enemy types. Sometimes it’s higher amrita (souls) yields. It can be resistance to certain types of damage or increased damage of a certain type. Even lower weight and blacksmith costs can appear as a gear enhancement. So even when you find a rare item with high starting stats, it might not be the enhancements that work best for you. That’s OK in Nioh though because you have the ability to reforge and evolve items. Gear can be broken down and crafted into new things. Gear can be absorbed into other gear to make it stronger, or weaker if you combine something stupid. You can even forge new stats into gear.

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In Dark Souls you don’t really have techniques. You have gear of various types and stats. But fighting is focused on the technical aspects of using that gear and applying it to the combat situation you’re in. There are heavy and light attacks and some charge moves, but that about does it for what you can do. Nioh has specialty techniques that you develop with special points in either samurai, ninja, or mage categories. These techniques can be specific combos, buffs, spells, specialty items, and specific moves. Many of them are tied to specific stances within specific weapon types. You can get really technical in this game if you want to and mastering certain techniques can make all the difference.

Appearance

Nioh has one the best appearance systems I’ve seen in any Soulslike game ever, and it doesn’t even have a character creator. Dark Souls lets you create your character, but you are stuck looking like whatever armor you are wearing, regardless of how bad it looks. It the problem of so many RPGs. Your best stuff doesn’t look cool and your cool stuff doesn’t perform the best. Nioh gets around this by letting you refashion gear. Any piece of gear you find can be skinned over to look like any other piece of gear regardless of what it is. Some gear looks awesome and some gear looks like trash. But with refashioning you just spend a modest amount of gold (modest for the end-game anyway) and you can make that awesome piece of gear look like whatever gear set you like. In my case I use the best mid-weight gear I have but I refashioned it to look like the DLC gold set, because I’m a sucker for shiny gold gear. I have the performance I need to succeed, and I shine while doing it. You can refashion weapons as well. Some weapons look so cool with elaborate designs and paint jobs, while others are boring and devoid of color. But appearance has nothing to do with performance. That’s why the refashioning system is so important.

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Nioh may let you customize your gear to look however you want, but you can’t create your own character. You play as William, a British white man with blonde hair. The only customization you have for him is his hair style. But what is nice is that you can get transformations. As mentioned previously, there is a third currency called glory. You can only get this from killing revenants. It can be used to buy special crafting materials, but what it’s most useful for is buying transformations. You have the ability to transform William into any character you meet in the game. That includes villains you face and female characters. You just buy the transformations with glory and you can change your appearance an unlimited number of times to whatever transformations you own.  Transformations do not affect gameplay or stats. It’s a nice way to let players look the way they want to in case you get tired of being a blonde white man running around killing monsters in Japan. For instance, I like being a Black Samurai, based on a historical character you duel later in the game.

End-Game

Both Nioh and Dark Souls have NG+ modes, but what’s nice about Nioh is that it has actual end-game content that takes place within your first playthrough. Defeating the final story stage unlocks several bonus sub-missions as well as more story that connects into the DLC. You also get a new class of items after you complete the final level, which can be used for this end-game content before you start a NG+ run. I will probably never play NG+ but I still have several hours of play to look forward to in Nioh before I put it on the shelf for good. I have never played past beating the final boss in Dark Souls or Bloodborne, because I simply had no reason to and have no interest in replaying the same game.

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What’s nice about the NG+ though is that it’s directly connected to your original playthrough. It’s not even called NG+. It’s referred to as “Way of the Strong”. From the world map you can switch between normal play and NG+ play from the same file as often as you like. The NG+ levels are the same stages with higher difficulty and better rewards but you don’t have to have a completely separate playthrough from your original. This is nice because it allows you grind with better yields or in normal difficulty at the same time, taking advantage of either depending on what your goals/needs are. And the DLC content is attached in the same way so you can always jump around to play whatever you want at any time. This is made possible because of the level based structure mentioned previously. So while I don’t see myself finishing NG+, I may very well run a few stages for better gear that I can then use to complete the end-game missions and DLC. It’s the best of all worlds.

I want to be clear in saying that I am not arguing that Nioh is superior to Dark Souls. I am arguing that Nioh is not a clone of Dark Souls. It’s part of the Soulslike genre which started with Demon’s Souls, but it is an original game with considerably different design choices, aesthetic, and gameplay. As with any two franchises or even just individual games, there are both good and bad things about both Nioh and Dark Souls and there’s no reason to ignore one simply because it’s not the other. If you haven’t played Nioh but you do play Dark Souls then I highly encourage you to try it out. Especially with the sequel on the way.

 

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Too Many Lives to Live

For the last few weeks I’ve been playing Xenoblade Chronicles X on the Wii U. This is a game I purchased in 2015 at the behest of basically everyone I knew/know who has a Wii U. I had no previous experience or serious knowledge of the Xenoblade franchise but everyone just kept praising the game so I bought it during a Black Friday sale. I have to admit that it’s a great game. It’s by no means perfect and there are a number of issues I have with it, but overall I’m happy I bought it and that I’m finally getting to play it. This is actually the second to last game I still need to beat before I retire my Wii U and move on to the Nintendo Switch. I may still end up buying Star Fox Zero against my better judgement, but only if Nintendo drops it to a fair price.

RIP-WiiU

I’m more than 60 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles X and while the game is quite good, it drags on a lot. Mostly because of the slow grinding system and terrible money acquisition to item cost ratio. I was promised 100 hours to beat this game and I honestly think that will be the case. I can’t remember the last time I played a serious triple digit RPG. I play RPGs all the time but I’m not the type to replay games or buy DLC so games like Dark Souls usually take me under 50 hours. I couldn’t even tell you the last JRPG I completed. But I’m going to complete this one.

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Xenoblade Chronicles X

In the midst of playing this second to last Wii U game I realized that my next/last planned Wii U game, Super Mario Color Splash, is also an RPG. Then I looked at my PS4 library and among my serious considerations backlog are Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy XV, World of Final Fantasy, Dark Souls III, Digimon: Cyber Sleuth, and I started but haven’t finished Bloodborne and Atelier Firis – The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey. Then I looked at my Steam and GOG libraries only to discover that I need to beat Lord of the Fallen, The Witcher 2 (yes that’s 2), and ideally I’ll take the time to go old school and actually play Jade Empire. Plus I’m already committed to buying Nioh and The Surge for PS4. That’s 13 RPGs plus the one I’m currently playing. And it’s not even counting all the non-RPG games in my backlog.

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Suddenly I find myself asking why do I keep buying RPGs? I don’t even have time to finish the ones I have. Who does? How can an adult with a full time job, a girlfriend, not to mention a blog and YouTube channel, possibly find the time to beat all these super long games? My gaming goals for 2017 included 7 RPGs. It’s basically September and I’m on only the second one. What’s a gamer to do in this situation? It’s not like I can just pass on all these highly acclaimed epic games I purchased.

Am I alone in this situation? Is anyone buried in RPGs with no time to play them? Have I been an irresponsible gamer? Let me know how your backlog and 2017 gaming goals are going in the comments.

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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.

Character Creators Kill Characters

This is an awkward time in game development. It’s a moment where more people than ever before are playing video games. No longer is it realistic to claim that any one group, gender, race, religion, or country makes up the majority of gamers. The gaming community now contains people from all walks of life from just about every country in the world. There are arguments about which markets matter the most based on size, but as far as actual gaming audience is concerned, it’s pretty much everybody.

This diverse array of gamers is a good thing for many reasons. But because of the selfish narcissism of most people, especially gamers, we’re also seeing some terrible repercussions because of this diversity. Today, more than ever before, people (not just gamers) have gotten it into their head that they matter a majority of the time. Things like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have given everyone a voice and for some reason that has led every asshole with a smartphone into believing that their opinions matter and that all works of entertainment should be tailor made for them specifically. And when it’s not made for them they whine, organize, riot, and literally destroy people’s careers and lives.

Your Opinion Big

I’m not talking about any one particular group here. Because so many groups are guilty of this new brand of arrogance. White men, homosexuals, racial minorities, women, and so on. All these groups and many more have on numerous recent occasions complained about a specific game or the industry as a whole simply because it did something they didn’t like or didn’t focus on their identifying group. Even not including a particular group in a game can cause an uproar. The problem with all this is that it has led many developers to try to work around the problem in ways that are easy and shown to be effective for basically all types of gamers. For me one of the worst ways this is being done today is with character creators.

Character creators are an interesting problem because they come from the best intentions. In many ways they’re the perfect form of escapism. When a game has a good character creator, you can literally put yourself in the game or be whoever you want to be. The problem is that this is mostly superficial. Let me clarify that moving forward, all mention of games in this post will refer to plot based campaigns. Multiplayer PVP scenarios are pretty much irrelevant to this particular discussion other than in the fact that they only add to the problem I’ll be addressing in a roundabout way. Multiplayer plot based campaigns are completely relevant though and definitely should be considered when thinking about this topic.

TLoU

Arguably the most important thing about a plot based campaign is the story. I said story there instead of plot because there is a difference. A game can have an amazing plot but if the story isn’t told right then the experience of the campaign will ultimately fail. The way a story is told, the way the characters interact, and the reasons behind why things happen in a story are all important parts of the experience. Think about any game with a good story and imagine if things where presented differently. Let’s use The Last of Us as an example. A game that’s often championed for having such an amazing story. Now imagine for a second if the game had done just a few things differently. All other things being equal, how would people have responded to the story if Joel had lost a son instead of a daughter, it’s revealed that Ellie will have to die to save the world at the beginning of the game, and/or Joel was Asian instead of Caucasian? I think most people would agree that while the gameplay would still be good and the plot would still be interesting, the overall experience of the story would be much less powerful if even just one of those three proposed changes had taken effect. The drama of the story comes from the fact that Joel and Ellie connect on a familial level because she reminds him of his deceased daughter. And the fact that he believes the world can be saved without her having to die from the beginning is what allows that connection to form by the end, literally sacrificing the rest of the world as a consequence of that connection. But in a scenario where you could create your own character, that story would be considerably less powerful.

Joels Daughter Dying

Joel and Ellie aren’t blood relatives. It would have been completely believable and possible for a Black, Asian, Latino or member of any other ethnic group, man or woman, heterosexual or homosexual to be put in the scenario of Joel. The story is that random survivor is tasked with escorting a random girl across the country. Either character could have been any mixture of identifiers and the story would still make perfect sense. But any significant change of profile could drastically reduce the impact of their relationship and by extension story. Therein lays the problem with character creators. They hurt the story in a game. Because no matter much effort a developer tries to make a character neutral story, it will never be as good as a targeted narrative. It’s literally impossible to do.

Modern Tomb Raider games are so powerful because of the vulnerability assumed by a young Lara Croft, a Caucasian female from a wealthy family whose biggest problem was losing her father at a young age. Imagine how much less impressive the character would be if she was a South American boy from Brazil who grew up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Now I’m not saying that a great story couldn’t be told starring a Brazilian male from humble beginnings. I’m just saying that the impact of the story in moments where men trapped on an island capture the character and threaten various physical abuses wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if he was the protagonist. That’s what storytelling is: Putting characters in situations that are impactful for them, not you. You as the audience are supposed to put yourself in the shoes of the character. Not the other way around.

Lara Captured

The problem with plot based games using character creators is that either the game is written for a specific character/audience, usually a heterosexual Caucasian male, and then blanket applied to all created characters regardless of important details like race, gender, and sexuality, or the game is written in such a way that nothing personal ever happens. Take Far Cry 5, which I can’t wait to play. The story of a deputy going into rural Montana to stop a predominantly, if not exclusively, White cult that is literally kidnapping and sacrificing people to their image of God. The game will have a character creator that will allow for male and female characters of any race. Now I don’t think it’s ridiculous to assume that if I, an African American male, walked into rural Montana today that I would probably be treated differently than either a Caucasian or Latino male and even more differently than a female of any race. And if that part of Montana was being run by a redneck cult, I believe that would be even more noticeable. Unless of course the cult genuinely has no preferences for their victims because their god told them that all people who aren’t in the cult need to be equally discriminated against and they were all pure and true believers/followers. But let’s be honest and admit that all people would not have the exact same experience walking into rural Montana. Having not yet played the game, I cannot say for sure if Ubisoft has done anything to differentiate the experiences of created avatars based on race and gender among other identifiers in this newest Far Cry. But I can say that in general most games don’t. Especially those from Ubisoft. I played The Division as a Black male. I didn’t experience anything that called attention to the race of my character. Sure the game is set in a post-apocalyptic virus state but it’s still New York City. Someone would say something about race at some point. They wrote the story as if all people are exactly the same. For the most part, that’s what happens in games with character creators. And it’s the least effective means of storytelling a majority of the time.

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Some companies do put in the time to at least try to differentiate characters you create in their games. BioWare, specifically with Dragon Age, is a good example of this. The ability to choose things like origin, species (which is different from race in reality), and sexual preference all help to differentiate the gameplay experience of each player and try to tailor an experience relevant to their avatar. And they do a decent job. But part of the reason they get away with it is that they create games with scenarios where human differentiation doesn’t really make sense. In both Dragon Age and Mass Effect, you have multiple species of people living among each other. There are prejudices. There are questions about species mixing and sexuality. There are ethical and moral issues that players are forced to make decisions about and then hear the opinions about these choices from various NPCs. But none of these moments take into account current real life human experiences, because they don’t really have to. People today may differentiate based on skin color, but I can guarantee you that if tomorrow five other sentient species of alien races started living on this planet basically all people would stop seeing human race as an issue. You’re not gonna think twice about the Black guy down the block endangering your neighborhood when your next door neighbor is a giant walking lizard that can lift you off the ground and rip you in half. Human racism makes no sense in these scenarios. Hell, it barely makes sense in current real life scenarios. The games still have racism, but it’s never between members of the same species.

DAI Character Creator

That’s how BioWare chose to deal with the problem of balancing out character creators and narrative. It works, but not every game has aliens and sentient non-human races. That trick won’t work in Far Cry 5. That game will most likely just suffer from bland character experiences and rely heavily on the enemies being so interesting that you ignore the fact that your own character is having a pretty much vanilla experience. What’s sad though is that people are happily championing the spread of character creators in games. All these minority groups are happily accepting White male characters with coats of paint rather than demanding games with plots written for their group. For me that’s a problem, not only because I do want to see more actual games starring Black protagonists but also because I play games for the story. And I don’t like bland plots that aren’t personal. In a PVP scenario I love creating my own character. In a game that pretty much has no real story like Dark Souls, character creators are fine because that’s pretty much all gameplay anyway. But when a company is trying to sell me a plot as the main selling point of the game, I expect a well written, personal, and realistic story. That story doesn’t have to be about someone I personally identify with, but it needs to be good. But there’s the rub. Most people today don’t seem to have my open minded tolerance for games that aren’t made for them specifically. They would prefer superficial experiences where they can take screenshots of their avatar looking the way they want so they can post them on Twitter rather than experiencing an Oscar worthy narrative. For me that’s a problem.

Dark Souls Character

The issue of diversity in video games is definitely an important one. But I would never agree that it’s so important that general quality of single player campaigns should go down as a result of trying to fix that issue. Instead I think this should be seen as an opportunity for developers of all sizes to make more games with more variation between them. Rather than try to make a game for everyone that no one will love. Make everyone their own game and everyone should be happy with their one game (a year). Not every game needs to be for everyone and not every group needs to be represented in every game. Instead when groups are represented in games it should be done to the highest possible quality and realism. That’s why for me the modern proliferation of character creators in games isn’t a good thing. I’ll take one well written game starring a Black guy over five empty games where I can pretend the character is a Black guy any day. Thoughts?

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