From Milan to Gamescom!

Last week, I was granted the privilege of attending the Mario + Rabidds: Kingdom Battle (MRKB) Summer Games Community Competition finals tournament. This event pitted four finalists against each other in the MRKB Vs. Mode live and in person at the Ubisoft Milan studio in Italy. Ubisoft paid to fly me to Italy from my home in Taiwan and paid for everything while I was there. This was an amazing opportunity and really my first legitimate entry into the world of competitive e-Sports.

This was a great experience. While at the studio I was able to try a prototype for a currently unannounced project from Ubisoft, which I can’t go into details about now for legal reasons. I also got to meet a number of different members of the MRKB development team and pitch my own ideas and feedback about what I’d like to see for the future of the franchise. It was especially informative and inspiring to meet the narrative director of MRKB. He gave me newfound hope that it’s not too late to achieve my goal of writing for a AAA studio. I also got to experience Italian food straight from the source as an added bonus.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-08-12 19-35-20

While I can’t say much about the things I saw during my visit to the studio, I can talk about the tournament. As I said previously, four finalists, including myself, were invited to compete in a Vs. Mode tournament. It’s important to note that the qualifying challenges were in single player mode and up until I was informed that the finals were a PVP Vs. Mode tournament, I had never played a single round of the Vs. Mode. Luckily for me this was true for the other three finalists as well. At the time I was informed about the tournament, I had played 65+ hours of the single player mode and zero minutes of the Vs. Mode. By the day of the tournament, I had practiced the Vs. Mode for about 20 hours.

Training for/in Vs. Mode was very difficult because it’s a local only PVP mode and I had no one to practice with. This meant playing 30 hours of PVP matches against myself. But thanks to my dedication I was able to use this time productively. I learned all the maps, mastered all the items, and developed a number of strategies for different scenarios. I also came up with what I consider to be the best possible three man squad in the game. According to what the other competitors reported going into the event, I put in more training hours than the three of them combined. And my hard work payed off.

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The tournament consisted of six preliminary rounds. Each competitor went up against each other competitor in a single match. Each victory scored you a single point plus they kept track of how many remaining characters you had in case of a tie. The top two scores would go up against each other one more time in the final round for one more single match. Of the four competitors, I was the only one to win all my preliminary rounds, of course taking me to the final round. The second place combatant that I had to battle again was the only one of the three to almost beat me. And if I’m honest he should have beaten me in our first match. I won by a single move. All the preliminary rounds were viewed by a limited number of team members from Ubisoft Milan but for the final round they had the entire staff watch. This added to the pressure considerably. I went on to win the final round and was declared champion of the Summer Games tournament.

Upon winning this tournament, I was informed that I was now invited to Gamescom, all expenses paid, to compete in the Grand Championship. Going into this tournament, I did not know such a prize was even on the line. I was shocked to find out that I would be taking another trip to Europe less than a month later to compete on a stage in front of hundreds to thousands of people for the grand prize. I still don’t actually know what the grand prize is, but going to Gamescom has always been a dream of mine so that’s a prize in and of itself.

Gamescom-2018

This final tournament to decide the MRKB Grand Champion will consist of the first and second place winner from each of the three Community Championship seasons and two community leaders with a new set of match parameters, which have not yet been disclosed to me. To the best of my knowledge, they have not released the match footage of any of the seasonal tournaments so I have no way of knowing how good the competition is going into the tournament other than the second place winner from my season. All I can do is continue training alone for this tournament and hope for the best. I really want to win this. If winning a tournament at Gamescom on stage doesn’t make you a legitimate e-Sports champion then I don’t know what does. So next week I’m off to Germany to compete in this tournament as well as experience everything Gamescom has to offer.

Important Note: Not only am I traveling to Germany to attend Gamescom next week, but I am also getting married exactly one month from the day this post was published. As you can imagine, I am extremely busy both at work and in my personal life. Between all the traveling, planning, and time away from home, I’m barely able to handle all my usual content creation endeavors. I’ve streamed less than five times in the last two weeks and it’s a miracle I haven’t missed any blog posts. That being said, I cannot say if I’ll be able to keep up with everything for the next couple months between Gamescom, my wedding, my honeymoon, and all the work I have to make up from traveling for these tournaments. So while I will do my best to continue posting weekly, as my record has gone untarnished for years, I ask you to please bear with me during this very busy time in my life in the event that I miss a few posts. As always, thank you for your understanding and support.

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UbE-Sports (I’m Going to Milan!)

I’ve never been that fond of e-Sports. I do have a number of issues with the way they’re generally run and some ethical concerns about leading kids to believe that rather than focusing on school they should be playing Fortnite because maybe they can win $3M, but those aren’t the actual reasons I tend to dislike the concept/industry as a whole. Really my biggest complaint is that it’s the most repetitive, bland assortment of games, most of which I never had an interest in even before the term e-Sports existed. 9/10 times an e-Sports event/competition will feature an FPS, usually COD, CSGO, or Overwatch, a Battle Royale, usually Fortnite or PUBG, a 2D fighter, usually Steet Fighter, Smash Bros, or some junk title like BlazBlue (yeah I said it), some MOBA like LoL, or sports games, specifically Madden or FIFA. Of the literal thousands of games in existence and the countless types of multiplayer scenarios, 90% of e-Sports can be summed up with a handful of games in four genres. I find this appalling and disappointing.

E-Sports could and should be much more diverse and creative. There are lots of PVP scenarios that would be great in professional competitive spaces but the industry is chained to a lackluster list of mostly mediocre games in a few overplayed genres. I have very little experience in e-Sports for the simple fact that they rarely feature a game I even want to play enough to get good at. The last legitimate live gaming competition I participated in was a Smash Bros. Melee tournament in college. Not because there haven’t been other events since then. Just that there haven’t been any I was interested in. But it’s not that there are no competitive games I enjoy playing. I consider myself a single player gamer at heart, but there are lots of PVP games from over the years that I very much enjoyed and would have attempted to compete in at professional level. And I am not alone. The fact that events like Tetris 99 online cups and Splatoon 2 Splatfests are so popular prove this statement.

Tetris 99 cup

There’s also this modern conception that e-Sports means PVP. I don’t know why that is. When I was a kid we competed for high score. The Nintendo World Championships used to focus on single player games like Tetris and Super Mario Bros. That’s the entire premise of the movie The Wizard (1989). This was always my preferred form of gaming competition. Be the best at the game. Not the luckiest in a given randomized PVP scenario. In my opinion, there is a huge void in the big budget e-Sports industry as far as games included and types of competition.

One company that I respect immensely for their constant innovation in the PVP space is Ubisoft. More than any other large publisher, Ubisoft creates PVP and potential e-Sports scenarios that stray so far from the beaten path that they usually don’t even get the proper chances they deserve in the e-Sports industry. The best example of this is Assassin’s Creed multiplayer PVP. To this day I still would say that the PVP in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood through III is the most innovative, original, and creative PVP gameplay I have ever experienced in more than 20 years of gaming. And it was so fun. Brotherhood was my favorite iteration of this system, and I took it seriously. I was so good at it by the time I stopped playing because I devoted so many hours to mastering it. Not because I wanted to get famous playing competitive video games, but because I actually enjoyed playing the game.

AC MP

While I would say Nintendo built the foundation of off the beaten path competitive multiplayer gaming, in the modern era Ubisoft is at the forefront of innovation on this matter. All the most creative and original PVP scenarios seem to be coming from Ubisoft these days. The recently announced Roller Champions is a great example of this. It should have been obvious to make a roller derby game in the style of Rocket League and yet no one developed a properly working one until 2019? And it’s really good too. I only played like 10 hours of it during the E3 demo but I was sold fairly quickly. It’s free to play and has great e-Sports potential. But honestly I don’t see it taking off and that’s because it’s not the standard aforementioned overdone crap so common to the e-Sports industry. Which is a real shame. It’s pretty depressing that the only way a new type of e-Sports concept can make any headway is if the company funds such events themselves. Rocket League is the exception not the rule. That makes it really difficult for indie projects that aren’t copy and paste FPS games to take off in e-Sports. Which not surprisingly is why you see so many clones.

Thankfully though, Ubisoft is quite flush with cash and they do fund many of their own e-Sports endeavors, big and small. This includes games like Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (MRKB). I have written in the past about MRKB and how much I enjoy the game. One of the things I really respect about Ubisoft and the way they’ve handled this game is their dedication to community focused events. Recently they completed the third and sadly final season of community challenges.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle Summer Games 2019 Cover

The community challenges were online events where the community was given specific tasks to complete by following defined in game parameters within a time limit. This was actually really fun and added a lot to my enjoyment of the game after I completed the campaign. The most impressive part was that at the end of each season winners were selected from those who completed the online challenges to fly to Ubisoft’s studio to compete in a tournament and meet the developers.

There are a few aspects of this that are really important and that the rest of the gaming and e-Sports industry really should take note of. First, MRKB is not a super popular game. It’s highly acclaimed but it’s ultimately a niche Nintendo Switch exclusive. The fact that Ubisoft continued to support this game and invest into the community with competitive events and impressive prizes for the winners is spectacular. Second, the community events were for the single player mode. Ubisoft took a single player game and used it to create competition between players in an e-Sports like manner. That needs to happen more often like in the days of the high score. Single player games should not be ignored by the e-Sports industry and community simply because they don’t include direct conflict between players. Bowling, golf, and darts are just a few of many examples of actual sports that have professional levels of competition, are televised, and don’t include direct PVP style competition. Single player games can and should have a place in e-Sports. Finally MRKB is not fast paced. It’s a turn based tactical RPG. Because of years of programming, people who watch e-Sports have been misled into believing that only fast paced games have a place in e-Sports. This is sad and shouldn’t be true. People watch chess and poker. Neither of those are fast paced games.

ark pvpThe current e-Sports landscape is for the most part built on a foundation of lies instituted by companies like Activision and EA because they needed to convince people that there was inherent value in copy and paste annual releases. By tying them to e-Sports they were able to solidify this type of thinking into the very core of the industry. Ubisoft is one the few influential companies actually working towards some form of change, with the money and power to really accomplish something.

The thing that led to me writing this post is that I was actually chosen as one of the winners for the final season of the MRKB community challenge event. I’ve been invited to Milan to meet the developers of the game and participate in a VS Mode tournament. I can’t believe I was chosen for this. It’s truly a privilege to be able to participate in a competitive e-Sports event organized/hosted by a legitimate company. This may not be a $3M Fortnite tournament but it is an honor just to be able to participate in an exclusive gaming related event that almost no people in the world will ever get to based on my in game performance. Obviously I hope I win the tournament but just being able to participate is something I didn’t think would ever happen to me. I will definitely write a post about the experience once the event has concluded and I’ve returned home.

 

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E3 2019, A Post

Usually I make a post about E3 where I take some time to talk about the games shown and spend the rest of the post ranting about how the entire concept is outdated, biased towards undeserving members of the gaming community, and how it needs to be more accessible to the public or just die already. This year I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to just write my thoughts on a number of moments/topics addressed at E3 as completely disconnected mini-blog posts. There are some larger topics that I want to discuss in more detail and will in later blog posts, but this year for my E3 post I wanted to change it up ever so slightly. There will still be a fair amount of ranting though.

1. Who Won E3?

Usually you end with this but I wanted to start with it because it’s not actually the most important topic of E3 I want to discuss. So to cut right to the point, Nintendo won E3 this year. For me, winning E3 means garnering the most future sales . . . of games, not hardware. Now since I’m only speaking for myself, that means the winner of E3 is always the company that shows the most games that I leave the presentation at least 70% sure that I’m going to end up buying, preferably before the next E3. This was without a doubt Nintendo.

Nintendo Direct E3 2019

Now chances are I won’t buy all these games in the long run. But if I had an unlimited amount of time and money, these are all the games shown at E3 this year that I am not on the fence about wanting to buy. Meaning if they went on sale tomorrow and money was no issue, I would absolutely buy these games with no additional information. Note that I’m also not counting any games that I was already sold on before E3 because of previous announcements/presentations.

Microsoft

  • Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order
  • Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot

Bethesda

  • Doom Eternal

Ubisoft

  • Watch Dogs Legions
  • Gods and Monsters
  • Roller Champions (Technically free to play but I’m counting it here anyway)

Square Enix

  • Marvel’s Avengers

Devolver Digital

  • Fall Guys Ultimate Knockout

Nintendo

  • Contra Collection
  • Luigi’s mansion 3
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons
  • Cadence of Hyrule
  • Collection of Mana
  • Panzer Dragoon Remake
  • Ni No Kuni Remake
  • Astral Chain

New Ganon

The number of games I’m fairly likely to buy shown by Nintendo, again that I wasn’t already planning on buying going into E3, is more games than I’ll buy from all the other companies combined. Even if you remove the Breath of the Wild sequel because that was just a tease, it’s still overwhelmingly Nintendo with the victory. Nintendo won E3.

2. Screw Leaks & the People Who Leak Them

Every E3, as with every big gaming/tech event, there are usually some leaks. This was of course true for E3 this year as well. What I noticed this year, which may have happened in past years as well but went unnoticed by me, is that leakers were getting caught by developers/publishers and then people were coming to their defense. For instance, there’s this leaker on Twitter that was apparently contacted by Nintendo with a cease and desist order before the Nintendo Direct was shown. Because of this, they didn’t leak information about Nintendo’s presentation but did about basically all the other presentations. After they tweeted about Nintendo’s threats people came out of the woodwork to defend the leaker and get angry at Nintendo. This was of course not the only leaker but just one example. Even Jason Schreier tweeted in defense of leakers, which was shocking to me considering how much work he’s put into defending and supporting better treatment for developers.

 

Personally I hate leaks. When I was young and uniformed, I used to think leaks were so cool. Now that I have a job in the tech industry, I think they’re the worst thing ever. And I get really angry when people defend leakers with arguments like “the billion dollar corporation won’t be affected that much” because it shows a complete disregard for people like me, the marketers. It is true that in the grand scheme of corporate profits, leaks have very little effect. But profits have nothing to do with why leaks are bad. Corporations, of all sizes, have employees, sometimes full teams of them, that are responsible for creating and executing marketing plans for new products. It doesn’t matter what kind of product it is. It can be hardware, which is what I do marketing for, or it can be software, such as new games. All companies, especially the ones that show up at events like E3, have marketing employees. These marketing plans take a lot of work. They’re planned sometimes months in advance. They take a lot of time and effort and often cost a lot of money. What most people don’t realize is that when leaks happen, those plans often have to change on the fly or get cancelled altogether. Imagine if months of your work was instantly destroyed because some asshat found out some privileged information by taking advantage and betraying the trust of a friend or business acquaintance and posted it to the internet for some clout. That’s what leaks are. And it doesn’t just end there. Companies have to adjust marketing plans based on the fallout from leaks. This is essentially emergency crunch time but for marketers. And it doesn’t matter when and what the situation is. You can be at home about to eat dinner with your family and suddenly get a call that a leak happened and an entire marketing plan has to be changed in the next day in time for an event. Then you also have to deal with the fallout of the leak internally. Some companies take this very seriously and will do an internal investigation to find the source. People can get fired. Entire teams can get fired if the damage is large enough and they can’t discover the culprit.

 

No I’m not speaking in hyperbole. I’m speaking from personal experience. Last month was Computex. My company had a booth there. I was part of the team responsible for the show’s online and offline marketing plan. I personally wrote more than one of the press releases for the show. I also had to help setup the booth for the show the day before it started. Somehow we had a leak happen for one of our products the day before the show started. I was literally on site setting up the booth when a coworker rushed over to me with the news and handed me a laptop saying a press release had to be rewritten to adjust based on internet response to the leaked information. Now this was a low level leak. It wasn’t a flagship product, there wasn’t a huge marketing plan created for it at that point, and rewriting a press release in the middle of a soft construction site, though rushed and inconvenient, was not the end of the world. But that’s when a leak scenario is not that bad. Imagine if it was the night before E3 and you’re in a bar drinking celebrating the fact that your multi-million dollar marketing plan that took a team of more than 50 people months to plan and put into motion was finally finshed when suddenly you get a call from your boss saying the game has been leaked and the entire plan has to be shifted or even scrapped. That’s the reality of leaks for marketers. As much as people seem to care about developers, they never seem to care about all the other people involved in launching a game or product. Leaks have little effect on developers, especially in the short run. But they play havoc on the lives of marketers and marketers are not rich douchebags in suits drinking scotch laughing at the underlings. Marketers are the underlings. We’re struggling laborers just like any other employee at any other company. We’re not famous. People don’t praise and buy products because we’re creating the marketing assets for them. It’s thankless work that no one thinks about and it’s usually underpaid work, especially for the writers. So I hope the next time you hear about a leak you ignore it and remember that someone’s day is probably gonna be ruined because of it and that someone works hard for less than they deserve, just like you probably do.

3. Subscriptions, Subscriptions, & More Subscriptions

UPLAY + Stadia

It seems my fears are coming to fruition. The age of subscription services will be in full force within the next year. So many companies announced new subscription services. XBOX updated the Games Pass to a premium version, of course for a higher price. But they also announced a PC only version which I do think is a nice surprise. But they also announced a new cloud service. Ubisoft will have a subscription service. Square Enix implied they plan on launching a subscription service. And then there’s Stadia, which I already hate the sound of. The worst part is that Ubisoft’s subscription service will connect to Stadia. Meaning you have to buy a subscription service to play games inside a subscription service you’re also buying. It’s a recursive cost that will probably multiply exponentially overtime.   I fear a future where companies do away with buying single games altogether and they force you to do annual subscriptions that require subscription based platforms subletting on other subscription based platforms. Imagine if one day to play a PC game you need to use Microsoft Windows as a subscription service because you can’t purchase one off licenses anymore. But then you also need to subscribe to Stadia to run games on your lower range hardware. But of course you’re also paying an internet service fee to stream Stadia which will charge you a premium for bandwidth. Then you have to pay for the PlayStation cloud service subscription because you want to use your PSN account for your friend’s list and trophies. But you’re trying to play a Ubisoft game like Ghost Recon: Breakpoint so you have to subscribe to Ubisoft’s subscription service. Suddenly what used to cost $60 plus your extant hardware now costs like $19.99 to the power of 5 monthly. It’s a depressing dystopia for the gamers of tomorrow. I fear the day that GOG and Steam jump onto the subscription bandwagon.

4. Devolver Digital Made Light of My Fears

Devolver-Digital-E3-2019

I’ve actually never watched the Devolver Digital E3 presentation before. To me they’ve always been kind of an odd duck. They make/publish indie class games that I rarely ever play. I’m not saying they make bad games by any means. I actually own nine of their titles and I’ll almost certainly buy Fall Guys Ultimate Knockout. I also really liked Luftrausers and The Talos Principle, which I never actually finished sadly. But to me they’re also kind of an enigma. I almost never realize a game is published by Devolver Digital even if I’m very aware of the game. So I wasn’t even planning on watching their presentation this year. The only reason I did was because a friend told me I’d really enjoy it and that they made fun of a lot of things I talk about often. So I watched it and it was excellent, but it was also scary. They ironically discussed a number of issues and trends in the gaming industry that I’ve been talking about for years. It reminded me of when Ajit Pai did that skit about being a paid shill for ISPs. In the age of games as service models, loot boxes, unfinished games supplemented with paid DLC, and other such bullshit, I found it equally refreshing and horrifying to see a publisher talk honestly about these issues while simultaneously making fun of them in the pursuit of profit. It’s a weird time to be alive.

5. Star Power, Star Pricing?

kingdom-hearts-3When I was a kid, Hailey Joel Osment was a famous child actor because of his ability to see dead people (that’s a The Sixth Sense (1999) reference). When it was announced that he would be voicing the main character for the English version of Kingdom Hearts, it was a special moment. While I don’t assume he was the first legitimate movie actor to voice a video game character, he was the first that I could remember being fairly famous for acting in movies at the time of doing the game. It was common with TV actors, such as TC Carson as Kratos, but they never had as much value demand as movie actors and still don’t in most cases. The fact that Hailey Joel Osment stayed with the Kingdom Hearts franchise all these years and returned to voice Sora in Kingdom Hearts III is actually really cool. But what’s important here is that Hailey Joel Osment was never really an A-list star and more importantly he got into video game voice acting in a time where even A-list stars weren’t as meaningful to the public or as expensive as they are now. The other really important detail is that Hailey Joel Osment’s likeness wasn’t actually featured in the games he was voice acting in. The first truly epic actor I recall playing a character in a AAA video game and showing their full likeness was Kevin Spacey in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (2014). I’m not saying that this was the first instance of this happening. I’m just saying it’s the first one that I can remember. Also note I’m not counting movie tie in games because that’s a different animal. Now we’re starting to see the use of top tier actors in games as actual characters in the games become more commonplace.

cyberpunk-2077-keanu-reevesAt E3 this year both Keanu Reeves and John Bernthal presented games because they are featured characters in those games. This is cool. It’s also expensive. My fear here is that publishers will try to leverage this practice to ultimately raise the price of games. They’ve been trying to increase that $60 MSRP for like two generations of consoles. Every time a new gen is announced, a company, usually EA, mentions the prospect of game prices increasing, the internet goes into an uproar, and then it doesn’t happen. But what if instead of tying the price increase to hardware or development costs, like they usually do, they tie it to star power? Who could actually dispute the argument that John Wick costs more to include than normal video game actors? Does it not make perfect sense that having the Punisher play the villain in a game would cost considerably more for development than say Troy Baker? Not that I’m knocking Troy Baker’s talent by any means. But it’s ridiculous to think that he costs as much to put in a game as Keanu Reeves. Suddenly we’re seeing fairly successful and notable stars pop up in games way more often.  Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, and Guillermo Del Toro will all be in Death Stranding. And people are eating the star power up. Keanu Reeves’ presenting Cyberpunk 2077 at E3 is being called the best moment at E3 by a wide margin. Do you think all these actors are working because of their love of video games? Not likely. Now hopefully I’m wrong. Hopefully prices won’t increase and rightfully they shouldn’t with loots boxes, paid DLC, season passes, microtransactions, and so on. But if you start hearing companies say things like “games have moved past AAA” then those should be warning signs that price hikes are on the way.

ghost recon breakpoint6. CDPR Reinforces Bad Behavior

It seems every year there’s some diehard fan and/or paid shill that just yells too loudly and too often during these E3 presentations. I work in the tech hardware industry so presentations like this are usually attended by introvert tech nerds, some highly analytical, usually older media, and other industry members who can no longer be asked to get too excited about an increase in processor speed or the inclusion of additional RAM slots on a motherboard. So yelling during a press conference basically doesn’t happen in my neck of the woods. But gaming events are attended by gamers. Not only that, but they’re “press” events which in 2019 means streamers, YouTubers, and other people who make a living by being obnoxious, self-absorbed, and lacking in basic human behavioral standards. Not to mention a lot of them are too young and inexperienced to actually understand the concept of professionalism. So I get why yelling occurs. But as we saw at the Bethesda conference this year, yelling during the presentations other than at specific scripted/expected times can be burdensome to both presenters and the audience. It’s a problem that can’t really be solved in any intentional way, other than not letting those damn internet personalities in of course. What can be done though is that companies shouldn’t encourage it. Sadly CDPR did the opposite this year.

In a rather sincere moment during the Cyberpunk 2077 presentation, Keanu Reeves was sort of struggling to talk to the crowd because honestly talking to a live audience of gamers isn’t in his normal wheelhouse as an actor who says little in most of his parts to begin with. But he was genuine and sincere and people appreciated that, rightly so. A YouTuber screamed out “you’re breathtaking” to Keanu Reeves and he shouted it back. It was a nice moment. It was a cute moment. It was a moment where members of the audience once again showed their lack of professionalism. I think it’s funny that no one is talking about the fact that literally right after this exchange Keanu Reeves flat out says “I gotta finish this” because so many people were yelling and interrupting and not just letting him talk. Now that’s fine. It’s fine for people to get excited. It’s fine for people to yell during the presentations. Like I said, it’s unprofessional but it can’t really be helped. But it shouldn’t be encouraged. CDPR encouraged this behavior this year by promising the “you’re breathtaking” guy a free collector’s edition of Cyberpunk 2077. Sorry but I don’t agree with that decision. A person is privileged enough to attend E3. They’re lucky enough to have a direct exchange with Keanu Reeves. They’re essentially handed an infinite amount of internet clout and articles written about them that will surely increase their YouTube presence, among other things. As I write this, he seems to have gained at least 1000 new subscribers since the event happened. They get all this for acting unprofessionally and then they’re rewarded with a $250 collector’s edition of possibly the most highly anticipated game of 2020. This is just setting up E3 2020 to be an absolute shit show. Every YouTuber, streamer, and other internet personality will be actively trying to have their moment during the press conferences next year. If anything, CDPR should have rewarded someone who wasn’t at E3 but was streaming or live tweeting about the presentation as a show of solidarity for those not fortunate enough to make it to the event. This was a great PR move but it sets a terrible precedent.

7. Roller Champions Alpha Demo

Out of nowhere, Ubisoft released an alpha demo for an upcoming free to play game called Roller Champions. It’s like Rocket League mixed with Jet Set Radio minus the graffiti. It’s surprisingly fun and I’ve already played it enough to win consistently. The demo will not be available by the time this post is published but you can check out the gameplay from when I streamed it here. If you like quick round PVP sports games then you’ll definitely want to check this game out when it drops. I just hope it’s rewarding enough because free to play PVP games tend to get stale rather quickly.

Well that’s my round up for E3 this year. Not a terrible showing, but there’s certainly been better years. I do think it will be a good year of gaming, at least on Nintendo with a few heavy hitters set to release on other platforms before the next E3. As I said at the beginning, there are a couple specific topics from this year’s E3, not included in this post, that I want to talk about in more detail. Those will be published as individual blog posts over the next few weeks. What did you think of E3 this year?

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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.

DJMMT’S Top 15 Tips for Starting The Division 2

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

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

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1. Solo Play is A-OK

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

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

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

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3. Craft Armor (Don’t Buy It)

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

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4. Try Different Weapons

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

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5. Damage > Range > MAG > RPM

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

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

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

6. Use a SR as Your Secondary Weapon

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

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

7. The Junk Function is Life

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

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8. Cover Is NOT Optional

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

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

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

Armor

10. Early Progression Should be Natural

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

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

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11. SHD Caches First

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

12. Control Points are Fast Travel Locations

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

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13. Keep track of Hyena Boxes

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

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14. Pop Your Skills Prematurely

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

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15. Turret is a Must (For Solo Play)

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

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

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The Division 2 VIP Beta Review

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

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

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

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

Dead Rat
Rat postmortem.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Starlink: Battle for Atlas Editions Matter

A couple months ago, I published a review of my first hours playing Starlink: Battle for Atlas. While I stand by the views expressed in that review, it has come to my attention that it may have been misleading due to information that I was not aware of at the time of writing. So don’t consider this post a retraction of that review but rather a clarification of some specific points.

I praised Starlink and continue to do so. It’s a phenomenal game that I never put down feeling disappointed. But having done more research and now finished the game, my perspective has been altered, or more appropriately refined, slightly. Every play session I had, in the 30 hours it took me to complete the game, was enjoyable. Whenever I stopped playing, I was excited to play it again as soon as possible. While I was playing it, I always felt like there was a lot of content, albeit much of it was repetitive a la the No Man’s Sky formula. It definitely feels like a large amount of fulfilling content tied to a story I found interesting, until I reached the end, which was surprisingly abrupt, even though it was after almost 30 hours of play. While the gameplay can get repetitive due to the farming and planetary take over mechanics inherent to the game/genre, I still think it’s a great overall experience that appeals to players looking for games like No Man’s Sky with more direction. What I was not aware of though is how vastly different my gameplay experience was to that of other players. More specifically to players who don’t also have the Digital Deluxe version of the game.

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The review copy of Starlink I received wass the digital deluxe edition on Switch. When I first started the game, I was under the impression that most of the content I had access to was available to all players with the exception of StarFox related content for PS4 and XB1 players. What I learned after already playing 20 hours was that this was/is completely false. Apparently anyone who didn’t buy the digital deluxe edition is playing a completely different game than I did.

My version of the game gives me full, unadulterated access to 10 pilots, 6 ships, 15 weapons (not including the default Arwing lasers), and all the StarFox story content. All ships, including the Arwing, all weapons, and all pilots can be used interchangeably in real time for every single portion of the game. You can even play the StarFox missions without using StarFox. Every pilot, weapon, and ship has independent experience points and can be mastered through use. Each pilot has special abilities and attacks that are useful in specific situations. Each weapon and ship can be modded with four to five mods that drastically affect performance. You can have up to three saved loadouts that can be hot swapped in the menu screen whenever you want, including mid battle. I had full control of my gameplay experience. I could tailor my loadout(s) for each individual enemy to be perfectly suited to take them down.

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I needed a ridiculous amount of experience to max out everything, which I didn’t end up doing due to a lack of content, so I was never needlessly gaining XP. The RPG elements of the game were a critical part of my gameplay experience and added to the diversity and strategy of playing the game. For me, Starlink was a robust, multifaceted space fighter shooting game with RPG elements, a solid plot concerning several playable characters, and an arsenal of weapons at my disposal. I do think it was ultimately too short for the amount of pilots, ships, and weapons available though. But this wass not the game many people appear to be playing.

Something that needs to be noted about my version of Starlink is that the content is all seamless. When I was playing the game, I couldn’t tell what was vanilla content and what was deluxe edition content. There are no content walls. There are no purchase this to unlock this moments. There are no separate menus for DLC content. The story doesn’t break apart for each character. The cutscenes aren’t broken up between different characters. Everything in the game seems like it should be there and the game would suffer if any part was removed. Even StarFox content has been almost perfectly weaved into the rest of the game. Other than the differing art style, the characters appear in basically all the group cut scenes, as do all the other pilots. So I honestly can’t even imagine what this game would look like without all these pilots present. Yet this is apparently how the game is for everyone else.

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I had assumed that everyone had access to all the weapons and ships but that some of the pilots may be in the story but not playable without those specific toys. What I have come to learn is that actually nothing is available to vanilla physical edition players except the toys that came with their version. Even worse is the fact that the XB1 and PS4 physical starter packs come with less content than the Switch starter pack for the same price, due to the lack of StarFox.

The Switch physical starter pack comes with two pilots, two ships, and three weapons (not including the built in lasers on the Arwing that don’t take XP to get stronger). The XB1 and PS4 versions only come with one pilot, one ship, and three weapons, don’t have StarFox pilot or content, and don’t have a built in default weapon on the ship. All additional pilots, weapons, and ships have to be purchased separately for all versions. This is ridiculous. It’s literally all my fears for gaming brought to life. People have been making EA DLC jokes for years but this is the extreme version of that.

StarFox Starter Pack

Playing Starlink with only two pilots, three weapons, and one ship would be like paying $60 for Smash Bros and getting only two fighters, one map, and only hammers, hearts, and bombs as usable items with everything else being available as paid DLC. And these physical starter packs cost $75! That’s insane. Especially when you consider that for $60 you can get the vanilla digital edition and start with five ships, seven pilots, and 12 weapons. You are literally getting bent over by buying the physical edition. Expanding your arsenal of ships, pilots, and weapons is also considerably cheaper via DLC in digital form. You could probably buy a second digital deluxe edition of the game and have change left over with the amount of money you would spend buying all the content in physical form. For just $5 more than the physical starter pack you can get the digital deluxe edition and that’s without taking sales prices into account. As I write this, it’s currently $60 on the eshop.

I think this is a real problem. Not only for the game itself, but for the precedent it sets. This is more predatory than amiibo and that’s already bad to begin with. Not to mention the fact that this pricing scheme ruined the image of a perfectly good game that should have been in the running for Game of the Year. It definitely shouldn’t have won, but the digital deluxe edition would have been worthy of nomination if it was the standard edition.

Physical DLC

At first I didn’t understand why this game was being ignored. It was old news just a couple weeks after it released. I was having a blast playing it and I didn’t understand why no one else was even talking about it. Now I do. This is a phenomenal game that has everything I wanted from this genre, but the bulk of players are essentially playing a beta version of the game, and that sucks for the developers too. Their game was ruined by greed. And the gameplay experience is ruined for the players who don’t have all the content as well.

The difference in weapons, ships, and pilots is so severe that it’s honestly like playing a completely different game. For example, I have six ships. That means that in any battle I can have my ship blown up six times before it’s game over. I have never gotten a game over even though I played on hard. But if I only had one or two ships I would have been getting game overs constantly. I have 15 weapons to choose from with elemental properties, range properties, and ammo style properties. Some are rapid fire. Some are burst fire. Some are single fire. Some are short range. Some are long range. I have five different elemental types to choose from, all of which were required to solve certain puzzles along the way. I honestly can’t imagine playing the game without all these options. Elements matter. There are fire and ice type enemies. If you only have one fire weapon, one ice weapon, and nothing else, you are basically playing with one weapon against any fire or ice type enemy because using the enemy’s element powers them up.

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Of course people aren’t enjoying the game. They’re not getting to play the full game with the entire experience. Every character can max out each ship and weapon plus their skill tree. I’ve mastered some weapons with StarFox, no ships with anyone, and only managed to max out StarFox’s skill tree before finishing the game. But that’s because I played as all 10 pilots throughout the course of the game. Whenever I maxed out something with a specific pilot, I wouldn’t use it with that pilot anymore so that I never wasted any XP. If I was limited to only one pilot, one ship, and two weapons, I’d have  maxed out everything long before the end of the game and would have wasted tons of XP. It’s also important to note that every pilot has a skill that enhances all other pilots. That means that the more pilots you have the more benefits, which I did take advantage of with all 10 pilots, you get for the entire team.

I think this whole thing is a real shame and a scary look at the potential future of games distribution. Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a great game. I encourage everyone to buy it. It’s lots of fun and 30 hours of content isn’t terrible by today’s standards. But please make sure you buy the digital deluxe edition, otherwise you’re not only not getting the full game experience. You’re getting flat out conned into spending more money than you need to for not even a quarter of the experience you get with the digital deluxe edition. It’s a shame this game was ruined this way. It’s a shame most people won’t play it because of this system. And most of all it’s a shame that Ubisoft felt like this was an acceptable practice. I hope they patch it so that everyone can at least get the minimum number of pilots, weapons, and ships that the base digital version offers. Otherwise this is just highway robbery.

Again, I don’t retract my original soft review of the game. Everything I said in it was accurate and I do stand behind the game for its graphics, story, and gameplay. But I now have to qualify it by saying that I was speaking specifically about the digital deluxe edition and that’s the only version I endorse people to buy.

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Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – Storytelling Done Right

I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed games since the beginning and always in order. I’ve never skipped a console release title, including those Assassin’s Creed: Chronicles games, which actually weren’t that bad. I’m currently behind so I only just finished Syndicate this week, but I can’t wait to play Origins and Odyssey. I, like most long time AC players, have a weird relationship with the franchise. It constantly teeters between love and hate. There are things that are truly great about the franchise and to have seen how far it has come since the original release more than 10 years ago is both impressive and inspiring. But there are also issues that have plagued the games for years, many of which have only gotten worse over time. In my opinion, the storytelling is the weakest part of the Assassin’s Creed franchise and has been since at least Assassin’s Creed III. But the storytelling issues have existed since even before that game which was already several games into the franchise. This is extra depressing because the story is ultimately why I continue playing the games. I want to see a clear ending to this franchise. That’s not because I don’t like the franchise and want to see it end, but rather that I play games for the stories and I hate stories that don’t have clear endings.

AC has a host of storytelling problems. This is due mostly to the disjointed nature of the games and how they function as parts of an overarching narrative that has itself drastically shifted in direction in non-sensible ways over the course of the franchise. The big problem with the storytelling is that the modern day content has little to do with the Animus content while also acting as the bridge between multiple games that you’re only really playing for the Animus content. But it’s very apparent that the modern day content has always been an afterthought in the creation of these games. Rather than try to clean it up, Ubisoft decided the best way to deal with the modern day storyline was to significantly reduce its presence within the games. You see this a lot in the games that take place after ACIII. The amount of modern day content has been reduced more and more until you finally get to Syndicate where you don’t even play in the modern day. It’s reduced to four or five short cinematics all with the intention of justifying a single end game cut scene that doesn’t feature anyone of significance other than the weird first civilization MCP (yes that’s a Tron reference) that keeps showing up in games since ACIII but never really does anything. Supposedly it saved the world from a solar flare though.

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I see the direction that AC has taken by almost completely diluting away the out of Animus content to non-playable cut scenes and a bare minimum of time on screen as a good thing, but that’s not actually the part about the storytelling in Syndicate that I like the most. The key factor that I think makes the storytelling superior in Syndicate to just about every other AC game to date is the fact that you have multiple never before seen playable characters experiencing directly related stories and spaces. In past games you never had this, save for a short sequence in ACIII as Haythem Kenway. You had two loosely related characters acting independently of each other in the form of an ancestor and an Animus user/viewer. This never worked well for me because the games always slacked on the setting, gameplay, and writing for the Animus user. I genuinely didn’t care about Desmond and his whiny, depressing parent issues. I cared even less when you were some anonymous drone sneaking around the Abstergo offices. Those aspects of the story (and gameplay) have always been trash by comparison to the ancestor. That’s also why you never saw Desmond on the cover of the games. What I cared about has always been the story inside the Animus. Syndicate fleshes this story out more.

In Syndicate, you have two main playable characters and a third one if you play the Jack the Ripper expansion, during Industrial Revolution London. Plus there’s a fourth playable character in the base game that takes place during WWI for a short disconnected sequence. I thought this entire presentation of interconnected stories was brilliant. It added context, emotion, and background to all the characters involved. It strengthened the overall storytelling in a number of ways. It also led to variations in my gameplay style from character to character because I felt compelled to play each character the way I thought they would play rather than how I preferred to play. In many ways it was like playing multiple games in one while still maintaining a focused narrative. And even though the WWI sequence wasn’t directly connected to the main story, it was still excellent because it followed the progeny of one of the main characters. It was like taking a break from the game without taking a break from the game while providing additional information for the overarching narrative. I thought it was brilliantly executed.

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Syndicate doesn’t have the best plot of any AC game. It’s set in a time where capitalism is already ruining people’s lives in a country that’s not that interesting in the grand scheme of the AC universe. But it tells its story better than most of the other AC games I’ve played so far. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it considering the large number of negative comments I heard about it. I genuinely don’t understand where the negativity came from because it’s way better than Unity and is a nice change from Rogue, which is just a smaller scale copy of Black Flag. Many people even told me to skip Syndicate altogether, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Syndicate even handles the age old main character gender problem in games well. The game doesn’t center on either a male or female character. It stars both. And adds one of each additional character in the special sequences. It’s a perfectly balanced form of gender neutral storytelling that lets the player decide what/who to play as while making them both plot relevant without being plot neutral. There are also sequences that are character specific because the two play off of each other in a very effective way. And they have a few differing abilities to offer you a reason to swap between them depending on the mission you’re in.

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It’s a perfectly democratic way to make and play a game that in no way lowered the quality of the storytelling. Really it enhanced it. And, in this case they made me want to play as the female character in the right way. They made her interesting. Evie Frye is a better character than Jacob Frye. Or at least a better assassin. She thinks things through. She acknowledges the consequences or her and her brother’s actions. She has better stealth abilities. I wanted to play as her more. I still made myself rotate between the two often, even when I didn’t have to, but she’s the better character, in my opinion. That’s how you get male gamers to play games with female protagonists. You make the characters interesting and the games good. It’s really that simple. Tomb Raider does well because Lara Croft is a good character and the games are well made. There’s no magic formula. It’s not a political issue. Real gamers play good games. You could do The Witcher with a female protagonist. But it has to be at the quality level of The Witcher. Otherwise it’s just a “shitty feminism game that wishes it was The Witcher.” But by giving the player the choice in Syndicate, Ubisoft managed to make a game with a female protagonist without having to market it as such.  This made it way more appealing and accessible for everyone. Which begs the question: Why have we been playing these shitty out of Animus sequences for all these years to begin with?

The only reason the Animus is part of the franchise is that Ubisoft needed a link between all the games. For some reason they felt that it wasn’t good enough just to have the same name and general Assassin Templar war. They wanted to directly link each game via an overarching story, which in my opinion they’ve done, but failed to do well. Even as they’ve changed it over time and tried to salvage it, the modern day stuff is still trash. And with the death of Desmond, a character I absolutely hated, I all but stopped caring about who’s involved or what’s happening. I just want it to end so I can have a real conclusion. But why didn’t they just connect the games the way they connect the WWI and Jack the Ripper stories in Syndicate from the start? They could have just used the ancestry concept but directly linked the games via historical meetings. You have Altair get married and have kids. Then you have one of those kids become an assassin and travel to another country. Then that person meets another assassin named Ezio Auditore. Then the game follows Ezio.

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You get the same effect you have now of following a story through time and changing between multiple characters. You can even keep the piece of Eden thing they have going. But you don’t need all that superfluous modern day crap that no one even cares about anymore. You link the characters directly to each other through history as the war continues. That would also allow you to return to older characters later in different points in their lives. Like Ezio in Revelations. It takes place years after Brotherhood. Rather than doing the whole memory sequence mumbo jump they could have just done a game about another assassin he met along the way and then at the end of that game, years later in the timeline, that assassin reconnects with Ezio. Then in the next game a now older Ezio goes to Constantinople. No weird annoying bullshit needed. And it’s not like people can’t deal with time hops. The current games do them and it’s not an issue. You just do a sequence like Connor went to England and then wipe forward years later and show him returning from England, or whatever. The audience isn’t stupid. We can follow a shifting narrative. How else have we been playing AC games for all these years? You could go back in time as well. Just do an Edward found this old journal of a past assassin and started reading it opening sequence as a transition backwards. It’s not that hard.

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My point is that Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate does a great job with the storytelling because for 99% of the game it doesn’t pull you out of the Animus. And that 1% isn’t gameplay. It’s only cut scenes. This created a much stronger and more coherent narrative experience. As I said at the beginning of this post, I haven’t played Origins or Odyssey yet so maybe they’ve finally cleaned it all up. But I doubt it. There’s no real reason we needed this modern day storyline to make this franchise work. And I think it could still be done away with now. By implementing multiple playable characters in the same directly connected time periods, they can tell a much stronger story and solve their diversity problems at the same time. Adewale didn’t really need his own expansion in Black Flag. He should have just been playable in Black Flag with his own special sequences as well as in the open world. Haytham could have been playable for a much larger part of ACIII. These games are already connected in many ways. They simply needed to go the extra mile and not make up some weird trapped in the machine AI story filled with solar flares and faceless walking simulator sequences.

Syndicate was the best AC since played Black Flag. It has revitalized my interest in the franchise and I’m very much looking forward to both Origins and Odyssey, both of which I’ve heard great things about. Hopefully that includes great storytelling.

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