Sunday, July 17, 2016

First Thoughts On Pokémon Go

Of course it's a post on Pokémon Go, what else could you expect?

Just like millions of other people around the world I have started playing Pokémon Go recently. When I first heard about it I was absolutely thrilled. At that time (I can't recall exactly when that was, late last year maybe?) I had already been playing some Ingress casually and liked the concept. The idea to turn that into a Pokémon game seemed brilliant. If you know nothing about Ingress, in short it is pretty much like Pokémon Go. There aren't any Pokémon of course, but the equivalent of PokeStops and Gyms (in Ingress they are the same) and the core idea to walk around to gather supplies to battle it out against the other team (there are only two factions in Ingress) is all there.

Looking back at it I am surprised I didn't realize what a smash hit Pokémon Go was going to be. Ingress was already very popular - the day I started playing it I was invited to my factions local Google group in my hometown, which arranges walk-arounds where you can take down opposing "gyms" together, and boy were they active. I never did join in because it rarely fit with my personal schedule, and quite frankly I didn't enjoy Ingress enough to go out of my way to play it. It was fun, but more of a "I've got nothing to do while waiting for the bus"-kind of fun.

Then you've got Pokémon. I don't have to tell you how popular Pkmn is. Combining these two ideas, which also allows pkmn fans to come a step closer the ultimate dream of becoming an actual pkmn trainer... it was a match made in heaven, really. So what do I think of it?

First off, I'm not even going to complain about the technical issues. Do they annoy me? Of course they do. But I've given up hope that any company can deal with huge server-loads, I mean if Blizzard still can't get it right after five expansions and 12 years of experience then who can? And after all, it's not a game I've paid for so I am alright with it. For now.

Otherwise it is pretty much what I hoped for. It's not perfect, but few things are but seeing as catering to my very specific needs is probably impossible in a game clearly aimed at pleasing everyone on the planet. I'm ok with that too. My initial impression is definitely good so it is probably easier for me to adress the things that give me cause for mild concern (keep in mind however this is solely based on my personal experience with the game);

A little bit too empty around my place...

Or lack thereof. To me it is clear that Niantic, that is the developer of the game, has simply taken what is called "portals" from their Ingress game and transferred them over as PokeStops and Gyms in PGO. Thing is, there are about four times more portals in Ingress than there are PokeStops in PGO, so why the difference? My first guess was that they don't want to make it too easy to gather items but that doesn't make sense - you could just make each stop give less items in that case. In fact, it is clear to me the game hasn't been designed around getting people to walk around at all. If it was, there would be more PokeStops and they would definitely be more evenly distributed. As it is now they congregate around areas where people already move around, like town centers, making me believe that Niantic has designed the game to be something you do while you're already on the move for another reason - rather than being the reason itself. They clearly did not foresee the playstyle that players are adopting now which doesn't make sense either since they should have years of Ingress data to tell them otherwise. Admittedly, Ingress portals aren't exactly common outside of city centers either, but at least a lot more common than PokeStops.

Ok, so you can at least catch Pokemon anywhere, but after a while you run out of balls and then there is literally nothing to do in the game anymore. Oh wait, unless you pay for more balls. But the way the PokeStops are distributed now it makes it really unfair on anyone living more countryside (or like me, 10 min walk from city center). Another guess is that maybe Niantic doesn't actually want to encourage people to walk off outside to more uncivilized areas but the way the PokeStops are distributed around here you really don't have to walk two steps outside the city center before they become way too scarce. Too soon Niantic.

Actually, not much to do in Ingress either.

This might be something they've planned to implement, but I am sure a lot of players, myself included, wish there was a way to fight it out between eachother in the game other than attacking Gyms. There isn't in Ingress however, so it's possible it's not something they've thought of doing. Of course, one would have to ponder how it could fit into the game design, although if you ask me it could be implemented just as a stand-alone feature to test your strength against eachother without it necessarily having a lasting impact on anything else in the game. I can otherwise see the possibility of cheating, if say you could strengthen your pkmn or gain items through battles. But I see no harm in just-for-fun skirmishing.

Which T-shirt are you?

The Teams
Like I mentioned in Ingress there are only two teams, green and blue. The rivalry between those teams is enthusiastic but respectful, for what I observed at least. I really hope it can stay that way for PGO as well, but I've already seen posts and memes calling certain teams things that are probably intended as a jest (and most are quite funny) but are only a step away from being hateful. I mean, where does it even come from? It's a faction people had no relation to only a week ago. I think it worked fairly well in WoW, eventhough there was always a lot of namecalling in BGs, each faction calling the other faction a bunch of 12-year olds, or 40-year old virgins still living in their moms basements, but it usually stayed at that. This might've been in part because you can always play on both sides and because the both sides can't actually communicate. In PGO however you choose one side and as far as I know that is what you are until you somehow create a new account. Another thing to consider is that you will actively meet people of opposing factions when walking around, you might even end up staring eachother down over a Gym. Let's just say I am a bit worried that any hateful attitudes online might spill over into the real world.
To be fair however, everyone seems just so gleeful over the fact that they are playing pkmn together that maybe I am just being a worry-wart.

Honestly, I don't think the whole "paying attention to your surroundings"-thing is a thing. I mean, it clearly is since people seem to be hurting themselves left and right over this game, but then again with this many gamers you're bound to have pretty much anything happen sooner or later. I don't think the game is absorbing enough to make me forget I am crossing a road however. What I do have a problem with though and that I wish that they could change/fix somehow, is how you need to keep your screen active for the game to respond properly. I had the same problem with Ingress, and that game didn't require me to stay active to catch pkmn, so it was even less of an issue there! I'm not sure how it tracks egg-hatching progress, but I'm pretty sure that I don't get any notifications for pkmn if I don't keep the screen active. This drains so much battery, and quite frankly it's just tedious to stare at your screen for that long. Maybe the wristband that there has been talks about could solve this, because surely Niantic themselves has nothing to gain from whether the player stares at the screen or not? My guess it has something to do with how apps run passively so they might simply not be allowed to send/receive data from the game as long as you don't keep it open. It makes sense, but I would love for there to be some option somewhere where I could just walk with the phone in my pocket and have it vibrate or even make a noise whenever I am close enough to a pkmn. If it's already supposed to do that I can tell you that it's not working for me.

Speaking of long.

Personally, I am worried PGO will go the same way Ingress did for me. I played it (Ingress) quite actively the first couple of weeks. Like mentioned I joined the local group (eventhough I didn't walk with them), I Ingressed all the way to work on my bike, I tried Ingressing while I was out with my kid - but in the end it didn't really feel practical. Playing while bicycling was just plain dangerous I noticed and I couldn't push the pram one-handed which meant stopping all the time which just annoyed my kid in the end. This left me the option of taking the opportunity to play whenever I had an errand somewhere or to go out specifically on my own to play. Ingress couldn't make me want to, I'm not sure PGO can either. I think the key issue is that I don't have anyone in my vicinity who plays it and walking around on my own doesn't feel particularly enticing. Ideally I'd go with the bf, but someone has to watch the kid and the kid is too young to play.

Overall however it is a fun little game and quite the phenomenon to boot. It is true that few things beat catching long time favorites (I am working myself to a Gengar) and I am actually quite happy they've limited themselves to the first gen (at least initially). Niantic has probably made a smart move when they decided to streamline elements from the games to make them more appealing to the casual smartphone audience. For instance I don't think it would've worked as well if you had to actually battle the pkmn before catching them - aint nobody got time for that!

When I told the bf a couple of days ago about how much PGO had already been downloaded he said that every pkmn for the handhelds had been popular too. I pointed out to him that the main difference is that eventhough a lot of people have Game Boys, a whole lot more have smartphones. It is such a massive market to tap into, and a game like this is perfect for it. Now let's just hope it can stop crashing.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Warcraft: The Beginning Review

By the way, there are teeny spoilers...

I can't remember the first time I heard about the Warcraft movie, and I can definitely not remember ever being excited about it. Considering how long it has been floating around I probably was at some point, but if that was the case it had vanished completely by the time the movie was actually released.

I guess my problem with the movie (as I imagined it) was two-fold: firstly, good video-game to movie adaptations don't exactly grow on trees. I really liked the Resident Evil movie (I enjoyed all of them but thought the first one was really good). I actually like the Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter movies (the first ones, respectively), although far from brilliant movies they manage to entertain. And I am among the 0.1% who thinks the Mario Bros. movie is completely misjudged and misunderstood. But then you have movies like Prince of Persia. It was so boring I can't ever remember what happened in it. Silent Hill is another good example of squandered potential. And there are a ton of other video-game movies that I haven't even bothered watching because I just knew they would waste my time, like Bloodrayne and Alone in the Dark.

Secondly, I never really cared much for the lore in Warcraft. I haven't even played the first three games (and only after watching the Warcraft movie did I realize it is in fact based on the first Warcraft game, rather than World of Warcraft). I haven't read any of the books or series on the lore and I only cared so much as to get the basic grips of why I needed to kill the next big end-boss. Eventhough I spent 8 years in World of Warcraft, I am shamefully ignorant about the Warcraft Universe. My ignorance both led me to believe that whatever lore there was would be boringly convoluted and confusing, and if I haven't had an interest in it so far, how could this movie change that?

But it was part of something I had already invested 8 years into so I still wanted to see it. And I am damn glad I did because it was great.

Needless to say, going in to the theater my expectations were almost as low as they come. I didn't think it would be Dragonball Evolution bad, maybe not even The Last Airbender bad, but not far from. With me I had a friend who has absolutely zero knowledge of the games and even less knowledge of the lore than I did. She's barely played any game, let alone any Warcraft game. I asked her why she even bothered seeing it, and she replied with "I liked the trailer". I feared for her as we sat down, worried it would be two hours of torture for her.

It turned out to be two hours of delight. Not only did the movie manage to be far from convoluted and confusing, it actually managed to really get me interested in the Warcraft universe and lore and made me crave more. When I asked my friend what she thought of it afterwards she said she had really liked it and that it reminded her of Lord of the Rings in style.

I'm not saying this is a masterpiece of a movie, but it does what it sets out to do and it had me entertained the entire way through. If I was worried the two hours would end up filled with bloated and cringeworthy scenes, I couldn't have been more wrong. Some people might dislike the stage-set looking aesthetics of the movie (however they manage that with so much CGI going on), but it is done completely shamelessly. Not only did I get the feeling that the creators knew and udnerstood what Warcraft was about, they didn't back down from it either. If you're making a movie about orcs and demons and mages that can teleport and turn people into sheep you need to embrace that. Backing away or trying to ridicule it is only going to alienate your own material. That was one of my biggest fears for this movie but it was definitely not a problem.

When watching the movie I felt like the guy playing Anduin Lothar, Travis Fimmel, stood out in a weird way. He played his character differently to everyone else, not necessarily in a bad way but like he was playing in a slightly different movie. Afterwards I read that Travis Fimmel had absolutely no previous knowledge of the Warcraft series or lore, and somehow I think it shines through on the way he portraits Lothar (it could also just be my imagination). I still thinks he does an ok job however and it's nothing that ruins the movie in any way.

The story is simplistic enough to be coherent but not too cliché to be boring. Even if there weren't exactly any twists or deeper plot points that a five year old couldn't have figured out, many characters (especially on the orc side) were given enough depth to make up for any flatness in the story.  In fact the movie is smart enough to not even try to treat the few twists there are as some sort of revelations, but only play them for as much as they're worth (probably because they assume everyone watching will know the story anyway). And I didn't expect much from the story, but I also didn't expect them to do such a great job with some of the characters, so that was a nice surprise for me.

I think it's hilarious that there is such a huge discrepancy between critic reviews and regular movie goers. Because I can't personally judge how well this movie performs without any pre-knowledge it's hard for me to say what they're complaining about. Maybe it's because they don't get that tingly feeling in their gut when they see Lothar greet Moroes in Kharazan or when Draka puts Go'el in the river. Little things that hold little meaning to them but huge meaning to me and I suspect a lot of other movie goers.

Still, I'd recommend this movie both if you've played any of the games related, but also if you have an interest in fantasy movies but no previous knowledge of this game-series. I wouldn't say the movie stands completely on its own, but it's not far from. My only gripe is that I really wish there would've been more of it! I wanted to see undeads (I realize they don't come into play until later), I wanted to see more of the elves, I wanted to know more about Go'el. The movie managed to make me more interested in the Warcraft lore than 8 years of WoW ever did. In essence I desperately want them to make more of these movies and I don't think there is any better praise than that.

Things I learned from the movie I did not know beforehand;

  • That the main orc character was Durotan, I had assumed it would be Thrall.
  • That Garona is a half-orc, I always thought she was just plain orc. Probably because her model in WoW is orc.
  • That Medivh was the guy who invited the orcs into Azeroth. I knew he had been corrupted by the fel magic, but not what he did. The movie doesn't explain how he nor Gul'dan gets to the magic however.
  • Pretty much everything the movie tells you about Khadgar was news to me.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Throwback Game Review - Suikoden

By the way, there will be spoilers...

Suikoden is another RPG series I had completely missed out on until recently. Well, that is partially true since I actually bought Suikoden V when that was released, but was gravely disappointed with it and never made it more than a couple of hours in. But eventhough I had tried that game, or maybe because of it, I knew very little about the game series. I guess that game (Suikoden V) also somewhat dampened my interest to know more about it, at least until I had checked out other, more interesting looking series first. That changed some month ago however when I was listening to one of my VGM podcasts and one of the hosts was hailing the Suikoden series, especially the first two and recommended everyone to give it a try. Maybe that was all it took to make me revise my first impression, I like to think that Suikoden had just slipped my mind a bit and this reminder is what I needed to think "you know what? Why not?". So there I was about a month ago, booting up Suikoden and having not the faintest idea what awaited.

I wasn't lying when I said I knew little about the series. I had (and in fact still don't, since I've only finished one game in the series so far) no idea how the games tie in to eachother. Is it like the Final Fantasy series where they merely borrow elements of eachother or more like the Star Ocean series where they're in the same universe? I knew nothing of the gameplay or style of story (although being released in the mid-90s I had a general idea). I was curious and excited to see what was awaiting and hopeful that it would be something that held up more than 20 years after it was first released.

What can I say, other than - yes, it definitely does. What a great game Suikoden is. It has a lot of interesting elements that could've been handled so much worse than they are, instead I found that a lot of my initial fears upon exploring the gameplay were completely removed as I realized the creators seemed to have been actually focused on making the game present itself beautifully.

Firstly, it's a relatively short game. I clocked in at under 17 hours, this is to be compared with for instance Grandia (released 1997) which I am also currently playing where I have more than 30 hours of gametime and no end in sight. The explanation for this is simple however, Suikoden is storywise one of the least confusing jRPGs I have played in a long time. There are just very few timesinks and instead it is efficient. The amount of times I found myself wondering what I needed to do next could be counted on one hand and probably all be attributed to me being distracted or otherwise failing to read easy-to-understand instructions. In this sense you might call the game linear, but oh what a relief that is. Whenever I play RPGs from this time period I dread the amount of time I am going to spend randomly running around the map trying to find the next place to trigger along the story. This happens very rarely in Suikoden as it is heavy on cutscenes moving you ahead - but don't worry, we're not talking MGS heavy. These cutscenes are neat and short and just what you need to keep your interest and to further the story. Far from interrupting, they help build up the characters and your relation with them.

Speaking of characters, there are 108 that you can gather. This was one thing I had some worries about going into the game, as I had read of it prior to playing on the Wikipedia page. I was very curious to see how they could make you care about any character when there were 108 to choose from? And wouldn't that just make everything feel cluttered? There are other games with a big cast, but I can't think of any that even comes close to 108. This turned out to be one thing the game handled without any problem, in fact it turned it into one of the best and most unique elements of the game.

This brings me to the story, which is straightforward and fairly standard. The empire is evil, you must thwart the empire. In fact if I would have anything bad to say about Suikoden it would be that the antagonists are nowhere near fleshed out enough and because of this you never really get the same feeling of success when you finish the game that beating a maniacal bad-guy can do. Rather than being the world-saviour it feels like Suikoden chooses to cast you in a more low-key role, as the commander of a rebel army that sets out to liberate the lands of the empire. This is one of the few jRPGs I've played where the entire world isn't even part of the story - for all I know there are lands on the other side of the planet that don't give a crap about me and my battles. I don't have a problem with that though, I find it kind of endearing whenever you're NOT cast as the planet-saving-hero, especially in these pre-2000 RPGs where that was still a very common theme. And the story on the good-guy-side allows for quite a lot of emotions - I haven't seen this many main characters killed off since Game of Thrones. My only qualms with the story are, like mentioned, that the main antagonist are barely in it. Kefka springs to mind as a good comparison - Suikoden does a lot of things better than Final Fantasy, but this is not one of those things.

Although maybe a bit over-the-top...

As the commander of the Liberation Army you get your own fort however, and this is where the 108 characters actually come in handy, believe it or not. Not only does the sheer amount allow you almost endless tinkering with party setups, if that's your cup of tea - a lot of the characters you recruit end up having a practical role in your fort. By recruiting you can make sure you have access to an inn, a blacksmith, a teleporter, an elevator... you name it. I love this idea and it is executed superbly, characters necessary for progression will be recruited to you through the storyline, but I only got some half of all the possible characters so there is so much more to explore. It is a completionists heaven.

But what about the problem with the leveling, you may ask? Surely you would never want to swap party-members, since whomever is left behind needs to be leveled, wasting precious time? Yes, this is another thing I was worried about when I started playing the game, especially since the game will often force characters into your party for story purposes, characters that may well be 40 levels below your main character. But even this Suikoden has solved brilliantly - leveling is extremely dynamic where low level characters will receive a huge amount of experience for high level enemies. This means it will only take you a handful of battles before your low level character is up to date. What the character swapping will have you spend a lot of time with however, is gear swapping. Because characters were often swapped around beyond my control I stopped actively gearing new party members because I never knew how long they would get to stay in my party. Instead I used a system of hand-me-downs, where I only geared my main character and passed down whatever he replaced.

This might sound tedious, but it's only a minor issue. Furthermore, gear doesn't seem to have a huge impact on the game - it's definitely important, but it won't make or break a fight as long as you have a few characters with good gear (you can control six in total).

Speaking of fights, they are overall fun and never wore on me. Some of the boss monsters really required some tactical thinking but in general I never felt like the game was overly difficult. Not once did I have to grind levels to manage a certain area, which I can only put down to the clever experience system, always making sure your characters are quickly leveled up to match the area they are in. I also commend any game that gives you an "auto-battle" feature, especially in a game where there are six people to control. Gold star to Suikoden for this, as it really comes in handy.

When you're not auto-battling, you will notice that your character setup changes your options during battle. Some characters can team up and do combo-attacks together, and I also read (unfortunately after finishing the game, so it was never something I did myself) that you can do combo-magic. Magic on the other hand was something I never really got the grips on. Unlike most RPGs that have dedicated mages, this game allows you to give any character a rune that will allow them to cast certain spells (some characters have locked runes that can't be swapped, some runes do other things than allow spell-casting). There is no mana, instead each spell has a certain amount of uses, similar to FFVII, only way way fewer of them. I never got any spell to break double-digits in uses, and as such I very rarely used them, but saved them instead for the harder fights. For instance, there is no healer as such in the game, rather you will mainly rely on using potions to get through fights (there are runes that give healing spells, but the uses are too few to be used on a regular basis). Potions are cheap and easy to get by so rather than becoming a problem this allows for every character in your party to be a healer - clearly the designers did not want to limit you when setting up your party (other than for story reasons). I really liked that. So overall I felt like the magic worked fine and it especially gave me the feeling that there was a lot of exploring and experimenting to be done with the different runes, just as with the party set-ups.

There is so much more to be said - I could for instance talk about the variatons in battle they throw in, sort of mini-game style, to change things up a bit, I could talk about the graphics and how some of the cutscenes have the sweetest pixelwork I've seen in a long time - but if I were to wrap it up I guess I would have to say that I really enjoyed it and I definitely recommend it. The gameplay basically begs you to replay the game and everything is set up for you to want to.