EPIC WIN (OR FAIL): It has been a few weeks of high drama in the world of video games as Epic––the company behind Fortnite and the Unreal Engine––sued Apple after Apple delisted Fortnite from its storefront when Epic violated its terms of service as a developer. It’s a complicated, convoluted issue with a lot of far-reaching and severe consequences for those who don’t really have a dog in this fight––the players (not to mention the impact it could have on smaller indie developers). Andrew and D. Bethel attempt to unravel all the goings-on in this very interesting and possibly paradigm-shifting event.
This week saw the release of the long awaited “next title” in Bioware’s popular Mass Effect series: Mass Effect: Andromeda. For any number of reasons, Dan and I are far from the “cutting edge” of video game playing; I have no plans to play the game soon and Dan will start playing it this week.
That being said, the game has attracted its fair share of reviews, commentaries, and discussions. A lot of the internet is abuzz over the game, with many reviews acknowledging the games strengths but also admitting a healthy share of weaknesses. Erik Kain from Forbes even called it the “worst-reviewed game in the franchise.”
Mass Effect: Andromeda is an expansive action role-playing game with a few great moments that recapture the high points of the landmark trilogy that came before it, and energetic combat and fantastic sound effects contribute to a potent sci-fi atmosphere. Without consistently strong writing or a breakout star in its cast to carry it through the long hours and empty spaces, however, disappointments like a lack of new races, no companion customization, and major performance problems and bugs take their toll.
The plot and structure of Mass Effect: Andromeda can be viewed as a metaphor for the game itself, where a population eager for a fresh start makes a leap into a new frontier. The destination isn’t the paradise we hoped for. For our characters, Andromeda required a leap of faith, the belief that the universe must hold more for humanity. Nobody anticipated how much work building a new home would really take, and in a way, the entire game is about mitigating everyone’s disappointment. The truth is that Andromeda itself isn’t the promised land players hoped for either, but there is a lot that’s good in this flawed new frontier for Mass Effect.
Let’s be clear: I’m conflicted about Mass Effect: Andromeda. There’s a lot of roughness throughout the game, and the technical issues, while not game-breaking, are often incredibly distracting. But it’s my time with the cast that I’m still thinking about, and the mysteries about the world that haven’t been answered that make me feel like I’m waiting once again for a new Mass Effect game. And if I’m judging a game by where it leaves me, Andromeda succeeds, even if it stumbled getting there.
Being both a sort of prequel and sequel to the original Mass Effect trilogy, it’s understandable that there would be both excitement and trepidation regarding the changes made to the venerated series. However, in at least one case, dissatisfaction with the game has taken a rather dark turn.
Kotaku‘s Ethan Gach reports that Allie Rose-Marie Leost, a woman who worked for EA Games in the motion-capture labs and had been associated with Mass Effect: Andromeda, was the victim of a series of online harassment and threats. Some people appear to be discontent with the animations in the game, somehow identified Leost as a lead animator, and are holding her responsible. The harassment ranges from threats of sexual assault to accusations of her providing sexual services in order to get her job.
After the initial onslaught began, Bioware decided to try and take action to rectify the situation by tweeting that somebody who had been “misidentified as a lead member” of the team was not, in fact, a lead member. It also clarified that she was no longer an employee of EA Games. This has been met with mixed responses from media websites and fans.
More recently, former Mass Effect animator Jonathan Cooper took to Twitter to both oppose attacks made against members of the development team and discuss some of the methods used in animation development. Pointing out the expansiveness of a project like Andromeda and the time limitations associated with the development cycle, his comments provide context for how a few of the more prominent animation mistakes have become the signature video for the game.
First though; going after individual team members is not only despicable, but the culprits and choice of target revealed their true nature. Just as we credit a team, not an individual, for a game’s success, we should never single out one person for a team’s failures. That said, animating an RPG is a really, really big undertaking – completely different from a game like Uncharted so comparisons are unfair. Every encounter in Uncharted is unique & highly controlled because we create highly-authored ‘wide’ linear stories with bespoke animations. Conversely, RPGs offer a magnitude more volume of content and importantly, player/story choice. It’s simply a quantity vs quality tradeoff. In Mass Effect 1 we had over 8 hrs of facial performance. In Horizon Zero Dawn they had around 15. Player expectations have only grown. As such, designers (not animators) sequence pre-created animations together – like DJs with samples and tracks.
How all of this will affect the game (and, potentially, the critical response) remains to be seen. It does also, however, touch on the growing conversation around the status of high-profile, triple-A games being released in increasingly hobbled conditions (commonly decried as being “unfinished“), requiring either day one patches or, after vociferous fan and critical response, releasing one as soon as possible. Where Mass Effect: Andromeda falls in that conversation is unknown, but time (and sales) may yet tell.
Although Dan and I lamented, cursed, and even sang songs about the year that was 2016, it was sort of a big year in one important way. The mobile game market has become a hot bed of gaming activity. 2016 (including the end of 2015, to be fair) saw a few big names throw their intellectual properties into the ring. Somewhere in that maelstrom that is pay-for-play micro-gaming, I got caught up in the ride. Although we’re already several days into the new year, I thought it would be appropriate to look back on all the games that I looked at, played, talked about, and otherwise engaged with in 2016.
Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes by Electronic Arts
Technically, Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes was released near the end of 2015, but I did not get to it until much later. It was my Week in Geek in Episode 93 – The Clay Man Incident. Filled with many characters, locations, and ships from the Star Wars universe, this turn-based squad based battle game provides a vast amount of content. There are a lot of different characters from the movies and television shows that you can group together to battle.
Since I first started playing back in April, they’ve added a great deal of content. The game expanded beyond the simple five on five combat to include massive “raid bosses,” in which player-organized guilds fought to defeat a massive enemy in turns. More recently, they added a ship combat mode in which X-Wings and TIE Fighters shoot it out in an entirely new (yet surprisingly similar) game mode. Some of the more recent content has been viewed somewhat negatively; what started out as an effective “could be played for free but maybe I’ll spend a little” game has turned into a “if you can’t spend a huge amount, don’t even bother” game. Accusations of rampant cheating have also soured some paying players from participating (at least some of those that I have spoken to), an important consideration since so much of the game relies on playing against other players.
In the end, the biggest draws for Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes are still the ongoing stream of new character content and the powerful license. Even for folks that disliked The Phantom Menace (or the prequels in general) or don’t follow Rebels, the depth of Star Wars content in Galaxy of Heroes will keep nearly every fan interested for as long as they keep providing it.
Always interested in trying to do something as well as somebody else, Warner Bros. released their own squad-based battler in November. I discussed my initial thoughts back in Episode 114 – Su Gana. Very similar in feel to Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, this game features an array of heroes and villains from the DC Comics universe. Perhaps the biggest gameplay difference from the aforementioned Star Wars title is the presence of a loose story to tie the narrative together: “As the shadow of the Blackest Night prophecy falls on every world, sheer force of will alone cannot save the shattered DC Universe.”
Still in its first few months, most of the additions to DC Legends so far have come in the form of character and event additions. As with other freemium games, chasing the “hot new character” is an important part of the gameplay. The game has yet to do any major additions or changes, still relying on the basic gameplay elements to keep the game going.
With so many similarities to the slightly more mature Galaxy of Heroes, this title has a lot of catching up to do. The biggest driver for this game is the fact that you can have Black Canary, Sinestro, the Flash, and Zatana fighting together against… well, whoever gets thrown at you. At that point, it feels like it’s more a matter of what license do you want taking your money and time and less which game you think is better designed.
Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius is the second Final Fantasy themed freemium mobile game that Dan and I both found ourselves playing (at least for a bit). We both discussed our initial impressions of this game in Episode 99 – Jaw-Jackin’. Since that initial release, they’ve added more content both in the way of the “story” mode and in semi-regular themed events. Compared to the previous mobile game, Final Fantasy Record Keeper, Brave Exvius brings a lot more to the “game” front. The “story mode” feels a lot more like something that might be a classic Final Fantasy game with a narrative, dungeon exploration, and the sorts of thing one expects. That being said, random battles have been replaced with a more “spend energy to explore” style freemium model.
All that being said, it combines enough of “new experience” with “recognizable intellectual property” that seems to be essential to the constantly churning market that is freemium mobile games. The story introduces a new world with new characters, but connects it with the recognizable characters of classic Final Fantasy through the power of “Visions.” You build a party of characters from both the main characters and these collectible “Visions” and use them collectively in battles to explore new areas, discover treasures, and unlock additional content. Since its initial release, they’ve added some significant content updates that provides access to more things to do, additional things to unlock, and more items to craft.
Similar to Final Fantasy: Record Keeper, this game leans heavily on overall Final Fantasy nostalgia and probably has little appeal to people that don’t know much about the expansive worlds. Although essential in battle, these characters do not involve themselves in the story or have any contribution to anything; they simply serve as warriors to kill off the never-ending legion of monsters. However, as Dan pointed out, the characters are drawn and animated very well, giving a new appearance to many of the classic characters. If nothing else, they look good.
I first talked about the new Molyneux title, The Trail, in Episode 114 – Su Gana and followed up in Shortcast 19 – What Was Town? Although it didn’t stay too long on my play rotation, it did stand out from most of the mobile games on the current market. Whether due to the Molyneux involvement or, in the alternative, development by Kongregate, The Trail feels more like a collecting and crafting themed video game and less like a pay-to-play freemium title. Yes, the game still occasionally throws a “buy this special pack” splash page at you, but with nowhere near the intensity of most of the market.
But, let’s be honest. Though it may feel like a collecting and crafting video game, it’s not a particularly great one. Specifically with the need (whether literal or perceived) to play for extended periods at a time, it makes it tough for this game to survive in a market that specializes in repeated, yet relatively brief, engagements. When you put these two together, it feels like the better option would be to try a different mobile game or get a more in-depth crafting game for the console or PC instead of mobile.
In the ongoing quest to play as many of the hot new mobile games as possible, this is one that pretty much came and went before I even had time to mention it. First released in October 2016, Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes is a fusion of the recognizable franchise that is Plants vs. Zombies with the mechanics of something like Hearthstone. In a sense, it’s tower defense meets digital trading card game. Players play as either a plant or a zombie, with a deck of cards built from a pool corresponding to your side and whatever sub-faction your “hero” is affiliated with. For example, the zombie hero Super Brainz can choose his cards from the Sneaky and Brainy categories of zombie cards. The game is played one-on-one, with a slight difference in how the game plays for zombies and plants.
There are a lot of different cards out their with which to customize decks, leading to a lot of variation in play. Of course, like any trading card game, it requires a certain dedication to the meta. Players can’t just be good at playing cards; they have to be good at figuring out which cards work well in which decks. Like Hearthstone, the deck-building portion is just as important as the actual play portion of the game. This puts it in a strange place with respect to the competition. It is not as deep or developed as a card game as something like Hearthstone and its likely too involved and complicated when compared to the original Plants vs. Zombies. Although I don’t personally know that many PvZ players, I suspect most of them were quickly turned off by the complexity of PvZ:H. We will have to wait and see how it turns out going forward.
This is another one of those “it actually came out in 2015” games, but it found its way back into my play rotation when I started playing Fallout 4. This is one of the few mobile games that Dan and I did NOT spend a great deal of time discussing on the show, mostly because it sort of “came and went” for both of us relatively quickly after its release (although Dan played it obsessively for a week or so). However, you can hear our friends at the Nerdhole talk about it here, in Episode 33 – Fallout Shelter.
When released, Fallout Shelter was mostly a quick little “collect resources, build more buildings, grow more people, collect more resources” sort of game. Not much more than your typical aquarium “log in and tap” sort of game. Since its release, they’ve added some content meant to add more depth to the game. There is now a quest system, special outfits and equipment, and some new features added. It’s a nice improvement from the original title and worth the time for folks really engaged with the Fallout style. With Bethesda already moving to develop more smartphone and mobile titles in the future, it should be interesting to see where they take gaming to next.
One of the more recent mobile games to make its way onto my smartphone, Marvel Avengers Academy is one of the many “aquarium” style games present in the market. I first mentioned it in Episode 111 – #CyclopsWasRight. It’s nothing complicated or fancy. Some even argue it’s not much of a game; it’s more just a thing you turn on every few hours and tap with some regularity. But don’t let that fundamental lack of compelling gameplay fool you! It can actually be quite an entertaining product, especially for people with interest in the characters upon which the game is based.
From a gaming perspective, MAA is probably easiest to compare to a worker placement style board game. There are fixed locations (Stark Tower, the Avenger Dorms, the Shooting Range), a set of characters with fixed actions that take different amounts of time, and a series of tasks or missions that need to be accomplished for prizes. Part of the challenge is finding ways to best (rather, most efficiently) complete the missions assigned. Inefficient play is not prohibitive to advancement, but it does slow down unlocking new characters, buildings, and actions.
What keeps the game changing is a constant stream of new special events. When I began playing back in October, they had just started a special Halloween-themed event. The Academy was under attack by the forces of Mephisto and an array of strange characters joined my Academy team, including Ghost Rider, Misty Knight, and Moon Knight. Shortly after that four-week event concluded, the Academy fused with Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum as the forces of Kaecilius attacked. With each new event comes new characters with novel new actions and animations. All of it is tied together with a somewhat organized storyline in which the origin of the Academy, the fact that most of the characters are in their teens, and the “truth” about what’s going on are waiting to be uncovered.
As a Marvel fan, it’s a cute time-waster that never asks too much. The narrative that they are slowly revealing is enough to keep me tapping and the ongoing array of new and interesting characters are sufficient to keep me coming for more.
2016 saw a lot of new content come to mobile and handheld devices. A lot of it came wrapped in massive licenses, whether they be comic books, video games, or movies. As we enter 2017, new games will be made, old ones will be upgraded, and some will just fall by the wayside. Continuing to find new ways to keep the gameplay interesting while not driving away too many players with paywalls will continue to be a challenge. Of course, there’s always the issue of micro-transactions and the lasting effect it has on player retention, but that’s a discussion for another time.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew finally sat down and saw Marvel’s newest addition to its cinematic universe, Doctor Strange, while Dan sits down and replays the opening of Mass Effect 2.
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: After being pushed back in the movie schedule before getting removed completely, The Inhumans finally gets a release date…on television…kind of. While it’s premiere will be in IMAX theaters for a few weeks, Marvel announced that a The Inhumans tv show will air on ABC alongside Agents of SHIELD. Dan and Andrew talk about this newest plan and what it says about the static between Marvel’s movie house and television studios.
NEW WHO, IN COLOR: The Second Doctor’s premiere story, “The Power of the Daleks,” is getting a DVD release in fully animated form (due to the original episodes getting wiped by the BBC in the 1970s), but more interestingly the release will be getting an extra feature of the whole story in color. Andrew and Dan discuss this feature as well as the state of missing Doctor Who, based on the News Blast Andrew wrote about this announcement.
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For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.
-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“More Human Than Human” by White Zombie
-“I Am the Doctor” by Jon Pertwee