The Last of Us EP14: White Gold

 By Shamus Oct 30, 2014 28 comments


Link (YouTube)

I feel pretty silly after praising the game for the little moment where Ellie shielded her eyes from the sun. In this episode she does that calm walk down the steps, right through the crossfire… twice. It’s the most ridiculous, derpy, immersion-breaking moment in the game for me so far.

But Chris is right: AI is hard, and companion AI is harder. You could tweak Ellie’s behavior for ages and still find edge-cases where the AI just isn’t equipped to deal with the current world state in a believable way. And the smarter the AI is – the more convincing her actions are – the more ridiculous it seems when the system fails. It’s a tough problem. I’m glad it’s not my job to fix it.


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The Last of Us EP13: Live, Die, Repeat

 By Shamus Oct 29, 2014 52 comments


Link (YouTube)

I love at the five minute mark when Joel and Ellie walk outside and she covers her eyes in the bright sunlight. There are so many small touches like this. Again, it happens naturally with live actors, but it all takes time and effot and attention to detail in videogame world.

Like Rutskarn says: This post-apocalyptic economy is suspect!

If we ever do have an apocalypse, I’ll probably end up captured by bandits by Thursday. I’ll be sitting in the cannibal pot, slowly boiling alive while saying things like, “This is totally unrealistic! No way should you guys be out of canned food by now. This is not a viable long-term survival strategy! Where did all the women and children go? Why are you living in a squalid warehouse when there are presumably comfortable homes available? Why is your warehouse so squalid, anyway? Where did you get this giant pot capable of holding an adult human? THIS IS BULLSHIT!”

And then it turns out they weren’t even cannibals. They just really hate nitpickers.


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Top 64 Games: 32 to 25

 By Shamus Oct 29, 2014 92 comments

Reminder: Try not to stress out too much about the order of the items on this list, what games made it and which ones didn’t. This list is just PC games, limited to the ones I’ve played and I thought were worth discussing. If you rage out because I left out your favorite game then you’re just making a fool of yourself. Also remember the rule: A particular franchise can only appear in the list once, so if Resident Evil 4 makes the list then Resident Evil 2 can’t.

Just use this as an excuse to talk about / praise / eviscerate games we might not get to discuss very often. Read the intro to learn why we’re doing this.

Also! Some people are having fun trying to identify the games in the header image. That’s actually a fun idea. I’ll post the answers for each image at the end of this series.

Continue reading »

2020202012There are now 92 comments. Almost a hundred!




Experienced Points: How Shadow of Mordor is a Poor Man’s Batman: Arkham Game

 By Shamus Oct 28, 2014 88 comments

The Batman: Arkham gameplay is a lot like God of War and Diablo: It’s something that looks simple and easy to duplicate, but it’s not until you play a bad clone that you realize just how much thought and attention went into the original, and how difficult it is to replicate on anything other than a superficial level. My column this week is about how Shadow of Mordor missed a few core concepts that made Arkham work so well.

People were kind of surprised that I included Dark Souls in my Top 64 Games list. I’m on record as someone who hates punishing gameplay, and I’m not a huge fan of high difficulty. Or more accurately, I hate high difficulty when mixed with learning. I hate dying tons of times when trying to master a new system, but I’m happy to crank up the difficulty once I’ve gotten good at a game and decided I like it.

I tried Dark Souls a couple of months ago. As predicted, I found it stressful and unpleasant. I tried to fight that first boss, died twice, and decided I didn’t want to play anymore. I wasn’t having a good time, and unlike most Dark Souls fans I wouldn’t get a profound sense of accomplishment when I finally did get the patterns and timing down.

Strangely enough, it was Batman: Arkham City that enabled me to see what people liked in Dark Souls. People praise Dark Souls for being “fair”, and they say that, “When you die, it’s your fault.” That never made any sense to me, because as a new player the game is manifestly unfair. A sudden bolder rolls down the steps and does massive damage? Yeah. There’s nothing remotely “fair” about that.

But what we’re talking about is a lack of randomness or system noise. In Half-Life 2, even the greatest player in the world will get hit sometimes. Everyone takes damage. So when you complete a room you have no way of knowing how well you did. Could this room be done better? Is it possible to take less damage? Actually, maybe we should rate performance based on how long it takes to kill the enemies instead of damage taken. What’s the core mastery here? Am I working to maximize damage output or minimize incoming damage?

But in Arkham and Dark Souls, there’s no noise. The “fair” bit means that once you fully master the game, it is totally possible to get through the whole thing without taking a scratch. When you die, you don’t have to worry that you were just unlucky and a bad guy got a critical or something. Every death – and even every hit – is avoidable. This means that the longer you play the game, the better you perform. You can see and feel yourself improve.

Dark Souls just doesn’t appeal to me, but it’s the punishment, not the system. For me playing Dark Souls is like trying to learn to play the piano in a situation where fluffing too many notes will force me to go back and practice some other tune that I’ve already mastered.

If you found Batman “boring”, it’s probably because you thought your goal was just to survive, which is obviously pretty easy. But your real goal is to execute fights without getting hit and without breaking your combo. When viewed this way, I find Batman’s gameplay to be immensely enjoyable.


202020208Great Scott! 88 comments! If only this post was a DeLorean.




Borderlands Badass Ranks

 By Shamus Oct 28, 2014 60 comments

The Borderlands games have this thing called “Badass ranks”. It’s this sort of meta-leveling system that’s not tied to any specific character, but is instead based on some global stateActually, in the first one it works a little different, but whatever. For now let's focus on the Borderlands 2 and Pre-Sequel.. You complete goals, the goals give you badass points, the points fill a leveling bar, and when it fills up you get a single badass token. These tokens can be spent on really, really small upgrades like “Plus a tenth of a percent more damage with guns”. But these upgrades apply to all your characters, now and in the future.

The goals are typical achievement-bait type stuff: Kill X people with fire damage. Open X loot chests. Loot X items of a given rarity. Sell X items. Kill X of creature Y with melee attacks. Get X headshots. Do X sidequests. Deal X points of damage with weapon Y. And so on.

This is Athena from Pre-Sequel. (Best character.) The bonus stats you see on the left apply to all the characters I create. The game lets you disable these if you want, presumably to allow serious players to set up "fair" duels.
This is Athena from Pre-Sequel. (Best character.) The bonus stats you see on the left apply to all the characters I create. The game lets you disable these if you want, presumably to allow serious players to set up "fair" duels.

There are numerous goals, to the point where you’ll be hitting new ones every couple of minutes. If you’re looking to maximize the number of badass tokens you earn, then it’s best to avoid getting stuck in a rut with one favorite character, weapon, and playstyle. Use all the weapons, fight all the foes, use vehicles, use melee, and generally mix things up.

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Diecast #78: Unity, Unity, Borderlands, Beyond Earth

 By Shamus Oct 27, 2014 137 comments


Direct download (MP3)
Direct download (ogg Vorbis)
Podcast RSS feed.

Hosts: Chris, Josh, Shamus, and Rutskarn.

Show notes:
Continue reading »


A Hundred!2017There are 137 comments here. I really hope you like reading.




Top 64 Games: 40 to 33

 By Shamus Oct 26, 2014 168 comments

Reminder: Try not to stress out too much about the order of the items on this list, what games made it and which ones didn’t. This list is just PC games, limited to the ones I’ve played and I thought were worth discussing. If you rage out because I left out your favorite game then you’re just making a fool of yourself. Also remember the rule: A particular franchise can only appear in the list once, so if Resident Evil 4 makes the list then Resident Evil 2 can’t.

Just use this as an excuse to talk about / praise / eviscerate games we might not get to discuss very often. Read the intro to learn why we’re doing this.

Also! Some people are having fun trying to identify the games in the header image. That’s actually a fun idea. I’ll post the answers for each image at the end of this series.

Continue reading »

A Hundred!2020208Many comments. 168, if you're a stickler




The Last of Us EP12: Shooty Time

 By Shamus Oct 24, 2014 86 comments


Link (YouTube)

It’s a credit to the game that after Bill was such an insufferable asshole I was able to feel sorry for him. He got a note from his partner that boiled down to “I never loved you.” He’s all alone in zombie town. He’s living a doomed existence. And then Ellie stole his porn. Poor guy.

Then again, maybe his existence wouldn’t be so bleak if he wasn’t a horrible, angry, bickering, confrontational, and borderline abusive human being. Maybe Bill’s curse isn’t living alone. Maybe his curse is being Bill.

Observe at 14:45, Ellie does a yawn. This might be the first natural-looking yawn in videogames. A yawn is one of those expressions that usually looks horrifying when done in videogames.

As they head into Pittsburgh, I joke that the zombies are gonna have the worst accent. Turns out a lot of people agree with this. The Pittsburgh accent was recently voted Americas Ugliest Accent. This is my favorite example of the accent and the culture that surrounds it. I’ve known quite a few Greg & Donny types in my day.

And now let’s nitpick this episode, because I can’t help myself.

Frank hung himself in a house with the doors and windows closed. The stench of the rotting corpse should have been overpowering when they entered. It should have been strong just getting near the place. Now, you could argue that it’s been so long that the worst of the smell has dissipated. But if that’s the case, then there’s no way the body is in good enough condition to see bite marks.


202020206There are now 86 comments. Almost a hundred!




Top 64 Games: 48 to 41

 By Shamus Oct 24, 2014 82 comments

Reminder: Try not to stress out too much about the order of the items on this list, what games made it and which ones didn’t. This list is just PC games, limited to the ones I’ve played and I thought were worth discussing. If you rage out because I left out your favorite game then you’re just making a fool of yourself. Also remember the rule: A particular franchise can only appear in the list once, so if Resident Evil 4 makes the list then Resident Evil 2 can’t.

Just use this as an excuse to talk about / praise / eviscerate games we might not get to discuss very often. Read the intro to learn why we’re doing this.

Also! Some people are having fun trying to identify the games in the header image. That’s actually a fun idea. Sadly, this one is a little odd: They’re all really easy except for one, which is completely unreasonable. Good luck!

I’ll post the answers for each image at the end of this series.

48. Pac-Man Championship Edition DX

Wakka-wakka-wakka-wakka-wakka-wakka-wakka-wakka GLUP!

Yes! I found a way to sneak Pac-Man onto this PC gaming list. Maybe this is a cheat. The Pac-Man name is legend, but this isn’t a re-creation of the original and this version isn’t nearly as famous as the various 80′s versions.

Still, this feels like a genuine evolution of the idea. This is a better game, and not just because of the shiny graphics and head bobbing electronic soundtrack. There have been a lot of variants to the Pac-formula over the decades: Bigger mazes, giant Pac-Man, jumping Pac-Man, girl Pac-Man, quiz Pac-Man, Pac-Man with a pinball machine attached, or isometric Pac-Man. This is the first one since Ms. Pac-ManI think having the fruit move around the maze was a really brilliant design choice. that still felt like a game of the same lineage and also improved on the original formula.

47. Rollercoaster Tycoon 3


Link (YouTube)

There were a lot of various “management sims” put out by various teams at various times. You could run a hospital, a railway company, an airline, a farm, and a dozen other things. But the Rollercoaster games had a neat trick where you were using the somewhat dry and prosaic financial sim to build visually appealing thrill-rides. You were building things that were fun to ride and to look at.

46. Descent

Auto-leveling is for noobs. Real pilots don't care which way is up.

A game where you fly through tunnels in “real 3D” That is: You can freely move in all 3 dimensions, as opposed to its contemporaries which used 2D maps to create 3D spaces. Because CPU cycles were precious and nobody had graphics cards.

I can imagine an alternate history where this game had the kind of explosive popularity and endless clones that Doom and Quake enjoyed. It is a very strange alternate history. There were a few games that built on the Descent formula, although Forsaken is the only one I remember. Ultimately I think this genre – if you want to call shooting stuff while floating around so you can’t tell which way is up a “genre” – was doomed to be a niche from the beginning. The movement is nauseating for some, and the controls end up being significantly more complex than anything else this side of mech piloting.

Sadly, the series kind of lost its way. The first game had this dark cyberpunk vibe, like you were Han Solo by way of Bladerunner. The story was just a few paragraphs of occasional flavor text to preserve the mood. By the third game the protagonist had morphed into a grouchy hero in a Star Trek future, and his story was told in cutscenes that have aged very poorly. The color palette was drained a little, the contrast was muted, the brightness was boosted, and the result was a bland game that had lost its original charm and had very little to offer newcomers except confusing levels and disorienting gameplayI know it's petty, but I was always miffed at how dull and pale the shield orbs were in Descent 3..

Maybe an alternate future where this become a viable genre is unrealistic, but I would have liked it if this series had survived just a little longer.

45. Papers, Please

You can protest and be jailed, fight back and be killed, or acquiesce and be left alone. But no matter what: You will be watched.

The rule in movies is “Show, don’t tell”. The rule in games is “Do, don’t show”. Papers, Please has almost nothing to say directly about its subject matter, but instead lets you participate in the utterly mundane horror of bureaucratic oppression. The mechanics perfectly show concepts that are hard to convincingly explain, such as how even a short list of seemingly reasonable regulations can make for chaos and confusion. You can see on one side some policy-maker concluding that issuing work permits would “simplify and streamline” the processing of visitors, and you can experience first-hand just how hilariously wrong this idea is. It’s a game with mechanics that work perfectly with the message, with art that wraps you in the desperation and smothering indifference of the Eastern bloc.

When we complain about ludonarrative dissonance, we’re usually complaining about games that have some kind of conflict between their mechanics and their tone, theme, story, or message: The main character is supposedly a fumbling aged alcoholic loser, but in gameplay he’s an unstoppable killing machine both before and after giving up the booze. You’re supposedly haunted by the deaths of twelve soldiers, but in gameplay you’ll kill a hundred guys and a couple dozen innocents in the process of doing some side-job for a modest paycheck at the behest of some idiot you barely know. But in Papers, Please the mechanics are the message, and the result is a wonderful of example of communicating through play.

44. Dungeon Keeper 2

It is payday.

Ah Bullfrog. The development house that served as the secret lair for the madman Peter Molyneux, before he moved to Lionhead. Both companies made games that sounded brilliant on paper but always felt a little rough in execution. Populous, Syndicate, Magic Carpet, Black and White, Fable. The list of auteur experiments is long and equal parts distinguished and infamous.

For my money, Dungeon Keeper (and its sequel, pictured above) were the most mechanically sound of the games. You could make a similar case for Fable, but Dungeon Keeper was much surer of its identity. Fable always seemed to be groping for a specific tone, theme, or idea, and never figured out what it was or who it was for.

43. Starflight II

*Cue ear-splitting PC speaker music*

Part adventure game, part space sim, part roleplaying game, the Starflight games (both of them) come from a strange era when we hadn’t yet mapped out the perimeter of our genre pigeonholes. It feels wild and random now, but it’s also a shining example of what you can accomplish with just some text and a few tiny images. This was big-idea sci-fi on a grandBy the standards of the day. scale. Elite is given credit as the progenitor of future space sims, but I have to give respect to Starflight for doing so much with story in such a limited medium.

42. King’s Quest III

THRILL AT THE INNOVATIVE TRIPPING-OVER-CATS GAMPLAY!

King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, The Colonel’s Bequest… Sierra had certainly found a niche they were happy with in the 80′s. They excelled at fiddly adventure games with dumb parsers, horrible arcade sequences, and batshit insane puzzles. But at the time we didn’t mind, because nobody else was doing any better. We didn’t have the internet so developers didn’t have people screaming at them over twitter how annoying this stuff was. So it took many iterations for everyone to sort out what worked and what didn’t. In fact, even when a far better template came along (we’ll get to that later in this list) it took Sierra a long time to adapt.

I think the Sierra formula actually suffered with the introduction of better graphics and voice acting. The step up in visual fidelity demanded a equivalent step up in the rest of the game, and they just didn’t have that. King’s Quest III retains a lot of its charm, and you can forgive its brain-dead parser, lame stair-climbing gameplayUgh. The number of spiral staircases you have to navigate in this game is horrendous. One bad step and it's game over. It's the only game where I had to save-scum to CLIMB STEPS. and goofball puzzles because it still looks like the product of an era what that sort of thing was still okay.

41. Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

Not bad by the standards of lightsaber art, but you're no Banksy, Kyle.

What a strange franchise. It began as Dark Forces in 1995, a shooter of the DOOM variety. People played it, shot Storm Troopers, and – as with all Star Wars games without lightsabers – complained that they wanted lightsabers. So the sequel gave you one, and the entire franchise re-named itself mid-stream to “Jedi Knight”. The series reached its peak with Jedi Outcast in 2002, and still stands as one of the best examples of action swordplay in the world of games. That’s a shame really. It’s been a dozen years and few games have done better. (Not that Outcast was especially brilliant, but proper swordplay is hard.)

202020202There are now 82 comments. Almost a hundred!




The Last of Us EP11: Joel Punchman

 By Shamus Oct 23, 2014 55 comments


Link (YouTube)

Here is one of many videos showing what you can do with the fresnel lens from a huge projection TV. (To be clear, the big screen TV in this episode isn’t this kind of unit and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have this kind of lens in it.) Still, if you did find such a thing, it would be amazingly useful here in post-zombie world.


20201555 comments. It's getting crowded in here.




The Last of Us EP10: Free Range Zombies

 By Shamus Oct 22, 2014 54 comments


Link (YouTube)

If the start of this episode makes no sense, it’s because the whole conversation is a call-back to the first season of Spoiler Warning, which was the last time Randy was on the show.

I’m really struggling with this season now. I’ve nitpicked the plot as much as I dare, and I’ve praised all the stuff I like. At this point it would be time to talk about the mechanics, but I haven’t played the game myself. I don’t know if it’s hurting the commentary, but I feel like I’m not doing my job.

Like, the entire inventory system seems ludicrous to me, because I’m looking at it like a movie-watcher and not a player. Bricks are massively useful. Why can we carry only one? Why do they poof into nothing after being thrown? Why don’t we carry something smaller and lighter that can still make a lot of noise? Why do shivs break? THIS IS ALL RIDICULOUS NONSENSE!

Of course, these are all simply videogame contrivances. Like, I accept that Batman has infinite explosive gel but can only use three globs of it at once. It’s an abstraction around which puzzles and challenges are built. It’s a small compromise made with realism for the sake of gameplay. Arkham is full of silly little details like this that make perfect sense as a player and no sense as a viewer. I’m sure the same is true for TLOU. If I’d played the game myself, this contrivances probably wouldn’t bother me...as much..

I don’t know if this is hurting my commentary, but I I’m going to avoid covering games I haven’t played in future seasons.

Anyway: Story is great, characters are vibrant, scenery is amazing, etc etc.


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Top 64 Games: 56 to 49

 By Shamus Oct 22, 2014 129 comments

Reminder: Try not to stress out too much about the order of the items on this list, what games made it and which ones didn’t. This list is just PC games, limited to the ones I’ve played and I thought were worth discussing. If you rage out because I left out your favorite game then you’re just making a fool of yourself. Also remember the rule: A particular franchise can only appear in the list once, so if Resident Evil 4 makes the list then Resident Evil 2 can’t.

Just use this as an excuse to talk about / praise / eviscerate games we might not get to discuss very often. Read the intro to learn why we’re doing this.

Continue reading »

A Hundred!209There are 129 comments here. I really hope you like reading.