A year is a long time, but sometimes there just isn’t enough time to complain about all the things that need to be complained about. I do what I can, but the world is a never-ending onslaught of mild annoyances and trivial slights that need to be pointed out and cataloged. Sometimes the end of the year comes and suddenly I realize there was a bunch of stuff that bugged me without telling anyone about it.
Obviously that just won’t do. If something sucks, or if it’s just inadequate, or maybe it’s less awesome than it was supposed to be, or if it was awesome but it was awesome in a different way than anticipated, then we need to make note of the shortcoming. Otherwise, how can the industry improve? This is the seventh year in a row I’ve done this kind of retrospective, and after all this time I’ve orchestrated exactly zero industry-wide improvements. Obviously this means I’m not complaining hard enough.
So let’s get started!
People who anticipated Good Robot and were then disappointed should consider themselves avenged. STRAFE disappointed me in exactly the same way, and for the same reasons.
It’s a roguelike that severely punishes mistakes, built around what is supposed to be action gameplay. It’s a game where you can’t afford to take damage, and yet the most fun way to play – and indeed how the marketing suggests you should play – is recklessly. It’s a game that begs you to play fast and crazy and then punishes you for doing so. If you actually want to get anywhere then the most expedient way of doing so is to move slow, peek around corners, funnel foes through choke points, and never dash out into the open.
The developers said they intended the game to be played fast, and that you just need to “git gud”. And it’s true! If you “git gud” then your chances of making it through the game alive do go up and you’re more likely to survive engagements where you’re attacked from all sides. However, no matter how gud you git, cautious play will always be less risky than reckless play. In this game, enemies hit hard and health is very hard to come by. All it takes is one foe to blindside you to turn a promising run into a doomed one.
The game is divided into four sections. The first is a Quake II-style industrial space. The second is twisting caverns that I really, really hated with a passion. The third is a sort of quasi-residential area that’s a bit like the Hong Kong section of Deus Ex – it doesn’t actually look like a city, but it can sort of remind you of one if you squint. The final one is a high tech science lab.
Given that this is a roguelike, you die a lot. So you start over a lot. So I played for ages in the first area, for a brief time in the second, rarely saw the third, and saw the final area only once. With every death I realized I’d have to repeat the now-boring first area, the miserable second, and then after a good half hour or so I’d be back to the interesting bits of the game.
“But Shamus, that’s how roguelikes work!”
True. But not all roguelikes are created equal. Some get boring faster than others. STRAFE got boring fast.
But what really ruined it for me is the teleport system. Like Spelunky, you’re supposed to be able to unlock a shortcut so you can begin a run in one of the later areas to avoid exactly the problem I outlined above. However, in all my dozens of games I never managed to unlock any of them. The game doesn’t explain what you need to do AT ALL. But even once you read the forums and someone explains it, you learn the whole thing is tied to random drops. I spent hours walking around the early levels, hunting for the last teleport bit. What am I looking for? What does it look like? What are the odds of it appearing? How will I know I’ve found it and how can I tell it from all the other random unexplained crap your character picks up?
I was enduring boredom now, hoping to spare myself more boredom in the future, and I had no idea if I’d need to play one more game or a thousand to get what I needed.
STRAFE was a cool idea for a game and I love procedurally generated spaces, but it wasn’t fun to play. I’d much rather have a non-roguelike version that just played like Quake II, which is what the advertising and styling seem to suggest you’re in for. The game is supposed to be a love letter to the classic run-n-gun shooters of the 1990s, but it punished you for playing the game that way. It was a complete contradiction in the design that basically drove the whole thing into the ground. Doom 2016 did a much better job of capturing the frantic, high-speed action STRAFE seems to be aiming for.
What a shame. I really wanted to like this thing.
The Decline of BioWare
I didn’t play Mass Effect: Andromeda. Yes, I heard the game was a disappointing grind wrapped around a lukewarm story full of paper-thin characters and conveyed via cringe-inducing dialog. But I couldn’t bring myself to play it and I didn’t have the heart to tear apart another Mass Effect game. Whatever kind of science fiction they were trying to tell in BioWare Montreal, it’s not the kind of sci-fi I’m looking for.
EA closed Bioware Montreal after the disappointing launch of the game. I imagine this is the end of the Mass Effect brand. After Mass Effect 3 painted the entire setting into a corner with an ending everyone hated, it wasn’t clear where the series could go next. If anyone had thought to ask me I would have suggested wiping the slate clean and using the Mass Effect name as a kind of stylistic brand, similar to how Final Fantasy works. But instead they tried to build on the crumbling foundation that is the Mass Effect universe, which saddled the writers with a bunch of additional obligations. This was their one chance to resuscitate the brand, and it ended in humiliation and failure.
The EA meatgrinder is almost done digesting BioWare. Anthem is their hail-Mary pass. It’s evidently trying to muscle in on the niche Destiny has created. Ignoring the fact that Destiny already exists and the world doesn’t seem hungry for another, I don’t know that the team known for dialog wheels and morality meters is the right team to bring a Destiny clone to life. From where I sit it looks like EA has the wrong team working on a game nobody needs, in pursuit of a trend invented by someone else. That is so very EA.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus
Spoiler: This game also made my 2017 “best-of” list. How could a game make my list of favorite games of 2017 and yet also be a disappointment? Part of the problem is the wobbly technology that had the game running very poorly – or not at all – for a lot of users. The rest of the problem is more complicated to explain, which is why I’m going to give this game a long-form write-up. My New Colossus series will start when my Borderlands series ends in about a month.
I realize I usually don’t analyze games until at least a year after release, but I have a few reasons for covering it early in its lifecycle. I realize this might limit the appeal of it. Most people prefer to play through a game before reading a long series on it, and Colossus is too young to go on sale. Sorry.
Shadow of War
Okay, I need to get this off of my chest: I hate the entire idea of Shadow of War. I hate the game from conception to execution. I hate its design, I hate its marketing, I hate its sophomoric story, and I find the entire work to be a disgusting, infantile bastardization of one of the greatest works of fiction of the 20th century, and probably one of the greatest works in the English language.
At the very heart of Lord of the Rings is this idea that power is fundamentally dangerous and corruptive, and that you can’t overcome evil through the use of cunning, violence, and death, but instead it must be overcome through love, compassion, mercy, and self-sacrifice. This sets the universe apart from most other works in the same genre. Sure, sometimes you’ll get a story where the hero has to eschew power in order to avoid corrupting themselves in the process of overcoming evil, but in the world of Lord of the Rings this dynamic is built into the fundamental assumptions of the world itself. Compassion isn’t just how you defeat evil without losing yourself, it’s the only way to defeat evil at all.
I hate how they used this setting as a vehicle for a boring-ass dude to begin a self-indulgent campaign of slaughterYes, I’m aware we’re supposed to see Talion’s actions as “evil”, but it’s all hollow lip service. The audience is never fearful of using this power and they’re never made to feel regret for doing so. The writer pays lip service to the themes of LotR while holding them in contempt.. I hate how they turn the dreadful and loathsome spider Shelob into a hottie so they could have some tits to put in their trailerYes, I’m aware they probably have nuanced excuses for this move, but let’s call a spade a spade. This change wasn’t about worldbuilding, it was about marketing.. I hate how this single-player game was designed to incorporate pay-to-win loot boxesYes, I’m aware that you don’t “need” them to get through the game. This doesn’t make them okay.. I hate how people always respond to these objections by telling me how fun the Nemesis System is, as if that made it okay to spit on this story I love so much. And most of all I hate how this story pretends to revere the source material in superficial ways while holding in contempt the very things that made the source books so profound and uniqueNo, I didn’t play Shadow of War. MAYBE the author turned it all around and redeemed Shadow of Mordor, but I wouldn’t bet on it..
Yeah, just in case you missed the whole “Shelob is a lady now”…
Note also the plain art style, the overuse of color filter that drains the contrast out of the scene, and the too-shiny skin shader so typical of videogames these days. It’s one thing to turn Shelob into a sexy lady, it’s another to do so with such a profound lack of skill and imagination.
But really, Shelob is a minor problem with the game. If they nailed the basic vibe of the world – or even if they got within one or two astronomical units of it – then I might be more forgiving of the compromises made in the name of marketability. Then again: Since when is Lord of the Rings “unmarketable”? Jackson’s trilogy was a culture-wide blockbuster. How little do the developers think of us that they feel the need to “make LotR cool” for us?
“Hey Shamus, you know you don’t OWN Lord of the Rings, right? Authors aren’t obligated to to make all their stories for you. That’s the whole point of adaptations – to do something new with them! Lots of people love this game even though it doesn’t follow your peculiar Middle-Earth orthodoxy!”
All true. And I’m glad for the people who enjoy Shadow of War. The developers paid for this license and they’re free to do what they like with it. But I’m allowed to have an opinion, and if they were hoping to please Tolkien fans like me then they whiffed about as badly as you possibly can. I find the game, gross, offensive, and base. Look, I like Bulletstorm, but I wouldn’t want to see someone make Bulletstorm using the universe of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m not against base art, but I am against literary vandalism perpetrated in the name of marketing. To quote another famous work of fiction:
To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Thy game is shite. 0/10.
Next week we’ll talk about the good stuff of 2017.
 Yes, I’m aware we’re supposed to see Talion’s actions as “evil”, but it’s all hollow lip service. The audience is never fearful of using this power and they’re never made to feel regret for doing so. The writer pays lip service to the themes of LotR while holding them in contempt.
 Yes, I’m aware they probably have nuanced excuses for this move, but let’s call a spade a spade. This change wasn’t about worldbuilding, it was about marketing.
 Yes, I’m aware that you don’t “need” them to get through the game. This doesn’t make them okay.
 No, I didn’t play Shadow of War. MAYBE the author turned it all around and redeemed Shadow of Mordor, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The Best of 2015
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2015.
There are two major schools of thought about how you should write software. Here's what they are and why people argue about it.
The Opportunity Crunch
No, brutal, soul-sucking, marriage-destroying crunch mode in game development isn't a privilege or an opportunity. It's idiocy.
Who Broke the In-Game Economy?
Why are RPG economies so bad? Why are shopkeepers so mercenary, why are the prices so crazy, and why do you always end up a gazillionaire by the end of the game? Can't we just have a sensible balanced economy?
Deus Ex and The Treachery of Labels
Deus Ex Mankind Divided was a clumsy, tone-deaf allegory that thought it was clever, and it managed to annoy people of all political stripes.