2017 End of Year Thoughts

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2017 was a good year for me. One downside, though, is that I did not play as many games as I wish I could have. Horizon: Zero Dawn is on the backlog, and I’ve only just started Super Mario Odyssey and Persona 5. The games I did play were excellent, and my Game of the Year list, written for GameLuster, may be found here.

There were great Thief FMs this year, the two biggies being two campaigns, one released early in the year – Godbreaker, on January 26 – and one released late in the year – Death’s Cold Embrace, on October 25. The latter has been a work-in-progress of Yandros’ for over a decade, and the former, by Random_Taffer, was in the works for around eight years. The length of time spent on each is evident, and the wait was worth it for both. DCE is longer, but both possess compelling level design, intriguing narrative, and a meticulous attention to detail. They join the other FM campaigns as Dromed marvels that will serve as sources of inspiration for the Thief community for years to come.

Two FMs just released that I must check out, as well. A Short Night’s Work, by bbb, and Home Sweet Home, by the late Lady Rowena (released posthumously by Yandros). The latter will be very special, as Lady Rowena was a highly talented FM creator whose The Seven Sisters is one of the very best.

2018 looks to be a little quieter on the gaming front for me. I should have time to catch up on all the titles of 2017 that I missed. However, that is only in theory – you never know what can happen, and more games I’m interested in may pop up than I think.

I hope you had a satisfying 2017. Here’s to this year, and to a great 2018!

 

Currently Playing, 11-27-17

I played the Wolfenstein II demo and soon after bought the game during the Steam autumn sale. It runs fine on my PC, and it’s a fine and fun game so far, too. The early story setup was powerful and the characterization, like in the first, is very well done. The shooting’s been fun as well. I love B.J.’s inner thoughts you hear muttered as much as in the first one.

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I’ve continued play in Breath of the Wild. That game is pure exploration and challenge. The game suggests a main quest, but otherwise leaves everything up to you. You must unlock the potential and, really, don’t have to do anything. But the more you explore, the more you realize you must do in order to overcome enemies, uncover the story, and defeat Ganon.

Death’s Cold Embrace is a persistently unique FM campaign. The cyclical nature of the mission settings and audio ambiance give it a character I haven’t experienced in other FMs. I’m at the fifth mission and have just entered the Dayport Hammerite Chapel. This is the first area with standard Thief II audio ambiance, save perhaps the inventor’s cellar, which I remember had a different audio mix. I am looking forward to seeing where all the story goes in this campaign, but will, of course, savor it.

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It’s nearing Christmas time, and I plan to get a Switch with Super Mario Odyssey, either for myself or via request. I also want to get a VR headset, though I may be cursed to continue my habit of passing on them due to price and uncertainty of return. DOOM VFR is what’s tempting me, though the HTC Vive price tag is steep. Is it worth it? For three or more years now, I’ve been saying no.

All for now.

Currently Playing, 11-5-17

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2017 has been a great year for games and Thief FMs, and I have some catching up to do.

I’m currently playing through Death’s Cold Embrace, the massive Thief campaign by Yandros and others at TTLG. Full disclosure: I’ve only played a portion of the first mission. This is a true shame, unusual for me with new FMs, but demonstrates how busy I’ve been.

I’m also playing Breath of the Wild, which I had started back in March but let get away from me when Prey came out.

I passed on Persona 5, though I may get it next year; I still have the Thief “Lost Places” contest FMs to get to; I have not yet played Dishonored: Death of the Outsider; Wolfenstein II I will likely get in Steam’s Holiday sale this year, and I’ve passed on it so far due to several complaints about the PC port in Steam reviews; and Super Mario Odyssey, along with a Switch, I plan to get by year’s end.

I wish I had had more time for games this year like in the old days. On paper, 2017 was a year made for me: a true open-world Zelda on a console (not a handheld), a System Shock 2 spiritual successor, two major Thief FM campaigns by some of the best authors (the other being Godbreaker, by Random_Taffer), and an open-world, main-series Mario title. Could it get any better? All I was missing was The Elder Scrolls VI – and time!

Brief Thoughts On Cuphead

I was interested in Cuphead because of its art style. Reading about the game’s merciless difficulty turned me off, but when I eventually decided to purchase it, the game’s start screen made me glad I had. The hand drawn visuals and accompanying music were pitch perfect for a 1930s vibe. This vibe continued and was my gateway into a superb gaming experience.

I have not played many bullet-hell games, and my play of them may stop at Cuphead, but I now appreciate the sense of accomplishment that comes with clearing a section in them. The announcer shouting “Knockout!” is euphoric.

Success requires many failed approaches. You will die a lot in this game. You best the bosses by discerning the types and pattern of their attacks and then iterating a response again and again until successful execution. On some it may take dozens of tries, but once you finally get it, the feeling of achievement makes all the frustration worth it.

There is a Simple mode for each boss battle. If you just want to progress to unlock more bosses and areas to check out, it’s useful, but nothing can replace the sense of accomplishment with defeating a boss on Regular. That, and beating a boss on Simple won’t get you an achievement or a soul contract (the in-game reward…play it and you’ll know what it means).

Even if the difficulty intimidates you, if the art style in any way interests you I recommend you try this game. It’s top-notch design on every level.

 

 

Old Gameplay, New Mindset

I’ve played Quake since 1996. I never played online multiplayer and I spent several years at a couple points not playing it. But it has been in my game library for most of my life. Only in the recent three years have I tried understanding it as a pro – and in the past year as a speed-runner. I have changed my mind about Quake, and approach the recent Quake spawns Quake Champions and Dusk differently than I would have five years ago.

In Quake III I loved bot matches. I’d start a match with ten or more bots, on Hardcore or Nightmare difficulty, and proceed to shoot at them, with little thought. I didn’t rocket jump or strafe jump, nor did I control any items. I did practice my aim and memorize where items were. But I was a kid with a toy. I wasn’t competing, only playing.

I have adopted a different mindset with Quake Champions. It is out of necessity – there are no bots in Champions yet. But even with bots I expect I’d tend towards live matches. I want real competitors. I want to practice the skills of Quake multiplayer and better myself. Bot matches don’t do it for me anymore. I want real challenge, not fake challenge. This is a respectable ideal, with the benefit of honing my skills and making me a better player and person. But high ideals bring high costs, and I feel like an idiot most of the time.

Case in point: armed with a rocket launcher, another player ran straight at me with naught but gauntlet drawn. I fired five to ten rockets at this opponent to no avail. Towards me the player ran, and backwards I jumped, right off the stage and into oblivion. Not even a full minute after joining the match, I had been shamed and fell to a score of -1.

Battling bots is fun if less challenge and more gratification equals fun. Fighting live opponents brings more agony but also more achievement. Under my new mindset, I want to practice skills and compete. Quake is different for me.

So too with Dusk. This game relates to Quake only spiritually. All the same I approach it with my new mindset. In this case the goal is not competition but efficient play. Used to I took my time in Quake maps, killing monsters and pacing myself. Now I want to practice efficiency by speed-running.

As I began Dusk I played how I traditionally would play FPS games. In other words, I wasn’t doing much fancy: I ran, jump, shot, and strafed. Then the temptation to bunny hop and strafe-jump hit me. I wanted to complete each level as quickly as possible: why shoot these enemies when I can jump past them?

Recently I had begun speed-running Quake levels. Some I found a way to cut out a majority of the level – disillusioning my old gamer self who thought I had to proceed down a certain path, doing all the right stuff to reach the end. Speed-running is scheming and hacking – playing a game not as intended. It’s thrilling to complete a level doing things you’re not supposed to do. A speed-runner is a gamer rebelling.

Playing Dusk, I rebelled against the typical way of playing an FPS. I wanted to scheme each level. No longer do I pace myself and soak everything in. I only calculate.

My new approach to games leaves something lacking. In my old days, playing Quake for fun lent the game atmosphere. I was lost in a world and there was mystery. Speed-running kills the atmosphere. The gameworld becomes a series of obstacles and objects to hack through as fast as possible. Any inefficient detour is illogical. I miss the old days of soaking in an atmosphere, but at the same time regret that I never learned to speed run before. Speed-running is recognizing and combating a game’s structure and system for what they are, not living in a fake fantasy where a set of polygons and textures is a world.

So, obviously, in speed-running Dusk, escapism is sacrificed for calculation. In Quake Champions, mindless fun is sacrificed for agonizing competition. I miss what I have given up, but I love the new mindset I have adopted. There is more achievement and accomplishment to be had by competing and speed-running. There is more work and, as a result, more reward. I miss the old days, but it’s time to move on, grow up, and git gud.

 

Revisiting the Cradle…Again

One night this past weekend I journeyed through the Shalebridge Cradle once again. I’ve played through the map around five times, the first being back in 2004. I haven’t played through Robbing the Cradle dozens of times like some have. This is intentional – it’s a special experience and I want to keep it that way.

This time I was playing it with Thief 3 Gold and was able to experience it sans load zone. Like the other levels in Thief: DS, removing this break in the level allows for a more seamless experience. It was refreshing going from Outer to Inner Cradle and back again uninterrupted.

The Gold patch did introduce a sound bug that hadn’t been there before, which I’ll extrapolate on below, but otherwise the Gold experience was fine. A higher FOV and higher-res textures from the Sneaky Upgrade complemented the lack-of-a-load-zone for an improved Cradle experience.

The level was as horrifying as ever. The audio in it always gets to me, especially in the Outer Cradle. It’s a shame the maps in T:DS had to be small. I would love a longer experience with such ambiance and visuals about me. It’s short and sweet as is.

The outdoor area at the start sets the mood perfectly. The start noise, followed by wind ambiance, followed by a terrifying bird screech, and lastly followed by some kind of pathetic horn tune (like a kid playing a toy trumpet), all with the backdrop of a growling noise, combines for a deliciously horrifying soundscape. I wish there was more point to the area at the left of the Cradle. That aside, once you dive into the cellar door, the real fun begins.

The way the Outer Cradle messes with your mind is twisted. All the knocks and doors opening and voices mingled together completely horrifies me each time I play it. The visuals, from the decayed walls to the creepy angel-face decorations, terrify me as well. It’s brilliant design and remains one of the best horror experiences in gaming.

Of course, the Inner Cradle is no different. But here, you’re not alone – you have the friendly puppets with you! I’m joking, of course, as it’s the first sight of one of these undead creatures that’s one of the level’s most frightening moments. The audio ambiance seems to include more twisted laughs and voices here, as if the patients’ tortured spirits overwhelm the children’s cries and laughter. Makes sense as this is the ward where the patients were kept.

Their cells make for some more twisted backstory and audio. And screw Ion Storm – seriously, screw them – for having a puppet in one of the cells. This time I caught it before unlocking the door, but other times I’d rush into the cell to escape an approaching puppet…only to run in to another one.

And these puppets still freak me out. I’ve long become immune to Thief’s haunts, great as they are, but even 13 years later the puppets cause me to jam the Escape key and cry. The noises they make, their jittering, and the manner they run at you in – an immediate lurch towards you – freaks me!

One scene that always stands out is in the shock therapy treatment room. In here, you see a puppet bent over, pawing at something on the ground, and in the chair in the room sits a wax mask (this tied into the backstory of the patient kept in solitary). There are many horrific scenes in the Inner Cradle, but this one unnerves me the most.

And I had forgotten about the laughter that begins when you ride the elevator up to solitary. Seriously – screw Ion Storm!

There are many other moments that always scare me because I had forgotten about them. But I don’t want to write them down here. I want to forget about them again so they can scare me the next time I play! Along with this, I have no gameplay recording or screenshots from this most recent playthrough because I didn’t want to distract myself with it. You can still check out the recording I took for my Advanced Project: http://morethiefdesign.blogspot.com/search/label/G.%29%20The%20Cradle.

The Cradle can’t be communicated through screenshots or video, though. You really have to play it. You have to be the one exploring that place to feel its horror. Each time I play it, I feel like someone is behind me and any moment I could feel someone grabbing me. I love it!

I do have one critical note, though. First, an anecdote: when I first played the Cradle in June 2004, I wasn’t as frightened by it as most. I found it scary, true, but I wasn’t horrified by it. It didn’t instill in me a great sense of dread like Thief’s zombies in Cragscleft had done when I played that level as a kid. But each time I’ve revisited the Cradle, first in 2009, again in 2013, again in 2015, and now this year, I have been completely horrified by it and have felt palpable dread. Why is this?

I have a theory, which leads into my critical note. The first time I played this level, I had activated Lauryl’s ghost before exploring the Inner Cradle. Each subsequent time, I have left the attic with fuse in-hand, not frobbing Lauryl’s painting until after exploring the Inner Cradle. I think having Lauryl as a guide on my first playthrough softened the horror. On each other playthrough, braving the depths of the Cradle completely alone – as just Garrett in this haunted place, looking for some info on the scary hag – made it more horrifying.

Thus, I think allowing the meeting with Lauryl so early on is a design shortcoming. Imagine if you had met Brother Murus in one of the first rooms in Return to the Cathedral – it may have dampened the horror. True, it isn’t the same – Lauryl is a ghostly little girl, Murus some gregarious priestly fellow – but I’m sure you appreciate my point.

The attic needs to be locked. The fuse, then, would be placed elsewhere – maybe in the room at the bottom of the stairs leading to the attic, or in a closet somewhere. You’d use the fuse and be able to access the Inner Cradle. In the Inner Cradle – say the morgue, a treatment room, or someplace deep inside –you’d find the key to the attic. If you triggered the pounding noise already, there could be an objective for “Finding a key to the attic to see what is making the noise.” Then, from the Inner Cradle, you’d return to the Outer segment and enter the attic. To make it more creepy, Lauryl’s painting could be placed front-and-center – imagine how frightening that’d be upon opening the door! Then you could meet Lauryl and have her speaking to you after having sufficiently explored the Inner Cradle.

Why the designers made it easy to reach her so soon, even leading you there by placing the fuses in the attic, is beyond me. Wouldn’t they have wanted the player to explore all of the Cradle without Lauryl’s voice? On my first playthrough I found her sudden voice-overs partly annoying – something else that detracted from the horror (note that on subsequent playthroughs I have not found Lauryl annoying). The fact that straightaway you can enter the attic and activate Lauryl is just wrong. Someone doing that on a first playthrough will not experience the same amount of horror as someone going through it without Lauryl. This design oversight needs to be corrected. I’d do it…but I’ve never messed with Thief: DS editing. Is there a doctor in the house?

Well, there’s my critical note. Otherwise, the level’s a masterpiece: in terms of visuals, audio, backstory, and structure, absolutely brilliant. Kudos to the designer(s).

As noted earlier, in Gold I encountered an audio bug: the pounding on the attic door continued as if it was close to me after I left the attic area. It went all the way to the Inner Cradle – a quick load and crossing the threshold of the Outer Cradle a couple times stopped it. If you frob Lauryl’s painting on your first visit to the attic, you wouldn’t have to worry about this bug anyway. I don’t so I had to worry about it.

            Cradle is the most effective Thief horror level at instilling dread. I find it brilliantly horrifying each time I play it and cherish the experience. This most recent Gold replay was a real treat. Perhaps on my next playthrough I’ll record it and take some screenshots. This time, I just wanted to suckle it to myself.

 

Initial Thoughts On: Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy

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I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Crash Bandicoot remasters.

Usually these visual overhauls come off shallow. The same game with newer graphics stapled on leaves me feeling empty, and I even prefer the game with the original graphics. Indeed, the newer graphics take away the charm.

But Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy works. I’ve had good fun with it and will continue to. The visual updates don’t detract from the experience nor does the game feel hollow – it is simply a fun revisit of classics.

Tweaks have improved the games, especially the original. You may now use an analog stick –though I prefer the directional buttons in the sideview stages – and you may save after each level. For the original this means not having to wait for the next bonus round to give you a save point or a password (and these not being guaranteed should you fail the bonus round). This does not make as much of a difference in the second and third games, though now you may save from any spot in the warp room and time zone.

The original Crash remaster also allows you to retry bonus rounds. In the original Crash, if you failed a bonus round you had no second chance. Now you may try as much as you’d like.

Other tweaks soften difficulty late in the game. “Heavy Machinery” now has a much needed earlier checkpoint box, for example. And Koala Kong was a tad easier.

The animations are energetic. The visuals are beautiful. The platforming is fun. Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy works.