Monday, March 5, 2018

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone - Review

The main game for Witcher 3 takes roughly fifty hours to complete, with more than 100 hours if you take your time and explore. After completing the main game, I had two DLC notifications sitting in my quest log that I could not bring myself to delve into just yet. I felt burnt out from the main game, and was ready to take a break. Recently, I brought myself back to explore the first of the two expansions, and was completely surprised by how well it all came together.

Hearts of Stone does a number of things that not only mixed up the expected combat, but provided a refreshing take on the series as a whole. New characters, new items, new areas; it all paved the way for a wonderfully written, intriguing approach that hooked me back in to Geralt's tale.

You will both hate and love this guy

The primary characters of Olgierd and the Master Mirror are way more interesting than anything the wild hunt had to offer. Olgierd has much more personality to him, an intriguing backstory of failed love, vengeful enemies, and the curse immortality has taken on his soul. On the other hand you have the Master Mirror, an all powerful mysterious entity, capable of bending the world to his will like a cunning genie, wording wishes and contracts to his terms. Geralt's interaction with them felt like it was ripped from the books, a fun tangle with blades and words as Geralt vents frustrations of being tied to Master Mirror's demands by an imprint and his sympathy to Olgierd's overall plight.

Despite the huge open world of Witcher 3 taking you to a slew of crypts, mountainsides, and large cities; Hearts of Stone still opens up to some interesting locales. Fighting a band of Ofieri on the sandy beach, tackling shadows in a painted realm, even chugging back drinks at a colorful wedding; each felt rich and unique in their own way. You do not have a stand alone area and will have to revisit a few cities for some quests, but the new locales keep it fresh.

Bob Ross was not the final boss, sadly

Quests are similar to Witcher 3 in base approach, offering a main objective with some branching paths in your choices. Standouts include using your body to let a ghost have fun at a wedding, assembling a team for a heist on an auction house, and investigating an abandoned mansions' occurrences. A few new enemies make their appearance, including arachnomorphs which prove to be much faster spiders that keep their distance and require the Yrden sign to trap.

Gameplay remains similar but boss encounters are much more satisfying. A giant frog boss leaping over your head, an undead caretaker that heals with every strike he lands against you, and a demonic specter that possesses multiple bodies are just a few of the challenges you must face. Encounters felt more thought out and involved beyond simply casting a Quen shield and hacking away. The difficulty was also ramped up considerably from the last time, as Death March became difficult again. This made for more interesting encounters that required more planning and effort to overcome.

Inventory used to boil down to getting a set of witcher gear and upgrading it, but the game does well in providing alternatives that were stronger than the sets I was currently running. Enchanting items also threw a new ability to unlock sockets for weapons and armor, making them on par with the powerful mastercrafted gear. Additionally, runes sitting in your inventory can be reworked to provide stat bonuses to your current gear, providing opportunities for new builds all around.

Monsters are way easier to deal with than hostage negotiations

For what it was, Hearts of Stone is more Witcher 3, but I say that loosely. It had a more interesting narrative, better boss encounters, and more involved missions than the base game. Compared to the size of the next installment Blood and Wine  (currently playing through) it pales in comparison in terms of scope, as you can knock this out in less than ten hours. But the antics of Geralt and new experiences kept me hooked to its satisfying conclusion.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Dropmix - DJ Color by Number

Harmonix is no stranger to the game scene, Rock Band flooded plastic toys into our homes in 2007. Recently they have taken the board game route, sticking with what they know best; music.

Their latest game, Dropmix, is a competitive card game in which four players split into two teams, drawing cards from their own deck of fifteen cards to overtake the other team on the mix board. Drop a card on the board, that's +1 point, and the first to 21 wins. While imposing at first, you soon realize this is a simple game of colors, numbers, and a hint of luck; all the while mixing famous tracks together as you battle it out.

The empty board looks like this; five spots in total with color bands around the edges. Only the corresponding color card occupies that spot; yellow are vocals, blues are typically drums, red is guitar, and green your bass line. There are also two white special effects cards and a single rainbow card in each deck that can be placed anywhere on the board.

Each card has a "power" or amplitude ranging from weakest (1) to strongest (3). Placing your card in the spot requires you to check if the color matches and if the amplitude is equal or greater than the card that occupies that spot. Single power cards are typically played at the start on blank spots but as you progress you soon find yourself needing higher ranked cards to overtake spaces you require, replacing their track music line with your track music. If your opponent drops a level two red card, you would have to play a level two or three to overtake that part of the mix. Overtake the entire mix, and you get an additional point.

Turns consist of two actions, one for you and one for your partner if you are playing head to head with a teammate. Placing a card is one action, but white special effect cards can allow the placement of multiple cards, even using combos with your teammate's deck to up the score as much as possible.

The other action you can do is hit the Dropmix button. This spins a wheel and selects an amplitude of one, two, three, all of the above (rare), or none. If it lands on three, for instance, any level three cards will be wiped from the board and subtract points from the enemy team for each card taken. This becomes a gamble, but if your opponent is gaining the lead you can wipe their entire board in a single strike and clear the way for your weaker cards.

While all of this is happening, the game is mixing the guitar, drums, bass, and vocals of cards you put down. Thus, the appeal of the game; the more you play, the more mixes you come across. Some work surprisingly well together, and any you prefer can be saved for listening later. The game automatically works the bpm and settings for you as you drop cards, so everything seamlessly melds together.

The base game comes with the tabletop and four decks to start with but if you play it for a couple of weeks, they tend to get old fast. There are subsequent decks that you can order for $15 to expand the playlist and provide new special cards into the mix. These range from country music decks, to pop decks, to rock and roll decks.

Mixing different cards from decks together can be difficult, as you have to have a "legal" deck for versus mode so you are not stacking high level amplitudes. In this respect it can be tough to mix multiple cards between multiple decks, but mixing two decks together for one versus one is as easy as shuffling them together.

There is also a party mode game where everyone races to put cards down as fast a possible for a high score, as well as a freestyle mode where you can just plop cards on the table as you desire. These hold your interest, but are less interesting than the base head to head mode.

At its core, the game is easy to get the hang of, and the shear number of mixes you can make with the sixty base deck of cards is astounding. Add in the additional decks and you start to see the longevity the game can hold as you figure out what each deck's uniqueness can do and how to counter their white card effects. While the base game can wear after a while, the expansions breathe new life into the game if you have the ability fork out a little more cash.

As it stands, Harmonix is working on new game modes, features, and ways to play. It has life to it yet, and the time we played with friends hooked in new players and board game veterans alike. It's simple, enjoyable, and the feeling of dropping a rainbow card to overtake a mix is eternally satisfying.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Middle Earth: Shadow of War Review - A Shadow of its Former Self

Score: 7.5 / 10
Middle Earth: Shadow of War
PC - Xbox One - PS4
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher:Warner Brothers Interactive
Release Date: 10/10/2017

  • Nemesis system improvements are a big boost and stays as randomized as ever
  • Attacking a warchief with your army is a satisfying chaos
  • Varying skill abilities and legendary sets allow for customization on playstyle
  • A ton of possibilities in your journey to overtake a fortress

  • Overwhelming amount of information at the start leaves new players confused
  • Main mission structure pales to base fortress gameplay
  • Act IV is a true grind for a three minute cutscene
  • Actions in the midst of chaos are hard to execute and control

When I was a kid, I used to like to setup dominoes to fall down together but it always had downsides; The setup process was tedious, sometimes things fell down when you do not want them to, sometimes the domino was not spaced properly to trigger the other one to fall down correctly. Ultimately you finally have it happen. It was quick, but satisfying to watch it all play out, and after the last domino fell and I was left looking at the results I asked myself...was this really worth my time?

That is the same feeling I get when playing Middle Earth: Shadow of War. You spend hours training and recruiting new captains to help you capture a fortress, sometimes those captains betray you, sometimes those captains die in the fight, sometimes those captains get in the way of your fight and you accidentally kill them because targeting friendlies in the chaos of battle is a real thing; But ultimately, the fortress raids that are the prime focus of Shadow of War are when the game is at its best. As the dust clears, and the captains you took over and spent time gathering and farming materials to upgrade suddenly become obsolete, or you move to a new area to start the process anew, you look over your checklist of items to finish and just ask if it is all worth it.

Talking spiders, talking trees...everything talks

Talion went through a lot with Celembrimbor in the last game; revenge against the generals of Sauron that slaughtered his family, establishing his name as the Gravewalker as he slaughtered captain after captain, and ended with an ultimate quest to target the bad boy himself; Sauron. So they decide to do the dumbest thing possible...craft a new ring. This leads you to Shelob who is not just a spider but a sexy lady spider. Also Gollum shows up...for two missions cause....cause reasons. The banter between Talion and Celembrimbor over the morality of overtaking life and their ultimate goal is the only thing that really kept me interested in the story itself. Eltariel is the only new edition that truly sparks interest as she hunts Ring Wraiths for a living, and a cameo character from the previous game is a welcome reappearance. Beyond that, if you are a die hard of the lore prepare to tear your hair out.

The game is split into four acts, and as such, my impressions with this game shifted:

Act 1 is the introductory to the game, and it throws too much too fast. A quick look at the mini map icons that litter your view when you first open the menu you have a slew of options at your disposal with little to no explanation on what each one does. "This is the main mission, this is a side mission, I guess, a captain killed me, he leveled up I guess that happens, lot of inventory, gems too?" With such a broad menu and scope without even touching on domination aspect of the game, I felt like anyone who did not play Shadow of Mordor would be in a total state of confusion as to the pacing of this game. Main quest missions train you in the basics of combat vs stealth, the latter of which is more useful as starting out you are locked out of a lot of moves to vary up your style. The mission structure for the story strips a lot of surroundings and closes off a section of the main world for most encounters, but are pretty straightforward.

Combat is very akin to the Arkham style of play from the previous game. You can hit, eventually counter, strong attack with a glaive; the works. This branches out more as the game progresses, opening up area of effect attacks and elemental attacks. Enemies range from grunts to shield orcs that block your attacks head on to larger troll like orcs that require more finesse to extinguish. Timings and strategy are there so long as you are not completely surrounded, but the stripped moveset early on will become apparent as you vault over orc after orc.

Hope you like to counter, you will be doing it a lot

Act 2 is where you will spend most of your time and where the real game starts to break through as you gain the ability to dominate orcs and captains, setting up ambushes and organizing full on battles to overtake a fortress. Sidequests open up, including a ring wraith hunting mission, as well as new areas to explore from lush jungles to barren winter hilltops. Combat becomes sleeker and easier as you gain more varied executions and assistance with the combo meter, everything just starts to click.

The nemesis system upgrades are standout, and as you put hours and hours into this game, you will still not come across the same orc personality twice. Some are in your face brutal, some are poets, and some are just hilarious moaning entities. Each captain has a weakness and strength, some will block your attempts to vault them, some get enraged if you set them on fire, some get enraged by...everything. It is the randomization and openness in taking a fortress that keeps the game fresh. You can tackle a warchief head on, setup all his generals against him, or have a few captains betray their commanders and infiltrate their keep as a spy.

This part never gets old

This is where the game really picks up, the fortress assaults. You gather your army and charge the warchief's stronghold, boosting attackers with caragors or berserker squads that run headfirst at the enemy gates. A small exchange of dialogue leads to a charge of all of your forces and never loses appeal. Captains overtake enemy captains, archers rain fire arrows, siege beasts attack with poison cannons; it turns into a wonderful chaos. At the end of it all you face the warchief himself. Taking a fortress allows you to assign your own warchief protector and defenses, but those do not come into play until act four. Online missions allow you to raid another player's fortress but it only acts a simulation so no captains really die and need to be replaced.

Act 3 is the essential "final mission" as you charge against Sauron himself in one of the most lackluster mid-game "endings" you could have after all that work. It is not like Mass Effect 2 where building up your army you can unleash all hell on a final fortress, no, it is a single hallway mission...You fight on a bridge with a handful of captains, after which you do a mini fortress invade mission on the original city that was taken, have two uninspired boss fights and fade to the most drawn out part of the game.

Act 4. You must complete ten stages, each with a fortress defense a piece, and multiple defenses on the latter few stages. Defend the fortress from Sauron's army, lose it, and you have to take it all over again. Not to mention there is nothing special about these is quite literally just one high level captain and five lesser. No Wraiths, no hitches...nothing special beyond repetition. Oh you have level 30s in that fortress because you did not have the time to upkeep all the fortresses as you progressed through the game, yeah they are useless now. Maybe explore our lootbox system to up your level? I see what you did there Monolith.

Regardless of the hype, the lootbox dread is minimal here. You can earn all currencies for them in-game, even the coveted gold currency can be earned from daily quests that take maybe 5 minutes to do. It does walk a line of you don’t “have to” buy them, but they help in leveling and restocking your fortress should captains fall. The careful player can balance it so it is never really an issue.

The good news is if you liked Shadow of Mordor you will like this. I was just hoping for more from Shadow of War. More refinement and focus on the missions structure and content, but it feels far too spread out. The nemesis system is engaging, and the fortress attack and defense missions can be fun, but the disappointment of Act 3 and repetition of Act 4 in re-leveling, replacing, and upping lost captains over and over again became agonizing and drawn out. I drilled hours into getting a 2 minute cutscene. When the game is at its best, it truly is enjoyable, but the journey to get to the good stuff feels like an inconvenience. It will leave you staring at dead captains, checklists of sidequests, and as your fortress falls to an orc who friendly fired you, you will step back and say is this really worth my time?

Friday, January 12, 2018

In Memoriam: The Kinect

The Kinect was not perfect. From the initial E3 pitch to the idea of gaming without a controller, many brushed it off from the start and once it launched it had its fair share of issues. It misheard what you said most of the time, misread your actions, it failed to provide many games that truly captivated you, and ultimately failed to compete with the juggernaut that was the Wii.

I want the rifle that does the Assaulting!

But do not be fooled, Kinect ultimately had success. Over 35 million units were sold from its initial run in 2010. [1] Aside from gaming, the technology has also been a popular tool for research and development in the medical field. Surgeons have used it to help in hands free navigation of imaging [2], and its sensors have been implemented in various other hardware dealing with security or tracking. [3]

As the door closes on the Kinect, dare I say...I had fun with the device. 

The Kinect was what you made it. I never expected it to provide a twenty hour epic or competitive multiplayer. It was a game to play with friends and family who rarely played games and were intimidated by the controller. It was a time not to take things too serious, and let loose as you flailed to deflect objects or chop fruit. It got you up and moving off the couch, something I sometimes enjoyed doing after sitting at a desk all day at work.

Never...skip...leg day

Kinect: Adventures provided the best showcase of what the technology could provide. Tracking arm and leg movements as you navigated a conveyor of obstacles, plugged holes in a leaking submarine tank, and played goalkeeper in a dodgeball-esque sport. Short segments were quick to play, easy to join in on, and ultimately made for the perfect party game as you laughed at your friends and family jumping and squatting around on-screen animations.

Dance Central delved further into the motion control tracking, offering a DDR type game utilizing the camera to track all arms and legs in coordinated efforts to flashcards on screen. The tracks were catchy, the dance moves were choreographed by a professional, and once you got the hang of it you got a solid experience altogether.

Before High Noon was cool

But the game that ruled them all for me was Gunstringer. A narrative that was a western Kill Bill meets cheesy puppetry, gameplay that was engaging but simple, and an art style that complimented the zany character design. It was short, simple, and ultimately, fun. Sure it had some accuracy issues on occasion, but overall the general feeling of having one hand control the puppet movement and the other a literal finger gun was just too funny to ignore. Out of all the games I purchased for the Kinect, this was the one that gave me hope for the technology.

Sadly, nothing else of substantial work ever came about for the hardware. Fable: The Journey and Star Wars: Kinect, while enjoyable in their own right, never made the impact it could or should have made. Tons of fitness games and Just Dance titles fizzled out the lineup near the end of things.

I still have a Kinect for my Xbox One and to be honest, the only use it has is voice control for pausing and playing Netflix or launching an app. But while the tech has seen its end, the mark it made in hardware and the fun it provided with new ways to play is hard to ignore. While it makes its final wave goodbye, I can say I never regretted my purchase and dare I say, hope to revisit a few of the games on a rainy day.

...Also, never forget:


[1] - Fortune - Microsoft Has Finally Killed the Kinect Xbox Sensor - Don Reisenger October 25th 2017 -

[2] Rad Rounds - Xbox Kincet-based radiology & medical image exploration - December 2nd, 2011 -

[3] EPFL - Connecting Kinects for Group Surveillance - Didier Bonvin - December 2010 -

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

My 2018 Gaming Resolutions

I set practical goals throughout the year for life in general; eat healthier, cut out sodas, run more, etc. I never think of applying them to the activity I enjoy most of all; gaming. This year I decided to change a few habits and set a few goals for my year in gaming for 2018.

Keep Track of All Games Played

I have never kept a list of games completed, explored, purchased, etc; So this year, I have decided to see how much this hobby impacts the year in both quantity and cost. I plan to not only track games purchased and completed, but the ones I loved, the ones I hated, and the ones I wished I had gotten to experience. Shadow of War, Hollow Knight, and Dead Cells showcase a backlog to kick off the year and with so many new titles to go through, I can already tell this list will expand as more is unveiled.

Complete 10 Total Games

The old me would scoff at this as attainable in a mere month. However the busy life of a married adult makes this a challenge. Between looking after and improving the house, tending to the family (yes, dog is included), and the grind at work; gaming takes a backseat most days. Ten seems a reasonable amount, given the short run time of most side scrolling platformers and indie titles I have to get to this year, this seems like a healthy, attainable goal.

One does not simply turn down the difficulty

Keep it Difficult

I am currently going through Shadow of War and had to notch it down to Normal mode just to see if I was playing as intended. Turns out Normal mode is not an option for me anymore. The simplicity and ease of taking out enemies with no real concern for health is just not my way to play. I want challenge; I want that dire thought process of what to do next, that prayer that no bullet hits me as I rush toward a health pack, and that feeling of satisfaction of completing a checkpoint after dozens of attempts. No normal mode for me this year. 

Lose that Anger

Sometimes you just need to walk away or play a simpler mission. I will admit, it gets the best of me on occasion, primarily in multiplayer games. In those times, I need to learn to play something easier or more soothing and come back later if it is making me that frustrated. This is especially true with harder difficulty modes and online multiplayer games where sometimes things are just out of your control. Sometimes you are matchmade with a bad team, sometimes you are dealt a bad hand, sometimes you just need to practice. There is always a formula for success without getting overly upset.

No mission marker needed

Take Your Time

I try to breeze through games too often. A bad habit indeed. Some games are best when you are just messing around, mindlessly throwing a box at an NPC to see their reaction or going out of your way for that collectible on the hillside. It is when you see how far you can push a game that you can have the most fun and truly see what the developer tucked away. This includes reading those logs you pick up, listening to those audio conversations between characters, and interacting with world around you. Many developers put a lot of care into games, you may notice things you never noticed before if you just stop and look around. 

Blog More

I have since abandoned this blog last year. The busy season of life catches up with you. It did not mean I did not play as much or did not have anything to say. I just completely lost touch in writing those impressions or reviews out. This year I hope to upkeep the blog better. Reviews, updates, video blogs; I want to improve but also share the excitement and energy I have for gaming's memorable titles and experiences.

Ori 2 tugging at emotions before even playing...

Whatever your own goal this year, write them out. Put them in front of you. Make small efforts. Resolutions are tough, but doing a little at a time can make them possible. The list above may seem trivial in regards to video games, but they reflect personal changes too. Challenge yourself, keeping track of personal progress more often, and stopping to smell the roses every now and then. Resolutions in general are made to break a bad cycle or habit and to be better than you were before, so make your list, even if it's something small or just one thing. Here is to your 2018. Now get out there, Guardian/Hero/Ranger/Chosen One. You have work to do.