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?