Some video game time

I’ve been getting out of the habit of writing more here, but it’s not for lack of things to write about. Therefore, I’m taking a few minutes this morning to talk about some of the video games I’ve been playing lately.

Earlier this summer I got into Animal Crossing and was pretty much addicted to checking on my island for hours every day, doing whatever I could to maximize profits and complete my house. But as you can imagine, that got old after a while and I honestly haven’t touched it in a couple of weeks. I used to do daily quests in World of Warcraft all the time, but in Animal Crossing it all seemed pointless, as the only thing I would get out of my grinding is more money… that I didn’t need.

Next up I played through The Outer Worlds, a really cool open world game in space with a retro/old-west feel. It was incredibly fun (and challenging), and well worth the time spent on it. I really enjoyed the characters and story lines, and the choices you got to make. The combat system was fine, and I was good with playing it on an easier level to focus on the characters.

I then got really excited about the new Paper Mario: Origami King game. I knew it used to be more of an RPG, and from the screenshots it looks like an RPG-lite type of game. Despite being an amazingly beautiful game, with delightful characters and animations, the battle aspect of the game was so abysmal that I never completed it. Granted I got all the way to the final boss, before quitting in disgust, but it was a constant battle to keep enduring through mindless spinning puzzle battles that gave nothing but coins. There was zero skill development in your character and your companions were sometimes worse than worthless. My friend Wes did a write-up on it that pretty much is a mirror of my experience.

That left me with wanting something new to play, and I decided to go old-school (well kinda). I wanted another open world type game like Breath of the Wild or Outer Worlds (or even Fallen Jedi), and so I had my oldest bring over his discs of Red Dead Redemption. I’m a few hours into the first game and I’m starting to get the hang of it. I’ve only accidentally shot my horse once, so that’s a good thing. The controls are a little odd, with the same button doing a dozen different things depending on context, but once you get used to it, it seems to work well. I know that Rockstar Games does a good job with their titles, so I trust them on this being a good method.

Of course the story is somewhat dark, and you have to make a myriad of ethical choices throughout. For the most part I’m trying to play it as a redeemed criminal trying to do good in the world, which is I think what the story wants. However, it appears that I can certainly go off-book a bit to be a bit harsher and cruel. Overall though, I’m keeping it pretty straight to the intended outcome.

My son also brought over RDR2, which is a prequel to the first game, and I’m actually excited to see the backstory to this, as you’re thrown into a world and a situation that appears to have a lot of history to it. Needless to say this should give me enough to keep me occupied for a while, and it’s a fun distraction.

Quick Review: The Outer Worlds

I’ve wanted to lose myself in a video game lately, and recently saw that The Outer Worlds was now available on the Nintendo Switch. It reminded me that the game existed, but the initial reviews of the Switch port were somewhat mediocre. So, I opted to pick it up on XBox One, which worked out in my favor since it was on sale on that platform.

The Outer Worlds is a first person RPG in an expansive set of worlds in the distant future. You’re awoken from cryo-sleep after being adrift for longer than intended. You wake up into a world where corporations control everything, and the colony you were destined for is struggling to survive. There’s not much time to figure things out before you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, trying to survive.

The gameplay is typical for titles in this genre. You have typical first person shooter controls and weapons for battles, but it’s augmented by a deeper interaction system, as well as a robust skill tree system. You can travel around and interact with the environment in an open-world format, learning more and more about where you are, and why you’re there. You meet companions on the way, each with a backstory that you can delve in to and explore.

The game is structured around completing an every expanding series of quests that helps unfold the story. You spend time going back and forth between different locations (and different planets) fulfilling tasks that slowly build upon one another. However, your path through the story is unique to you, and your choices allow you to craft your adventure in a way that you see fit. You may decide to be a lone wolf, or maybe you want to be a jerk to everyone. You’re given options to go into situations with guns blazing, or try your hand at diplomacy. Although I haven’t finished the game yet, I’ve been told there are multiple endings that you can achieve. It reminds me a lot of Deus Ex (the original) which ushered in this genre of gameplay and storytelling in a FPS context.

In terms of issues with the game, the combat system is pretty simplistic (at least on normal difficulty). I miss not having thrown weapons, but thankfully it’s never left me feeling like I can’t overpower a situation. The time dilatation mechanic is cool, but sometimes feels tacked on. I also wish there were more options for getting up and down surfaces, instead, many places are simply blocked with a wall, and you can’t do anything about it.

None of this detracts from the engaging story though. I’m really enjoying learning more about this world, and interacting with it. The writers have done a great job in crafting an engaging place to play, and I’ve found myself staying up way too late following clue after clue. One of the best compliments of a game (in my mind) is not wanting to put it down, and sacrificing sleep to play more and more. The Outer Worlds delivers on this engagement front, and I’m anxious to see how the second half finishes out. When I bought it, it was on sale on the XBox store, but really, any platform you play it on should be fine, since the story is what’s key.

Quick Review: Harry Potter: Wizard’s Unite

I’ve been an avid Pokemon Go player for a while now, and also dabble in Ingress at the same time. These are both augmented reality games from Niantic, that mix your actual location in the world with game play. As you wander around your surrounding area you encounter various places and items that you interact with in game. In Pokemon, it’s random wild Pokemon that you can catch and add to your collection. In Ingress, it’s portals that you can hack to gain items, or destroy to take down the enemy team’s strength. These games are often very deep, and you can play them idly, as you go places. They also track your steps, and reward you for them, so it encourages you to get out and move.

This past week the newest release landed, Harry Potter: Wizard’s Unite. The basic premise is that some unknown force has been causing things to appear in random places around the world. To protect the secrecy of the wizarding world you must cast spells to free these items and allow them to return to their proper place in the world. You also encounter fortresses where you can do battle against dark forces, both solo, and with your friends. There is also a large crafting and leveling component to the game which promises some longevity.

As someone who’s been playing Pokemon Go for a while, there was an immediate comparison to that game, and how it did or didn’t measure up. In fact at first blush, I was very underwhelmed by Wizard’s Unite. I found it to be clunky and inelegant, with far too many things to keep track of. Many of the first reviews out there agreed, that this felt like too far of a departure from the beloved game style of Pokemon Go, while still just being a skin over the same mechanics.

However, I’ve now been able to spend more time with the game, and I’m changing my tune. The more I get to know the interface, and the various mechanics, the more I’ve found myself enjoying it. Yes, there’s a steep learning curve to really understand everything that’s going on, but once you’ve figured out the basics, it starts to become more natural.

Here’s where I think Wizard’s Unite get’s things right.

  • Using the mechanic of tracing the outline of a spell works really well on a touch-based device. Once you learn the spells motions it becomes pretty rudimentary to cast them when required, and it’s different than just throwing a Pokeball everytime.
  • In addition to casting the spell, the method for determining success is a fun balance between being careful and being quick. You might be able to trace a spell perfectly, but slowly, and that lowers it’s effectiveness. However, trying to go faster can result in missing the outline too much and failing to cast the spell at all. It ends up being a neat balancing act.
  • The story throughout the game is fun and engaging. You’re trying to solve a mystery, and that’s always fun. As you unravel more and more of the plot, you get to meet more characters, and that makes reading the filler dialogue more interesting.
  • The Harry Potter world is presented well, and despite the fact that many things are just cosmetic (like which House you choose to join), you feel like you’re in the actual world of Harry Potter. There are tons of references to books, movies, and extra material throughout the game that help keep you engaged.

So where do I think they got things wrong?

  • The energy mechanic needs some adjustment, but not for the reason you may thing. Many people are bemoaning the lack of energy that they’re finding to cast spells, but much like Pokeballs in Pokemon Go, it takes time to build up your supplies. I think in time, balancing always having energy available won’t be such a big deal. My issue is that energy is used for too many things, and you can only replenish it at certain places. In Pokemon you can get more Pokeballs at any stop or gym. In Wizard’s Unite you can only get energy from Inns, and sometimes greenhouses. But yet you need to use energy any time you’re casting spells either in the wild, or in a fortress. Pokemon never asked you to use your own Pokeballs in a gym or raid. In Wizard’s Unite you have to spend not just energy, but runes as well, meaning that you’re using up two forms of currency.
  • Spawn and de-spawn rates need some tweaking. It feels like the number of times that an encounter ends with the challenge disappearing is far too many. In Pokemon Go the wild creature can run way and you miss your chance to catch them. It’s not terribly common, but it happens. In Wizard’s Unite it feels like it’s happening way too often. Additionally, foundables seem to resist your spells way too often.
  • Better guides online. This is a game that has a lot of depth built in to it. It would have been great if some of the tutorials would have been presented in a website or YouTube video (much like Ingress). I think they missed an opportunity to help people really understand what they were doing here.

Apart from that, I’m not finding much to hate on. The complexity of things like growing plants in greenhouses, or mixing potions could be simplified a bit more, but they do make the game feel like it has more depth than others. Perhaps in the future, some simplification of the number of spell ingredients would be nice.

I’m looking forward to seeing if I’m still playing frequently in a couple weeks, or if I’ve gone back to Pokemon, but for now I’m enjoying a bit of something new.

A weekend in Chicago

This past weekend I got to take a trip with my youngest son to the Windy City. This was the first time he and I have done a vacation together, and with kids getting older, who knows how may more trips will be in our future. When I asked him where he wanted to go for Spring Break he chose Chicago, and so I booked a trip for the weekend.

We headed out early Friday, with our primary goal being to get to the first stop of the trip, Galloping Ghost arcade. This is a video game arcade that he heard about online, that is filled with hundreds of retro video game cabinets. The drive down was uneventful, and we arrived around 2pm. Just as promised, the arcade delivered with huge doses of nostalgia. On the drive down I was telling my son about a particular game that I remember playing in the 80’s. All I could remember about the name was that it had ‘xeno’ in it somewhere. It was a side scrolling alien shooting game, and was unique because three people could play simultaneously on three slices of the screen. I remembered playing the game a bunch as a kid, but never saw it, or heard about it, after that.

img_4204We walked into Galloping Ghost and bought our all-day pass (games are free to play after you pay the entry fee). Within walking 10 feet, my son says, “Is that the game you were talking about?” Sure enough, there is was: Xenophobe. We walked over and played a few rounds, and sure enough, it was just like I remember it. The rest of the visit passed in a haze of pixelated nostalgia. This arcade was huge, and in the few hours that we spent there we only scratched the surface of everything we could play. Soon enough though it was time to go get dinner and get checked in to our hotel.

We hit a ramen place in LaGrange and then drove into the heart of the city to stay at the Congress Hotel, right by Grant Park. The hotel was old and historic, and had an amazing view of the park and the lake. We kicked around the hotel for the night and relaxed after a long day of travel. The next morning I got up early to get in a short run, witnessing an amazing sunrise over the lake. After 5 miles I headed back up to the hotel room to get cleaned up and figure out the plan for the day.

img_4208We decided to walk over to Millennium Park for a bit and then head to the Field Museum. There’s lots of museums on the shore, but it costs a lot of money to do them all, so we picked one. The field museum ended up being a ton of fun, and my boy actually really enjoyed himself, seeing all the cool exhibits. We capped off the morning with late lunch at Lou Malnati’s to introduce him to Chicago style deep dish pizza. I hit a taproom for a quick drink and then we headed back to the hotel to chill for a bit.

IMG_4235.jpgLater that evening I would be participating in the Ten Junk Miles podcast, but we still had some time to kill. So after a bit of Pokemon Go playing during the Community Day event, we hit up a candy store, and then picked out a souvenir to bring home from a local tourist shop. I then headed out with my friends to do dinner and the podcast, and it turned into a really late night, not crawling into bed until after 11. Originally, I had planned a long Sunday run with Scott Kummer, but I spent the night fitfully sleeping with a stomach full of too much greasy pizza and beer. After waking up yet again at 4am I decided to bail on the run and just relax for the morning.

DSC09199.jpgOur plan for Sunday was to hit the Museum of Science and Industry before heading out of town. This is a great museum, and has one of my favorite train displays of anywhere I’ve been. We spent a couple hours there, taking in the sights, and then grabbed some lunch for the start of our journey back. We had decided to break the trip home up a bit, by first stopping in Madison, WI to hit up another game arcade. Geeks Mania was nowhere near the size of Galloping Ghost, but it had a few things that Galloping Ghost didn’t have. It also had some pinball machines, so I got to play a bit of that instead of just video games. Overall, the video game nostalgia was pretty awesome this weekend, and I can see a few more trips like this in my future.

DSC09205.jpgAfter this we headed up to Eau Claire for one more night in a hotel. We decided to stop early since we weren’t in a rush, and it meant that we didn’t need to do the final couple of hours in the dark. Since we were on vacation I wanted it to feel like it, and so one more night in a hotel bed seemed just fine. We took it easy and I got to watch some Food Network, before hitting the sack. The final push home was nice and easy, and now we have all day to clean up and get ready for the rest of the week.

DSC09185.jpgThis trip ended up being an amazing experience, as it allowed my son and I to connect and hang out with each other on an adult level. It was the first vacation we had done like this, and it ended up being really fun for both of us. Since my son is still figuring out what it is he likes/doesn’t like in a vacation, this was a great way for me to help him discover that. We kept our schedule pretty open and only had a few things penciled in throughout the entire weekend. It allowed us to shift plans and change direction quickly, which helped make the entire trip a lot more fun.

As a parent it’s fun to spend time with your adult-ish kids, and get to know the people they’re becoming. I’m hoping for other opportunities like this in the future, but despite that, this weekend is a fond memory that I’ll cherish for a long time.

Pokémon Go revisited

Back in 2016 I jumped on the craze that is Pokémon Go. I played for a while, and then eventually put it way. However, recently, many of my friends have gotten back in to the game, and so I’ve started playing again, and I’ve found it to be way more fun than when I tried it originally.

One of the biggest components that was added recently was the ability to create a friends list. Once someone is your friend, you can send them gifts that you collect when you visit various Pokéstops. This adds a whole new dimension to the game, because it’s creates more of a social community around playing. It’s fun to open the gifts that I get each morning, because they are tagged with a picture of where the Pokéstop was. A few weeks ago I was visiting a college where a friend of mine had attended, so I specifically collected a few gifts from there and sent them to him over the course of a few days. It was a fun way to bridge the gap between reality and a video game.

Niantic (the game developers) have also spent a lot of time improving the various mechanisms in the game to add more depth and playability. Battling in raids and gyms is a fun way to meet new people, and do more than just catch random ‘Mons. The addition of Community Days brings people together at parks all over the place to look for special spawns, and to take down legendary bosses. Overall, every thing just feels cleaner and more refined than when it first started. It also helps that many technical glitches have been taken care of.

I still wish there were a few things that they would change. One of those is more transparency. It’s incredibly difficult to optimize your playing when there is so little official information on how things work behind the scenes. Unlike traditional Pokémon games, you’re often left guessing, or relying on random internet sites, to tell you how good or bad a specific Pokémon would be in a given situation. I understand the desire to not tell everyone all the secrets, but a bit more data would be useful.

Overall I’m having a great time, and my friends and I are enjoying our Poké-time together when we’re out biking and enjoying beer. I’m sure I won’t play constantly forever, but I can see myself being more regular now that they’ve made some solid improvements to a great game.