Wednesday, June 26, 2024

GoldenEye N64 - A Retrospective

I love going to boot sales and flea markets, you never know what you are going to find. My hopes are always on video games (other than sports and The Sims games, they seems to be the only thing I find) and nostalgic stuff from the 90's. I was over the moon when I found a handful of Mighty Max stuff once. Or the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Board Game.

A while back I went to a boot sale and actually found some interesting video games. Wetrix and GoldenEye for the N64. Wetrix I had only heard of (and trying it out it didn't seem particularly interesting) but GoldenEye... we go way back. I already own a copy, that I got as a kid and played to bits with my friends. I only own the cartridge though, and this copy was complete with box, manual, inlays and all. Of course I had to have it. As I was deciding to buy it, the seller - a man about my own age - came up to me and started chatting. It was obvious he was very reluctant to let go of the games, but I tried to ensure him they were going to a loving home.

As I came home I wanted to see if they worked. I have often thought back on all the fun I used to have with this game back in the day. We had all kinds of unofficial playing modes, like "Terminator" where one of us played with +10 health and everyone else was -10. With proximity mines or grenades there could be so much clutter effects you'd get serious slow downs. But thinking back I was still unsure how much it would hold up today. I had actually avoided revisiting it so that my memories of the game wouldn't be spoiled by the reality that it just wasn't very good anymore.

I thought maybe the graphics, the controls, the gameplay overall just weren't up to what I'd enjoy now, or maybe especially what my kids would enjoy coming to it without the rose-tinted goggles. I've revisited other loves of my youth and come out disappointed (the Narnia-series is an example).

But now I had to test my new copy, there was no reason to avoid it any longer. I sat down with my 10 yo and gave it a go. And we had so much fun.

Everything was just like I remembered it. If I had thought my modern self would have trouble with playing a shooter on the console I was dead wrong. The controls are just great. Sure aiming isn't perfect, but in multiplayer that just adds to the fun. The levels are well designed, the music is awesome. The weapons are fun and allow for fights that are more on the serious side or completely bonkers "let's blow ourselves and everything else up too"-type. My kid absolutely loved it. He never wanted to stop playing it. He hasn't wanted to play anything else with me since we tried it - this game has trumped Minecraft, Lego Jurassic World, Mario Kart 8, you name it.

My first console, but not my last.

This game hasn't even aged, it is just as good as it was when it was released and if you're sitting on a copy I really recommend you break it out with some friends. I still consider this one of the very best multiplayer experiences out there.

But I have a confession to make - I have never once played the single player mode of GoldenEye. I vaguely recall trying the first stage, but never even made it through that. With the multiplayer being as fun as it is, and considering how many hours I put into that part of the game I was a bit confused as to why I never got further into the main campaign. It's James Bond after all, one of my favorite franchises.

Revisiting the game made me want to give it another, or more honestly a first, real go. So I started up the first stage, The Dam, put it on easy and ran out to do some spying. Or so I thought. The controls are completely different from multiplayer and I struggled to move anywhere. Whereas you use the joystick to move and the L/R-button to target in multiplayer, in single player you use the joystick to target and the yellow buttons/D-pad to move. My brain could not wrap itself around this control scheme and I constantly aimed into the sky while I got shot in the face. 

No wonder I gave up so early. The control scheme is so bad I had completely scrubbed the experience from my brain. I just can't understand why they would go with two completely different ways of controlling you character, and then use the weird one for the main campaign. In a way I am glad they did though because I am sure we would've never spent all those hours playing multiplayer if it had used that way of controlling the characters. Playing old games, or PC ports of console games, I have had to get used to a lot of odd control schemes and I usually don't mind (having to use IJKL on Moonlighter recently was a new experience).

But this one wasn't just odd, it went contrary to endless hours of hardwiring in my brain and I realized I wouldn't be able to break through that muscle memory any time soon. I guess I am going to have to watch a Let's Play of the campaign instead.

Friday, June 14, 2024

AQUA: Biodiversity in the Oceans - Board Game Review

What if you play Cascadia, but under water? Well, let me introduce you to AQUA: Biodiversity in the Oceans. Any draft game will feel similar to other draft games to a certain extent, but AQUA borrows a lot of its identity from Cascadia - which is understandable since Cascadia has some great core ideas. It does mean however that unless you really love this game style specifically, you might not need AQUA if you already own Cascadia. But let's dig down a bit deeper, does AQUA have any original ideas as well?

The game in AQUA is to create underwater habitats/coral reefs to attract certain animals. To do this you draft hexagonal pieces of reef that need to be fitted with other pieces in certain ways to allow for you to place animal tokens. These habitat tokens look just like in Cascadia, even down to your starting zone, except one is on land and the other under water. One major difference here between AQUA and Cascadia is that where Cascadia allows you to put your habitat tokens wherever (you score more points for fitting them certain ways though), you must fit them following certain rules in AQUA. Also unlike Cascadia where you place animal tokens every turn, in AQUA you can only place an animal token once your habitat tokens line up to fill certain requirements.

At first you can attract smaller animals, and once they are placed in certain patterns you can attract larger animals for bigger points. There is a lot of strategizing when you choose between fast, small points or try to build for larger, harder to reach points - just like any good draft game should be. There are also a lot of optional requirements to meet for extra points. Trying to keep the end game in sight while making good choices here and now works well in AQUA. There isn't much antagonizing between players, while you can pick a habitat token you don't really need simply to mess with someone else's well laid plans, it's difficult to completely ruin someone's day like in LUDO. This is a big plus point for me as it's easier to convince my kids to play something where they'll always feel like they have a chance.

The game itself is heavy, literally - all the habitat and animal tokens are in gorgeous, chunky card board that are easy to handle and fun to look at, there is some great value for money here. When I first opened the box I was worried that all the tokens would be thrown around, since the game comes with no bags to hold them. Turns out the game itself provides you with a setup that you build inside the box that allows you to store your tokens just perfectly when you want to put your game away.

I mentioned in my review of Cascadia that even my 5 yo can play it with some minor help, this is even more true for AQUA where the playstyle is very adaptable depending on who you are playing with. In essence the game is just about matching colors and trying to build shapes. Me and my kids usually just play with the face value points, whereas more seasoned players can opt in for all the extra requirements to try to gather more points. Or not - the simplest form of AQUA is a nice, quick little fix of board gaming that works well, and is easy to set up, understand and play.

It seems to be standard nowadays that draft board games come with some sort of solo mode - a fascinating trend in board games, that I hope never goes away - and AQUA has one too of course. It doesn't change much of the setup, you simply play the game as usual but try to beat certain challenges. The rule book (which has a nice, luxurious feel to it) comes with an extensive highscore board to compete against other players, or just yourself like a chaser of points in a Tetris game.

AQUA borrows a lot from Cascadia but has its own identity, though maybe not enough unless you're really into this kind of gameplay. AQUA might even be even more adaptable to different skill levels but in the end the choice probably simply comes down to what you prefer - to play with bears or whale sharks?

Friday, May 3, 2024

Cascadia - Board Game Review

 As someone who loves to play board games, but is surrounded by people who mostly don't, I am always desperate to find anything that will encourage them to want to play with me. So when my 10 yo looks over my shoulders while I am on a board game hunt and says Cascadia "looks like a fun game", the small chance of having found a board game he'd want to play was all the excuse I needed to buy it. He is an extremely picky board game player.

He is really into animals of all kinds, so I can see what caught his interest. In Cascadia you are tasked to build a park, or biome if you prefer, and meet certain requirements to make your animals thrive. In reality you can place your wildlife tokes any way you like as long as you respect the limitations on the habitat token. A bear can only go on a token with a bear on it. But if you want the big-bomba-points you want to place your tokens very carefully and thoughtfully indeed, to meet your animals needs. Bears might only want to live in pairs and hawks don't want to be near any other hawks, for instance. It all translates to having to place your tokens according to certain patterns depending on which animal it is.

The habitat tokens in turn represent different areas of nature - river, forest, mountain and so on. Each token can represent one or more such areas. The more of these areas you connect together, the more points you score at the end, of course, and is yet another variable to factor in as you expand your park.

Cascadia is a drafting game, as such a certain amount of wildlife and habitat tokens are put up on the table for the players to draft in turn. This simple system has been twisted and turned around in loads of games by now, in Cascadia the trick is that habitat tokens and wildlife tokens are put into the pool together and you need to choose one combination. The habitat token might not come with the animal token you need, but that's how it goes and adds to the strategic thinking. The draft pool gets refreshed with each draft meaning there is no "last" person left with the bottom of the barrel, a game design choice I like for this game. 

Certain habitat tokens will reward you a pine cone token if you place an animal on top of them. The pine cones can be traded in for benefits during your drafting, such as altering your options - which often comes in handy when there is yet another fox in the draft pool and you really need that last salmon to finish your run.

And that is pretty much it. The easy set up and concept lends it well for playing it even with younger children. My 5 yo can play this, with some strategic help, since the basic idea is just to put the corresponding animal on the right picture on the habitat tokens. As such it is very easy to get into while there is a lot of strategizing to do if you really want to get the big points. As with most drafting games there is tactic in choosing between whatever you need next or whatever your opponent needs next. 

Overall however I find drafting games like Cascadia to be far less antagonistic than classic games like Monopoly or Ludo. While you can try to outmaneuver your co-players by drafting what they seem to need, it is difficult to completely prevent them from making any sort of progress. For better or worse the game is more about building your biomes individually and see whoever planned it out better, and less about sticking a wrench in someone else's works. This just makes it yet another reason why it works well to play with children, in my book.

Cascadia won Adult Game of the Year 2023 award here in Sweden and I can see why. It's easy get into, it's adaptable to play with people less experienced and you can easily dig deep trenches of strategy if you are so inclined. And who doesn't enjoy building parks? Apparently my 10 yo, as it turns out he doesn't like this game either (I really do though).

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes - I Waited 4 Years For This

Or at least close to.

As someone who really enjoyed Suikoden 1 and 2, I was immediately intrigued when I heard a spiritual successor by no one less than the original creator Yoshitaka Murayama was looking for funding on Kickstarter in mid-2020. This was also before I had had a few bad experiences with Kickstarter so I eagerly threw my money at a physical copy and started waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

To their credit, the development team were very informative and transparent about the ups and downs of the developmental process. So much in fact that I stopped reading the steady flow of updates that came to my inbox not long after I had backed the project. I realized that the game would either be a thing or not be a thing (as is the way with Kickstarter) and basically stopped thinking about it for a year. And another year.

I had genuinely given up hope on the whole thing towards the end of last year and sort of just started seeing the updates as another junk mail to delete. 

But then one of the updates caught my attention (fortunately). The subject line asked for my personal information so that my physical copy could be sent to me (and also to pay for shipping, more money into the void I thought). It was easy to submit, but I was nervous and shaky nonetheless. It almost felt unreal to actually be at this stage, finally. After I had submitted my information I set my mind to another year of waiting, or maybe just not receiving anything at all.

But then one day, not long after, when I came home it was there in my postbox waiting for me. My very own copy of Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes. I have waited so long for this game, actually forgotten about it and written it off as a myth not going to materialize that I didn't really know how to handle that physical manifestation in my hands. My mind was empty. I couldn't muster excitement about something I had considered dead and non-existent for so long. I had also missed that poor Murayama-san had passed just before the release of this game and heard of it the day after I had received my copy (coincidentally? Who knows).

So now I think that whatever I end up feeling about the game - whether it was worth the wait or not - it will hold a special place in my heart because of the journey, because of the symbolism. This Kickstarter story ended up on a mixed note. I am glad I got the game, I believe it will at least be entertaining but of course playing it will will also fill me with sadness knowing Murayama didn't get to see the final reception himself.

I will start the game up soon. I haven't finished mentally preparing myself for it yet.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Wasteland 2 Director's Cut (PC, 2015)

I've played and really enjoyed Fallout 1, 2, Tactics, 3 and New Vegas. It felt then like an obvious step to go full circle and try out Wasteland 2, seeing as the Fallout series was inspired by the very first Wasteland game released in 1988. While that game looked a bit dated for my patience, Wasteland 2 looked like a good alternate version of a Fallout game. It is inevitable that I am going to compare these two games then, seeing as they seem to be (un?)willingly intertwined.

Wasteland 2 was released in 2014 and the Director's Cut that I have played was released the year after with some enhanced gameplay. Unlike Fallout, Wasteland never created a franchise, so it took them 26 years to finally manage to come out with a sequel. Wasteland 2 has some interesting people attached to it, first and foremost the original creator of Wasteland Brian Fargo. Adding to this were people attached to Fallout 1 & 2, like the game designer Jason Anderson and composer Mark Morgan. Then came Chris Avellone and Colin McComb whom had worked on Planescape: Torment among other things and it really looked like Wasteland 2 could only turn out to be the perfect Apocalyptic adventure, a true hero to carry on the Fallout flag.

Just like in Fallout, the game starts out with the player in the remains of America after a devastating nuclear war with the Soviet Union (China in Fallout). People have bonded together in different factions, some are intent on spreading law, some are intent on spreading death. You control a group of newbie ranger recruits who are tasked to find out what or who has killed a fellow ranger. You get tasked a lot of other things, helping out nearby settlements for instance, and you quickly get many reasons to travel across the desert landscape. Just in Fallout, your party is represented by a symbol on the map and you can come across random encounters which you can choose to engage, or not, depending on your skill.

Your characters have stats which influence your capabilities and can further improve their qualities with skills and perks. Skills can range from how to handle different weapons to being able to remove bombs, repair items, speak to animals, or handle people to mention a few. Perks often allow you to improve certain areas of gameplay, like carry capacity, health, resilience or the efficiency of your skills. You always feel like you aren't quite good enough at doing anything. Some (most?) bigger quests require that you have a certain level of skill to be able to complete it satisfactorily. But you also need to use those precious points to be able to hit anything with your weapons (more on that below). Some things are probably, definitely, more useful to put your points into than others but it's complete trial and error to figure out what they are.

So I run out into the literal wasteland and try to get to work at helping people. Turns out I am not overly good at that. Wherever I go new mysteries crop up that I have to solve in order to keep people happy, or, as is often the case around here, alive. I realize that some of my choices are mutually exclusive, meaning that if I fail to finish a task a certain way or at all, it changes my options up ahead. Nothing wrong with that and I think it works well enough although I often realize after the fact that I messed something up and can't fix it again. Quick save and quick load are your friend here. 

I do quickly find that there is a lot of running back and forth though. And I constantly get lost. I am not sure it is to the benefit of the game that I am capable to turn the camera all the way around, because while it helps me see around corners, it often gets me lost in the directions. Fitting to the wasteland, but less fun to play is the constant scrounging for resources. I feel a frustration between the cost of each shot I make against an enemy, compared to how weak most weapons feel. Not to mention all the missing. I ended up trying to teach most of my characters melee weapons to save on ammo, and often times I ended up doing way more damage with melee weapons than with guns simply because shooting cost more AP and missed more often.

A word about the combat system. If you've played Fallout 1 or 2 you know pretty much how it goes. Each character has a set of Action Points, or AP, that they can freely allocate on different actions, like attacking (with different weapons requiring different amount of AP as mentioned), using a skill (like bandaging), hiding, reloading and so on. I think it is a great system and there is nothing wrong with it here either. In fact, Wasteland 2 is helpful enough to give you a great overlay of the combat area, showing you exactly how far you can move if you still want to have enough AP for a shot.

The problem arises in the calculating of success, which is less often than desirable (albeit nowhere near as frustratingly rare as in The Temple of Elemental Evil). And even when your characters finally hit, they usually only put a small dent in the enemy. Most enemies require a lot of whacking, or wasting of precious bullets, before they go down. In the meantime your own characters easily take a lot of damage and wasting of precious bandages to keep alive.

Wasteland 2, to its credit, has a generous fail system, in which your characters don't immediately die when they go down. You have a certain window of opportunity to resuscitate them and save them back to life. On the other hand, once dead the character stays dead and you can't ever get them back. I fortunately didn't end up in this situation, but I got close a few times.

Overall the combat system is a lot more frustrating than it is fun, even though the core system is good. The end result is often just a lot of flailing and bullet spraying, which just isn't a fun way to spend your evening (unless you're playing Quake 2). Add to this other environmental mechanics, like exploding seed pods that infect your characters with hard to treat diseases and debuffs and there is a lot of quick saving and quick loading, as mentioned. Even then a lot of time is spent having to run back to some safer area to restack on bullets and bandages, to which you might not even have enough money anyway. The combat in Wasteland 2 makes me feel frustrated and anxious in a way that leaves a bad taste. After 8 hours I turned it down to easy, and that only helped so much. It's stiff, even for a turn based system.

The game has an odd claustrophobic feeling as well. Every area you enter only has one or two exit points, meaning if what you need is at the other end you have to run all the way there and back to do your business and be about your way. I don't recall this being the case in Fallout, where you could exit a town from any side straight out into the desert hellscape. Here, everything I have encountered so far (~10 hours) is enclosed by mountains or the like.

Fallout took the concept that Wasteland set up and improved on it in many ways. I had hoped that Wasteland 2 could maybe take yet another step and improve on what Fallout (especially Fallout 2) left behind. I realize now that maybe that was a hard act to follow and Wasteland 2 instead ends up feeling like a step back - like everything is just that tiny bit of a chore instead of fun.

If you're yearning for more isometric role-playing apocalypse, and there aren't too many of those out there, you could definitely get worse than Wasteland 2. But I can't help feeling like Sisyphus pushing the rock up that hill, praying it will just this once stay up there rather than roll back over my face (as the fable goes). While I am having fun with Wasteland 2, it does make me miss Fallout 2.