Backlog: Games are Dumb edition

We love 'em to death, but jeez. As a casual observer scanning through some of this year's biggest games—Destiny, Dota 2, Super Smash Bros., Heroes of the Storm—you'd be forgiven for thinking games are all kinda dumb. And that's okay! Dumb is fine sometimes, and yeah, there are things about some of these big-name games that stand out as kind of goofy, puerile, or merely trite as hell. But as long as you're getting a meaningful experience out of it, that's all that matters, right?

Keep that sentiment in mind as you dig into the following writeup on my experiences with the Destiny beta. I realize I can come off as overly critical sometimes, but my intentions are good. I just want to place the game in the best context I'm able to.

Meanwhile, Spencer's diversifying the ways he trolls people online by branching out into a couple of MOBAs, and Doug has finally decided to take the plunge on a Wii. Like, the old, standard-def one.

Confused? Me too.  – Nick Cummings

Nick

Screenshot from Digital Foundry's Destiny comparison video

Screenshot from Digital Foundry's Destiny comparison video

Hi. Hello there. Let’s talk about the Destiny beta test.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect with this game. That sounds weird, right? We’re in the midst of a ludicrously big media buy to promote the hell out of the game pretty much everywhere human eyes wander to, and besides, I’m no stranger to Bungie’s oeuvre. I’m pretty sure I’ve played every game Bungie has ever released (okay, maybe I skipped the first Myth game, but I finished Oni, so I figure that cancels out.) What’s more important is that I have plenty of fond memories of the entire Halo series, a landmark first-person shooter that probably more directly inspired Destiny than any other game in Bungie’s history. In other words, I’m pretty well-versed in what makes a Bungie game different from any other developer’s games: meticulously tight arena combat and—for better or worse—a bold, pronounced artistic direction. I had big hopes for Bungie’s new franchise, and if I’m being totally honest, I selfishly hoped this would be the game that would push me over the edge and make the purchase of a new console justifiable to me.

Now that I’ve almost hit the level cap for the beta test in Destiny and seen what it has to offer, I’m more uncertain than ever. My biggest concern: I’m worried about the long-tail for this game.

It might help to frame it this way: Destiny is, first and foremost, an MMORPG. Sure, it looks and feels like a shooter, but the way missions are structured and objectives are distributed is pure, dyed-in-the-wool MMO design. If you already love the sort of repetitive grinding and questing and enemy-killing of your typical MMO, then hey, no worries: Destiny will probably fit like an old glove. But I’m coming at this game from the perspective of someone who’s a fan of shooters first and a casual MMO player second, so I’m more than a little worried about how much Destiny seems to recycle levels over and over for multiple game modes. The “exploration” mode is even more distressing, since it’s effectively “walk to waypoint, push button, kill x number of bad guys.” Of course the caveat applies that hey, this is a beta test and it’s only offering a small cross-section of the final game. But so far everything just feels a little too familiar in a bad way to me, like web–1.0 design wrapped up in a modern veneer.

Perhaps even more worrying for Bungie fans: I’m also not digging the competitive multiplayer. Matchmaking took a very long time for the rounds I played—easily upwards of a minute or two—and combat felt a little slow since your player’s ability cooldowns are just as slow and plodding to recharge as in the main game. Special ammo was very scarce as well, which means you’d better be plenty satisfied with your one main weapon since that’s what you’ll be using most of the time. Balance doesn’t seem to be an issue, thankfully, but each match just felt way slower and more dull than a round of Halo or even Borderlands’ player-versus-player options.

Also worth mentioning is that I’m playing on a PS3. I have no idea what the Xbox 360 version looks like, but if it’s anything like the PS3 version it’s full of intricate shaders and effects at such a low resolution that almost all of the vital detail is too blurry to make out. It’s clear this game was designed to be played on modern systems like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, so if you’re holding out on the next generation you’d probably be better off skipping the last-gen version of Destiny as well.

What do I like? I like Peter Dinklage as a narrator/AI companion, but the story is very sparse so far. In-game cutscenes are very underwhelming so far, too, which was a problem Halo had as well.

I really like the jet bike. I wish more games had jet bikes.

Story missions are the most interesting bits of content so far since you have DinklageBot’s narration to guide you through them, but once you come back to the same area you realize each level is set up just like any area in an MMO or Borderlands: core paths to key quest objectives along with a smattering of high-level optional content and dens of mobs to farm. The natural feel of enemy placement that you’d get from a traditional shooter is missing, perhaps out of necessity, but I feel like this is an area that Borderlands, perhaps the most similar game to Destiny on the market, does a much better job of handling than Bungie.

There’s also significantly less of a setpiece feel to the missions than in Halo, and that’s a bummer because I feel like a lot of those setpieces actually held up over time in the Halo series. Missions and story beats feel inconsequential so far, lacking any dramatic, world-altering consequences. No massive ships/robots/secret laboratories blowing up, no disappearing terrain; just staid, solid cliffsides and ravines and abandoned buildings from a civilization on the brink. It all lends Destiny this sensation that everything you’re experiencing has been experienced a million times before by plenty of other people, and of course, that’s absolutely true.

Players pop in and out of your missions, but interaction is almost nonexistent. The much-vaunted world events that pop up effectively boil down to “kill this guy/kill these guys” and it’s nice to get a small dose of cooperative shooting but they’re over far too quickly. After the average group confrontation, everyone hops back on their jet bike and dashes away in search of the next waypoint to trigger the next sub-quest or story beat. So Destiny is a technological achievement and a triumph of art direction and spectacle that boils down to, effectively, another guided experience in parallel play.

Ok, fine. So maybe Destiny doesn’t seem to try anything bold to get people interacting in meaningful ways. That’d be fine if the game’s other denizens—the NPCs who run shops and hand out items for stuff you do—had established personalities. Other than some boilerplate voiceover, they each effectively function as buttons to access a series of similar menus. Each NPC is simply a means to get more stuff to make your character more powerful and capable. Even in an older MMORPG like World of Warcraft, there was an effort made to incorporate most merchants and the like into some quest line or another. They didn’t feel alive, maybe, but they felt deliberate. Maybe the full game will do a better job of that.

Ultimately, everything great about Destiny—namely its shooting mechanics and graphical ambitions—just felt like a translucent veneer covering up a shallow core. And yeah, the shooting feels great, don’t get me wrong, but I fear that the long game will wind up hamstrung by its ambition of trying to do everything at once.

In other news, I’m afraid my torrid love affair with Blizzard’s collectible card game, Hearthstone, has come to an end. We were getting along famously until my skill level, pitiable as it may be, exceeded the quality of the cards I own. I know, I know: it’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools, right? Maybe so. But I’ve been stuck at rank 20 in the ladder all month, and every time I lose a match it’s at the hands of a player with several orange, or “legendary,” cards in their deck.

Orange cards are the rarest kind in the game, and they’re only acquired by aggressively purchasing booster packs either with in-game currency or or real cash. (Yes, you can also create new cards using a crafting system, but that effectively boils down to time and money as well.) I wanted to put this “free-to-play” model to the test, so I resolved not to spend any actual money on Hearthstone. But after picking up a couple dozen lackluster boosters as a consolation prize from failed arena attempts, I decided to pack it in.

I had a great run with Hearthstone—something like 30 hours of play over six months—and it didn’t cost me a dime. I just wish card distribution was a little less stingy, because the price barrier is exactly the sort of thing that prevents me from enjoying other CCGs like Magic: The Gathering.

Spencer

Recently, I've been snowed under with a variety of projects. This doesn't mean that I'm not playing games -- it merely means that I feel guilty about it when I do.

The latest expansion for Battlefield 4,Dragon's Teeth came out for those of us who decided to pay $100 for the game, and I'm thrilled to report that:

a) There is a map set in Pyongyang. b) The new revolver also sets off explosives like C4.

These were really the only things I cared about, so Dragon's Teeth is a winner in my book.

As mentioned in the last podcast, I've been playing an amount of Riot's League of Legends and Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm, even managing to drag Nick into the former's fray for a little bit. These are, at their core, very well-designed games with a tight, competitive feel (though Heroes has a bit of gooey alpha-ness to it). MOBA communities may be notorious toxic, but there's fun to be had if you bring your own team and deliberately ignore the haters.

Or if you troll them into a rage. But I'd never advocate such a thing.

Wolfenstein: The New Orderis now in my possession because I have extremely poor impulse control. The story is an almost direct rip from Half-Life 2 -- dressed up in World War 2 clothing -- and the game itself is a brutalist FPS power fantasy in the most classic sense.

And here's the really wacky thing: The New Order is really, really good.

For all it plays with cliche, the latest edition of Wolfenstein is tons of fun, and gleaming with polish. It's absolutely a standout game this year, and for all its use of tropes, it's completely engrossing -- indeed, I spent about six hours last weekend playing myself sick, something I rarely do anymore. Definitely worth grabbing on sale, so you can run around as a square-jawed, infinitely-regenerating  übermensch, covered head to toe in helmets.

It’s amazing how nicely some old Wii games upscale with a decent emulator. Too bad the Wii U insists on running everything in 480p.

It’s amazing how nicely some old Wii games upscale with a decent emulator. Too bad the Wii U insists on running everything in 480p.

Doug

Things are falling into place. I’m transitioning from my first stage in Japan -- living in the countryside in Nagasaki prefecture -- to moving into Tokyo by the end of the month. Next week. I’m heading from rice paddies and stars overhead to the neon, bright lights and big buildings of the big city. It’ll be an adjustment, but I’m looking forward to it.

Somehow, right as I need to minimize my stuff and pack it up, I fell face-first into something new to me -- a Nintendo Wii. Another JET was getting rid of it, and a friend asked if I wanted it for a song, so I said yes. Checking a used games store the other night, it turns out I paid the same amount of money for a Wii, Mario Kart Wii, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and a grip of controllers as those stores have just the system and one controller for right now. It’ll be a hassle to move, but it’s a good deal. I had to order a new sensor bar off of Amazon Japan last night because the current one won’t recognize a Wii remote, but that’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

The game I’ve been playing the most as of late is hardly new: Animal Crossing: New Leaf. It’s still charming and quaint, and I’m enjoying racking up the collectibles and building my house. I tend to bounce from mindless game to mindless game, something I can do while also listening to podcasts or watching a TV show, and right now, lying on the couch and strip-mining the Animal Crossing island for beetles is my jam. I’m amazed just how much depth there is, too -- when I’ve talked to my friends who played more, I’ve learned just how much I have left to discover. First it was the week-plus odyssey to unlock the coffee shop, and now I’m going to try and fill out the rest of the town square and discover the buildings and upgrades I can pay for as well.

But I don’t want my 3DS to be a dedicated Animal Crossing machine anymore. Since I’d been a good boy I decided to splurge on two of the 3DS titles I’d been eyeing for a while: Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Golf World Tour. I've only just gotten into the second world of Super Mario 3D Land and I've only played a few rounds in World Tour, but it was beyond time for me to diversify my 3DS handheld lineup. Slightly surprisingly, two months after its launch in Japan the price of World Tour has cratered down to about $25 new, while 3D Land still carries a $40 price tag even years later, even for a used copy. Interesting. I’m sure both games will see some serious time during my upcoming commutes in Tokyo.