All the Games

After a couple fits and starts, I finished Broken Age. This could warrant a full review, but everything I would want to say can be summarized as follows: excellent characterization, lovely plot that finishes a bit too abruptly, lots of cute little jokes, absolutely beautiful, BUT the gameplay is often frustrating in the worst traditions of adventure games. Two of those points bear emphasizing. One: the art is absolutely gorgeous! A series of screenshots are below, to hopefully support that claim. Two: the gameplay can be so infuriating!

So much of the time is wandering around the map, collecting random items from the environment, from dialogue choices, and from puzzles, then figuring out where the items might ultimately come into play. There’s a lot of backtracking and trading of random crap for other random crap. Sometimes it seems logical, or even obvious; sometimes, the use of an item for a given situation can seem clever. But most of the time, it just seemed arbitrary. The world and the characters were so quirky, lovely, and charming; the plot had some fun twists and pivots and re-connections; but the impact of those elements was lessened as I trudged back and forth in the most point-and-clickiest way possible. You ever find yourself faced with a frustratingly opaque game challenge requiring a specific solution, while you want to scream another, more apparent option? That’s so much of this game for me. Especially when there are so many characters to talk with, it was frustrating to see that being able to propose obvious solutions or to ask obvious questions was just stripped out. In short, the game felt…artificially difficult (or at least its second half did). In the last act, I frequently consulted a guide, increasingly impatient with the bizarro limitations put into place. If you played a lot of classic point-and-click adventure games, though, you might have a more positive experience.

20180704201209_1.jpg

20180704201500_1.jpg

20180705123509_1.jpg

20180902224243_1.jpg

Besides Broken Age, I also played a couple of weird little indie projects that released to a lot of acclaim but basically passed me by until now.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch is zany and fun, with a surprisingly heartfelt and endearing story under the wacky Saturday-morning-cartoon premise. It’s a fairly short but worthwhile experience.

20180902135158_1.jpg

20180902151743_1.jpg

Then there’s The Stanley Parable. This was fun, but I lost interest fairly quickly without exploring most of the branching paths and endings. I spent most of my short time with it forcing endings through disobedience. The narration was charming, but I thought the game a bit too clever for its own good (and really, exploring “choice” in a video game and in life has been done more subtly elsewhere, hasn’t it?).

20180902155903_1.jpg

20180902161325_1.jpg

I also jumped back into Hotline Miami a little bit recently. This game’s just perfect at setting a mood. The jarring, twitchy controls. The bizarre cuts between levels. The splashy blood. The bright colors. The pounding music. The game honestly makes me feel a little ill and a little disassociated after a while, like I’m getting into the head of a psychopath–or as close as I’d want to be, anyway. Gamification of the violence drives home that disturbing feeling, too. It’s a surreal experience, and the gameplay and music provide a powerfully addictive combination. I’ve played the story once or twice, and I’ve also played individual levels on occasion. But I don’t think it’s a game that I could ever 100%–I’d have to spend too much time getting really good at really disturbing shit.

20180913234732_1.jpg

Moving out of indie games, I’ve returned to Jurassic World: Evolution, as well. A recent update included a new challenge mode. So far, I’ve fiddled around with the easy mode, taking my time, having fun, then realizing in a panic that while I would probably eventually get to 5 stars, I was definitely not going to meet the par time. This could prove to be a quite challenging mode, especially working all the way up to Jurassic difficulty while meeting the par times, and it may or may not be enough to keep me in the game for a while (if only to try to return my status to 100% completion).

20180914203244_1.jpg

20180914210525_1.jpg

20180914220605_1.jpg

Finally, I’ve been playing ever more of Star Wars: Battlefront II. The 2005 edition, of course. It’s just so fun and easy to hop into even if I don’t have a lot of time to play.

20180829235553_120180830235416_1

20180831220133_120180831224117_1

20180901130638_1

And that’s all for games. The final post, on television, will follow tomorrow.

A Jurassic World of Future Games

Jurassic World: Evolution is not a perfect game, but it’s fun. You could say that about many games in the history of the franchise. Many more, however, are just plain bad (or just plain  weird).

There are still game styles and narratives I’d like to see explored by video games set in this franchise, and I figured I’d throw those ideas out here.

20180621222121_1
Jurassic World: Evolution

The smallest idea I have wouldn’t be for a new game. I’d just like to see Evolution added to. It would be nice to have more dinosaurs, to have feathered theropod skins, and to have some sort of DLC expansion that finally completed the plot of corporate intrigue that the game introduces but fails to develop anywhere. I’d also love the ability to design your own island maps, so you could keep randomly generating new challenges and new parks to build on. I lost interest in the sandbox mode fairly quickly…

Who knows? Maybe some of these elements are already in development! And now that Fallen Kingdom is out, there’s no reason that Evolution can’t go on to tell its own separate and complete story.

20180715214353_1.jpg
Jurassic Park: The Game

The next idea isn’t a new game type, but a development on what came before. Telltale’s Jurassic Park: The Game came out to mixed reviews (I personally liked the story but was baffled by the changes to Gerry Harding’s character and found the focus on quick-time events infuriating and anti-cinematic), but I do think the idea of a Jurassic Park adventure game is solid. I would like to see adventure games that adapted the novels. The novels were a little meatier, with a few big mysteries to explore (in the first book alone, there were the dinosaurs on the mainland, the breeding populations and nest sites, and the cause of the Stegosaurus illnesses). They also had a series of scenes that I could easily see played out  as a variety of adventure game sets or mini-games. The books were driven by mysteries and punctuated by moments of terror. A game that was more cerebral (and that largely avoided quick-time events) could be a fun way to explore the plots, characters, and themes of the original source material. Plus, by inserting players into the roles of various characters, immersion would help carry some of the novels’ weaker characterizations.

trespasser.png

I’d also like to see a survival game set on Isla Sorna. Here too is a concept that is not truly unique to the Jurassic Park setting: the poorly received Trespasser did it in 1998, then there was the canceled Jurassic Park: Survival, and that seemed to have survived a while onward in the similarly canceled Jurassic World: Survivor. However, I’d like to see a game that offered minimal weaponry (the three I discussed above all relied on firearms pretty heavily) and that was more focused on exploring the world. Perhaps, rather than being focused on escape, the game could be about being a Sarah Harding-type researcher, there to study the dinosaurs. Unlocking codices describing dinosaur biology and behavior, perhaps recovering scattered Site B documents from old computers and file cabinets, and simply photographing the animals could all be soft objectives. In short, I’d like a game where the dinosaurs were animals and not just monsters to fear. And please, no more dinosaur survival crafting games!

Finally, I do have a more conventional, narrative-driven shooter in mind. In the wake of Fallen Kingdom, we now have dinosaurs spread across the western United States. These animals could breed, and it’s suggested that corporate and governmental interests might clone more dinosaurs across the globe. Putting yourself in the role of perhaps a small Southwestern sheriff as you attempt to defend a small town against dangerous new animals–or a member of a commando team sent to disrupt cloning facilities set up in a rogue nation–could offer some fun run-and-gun gaming. (Okay, that latter idea is basically Dino Crisis…)

None of these are truly wild departures from what’s come before. None are suggesting radical new game styles or narratives. But I hope they offer some interesting possibilities. I’d love to hear what you might want to see in a future Jurassic Park game!

For bonus points, though, allow me to suggest a sprawling open-world RPG where you are a lone wanderer, perhaps an ambassador or mechanic, making your way across the world of the Xenozoic Saga. Or, in short, make more Cadillacs and Dinosaurs!

xenozoic.jpg
Cadillacs and Dinosaurs

Review – 7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat

Over the last few days, I played a great game: 7 Grand Steps, Step 1: What Ancients Begat. I don’t know how I came to acquire it; I hadn’t heard anything about it, and I don’t remember purchasing it. It must have come into my Steam collection over some past sale or via some bundle that I’ve since forgotten about (Steam collections get embarrassingly full of games we never play or quickly give up on, don’t they?). I don’t even recall what exactly triggered me to give it a try, other than that its numeric title places it high in my alphabetically oriented category of games I haven’t played, but I am very glad that I did.

The game is structured around a spinning wheel. You navigate one character around the wheel at first, to be joined by a second when your character marries. Navigation is performed by applying a token to your chosen character, allowing the character to move to the next space with that token’s symbol. To make more tokens, you insert an ingot into the character’s slot, and they will attempt to work with a character behind them on the wheel to make more tokens. So you have the choice of advancing on the wheel by using tokens or retreating toward the bottom by creating tokens. You can make one decision per character per round. After each round, the wheel spins counterclockwise, pushing everything on it toward the bottom.

20180702235729_1.jpg

You can reach the far-right of the visible portion of the wheel and hold there. The bottom of the wheel holds “crocodiles,” an at first literal but increasingly figurative threat of death and ruin. Outside of your one to two characters on the board, there are other non-player characters who similarly navigate the wheel of life with you. Characters who are closest to the crocodiles, and who are not sharing a space with at least one other character, are too concerned with their imminent fates to produce more tokens; they are only willing to advance by the use of tokens (or to stay put).

In addition to tokens, the other major resource in the game consists of beads that earn you legend points. Beads appear on token spaces as the wheel turns. Landing on the token space earns you at least part of the bead there (depending on the size/value of the bead). Legend points are used to work toward a goal. The goal will be social advancement, discovery, or heroic journey. You can have one goal at a time that can reach across generations to accomplish. When a goal is attained, you can set a new goal. Social advancement increases your standing in society, giving you more opportunities for wealth generation over more time and literally raising you up higher on the wheel, where the outer rungs have more spaces and thus prolong the inevitable. Discovery changes out a particular type of token on the board with a new type that is representative of a new technology and gives you a generational boost with that token type. And heroic journeys are risky interactive stories where you attempt to choose a path to a heroic outcome with great rewards (this can often end in failure, including death or financial burden, and sometimes ends without anything negative or positive happening). You will also encounter little side stories throughout that can affect your family and assets in small or large ways.

20180704002723_1.jpg

Marriage gives you certain advantages. For one thing, you have another person to use to accumulate resources. For another, you are now able to produce heirs. You have a chance of producing children whenever your characters work together to produce tokens, your characters stop on the same token, or a loving character gives their spouse a boost. Marriages can be loving or loveless; each character has their own feelings about their spouse, and I saw marriages that were beautifully loving by both parties, or where only one spouse passionately loved the other, or where both spouses were in a loveless marriage out of convenience. A loving spouse, as I indicated, can give the other spouse a boost: when a loved spouse lands on a shared token, the loving spouse will boost them on to the next space with that same token image (or, if that’s the farthest along, to the far-right edge of the wheel). Sometimes there are no marriage options that your starting character loves. Sometimes, the options your character loves rejects your character. You can’t wait around, either–the few available spouses go very quickly, and when that’s done, you’ll risk a life of being single. Interestingly, the game offers you a text-based narrative choice for remaining single; if your character resists fate and hopes for a marriage from divorce later in life, the game will let you proceed childless, while some other options, like realizing that you are gay, result in you taking on another sibling’s life story, with the former player character potentially providing financial support. In this way, the game really does an impressive job of establishing historic societal pressures to marry and bear children, to focus on producing yet another generation.

20180703205403_1.jpg

Children can play to learn skills (which increase their likelihood of generating certain tokens as an adult). However, they learn very slowly at this pace. They learn much quicker and can master skills if provided tokens during each round. Thus, to best ensure a successful future generation, parents want to produce tokens for their kids, which can derail the fulfillment of legend points and may result in poverty (with few tokens available for action) and very little inheritance. Children can attempt to help out by making tokens if they are given ingots, but only children who have mastered skills have a decent chance of producing tokens, and their success rate is at best still lower than that of their parents, while the use of a child to produce a token takes away from their ability to further improve skills for that round.

Spouses can practice family planning of a sort: don’t choose to have kids whenever given the choice, and don’t make tokens together (which has a random chance of producing kids without any choice on your part). However, I often found it necessary to make tokens for two parents toward the back of the pack, resulting in sometimes enormous families (up to 7 kids). And if you keep to only one child, especially in earlier cycles of the wheel and while at lower classes, you risk losing the entire next generation to famine or some other unfortunate occurrence. Alternatively, having many children decreases your ability to adequately prepare them for life–and focusing on one child over others results in sibling rivalries that can have negative consequences throughout the next generation (while treating kids equally can result in loving sibling relationships that provide occasional benefits into the next generation).

Children are necessary to keep advancing. Eventually, every wheel will spin to a breaking point. Parents cannot pass. You must choose a child to perform rites of passage to move onto the next stage (a child’s performance on rites of passage results in a given title and associated attributes). Sometimes I’d have parents survive to the very end, to the point that a rite of passage must occur because the wheel has reached the limit; most of the time, I’d have parents focus on producing tokens later in life to better improve their kids and provide for an inheritance, resulting in them eventually falling to the crocodiles as the broken edge reached ever-lower.

There are three ages in the game: Copper, Bronze, and Iron. Between each age is a gap of generations, resulting in your distant descendants finding themselves in potentially quite different circumstances. Each age ends in a challenge of the age, and I believe that one’s performance in the text adventure challenge influences how their distant descendants do (there’s still a lot happening under the hood, and the game never burdens you with stat management). There are many generations of a family within each age, and generations should focus on accomplishing goals to delay the inevitable crisis of the age and to improve their chances of success.

Once you climb high enough in social rank, you have a ruling class game that you are able to play. In my single play-through of the game so far, I only discovered the ruling class mini-game in the final age, where my characters advanced through the senate, gaining popularity slowly but surely, until eventually my final character became emperor just in time for the crisis of the age.

20180704142141_1.jpg

This game is a simple wheel-based board game simulator on the surface. But it is so much more complex than that! Its ability to simulate complex issues of class and wealth and family and religion, and to capture the gradual turn of the wheel of life for an individual and a family and a society, is simply astounding. Between the mechanics and the text descriptions, so many beautiful dynamic stories were told over the course of my family history in the game. There was a lot of suffering for my family, and the game certainly showed the mundane nature of so many peoples’ lives, while making even the mundane interesting. And at the same time, focus over generations could result in a descendant rising to great heights!

I was invested to the end. My only disappointment is that this game was released in 2013 to a generally positive reception, and it looks like it was supposed to be the first in a seven-part story of games building on your save file, but the second game never materialized. I’d really like to see where the later games were to go, especially since it seems like they were to vary in style and mechanics.

20180704142608_1.jpg

Designer Keith Nemitz and his small team at Mousechief really hit the ball out of the park with this game. It’s easy to pick up and complex to master. It’s got a lot of really clever systems. It results in some great dynamic storytelling. And it has a lot of built-in replayability, as you could play through multiple times to see the divergent stories of different families (like I said in my review, I only made it to the ruling class in a single age).

7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat is available on Steam for twenty bucks; as of this writing, it’ll be on sale by 40% there for about another day. Or you can buy it directly from the Mousechief website. Pick it up and give it a try!

Review – Jurassic World: Evolution

Jurassic World: Evolution is a flawed game, but it’s also an excellent addition to the Jurassic Park franchise and a lovely companion to both the original novel and the new Jurassic World films.

20180628190549_1.jpg

The concept is simple enough: it’s a park management sim, like Zoo Tycoon or Roller Coaster Tycoon (Evolution was in fact developed by Frontier Developments, which released Planet Coaster in 2016). A park management sim with dinosaurs is not exactly a new idea: Zoo Tycoon had Dinosaur Digs in 2002 and Zoo Tycoon 2 had Extinct Animals in 2007, while the Jurassic Park franchise has already had Jurassic Park III: Park Builder (GBA, 2001), Operation Genesis (Xbox, PS2, PC, 2003), and the mobile titles Jurassic Park Builder (2012) and Jurassic World: The Game (2015). Most of those were not very good–the mobile games are tedious time-wasters, and while I’ve never played the GBA park builder, its reviews were not positive. But Operation Genesis proved the obvious, that a film franchise about building a dinosaur park that falls to chaos would be a good fit for a game about managing the dinosaur park in the face of system failures.

20180626001808_1.jpg

I previously wrote about how Evolution looks like a spiritual successor to Operation Genesis. Having now played Evolution for more than sixty hours, I feel completely validated in that impression. The overall game involves developing dinosaur parks across six islands; there’s an overarching campaign tied loosely together with missions across Las Cinco Muertes, with advancement from island to island dependent upon reaching an adequate park rating across the archipelago, and Isla Nublar also appears as a sandbox park with unlimited cash at your disposal and all buildings, upgrades, and dinosaurs available that you have unlocked across the other islands.

20180701050609_1.jpg

Management of the parks involves producing operations facilities (ranger units to feed and medicate the dinosaurs,  Asset Containment Units or ACUs to tranquilize and transport them, storm towers to predict and protect against storm damage, and a variety of support buildings like expedition centers to launch new digs and fossil centers to use the results of those digs to unlock new dinosaurs and research centers to unlock new upgrades), guest facilities (some used to satisfy guests, some used to provide adequate guest capacity, and some to keep guests safe), enclosures (including fencing, guest viewing structures, and feeders), and power infrastructure (to keep all the above humming along). Successful park management will quickly become micromanagement; while you can choose between manually handling the day-to-day tasks of the rangers and ACU teams or simply delegating the tasks to them, you will never have the ability to unlock any sort of automatic designation of assignments, so that even ensuring the regular restocking of feeders must be directly assigned by you. A ranger will drive by a sick dinosaur or empty feeder and take no action without your direct input. And there were the occasional path-finding issues (though not too frequent) that added a little extra inconvenience.

20180630233847_1.jpg

The micromanagement might seem tedious, and it can be, but it adds to the sense of chaos when things start to fall apart–and they will. Tropical storms, sabotage, dinosaur disease epidemics, and escape attempts blossom into a thousand concerns all at once, and even more red alerts flash at the top of your screen as feeders run out or dinosaurs get loose in the midst of it all. Small problems and large problems alike can seem overwhelming, and sometimes you’ll be racing about, switching between manual control and delegation, as you attempt to triage the situation and respond to appropriately prioritized tasks. This game succeeds in not just being a park management sim, but in accurately portraying the loss of control amid inevitable chaos that the Jurassic Park franchise is all about! That element is masterful, though reflective of a minority of the time spent in the game.

Because failure is inevitable, the game is actually rather forgiving. It is certainly challenging, but it’s not really difficult. While you have the option to reset a park if things get too out of control, I never had to use the tool. Still, in the midst of a spiraling set of problems, the game can be tense–basically always in a fun way. Big problems call for big problem-solving and quick thinking! Outside of the moments of crisis, though, success is largely a matter of time and responsiveness. Keep the animals healthy and the guests at least somewhat satisfied, and your park rating (and profits) will rise. Even if cash is tight, having a single dinosaur and a fast food joint can be enough to get an early-stage park on the path to success.

20180617110847_1

There are a lot of deep statistics that are never explained anywhere in the game, but you only have to get a cursory understanding of any process to make it work. I still don’t fully understand how staffing, item quality, and price affects guest satisfaction with a particular store, and other than knowing that sales price should at least be higher than my own cost, I never did bother to figure it out. I didn’t need to. After I grew frustrated with one park always hovering around 4.5 stars because my continued success would draw down guest satisfaction as demand would continuously outstrip supply, I discovered via a forum tip that you could just close your park down briefly–then everyone would be excited with the reopening and the overcrowding would be gone, solving the problem for a while. Again, the game can be challenging, but it’s typically open to being exploited–and since it’s all about the bottom line with profits and divisional reputation, the game sort of encourages that exploitative mentality.

Even the unlocking of database entries, that wild goose chase of achievement hunting, was largely accomplished by accident, with me just stumbling across new entries without any effort or intent. By the end, after lucking into everything else, I was able to determine (thanks to the alphabetical ordering) that I was only missing two characters, Paul Kirby and Simon Masrani. I couldn’t figure out what to do, though I suspected that Paul might have something to do with the Ceratosaurus or Spinosaurus, while Masrani might have something to do with pteranodons (not in the game) or the Indominus. I looked that up–turned out that it involved letting guests get eaten by certain types of dinosaurs! So the biggest challenge was simply letting myself fail more than I had so far (though I’d be lying if I denied having many, many, many dinosaur escapes and resultant guest deaths).

20180625005037_1.jpg

Perhaps my favorite part of the game was just driving around in the ranger vehicle. Doing this results in a lot of random fun, like catching air over a slight rise or fishtailing around a tight turn or sending guests fleeing from my path (the game causes them to always dodge, so I grew more reckless as I stopped worrying about vehicular manslaughter). Even the everyday tasks can be fun: every attempt to medicate a dinosaur is an accuracy contest against surprisingly quick moving targets. There’s a lot to enjoy in the little things. And the dinosaurs are just absolutely beautiful. There was obviously a lot of investment in the dinosaur appearances, animations, sounds, and behaviors (they often act like convincing animals in enclosures). There are so many of them, too! Literally dozens of species, and even more after the free Jurassic World: Evolution update and if you pay the little extra for the Deluxe DLC (the total reaches 48 dinosaur species with all the above).

I hope there will be more content releases. Notably absent at this point is the Compsognathus from the films. But it would also be cool to have the additional dinosaurs from the books that didn’t make the final cut, including Euoplocephalus, Hypsilophodon, Microceratus, Othnielia, and Procompsognathus. Most of the dinosaurs from this group match the compys from the films in being small to mid-size, so maybe there was a sizing issue. Or maybe we’ll see some later on. The Euplocephalus, however, was somewhat bizarre to exclude, given that ankylosaurs including Ankylosaurus, Crichtonsaurus, Nodosaurus, and Polacanthus made it (though I do appreciate the nod with Crichtonsaurus to the late Michael Crichton, who after all is the reason Jurassic Park exists). The cearadactyls from the first book, and the pteranodons and dimorphodons and mososaur from the films, are completely absent. Especially given how significant the pteranodons and mosasaur have been to the Jurassic World films, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get flying and marine reptile updates later on.

20180624050109_1

I also hope that future updates might allow for the possibility that the dinosaurs will start breeding. On Isla Sorna, a fun surprise is that you start the park with a tightly guarded guest center area that opens up into vast rugged forests populated by herds of Stegosaurus and a Spinosaurus. The Spinosaurus preys on the stegosaurs, and the stegosaurs live off the foliage (actually concealed feed dispensers). But as soon as this park is accessed, I knew that their survival was numbered. The game does not currently allow for breeding, and so these animals would all eventually die out. It would be cool to truly be able to set up a “kind of biological preserve.” (Though the lack of breeding drives home the irony of the InGen Science Division’s efforts to set up working ecosystems on Isla Sorna in the game–none of them are sustainable without a heavy human hand). Similarly, it would be nice if the herbivores could live off the local plant life instead of relying exclusively on feeders.

jurassic world bug fixes.png
A list of some patches from the Fallen Kingdom update. I personally love “Fixed helicopters falling out of the sky on loading,” “Helicopters now try their best to avoid monorails,” and “Dinosaurs try to avoid fighting underwater.”

 

There’s a camera mode, where you can make extra cash snapping pictures of the dinosaurs. I was disappointed to realize rather late on that the photos you take aren’t automatically saved (or if they are, I haven’t found where they’re saved to yet, and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious way to review them in-game). I did use the camera tool even after this realization to set up shots that would be worth screen-capping, images that were up-close to the animals, but I found that it could be just about as good to take screen-captures even outside of the photo mode. Aerial shots of big dinosaur herds were sometimes more impressive, and I could easily capture scenic views of the island landscapes (even the islands themselves are gorgeous). The graphically weak elements are the buildings, which simply look mundane and maybe a tad cartoonish, and the guests, who look like plastic mini-figures. But my eyes were on the dinosaurs most of the time.

At first I was terrified to go into carnivore enclosures–they’ll roar and charge at you. But the dinosaurs can’t hurt you, and you can’t hurt them. The worst is that they’ll knock your car around a bit, which is fun in its own way. So once I discovered that, carnivores became some of my favorite photo subjects–especially the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex.

20180628182202_1

The first time a Tyrannosaurus bounded out of containment and into the enclosure was magic. And I never got tired of hearing its roar echoing across whatever park I put it on. There were other moments that were special, like with the first dinosaur you release into the park ever, or when my childhood favorite Triceratops was introduced, but the tyrannosaur was the most remarkable. Film-accurate, indeed.

20180621222121_1.jpg

There is a plot, but it doesn’t amount to anything. There’s a lot of suspicion and mistrust between the different divisions. The PR executive who oversees you is suspicious of your intentions and worried that you’ll outshine him. You carry out missions with the Science, Entertainment, and Security divisions to curry favor with them. The Science Division is focused on research and developing new animals, blinding them to other concerns. The Entertainment Division wants to make money and get guests into the park, and they’ll do risky and dumb things to make that money. The Security Division is willing to bleed money from the park to ensure that security protocols are sufficient, but they’re also in bed with Dr. Wu’s research into hybridization and militarization of the dinosaurs, resulting in some Bad Things happening. In addition to the missions, you’ll also get more randomized contracts. The division heads get voice overs, helping develop their personalities. We also have Jeff Goldblum back as Ian Malcolm, Bryce Dallace Howard as Claire Dearing, BD Wong as Henry Wu, and (for some reason) a guy who kind of sounds like Chris Pratt as Owen Grady. While Wu makes sense, it’s hard to understand why Dr. Malcolm, Claire, or Owen would be involved with the park again. You just have to accept that they have their reasons (which are never articulated but seem to be based around mistrust in InGen and the hope that their involvement can moderate the company). It’s obviously set in an alternate universe that appears to split off after the events of Jurassic World; there’s no doubt of that after the events detailed in Fallen Kingdom.

20180628192914_1.jpg

Over the course of the game, you’ll get some offers that are frankly unethical, like pitting dinosaurs against each other. At first, I refused. But as some missions (required for full game completion and technology unlocks) required some of that behavior, my moral guidelines loosened and I began to indulge in some frankly Evil Corporate Bullshit. Dr. Malcolm and Claire seemed to become increasingly distressed with my decision-making, and Wu and the PR exec became more envious and distrustful. And all the while, there was obviously secret research being conducted behind the scenes. But it never really built anywhere, even in the “memos” (actually transcripts would be more accurate) that you unlock as you (at least briefly) max out reputation with each division on an island. I think that video game stories can be really powerful when they lead a player to make decisions that are part of that story-telling, that feed into the narrative’s themes. This game does that. But there’s not really any payoff. Malcolm talks a lot about chaos, and Claire and Owen worry about the condition of the animals, and Wu does his Bond villain thing, but there’s no conclusion! We just end with a series of successful parks, all the corporate mistrust and secret dealings still simmering in the background and not fully revealed. The credits roll a couple of times–I believe it was once with completion of all missions and once with five-star ratings across all islands. Then you just hop back in and get back to work, grinding out whatever few achievements you may have left and building up your parks’ reputations. For most of the game, I thought that Evolution might miraculously be the best sequel in the franchise, a worthy successor to the original film and an interesting sibling to Jurassic World with its corporate and personal greed, militarization of technology, and rampant discussion and demonstration of chaos theory in action. But since the story goes nowhere, and there are no real consequences for the player’s, well, playing along (other than massive success), it’s ultimately disappointing.

20180620001146_1.jpg

I was also somewhat disappointed with the modification options for the dinosaurs. Over the course of the game, you assign fossil digs to collect genetic material that can further refine the genetic code for the dinosaurs. Separate research projects can provide new color patterns or improvements like extended lifespan, disease resistance, better defense, or increased attack power. While we get the Indominus and the Indoraptor hybrids, there’s no real way to make new custom animals outside of the slight genetic tweaking from the research projects. Still, while customization is limited, I loved the cosmetic changes available, especially with the Rainforest and Vivid palettes that brought bright blues and purples to my “assets.” Some of these changes seemed to accommodate the different appearances of the dinosaurs over different films.

Unfortunately, the search for a purer genetic code for the dinosaurs and the existence of cosmetic alterations makes me even more disappointed that the dinosaurs retain such an outdated appearance. I recognize that an established franchise doesn’t want to remake its dinosaurs, especially where there is still speculation about appearance, but its Velociraptor and Dilophosaurus, for instance, have always been inaccurate, and Jurassic World made explicit Dr. Wu’s contentions from the first book that none of the animals in Jurassic Park were accurate. Where a game specifically provides for “improving” the genetic code of the animals, why couldn’t we get to the point that a Velociraptor is small and feathered? Or that the Dilophosaurus is larger and frill-less?

20180621220925_1.jpg

The worst part for me was the inclusion of Deinonychus, yet another dromaeosaur, and instead of feathering it, giving it a couple of leathery ridges along head and tail! The game’s database entry for Deinonychus even references its link to research that would ultimately connect birds with dinosaurs.

20180621220650_1.jpg

But more generally, why not allow for dinosaurs with slightly updated appearances to better reflect current paleontological ideas? These dinosaurs could be unlocks at 100% genome completion, and there’d be no requirement that anyone produce these more accurate dinosaurs over their historic depictions. We could even have this decrease a dinosaur’s rating, with guests expecting to see the massive and leathery Velociraptor, for instance.

20180617151328_1.jpg

Not that this complaint stopped me from enjoying the hell out of the game. It’s one of the few games I’ve ever completed 100%, with all unlocks and all missions completed and ratings maxed and every achievement reached. It’s also probably the biggest game that I’ve ever done this with.

jwe 100.png

Sadly, I’m probably at the point where I’m done with the game, at least for now. I might hop in occasionally to snap some dinosaur pictures or to review the surprisingly vast database of Jurassic Park lore contained within. If there’s new content out, I expect to be back for that. But there’s nothing compelling me to just manage a fully established chain of parks. It’s mundane, the challenge is removed, and now it’s just a matter of deploying the appropriate team to fulfill the appropriate task. There’s nothing to keep me going, and there’s no reason to replay.

20180623222807_1

Still, this was a game that was worth its cost. I had a lot of fun and will have some good memories. If you love Jurassic Park and can at least tolerate management simulator games, I would highly recommend this title.

Review: Remember Me

I adored Life Is Strange. It was close to a perfect adventure game, with a quirky, emotionally evocative story about adolescence and high school life and creativity and community on the Pacific Northwest and time travel and serial killers and weird magic. It had at least three compelling mysteries driving the plot: what happened to the missing Rachel Amber, how did protagonist Max’s old friend Chloe become so troubled, and what is the significance and source of Max’s new time-traveling abilities? The gameplay allowed the focus to stay on the story and the characters. Player choice resulted in some gut-kick moments (especially the ending decision). And themes relating to memory and nostalgia and time were cleverly woven not only through the story but through the use of the time travel powers in the game.

So when I finished Life Is Strange, I figured I’d try Remember Me, developer Dontnod Entertainment’s earlier title (Life Is Strange was released in 2015, while Remember Me came out in 2013). I played through a few levels, but the closed-in environments weren’t interesting enough to keep battling with a difficult keyboard-based configuration on PC.

Time passed. A lot of time passed. Finally, with the June 2018 release of Vampyr by Dontnod, I decided I’d try to revisit Remember Me. In the interim since my last play attempt, my wife had gifted me a wired 360 controller for the PC. This controller change was an immense improvement. Remember Me is a game that is oriented around the button configuration of a console controller, and it’s one of those still relatively rare titles that legitimately plays better with controller. Combat, a significant element of the game, is largely oriented around the A, B, X, and Y buttons, which are strung together to create increasingly powerful combos. Button mashing was largely ineffective, I found, and careful use of combo streaks with dodging was critical to succeed.

So, with my new controller approach, I tackled the game at the highest difficulty, Memory Hunter, and I’m pleased to say that I beat the game. It wasn’t especially long, with eight levels. It didn’t feel especially deep–despite often sprawling vistas, the futuristic setting of Neo Paris was limited largely to cramped hallways, alleyways, dormitories, and plazas. While the parkour navigation and wall-crawling was entertaining, it still felt limiting when pathways were always predetermined. Secrets to be discovered often depended on taking a path to the left instead of to the right before advancing, or going down before going up. Those secrets appear to represent replay value; I could go back through individual levels to collect all the lore entries and power-ups. I have no motivation to do so.

The game didn’t even feel especially hard with the game controller. There were some frustrating battles, but no boss fight required more than a few attempts to figure out what the game expected from me.

20180610162938_1.jpg

Combat is a large part of the game, along with memory remixing and environmental platforming. I’ve discussed both combat and the parkour platforming above (I’d add that there is also a customizable set of combos that can be reoriented with new moves that you unlock, though I early on found a set of moves that took advantage of the different powers in-game and didn’t mess with it much after that; it was more convoluted than needed for the combo trees actually employed in combat).

Memory remixing was the most interesting element of the game. You play as Nilin, a memory hunter who has had her own memory stolen. Over the course of the game, you rediscover your lost memories and abilities while attempting to tear down a dystopian society built around the commodification of memory. A key ability of Nilin’s is the power to steal or even remix memories. Nilin can project herself into someone’s mind and alter one’s memories so that they remember a different outcome. Small changes in a memory snowball into larger changes. Nilin must be able to make the right changes to cause a larger change in memory that could even result in an individual taking on a new worldview or personality. The remixed person might take rather sudden and drastic action based on the newly re-perceived events, even.

Unfortunately, this cool feature is underutilized. There are maybe a half-dozen memory remixes throughout the game. I would have liked to have had more opportunities to play with reality (or at least memory) in this way–and I suppose Life Is Strange‘s time travel powers represent an improvement on this form of gameplay.

Most of Remember Me feels underutilized, in fact.

There are a lot of cool ideas here. Interesting philosophical ideas drift in and out, explicitly and implicitly. Memory and the past become critical to the game’s central theme and narrative. But the game doesn’t fully explore any particular concept, and what it tries to say about capitalism and memory and resistance and family is muddled.

Nilin is a kickass female protagonist, and the game has a fair amount of racial and gender diversity. But there’s not much character development, and there are few interesting, unique characters. (One person we’re supposed to care about a lot, who is key to what should be an emotional moment late in the game, is defined only by his fan-worship of Nilin.)

There are cool sci-fi ideas, from memory storage/sharing and memory remixing to an oppressed class of robots and an outcast band of humans with corrupted psyches. At many times throughout the game, the game world felt rather like a spiritual sequel to the darkly conspiratorial cyber-punk world of Deus Ex. But with so many sci-fi concepts buzzing about, the world seemed somewhat amorphous. And oddly, many of the artifacts of the world (toys, shows, news, advertisements, etc.) appeared largely to support an impending story development. Yet the robots in the game don’t get developed after all, even though we see them used as abused personal assistants, prostitutes, and soldiers. (It’s likely that these robots are not truly sentient, but there’s a lot to be said about designing robots that look and act in a human-like fashion and then using them for sex and violence and drudgery.)

20180610164549_1.jpg

Gameplay is varied, and the game often tries to suggest a much bigger world. But the closed spaces of the final level design leave a lot to be desired.

The story is fairly straightforward. Nilin, the aforementioned amnesiac memory hunter, is rescued from prison and works with an anonymous benefactor using the pseudonym “Edge” to retrieve her memories and promote the Errorist cause. The Errorists are, well, memory terrorists. They quickly escalate to large-scale acts of violence and destruction, as well. Nilin is pulled along, committing ever-more-despicable acts on both the physical and memorial stage. She is morally repulsed by the outcomes of some of the things she does, but she keeps following Edge’s orders. Authorial intent would seem to be that she is uncomfortably in his debt (he did save her, after all) and reacting to even larger atrocities committed by the corporate powers of the world. But even so, the actual story fails to fully deliver, and at times it seems that Nilin keeps doing horrible things–things she regrets–merely because she has nothing better to do and is willing to blindly follow the leader.

20180614211059_1.jpg

The most interesting elements of the story relate to the technology and philosophy of the memory-sharing corporate society. I’ll admit that I didn’t even read all the lore I collected (and not reading the lore is rather unusual for me in a sci-fi or fantasy game with any form of codex), but I feel like the cool ideas outstretched the feasibility of execution. The ability to alter memories as though they were actual events that, if changed, would follow logical paths was a little bit difficult to believe, for instance. And let’s just say that Edge’s ultimate intention seems a little contradicted by his methodology.

In general, motivation was a bit of a stretch. While some apparent plot holes were cleared up as Nilin regained memories, it still remained that Nilin would do things before having the adequate motivation to do them. And while I actually grew rather fond of Nilin, I had very little emotional attachment to any of the other characters. Even Nilin’s own emotional journey felt muted to me.

Everything points to a much bigger game that was trimmed down. Perhaps there were budget or deadline concerns. Perhaps Dontnod eventually realized that it was overambitious with what it wanted to do for a first title. While the game is complete, it is not polished and feels smaller than it wants to be–smaller than it should be, for all the features and ideas it tries to contain.

20180610175222_1.jpg

I liked Remember Me. The combat was mostly fun, and the memory remixing sequences were interesting puzzles. But I wish I’d been able to play the game that Dontnod seems to have intended to make here, rather than the game that they ended up with.

Remember Me is not a bad game–and this middle-tier release from a new studio should have given the AAA titles an impressive run for their money. But while I can still wholeheartedly recommend Life Is Strange, I could only suggest Remember Me with qualifications. It’s not a perfect game, and yet I don’t regret my time with Nilin in Neo Paris.

Arena, Part XIV: Exiting the Labyrinth

It may be hard–even nearly impossible–to believe, but I’ve at last returned to Arena. I never really intended to be away for that long. Days turned to weeks and then months. In the back of my mind, I always felt compelled to return, but I always found something else to do when I had enough free time to get back to it.

I returned to find myself completely lost in the middle of Labyrinthian. Before long, I’d adjusted settings back to how I liked them, and I was plowing through all sorts of monsters and getting more and more lost and genuinely having fun.

Arena can be a tedious experience. There are a lot of narrow streets in towns, and there are a lot of narrow halls in dungeons. Responsiveness to your player actions isn’t great. The visuals and sound effects and music quickly become repetitious–as do the random fetch quests and the general experiences to be found in any particular dungeon. The open world outside of cities and dungeons stretches on endlessly and pointlessly. Arena is tedious because it tried to offer a world of possibilities but then didn’t have all that much to do. It was ahead of its time, with ideas about first-person open-world gaming that couldn’t be matched in implementation yet. So you could do a lot but it all boils down to the same sort of experiences repeated over and over. This can be freeing or frustrating, and I keep swinging back and forth between the two mental states.

I always have a lot of fun after a break from the game, though, because I’m coming back to it fresher. The game can’t feel so tedious if taken in little chunks with distance in between.

My play session on return felt productive, even though I didn’t really do anything to advance the story. I guess I advanced my story, and I was able to check off my own personal objectives.

My last check-in with the game was over six months ago (wow), so as a reminder, I’d planned to escape the dungeon of Labyrinthian and return to town to rest, restock potions, repair/replace equipment, and learn a new spell. I accomplished those simple objectives. It felt like a bigger deal because Labyrinthian is so winding, and I’d been away so long that I had no idea of the general direction to even start heading in to get out.

The enemies on my escape were varied but not too challenging. I ran into a wraith over a lava pit, but because I was at an elevation, I could snipe it with fire spells until it was defeated.

a_061.png

I slew several spiders, goblins, wolves, and hell hounds with my trusty saber. I took out ghouls from range with magic and bow.

And I discovered another new enemy! As I was walking down a hall, this message appeared:

a_085.png

Troll is regenerating? I didn’t even know that there was a troll around at all! Then, as I turned down another hallway, I heard a bloodthirsty saurian roar. I tried to get away, but the roar repeated, again and again. I hoped I could just run away, but I took a wrong turn and failed to make a jump to a higher passage. I was hit from behind and turned to defend myself. And there stood the troll!

a_087.png

Much to my joy and relief, I was able to subdue the beast fairly easily. I do appreciate the increasing variety of monsters in the game, and I still love how you can tell what type of monsters you might be facing soon based on their unique calls.

a_089.png

Eventually, I found a way to a green mark on my map–which I vaguely remembered indicated not just a door but an exit, either to another floor or to the outside world. The first exit I came across took me to the main floor. And once on the main floor, I was able to easily find my way back to the main entrance.

a_090.png

I headed to the town of Dunpar Wall. In town, I went to an inn (the Haunted Wolf, a somewhat perplexing name) and tried to get a room for the night, but I was approached with a small fetch quest.

Since it wasn’t due until the following day, I still rented a room and slept until morning. Once done, I tracked down the Order of the Knights of Hope with the holy item.

a_099.png

Since that took me near the Mages Guild and an equipment store, I went ahead and identified magic items and purchased potions at the Guild, then sold off all my gear and purchased fresh armor and a couple new weapons at the equipment store. While at the Guild, I also bought a couple new spells, including Lightning, so I feel a little more prepared to deal with any iron golems I might come across next time.

a_100.png

Finally, I returned to the inn to complete the quest.

a_101.png

While exploring Dunpar Wall, I found a homeless beggar who initially greeted me by saying he was too busy to talk. When I pushed him for more details, he answered:

a_094.png

Is he delusional or sarcastic? Hard to say.

I also got some juicy (though vague) gossip from the bartender at the Haunted Wolf:

a_097.png

And that same barkeep sold me a beverage with a pretty ridiculous name:

a_098.png

It’s obviously just a fantasy-themed version of the gin and tonic! Gin by itself is already a juniper-flavored drink (we’ll learn in game five, of course, that juniper berries are found in Skyrim and used to flavor mead), it’s been enjoyed since the Middle Ages, and it’s associated with the Europeans! It would’ve been pretty appropriate to just have gin present, right? And djinn are genies, associated with Arabian folklore, so what’s this doing in a Nordic-influenced country? So many questions! And no answers (I suspect the answer truly is that whoever named the drinks was trying to be cute).

I’ve returned to the village gates. The next session will find me back in Labyrinthian. We’ll see when that happens…but this time around was fun, and I was glad to return to the game after all.