Backlog Battle Report (25th Sept 2017)

I was a little less diverse in my gameplay time this week and instead was more focused on just a couple of titles. Some decent progress made in what I did play, but nothing to cross off the list since Samus Returns last weekend. With my new job and potentially a second one in the wings, game time might be slightly reduced, but that shouldn’t stop me from still having some opinions to share as I go. So here’s what I’ve been up to.

Elder Scrolls Online (PC) — The current MMORPG of choice

As stated last week, I ended up attempting this one again and getting far more invested than I had previously. Couple a number of friends playing alongside me, and it has remained compelling enough throughout the week to quickly become the game I gravitate towards most when I have a few spare minutes. Again, that will probably change once the next Final Fantasy 14 patch drops in about a fortnight, but the subscription-free system of ESO means I can comfortably drop in and out without issue.

Regardless, I’m fully wrapped up in this one now. The game has continued to provide me with a good mix of content and variety, with even the more basic and genre-standard stuff still proving entertaining to keep me focused. I’ve healed dungeons with friends, gone exploring solo in the public dungeons, tried out the opening zones of all three factions (the Dominion still seems my best fit), and otherwise just gone wandering and questing through the world. My internet and general game lag makes me disinclined to try PvP, but I might end up doing that eventually.

I wasn’t here for the launch of the game, but what I initially saw following ESO’s announcement and from beta footage left me completely disinterested. It’s really impressive to hear and see how much it’s turned itself around. With the removal of level and faction restrictions on so much of the content, it really does provide a huge world to go exploring in, with all sorts of compelling and interesting quest chains that I literally just stumble into.

There’s also a lot of versatility in how one builds a character. Effectively, every character has a variety of skill lines that they can choose to invest points in, ranging from armour and weapon types to guild or faction specific abilities to class skills. You gain skill points every time you level up, by completing certain quest chains, or finding collectables in the world. The actual skill lines level up through use as they do in regular Elder Scrolls games, which unlocks more of their abilities and passive bonuses.

So as well as all the universal skill lines based on quests and weapon types, each of the four classes has three unique trees that you can go into. You also gain a single stat point when you level up which you can drop into Health, Magicka or Stamina and upgrade relevant abilities that way. What’s really interesting is that there’s no set ways to build these classes; a Dragonknight might typically be a heavy armour wearing tank, but I’m building mine as a full magic damage type.

At the moment, I’m juggling three characters but primarily sticking with my Wood Elf Templar tank. Currently I’m in the late 20s for level with them (level cap is 50 but with further progression afterwards) and looking to push ahead, but there’s no real rush. Absolutely everything in the game gives experience, so I’m just exploring, crafting, doing quests or faction objectives as I see fit and having a good time.

It’s been a while since I’ve just been able to completely lose myself in a world like this. Plus, for all its pros and strengths, Final Fantasy 14 doesn’t really make much use of its actual world after you finish the main questlines. There’s less to discover and accomplish just by wandering as this game incentivises, and it’s wonderful. Definitely will be chipping away at this for some time to come.

Monster Hunter Stories (3DS) — Plenty of Monster Hunter, but lacking in Stories

After a very strong initial showing and plenty of fun to be had in Monster Hunter Stories, my progress has started to derail quite a bit. The game is far from bad, but I’ve found myself playing it less and less as things have ground to a halt.

The combat is still fun, with increasingly more options for monster partners as I go along. There’s a plethora of new weapons and armour I can work on getting, lots of sidequests, plenty of places to explore and monsters to hunt. It feels like a good Monster Hunter game would if it was converted to a more traditional turn-based JRPG, and I can’t fault it for that in the slightest.

Still, for whatever reason… the impetus to press on just isn’t there. At the moment, it’s very much a game that I’ll pick up, do a sidequest or two on, and then put down again. Nothing is calling me to keep playing it, and nothing is keeping me there in the event that I do. Any sense of story progression or urgency has been doled out increasingly slowly, and that’s clearly not been the game’s prerogative from the outset so I shouldn’t be particularly surprised.

I haven’t given up on finishing this one, and with Samus Returns finished for now it’s the game that stays in the 3DS cartridge slot until something better comes along. It might just take a bit of effort or a sudden development in the game to really get things moving, though.

Endless Space (PC) — No end in sight

The next game on this list saw me coming back to play this one just on principle. I’ve played a lot of 4X turn-based strategy games, both in sci-fi settings and out of them, but for whatever reason I never fully gave the Endless games a fair playthrough like I did others. It’s odd, because I really do like Endless Space, but I always put it down before a game got too intense and usually opted for another round of Master of Orion 2 or Civ: Beyond Earth.

Nonetheless, I’m back to playing this one and trying to get through a complete game. I’m a couple of hours into a round playing as… um… I forget their names, but it’s a fairly military focused group. My usual approach to these games is to expand to every corner of the map as much as possible and exploit every bit of resource for rapid development and technological progress, and that’s holding true here.

Instead of diving too heavily into technology, however, I’ve balanced that out with combat. This arose mostly from having a sizable surplus of production and not a lot of things that I can build or develop on my planets. Buildings and improvements are usually system-wide as well, and with multiple planets around a single star, that cuts down on some of the empire micromanagement a fair bit compared to Master of Orion.

Nonetheless, when you don’t have lots of buildings to build, it becomes necessary to fill that with a fleet of spaceships. When you have a fleet of spaceships sitting around and doing little, you naturally feel like throwing that at your closest neighbours, so I’ve been sitting in a fairly constant war with the nearby Automatons since the start of the game. It’s entertaining, but it’s slow going.

What I do like about Endless Space is the history and lore that it drip feeds you. Master of Orion has little details like the Antarans and the background of the titular planet, but it’s fairly hands off and unimportant. By contrast, Endless Space has lots of history regarding the Endless, the legendary planet of Auriga, the Dust Wars, and so on that it doles out through small events or by finding ancient wonders.

You won’t get it all in every game, but each little piece and the approach of each race to it makes it that little bit more interesting. The fact that it ties into the game Endless Legend and further expands the universe that way is fairly neat too, and it’s also making me want to go back and play that. Maybe sometime soon. Either way, I intend to see this game through at least once.

But it wasn’t the space game that really got my attention this week. That would be…

Stellaris (PC) — So much space for activities

Now here is a game that I followed up to its release, heard quite a bit about, but never ended up making the dive at launch myself. Part of this was due to financial limitations at the time, and part of it was feedback from friends who had played it and found it not quite up to their hopes. Nonetheless, I’ve been patiently waiting for a chance for Stellaris to come on sale for a decent amount, and when the latest DLC saw that occur I leapt at the opportunity.

Man, I wish I’d done so sooner.

I’m only playing with the base game, but this is absolutely a game that (at least on initial playthrough) feels near and dear to my heart when it comes to strategy. The vast majority of turn based strategy games are largely focused on the eventual funneling of your resources and infrastructure into war. Whatever the victory you’re aiming for, there will be a need for a powerful army or fleet at some point in the game, if only to protect you from those trying to achieve more direct win conditions.

That, ultimately, is one of the less appealing aspects of turn based strategy games. I like empire building. I want to see my race or culture spread to each corner of the world, filling the map with my marker. I want to construct mega cities towering over the landscape loaded down with wonders and builds and improvements. That’s my general approach to playing this sort of game, and while war is usually involved even then, it’s always secondary to (or allowing the further expansion of) developing my empire.

Enter Stellaris. This is the most complicated and option-laden sci-fi 4X turn-based strategy I’ve played, yet at the same time it strikes a balance of not devolving into bureaucratic spreadsheet singularities like Master of Orion 3 did. Much of the interface and features have drawn inspiration from other games of developer Paradox, bringing a touch of the management of grand strategy games like Europa Universalis to space.

There is a lot of micromanagement on offer, with more advanced diplomatic options, management of planetary space and construction, design of spaceships, development of resource collecting stations… the list goes on. I can personally tweak the edicts and policies of my government, the political factions within, or the benefits and rights given to races under my empire’s umbrella. I can assimilate, destroy, uplift or broker agreements with the most minor to the most major space empires.

As much as that may sound unappealing to some, it’s the kind of stuff I thrive on with this game, yet still mercifully comes with options to mitigate or automate much of this pressure if it becomes too much. Splitting your empire into sectors and assigning individual governors to automate it for you is itself a decision that carries risk and management. Plus, these governors even get their own agendas or can age and die, so there are just continual layers of complexity.

What’s really standing out about Stellaris, however, is the same thing that drew me in with Endless Space: the doling out of incremental knowledge and lore of the universe. When exploring space, it’s quite common to find all sorts of anomalies, and researching these will often further elaborate on ancient precursor races or all sorts of crazy sci-fi occurrences. This can create so many watercooler stories that I will no doubt have to share as this progresses.

Currently, I’m playing as a very spiritual race of avians from an alpine world that seem to exist in a corner of the galaxy filled with equally fanatical species. Just about everyone has some kind of religious leaning around me, and I’m almost certain it’s going to lead into a Dune-esque jihad across the galaxy before long.

Especially if those blasted mushroom people keep eying my systems funny…

Nonetheless, I’m having loads of fun managing the resources and economy of my sprawling space empire as I claim every habitable (and cold) planet that I can, spreading my colourful blob of a map marker across a good chunk of star systems. It’s the right balance of management and strategy that appeals to me without going into the full depth of grand strategy games that usually leave me feeling constrained in options. Expect to hear more from me about this.

Prey (PC) — Coffee mug extinction simulator

I opened a door into an office within the Talos 1 space station, immediately spotting a dead body slumped nearby. At his hand was a 9mm pistol, and the first offensive ranged weapon I’d found; currently I was armed with the immensely useful but only indirectly threatening GLOO Gun, a wrench, and a supercharged taser. Not seeing any enemies or movement in the room, I go to grab the gun.

The gun turns into a mimic and leaps on my face.

Meanwhile in real life I’ve flung myself back in my chair by a good foot as I frantically start mashing mouse buttons to wrench the damn thing to death, and it’s quickly joined by a second one that had been hiding in the room somewhere. After I catch my breath and get back to inspecting the room, I see that the dead body’s real gun was lying at his feet.

This little anecdote is the best way to describe my experience with Prey so far. Quite frankly, the Typhon species of alien mimics are the most impressive and interesting foes I’ve encountered in a video game in quite some time. You never know how many might be around disguised as even the most innocuous of objects, waiting to strike when you’re not paying attention.

It’s almost a shame that as I’ve progressed through the game, the regular mimic style of enemy has been phased out in favour of larger, more direct threats to my wellbeing. The other species of Typhon are certainly intimidating and terrifying in their own right, especially as they’ve started breaking out the psychic powers. Still, they’re usually more obvious about doing so rather than the earlier subtle approach, and I kind of miss that.

For those not fully in the know, Prey is a first person shooter with a huge focus on exploration and choice, proving very much a throwback to the days of System Shock and the original Deus Ex. The game advertises itself as encouraging you to play your way, and nothing I’ve seen so far has dissuaded that idea. I’ve dabbled in stealth, had full shootouts, used creative applications of GLOO to walls to bypass whole areas, and explored every nook and cranny of this massive interconnected space station as I can. There’s variety in how you play and I truly love it.

Narratively, the game is fascinating too. It starts out in a fairly immersive introduction, but just a couple of minutes in it starts to hugely subvert your expectations and kickstart the plot into high gear very quickly. From there, there’s all sorts of psychological horror and a number of mysteries going on, at which the mysterious and fascinating Typhon species is central. The game is quick to have you feeling extremely uncertain about just what is truly happening, with a lot of possible answers left dangling for you to start climbing towards, only for each new hint coming with more questions.

After about ten hours of play, there are a lot of side plots and details that I still don’t have answers to. It’s not entirely clear which of the characters are in the right, up to and including the player character. Your character, by the way, does have a character, personality, history and all sorts of interesting quirks despite you never speaking or leaving the first person view. The way it does this is really quite interesting, yet once again it’s accomplished in such a way that the full truth of the matter completely eludes me.

Quite frankly, this is a fantastic game. I really want to push ahead and find out what’s going on. I want to see more of the Typhon and wait else they’re going to throw at me or how they’re going to develop. I want answers to my questions. But most importantly, I want off this damn space station, or at least want it burned to ashes with all Typhon in existence on board.

I will just say one thing that I’ve learned about my own play style, however. See, I tend to approach most games with the mentality of wanting to see as much of it as possible in one go. Side quests, optional areas, hidden secrets, bonus conversations with party members… I like to go through as much of it as I can, and Prey has been no exception.

The problem is that I’m usually so adamant on doing as much as I can that I will often start backtracking and checking passages that I didn’t travel down in case it had hidden things. Whether this is RPGs or any other kind of game, I do this a lot. It’s rare that I’m able to hold up that mentality to the end of a long title, however, and usually start pushing towards the game’s end in the last third or quarter of it.

With Prey, there are enough ways to go and approaches to the game that this is honestly starting to feel counterproductive and burning me out. I go over the same areas so much, and while there are little perks and bonuses I get from it, I feel like I’ll end up running out of resources against an increasingly powerful Typhon threat if I carry on like this. It’s been a couple of days since I last played, just because I know throwing myself at the game is exhaustive.

That said, it’s also exhaustive not just from my play style, but also from how tense and curious an experience it is. I do love this game. I will finish it soon, if all goes well. Hopefully I’ll have nothing but good things to say by the end.

Certainly less titles on here this week, but plenty of game time and lots of stuff to say. Witcher 3 still lurks in the back of my mind, so I’m hoping to make time to get back to Geralt’s adventures this week. We shall see how things go. I can’t think of any urgent game releases that I need to leap at either, so I should have time to clear up some backlog space before powering on ahead.

So that’s me for the week. What have you guys been playing?



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