Try-It Tuesday: The Sims 4

No, that’s not my house. My house looks like something you’d see on a “before” part of a home makeover show, where the audience gasps and says things like, “Who could even live in a place like that? Mercy me!”

OK, so I had a jonesing for some Sims action — it had been far, far too long since I played any sort of Sims game apart from my brief (and bugged) foray into the original Sims earlier this year. The Sims 4 had been on my “to play” list for a couple of years now, although I’ve held off because it didn’t get the most glowing of reviews. However, it was on sale for $20 last week and I figured it was high time to check out the latest incarnation of the Sims franchise before Sims 5 is announced.

I used to be such a Sims-head (or whatever they call addicts to this series). Both building houses and watching a life simulator take place are deeply gratifying types of gameplay for me. And, as I found out this weekend, the Sims games are perfect for audience participation.

When I loaded this game up, three of my children ended up congregating around my computer and giving me all sorts of advice about how I should make the characters, what I should put in the house, what I should make them do next, etc. This wasn’t annoying at all, but rather a really fun group activity for us. The kids had so many giggle fits over the different hairstyles, Sims emotes, and activities the Sims could do. And when I created little versions of them, they got even more invested. It was great to bond over video games in this way, I must say.

So what about the game? My first impressions were very positive. I love the look and aesthetic to Sims 4. It’s a little more cartoony than the last installment and has a “softer” feel, but is definitely Sims at its core. There doesn’t seem to be any meters for the characters’ moods, but rather just icons and mood states, which works out well.

Building a new home was mostly intuitive. There’s a lot I have to learn about doing this well, but I got the basics pretty quickly. I liked that there were options to plop down fully-made and -furnished rooms, but I always prefer to start from scratch. What I didn’t like is that you couldn’t start with a blank neighborhood map. It’s my tradition to demolish everything, evict all families, and make everything just mine. This game resisted me on doing that, and that was kind of annoying.

What we all ended up enjoying the best was to watch the characters without interfering. They were like little soap opera stars, all super-emotional and highly emotive, and that connected very strongly with my kids. Of course, they were incredibly meta by wanting to watch whatever the sims were watching on the TV, which made me a little cross-eyed to consider.

As I fiddled about with yet another house design, I found myself really wishing that there was an updated Sims Online that would allow for connections to a huge pool of players instead of just my own characters. I’m crossing my fingers that Maxis adds deeper multiplayer functionality to the next edition of the series, whenever that arrives.

Try-It Tuesday: Warframe

While I almost never see anyone blogging about Warframe, I keep seeing people playing this all over the place, especially in a casual capacity. It seems like it’s been one of those sleeper hits with numbers that some MMOs can only envy from afar, yet it doesn’t get a lot of lip service. I haven’t quite figured out what the deal is, unless it’s being promoted and spread in circles that I am not a part of (magazines? consoles?). Oh well, I can’t have my ear to the ground everywhere, so I’ll accept some mystery.


So Warframe. Very popular, some strong recommendations, purportedly a nice casual title. Sounds good to me, so let’s give it a try!

What I was first struck by is the fact that your character — all player characters, in fact — do not have a face. You’re “born” into the game world as a tenno, some sort of battle-suited warrior who the bad cyborg guys wanted to use but the good guys conspired to release. So I’ve got an omnipresent helmet, a la Master Chief or Tali from Mass Effect, and a feeling like the devs just didn’t want to bother with character customization at all. Hey, your game, your rules.

The first few missions are a sneaky tutorial in disguise, keeping you in the spirit of high adventure as you escape the clutches of this unknown foe and learn how to use your various weapons and powers. Also — POWER SLIDE. I do love the power slide.

I’ll give Warframe this: When it comes to movement and action, this game has it down. You’re jumping, wall-hugging, double-jumping, sliding, crawling, and sprinting all over the place… and it feels very fluid and natural. And my character has a virtual arsenal at his (her?) disposal, including magic attacks, a sword, a pistol, and an assault rifle. I ended up gravitating toward the last, although the sword was fun in close quarters when you wanted to see a lot of blood (and this game is quite bloody, with gibbets flying everywhere).

I wish I could say that I was following the story better, but all I could glean for the first hour or so is that Earth is a battleground and that as a tenno, I’m part of some sort of resistance. At least I had plenty of opportunities to take gorgeous screenshots. I heard that Warframe has a cool freeze-frame option for screenshot taking, although I haven’t investigated that yet.

In no time at all, I ended up on my own little spaceship, orbiting Earth and wondering why I was getting advertisements from the year 2017 on my ship screens. Again, just feeling things out at this point, but it seems like the ship is kind of a single player hub for your various needs before jumping into the next mission.

After running a half-dozen missions, I came to the conclusion that Warframe is a slick, well-made game with gorgeous art and fluid animations — and it isn’t for me at all.

There was a point in my life that I was much more into run-and-gun games, but these days I would much rather walk than sprint/slide/roll through levels. I want to check out every nook and cranny. I want to think through my fights instead of frantically whirling about my mouse to try to locate who is shooting me and respond in kind. And if I desire a semi-mindless clicker with lots of mobs and loot explosions, well, the Diablo clone army is more than enough for me.

Try-It Tuesday: Love You to Bits

Every so often, I break out of my gaming routine to try something new and different. These turn into my Try-It Tuesday sessions, and they are a mixed bag indeed!

Space Boy meets Robot Girl. Robot Girl is a fugitive, but Space Boy doesn’t care. The two fall in love and go on adventures together. One day, Robot Girl is blown up in a starship explosion. Space Boy becomes determined to find and assemble all of her parts, because love will find a way. It might be a strange, challenging adventure, but Space Boy is going to see it through.

I have nothing but high admiration for Alike Studios and their library so far: Tiny Thief and Love You to Bits. Both games offer much of the same experience, being adventure puzzlers with lots of charm and accessibility.

The simple story that drives Love You to Bits — a boy trying to rescue his “princess” — is downright heartwarming and more complex than at first glance. Love You to Bits is a dialogue-free game, preferring to tell stories through simple speechless cutscenes and environmental details. And boy does it work: This game is an absolute masterpiece in its field and a true joy to play.

Each stage of this game takes place on a different planet as the boy tries to secure another one of Nova’s (that’s the robot girl) parts. There are also optional items to grab that can trigger black and white cutscenes that show some of the couple’s past moments together. In fact, getting to know the bond that connects the two as you play the game adds to the motivation to see them restored in the end.

The planets are a bizarre mix of puzzles and settings, each one vastly different than the last. Some play with time, some with seasons, some with gravity, and so on. You never know what you’re going to get, but the process remains more or less the same: Explore, find interactive items and objects, and experiment with unlocking a path to the robot part. One stage had me finding three little critters playing hide-and-go seek and returning them to their alien mother, while another kept allowing me to rewind time in certain areas to show “before” scenes. There was an alien bar that paid homage to Star Wars, a quantum library that only showed rooms that were directly adjacent to you, a comic book-style dungeon romp, and so on.

The challenge level for these stages seems perfect. It’s never tear-your-hair-out frustrating, but you do have to keep poking around and backtracking to try to uncover secrets and figure out what needs to be used where. The boy’s inventory is usually kept small and light, only filling up with one or two items at any given time. I think I might have had three once. The game’s also like a memory challenge, since you have to keep track of what does what when you first fiddle with them, so that you can come back later when you find certain parts or make changes elsewhere. On average, I would clear a screen every 10-15 minutes, and there are several of them (the devs recently finished the game by releasing the final set of levels and completing the story).

More than the puzzles themselves is the art and animation. Again, without dialogue, Love You to Bits conveys so much in every level. The characters can be laugh-out-loud funny and make themselves understood with simple gestures. The fact that you can’t get stuck or die makes exploring and experimenting a relaxing experience. By the end of each stage, I’m usually a little sorry I have to leave, because the locales are so cute and interesting. But then, I want to see what lies ahead.

Anyway, I’m diligently working to complete this game in my spare time, and thought it deserved a mention in this series. Definitely check it out for a polished, intuitive puzzle experience!

Try-It Tuesday: Kingdom of Loot

Every so often, a little title comes across our desk at Massively OP that I flag as something to keep an eye on. MMOs with potential, so to speak. The other week it happened to be Kingdom of Loot, which belied its trying-too-hard-to-be-meta name with an intriguing premise: What if MMOs had been made for the Super NES?

The graphics and reported accessibility appealed to me, so for the return of Try-It Tuesday, I gave it a shot to see how it’s doing in its current (early access) form.

There’s definitely a strong SNES vibe with this one, both in its graphics and with the title theme, which sounds about three notes off from Legend of Zelda. I know pixel art isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I still love it (it’s colorful and exudes personality, not to mention has a connection to my gaming past), and I think they did a really great job here.

Right now there are only five classes available with, by my count, 12 more on the way. I went with an Archer because nothing else that could be played looked super-exciting. As of right now, at least, there are no ways to visually customize your character, so every archer is going to be a blonde girl and that’s that.

Without any introduction, the game shoves a basic tutorial screen at you and then leaves you to make your own way. It starts off in a cute little fantasy town that looks like it would be at home in some old-school adventure game. There are a few expected vendors, banks, etc., and a quest board that was… not functional at the time of play. Oh well, guess I’ll head out and just see what there is to see.

 

One design option that I really liked is how most of the UI is hidden off to the top, left, right, and bottom of the screen, leaving the game clean unless you needed something. At level one, there wasn’t much to see — no skills, basic gear, standard settings, some chat and party options (this being an MMO and all).

Transitions between zones and the overworld have a 3.5″ floppy saving/loading icon, which amused me.

I think the absolute best thing Kingdom of Loot has going for it right now are some really, really well-done graphics. They’re animated (those clouds float across the screen) and the world looks very accessible and attractive. It’s a little like Chrono Trigger, just in a better resolution.

Figuring out something to do without any quests left me wandering into the nearby forest and plinking away at level one plants for a while. This game is Diablo-esque in its makeup, which means click to move, click to attack, and presumably uses number keys for special attacks (I didn’t get any in the first two levels). Loot explodes out of creatures and that’s pretty much it.

Here’s the thing with Diablo clones: If you’re going that route, you have to have extremely tight and responsive controls. The combat has to FEEL great… and Kingdom of Loot only feels adequate. I’m not attacking as quickly as I’m clicking, movement felt a little mushy, and it’s confusing as all get out what loot is mine to get and what is for other players (plus, the game sometimes but not always picks up loot when you walk over it, so I was clicking on each piece of loot/gold to make sure).

In summary, it is a cute game but it feels like there’s just a shell here that needs a lot more work, polish, and content.

OK, a little post-script rant about early access. This screen right here is one of the big problems with early access. It’s not just a deflection of criticism saying that “remember, it’s still in early access!” but it’s also a celebration of the state of the game, like early access is now seen as some type of gaming genre and is something other than a glorified alpha (or pre-alpha) test. I can’t tell you how much it bugs me when studios announce a “launch” of a game into early access, because there’s no launch about it. It’s doublespeak for a modern development age that tries to elevate these tests as actual games and then excuses itself from any complaints because, “remember this is still early access! teehee look at our cute graphic!”

Try-It Tuesday: ARK Survival Evolved

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Try-It Tuesdays is a (semi) regular weekly feature in which I take a break from my current roster of games to play something new (to me) for an evening. You can check out past Try-It Tuesday adventures here or submit a suggestion for a future title in the comments!

“I’m being attacked by a dinosaur… and I just pooped myself.”

So sayeth the Chronicles of Syp: ARK Newbie. For this week’s exploration into a new game, I went with a title that I had been eyeing for a while and which was gifted to me by a friend over Christmas. ARK: Survival Evolved is this stupid-popular dino sandbox that everyone seems to be playing, so why not me?

I’ve never been one for survival games, for various small and petty reasons. Oh, I get them and I do objectively approve of the format. But there’s something about the actual gameplay that takes a good long while to click. Maybe it’s the personal server format, as I’d much prefer an official MMO shard than a huge list of a bazillion options.

Anyway, let’s get going in ARK!

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I had a remarkably tough time getting the game up and running properly. Lots of latency and lag, so I spent a half-hour updating drivers, tweaking settings, and trying to figure out how best to take pictures. Fraps caused no end of crashes, so in the end I went with a windowed mode.

I went totally blind into ARK to see how intuitively I could pick it up. It wasn’t too tough, once I figured out that punching would get me tree stuff, E would get me ground stuff, and dodos were a vastly higher level than myself.

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I logged onto MJ’s MOP server, although I think I was alone at the time. She has this huge fortress set up as a sort of dino pen, with dozens of different types of dinos just waiting patiently in rows to be ridden. Naturally and inexplicably, there was a T-Rex with glasses. I think I’m going to need an explanation on this one.

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Another of the pesky things that I don’t like about survival games is how quickly you start going downhill at the start, since you’re naked and defenseless and all. The game was barking at me that I was too cold… then too hot… then really thirsty… then I kept fainting for no reason that I could understand. I started scarfing down all the berries I could find, since those are good two-for-one food/water options, but it didn’t seem to do much good.

By this time, my kids had awoken from their naps and crowded around the computer, providing both an audience and color commentary for my adventures. I truly wish I had recorded some of their quotes, because their exasperation and observations were occasionally flat-out hilarious. Pretty much, they wanted me to punch everything to see what would happen (spoiler: I would end up getting eaten).

We made it a priority to figure out how to craft clothes, which required fiber — that had to be itchy. After a while, we made a shirt and pants, which had us standing up and bellowing, “WE MADE PANTS! PAAAAAANTS!” while my wife took video for future blackmail. I don’t care, woman. I made PANTS.

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As I said, I didn’t encounter anyone playing, but I did find this lady who was apparently part of the foundation of a small fort. Briefly, I contemplated cannibalism — its necessity in a harsh survival situation, the morality of consuming flesh of another — and then saw my kids were there and that I probably couldn’t eat her anyway.

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Up a hill, we found this decked-out dino who, according to the descriptive text, belonged to another player. I stole it (thanks E button!) because if I get a chance to dinojack, I’m going to dinojack.

Unfortunately, this was the slowest stinking dinosaur ever born, because all it would do was plod slowly through the bushes. I couldn’t stand it after a while and abandoned it, and with it, my dreams as a dino wrangler.

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Then we transitioned into the part of our session that would later be called “The 101 deaths of Daddy.” Daddy was bitten, chomped, squeezed, and poisoned by more hostile wildlife than he could recall. One of the more bizarre moments was when we were wading through waist-high water and then a trio of 75-foot-tall dinos suddenly lurched out of the water and one-shotted me. It happened so fast and so unexpectedly that there was no time for a screenshot. Instead, here’s a picture of a megapiranha, a fish that is surprisingly meek when being punched in its face by a mostly naked stranger.

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We wanted to go to what I was calling the “giant green nightlight” that dominated the skyline, but between the beach and the inner island was a valley full of all sorts of nasty critters, including titanboas. Titanboas have a diet that is Syp-based.

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We made a few runs for it but couldn’t quite make it before being dino chow. I guess you’re supposed to stay on the beach until you’re a road warrior.

See, this is what happens when I play sandboxes like this. I know you’re supposed to buckle down and forage, craft, and survive. Me? I just view it as a box of amusements and little tales. I should buckle down and learn it properly, and maybe one day I will. Until then, we’ll always have that time that I was being chased and attacked by a dinosaur while pooping in fear.

Try-It Tuesday: Asheron’s Call

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Try-It Tuesdays is a (semi) regular weekly feature in which I take a break from my current roster of games to play something new (to me) for an evening. You can check out past Try-It Tuesday adventures here or submit a suggestion for a future title in the comments!

It’s 2017, and I am playing Asheron’s Call, an MMO from 1999, for the very first time. And, considering that it’s due to be shut down at the end of the month, this will likely be my last time in it too.

Reader Joneseh sent me a tweet a couple of weeks back offering me the use of his account to check out Asheron’s Call while it was still up and running (something I could not do on my own, since you can’t make a new AC account these days). It’s always been on my MMO bucket list to check out — and if not now, then never. So I carved out an evening and went exploring in this member of the class of first-generation 3D graphical MMOs.

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Right from the get-go, you can tell that Asheron’s Call is a different sort of fantasy MMO. For starters, look at its racial options here. There’s a clear lack of boring fantasy tropes and a whole lot of alien weirdness. I went as weird as I could and chose an Olthoi Soldier, because who WOULDN’T want to play a giant bug?

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As much fun as it was chittering around (my son got a kick out of seeing me be a bug), I had no idea what I was doing and soon got natural selection’d by a bunch of bigger insects. Serves me right for choosing an “advanced” class. Time to reroll something a bit more basic!

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This time I went with an Umbraden, which were notable for their completely black skin and absence of legs. Instead, my character just has a cloud for buttocks, genitals, and lower limbs, which is another oddity in my MMO experience.

AC doesn’t have classes, as its a free-form skill-building MMO, but you can choose a set template to get started. I went with a Bow Hunter, because I figured winging things with a crossbow sounded simple and satisfying. I was kind of right in this regard.

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From there, I went into a proper tutorial zone, completely with much-needed walkthroughs of the game’s various systems and controls. I’d say that a bulk of the stress that comes with picking up and trying to play a classic MMO for the first time in a modern era is trying to figure out how everything works, as none of these games followed the same sort of control scheme that most MMOs we know today typically do.

About half of the keys and controls functioned as I would’ve expected, although I didn’t quite have mastery over the camera as I would’ve liked, and having to click on an icon to enter combat mode and then clicking to select a type of attack was kind of off-putting. Slow, too. And it made me wonder if characters ever got special skills or if this was a game of auto-attacking and little else when it comes to non-magical combat.

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“You see, we have ways of making NPCs talk. Mostly by threatening them with a crossbow bolt to the head.”

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Sometimes the game threw rainbow fireworks shows for my entertainment. I think this was when I accomplished something or ate a unicorn.

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By the end of the tutorial, I was starting to get a feel for Asheron’s Call. Zipping through an insect hive, I was taking out bugs left and right while searching for the one that had this protection orb I needed.

One thing I noticed that’s different about AC is that there’s absolutely no music. It’s sound design isn’t too shabby, although in the absence of any other noise, the periodic sound effects can be startling.

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Eventually I graduated the tutorial and entered the world proper. At no point did I encounter any other players or see any in chat, so it felt kind of lonely. Still, there was a huge landmass to explore and I had nothing keeping me bound to any particular area. Let’s go on a road trip!

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This was a neat find: a playable in-game chess set using monster models for pieces. Alas, there was no one around to play with.

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Asheron’s Call has remarkably crude graphics and has aged a lot worse than EverQuest (which has gotten graphic upgrades over the years) and Ultima Online (which always kind of looked great due to its isometric sprites). Yet I found myself kind of charmed by them. I think it’s because they are very colorful, that this isn’t a dull fantasy setting, and that this world invites exploration. Even with all of the fixtures popping into existence, I kept wanting to see what was over the next hill.

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I encountered this “reformed bandit” who politely shooed me away as he was expecting company. What was THAT about? I wanted to know more of his story!

And when I went in his house, suddenly I started hearing these thundering footsteps like a stampede rushing at me… but there was nothing in or outside that I could see. Weird.

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The further afield I got, the weirder and more aggressive the creatures became. Here I am, going about my own business, being karate-kicked by a furry and chomped on by a floating doll mask. Excuse me, a virtuous doll mask.

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In Asheron’s Call, 10 rats kill you!

After being slaughtered by very aggressive rodents, I felt like my visit to this game was at an end. Fare thee well, Asheron’s Call. You seemed kind of odd and interesting, and I regret not having played you back 2001 when I picked up a copy of you in Media Play and contemplated entering the MMO scene. At least I can see why I like Project Gorgon so much, since it has this same spirit of exploration and mix-and-match character building to it.

Try It Tuesday: Virginia

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In a nice little coincidence, I played another adventure game/walking simulator this weekend after last week’s Gone Home (thank the Steam winter sale for that): Virginia. Heard some good things and was in the mood for a juicy bit of video game storytelling, so for five bucks, why not?

I was thrown for a bit of a loop when Virginia ended up being far different than I had anticipated. It’s only marginally an adventure game and closer in truth to an interactive movie in which your character follows a very linear story while you trigger the next sequence by finding whatever clicky is in the room. That’s it for gameplay; there’s no puzzles, no freeform exploration, and strangest of all, no dialogue.

That’s right — in a creepy mystery adventure game involving the FBI, a cult conspiracy, and ghosts from the past, there’s absolutely no dialogue whatsoever. There’s not even mouseover descriptions or inner monlogue. Even the sounds are muted save for the rather excellent but blaring soundtrack.

Instead, you play the game forced to pick up story cues from the environments, body language, and the very occasional printed reports you’re handed. It’s like playing a silent movie, and in a way, it works. It feels weird and isolating, but also rewarding to pick up on details enough to figure out a piece of the overall story.

Virginia is about a rookie FBI agent who is partnered up with an ostracized member of the agency and told to find a missing kid in a nearby town of Kingdom. Your character is given a secondary objective, which is to investigate your new partner for… something to bring her down. You would think that there would be a lot of investigation and clue solving, but that’s mostly a red herring for the real stories, which have to do with your past and your partner’s past.

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As short and captivating as Virginia initially is, it also fails as both a game and a story. Abrupt cuts to new scenes are very common, constantly prompting you to reorient yourself to what’s going on (and to make things worse, half of them are dream sequences). It just keeps jumping all around the place, with the investigation taking more and more of a back seat to whatever baggage these characters are carrying.

There’s only so much story you can tell without dialogue, and one can’t help but think that this would have been a much deeper and much more interesting game if people spoke. Instead, Virginia is limited in what it can tell, and it decides to invest heavily into symbolism and esoteric sequences that can be interpreted just about any way you like.

Another issue I have with it is the rather abrupt shift in focus from the first two-thirds of the game, which mostly focus on very human issues, such as loss, racial prejudice, integrity/corruption, and friendship — and the last third, during which Virginia starts revving up the David Lynch weird-o-meter by throwing cults and UFOs and increasingly bizarre symbols at you. It’s frustrating that the game sort of hints that there is this big conspiracy in the town, yet it’s never explained, explored in any depth, or really impacts you. It’s just a garnish. And it’s actually not needed. I was far more interested in the backstories of these two women, their struggle as minorities in the ’90s FBI, their losses, and secret investigations. I wanted more of that, more of the partnership, more of the investigation, more character development. Ain’t nobody asking for ten solid minutes of dream sequences that deals with none of that (or does it? Dreams can be anyyyyything!).

The ending is a weird hodgepodge of nonsense, and I can say that with certainty because I’ve been reading up on interpretations of it, and just about nobody can agree on what this story is really about or what the finale is saying. You can all but imagine the game developers rocking back and forth in glee at how players will find themselves mystified and in awe at all of these red herrings and unanswered questions. “It’s such a great game!” this strawman gamer exclaims. “I have no idea what it means!”

It’s really, honestly, this:

Symbolism and mystery and some unanswered questions are fine in moderation, but when a storyteller figures out that if you just slather enough of this all over the place you don’t have to explain anything, then I get seriously annoyed. You can’t figure it out! It must be oh-so-deep and profound! Don’t be visibly confused or else you’ll look stupid when others talk to you about the game!

Like Gone Home, I don’t regret playing through this, but also like Gone Home, I was left majorly wanting. The part of the story I could grok was certainly fascinating enough that it could have been a great tale if told straight in the end. Instead we get murdered bison, UFOs, shattered masks, and roaring furnaces, all trying to outdo each other in inscrutability. Thanks but no thanks.