Tuesday, December 30, 2014

One Year Update

This marks one year since I started putting my thoughts into words and posting them online. In that time I have posted fourteen pieces on different topics that interest me. Originally, when I started this, my goal was to post once a month for an entire year, just to see if I could do it. I honestly did not think it would be possible to do so. Apparently, it was.

As it turns out, I really enjoy writing. I have a bizarre, specific set of interests, and I develop strange opinions about these interests. Although I don’t spend a lot of time (read: any) editing my work, that does not mean they are any less important to me. I feel like anyone reading these can get a better inside look at who I am.

I said in a previous post that I would write about things that interested me. Until now, that’s included mainly music, sports, and video games. Not the most academic of pursuits, to be sure, but still a lot of fun to write. So, a year later, I hope I have been able to share some of my interests with you, even if they are over things you might not care much about. Essentially, I want my writing to be fun for both me and you. And it’s certainly been fun for me.

Now, the goal will be to keep writing once a month, for as long as I can. Maybe more often, if possible, though I doubt I’ll be able to make it another full year. If I do go another year, that would be great! I imagine the topics will be very much the same as what they have been. I’ve already got some ideas going and some pieces started. And I have my magnum opus already written, but I’m saving that for last.

If you like what you have read so far, I seriously cannot thank you enough for reading them. It means so much to me to hear your comments and critiques. Please continue to read and let me know what you think! Feel free to share my writing with anyone else you think might enjoy them. Thank you.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Destiny and Fate: The Future of a Franchise

Destiny is a weird game. If possible, the months leading up to its release made it an even weirder one. And it really shouldn’t be. There is nothing so dramatically groundbreaking in Destiny to garner the response it has received. But I think this is what makes it so weird: its adherence to traditional games makes it so non-spectacular compared to the massive amount of anticipation that it originally held. That said, it was a fully competent game, and I had a lot of fun playing it.

The expectations leading up to this game were incomparable. For many people, Destiny was a viable reason to step into the new console generation and purchase a shiny, new Playstation 4 or Xbox One. The reputation as a system-seller was bolstered by the incredible marketing scheme. With a television ad that read something along the lines of: “From the creators of Halo and the team that brought you Call of Duty…” how can a game go wrong? The appeal was there, and everyone seemed excited. When it came out, though, the enthusiasm evaporated like a popped balloon.

This seems due, in part, to the fact that because the game was so anticipated, it simply could not match the hype. Common complaints were that it was not the game consumers were promised. This is a bit unfair, as no one had a very clear grasp about what the game was before its release. This is akin to reading a synopsis and watching a trailer and comparing about the direction of a film. A second complaint was that the game was too repetitive, that the overall content was lacking. This is a little more fair; no one wants to do the same things over and over again. The final complaint is that the game does not really take off until after the main points of the story are finished. This is very fair. Destiny is not the kind of game where a large amount of time needs to be dedicated to truly get the game. It is a game where the player shoots a lot of aliens.

Not to be swayed by the negative critiques, I was still very interested in trying it out. I should first make three very important points to bear in mind which likely affected my experience with the game. First, I played the game on an Xbox 360, an obsolete piece of equipment barely worth a dime. (Just kidding, I still use my 360 a lot and plan to get a few more years out of it.) But it does make me much less qualified to mention how great it looked. Second, I rented the game. I know what you’re thinking: here it is, 2014, and he’s renting games and playing them on outdated consoles. Whatever. I rent a lot of games these days because I’d rather pay $7 than $60. But having a game for only three days does rush the experience and force me to get to the end a lot quicker than I probably would like. Finally, because my time was limited, I never once took the game online to play with or against other users. I payed my $7 to see the campaign, and I was happy with that. That said, I know I missed a quite a bit of content that I will probably never see.

What expectations I had for the actual gameplay, I’m slightly ashamed to admit, I got from the trailer. Reductively, it looked like a fair mix of Halo and Call of Duty. Since Halo is a personal favorite, I was prepared for this type of combat. I was not disappointed; the gameplay was quite fun, as I could only hope from the experienced Bungie team. I had a great time traversing the map and taking out aliens. Getting around a large map was not a hassle, as easy as hopping on a vehicle and driving1. And I should mention that the views were absolutely gorgeous (on my Xbox 360).

Prior to release, a highly emphasized feature of the game was the diversity of the equipment that could be picked up by the player to use. This came across well. While they included possibly too much equipment, it was exciting to pick up a new and better weapon and have to learn how to use it. This learning of new equipment forces the player to be adaptive. Furthermore, characters are continually progressing to a higher level where, obviously, they are better prepared to combat tougher enemies. All of this customization and player growth took a different approach to a modern first person shooter like infusing a bit of Borderlands. This sense of progress was rewarding.

I also found the main mission design to be well made. Following objectives, the player runs through several locations before arriving at a final battle against a large enemy (or large group of enemies). What made the levels great, though, was a feeling of tension not often achieved in an FPS. Hitting the final battle gives a sense of no-turning-back in each level. Playing by myself, there were times when I needed to slow down and work through waves of enemies. Being impossible to rush through made the game feel much more skill based, and finishing a level often brought a sigh of relief.

As I said, I did not even have online access to the game when I started. I did not have the time to invest in getting good at playing against other players, and I just wanted to see the main game anyway. So you can imagine my surprise when I entered the world to find dozens of other players running around with me. I thought something was wrong, but it turned out non-online users could still work together on certain missions, a point that was not made clear to me when I started. As it turned out, this lead to some of the better moments in between missions. Randomly throughout the level, events would emerge that would have to be completed by a group of people: defend this place, take down that enemy. These pseudo-online moments gave me a pleasant reminder of working cooperatively with friends back in school.

While the gameplay was quite good and I had a lot of fun running through the missions, Destiny was certainly not without complaints. For one, the missions, which I commended earlier, were ultimately forgettable. In the moment, they were great; but taken as a whole, they failed to make a satisfying arc. There was a break after each mission, so that there was never a sense of ongoing progress. The missions only linked by their locations. After each mission, the player is given the option to select a new planet or game-type to play. Each mission! Or the player can go back to another world, watch a video cutscene, or replay an old level without knowing if it’s already been completed. While I realize this is to give the option of going out to attain higher levels and be better prepared, jumping back out into space each time completely destroyed the continuity2.

Again, the biggest complaint about the game was that there were not enough new locations to visit. As a result, this did make for some repetitive scenarios. Basically, there were four different locations to explore, three planets and one moon. Divided among ten hours, these four places grow a little stale. The transition to a new planet is certainly a breath of fresh air. Furthermore, if you are in need of some quick powering up, one way to do so is by completing inane extra missions about hunting aliens, collecting materials, or just standing in one area for a few seconds. When these are interspaced with the main missions at each place, it begins to feel like you are doing the same things over and over again, regardless of the change in scenery (which is pretty, on my Xbox 360). All of these side steps supposedly benefit the ongoing story, but they never seemed to ultimately lead to anything substantial.

Not that I think a continuous narrative would have fixed the problem completely. The story was convoluted, yet empty of much meaning. Not for lack of trying, I could not really follow what was going on, and so I did not really care what was happening. Part of what made Halo so great is that the enemies were clearly defined and there was an overarching goal at the end. Not so in Destiny, at least as far as I could tell. Enemies were bland and the goal was unclear. I was surprised to have even finished the game when an option (an option!) to view the credits came on screen after the final mission. From what I’ve read of the story online after finishing the game, it sounds like it will be dealt with better, ahem, in the sequels. One of the cutscenes near the end heavily implied the emergence of a grander villain.

For better or for worse, I found myself wondering if the Destiny franchise is going to be like Assassin’s Creed. The first game in the Assassin’s series was released in 2007 to high hopes for something new. While the game was impressive, people soon complained that the gameplay was repetitive, and that missions or areas were not different enough to be engaging. Looking back now, it is remembered as a fairly weak entry in the series. It was, however, the launchpad for a now-annualized series that certainly has its ups (the excellent Brotherhood) and downs (III). What if Destiny turns out to be the same thing? I, for one, enjoyed the first Assassin’s Creed, but I found the later ones to be much improved. It has already been confirmed that we should expect a decade from this franchise; is it wrong to hope that Bungie will learn from the flaws of Destiny so that 2 and 3 will be something great?

In the end, I really enjoyed my ten or so hours with Destiny. Of course, it is not without its faults, but that happens. It probably did not sell as many new consoles as the developers envisioned. But taken separately from all the superfluous space travel and lackluster story, the gameplay was just fun and the vistas looked amazing (on my Xbox 360). Looking at all of the gameplay options in between levels made me think that maybe this first entry in the series was just trying to do too much. For something with a name like Destiny, we will have to see what the future holds for the franchise.

1 Driving is something that is difficult to pull enough in an otherwise decent video game, apparently. It’s fine in Destiny.
2 Also, jumping out into space made for some long loading movies that looked cool but were tiring after the first dozen.