Wednesday, March 29, 2017

VR Games and Murder - Should It Be Illegal?

Thought crimes. If your mind went to the Tom Cruz movie 'Minority Report' well you're not far from what this writer is suggesting. Angela Buckingham, is raising a stir among gaming theorists with an opinion piece she has published, stating that murder in virtual reality should be made illegal.

A number of gamers and non-gamers have since commented on the article in the defense of games. Even ex-military and current safety officials remark that games, even in VR are harmless. Most people will not kill on command. The declining murder rates world-wide are proof of this, which even Buckingham referenced in her opinion. Not to mention, the accuracy of video games, including VR, with how to hold a weapon and use it are completely wrong. You don't tap the R1 trigger to fire ammo, or hit R to reload. The weight of a real weapon is something that has not been replicated in a game. Even in VR where you have the ability to act our your movements, you are still tethered to a headset and 2 controllers where buttons are used to walk and use objects.

By paragraph five, Buckingham loses her credibility when she cites an article about video games and aggression that is currently undergoing a peer review for invalid facts/results. And while her intro is meant to soften the blow, stating that she's been in the film industry for 20 years and that "this is not the argument of a killjoy," a quick Google search shows that her history is a bit muddled. She has 5 television and movie credits to her name, with only 1 of them as director and writer, another writing credit, and the other 3 as miscellaneous crew members. The bulk of her work is in theater, which is on the opposite spectrum of film, television, and video games. Not to discredit Buckingham, but it's difficult to take your words seriously when you state you have nearly 20 years of film experience, and it amounts to 5 films, 2 being documentaries, and a load of space between each project. That's not the work-load of someone who is actively in the industry. Everyone is allowed an opinion, but I'd see Buckingham as more of a playwright, and not a filmmaker. Her viewpoints on media violence may be skewed because of it.

Unfortunately the opinion piece continues to go down from there, focusing on articles and studies of how people reacted to disembodied avatars - somehow having longer arms and taller frames makes it okay to murder in a game? I don't really know how she's connecting the thread with this one. The only clear point I can see is that doing things in VR is akin to doing it in reality, and by giving people the tools to kill in VR they will want to do it in reality.

Let's think about this logically for a moment. Assume that "thought crimes" is a legitimate concern for VR; do games allow you to murder? I would argue that no, they do not within reason. When you have to kill another avatar in a virtual world, there is typically a reason behind it. Generally it's self-defense (Mass Effect: Andromeda does this quite well when meeting new species of sentient beings) or you are part of a larger war scenario with an "us vs them" mentality. There are games like Party Hard and Manhunt that do focus on murder as the primary actions of the Player Character. With Party Hard the pixilated rendition is so goofy that it, in no way, can be taken seriously. Manhunt has you playing as the murderer, but it's to save your life. And in theory you are killing people that deserve it. But the way Rockstar approached the subject was delicate - you felt horrified by the game that gamers, in no way, would want to repeat the actions in reality.

Murder as defined by Webster is "the killing of another human being under conditions specifically covered in law. In the U.S., special statutory definitions include murder committed with malice aforethought, characterized by deliberation or premeditation or occurring during the commission of another serious crime[.]" There is intent behind the action that is sadistic. With video games, killing an avatar/NPC comes with a reason that doesn't border on murder. It's usually with a just cause and gamers are aware of this. You don't see them turning around in the real world, killing people senselessly. We're smart enough to separate fantasy from reality. Even with the emerging immersion of VR, we get the difference.

We also have to ask the question of do these thought crimes lie with the gamer or with the developers? Because the people who made the games are allowing us the ability to live out these fantasy worlds. Wouldn't they be just as fault for creating such a product as we, the gamers, who think about playing them?

It's entering a realm of legalities and censorship that we haven't reached. Yet. Just because you think a bad thought doesn't mean you are going to act on it. How many people have wanted their bosses or co-workers to have car trouble so they don't have to deal with them at work the next day? Does it mean they are going to cause the trouble by slashing tires and filling the gas tank with sugar? Most likely not. Imagining some things can help ease stress in this frantic world. It in no way makes them a bad person, until they act on it.

We can't make laws for the 1% or less of the world population that may do something bad with video games. Not without it affecting the other 99% who are being decent human beings. Policing VR games would be another step to a 'Minority Report' landscape. I don't know about you, but I don't want Tom Cruz to show up at my door to arrest me for thinking about aiming arrows at non-existent, hostile robots in Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Farmers, Don't Cross Nintendo

The internet is a weird and wonderful place.

Billings Farm and Museum, based in Vermont, has a problem with the Nintendo Switch. A particular mini-game in the 1-2 Switch line-up is called "Milk" they claim is too easy and doesn't accurately represent how challenging it is to milk a cow. Well...no duh. It's a video game. If real udders were involved, there might be some questions in the Nintendo board room. In "Milk" two players must battle against each other to fill up as many bottles of milk as they can in 30 seconds.

The farm called out Nintendo on social media, and invited the company out to their farm to see how milking is really done. Within minutes the company fired back with a "challenge accepted" and plan to send out a team over the next week. Maybe they will have a trade off with the farmers - Nintendo employees will milk the real cows while the farmers race to milk the fake ones.

I'm not sure what Billing Farm was trying to accomplish. It's not like they were up in arms over how farming is portrayed in Stardew Valley, or the mini-gardening game on the Nintendo DS. But they got a lot of attention in a very short amount of time. Sometimes it just takes that one hit on the lightning rod to strike. And hey, maybe it'll get some more kids interested in farming now that the two have a social media "friendly" war going on.

This is the internet, people. Enjoy.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda Review Update

A few people have messaged me over the past week through Facebook and Twitter to ask when I'll have my Mass Effect: Andromeda review up.

First off, yea! Thank for reading. Appreciate the notes and feel free to join in on the discussions with each daily post.

Second, if you have been keeping up with my reviews, you'll notice that I like to try and play most, if not all of a game, before I write out my thoughts. It would be unfair to the game and the developers if I wrote a review after 2 hours of play. Opinions can shift over time. When you have a game like Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, or Skyrim that can easily take over 40 hours to complete, you want to give it the attention it deserves to make a fair assessment.

That's a long way of saying it'll be at least another week. I want to give the game due-diligence before writing up a review. And seeing how a number of people are back-lashing against the title for it's graphics without having played the game (or playing so little of it with low-end computers that can't utilize the full power of the game's graphics), I don't want to be lumped into that crowd. I want my review to stand out as something definitive and comprehensive.

In the mean-time, here is a little taste of my thoughts so far. After almost 10 hours of game play, 2 priority missions and 35 side-quests completed, I'm finding myself more absorbed into the galaxy than I had expected. The beginning is meh; kind of a throw-away for a handful of minutes. Honestly, you might feel a bit lost if you haven't gone through BioWare's 'Andromeda Initiative' website. I think if they had done that cheesy "join us!" message from the site and implemented it into the opening sequence it would have cemented the tone of the game.

I'm also surprised that I'm enjoying the exploration aspect. Me. The person who HATED doing this in the first game. It helps that the areas are more manageable in scale, and the worlds all feel lived in. The Nomad, your new land rover, isn't so bad either. At least it doesn't drive like a drunk freight train on steroids.

For the naysayers about the graphics, they really aren't as bad as people have made them out to be. The environments are stunning. My Twitter feed was once filled with robo-dinosaurs from Horizon: Zero Dawn, is now nothing but cool space photos.

Yes, there are some goofy side-glances and odd facial animations, but those are minor. It just takes one glitch, or someone hitting the screen shot button at the wrong time to make a derp face happen - we have all seen it. I think a lot of this has to do with the character's eyes. For the humans and Asari, the eyes are extra glassy this game. They feel too artificial and perfect that they become the focal point of the faces. And they are the wrong focal point when most of the animation problems lay with the eyes. Which is weird because the other alien races look great; better then they did in ME3. This is the same problem I have with Horizon. So much emphasis is on "realism" that some parts become unreal and detract from the animations.

That's all I've got for now, but I'm surprised that I'm enjoying this game. I didn't think I would based on the tone and the direction teased by the developers. But it's delivering on the promises and more then I expected.


Be prepared for oh-so-many space photos in the review. I'm in love with the transition scenes and smack that screen share button all too often.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Weekly Link Round Up

Dudes, it has not been my week. I've barely had time to game. Work has taken over all of my time. NieR has fallen off the radar along with Horizon. I've spent a grand total of 1 hour and 34 minutes with Mass Effect: Andromeda, and most of that was character creator. The other part was tweaking my graphic settings to my preferences.

That's it!

I have no life. I have given it to the corporate machine.

Zombie mode. Need brains.

This seems like a day for a Weekly Link Round Up. All of the best, worst, and weirdest gaming news on the internet:

- Want to earn free Razer gear? I know that sounds like a scam opening, but this is legitimate. The company has released a program called zVault, where you can put your gaming hours into real gear from Razer. It's a pretty straight forward process. You have to download their program, create an account, and log in to launch and play one of the 5 games currently on the list: Overwatch, DOTA2, League of Legends, CS:Go, and Paladins. The hours your play translate into points that can be used to gain mice, headsets, backpacks, and discount coupons for the Razer store. While Razer says they won't sell your info or your stats to third parties, it doesn't sit well with me that another company would know my gaming habits. I get enough crap from Origin and Steam. I don't need another business on my back to prompt me to spend money.

- GameStop shares fell again after another quarter of lower then expected earnings. As the company continues to push to more retail markets, it's difficult to determine what they are doing these days to keep customers interested. And I'm not saying that as a former employee. I'm saying that as a consumer. Their digital games platform has fallen flat (and to be honest it's always been flat). Their new store layouts haven't enticed people - it still follows the flow of business where they expect people to walk in, get what they want, and leave. There isn't much encouragement from the company or the stores to let people browse, try out games, and create connections with other gamers and the employees. The CEO has announced that it will no longer release quarterly reports (which is never a good sign from a large company), instead opting for yearly. They are going to be closing 150 stores to reduce their "global footprint" (read that as: make cutbacks). As more people move online for their gaming content, GameStop needs to rethink their strategies or they will continue to see declining sales.

- WhatCulture is always an enjoyable break from the mundane. Today they have gifted us with a list of the 10 Most Annoying People You'll Meet Playing Online Games. So...everyone? *Bazing!* My biggest annoyance are the people who take the game so seriously that they stop having fun with it. If this were a tournament for a million dollars, okay. I understand wanting to be focused on the game. But a random Overwatch Quick match? Who gives a flip. We're all chilling out and having fun. So don't be that dick that randomly quits mid-game because the team isn't winning this very moment. And don't cuss out others who are first time players. They will learn and get better. Just gotta chill and have fun!

- There are some pretty cool things going on in the tech behind video games to allow those with disabilities to join in. Meet Steve Saylor. He's legally blind, but with newer games and consoles like the Nintendo Switch, he's able to play games with friends and family. Larger text and outlined fonts in neutral colors, touch pads, oversized icons all help enhance the experience for Saylor without detracting from the game play. Read through the article when you have a moment. It's kind of cool to see the unique ways developers have been improving their games so that more people can play.

- BMW made a car using the same tech in Gears of War 4. Because reasons. It's a weird pod with a Vive VR headset that allows you to test drive their vehicles without being in one. Because, reasons? I guess they just wanted to show that they could do it.

- The world's oldest video game Easter Egg may have been found! I don't know if this is an Easter Egg and more of a cool trick. Starship 1, an arcade game released by Atari in 1977, allows a player to gain 10 free lives if they perform a series of button taps while inserting a coin into the machine. The game would give a message and you'll have gained the extra lives. Cool, but seems more like a cheat code. Not really an Easter Egg as we know it. But still cool to know. Expect this to appear on a triva show in the future.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Lone Wolf in Australia: The Fight To Save Video Games

For those who don't know, Outlast 2 has suffered the ill-effects of Australia's unusually restrict video game laws, and was denied a classification code. It means the game can not be sold in the country until changes are made to fit their rules. If you are a returning reader of The Geek Spot, you know all too well that Australia has some strange laws for video games. South Park: The Stick of Truth had to undergo several cuts (with scenes being replaced by a crying Koala) before it could be classified in Australia. Here in the US and several other countries, it passes by easily with an M rating. There was a scuffle a few years back to restrict sales of 18+ games, possibly banning them all-together.

The latest, and 5th game, to suffer from no classification prompted a response from David Leyonhjelm, a senator for the Liberal Democrat Party in New South Whales. This man might be the bright beacon of hope that Australia is looking for. His argument is that the classification board is out of touch with the public and their needs. The current system needs an upgrade, according to Leyonhjelm. While he feels that the board is on point with movies, the current set-up for video games leaves much to be desired. The heart of the debate is that Leyonhjelm feels that the people on the board don't understand video games. They don't play them and still feel they are children's toys. Because of this, the rating system and the sale of games hasn't caught up with the times. Adults make up the vast majority of the gaming market. Leyonhjelm quotes 68% of all Australians play video games on a regular basis, with an average age of 33.

What I found interesting about the interview is just how out of touch the Australian government is with games, gamers; and how restricted they are in accessing anything game related on their work systems to research the topic.

“In fact, politicians and public servants are blocked from accessing several gamer websites. If we want to access Polygon, IGN, PC Gamer or Game Planet, the computer says no. This is presumably because we might stumble across an image of something somebody disapproves of on a medium we don't understand. However, we have no such trouble accessing Neo Nazi forums.[sic] It tells us something about the illogical attitude bureaucrats have about video games."

Yeah. I would say that's a good way to produce a poor attitude about video games if you can't even access a review for research in your office. But want to pull up the latest gore-guzzling action-flick? No problem!

It doesn't matter if Leyonhjelm is a gamer or not. He makes a very valid point. The Australian classification system is out of touch with today's world. Even for Australia! The ratings read like they were focused on one task: keep children safe. Which is all well and good, but they are also denying the vast majority of the gaming population that enjoys these products. The board punishes developers for creating content that doesn't fit the extreme guidelines, forcing them to re-work their art in hopes that it can be distributed in Australia. If the citizens of that country have enough intelligence to vote, then they certainly have the ability to determine what games are appropriate for their children, and themselves: not the government.

Leyonhjelm, I don't know where you plan to go with this platform or how you want to accomplish these changes to the ratings system. But the gaming community wishes you luck!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Opinion: Ask Questions First

Let's have a real talk for a moment. We need to break away from the gaming news and have a chat. I don't know what to title this discussion, but I know that I'm really tired of this "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality that some gamers have lately. Whether it's pre-ordering a game based on hype and promises with little gameplay to back it up, or trolling a developer's employee without researching if said person is affiliated with the company (it's very easy to fib on the internet, and just as easy to catch someone in that fib), gamers are becoming their own worst enemy.

I'm becoming disappointed in how gamers are handling themselves lately. Harassment isn't a new thing for developers, but to take it to such a degree is more then disturbing. And the kicker is we don't know if the woman in the story actually worked on the game in question: Mass Effect: Andromeda. BioWare has since issued a statement that any type of harassment is wrong, and have denied any claims that the woman being trolled was involved in the project. Since then, the employee and cosplayer has taken down almost all of her social media. She has her Twitter account still active, but it's gone silent. Her profile has been updated to no longer reflect her employment. It's revolting.

Side note men and women: if you're trying to attract a companion, issuing sexual assault as well as death threats to someone on Twitter is not the way to do it.

In the old days, if we didn't like a video game, you know what we did? We didn't buy it. We stopped making purchases of products released from the developer. If it was bad enough, we would write in a letter or an e-mail that was polite in tone and didn't involve threats of dismemberment.

I can understand some people being unhappy with the animations in some games. Mass Effect is feeling the brunt of it right now, but many also said the same of Horizon: Zero Dawn. Heck, I did too. The dinosaur robots showcase more emotion then the humans. Photo-realism, while very cool to look at in still shots, is a work in progress. It's getting better each year, but they are stilted and sometimes goofy looking. Some moments are breathtakingly amazing to watch unfold, while others are kind of silly. It's not perfect right now, and it's still going to take time to reach that point. Look at 'Star Wars: Rogue One' and the animations used to make a young Princess Leia. When she wasn't moving, walking, or talking, it looked great! But once the character moved, it was kind of awkward. You could tell that it wasn't an actress that looked like Carrie Fisher (may you forever rest in peace our Space Princess), but an animation on top of a person. The face was too plastered, too flat, and trying too hard to look real that it was weird. It all comes down to the nuances. Eye twitches, wrinkles forming around the corners of lips as someone smiles, even breathing can make the difference between reality and animation.

Photo-realism with movement has a long was to go before we hit that perfect marker of it being too real that it could be mistaken for a living person. So how to other movies and video games make it happen? Well, they don't. Overwatch and Super Mario may have characters that show more emotion, but they are designed in exaggerated ways that they don't look like your average human. Body sizes, shading, colors, simplified faces all lend themselves to having more cartoonish features. This makes them easier to animate with emotions that are can be understood by a wide audience. It's easy for us to get caught up in stories where the characters do not look real. It's a challenge to make something look real and still be compelling to watch.

This isn't an argument for or against Mass Effect and Horizon. I've only made it through the character creation process in Andromeda after spending an hour having to update my graphic card (thanks NVidia for that last minute driver...). So I can't provide honest feedback about the animations in ME yet. But I can say for Horizon, as I have played a good chunk of the game, I still found myself enjoying the story. I may have found the characters goofy to watch with their stiff expressions, but I wanted to keep playing. The characters were well developed. The story was exciting and fun to unfold with each step into the robot wilderness. It kept me intrigued, and that made up for the animation. Andromeda could easily do the same.

Needless to say, I've also been disappointed in how quick some gamers have reacted to GIFs and cut-scenes without playing the game. It's no different then saying "this movie is bad" without ever having seen that movie. The core of BioWare has always been storytelling. You are not going to grasp the magnitude of The Old Republic, KOTOR, Jade Empire, or Mass Effect by watching the battle mechanics. And the trailers BioWare has been providing us haven't focused on stories or characters, but more on game play. That's left some gamers unhappy that we haven't learned more - honestly, I'm okay with that. We know the basics premise; you're part of a human crew set to find a new planet to colonize in a distant galaxy, and it takes place 600 plus years after the original game. That's all I need. Part of the joy of playing a BioWare game is discovering what it's about. Learning the lore, meeting the characters, and being swept up in the journey. If BioWare laid it all out in a trailer, I wouldn't be as interested. None of us would. But some games have been so quick to react and pick on every little thing...well it's taking some of the fun out of playing the game for the first time. Too many negative comments can take affect.

What's mind boggling is that so many of these people haven't played the game yet! Andromeda was released yesterday. If you have Origin Access, you got a 10 hour preview, and even that isn't enough to give you a full view of what the game has to offer. So what I see people posting such hateful things about the development team, the game, the cut scenes, without picking up a controller and seeing it for themselves, it's disparaging. Is this what we have become as gamers? Quick to react without any justification? Fast on the keyboard, typing heinous comments before researching?

Again, I'm not trying to defend Andromeda - not until I fully play the game and can provide a thoughtful review. And yes, there are some games and developers that should be held accountable for their bad practices. See Assassin's Creed: Unity. While death threats were not warranted, the terrible game play and the bugs were awful. Ubisoft saw a decrease in sales with their follow-up AC game when fans boycotted, and have since broken their yearly release cycle to give the next game the attention it deserves before releasing it.

Gamers, stop being dicks.

It's okay to not like something. But don't hate it if you haven't experienced the game. I dislike Layers of Fear and I didn't form my opinion until I played. The reviews from other magazine, gaming sites, and bloggers, and crappy GIF's didn't give me the ammo to call out the bad story and trope plot devices. Playing it is the only way to understand what's going on. In doing so, I found some good things as well as bad. It's okay to have an opinion, but at least have an informed one. Don't tell me "Beauty and the Beast sucks" if you haven't seen the movie. (Which the live action one does suck, but that's a rant for another day.)

If you don't like something, don't go crazy ranting on forums, social media, or throwing out death threats willy-nilly. Some states prosecute against that stuff now, as they should. Show sanity for yourself and your fellow humans and stop being a dick.

We are better then this, gamers. You know it. I know it. Unless you want developers to stop making video games, because that's a likely future if you all won't stop being dicks.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

E Games Are Not Meant for Toddlers

Are today's E games made for kids under the age of 8? And I'm asking that as a serious question after reading this Kotaku article by Mark Serrels, asking why is it difficult to make games for kids. We're talking about the pre-school/toddler age children, whom are still learning some of the basics when it comes to reading and word comprehension. Mario Party, Little Big Planet 3, and Madden NFL are all in the E category but you certainly would not give these games to a 5 year old.

The E rating has become more sophisticated over the years. While the meaning behind it hasn't changed since the ESRB was enacted, games that fall into this category have grown up with their audiences. Mario games have elevated themselves from flat-screen platformers to puzzles and battle epics in 3D environments. Games like Frogger, with it's easy concept that even a child straight from the womb could understand, has gone nuts with it's content. Frogger 3D for the Nintendo 3DS offers more challenges and requires quick reflexes that only a seasoned gaming veteran can keep up with.

E games are not for kids any longer. Not when the likes of The Legend of Zelda have taken over that category.

So where is one to go for games that are appropriate for their 8 and under team? Truthfully, I'd look to education stores or companies like LeapFrog. Yes, they are games meant to teach kids and some may find them dull. But these are games meant FOR the younger crowd. Super Mario was not developed to be played by a 5 year old. Fisher-Price is. They're a well-known brand not for their marketing, but for producing products that works best for young children.

Today's E-rated games are not made for children, nor are they geared toward that audience. To assume otherwise is a bit overzealous. Now this isn't to say that all kids can't play an E game. Some have the mental and physical fortitude to play. But some do not. This isn't developers cheating out the kids. They are making games for the audiences that they know will play, and pay, for their product. And younger children do have loads of alternatives through VTech, Little Tikes, and ABCmouse - all companies that produce video games specifically aimed to 2-8 year olds. They're not Mario, that's all. So let's not bash developers for making E games that are more kid-friendly in controls and game mechanics. Developers are making the games that they want to make.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Study Suggest Sexism Due to Video Games?

Happy Monday! One more day until I have another game to play through and review for next week: Mass Effect: Andromeda. March has been new game month and it's making my wallet unhappy. But hey, new games! I'm always happy to play new games. I've been spending the little free time that I have trying to get through as much of NieR:Automata as I can. Horizon has taken a back seat for now. This month has been challenging with new games, mostly because they have all involved open world/exploration. Including the latest Legend of Zelda. I have friends that are already topping out at the 60 hour mark because they enjoy running around the landscape of Hyrule. So I'm doing my best to get you all reviews in a timely manner that give the best scope of the game, even though I don't have the hours to play through them completely.

With that out of the way, onto today's main topic: video games are sexist.

Can I get a "no duh" in here?

A new study has been released from Iowa State University, UnivGrenoble Alpes in France, and Université Savoie Mont Blanc also in France. According to their research, excessive video game playing could be linked to excessive sexism among teenagers. The study surveyed over 13,000 teenagers age 11-19 in France with the questions focusing on how often they play games and their attitudes towards women. The researches don't believe that their method was perfect as it doesn't account for environmental factors, such as family, friends, school, etc. But it's a good foothold for the start of another study and a research of this scale is rare.

Since I have a subscription to the Frontiers journal website, I was able to read the full study. It's missing a few key details, and even forgoes defining stereotypes and sexism (which is the focal point of the study). Some of the questions are too broad and could be misinterpreted. It's not sexist to say women cook for their families. But it is sexist to believe that all women are homemakers and nothing else. The lack of descriptions or context can provide false positives. The paper needs to be re-reviewed for updates. I would take this with a shrug of the shoulders and move on. More credible research needs to be made before such a bold claim that "teenagers are sexist because of video games," can be made.

Friday, March 17, 2017

NieR: Automata - The Review!

It's the NieR review! Yea! I did it! After a shipping delay and lots of life obstacles, I still managed to overcome them to focus on playing Automata. So, how does this newest installment in the NieR catalog live up to it's predecessor? And how does it tie into Drakengard? Is everything still as weird and gut-wrenching emotional as we remember NieR to be?

Let's start off with the good, and I will do my best to keep spoilers to a minimum. Underground favorite NieR is a literal kick to the gut on the feelings, particularly towards the end of the game. You grow to care for the characters and the quest to save your daughter from a disease. It's not so grand as saving the world, but you trying to keep your kid alive is emotionally deep. When people say "this game will f you up" it will man. It will.

Automata is a well-rounded successor to the first game, improving upon mechanics that were sorely in need of attention, and providing more detailed plot points to give informative context to gamers. It's also a good stand alone piece. For those who never played NieR or Drakengard, you don't have to worry about getting lost in the plot. You can pick this up and play without worry that you are missing out on the nuances.

The story follows fem-fighting android 2B. It's the super, far into the future-AD and Earth is attacked by an alien race that utilizes machines to kill. To save the rest of humanity, the few hundred thousand that remain blast themselves off to Earth's moon and plan their next attack. Several years later, the android army under the name YoRHa is created, and are sent to Earth to act as the fighting force for humans. Their goal is to destroy the robots and end the alien invasion. Your initial mission is completed after fighting some big robots in an abandoned factory (if you have played the demo, you already know the first 40 minutes of the game). After which, you are sent back to Earth to help provide support to a human resistance group in an abandoned city. 2B is accompanied by another android 9S, who works as an information unit, to act as the "lore machine." He's the talkative companion that you don't have to babysit.

One of the best features of this game are the fighting mechanics. It's leaps and bounds better then what NieR originally offered. Platinum Games has refined their crazy kick-butt styles from Bayonetta and crafted the battles in Automata to be works of art. There is an effortless flow to the fighting style that it can be quite entrancing. The camera moves like butter. Even when cornered or at an awkward angle, the camera effortlessly moves to re-position itself without prompting you to be involved. You can still move the camera with the right thumb stick, but you don't need to. The game accounts for your character's movements and adjusted accordingly. What I enjoy the most is that you can play the battle in a manner that you see fit. If you want to hack, slash, and button mash, you can. If you want to plan out your fights to determine what combo of abilities will produce the most damage, you can. There are also auto-chip abilities that you can engage to help you fight when you are not sure what course of action to take. Sometimes having all of them active on can feel a bit cumbersome, particular when you want to change your target to another oncoming enemy, but as a whole it's a pretty solid system.

The landscape of the game is dynamic. It has it's own polish that I would argue is on the level of Horizon: Zero Dawn. It may not have the same visual power, but the images produced are just as breathtaking. The changes in colors help enhance the look as you advance to new areas. The YoRHa base morphs the hues to black, white, and grey - very robotic. The forest areas are rich in greens and golds while adding saturation to 2B's and 9S's outfits. If there is a complaint to be had about the visuals, it has nothing to do with the final product but the state of humanity itself: we really suck at future designs. Apparently in 5,000 AD we still use concrete and steel to build structures. Good job humans! Way to advance our race. No wonder aliens nearly wiped us out.

The story is pretty solid from beginning to end, and on additional playthroughs. And yes, you should play this game multiple times as the context changes in your "new game plus" mode. While it's not as emotionally satisfying as NieR, Automata does deliver on the promise that it will make you think. It will push your metaphysical comfort level by asking questions about what is real, what isn't, and do robots and androids have the right to feel? It reminds me a lot of the book 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' by Philip K. Dick. If that book sounds familiar, it's the basis for the plot in the movie 'Blade Runner.' Sadly, this is where I have to stop discussing the story, because if I type anymore, I'll give away the big plot. Sorry everyone!

Part of your task as you make your way through post-apocalyptic Earth, is powering up 2B with new skills. You have the ability to program 2B and her storage/ability Pod to fit your needs. The primary memory slot is required in all android units, but the rest of the chips can be interchanged as you see fit. If you don't want to see the XP bar, have a mini map, or see how much damage your attacks do, you can remove those features from your core. Is it worth it? Well that depends on how you like to play. By taking out a lot of the small pieces, you open up space to use some of the better chips for higher attack damage, better defense, etc. You can also create new challenges for yourself this way to make the game more difficult to play. It's easy to spend a lot of time in the menu, which can be overwhelming to flip through. But if you spend enough time fussing around, you'll find what you need.

To enhance the android experience, there is no auto-save in this game. Because how could an android auto-save? They can't. They need to hook themselves up to a computer to back up their data. If you need to save, you can only do so at designated terminals that look a lot like vending machines, and black box pods that help transport you to key areas around the map. You can also save when you are near these units. The vending machines also serve as a communication hub. When you hit the level 16-20 range and finish a main story quest, you'll eventually unlock the ability to transport between each vending unit. You should check it often for messages and new quests. As far as death is concerned, you can die in the game, but your consciousness is sent to another android body on the YoHRa ship. You'll lose all of your items in the process, because they are on your physical person. But your stuff will still be there should you want to retrieve it. Like Drakengard, you have one chance to pick up your stuff. If you die again, you lose it permanently. And another hitch: if you haven't been saving often enough, you may forget some of your memories and encounters with NPC's. So you'll have to replay conversations to get back up to speed. Realism!

By the way, this is an open world RPG. You know what that means? Fetch quests! So many fetch and escort quests. No RPG is immune to these unholy demons, but at least the options in Automata are not as cumbersome. Some of them have charming backstories and amusing dialogue to make it worth the effort. And some are downright annoying and require a lot of running, backtracking, and no fast transit.

There are also the random things one can do in NieR such as fishing, going to an amusement park, and hunting boars. If anyone played the original NieR, you know about the boars. You have to farm a lot of them for weapon upgrades. In Automata, they are a bit more tolerable, but still just as annoying to farm.

Since we're on the subject, what are the negatives to this game? My biggest gripe has to do with the natural progression of enemy levels to 2B. And when I say that, I mean the lack of progression. There is a major plot point in the game that you can achieve around level 12. Up to this point, the mobs are within a 2-4 level range of 2B's. After this quest, enemies in the area will take on a staggering difference of 8 to 37 levels. What makes it all the more frustrating is that you don't know what level these robots are until you are within attack range (it is possible there is a chip available that allows you to gauge enemies from afar, but I never found it). The same also applies to quests; the quests don't have a level marker. So you could accept something that's meant for a level 30 and not realize it, as I did on multiple occasions.

Because of this, the game becomes a long drudge on the quest to get XP. It's recommended that you over level as much as possibly before you dive into the main story quests (which are ALSO lacking a marker - really guys, is it that difficult to tag which quests are Main Story and which are Side?). Things get bigger, badder, and tougher to kill. Or in the case of Beginner Mode, they take a lot longer to pull offline until you are able to upgrade your weapons. Higher levels and knowing when to run from a battle will be your constant companions.

The cross-country race to finish quests is incredibly tiresome. You will be using your dash ability a lot to move around the world, as well as riding random animals that you bait for a bit of a speed boost. There needs to be more hubs around the world that allow you to save and teleport. Most of my game play is probably due to traveling and less on the story-line. Which...well it sucks. I came to NieR for the story. Not to spend 20 minutes running from the city to the desert for an escort quest back into the city. Fetch quests are fine, but when they turn into cumbersome tasks for XP grinds, it can sour the gaming experience.

I'm also a little disappointed that the story was easy to follow. Is that something fair to critique on? I'm struggling with this point and I know a lot of it has to do with my comparisons to NieR. That game turned into a mind-blowing "WTF is going on" situation. In Automata, the story presented is a bit more direct and not as mentally demanding. This isn't to say that the story is weak; it's probably one of the more in-depth plots we'll see in games this year. Automata will throw some insightful philosophical questions your way. But it feels like it's missing the punch that NieR originally had. Automata is still a great story to play through and I recommend it, but it's predecessor wins this round. And again I wish I could give more detail, but spoilers!

Overall, NieR: Automata is worth a play. If you are a fan of the first game, then you are already know. If you're not, try out the demo. Get a feel for the layout. If you enjoy those 40 minutes and want more, then you are good to go. The demo gives a great overview of what to expect.

Quick tips to help out those who want to jump right in:

- Kill everything in your path if you can.
- Overlevel and you will be grateful for it down the line.
- It's okay to run away from a fight. Sometimes it's safer then to die and having to spend an hour trying to reclaim your items.
- Pick up everything that you see. Those orange circles of light on the ground are items from enemies and found throughout the world, with the potential for rare items, weapons, and Pod upgrades.
- Fish. Really, go fish! You can make some decent credits early on.
- When you first arrive on the YoHRa ship, take a few minutes to look over the menu. You'll need to get familiar with it as it becomes a life-line later on in the game.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Emulators Helping Restore Video Game History

Emulators are continuing to keep the games from yesteryear alive and well. We know that emulators tend to have a mixed reputation. Technically, they are legal to use. As long as we don't distribute and profit off the original source code of the games, then we are in the clear. But there are those who argue against them; claiming that games are being stolen (which is not the case 99% of the time) or that developers are being left out of the loop and not receiving any additional revenue for their work. It's also important to note that most emulator sites run off of donations. They can't legally sell the ROM's. There is a difference, and a number of them will follow the letter of the law.

But emulators also serve an even greater purpose: preservation of our gaming history.

If there is one thing the media is bad at, it's taking the time to save their history so that the future can enjoy, respect, and learn from the art. It took the film industry several decades to realize that they should probably take better care of their reels. So many black and white silent films will never be recovered due to poor preservation practices.

How do emulators help? They allow for games from older consoles and PC's to be playable on modern technology. In some cases, they have even saved games from the dumping ground such as Primal Rage 2, an unreleased sequel that had arcade cabinets produced. Using an emulator, coders and fans were able to help bring the game back from the grave for people to see. Even games that were not released, they deserve the same respect of preservation as any other game. Not so much to play them, but to see all aspects of gaming history. Good, bad, and everything in betwee.