Valheim, a survival sim that puts fun and smarts ahead of survival

I shall now also post about Valheim, because that is what one blogs about these days. As one should, because out of the blue the game has come out and done what so many before it have failed to do; it captures the core of a genre while removing much of the suck, and doing so in a clean and enjoyable manner.

The easiest way to understand why playing Valheim is more fun than say, playing RUST or ARK is similar to how the combat and overall feel in WoW is better than EQ or similar games. Both sets of games do similar things and have their own details and differences, but Valheim/WoW just ‘feel’ smooth and clean. Hitting a skill off your hotbar in WoW is better than doing the exact same thing in EQ. The ‘why’ is complex and has been covered to death in the past, but the important part for today is that combat in Valheim just feels correct, where combat in RUST or ARK feels floaty and ‘off’ by comparison. That’s a huge deal when combat and general gameplay is, well, most of what you do.

Small details also add up. For example, in RUST/ARK you wake up naked and clueless and good luck figuring it all out. Note that both games have now been out for years. In Valheim you fly in via giant bird, and the area around you, while still part of the whole world, is designed with a new player in mind. A crow also appears early and often with tips on what to do and how to do it. The game has been out for less than a month. Oh, and it was made by two people. Why don’t RUST/ARK do this? Because you suffer and die because its survival, or something… I’m sure there was a point to it back in the day.

Unlike its peers, Valheim is a PvE game first. The point is to unlock and kill big bosses, while gearing up and killing ever increasingly difficult enemies as you explore the giant and procedural world (a quick note about the world generation; its insanely good, mostly avoiding creating things that don’t make sense or get you stuck). Why it took this long for someone to realize the potential of a full-on PvE ARK/RUST is beyond me, but its here and surprise, its super fun. While you can play solo, the game is far better with a small group of friends, and in another major “how is this early access done by two people?”, making your game open to others is both very easy and works like a charm. You can even have a paid hosting service keep your world online 24/7 (otherwise when the world host goes offline, others can’t join).

I won’t go into the details of everything you can do, but it has all of the basics. Build a base, upgrade and expand it, collect resources, explore, gain skills by doing things, die and corpse run, teraform, different weapons with different advantages/penalties, etc etc. Again, insane how much this game already has, and how well it all works.

The progression is very smooth, rarely is something critical lacking in an annoying way, and lots of small details make sense and are well thought-out. For example ore and metal bars can’t go through portals (fast travel), so while you can eventually fast travel around the world instead of repeatedly running back and forth, you DO need to plan major trips back when it comes to metal, which is a key progression resource. So you initially have travel for exploration, or shorter distances for local resources. Then you expand and unlock some fast travel to ‘shrink’ the world, but still must make the occasional trip via cart or boat for ore/metal. It just works, and is well thought-out.

The game is full of other examples of smart design. Of things that challenge you but aren’t annoying. The game is just a joy to play, and especially with others. For $20 its the biggest steal in gaming right now. Can’t recommend highly enough!

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Talos Principle mini-review

Quick review of the Talos Principle, a game released in 2014, one I purchased on Steam a few years ago, but only recently actually play. In short its a puzzle game similar to Portal, but with a far greater focus on telling an interesting story about what it means to be a human.

I liked the game a lot, and felt that all of the puzzles were challenging but fair (I finished all non-star/bonus puzzles). The game still looks great, the setting is very attractive, and the two voice actors did a wonderful job. No issues with bugs or anything else.

The story is told via some voiceovers, but mostly through text you read in computer terminals. As mentioned, the central theme is what is a human, and how is a human different from other living beings. As you progress more and more pieces of what happened to the world and why you are where you are is explained, and the ‘good’ ending ties it all together in a satisfying way. I did this all in just under 20 hours, but could have played a bit more to finish all of the bonus puzzles.

A worthwhile purchase if you enjoy Portal-style games, and like a deeper mystery story that challenges you on some basic concepts of humanity.

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Mini Metro review

If there is an award for cleanest design to achieve it’s goal, Mini Metro wins it. When you first load the game up, you are taken directly into the first map. No intro screen, no main menu, no tutorial section; just right into the game (with tooltips to help you along). And it works, because Mini Metro is exactly what you would expect it to be; you connect stations and transport people (well, symbols, more on that in a bit).

Things start nice and slow, three stations, low population. As the game progresses, more and more stations pop up in random locations, and you are given more trains, train lines, tunnels, and other bonuses to build your network. You lose when any one station overflows with people.

Each station in the game has a symbol, and the train raiders in the game are also symbols. A square ‘person’ wants to go to a square station. The odd/unrealistic part is that any square station will do, but once you know this, you can more fully begin to build successful setups (I was initially expecting people to want to go to one specific station, so my early designs failed horribly). The other negative is you can unrealistically min/max things without issue; you can for example pull an empty train from one line and place it directly on a station that is busy, have it deliver what it needs, and pull it off again. Same goes for train lines; delete or edit them as much as you want, instantly, with no cost/penalty.

That said I’ve been able to ignore those faults and still very much enjoy the game as a fun puzzler. It’s very easy to pick up for a couple tries in say 30 minutes time. There are currently plenty of different maps, and the replay-ability is very high per-map due to the random nature of it all. For its usually discounted price of $5, its a worthwhile pickup.

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Foundations mini-review

Mini review of Foundations as the game is still in Early Access (aren’t they all), and also because its a medieval city builder with all of the basics you would expect from such a game.

Foundations has two things going for it that stand out, one more so than the other. The big standout is that cities tend to grow more naturally than in other sims, because while you can directly place production buildings, homes are built somewhat randomly in a residential area you paint on the map. As citizens walk to where they need to go, a road forms, and future citizens will walk on that road rather then a more direct path. This in turn leads you to build around said road. It works, and makes cities look and feel more natural.

The other feature is the ability to build monuments and larger buildings, like a keep, church, or lords manor, piece by piece. This not only gives you flexibility in how they look, but the bigger you make them, the more they benefit you. A bigger church can hold more people, while a larger lords manor lets you hire a tax collector, have a larger treasury, and gives you more prestige.

The biggest pain-point with the game right now is the UI; its horrible. Luckily the next big update is a UI overhaul, hopefully coming in Jan or Feb. Other than that the game runs well and I didn’t encounter any bugs. It’s not ultra-deep right now, but if you are looking for a city builder, both for now and for the future, Foundations has promise.

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The Long Dark review

I finally purchased The Long Dark after it had been sitting on my wishlist for a few years. Before playing it, my view of it was that it was a stylized survival game that may or may not be interesting to me, hence why it sat so long without being purchased.

Having now played it, I was both correct AND wrong in terms of what The Long Dark is, and my enjoyment level of it. The first time I loaded it up I played the story-focused episode mode, but about 30 minutes into it I wasn’t enjoying it so stopped that and went into the more sandbox survival mode. About an hour into survival I wasn’t enjoying that either, but playing that mode did make me more curious about the story so I went back to episode mode. I ended up finishing all 3 available episodes (parts 4 and 5 are coming in 2021 I believe), which took about 25 hours. I have now been playing the survival mode for another 20ish hours.

The Long Dark is as pure a survival game as I have played. The need to stay hydrated, fed, and rested are not just requirements, they are basically the ONLY requirements, and the entire goal of the survival mode is to see how long you can go until you run out of food/water/health and die. It’s because of this that I initially didn’t see the point of playing survival; since the first few days on the lower difficulty level were very easy, and it felt like I was just wandering around to wander and collect more stuff that I didn’t seem to need. And since you are the only human alive in survival, the feeling of loneliness kicks in fast (which is the point in some ways, of course).

The more story/mission focused episodes serve as a very nice tutorial for both the gameplay aspects and the world setting, while still mostly revolving around the core gameplay loop of staying alive and exploring to gather things that help you stay alive. The story itself is interesting, more-so IMO than most video-game stories. You aren’t reading a books-worth of text here or anything, but who you meet and the overarching plot is really solid.

Once the episode content was complete, I had a solid understanding of how the mechanics worked, and wanted to go back into survival mode on a higher difficulty to apply that understanding. This also clicked, and I got into a good loop of exploring and surviving. Of finding better clothing to stay warm, and new/better tools to help in exploration. And slowly your character gets better at the basics, like starting a fire or having the stamina to go on without needing as much rest.

The Long Dark does some things exceptionally well. For starters, the weather in the game is the most impactful weather I have seen. Visually a blizzard or fog greatly reduces what you can see, while from a gameplay perspective harsh winds drop your warmth fast, and make walking into the wind much slower. Snow leaves your clothing wet and will eventually freeze. The night is colder than the day. Combine it all and a clear day to explore in feels like a bonus, while getting caught out in a blizzard at night is panic-inducing and brings a real sense of dread.

I like the art style a lot as well. There are some very rough textures at times, the animations can be a little stilted, and overall this isn’t the next Crysis by any means, but everything looks ‘right’ when you are out in the woods, surrounded by snow, trees, and the occasional animal. The game places you in the designed setting very well, and nothing ever really feels ‘off’ to break that immersion.

The Long Dark is a hard game to recommend because it is so unique. There is little combat (mostly shooting wolves and bears with one of three weapons), no building, limited character progression, and a pure and singular focus on survival. But it does what it sets out to do extremely well, and again for me personally it did click, and has become a really enjoyable game.

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Mixing the new with the old

Since the last post here, and its been a minute, I have been playing a solid mix of new and old titles. The new being Monster Train and Armello, while the old includes League of Legends, PUBG, and Rimworld. Mobile gaming continues to consist of three titles, Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, and Mighty Party.

I think this is the ‘new normal’ in gaming, where a player will have a few consistent titles to return to, while mixing in new offerings as interest arises. I think business models have adapted to this new reality as well; games that are designed for the long-haul like LoL or PUBG feature season passes or in-game shops, and for me at least both games have long since crosses the $100+ mark in terms of spending. At a dollars/hr rate, they are still both amazing values. My mobile spending is similar, and again I consider that money well-spent.

At the same time I don’t think playing a few titles for years has really impacted my interest in new releases. When something new pops up, like most recently Monster Train, that title will cut into the time I would normally play my core games, and as the new title fades, more time is returned to the core. A big reason this works is because both LoL and PUBG can be played in bursts if you so wish, and while playing more leads to higher ranks or better results, they are very easy to return to. That again is by design.

Posted in Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, League of Legends, Mighty Party, PUBG, Random | 7 Comments

Sandbox vs the beach

Sandbox titles have typically appealed to me more than on-rails experiences, in large part because experiencing something that happens due to multiple factors coming together is more exciting than seeing something scripted happen to you and everyone else playing the game. Lately however I’ve been questioning what makes a good sandbox game, vs a game that is just a bunch of pieces thrown into the mix that never really come together to give you something enjoyable or unique.

I’ll start with a recent major release, Crusader Kings 3. A sandbox simulator of medieval times, CK3 has a LOT of stuff going on. Marriage, alliances, culture and religion, technology advancement, warfare, vassals, etc etc. However the most basic cycle of CK3 is you go to war, you win and acquire territory, and you repeat. And because warfare isn’t especially exciting in CK3, and all of the other ‘stuff’ doesn’t directly factor into it, the core loop is both shallow and very repetitive. All of the other toys in that sandbox are interesting, at least the first time you see them, but they don’t perform great the 10th time around, and in a sandbox that is critically important. CK3 isn’t a bad game, and it certainly has its audience, but IMO it’s an example of a sandbox game where things aren’t tied together in one cohesive approach.

Jumping to a much smaller indie title that just debuted its demo recently, we have Going Medieval. The game is a low-graphics city/kingdom simulator set in, surprise, medieval times. You build your buildings square by square, your people collect resources, you research tech; if you have played a game like this, you know the deal. The issue I have here is I don’t see anything that Medieval does that other games don’t, or that it provides any reason to build and progress other than ‘because that’s the game’. What is the vision here? Why make/play this game over Stonehearth, Forest Village, Banished, Dawn of Man, or any number of other similar titles?

Finally there was Songs of Syx, a pixel art colony sim. At least here the ambition is to take a game like Rimworld and expand it from running a city into running a really big city…? It was hard getting past the graphics, because they are just terrible. It’s not just the style either, but the fact that it was really hard to understand wtf was going on beyond “this guy is moving in this direction”. But beyond the graphics, this is another title that within the first hour you are left questioning why you are playing. And I think that answer is still ‘build to build stuff’, and the early building isn’t anything new or interesting. If you have played a game like this, you have done these exact same steps before, and seen the results.

The last two titles mentioned, and maybe to some extend even CK3, suffer from the fact that they aren’t ‘done’, but in Early Access, Beta, Alpha, whatever the devs want to call not being done (CK3 is released, but in a year from now will most likely have a lot of DLC that fleshes out the game, perhaps so far as changing even the core loop of just playing to expand/conquer). That model of releasing early is fine if what you have is already worth playing. If your unique hook or blend of design is there, and the edges are rough, go ahead and release early. But if all you have is the bland vanilla gameplay loop, what are you expecting players to get excited about?

Posted in Rant | 5 Comments

Good new blog to read covering the games I like

Quick programing note here: The author of “Gamer of Passion” contacted me about his site, and asked me to check it out. I have done so, and while the site is new, it already has some impressive articles up. The breakdown of Battle Brother perks is excellent and VERY detailed, and the articles about Kenshi are equally good.

A site to keep an eye on, and best of luck on the new ender Gamer!

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Passing on Baldur’s Gate 3 EA

Today Baldur’s Gate 3 is available for purchase on Steam, entering Early Access for $60. The poors are already crying about the price, but poors will poor, so not surprising. That’s not why I’m passing on it though.

I’m passing because I don’t see a game like BG being something I replay many times, and with BG3 EA being only the first section of the game, it means either playing that and then starting over at full release, or having a very delayed overall experience. Plus I’m sure there will be plenty of bugs and patches.

Make no mistake, BG3 is a game I am dying to play eventually, because I have a lot of faith in Larian Studios coming off how great Divinity 2 was, and I’m also a big fan of the previous BG games.

Note: I’m in a similar spot with Cyberpunk 2077, another RPG coming soon. That one won’t be in EA at release, but it’s almost a guarantee that it will be buggy and the patches will come early and often. As I have a graphics card upgrade coming soon as card prices dip a little, I might as well wait on that one as well and play it when both it and I am ready.

Posted in beta, Random, Steam Stuff | 2 Comments

The Necromunda AI can’t play the game, early Crusader King 3 thoughts

Point blank the Necromunda AI can’t play some of the maps/objectives in the game. It gets confused, sits in a corner, and basically just doesn’t fight back. This pretty much ruins the game, as facing the AI is the only way to reliably progress a gang. Also PvP right now isn’t working great either as crashes happen often and there is no way to rejoin a game in progress. Hopefully some patches fix things, because when it does work Necro is a lot of fun, but right now too much DOESN’T work to bother investing time in.

Which brings me to Crusader Kings 3, a game that doesn’t feel buggy or released too early. CK3 plays great, but is one of the more love/hate types of games out IMO. You either really dig the deep simulation, or hate the fact that nothing ‘happens’ and all you do is mostly watch (this isn’t true, but I 100% get why some feel this way about this type of game). I’m only a bit into my second game, the first really just being used to stumble through and learn the basics, but I’m enjoying it a lot so far.

I played a good bit of CK2, but the third is easier to get into AND also easier to play. Things are generally more where you would expect them in the UI, and because the game doesn’t have 100 pieces of DLC (yet), its not bloated.

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