Monthly Archives: September 2016

How to improve Steam reviews

Despite its many positives, it’s hard to dismiss the fact that Steam also has its many problems.  DLC for early access games, shady gambling sites abusing the trading system… These are only two fairly recent examples that come to mind within the scope of its long lifespan. Perhaps one of the most glaring issues, however, comes in the form of an increasing lack of quality control, with Steam Greenlight and the Workshop allowing a plethora or poorly made content to flood out. Yet it’s with Steam’s review feature that this ‘race to the bottom’ perhaps irritates me the most, with random gibberish and stale jokes frequently rising to the top sat the expense of more helpful and relevant opinions. Recent changes have set out to fix things for the better, but it’s clear a lot remains to be done – so what other changes can be made to help improve the system?

Well, in my opinion, there are a few changes which incur only positive benefit. Well, one change that I feel can only incur a positive benefit relates to the ability to mark a review as ‘funny’; put simply, it’s something I think should be removed altogether. It’s the ability to have your review marked as such that perpetuates such low effort jokes as “Still better than No Man’s Sky” and so on, yet such feeble attempts at comedy are simply not what a review should be used for. As Valve themselves believe, they should be used to inform a prospective buyer, giving them more information and letting them know a game’s positives and negatives so they can make an informed buying decision… Something ‘funny’ reviews simply do not do. I appreciate joking about a game’s quality and such is all part of the community spirit, but it’s not like there’s nowhere else on Steam such things can take place – the game’s own forum is the immediate example that jumps to mind here. It’s just unnecessary for it to happen elsewhere.

The second change I feel would contribute is allowing people to review a game without actually having to write anything. Such reviews would still count towards a game’s standing, but could appear as a simple line such as “<player> recommended this title” (or perhaps not appear at all?) in the reviews section. This completely wipes out reviews filled with gibberish and many of the simple one line summaries players post, freeing up space for more substantial reviews to take their place. It also makes sense on the basis I accept not everyone has an opinion they actually want to voice about a title – they simply want to let others know if they liked or disliked it. There’s a possibility this could be open to abuse, of course; allowing a review to be posted with one or two mouse clicks could allow people to flood a game with negative reviews using multiple accounts reasonably easily. Counter measures to this could easily be devised, however, and when all it takes is mashing the keyboard with your face to see your review be accepted regardless, it’s fair to say such reviews are already getting through the system anyway.

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The next issue is the problematic one, though. Currently, reviews marked as the most helpful by users (and therefore appear near the top of the reviews section) are a mixed bag – you have your actually decent opinion pieces mixed in with ones that really don’t contribute that much. So how do you make it so the former take precedent over the latter? The current method of giving full power to the users, as logical and noble as it sounds, isn’t really working in my eyes. Take a look around, and you’ll see that people’s voting patterns means that there’s hardly a game on the service where all the most helpful reviews can actually be seen as… Well, helpful. Yet it’s not exactly like Valve is going to step in to moderate the system any time soon, considering their notorious hands-off approach to most matters, never mind the fact there’d be a full scale riot going on if they were to go in and determine what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’. So what’s the solution?

Honestly, I’m not sure. The idea of giving powers to certain users to moderate reviews and flag those which don’t contribute played on my mind for a brief while, but with the recent fiasco regarding Youtube Heroes it’s clear that such a system just wouldn’t work in practice. What’s to stop a user flagging a review they disagree with? And surely it’s not our job to go around moderating Valve’s system in the first place? A more subtle approach is perhaps just giving slightly increased weighting to a user’s opinion on whether a review is helpful or not, based on how frequently their own reviews have been marked as useful. It’s an idea that I feel has some merit, but it poses its own problems – if someone posts a few poor joke reviews that happen to be praised by the community, the chances are they’ll use their increased influence to recommend similar reviews, which only perpetuates the problem. Valve themselves have stated they don’t want certain user’s reviews to over influence the system, so any sort of weighting would also have to be incredibly finely balanced. Done right, however, I feel like it could help, allowing positivity to breed positivity. It’s just doing it right (and in a way that doesn’t irritate a highly volatile user base) that’s the real issue.

I accept that perhaps I’m just being a highbrow elitist, trying to enact higher standards on a system that most users seem fairly content with just letting continue as it is. Yet with Valve themselves stating they are looking into the same matters and heading towards the same goals, and the end result of that waiting to be revealed, perhaps the suggestions above may have some merit to them yet. Here’s hoping that whatever happens, though, we’re left with a system that lets the quality that’s lurking within it truly shine.

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Opinions on… Gunpoint

Gunpoint’s a clever game. It’s clever in all the ways you’d expect a good game to be, of course; It’s got a distinctive art style and soundtrack that effectively create the feeling of a noir-inspired, near future world. It’s also got a nicely refined difficulty and progression curve, holding your hand and building your strength without insulting you. There’s a bunch of other core gameplay elements Gunpoint does well – yet it is not really these that which make it so clever.

The first thing that really does this, and which catapults the game into being something more special, come in the form of its core gameplay feature – the Crosslink. In short, it’s a device that lets you rewire one device to another, changing the way they operate. This can be simple as wiring up a switch to open up a door instead of turning on a light… Or it can be as complicated as using a lift to trigger a sound sensor, which in turn turns off a light, causing a curious guard to wander over to the lightswitch, which electrocutes a socket elsewhere when flipped, which in turn knocks out another guard. It sounds confusing, but it’s surprisingly intuitive and easy to get used to; it’s not long before you’ll start to feel like a real Crosslink expert.

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This is clever in itself, but the real brilliance comes from the fact that’s there’s no real negative result to messing around with this power that brings your fun coming to a screeching standstill. Either your elaborate Crosslink scheme succeeds, making you feel like a diabolical mastermind, or it ends up falling apart, at which point you’re just eager to refine your strategy and work out what went wrong instead of being infuriated. There’s always the third result that your plan was so stupid that it ends up with a door swinging open and knocking you flying, you won’t care regardless, because that’s just hilarious.

Another way the game’s quite ingenious is that you’re free to play it however you want. Want to buy a gun and just shoot every problem you face? You can do that. Want to use your super jump to arc gracefully through the air and silently smash through a window like a twisted, trench coat wearing Spiderman? Go ahead! It’s possible for every player to have a different experience on a level just because of all the different ways you can approach each situation. I myself went for a no-upgrade run on my second playthrough, which presents its own challenges and its own little moments. The game itself even subtly reacts to your play style – there’s a nice easter egg for if you get too punch happy on a guard, and the story and future missions can even subtly change based on how you’ve played previously. Smart! Again.

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This ability to choose you own play style even leaks into the story – while your choices here don’t affect things that much, you can still choose to respond to your client’s calls deadly seriously, or just make endless deadpan comments and jokes about the absurdity of the situation. The writing’s witty and genuinely funny at points, and while the story itself got a little overly complicated for my tiny brain to comprehend as it neared its end, in general it’s compelling and has a nice few twists and turns that keep things moving well. It’s all… Well, I think you can guess what I’m going to say.

Overall, it’s hard to fault Gunpoint. There’s possibly an argument to be made that it’s a little short, but as noted above, there’s tons of replay value that comes in changing your technique, and the fact you can build your own levels is just more reason to keep playing. Overall, this is a smart and entertaining title that’s certainly worthy of your time.

Opinions on… Mad Max (The Video Game)

Let’s cut to the chase; Mad Max is bland and generic. Which, for a series with themes of anarchy and madness, and with multiple films containing fairly fresh and original ideas, is a really odd thing to have to say. There’s very little here that hasn’t been done before and done better, and the more you whittle away at the game, the more readily this becomes clearly apparent. The end result is a game which rapidly loses its appeal for each hour that passes, and one that has no real reason to stick around in your memory for the long term.

To pick apart why this is the case, you only need to look at the core structure of the game. It’s a case of going to one location to scout out points of interest in the area, and then going to those points of interest and clearing them out. Do that over and over again, and finally the area will be free of any ‘threat’ and you can move on to the next area and do it all again. If this seems familiar, it’s because you probably recognise it as that classic ‘Ubisoft formula’ game style that’s been used in countless titles in the past few years; Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, you could go on. It’s not the only idea to be mundanely recycled, either. The whole hand to hand combat system, for instance, is incredibly close to that of the Batman franchise, right down to the counters and combo meter. It’s so confusingly similar, that given a few hours you’d be forgiven for wondering why Mad Max himself isn’t wearing the cape and cowl.

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There’s nothing technically wrong with the re-use of such elements, especially considering they work; but it’s just so tiring to see them so lazily recycled here, especially in conjunction with a franchise such as this. It’s a potentially forgivable grievance, but dig a little deeper into more specific gameplay elements, and you’ll see just how flat this whole experience is. For instance, collecting scrap for upgrades is vital to making progress, but you soon learn if there’s a slight annex or route off the (completely linear) path through enemy bases, there’s going to be scrap there.  It’s not even open to questioning – it’s simple fact. Such cliché gameplay elements roll on– if there’s a door that needs explosives to open, there’s guaranteed to be some sort of combustible extremely close nearby. If you need fuel for a generator, there’s going to be cans of it within ten feet of your location. This last one is particularly laughable – the game goes on about the scarcity of fuel, but you can pick up a fuel can that’s required for some purpose, and IMMEDIATELY see another one spawn in its place. It’s possible to stack about 5 or 6 cans up just by picking up the new spawn and immediately dropping it. It’s absurd.

The whole issue with this cookie cutter generic gameplay and the desire for the game to hold your hand only goes to fly in the face of the game’s (and the franchise as a whole) ideas of survival as a whole. Early on, you’re told to keep fuel for your car close at hand lest you get stranded, and keep your canteen full of water as it’s your only means of refilling health. It’s a neat concept in theory  – desperately trying to cling on to your last supplies as they slowly dwindle away – but you soon realise both these supplies are practically everywhere. In all my time playing, I don’t think I’ve refuelled my car once. It’s not even come close to starting to run out. Water also becomes meaningless when you realise death only drops you a few minutes back with a miraculously full life bar. It’s all just so painfully bland, so much so that the end result just makes you want to smash your head into the keyboard.

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Is there any positives? Well, yeah, actually. Car combat is a little weird and doesn’t work perfectly, but it’s damn fun all the same, which is what you’d sort of expect from anything relating to Mad Max. The car harpoon is the obvious highlight – using it to rip off parts of your opponent’s vehicles until they are a mere shell, and then boosting into them for a glorious finale of explosive pyrotechnics. You could, of course, just cut out the middle man and harpoon your foe straight out the driver seat, dragging them merrily along behind you before whipping them into the nearest brick wall for a gristly finale. It’s delightfully vindictive fun that only gets more fun the more you upgrade your car into the perfect killing machine.

The game itself is also visually stunning. The wasteland is an eerie place just to drive around, dust and sand whipping away at your feet, elegant arcs being carved through the sand as you get into your car and roar away. When you encounter your first storm, the screen filling with debris and your speakers roaring with the sound of the wind, it’s a genuinely terrifying and immersive experience. HUD clutter ruins the effect somewhat, but you can go into photo mode (it in itself good fun to play around with) and eradicate that nuisance, as long as you don’t mind not knowing where anything else for a while. It’s a visual spectacle that does capture the spirit of a destroyed and ravaged world in a weird and wonderful way.

Overall, though, it’s really, REALLY hard to recommend Mad Max. Fans will get something out of it – that goes without saying – and if you know exactly what you’re going into and don’t expect much from the whole affair, there is fun to be had. Overall, though, the rest of us will find a game that’s ticks all the right boxes mechanically, but lacks any soul whatsoever. And all things considered, that’s… Well, mad.

Opinions on… Monster Hunter Generations

Monster Hunter: Generations is like the “Greatest Hits” compilation of your favourite band. This may strike you as an odd analogy, but the same emotions are there. You’ve got all the well known bits everyone enjoys always ready at your fingertips, but as time passes, you begin to miss those little things – the obscure little bits you always enjoyed, or the little bonuses and sparks of personality which makes all the other releases so great. Monster Hunter Generations is perhaps the greatest celebration going – but there’s a ton of those little things which can easily get you down.

The first, and probably the most glaring, is the lack of G-Rank. By no means does Generations lack in content – there’s new deviant and hyper variations of monsters that can keep even the most battle scarred of hunters busy – but the omission of G-rank can make it feel like there is. In all honesty, I never reached it in MH4U; but its presence was something I aspired to, a lofty goal to one day achieve. Now, once you hit high rank and grab a few sets of armour, you’re pretty good to go for the rest of your time with the game, no matter how long that will be. Therefore, you’re left with this odd situation where there feels like there’s a void when in reality there’s as plentiful harvest to feast upon. Perhaps it’s something that will only really bug the most dedicated players, but it remains a disappointment not to see it make the cut.

Other features have taken flight or shifted in weird ways; for one, Generations drops things down to 30fps instead of the 60fps of the previous instalment, and textures and surroundings have also been slightly dulled and muddied in return for a few new particle effects. It’s not a huge game breaker by any stretch of the imagination, but with my time with the game there have been moments where things just haven’t seemed as crisp or smooth to look at and play, and that becomes more noticeable when you put footage of MH4U next to it for comparison.

The pacing of gameplay also feels different, especially so in the first few hours of the game, which are incredibly slow and come dangerously close to being crushingly boring. Monster Hunter’s habit of not explaining anything well glares through strongly here, and there are far too many tedious gathering quests to be done before you even hunt your first big prey. Even then, you have to sink MORE time in before things really hit high gear. Having to build yourself up to the big threats is nothing new to the series, sure, but the way the game’s designed makes it feel more laboured and a chore than it really should be. For those coming into Monster Hunter for the first time here, beware – you really do have to put the time in to start getting things out.

The biggest omission in my personal opinion, however, is one that you might not expect, that being the lack of a decent story. It’s fair to say that Monster Hunter games do not and should not have a deep and compelling story as their main focus, and that’s all true and fair, but MH4U did an excellent job of having one that really enhanced the game as a whole. There, you were made to feel like part of something bigger, gathering new friends and experiences and rallying together to tackle adversity. When it came near to the end of MH4U’s story, with an elder dragon ready to attack at any moment and an army of Seregios swarming the world, it felt like a big deal – the threat was constant and real, and the subsequent monster fights felt epic as a result, as if you were carving out your own legend.

Monster Hunter Generations has none of that. You’re literally thrown into the game with a quick “oh, you’re a research assistant” explanation, and things never really develop from there. As a result, no monsters of challenges really have the chance to build up the threat or gravitas they deserve. This is especially true with the ‘fated four’, which are four new exciting and challenging monsters introduced in Generations that prove one of the game’s highlights… Yet the game introduces them with very little fanfare, and indifference bordering on apathy from the NPCs around you, which nullifies their impact somewhat. Even the Glavenus – the hardest hitting and most intimidating of the four – gets introduced in a sort of “Oh, there’s a Glavenus, you’d better kill it I guess” sort of way. It’s a real dampener to the game as whole in my opinion, and hopefully we see a return to a sense of adventure in the next title.

With all those grievances taken into account, however, the undeniable fact remains that Generations is one hell of a compelling game. There’s still that overwhelming sense of satisfaction that comes from slaying a creature as big as a house, and the added pleasure that comes from carving up its corpse and subsequently wearing it as a hat. Online hunts remain challenging and exciting, and those old feel good moments such as where a monster stumbles and allow your team to unleash hell continue to never get boring. The game retains its sense of charm and good humour (Even poking fun at some of the more annoying parts of the community in some of the dialogue) and there’s also a great deal of small and welcome quality of life changes to be found… Not least of all the ability to hold the button to gather instead of mashing it. Hallelujah.

For all of the talk of omissions at the start of this review, it’s important not to forget the additions that have been made. Hunter Arts (special attacks and abilities you can build up and then unleash when suitable) feel slightly gimmicky, as the best strategy seems to boil down to “pick the strong attack and use it when the monster falls over”. However, Hunting Styles are much more interesting, a lot of the time fundamentally changing the way each weapon works and therefore dramatically shifting your strategy as a result. For instance, you can choose an aerial style for dual blades, granting you the ability to jump around like a spinning ball of concentrated death – but can you live without demon mode, which grants you enhanced dodging and better combos? Overall, they’re a great addition, one that makes mastering even one weapon a much grander endeavour, and therefore adding even more gameplay as a result. And let’s now forget prowler mode, which lets you play as your Palico. Not only is it another interesting change in pace that forces you to rethink your strategy, but the sheer sight of seeing a small cat trying to bash an elder dragon’s head in provides a remarkable amount of comedy value.

Monster Hunter Generations, then, is a damn fine game, one that I have sunk a many an hour into, and one that I have no intention of putting down any time soon. It’s just unfortunate there’s a bunch of little faults and exclusions that really stop it from reaching the lofty heights that MH4U felt like it achieved –here’s hoping the next title can take the improvements made here, and craft them into something that really blows our minds.