Gears 5

E3 2018 Was All About the Leading Ladies

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Four years ago at E3 2014, Ubisoft blundered into a PR nightmare by weakly defending why both Assassin’s Creed Unity and Far Cry 4 lacked playable women characters in their multiplayer modes – they would require too much time and resources to animate.

Female representation in big, blockbuster games has been sporadic at best. Yes we can point to the same franchises like Metroid and Tomb Raider over and over again, but that just proves the point even more.

But there is good news. In recent years diversity and inclusion has become a major focus for many game developers and publishers. The fruits of those labors are beginning to show. We could call it the Overwatch or Wonder Woman Effect, or just a sign of many game companies hoping to avoid stagnation and seek out progressive voices and audiences.

At E3 2018 we were impressed with the number of women characters, both old and new, showcasing AAA games. In case you missed it, let’s run through the new era of leading ladies from E3 2018.

Battlefield V

Technically Battlefield V was announced ahead of E3. The reveal trailer featured a female soldier who had the best lines and most badass moments. EA even went so far as to feature a female soldier on their cover art.

At EA Play 2018 they teased a single player campaign that also starred a woman fighter’s story of revenge and survival during World War II.

Battlefield V is a great example of the struggles a big studio and franchise can face for daring to include diversity in their games. That reveal trailer currently has more dislikes than likes, with both numbering in the hundreds of thousands. It’s sparked numerous outrages and debates about the game’s historical authenticity versus political virtue-signaling.

It’s endlessly disappointing that including diverse characters has become a political, hot-button issue, and the main reason why many big game companies steer clear. For what it’s worth, EA and DICE have committed to inclusion in their games.

Gears 5

I confess I’m not familiar with the Gears of War franchise beyond playing the first game nearly a decade ago. Kait Diaz was apparently a major player in 2016’s Gears of War 4, but in Gears 5 she takes center stage as the primary playable character.

The trailer, shown at the Xbox E3 2018 conference, featured both a cinematic cutscene with Kait, Marcus, and the rest of the team, as well as gameplay starring the young heroine.

Sea of Solitude

Sea of Solitude isn’t a AAA game, but it is being published through EA’s EA Originals brand. An announcement trailer was shown during the EA Play conference, revealing the personal story of loneliness and depression from game designer Cornelia Geppert.

Geppert was one of the few women game designers to take the stage at any of the press conferences. The game stars Kay, a young woman whose emotional issues have transformed her into a literal monster. She has to save both herself and her fellow monsters amidst a ruined, flooded world.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

One of the biggest female-led series has been riding high in the last few years thanks to a successful reboot by Crystal Dynamics. The third game in the rebooted Tomb Raider series, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, features an even darker, more brutal story as Lara must prevent a Mayan apocalypse, which she herself helped set into motion.

In the gameplay trailer we see Lara go full-on Predator, stealthy hunting foes with bow and blade in a new outfit that proves high-stakes action-adventure makes for a solid work-out regiment.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood

One of the most surprising announcements from the Bethesda E3 2018 conference was a spin-off co-op sequel to Wolfenstein II. Wolfenstein: Youngblood is set in 1980s Paris, far after the events of Woflenstein II.

The bad news is that the alt-history Nazis are apparently still in control (in France at least). The good news is that BJ’s grown twin daughters are ready to fight the good fight.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

With BioWare making Anthem, the torch of romancing NPCs in a gender inclusive universe has apparently fallen to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. Newly announced Assassin’s Creed Odyssey looks absolutely gorgeous, taking place in Ancient Greece and featuring the same great series improvements found in last year’s Origins.

But the real talked about feature is choosing to play the entire game as either male character Alexios or female character Kassandra. Both are fully voiced and remain the stars of their stories. And yes, apparently you can romance multiple characters no matter whom you choose to play as.

Beyond Good & Evil 2

The original 2003 Beyond Good & Evil is still one of the most mentioned games when talking about female-led games. That’s pretty sad, yet Beyond Good & Evil has also become a cult favorite. Beyond Good & Evil 2 has been in development hell forever, eventually turning into this big AAA prequel starring a new female character as the leader of her own motley space crew.

The prequel has astonishingly great animated cinematics, but we also got our first look at some pre-alpha gameplay, which lets you fly to different planets and explore in third-person action-adventure. It looks incredibly ambitious. Unfortunately we still don’t have a release date.

Control

As revealed at the PlayStation E3 press conference, Control is a brand new game by Remedy, developers of Quantum Break and Alan Wake. Jesse assumes the role of Director of the Bureau of Control, giving her supernatural powers and a fancy shifting gun.

We don’t know much more about it, but it definitely looks a lot like Quantum Break.

The Last of Us Part II

The Last of Us Part II may be the single most anticipated sequel of the year, though we still don’t have a firm release date. The new trailer showed off the most memorable scene from all of E3, an older teenage Ellie passionately kissing her new love, Dina. Not only is it a sweet moment, it’s also incredibly well animated. How far we’ve come in four years!

The gameplay portion showcased the familiar brutality of The Last of Us, confirming that Ellie is the main protagonist in the sequel, and that human enemies are just as harrowing as the Clickers.

Playing mostly as Joel shepherding Ellie in the original 2013 game while switching to Ellie for the sequel is a great metaphor for the progress gaming has made over the years. Gaming is for everyone, and it’s nice to see women get more seats at the grown-ups’ table.

skylanders

Ranking All Six Skylanders Games

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Skylanders fans haven’t been feeling confident about the series lately. Activision announced last year that there would be no Skylanders 7 release, the first year a new Skylanders game hadn’t released since the series began in 2011. We’ve been given no new updates on the future of the once stalwart kid-friendly franchise.

Yet the series has not yet been officially canceled (unlike Disney Infinity) and a third season of the solid Netflix Skylanders Academy series is due to air later this year.

For now fans can revel in the sales of older games and figures. Whether you’re a newcomer to the toys-to-life series or a reminiscing veteran, we’ve compared all six primary Skylanders games and ranked them from weakest to strongest.

 

6) Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure

skylanders

New Gimmick: Toys to life!

Best Skylanders: Stealth Elf, Drobot, Cynder

Once upon a time, toys-to-life was a relatively brand new concept. Activision and Toys for Bob looked for a recognizable, kid-friendly gaming hero to leverage. Enter Spyro, the sassy but good-natured dragon, who helped pave the way for an all-new action series using physical figures as a unique form of DLC.

Spyro’s Adventure may earn points for being the original, but it just doesn’t hold up when compared to later entries. That’s more a testament to how well the series has steadily improved rather than any glaring weaknesses in the original game.

5) Skylanders: Giants

skylanders

New Gimmick: Extra-large Giant figures

Best New Skylanders: Flashwing, Ninjini, Pop Fizz

A second Skylanders game the very next year raised a few eyebrows, but Skylanders assuaged many fears by seamlessly carrying over all previously leveled figures from the first game, creating an important precedent that cemented the series’ popularity for years. Out of all the games here, Giants is the safest sequel, not rocking the boat too much but still steadily improving on level and figure design.

The new Giants gimmick likewise wasn’t anything fancy. They were big, lumbering brutes who are almost more of a hassle to play than anything else, though the actual designs are fun, like Eye-Brawl who could detach his giant flying eyeball.

4) Skylanders: SuperChargers

skylanders

New Gimmick: Vehicles and racing

Best new Skylanders: Stormblade, Splat, Spitfire

By the fifth entry, Activision was looking at other successful family-friendly series to add a whole new dimension to Skylanders. They settled on Mario Kart-style kart racing. It wasn’t exactly a demanded feature by fans, and the result was a ham-fisted addition that didn’t feel entirely welcome. Vehicle segments were both forced (land) and optional (sea and air) and ranged from traditional racing to vehicular combat, 2D exploration, and shoot ’em up brawls.

The Skylanders themselves played a diminished role during the often annoying vehicle segments, and the controls left a lot to be desired. The on-foot gameplay was still solid, and the figures were decent. While it was fun seeing new remixes of familiar characters, like a gun-wielding Stealth Elf, it meant less new characters overall.

3) Skylanders: Trap Team

skylanders

New Gimmick: Trapping and playing villains

Best new Skylanders: Krypt King, Gearshift, Blackout

Ah, the inevitable Pokémon clone. For the fourth game, Trap Team lets you battle against a roster of fun new villains – and then capture them inside special trap crystals. Sold separately, of course. Playing as the villains was like a special powered-up mode and a lot of fun – particularly the way the captured villains taunted from the speakers on the portal itself.

You needed one of each trap element to play as all the villains, but you could mix and match them within their elemental types. Much speculation was given as to how the traps would be incorporated into future games, and the answer was, unfortunately, not very well if at all. Save for a few standouts the new Trap Master figures were generally disappointing, and requiring them to unlock everything in the game was irksome.

One standout feature that Trap Team added: tower defense survival mode. These were fantastic challenge modes, built for various levels of Skylanders, and a fun way to earn experience and level up outside the main game. They also played perfectly in co-op. For whatever reason, the mode was dropped in future games.

2) Skylanders: Swap Force

skylanders

New Gimmick: Swappable figures that can mix top and bottom halves

Best new Skylanders: Roller Brawl, Free Ranger, Spy Rise

The third game in the Skylanders series was the first developed by Vicarious Visions, instead of series creator Toys for Bob. Like the annualized Call of Duty series, Activision would appoint two studios to keep up with the yearly output of new entries. Vicarious Visions created an excellent entry that provided some of the biggest, best level designs the series has ever offered. Plus you could finally jump, a first for the series that opened up the level designs even more. But the real treat was the incredibly cool swap gimmick.

In one what is unquestionably one of the neatest concepts in a Skylanders game, special Swap Force figures could be taken apart and mixed together to create unique combinations. It was fun to play around with the toys, and also created a lot of really fun and interesting combos in-game, supported by new challenge mini-games and dual elemental gates.

Swap Force also featured Time Attack and Score modes for providing challenging replay value, and was the last Skylanders game to include PVP arenas.

1) Skylanders: Imaginators

Skylanders Imaginators

New Gimmick: Create your own Skylanders

Best new Skylanders: Kaos, Golden Queen, Ambush

It’s not fair to declare that Skylanders Imaginators was the first game to finally get it right, as each game had their strengths. But Imaginators combined a brilliant new gimmick, the best line-up of new figures, a fully realized loot system, and a more free-roaming overland map to create the best Skylanders experience yet.

The ability to create your own Skylanders was made possible by piggy-backing on Trap Team’s trap concept. Separate Crystals were sold that could house a single created Skylander. The Crystal determined its element, while you could select on of 10 different weapon styles. Within those parameters, you had multiple basic attacks, weapon attacks, and elemental moves to choose from as you leveled up.

All in-game rewards were tied to loot chests, which gave out new customization pieces, weapons, and skins for your custom Skylanders. There was an astonishing amount of loot to collect, making your Skylanders journey fun and rewarding, though they may suffer a bit from Frankenstein syndrome.

Imaginators couldn’t gotten by on that concept alone, but Activision also released the best wave of figures Skylanders had ever seen. The Senseis were all new, medium-size figures that had the best designs and gameplay we’ve seen yet, and the Villains let us play as our favorites from Trap Team as proper leveled figures.

Story structure and level design saw vast improvements as well. No longer were we stuck in a hub world, going through each level chapter by chapter. Now we could free roam around a board game-like overworld, exploring hidden secrets, taking side paths, and finding mini-games. It cannot be overstated how much this improved every aspect the game. If you can only play one Skylanders game, make it Skylanders: Imaginators.

dauntless

PAX South Preview: Dauntless is Part Destiny, Part Monster Hunter

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Dauntless either has terrible timing or brilliant timing. Indie developer Phoenix Labs had one of the largest booth at PAX South to show off their free-to-play monster hunting game. The booth lie in the shadow of the even larger Capcom booth, whose gigantic Rathalos statue beckoned people to play one of the biggest releases of the year: Monster Hunter: World. Dauntless offers a much more streamlined – and more importantly free alternative to the niche hunting genre.

“We’re big fans of the hunting genre,” said Reid Buckmaster, combat designer for Dauntless. “We wanted to bring together elements of games we all enjoyed to build the ultimate co-op game that we at the studio always wanted to play. We’re using elements from Monster Hunter, but also gameplay loops from Destiny.”

After several crashes on the demo PC I finally loaded up into a mission with a group of three other hunters, called slayers. Four weapon loadouts were available, and I chose the war pike.

Dauntless uses an easy to understand combo system with two attack buttons, as well as a special attack that varies depending on the weapon. My war pike could focus a laser beam, while the dual blades could either be hurled to close the distance, or used to vault away from a monster to avoid danger.

Combos are quickly accessible from the pause menu, teaching me basic strategies for getting the most out of my weapon – button mashing only gets you so far.

“We want to push players to switch between the weapon types,” said Buckmaster. “Players should want to feel like they have a main weapon, but be able to quickly switch out depending on their party composition or the encounter.” There are five weapons currently available: sword, hammer, axe, dual blades, and the war pike. A sixth weapon is being planned for open beta.

The four of us landed on a floating island to begin our hunt. The islands are relatively small zones and contain a number of gatherable resources and plants, which can then be used to craft potions and items back in the hub town of Ramsgate.

As in Monster Hunter we were given a time limit to hunt the monster. “We’re shooting for an average hunt time of about 15 minutes,” said Buckmaster. “If you have the right gear and really know your way around, you could finish one as quickly as five minutes.”

We stuck together and soon found our prey: Skarn. Skarn was a large four-legged dinosaur monster equipped with giant plates of rocky armor. It could knock the armor off and use it as a weapon, or slam the ground and cause rocky spires to jut out and impale us. The four of us surrounded it and began hacking it up, getting knocked around in the process. A big part of the strategy is learning to read a behemoth’s attack patterns and weaknesses, and a live demo on the show floor isn’t the ideal way to tackle it.

dauntless

Skarn retreated to a different area, giving us some breathing room to apply healing before chasing after it. There were some glowing blue outcroppings on the ground we could activate for an additional healing font. We also came equipped with several healing potions. If someone went down we could revive them, provided someone else distracted the monster away.

Sadly the behemoth ended us before we could take it down, though we gave it a valiant effort. Monsters scale with the number of players, and Skarn represented a Tier 2 behemoth. Normally it would not be the first monster you face.

Skarn is one of 18 behemoths currently available in the closed beta, spread out over five different difficulty tiers. The starter monsters at Tier 1 are easier versions of other behemoths, while a few later behemoths repeat the base monster designs but with different coloring and attack patterns.

Fighting behemoths is more than just trying to kill them. Targeting specific body parts and destroying them will nullify some of the monster’s attacks, as well as rewarding you with that body part. Body parts are used to craft more powerful weapons and armor, which in turn allow you to hunt more dangerous prey.

Dauntless is currently in closed beta, with an open beta arriving this summer on PC. Since it’s going to be free to play, Phoenix Labs admits that the open beta will essentially be a soft launch. “For open beta we’ll have the outline of our campaign,” said Buckmaster. “The goal is to have a full story campaign with voice acting and cutscenes. It’s not unlike Destiny where the 10-15 hour campaign shows you the ropes and gets you into the universe. Beyond that you’re grinding out for better stuff and going for the top accolades.”

dauntless

Phoenix Labs promises the game will remain free to play, with no pay-to-win elements. “We are very firmly against pay-to-win type mechanics,” said Buckmaster. “You won’t be able to purchase anything that will affect your gameplay. The only things available to purchase will be cosmetics, like designs for flares and armor.”

Dauntless is planned for a PC launch initially, but Phoenix Labs are eyeing console releases for the future, though no consoles have yet been announced.

Can Dauntless survive now that many hunting fans are knee deep into the recently released behemoth of the genre, Monster Hunter: World? “The hunting genre has been pretty niche and sometimes difficult to get new players into,” said Buckmaster. “That’s something we wanted to do focus on with Dauntless – having a really inviting game that has depth, but easy enough to jump into and start hitting buttons.”

Achievement Unlocked: Trust Another Player

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Early in life we are taught to be kind, generous, and unselfish. In short, one of our first lessons in life is to be nice.

In my experience – both personal and with the kids I’ve met – there comes a point in our tweens when we start to question those early lessons. Kids start to explore new ideas and think on their own, and often their revolutionary discovery is that nice people don’t always win. At that age we start to notice that the world isn’t fair and not everyone follows the rules. We grow up thinking that doing the right thing will be rewarded, but, of course, things don’t always work out that way.

Our heroes are supposed to achieve what they want. The villains deserve nothing but their rightful comeuppance. In the real world, however, good people can get cheated, and the bad guys sometimes seem invulnerable to justice.

You can’t blame kids when they develop such cynicism. If there’s no guarantee people will be good to us, why depend on anyone else but ourselves? It can be tough to convince ourselves again that trust, cooperation, and sharing are worth it. It’s tough for young people and it’s tough for adults, too. It means making ourselves vulnerable for uncertain rewards.

The Impact of Video Games

Video games doesn’t always help either. In games, movies, and TV we tend to focus on the tough individualism of our heroes. Individualism makes for great drama, but surviving without trust or dependence is not the most accurate portrayal of how ordinary people succeed. In real life, how well we work with others is the deciding factor in achievement and heroism more often than not.

There are some games out there that teach us the importance of cooperation by resembling reality more closely. They challenge our individualist tropes and teach players about the dynamics and economics of trust and cooperation. These games are not necessarily sweet and cuddly either.

Multiplayer games that can have open player-versus-player rules such as Minecraft, ArcheAge, and ARK: Survival Evolved (to name a few) create situations where trust and cooperation are not guaranteed but are necessary to survival. Being repeatedly defeated by other players is a distinct possibility. Betrayal and double crossing is a definite threat. Going through this with strangers can be tough, but it also closely mimics real life.

minecraft-battle

Minecraft

We rarely have the benefit of only working with family or close friends. We need strangers to get through life and thrive. Some strangers will become our greatest friends and others will be horrible to us. It takes bravery to take a chance on someone, but the rewards are well worth it.

You wouldn’t assume that games that specifically have no rules regarding a player’s aggression are an arena to learn trust, but placing hostility or trust in the hands of the players are exactly what makes these games ideal for the lesson.

In an open PvP game, players initially have an instinct to kill rather than risk being killed. On an open PvP server in Minecraft, for example, gameplay can be frustrating at first. With everyone at each other’s throats, players struggle to establish a cave to live in, much less an elaborate castle. This state of mutually assured destruction makes gameplay slow and tedious. At some point, however, someone takes a chance and trusts. It may start off with only a couple of players. The advantage of many over the one, however, quickly becomes apparent.

In many games there are challenges that are too large for even one guild to tackle. The darkest caverns of ARK or the giant krakens of ArcheAge may be too daunting for a single group. Alliances are forged. Trust – even if it is fleeting – is invested for the sake of a common goal.

ark

ARK: Survival Evolved

I can assure you that the open-ended games make for some of the best stories and lasting impressions, as well. I still remember the various team-ups and capers my friends and I would get up to over a decade ago on Neverwinter Nights servers. We would watch each other’s backs, help people just starting out, and mete out justice as best we could.

ArcheAge was another game I played where cooperation was required and chances had to be taken. On the open seas anyone could attack anyone else – even within the same faction. You were safer if you travelled together with someone. As a group you could fend off the pirates and bandits along the trade routes. You could invite strangers to travel with you; however, you always had to wonder if you had just invited a thief into your own company. There were folks we helped across the sea who joined our guild or became reliable allies. There were a couple who gained notoriety for stabbing us in the back.

A Little Economics

John Forbes Nash, notable for his 1994 Nobel Prize in economics and his film autobiography A Beautiful Mind, described a concept known as The Nash Equilibrium. The concept illustrates that, given that Player 1 knows what Player 2’s likely strategy is, Player 1 will not change their strategy.

It happens all the time in our daily lives. While driving we feel comfortable changing lanes because we assume the person behind the spot we’re moving to won’t speed up. We know their strategy so we don’t change ours. If they do speed up or otherwise act reckless on the road, we no longer have the equilibrium we expected and start to re-evaluate our strategy.

Game theory often uses matrices to help us look at how we make choices. In simple terms, when a player encounters another player they have the option to attack or stay peaceful. Disregarding that friends and family likely trust each other, everyone on an open PvP server starts off not knowing how anyone else will act.

archeage

ArcheAge

To Player 1 assessing their options, without knowing how Player 2 would likely act, it makes the most sense to attack. At best Player 1 would get the drop on someone and most likely keep their own inventory. At worst Player 1 has a fighting chance if both Players 1 and 2 attack each other.

Likewise, for Player 2, not knowing the likely choice for Player 1 means attacking is the best option.

Overall, however, this isn’t the absolute best outcome for either player, so how do we get to the optimal outcome? The answer is trust. How we get there is where the real lesson comes in. Someone has to be willing to take a chance and trust.

A code of ethics is a good starting place. If Player 1 has resolved to never attack anyone, they will lose a few times, but they will become known as a trustworthy person. Suddenly the chance for someone to react peacefully to them becomes much higher. Knowing that Player 1 is trustworthy, Player 2’s best choice is always to be peaceful. Our equilibrium point has changed, and the good guys who cooperate and keep their word have ultimately won.

It’s a great lesson that those who mistrust and are known to be distrustful are doomed to scrape by at the Minecraft Creeper’s mercy. The players who refuse to give peace a chance become pariahs and are at a disadvantage because they are distrusted by everyone.

Sometimes what we need to restore our faith in others is seeing that those who take a chance on cooperation end up with the nice castle and share it with their friends.

losing

Learning the Importance of Losing

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“I already know how to lose! I need you to teach me to win!” my older brother exclaimed after losing a game of chess to my father for what seemed like the thousandth time. My brother was still in elementary school at the time. It was frustrating for a child that young to hear yet again from a parent that losing was a crucial part of learning to win. It’s a lesson that we all have to learn at some point. The sooner in life we learn to accept and work through our failures, the happier and healthier we are.

Video games are an increasingly large part of childhood. Just as games like chess or sports always have been, video games today are how many kids learn to process success and failure. Games can teach anyone how to learn from mistakes and be gracious in victory. Read More