Gaming Round-Up: Adrift

Do you ever find that when you finish a long game that you really love, you have a hard time getting into anything else for a while? That’s been my experience since finishing We Happy Few. I’ve tried a lot of things, but not much is sticking.

My character in Conan Exiles.I did finish the Reign of Terror mod for Grim Dawn, which recreates Diablo II, but to be honest it ended up feeling like a bit of a slog. Even with the updates provided by the Grim Dawn engine, the gameplay hasn’t aged that well, and even the story is a lot more shallow than I remember it being.

I did get to experience the story of the Lord of Destruction expansion for the first time, not having played it back in the day, and I think I liked it a bit better than the base game’s, but even then it wasn’t exactly thrilling.

A few weeks back, both Conan Exiles and Fallout 76 ran simultaneous free trial events, and even though neither is a game I’ve really had on my radar, I decided to give them a shot for curiosity’s sake. We Happy Few did leave me with a bit of a craving for more survival mechanics.

To my great surprise, I actually ended up enjoying Fallout 76 quite a bit. It does have a lot of jankiness — the combat is weak at best, the character models are hideous, and the PC interface is an unmitigated disaster — but even so I was actually rather sad when the trial ended. I’m tempted to pick it up on sale at some time.

I miss my CAMP. I had a lovely spot on a mountain peak between two forested valleys. I was growing a vegetable garden in the back. Player housing can be really fun when it’s a meaningful part of the game and not just a place to decorate once and then forget about.

The view from my CAMP in Fallout 76.Exiles, on the other hand, I didn’t enjoy at all. Whereas F76 was occasionally annoying due to bad design, Conan Exiles feels like it was designed from the ground up to be constantly annoying. I get that they’re going for a savage world where danger is constant, but when even the sheep treat you as KoS, you’ve just lapsed into the realm of unintentional self-parody. To say nothing of the nightmare of inventory management…

And honestly, even if you fixed those problems, it still wouldn’t be a very interesting game. Crafting is somehow even more gameified and mindless than in the average MMO (a bizarre choice for a game that’s almost entirely crafting), and there’s just no point to anything. No story, no meaningful goals.

After that I dipped into a few titles from my backlog. First was Far Cry: Primal. I really like the concept of the game, but the reality of it just didn’t click for me. Too much of a grindfest. I don’t understand why so many single-player games want to be bad MMOs these days.

I did enjoy the animal companions, though.

Next up was some strategy games — Surviving Mars and The Hive — but neither grabbed me. I give The Hive credit for an original concept, but in practice it was a pretty generic RTS, and it just didn’t feel like it was bringing anything new to the table.

Speaking of RTS, though, one highlight that did crop around this time is a game called Nordic Warriors I tried via a demo key given to Massively Overpowered. It’s a single-player game, so I wasn’t able to cover it on MOP, but it did impress.

A battle in the tactical RTS Nordic Warriors.The story of Nordic Warriors is based on Norse mythology, which is always a good way to get my attention, but more importantly, the gameplay is an homage to Bungie’s Myth games from back in the 90s.

Anyone who’s followed this blog for a long time knows I loved Myth back in the day, and there’s just nothing like it even now. Its hyper-realistic real time tactical strategy is a style of gameplay that simply doesn’t exist any more. Anything to bring back that kind of gameplay has my support.

In some ways, Nordic Warriors shows its low budget — the entire development team is just three people — but all things considered it’s an impressive effort at bringing back the Myth experience. I will definitely be picking it up when the full version goes live later this month.

In the meanwhile, that still left me without a game to fill my lonely days. Right now, I’ve gotten back into Elder Scrolls Online. Not for Greymoor, though. It looks like a pretty underwhelming expansion to me, and to be honest I almost forgot it was even a thing. Instead, I’ve finally started on the previous expansion, Elsweyr, which I bought on sale ages ago but never got around to playing.

I won’t lie, I didn’t go into this with a lot of enthusiasm. On paper ESO is my dream MMO, but in practice it tends towards being merely adequate. I think a lot of it is just down both the writing and the combat being fairly mediocre. I like the Khajiit, so I was curious about Elsweyr, but my expectations were low, especially after the disappointment of Summerset.

It’s early days, but while I may not be blown away, I will say it’s growing on me. It already feels better than Summerset, at least. Dragon fights might not be wildly original as public events go, but they’re definitely a lot more exciting than just reskinning Dolmens.

A Khajiit town in the Elsweyr expansion for Elder Scrolls Online.While the meat of the story is still kind of underwhelming, the world-building is interesting. Unlike most of the game, Elsweyr feels genuinely fantastical, and I am enjoying meeting all the strange and bizarre subraces of the Khajiit. And if nothing else, Khajiiti NPCs have vastly more personality than the Altmer.

Something has gone badly wrong if even I find Elves boring.

I’ve also switched to my warden rather than my main for a change of pace, which may be helping a little. She certainly kills things faster; normally I’m not a fan of mowing down mobs without any difficulty, but given ESO’s combat isn’t exactly a delight, I’m more okay with it right now.

I’d like to start a necromancer, but then I’d have to deal with having an untrained mount again. It’s a shame that ESO is so alt-friendly in so many ways, but that one mechanic just feels so punishing if you try to switch to a new character. Weird how MMOs work against their own designs sometimes.

I’m not convinced I’m not going to lose interest and jump onto something else before long, but so far at least I find myself warming up to Elsweyr. Mayhap it may tide me over until Nordic Warriors releases, at least.

Then again, there is also a part of me that’s hankering for some Age of Empires…

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition Is a Virtually Perfect Remaster

As a long time fan of the franchise, I of course pre-ordered the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition as soon as the option became available. As launch date grew closer, I became increasingly excited, but I worried I was over-hyping myself. Could a game that old, even polished up with modern graphics, still be exciting in this day and age?

A mission briefing from the Joan of Arc campaign in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

The answer is yes.

I remember now why I spent what feels like half my childhood playing this game. It’s hard to even point to any one specific thing that makes it special, but something about the way all the pieces of this game come together — economy, military, exploration — makes it fiendishly addictive.

I’m a bit jaded these days, and I don’t often find myself binging games the way I used to, but I’ve spent the last few days devoting almost every free moment to this game.

There are a few things that have lost their luster now that I see them through an adult’s more critical eye, but only a few. Mainly, I do somewhat resent this game’s dependence on siege weapons. They’re a hassle as an attacker because they’re so slow and clunky and fragile, and they’re a hassle as a defender because they can tear through your defenses so fast if you don’t counter them.

All that does make for interesting micro and counter-play on both sides, but I just wish it wasn’t such a huge part of the game. Castles are so strong that you have pretty much no hope of winning against them without siege engines, so there’s no escaping that gameplay. Every match just turns into baby-sitting your trebuchets while they slowly tear down the enemy base.

It’s not an unenjoyable way to play; there just needs to be more variety.

A mission briefing from the Malian campaign in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

Other than that, it’s a blast. The Definitive Edition does a beautiful job of updating the game with needed quality of life changes without harming the spirit of the original in any way.

And of course the graphics are massively improved. Considering the age of the engine, this game is downright gorgeous, and yet they’ve done a truly amazing job of being faithful to the original art. Everything looks the same, just better.

This is the gold standard for how to execute a video game remaster.

What makes this even more of a treat is how much new content there is. The Definitive Edition includes all of the expansions from the previous “HD” edition, plus more new content on top of that. The number of civilizations and campaigns has roughly doubled compared to when I played as a kid. It’s staggering, almost overwhelming.

I’ve completed four new campaigns so far, plus some standalone missions and skirmishes, and it’s all pretty high quality.

I also dipped into some of the older campaigns briefly just for comparison’s sake. Doing the first Joan of Arc mission was a massive nostalgia trip, let me tell you. I was a bit jarred at first because they’ve replaced all of the original voice acting for the campaigns, but except for Jean de Metz, the new actors are all as good or better than the originals, and since this isn’t the most story-driven game anyway I learned to accept it pretty fast.

A mission briefing from the Joan of Arc campaign in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

Any other changes to the campaigns are minor, and entirely the sort of thing it makes sense to change. For example, Joan the Maid now has a unique character model, rather than looking like a standard female villager.

My one disappointment so far is the new Indian civilization. They’re a bit wonky. They’re mainly a camel and gunpowder civilization, but their unique unit is an elephant archer, which is neither, and they don’t get gunpowder units during their campaign. Okay?

On a related note, I guess my other disappointment with the new civilizations is that despite the proliferation of elephant units, there still isn’t really a civilization that can go for a pure elephant army the way you could in other AoE games. Closest is Khmer with their ballista elephants, but you still at the very least need some regular archers and siege weapons to back up their elephants. It’s baffling that they didn’t give battle elephants to the Indians; then they could have had a proper elephant-focused build.

On the other hand, my favourite of the new options so far is the Inca. They’re possibly a little over-powered, but very fun. With the ability to eschew archers entirely in favour of skirmishers and slingers plus one of the game’s more unique unique units (a pikeman whose spear is long enough that their attack has range), their playstyle feels very different and fresh.

I’ve also enjoyed the Malians and the Bulgarians. It’s downright disgusting how cost effective the Bulgarian unique unit can be. In general, Indians and a few other minor complaints notwithstanding, the new civilizations feel like a good addition to the game.

A Bulgarian city in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

Undoubtedly soon I will begin to lose steam. As excellent as it is, this game surely cannot keep me this addicted forever.

But for now, I need to go finish the Bulgarian campaign.