Review – Horizon: Zero Dawn

A great action game full of robot dinosaurs.

Growing up, I was always obsessed with dinosaurs.  I knew every dinosaur by name and my parents bought me a ton of dinosaur books.  I even bought one of my old favorites recently for my incoming newborn.  When I saw the trailer for Horizon: Zero Dawn, I was immediately intrigued.  The game blends two of my favorite things in the world: a post-apocalyptic setting and dinosaurs.  Actually, the dinosaurs are  robots, but functionally they act like dinosaurs.  The game also features a strong female lead who shoots a bow.  My wife loved the new Tomb Raider games, so I bought this one for her because I knew that she’d like it.  I also knew I’d love it, so I’ll admit to an ulterior motive.

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Combat

The combat in Horizon is excellent.  It’s hard to describe, but the tactile feel of the bow is really impressive.  When you shoot it and hit the side of a dinosaur, it has a punch to it that most games don’t have.  You can shoot an entire clip in Call of Duty or Battlefield and the guns don’t have the same feeling you get from the bow in Horizon.  It’s really great.  There are a number of skill points you can invest in as you move through the game that add cool and interesting abilities to your character.  This is not new to action games, but a lot of these abilities add dimensions to the combat that elevate this game above your average action game.

There aren’t a ton of weapons in this game, but the ones that are present are great.  Like I said, the bow is outstanding.  Many games use bows, but this is probably the best video game bow I’ve ever used.  Outside of the bow, the tripcaster was especially good.  The Tripcaster lets you place a tripwire on the ground, and the wire is rigged to an explosive.  Since stealth plays fairly heavily into the combat, it is very satisfying to set up a complex series of trip wires and then lure enemies into them.  While the number of weapons in this game is low, each one had something interesting to add to the combat.

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Fighting the robot dinosaurs is the real meat and potatoes of this game.  Most of your time spent in Horizon is spent fighting giant robots.  Each of these robots can be scanned for weak points.  The weak points typically have some kind of weakness, fire, frost, or electricity.  Horizon introduces a new kind of weakness called tear.  Tear is a stat that you can increase on your weapons, and it increases the likelihood that you will tear off a component when you hit a robot.  Horizon slowly introduces new dinosaurs as you explore the gigantic world map.  There is a large variety of dinosaurs, and seeking out every last one helped motivate me to explore every corner of the world map.

While shooting dinosaurs is a pleasure in this game, shooting humans is not much fun.  The combat dragged for me when I fought the humans.  They were either too few — which made them easy and boring, or there were so many in one area it felt impossible to get past them.  I hope in the inevitable sequel they either limit the human enemies or revamp them.

Story/Characters

Horizon’s main character is Aloy.  She’s a strong woman who overcomes all odds.  She’s a little tropey in that way, and I found her personality to be a little wooden.  Most of the NPC’s she meets through out the game aren’t much better.  The facial animations and overall graphics are great, but I didn’t find the characters to be written all that well.

The story however is really cool.  There’s a reason the world of Horizon is post apocalyptic, and finding out how we got from present day to robot dinosaurs was really interesting.  There’s some cool twists and turns that I didn’t see coming.  However, there’s a lot of Die Hard-esque set pieces in this game and even though I was playing a game about robot dinosaurs, I found some of it to be a bit unbelievable.  This game is definitely not shooting for realism.

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Conclusion

Horizon is easily my favorite game this year so far.  It’s a game that combines many things that I already like and features some really impressive combat. Despite some small shortcomings, it’s an extremely well polished action game.  My wife and I are both playing through it separately, and  we compare notes every couple of days.  I’m probably going to start over again, I am still addicted to the combat in this game.  Check it out if you like dinosaurs or fun.  Thank God one of my anticipated games this actually turned out decent.

Review – The Great Ordeal

The first half of the last book in the Aspect Emperor series.

I finished The Great Ordeal this week.  I devoured this book, especially compared to how long it took me to read through Pandora’s Star.  While I am absolutely fascinated by Bakker’s world, this book suffers from being split in two.  The Great Ordeal was supposed to be the first half of one book, The Unholy Consult.  For whatever reason, it was split into two separate books.  The Great Ordeal came out last year and The Unholy Consult comes out in July.  It’s hard to discuss a book like this.  I’ve read in various places online that Bakker has had issues with his publisher, and I believe the publisher pressured him to split this book.  Whatever happened, The Great Ordeal isn’t as great as it should be.

Once again, we follow several main storylines: Achamian and Mimara and their search for Kellhus’ origins, Sorwheel and his encounters in a Nonman mansion, Kellhus and the Great Ordeal’s struggle through the wilderness, and Esmenet and Kelmomas in the capital city of the empire.  Achamian and Mimara’s storyline is again the most interesting to me.  The most interesting worldbuilding is done in their storyline.  The nature of the Dunyain is fascinating, and I couldn’t wait to get back to their chapters.  Sorwheel was a close second.  When he was introduced in the first book I had a very difficult time connecting with his character. However, in the previous book I really started to enjoy his POV chapters, and the background that we get on the Nonmen through his eyes in this book is excellent.  Esmenet and Kelmomas are still my least favorite characters in these books.  However, so much happens to them and around them in Momemn that I enjoyed their chapters immensely.  The Great Ordeal itself was actually the slowest storyline for me in this book.  Not a ton happened until near the climax of the book.  Even with that said, everything about it was interesting and I enjoyed reading from Proyas’s perspective.

This is the frustrating thing about this book.  I enjoyed it a great deal.  All of the characters are interesting, and there is a ton of interesting world building done in The Great Ordeal.  It’s really unfortunate that all of these storylines are left dangling at the end.  It feels to me like this book doesn’t really have an ending, it just decides to stop.  I’m sure when taken as the first half of one continuous book it’ll be more satisfying, but as a standalone reading experience while The Unholy Consult has yet to be released, it’s a frustrating read.

If nothing else, I’m extremely excited for the next and final book in this series.  I wish there was more resolution in this book.  It’s clear that the business decisions of the author and/or the publisher affected the structure of this book, and that definitely affects the reading experience unfortunately.  If you’re all in on Bakker and his work, you’re going to love this book for the insights you get into the Nonmen, Ishual, and Kellhus.  However, this book ends right when everything is ramping up. So if you’re looking for resolution, you might wait until July and read this together with The Unholy Consult.

Review – Pandora’s Star

A great sci-fi book with a rocky beginning.

I finally finished this book.  I actually finished a couple weeks ago but sometimes my posting schedule gets in the way.

I’m going to sound negative about this book in the beginning, but overall I enjoyed it.  That said the first few hundred pages were a real slog for me.  From what I understand, this may just be inherent to the “hard” sci-fi genre.  There was very little in the way of comprehensive exposition on the Commonwealth’s technology and the smattering of alien races.  Hamilton throws that stuff out in dribs and drabs, so nearer to the end of the book I finally felt like I had a grasp on how the Commonwealth worked.  But this approach almost turned me off from reading the book altogether.

The slow drip of expository information was bad enough, but the poor characterization of many of the protagonists was really difficult for me.  There are so many characters in this book and their chapters are spread very far away from each other.  Hamilton did not do a good enough job of giving them individual personalities, so I had a hard time remembering anything unique about a lot of these characters.  They seemed to all have the same personality, and they bled together in my head.  Most of these characters are highly logical people working towards some purpose.  Wilson Kime is building a ship, Paula is chasing Johansen, Kazamir is looking for Justine.  They’re all doing something different, but they felt like the same person.  At times, I lost focus while I was reading because I was so lost or bored.  There’s not much humor or personality in this book at all, and I had a very hard time keeping characters and plot lines straight in my head.  That, combined with the slow drip feed of exposition made the first third or so of the book really hard to get through.

However, it did get better.  The book really picked up for me when the Second Chance left Commonwealth space to head to the Dyson stars.  The arcs that each of the protagonists go through slowly became more and more interesting, and by the end of the book I was fascinated with each one.  The poor characterization was still there, although Paula and Ozzie stand out as well realized individuals by the end.  Ozzie’s journey through the Silfen paths is probably my favorite plotline in the book.  I think it took advantage of the sci-fi setting and did something unique, whereas the other plotline’s followed a more standard sci-fi journey.  Not that they weren’t interesting by the end, but Ozzie’s journey was the most unique and the one I felt myself most drawn to.

This book was exhausting when I started it.  It was really hard to push through the beginning, but now that I’m done I’m glad I did.  I’m really looking forward to Judas Unchained after I finish The Great Ordeal.  I would hesitate to recommend this book to anyone without a love of sci-fi.  It’s a hard book to read, and if you can’t get past the first few hundred pages you’re going to waste your time.  But if you enjoy sci-fi and you can slog through the first third or so, this book gets super interesting and sets up the sequel brilliantly.

I wrote a review of Misspent Youth a few months ago.  I remember seeing many people on Goodreads complaining about the book because it wasn’t like the Commonwealth Saga.  I read that book first before moving on to the main series, and thank God I did.  I would have been hugely disappointed if I read Misspent Youth after anything in the Commonwealth series.  I did not love the book the first time and I had no expectations.  If I had been a fan of the Commonwealth and I read Misspent Youth, I would have been very dissatisfied.

Review – Nioh

Final wrap-up on my time with Nioh.

This is more of a wrapup than a review, but I figured I’d keep the format consistent.  I talked a lot about Nioh here and here, so read through all three posts for a more complete picture.

I finished Nioh last week.  I said a lot about it in posts, but I figured I’d wrap up Nioh now that I’ve completed it.

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Nioh is an unabashed Dark Souls clone.  While that can turn many people off, either because of the Dark Souls gameplay or the fact that it is not wholly original, it is an absolutely worthwhile game.  I had a ton of fun with it while it lasted, and it’s huge.  There are five regions in the game, each of them containing probably in the neighborhood of 10 missions.  That’s roughly 50 missions, each of them full of complex and challenging combat.  I came close to finishing all of the side missions, but when I finally got to the end of the game I sprinted to the end.  I didn’t do any of the side content in the last region.

I don’t want to retread too much ground on Nioh, so I’ll just focus on the end here.  The end is comprised of a series of very difficult challenges, with the final mission involving a gauntlet of previously defeated bosses before reaching the final boss.  I think there are 7 total bosses in that last level.  While it does make this last mission very difficult, I think it illustrates one of Nioh’s biggest weaknesses.  The repetition of enemies and environments got to be a bit frustrating by the end.  I got very tired of fighting the same five or six different yokai by the end, and the environments were even less diverse.  By the time I reached the end, I had beaten each of the bosses in that level several times over already.  These bosses had been recycled for some of the side missions, so I think the weird lightning lion boss in the final level was actual the third time I fought him in the game.

I get that it can be hard to consistently design interesting and difficult bosses, but this game is huge.  If they had pared down the number of missions, the game would have felt more focused and the repetition in the enemies and environments might have been less noticeable.

That said, the last mission is a beast.  The lead up to the actual bosses is long and very challenging, and beating 7 bosses in a row is ridiculous.  It took me a few hours just to get through that one mission.  I had a huge sense of accomplishment when I finished, which is what I look for when I play this kind of game.  There is an epilogue mission, which was ok. Just two bosses, and they were pretty tame.  But taken as a whole, that last section of the game was incredibly difficult and fun.

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With all that said, all the things I’ve previously written about Nioh still stand true.  The combat is on par with Bloodborne for me, I just absolutely love fighting in this game.  And I think if the developer makes some adjustments for the sequel, they could easily out do Dark Souls.  Nioh is a great game, and if you love Dark Souls and samurai’s, you should definitely play it.

Review – Resident Evil

A return to horror pays off for Resident Evil.

Resident Evil 7 came out recently to strong reviews.  I’ve never been a huge Resident Evil fan, but I really enjoyed RE 4 and the reviews convinced me to give it a shot.  I heard that this game was supposed to get back to it’s survival horror roots.  I like horror movies, and I love forcing my wife to watch horror movies even more.

One thing that I think I’ve failed to mention on this blog is that I kind of hit the jackpot with my wife.  She enjoys watching me play video games almost as much as just watching normal TV.  For instance, I picked up Nioh (post incoming) the other night and set it to download before we went out for dinner.  When we got back, it had installed and was ready to go.  She was disappointed when I told her I was too tired to play it until the next night.  None of my other buddies wives do that, so I think I’m a pretty lucky guy in that respect.

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The primary antagonists, the Baker family.

In the past, the Resident Evil proper games have always been played from a third person perspective.  This game brings the series into the first person perspective for the first time.  This is a great choice, because the shift in perspective plays to Resident Evil 7’s strengths.  The game is set in a large plantation in the south of Louisiana.  Ethan, the main character, is searching for his missing wife.  The first person perspective brings the player in close and amplifies the horror aspects of the game.  Ethan has to explore a house filled with the murderous Baker family and a bunch of goopy sewage monsters.  Having the perspective in close makes the jump scares that much more effective than if the game was in third person.<

The pacing in this game is also very different.  Instead of constantly mowing down enemies with machine guns, encounters with enemies are much more rare.  A lot of the game is spent creeping around the house, solving puzzles, and trying to avoid fighting one of the Bakers.  The game creates a sense of tension and suspense by limiting the amount of ammo you receive, so you’re constantly worried about the next encounter.  I never ran out of ammo completely, but the game gives you just barely enough ammo to survive each encounter.  Subtle music and audio cues also increase the tension.  The first hour especially was very scary, it literally felt like watching a horror movie.  After the first hour or so the game falls into it’s natural rhythm of exploring, solving puzzles, and boss fights.  But that first hour was really something, and it absolutely freaked my wife out.

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Goop monster.

The combat itself is alright.  The enemies are susceptible to headshots, and the sensitivity of the movement and aiming is very slow.  The enemies move their heads a lot, so it can be difficult to consistently hit the goopy guys consistently.  Add to this that you constantly feel like you’re on the verge of running out of ammo and the normal enemy encounters are fun and increase the tension of the game.  However, the boss fights are super dumb.  There’s not much creativity going on with the boss fights, you basically just have to pump all of your ammo into them until they drop.  I was hoping for something that matched the rest of the game, but the bosses felt ripped out of the older RE games.  Point and shoot until they’re dead.  Maybe adding a puzzle boss or something that played up the horror focus of the game might have been a better choice.  I don’t know, I’m not a game designer, but the boss encounters were a glaring sticking point for me as I played through this game.

Resident Evil 7 takes the series back to it’s roots.  There’s almost no mention of traditional RE characters or settings (not even any zombies really), and I think that was a wise choice.  It feels almost like a standalone story told in the RE universe.  If they keep making games like this one, then I’m back on the Resident Evil train.

 

Gardens of the Moon

A difficult read, but an introduction to one of the best fantasy series ever written.

This post is part of an ongoing series about Steven Erikson‘s Malazan Book of the Fallen.  In each post I discuss and review one of the books in the series.  These posts will contain spoilers for the book discussed as well as the entire series, so consider yourself warned. 

Introduction

Gardens of the Moon was my introduction to the world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen and Steven Erikson.  At the time, I believe I had just finished The Wheel of Time, and I was looking for a more mature and progressive fantasy series.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed WoT, but there was a lot of one dimensional characters and misogyny in those books.  I wanted something that challenged me a little more.  I did some research online, and it seemed that the Malazan Book of the Fallen had a small but passionate following.  All the reviews I found were calling it one of the top three fantasy series of all time, so I took the plunge.

Background

This book was originally envisioned as a screenplay.  In the 80’s, Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont worked together as archaeologists.  They ran a series of dungeons and dragons campaigns with some of their friends, but instead of focusing on the “gamey” aspects of D&D, they opted to focus on storytelling and characterization.  These campaigns became the basis for the fantasy novels that Erikson and Esslemont would write later on.

They wrote Gardens of the Moon as a screenplay in the early 90’s, but it never got picked up.  After a few years they decided to change focus and write separate fantasy novels set in the world of Malaz instead.  They split the world in two based on the geographical continents, and Erikson wrote about one half and Esslemont the other.  They do share characters and locations from time to time.  This ranges from a brief cameo to a main character POV.  There is a big difference in writing style and quality between the two writers, but it’s always very exciting to see a character pop up in one of the other author’s works.  It kind of reminds me of the Marvel movies and how the heroes keep popping up in each others movies.

Gardens of the Moon came out in 1999 after Erikson reworked his screenplay into a novel.  The book is 666 pages long, and it primarily follows the Bridgeburners, a legendary army that’s part of the Malazan military.  This book picks up directly after they have been decimated by a battle at the city Pale on Genebackis.

Flaws

It took me two attempts to get through this book. The first time I picked up Gardens of the Moon I stopped about a quarter of the way through and didn’t try again for about a year.  There were a few reasons for this.

First off, the over arching story of these books follows the Malazan empire.  Technically speaking, this book drops you into the middle of the plot with very little explanation.  The real story begins roughly a hundred years before this book with the formation of the empire, and concludes with the resolution of the tenth book The Crippled God.  There is very little in the way of exposition, the reader is literally dropped into the middle of the story and expected to keep up.

Secondly, the writing is a little rough at times.  It’s clear this is a first attempt at a novel.  Erikson has great world building and settings in this book, but too many of the characters don’t feel the same as they do in later books.  Most of them feel more distant and cold, there’s not as much depth or warmth to his characterization in this book.  I chalk this up to the screenplay adaptation, and to Erikson’s relative inexperience as a writer.  His characterization is much more consistent hereafter.

Thirdly, the writing itself is extremely dense.  All his books are dense in this same way, but later books have the advantage of building on the characters and story lines that have come in previous books.  As a reader, you appreciate the denseness because you’re already sold on the story, and you want as much detail and information as you can get.  This book does not have that advantage, as a reader you don’t have a lot of investment in those things yet.  This can be very off putting for a first time reader.

Strengths

However, if you can push past these issues you will find a book that sets up one of the most amazing series of books I’ve ever read.  I wrote about how much I love Steven Erikson in the introduction post of this series, but I truly can’t say enough about how much I love these books.  And Gardens of the Moon starts the whole thing off.  Once you get used to Erikson’s style, reading the series becomes like a puzzle, or a mystery. The fact that you don’t have all the exposition means that your understanding of the way the world works is always in question.

From the very beginning, Erikson gives little hints at how this world is put together, and how the different factions and characters play off of each other.  Just when you think you’ve put all the clues together and figured out how something works, the magic system for example, Erikson drops a contradictory clue to challenge your solution.  Or he comes right out and says it doesn’t work the way you think it does.  However, if you pay close enough attention, you might solve a mystery correctly.  This is about as rewarding an experience as I’ve ever had reading a book.  The challenge of getting through the writing, trying to understand the world and the characters, and finally putting all the pieces together yourself is incredibly gratifying.  It is for this reason that the whole series truly rewards a re-read unlike anything else I’ve ever read.  When you complete the series, you immediately want to start the whole series over again to pick up on all the foreshadowing and clues, some of which doesn’t pay off for 8 or 9 books.  It’s really a remarkable achievement in foreshadowing that Erikson was able to plot out these intricate details a decade ahead of time and have them pay off all the way at the end of the series.

On top of this, the Gardens of the Moon is an enjoyable book.  It introduces the T’lan Imass, Jaghut, Tiste Andii, Darujhistan, Genebackis, Pale, Whiskeyjack, Fiddler, Kalam, Quick Ben, Apsalar, Ganoes Paran, Tattersail, Kruppe, Ralick Nom, Cutter, and more important races/names/places that have great impact on the entire series. There is no main character in this book or the series at large, the POV’s jump around constantly.  The characters are shades of gray, and the first impression the reader is given of a specific character is almost always incorrect.  The Malazan army and the Bridgeburners are the primary focus of the book, but they don’t always do the right thing.  Anomander Rake and his Tiste Andii are initially shown as terrifying sky mages, but he by the end of the series his character basically becomes a Jesus Christ analogue. Even the “Big Bad” of the series isn’t given much screen time in this book, and when he finally does show up the reader’s understanding of him and his motivations changes many times before the end of the series.

READ IT

The flaws in this first book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen are more present and glaring than any other book in the series.  It is a book written by an inexperienced writer, adapted from a screenplay, and intentionally left vague and hard to read.  It takes a determined reader to get through it, and it’s understandable why so few people have followed through with the rest of the series.  However, the determined reader will be rewarded many times over as that initial hurdle leads to some of the most well plotted and characterized books I’ve ever read in my life.  Erikson’s writing improves immensely from this book to the next, and the series starts with it’s worst book.  This is still a good book, it’s just not near the level of writing that Erikson gets to in the rest of the series.  It’s all uphill from here.  The second book, Deadhouse Gates is next.  It’s my favorite book in the whole series.  I’ll probably get a lot more into plot and characters in the next post, so that will be coming soon.

Review – Final Fantasy XV

A mostly open world Final Fantasy shows the series moving in the right direction.

I finally finished Final Fantasy XV a couple weeks ago.  Like I’ve said in past posts, Final Fantasy holds a special place in my childhood.  Final Fantasy IX was the first game that had a story I really connected with.   In the intervening years, the series quality has slowly declined.  Final Fantasy XV was famously in development for over a decade.  There was a lot of expectation for it to be at the very least not disappointing.  While it’s not the best game of the year, I can safely say it’s a good game that I really enjoyed.

Gameplay

The gameplay of Final Fantasy XV is easily the best part of the game.  Once you get through all the intro cutscenes and tutorials, the meat of the game is this: rest at a quest hub, go out and complete quests or monster hunts, drive around in a cool car, rinse and repeat.  The combat is simplistic, but it kept me engaged the whole way through the game.  Over time you unlock skills and combos that gives more flavor to the combat.  A lot of these techniques rely on teamwork between the four main characters, and they include some really interesting combat animations.   The side quests themselves aren’t very interesting, but they usually involve combat so I usually wasn’t bored doing them.  The monster hunts were fun, they were always combat oriented and usually paid well.

Surprisingly, the driving was super enjoyable for me, but not for the reasons you might think.  The driving sucks, hard.  The controls are so limited I don’t know why they’re even included in the game.  I never manually drove the car around, I always opted to have one of the NPC characters drive me around.  What I ended up doing is setting my car to drive across the map towards a quest and reading a book while the car was driving.  I read most of The White Luck Warrior while driving a video game car around.  I realize that’s a very specific situation and applies to almost no one, but for me I had a blast fighting monsters and reading about Drusas Achamian.

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This is an end game boss, can’t wait to come back in a few weeks and chase this thing down.

Story

The story was terrible.  There’s no getting around it.  It’s full of japanese and JRPG tropes.  I don’t like anime, and a lot of the things I can’t stand about anime are present in this game.  Final Fantasy dialogue I’m convinced was better when it was all text based.  Once they went to voice actors, it became very difficult for me to take the dialogue or characters seriously, going all the way back to Final Fantasy X.

The story really isn’t all that important to enjoying the game.  The gameplay is where it’s at for me.  I have enjoyed Final Fantasy stories in the past, tropes and all, but there are almost no memorable characters to latch onto.  I didn’t care about anyone outside of the four guys you follow around, and I was bored every time a cutscene played.

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The only good thing about the story and cutscenes is they’re very pretty.

The last third of the main story takes you out of the open world environment, and it also separates you from your three NPC buddies for a long stretch.  The developers take all the best parts of the game out at the end.  Nintendo has similar problems right now, a lot of the decisions Square and Nintendo make show that they don’t understand Western culture.  If they want to target Japan specifically, great for them and more power to you.  But a significant portion of their market is in the West, and the ending to this game clearly demonstrates that Square doesn’t know how to speak to a western audience.

Conclusion

This game is best enjoyed if you take the beginning and endings out of the picture.  The middle part of the game is a fun open world experience with interesting combat and a beautiful world to explore.  The story and characters fall almost entirely short for me, but if you’ve exhausted The Witcher 3 and Skyrim, the open world of Final Fantasy XV might scratch that itch for you. 3 Gibsons.

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