Monday, November 6, 2017

A Keenly Human Element - Detroit: Become Human

During a recent press event in Paris, Quantic Dream presented their latest gameplay demo of their new IP (Intellectual Property), titled Detroit: Become Human. The game is being directed by David Cage.

I suppose the most controversial portion of the screening needs to be addressed first and foremost...the trailer depicted acts of domestic and child abuse as well as graphic violence.

Kara, an android housekeeper, bears witness to an American father’s psychological and physical abuse of his daughter, Alice. However, she is not merely a witness, but a potential foil to the antagonist within this particular scenario. She (and thereby the player, via proxy) is capable of intervention. How the player goes about doing so however, is the key factor in preventing further conflict escalation. One's choices will affect the narrative in a multitude of different ways. Does Kara try to talk to Todd in order to calm him down? How does he respond? Will she take a more aggressive approach? Does she take Alice and flee? A world of possibilities is only a button press away. Yet, every choice has a consequence...If nothing is done, Alice will end up dying, making her death the least desirable outcome.

Todd is shown to be a drug-addicted father who has been left by his wife. Having lost his job “because of androids,” he lives with his daughter in a shanty house in the suburbs of Detroit. Kara had already been damaged by Todd once before and her memories have since been reset.

There has been a longstanding status quo between game makers and players not to address taboos and political aspects in games because of a prevailing notion that this particular medium is not suitable for handling the gravity of certain real-life situations or moral choices appropriately. As such, there has perhaps been a stagnation of meaningful narrative in games. David Cage and his development team's production may work to rectify this by treading through these uncharted waters, so to speak. Addressing difficult subject matter however makes navigating potentially more perilous for the medium’s writers and designers.

Conversely, this type of setup isn't all too different from those old "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" books from the 1980s, where readers would, at the end of each plot milestone, make a dramatic choice, and then turn to the indicated page to see how the choice played out.

"Art imitates life, but should there be a limit to what is shown?"

Despite that comparison, it is still quite possible that gamers will see the game as a trivialization of needing only to make the “correct” choices in order to resolve such situations. Many people may feel that such choice is a misrepresentation of the reality of those who has suffered from, or who knows a survivor of, domestic abuse.

Now, Kara's story isn't the only focus of the grand, overall plot. In fact, there are at least three protagonists total, all of which have interwoven plotlines. One such, involves the Android negotiator Connor, who is sent to try to determine what events transpired during a hostage situation and prevent another Android, Daniel, from causing harm to come to a young girl. By investigating the crime scene and talking to SWAT personnel, the odds of success increase dramatically within the allotted time.

The third Android, Marcus, is trying to start an Android revolution. Recently gaining sentience, he must decide whether to make his demands known through forceful protest, or peaceful persistence.

Connor and Kara's storylines seem to be the most interesting of the three (at least to me), but perhaps in time we will see more of Marcus' inspirations and motivations.

It takes an incredible amount of courage to tackle extremely unpleasant themes or portray traumatic scenes, whether it be in game design, movie making, or other artistic design. We still need to be cautious of the glorification of and desensitization to, violence.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Opinion Piece - My Destiny 2 Review

Well, folks, I caved. I figured it would happen, but what can I say? I enjoy my first person shooters (as long as they have elements of customization). I picked up my copy of the game through Amazon for $51.83 (Savings of $11.97 compared to the MSRP of $59.96). At least I didn't pay full price. I know I'll have to hop on the DLC Expansion bandwagon soon enough, but I feel as though any and all delay in payments towards that inevitability are a boon. Spoilers may follow.

In Destiny 2, the last safe city on Earth has fallen and lays in ruins, occupied by a powerful new enemy, named Dominus Ghaul and his elite army, the Red Legion.  Guardians are being attacked mercilessly after losing their connection to the Light and thus, by extension, the Traveler. Without their powers, they can no longer resurrect after death, leading to a whole new wave of Guardian genocide by the hands of the Cabal.

I'd say that the overall campaign is quite short, clocking in at roughly 10-12 hours of gameplay per character. The final encounter ends up being a bit counter-intuitive as some of your super abilities restrict you from actually being able to hit Ghaul effectively while he is mid-air (depending upon your class and subclass). It can be a bit frustrating as it's almost mandatory that you have a projectile-based ability, especially considering that the game provides you with near infinite super meter refills. You can still shoot him as per usual with your gun, but when the game itself offers you a chance to rain vengeance in a near limitless fashion with your ultimate ability, you'll definitely want to partake.

If the original Destiny was a 6.5-7.0/10.0, this game is probably a 7.5-8.0/10.0 on my grading scale.

Those players who were turned off by the original's lackluster storyline and numerous plotholes may find enjoyment jumping back into the franchise now as the plot feels much more in depth and emotionally compelling. The exploration of the game's overworld was at times, forced due to the lack of the ability to use your Sparrow (a speeder reminiscent of those used by Stormtroopers in Star Wars) until after completing the campaign. (Oddly enough, sparrow horns seem to be largely absent from this game...)

However, this restriction allows for players to appreciate their surroundings and perhaps wander into an unexplored cavern to discover a "Lost Sector" of the map. These are often cavernous expanses with numerous enemies and a Loot Cache that can only be opened with a "Key Code" that is usually in a powerful enemies' inventory. By defeating the Fallen Captain (or equivalent) players can claim the treasure inside.

Unfortunately, there are no new character classes in Destiny 2 nor are there any new enemy types (beyond the War Beasts that the Red Legion have in their armada), yet, there are some changes to the existing character subclasses.

My Exo Warlock named "F33db4ck"

The Hunter's Bladedancer Subclass has now been replaced with the Arcstrider which summons an Arc-empowered staff that can be used for extreme close-quarters melee combat. Unfortunately, it means the loss of the invisibility powers associated with the previous type.

The Sentinel Subclass replaces the Void Defender Subclass from the original game. It's still able to utilize the Ward Of Dawn ability, but only with the "Code of the Protector" Skill Tree/Perk Set. The Super Ability allows for Titans to use a shield as a projectile similar to "Captain America" from the unrelated Marvel Comics Universe.

Finally, the Solar-based Dawnblade Subclass has now replaced the Sunsinger Subclass. Unfortunately, this replacement comes at the price of being able to self-resurrect after being killed. However, Warlocks can now weave Solar Light into blades and smite foes from the skies.

At this time, players can not choose what Heroic Strikes they wish to partake in, nor can they choose a Strike's difficulty level (i.e. Easy, Medium, or Hard). There is however, a Prestige Level for Raids and Strikes, the latter of which has a recommended light level of 300. Everything has being orchestrated into two playlists per category: Strikes or Nightfalls in the one and in the Crucible, it's either Quick Play or Competitive Mode (Trials of the Nine is only available during the weekends). The missions are selected randomly for the Strikes and the Nightfalls change weekly.

Nightfall missions themselves have gone through a change as well. In Destiny's first year, the fireteam would be kicked back to orbit the moment everyone died, and they would have to restart the entire mission from scratch. However, that restriction was inevitably removed in Destiny's second or third year. Now, in Destiny 2, the restriction is that the Nightfall missions are on a countdown timer and must be completed within the limit or the party is returned to orbit to start anew. This can be a bit frustrating for players if the mission itself is particularly difficult. There is some respite though in that nearly every week there is a new objective that might allow participants to extend the time as it depletes. In some instances, it may be leaping through Vex Temporal Rings, in others it may be a requirement to shoot blue Vex Oracles (light blue boxes). Each success adds an additional 30 seconds to the clock and every second counts (especially for the boss fights at the end!). However, there are often modifiers present that can help or hinder fireteams, depending on what is generated.

Also, all of the multiplayer modes (except for the Raid and Strikes) are in in a 4v4 setup. It is no longer 6v6. This makes combat against other players a more "tactical" affair. On the one hand, this can be less of a mad chaotic clash, but on the other, it means that stages may feel too large or too small comparatively. It completely changes the pacing of the competitive scene especially considering that grenades and shoulder charges don’t always kill in one hit. Each match may feel a bit sluggish compared to the fast paced action of the original. Also worth mentioning is that in these game modes, power ammo can only be acquired by ONE team member each time it spawns, so you have to make each use count and designate an appropriate player. This can lead to more clear-cut clutch moments and perhaps a fewer cheap deaths. But it also may mean that one guy on your team with terrible aim ends up hogging all of the power weapon ammunition.

My favorite Hunter Helmet, the Celestial Nighthawk

Public Events now appear on the overworld map with countdown timers and quite a few players will join up to participate, but only through certain actions will the public event transition to a Heroic Public Event, which includes better rewards. These are usually more challenging to initiate, and unfortunately a bit more difficult to coordinate. While these occurrences happen often and are a welcome addition, they leave little in the means of variety, especially on the smaller planets. This means that if you're on the moon Titan, for instance, you're going to get really tired of seeing the same Fallen Walker (Spider Tank) three to four times in the last hour, despite needing to do several public events for a weekly Flashpoint challenge. Granted, there is an alternative public event featuring the Hive, but there isn't much variation to cycle through.

As for the cutscenes, some really terrific work has been performed. The voice lines are great and Nathan Fillion's performances as Cayde-6 are always a treat. There are a few quips and jabs at his character along with some more depth to Ikora Rey (portrayed by Gina Torres) and Commander Zavala's (played by Lance Reddick) personalities. Whereas the Awoken Titan is unwavering in his plan to assault Ghaul, we see a Human Warlock distraught, and rife with self-loathing to the point of nearly giving up hope.

Another improvement is that the time spent bouncing in and out of orbit has been drastically cut. You can travel directly to any planet you want to from the main HUD. It's still a nuisance that the loading screen is your ship traversing the cosmos without you being able to interact with it in any way, shape, or form, from orbit, but the duration of such has been significantly reduced at the very least.

Trading weaponry, gear, or shaders is still not possible in this latest iteration, which to some may be a bit of an annoyance. Especially since now that Bungie has decided to make shaders a single-use consumable resource. Shaders are cosmetic items that can be applied to armor to give it a color scheme that’s different from its original look. You can now customize individual pieces of armor, guns, or your ships with unique and colorful shaders, however, if you use that shader, it's gone for good, even if you dismantle the equipment you have attached it to. This is further complicated by the rarity of certain shaders and the fact that Tess Everis, the Eververse Trading Co. vendor, requires players to spend "Bright Dust" in order to purchase the more lucrative and legendary ones. This is occasionally obtained when opening a bright engram, or dismantling sparrows, Ghost shells, et cetera, but for the most part, Guardian Players will be acquiring Bright Dust by purchasing Silver with actual money. (I actually earned 1,300 units of bright dust from a Bright Engram. I'm debating what I should use the funds for...) She does provide additional (mostly cosmetic) items for our real world currency in the form of bundles, but the drops are always random. These purchases are known as microtransactions and are typically viewed in a negative light by most gamers as a poor business practice.

Players used to buy shaders from the vendor Eva Levante with an abundant, in-game currency called Glimmer, hence the outrage. The pivotal component of how shaders worked in the original Destiny was that they were permanent items. Once you unlocked a shader, it was tied to your account forever. Your entire shader collection was available for browsing via in-game kiosks, and your character could hold up to nine of them at once. There was only one major gripe that Destiny players had with shaders: They were an all-or-nothing style choice. When you put one on, the shader's color scheme was applied to your entire set of armor not individual pieces.

Granted, there is a new system in place with bright engrams every time you hit the level cap past 20, allowing Guardians to acquire some of these accessories freely, but it still forces players to make frequent trips to Tess Everis' kiosk. This is perhaps an attempt to entice someone to make an actual purchase. It's most likely, a psychological marketing tactic. This could be the "Foot-in-the-Door Method" at work.

Disappointingly, Destiny 2 doesn’t take the time to explain how its upgrade and infusion systems work. Mods can be a bit confusing at first glance and they eventually become a critical addition to gear later on. A missed opportunity for insightful exposition to be sure.

World activities, PvP, and Leviathan all have different group size requirements, meaning you’re often a person short for some activities or forced to abandon a team member when transitioning from a four-player Crucible PvP match into a three-man team activity like a Strike. This is a glaring issue.

The new Clan system in Destiny 2 does a great job of giving people a reason to stick together and rewards players for every milestone they achieve.

I think that the biggest saving grace of Destiny 2 is the feature called Guided Games (currently in beta) that allows experienced teams to queue into a lobby that brings along a new player which permits clans to teach players how to participate in say, a Nightfall Strike or the Leviathan Raid. Conversely, as a Clan or group, this is a suitable method of recruitment if the player in question is agreeable and skilled. The Guided Games option requires player to not only have a microphone, but it demands an agreement to a series of guidelines for acceptable conduct. If the agreement isn't accepted within sixty seconds, the player must start the waiting process all over again. It's a standard affair and the rules are determined by Bungie, but it can be a slight nuisance if you forget to select the "Accept" option while waiting (up to four minutes or longer) in queue. Raid wait times have been even longer at roughly 45 minutes+. This is absurd and most players are better off using the past method of trying an LFG page.

I myself have yet to participate in the Leviathan Raid at the time of this review, however, testimony from my closest friends and colleagues has revealed that it is quite a challenge, both mechanically, and mentally. Fireteams will have to be well co-ordinated in order to meet and exceed Bungie's high standard of puzzles and intense boss battles.

I haven't had the opportunity to play Trials of the Nine either, Destiny 2's answer to the previous Trials of Osiris but the current meta of the game thus far essentially demands the use of the MIDA Multi-Tool Scout Rifle. It has become the leading gun in competitive multi-player and Bungie has released an official statement claiming that it is working as intended and that there are counters to that weapon, but many argue that it gives an unfair advantage despite being fairly easy to acquire.

I myself utilize auto-rifles primarily (I hate burst fire because you have to repetitively click the trigger button. I prefer to press and hold.) and thus, I probably will not be utilizing the gun once obtained. I do enjoy my precision shots, but I specialize with sniper rifles. Plus, with an auto rifle, you have a higher rate of fire, and more hit markers (which helps the lag compensation).

Overall, the game feels like two steps forward, one step back. The series has potential, but it's never fully realized. There is always something that bogs down this game's level of enjoyment for me. It's usually something that could be easily fixed and that just serves to frustrate or confound me even more. With the Guided Games, it's certainly an improvement from using third party websites to organize a fireteam, but regular matchmaking would still be better considering the obnoxiously long waiting times.

Letter Grade: B- or C+

Replayability: Fairly high, despite some repetitiveness and monotony

Score: 7.5-8.0/10.0 (I'm leaning more towards 7.5)

Edit: So, I've managed to try both Trials of the Nine and the Leviathan Raid since this post was initially written. I've tried nearly every aspect of the Raid and completed it. It's not too difficult if everyone is oriented with where enemies spawn and what actions to take with regards to when. I have now completed the Platinum Trophy for Destiny 2. As for the Trials of the Nine, I haven't gone flawless, but with one victory, you can travel to see the Emissary of the Nine, thereby unlocking that trophy as well. PvP has unfortunately, devolved into the current Meta of needing to possess either the MIDA Multi-Tool or the Hard Light exotic Auto Rifle in order to succeed. The former aiding in movement, the latter aiding via ricocheting energy bullets in closed quarters. It's unfortunate that there is little variation amongst players outside of those two weapons. In light of this, my opinion of the game remains to be relatively neutral. It's a step in the right direction on one hand, and fundamentally flawed in the other. Time will tell if players have been swindled or not when the next DLC is announced and we get to see what is offered or what was cut from the initial launch.