Category Archives: Game Review

The Division – Review

The Division has been out for a couple of weeks now, and the first major update is expected in April. So why am I just now getting around to writing a review? Simple: I wanted to actually review the game – rather than just provide some early impressions based on beta or my first few hours after launch (like many other reviews I’ve seen). I’ve got over 70 hours logged on the game at this point, and I’ve experienced most – though not all – of what the game has to offer right now.

Visuals

Overall, The Division is visually impressive. Admittedly, there is a noticeable difference between the version of the game shown at E3 2013 and the final PC version, even at maxed settings. (This was due to necessary changes to allow the game to be ported to consoles. I’m not a fan of that common practice, but that’s a topic for another time.) Despite this unfortunate fact, The Division is still gorgeous. Volumetric effects of smoke and steam, myriad light sources, etc. – all look great. This is also one of the few games where weather feels realistic. Walking down the street in a snow storm looks and feels completely different from walking down the same street during a sunny day. Snow will accumulate on your clothing during a storm (and slowly melt while you are indoors), and visibility is appropriately compromised. The day/night cycle is well done, and the game world feels different depending on the time of day and the weather.

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Just a random cool buildings I happened to walk by while roaming Manhattan.

It’s also important to note that everything takes places within the game world. By that, I mean that the open-world PvE area, the Dark Zone (PvP), and the locations of the main missions all exist within the same instanced space. In other words, when you’re in the open world, you can literally hear what’s going on behind the massive wall that separates it from the Dark Zone. While inside a mission space, objects will often show up on your map that are located in the surrounding world. The day/night and weather cycles of the world also occasionally have an interesting effect on missions. Playing an outdoor mission in a snowstorm or at dusk is noticeably different due to changes in visibility. One mission in particular which I had played a few times already became more challenging when trying to deal with a sniper boss while the sun was setting directly behind him.

The game also runs very smoothly and looks great even on my aging rig. (I’m running 2x GTX 680s in SLI. High-end when they came out, but a bit dated now.) I will occasionally notice some slow-loading textures, but usually only when first exiting a safe house into the world proper, and the low-res textures that are visible in the meantime aren’t too jarring. Given the level of detail and size of the world this is understandable, and I’m glad they didn’t compromise the game just to speed up the texture-loading on some machines.

Detail

Simply put, the game is gorgeous, and the level of detail is superb. When you consider the open nature of the game world and the near absence of loading times, the level of detail in the game world is outstanding. Snow on the ground actually looks like snow – not just some white textures and a few white drift-like shapes – and you leave footprints. There’s junk everywhere – as you would expect when all hell has broken loose in Manhattan. Some of it is static (like heaps of trash bags), but plenty are represented as discrete objects (like cardboard boxes that move when you try to walk through them). Vault over a car with the hood open and the hood will close, and moving along a car while in cover will also result in you closing the car door. In fact, there’s even an achievement tied to doing just that.

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The remains of a supply drop. Note the nice smoke effects – and this is not at max settings.

The effects of gunfire on cover are also highly detailed – broken glass, holes in walls (cars, barriers, etc.), burn marks, blowing out tires, and so on – though full-blown destructive environments aren’t implemented. There are myriad light sources throughout the city, and the game really maximizes the use of shadows to aid in immersion. Anti-aliasing is impressive, and jaggies are virtually non-existent. Really, Massive and Ubisoft need to license this engine – it’s called Snowdrop, by the way – as there is a great deal of potential here for a lot of different game styles. I found myself wishing The Division had some horror elements to the story, though the Dark Zone does sometimes have that sort of feel to it.

Audio

The sound effects and music are nothing mind-blowing, but they’re not bad. However, The Division does use sound to great effect in immersing the player in the game world. Your primary means of receiving information on missions is via radio, and more than a hundred phone recordings scattered about the world tell the story of the fall of Manhattan and its rapid spiral into anarchy. Pirate radio broadcasts also tell more about how some people feel about the existence of Division agents, people will occasionally yell at you from their windows, and you can overhear all sorts of interesting conversations in your base of operations. All of this serves to make the world feel alive – in some ways more so than even most MMOs, and certainly more than nearly all first-person shooters. The voice acting in particular deserves special mention.

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Green Poison was unleashed on Manhattan on Black Friday.

Technical Polish and Bugs

Overall, the level of polish in The Division is quite high compared to most games at launch – especially compared to other massively multiplayer titles. There are very few bugs at all, and this marks one of the first times in recent memory that a game launched with sufficient server capacity. Queues occasionally exist during peak times, but a long wait is still on the order of 2-3 minutes and usually more like 60 seconds. I’ve encountered only four notable bugs. One was a side mission which couldn’t be completed because the enemies didn’t spawn – resolved by simply restarting the mission. One is an odd issue where some of your character’s stats don’t show up correctly in certain parts of the UI – not sure exactly what the deal is here, but simply looking on a particular tab is an easy workaround. I’ve had a couple of crashes when playing challenging missions in a group when a lot of fire and smoke effects were going on simultaneously – probably just due to aging hardware and simply logging back in puts me right back into the mission with my group. The last also relates to grouping for missions: Sometimes you will matchmake and travel to the mission start to find the mission won’t actually begin; the instance is bugged. It can sometimes take a few tries to join a working instance, but this is the most significant issue I’ve encountered thus far – and it really only impacts players at max level who are running the daily missions.

Customization

Long-time MMO players who relish fine-tuning every little aspect of their character’s appearance are going to be disappointed by The Division – it simply doesn’t have as many options as most MMORPGs. In my opinion, it doesn’t need endless options for customization and including them would only be irrelevant, not to mention taking development time away from more important pursuits. That said, there are still some good customization options.

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Sporting my then-limited cosmetic options, as well as a modded assault rifle.

Character creation is simple and just allows you to essentially pick your character’s head. For some bizarre reason, this is the only time you have the opportunity to add glasses to your character. Other character cosmetics come in the form of clothing. There is a wealth of clothing to be collected in the game – at least 400+ pieces – that can be obtained via loot drops, purchased from an appearance vendor, or dropped as a thank you for helping random civilians in the game world. A few jackets are also awarded for collecting intel scattered about the world. The nice thing about all this is that your character’s appearance is largely cosmetic – none of that “everyone looks the same because they wear the same high level armor”. Your actual gear (e.g. gloves, mask, vest, pack, pads, etc.) look different depending on what you have equipped, but the stand-out elements of your character appear how you want them to. Which brings me to weapons and gear…

Some pieces of gear can be modified to provide different benefits, but the majority of gear customization is tied to weapons. Depending on the weapon, you can modify the magazine, underbarrel, muzzle, and sights – all of which have specific mechanical effects based on the mod used. In other words, this stuff isn’t cosmetic, it’s functional and significant. However, you can also apply a weapon skin to each weapon to alter its appearance. Collecting these has become something of a thing amongst many in the community.

Crafting

Tied in with gear customization is crafting, which is also relatively well done. You can acquire crafting materials around the world, and once you locate them their position is marked on the map so you can farm them later – they refresh every couple of hours. There are three tiers of materials that align with five tiers of gear, and you can deconstruct unwanted gear for materials. Early in the game it is sometimes better to sell gear for credits if you haven’t been lucky with loot drops and need to purchase gear from a vendor. Later in the game, it’s usually better to deconstruct for materials as you can exchange lower-tier materials for high-end – and you’ll need plenty of those if you’re trying to craft anything close to your ideal gear and weapons. This is because of the way crafting works.

When you craft a piece of gear – a mask for example – you can choose the blueprint to use. Prior to endgame blueprints are awarded at the end of side missions, with high-end blueprints being purchased from certain vendors later in the game. This determines the level and general type of mask you are crafting (focused on firearms versus stamina, for example), but the actual attributes are rolled randomly when you craft the item. As a result, crafting becomes a significant endgame activity as players hope for the “perfect” item. In fact, a lot of the current endgame revolves around getting specific currency or materials needed to craft the highest level gear. There are still some issues here that are continually being balanced, but the overall result is that crafting remains relevant and provides motivation to continue playing.

Gameplay

Okay, now for how the game plays. In short, really well. The core gameplay is essentially that of an open-world cover-based shooter, and combat is satisfying. There is the issue of some enemies being “bullet sponges” – they just take an insane amount of damage to kill. However, this isn’t really noticeable until you start dealing with the Hard and Challenging versions of the missions or elite mobs in the Dark Zone. The AI is nothing spectacular, but enemy mobs definitely react in a more realistic fashion than many other games: they act based on what they see and hear. If they take cover and lose sight of you, they continue to operate based on the assumption that you haven’t moved. This creates great opportunities for flanking and introduces a degree of realism.

There are plenty of skills to choose from – each of which can be modded to provide different effects – and they are different enough from one another to allow for distinctive builds. Admittedly, some are much more prevalent and important than others once you reach endgame, but this is to be expected.

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Working to bring down an elite enemy during a Challenging mission.

The bulk of your time in the PvE area will be spent roaming around between Encounters and Side Missions. You will encounter random roving mobs of rioters, escaped prisoners, and others; these mobs are unscripted which can sometimes result in some interesting developments. For example, when dealing with a group of five or so enemies, after I killed the first 4 the last one decided to fall back and take cover. I waited for him to reapproach, but he didn’t – then I heard nearby gunfire and decided to investigate. Evidently his retreat had brought him within sight of another group of rioters and sparked a gunfight between them. I sat back to watch and then mopped up what was left.

I later stumbled across a gunfight between some mercs gone bad (Last Man Battalion) and a group of escaped prisoners (Rikers). The two groups employed the same tactics against one another that I had encountered before, and it was satisfying to watch them take each apart until I decided to wade in and clean up.

Encounters are more scripted but generally revolve around defending an area against a few waves of enemies or exploring a contaminated area. These are also one of the primary means of gathering resources needed to upgrade your base of operations, which in turn unlocks more skills. Side missions are a little more involved and require you to rescue hostages, track down a particularly troublesome individual, or look for a missing person. This leaves the game’s main missions.

Main Missions = Dungeons

For those that are more familiar with first-person shooters, the game’s main missions are more like individual scripted levels on self-contained maps. For the MMO crowd, think of them as dungeons. Either way, the important things to understand about these missions is that they are the primary ways to advance the main storyline, they give you lots of resources to upgrade your base, and they scale based on difficulty and the size of your team. You can play these solo or in a group of up to four. As you are progressing through main story you will play them on Normal, and you can return later to try them on Hard once you have leveled up a bit more and gotten better gear.

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Protect what remains…

Hard versions also play a key role in endgame activities, as 3 missions are designated as Daily missions on a rotating basis. Completing these will award you endgame currency (phoenix credits) and help get you ready for the Daily Challenging mission. The Challenging mission also rotates on a daily basis (though currently only between the same 4 missions) and awards you even more phoenix credits and a guaranteed piece of high-end gear. Unlike the daily Hard missions, the Challenging mission can be run multiple times per day and is currently the peak of PvE gameplay (i.e. outside of the Dark Zone).

Grouping

On that note, let’s talk about grouping in The Division. As a player who tends to play most game solo – and who has so far played the majority of this game solo as well – I’ll say that the game is markedly more fun when playing in a group. Weather roaming the map or playing missions, the gameplay is just more enjoyable with at least one teammate. That said, the storyline and overall atmosphere of the game is probably best experienced solo, so a balanced approach is needed. After playing a lot of the Dailies in a group (virtually a must for the Challenging missions), I found myself wanting to find a group to explore the Dark Zone – essentially the only thing I haven’t yet accomplished in the game so far.
Grouping itself is fairly simply, you can approach other players in common areas (the initial hub and safe houses in each zone) and attempt to group, or you can use the matchmaking feature from common areas (or via the map for missions). If you have people on your Uplay friends list, you can also see who is currently online via the Uplay app and just click the Join link next to their name. This will launch the game and automatically put you into a group. Note that the only players you will encounter in the PvE area are those in your group; you can play the entire PvE area solo if you wish.

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Exploring the Russian Consulate on Challenging. Actually, these guys didn’t speak a lot of English, but we still had a blast finishing this mission!

Voice chat is built into the game and is proximity-based, so you only hear people nearby or in your group. Regional chat is also available and can be hidden outside of common areas if you wish. This is one area in which The Division has a significant advantage over Destiny – with which there have been a lot of comparisons – as communication is simply easier in The Division and not limited to emotes.

End Game

The Division’s endgame essentially begins once you reach the maximum character level of 30, at which point the Daily missions become available. The focus of endgame is essentially a quest for the perfect loot – either crafted or dropped. Sources for loot drops, crafting materials, and currency for blueprints come primarily from Daily missions or the Dark Zone.

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End Game

Dark Zone

The Dark Zone is really the only aspect of the game which I have not yet fully explored. It’s essentially a combined PvP and PvE area, and I’m generally not a big PvP kind of guy. There are plenty of articles and videos out there explaining what the Dark Zone is, but here’s the short version:

The Dark Zone is a separate area of the map with higher level enemies and loot that also allows for open PvP. Loot acquired in the DZ must be extracted via helicopter is specially designated locations before it can be used. Engaging your fellow agents allows you to potentially steal their loot, but also marks you as rogue and makes you a target for everyone else. You gain DZ experience and levels (as well as dedicated DZ currency) independent of the rest of the game, both from enemies and agents killed in PvP. You can also lose experience, levels and DZ credits with each death inside the zone. This all results in a tense gameplay experience that is reinforced by the design and feel of the Dark Zone.
Many of the game’s better blueprints are only available from DZ vendors and only craftable using special DZ materials. And those vendors (and many loot chests) are only available once you’ve reached DZ level 30 or 50. While it’s technically possible to accomplish this by grinding the lower difficulty DZ zones, that could take a while, so grouping up or forming temporary alliances works to your benefit – assuming you can trust those you are with.

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Exploring the Dark Zone.

Massive is still working hard to balance the benefits and risks of going rogue – which is something of a challenge given that you always have players that want more of a cooperative or solo experience and others that want a grand melee deathmatch. Some players will like it and some will hate it no matter what, but for now I can say there is definite potential here and that the developers certainly seem willing to make continual adjustments based on community feedback. One positive aspect about The Division’s design is that while certain pieces of gear are only available via certain avenues, it is possible to get the highest level gear via either the Dark Zone or Dailies.

Other Issues and Ongoing Development

There are a couple of other issues with the game. New players at launch were greeted with a virtual line of players all waiting to access the same laptop. People had complete meltdowns over this rather odd design decision, but it not emblematic of the overall game and probably would not ever be an issue outside of launch weekend.
There is also a strong desire to have more of the buildings accessible so you can actually enter them. You can actually enter quite a large number of buildings – though the way in is not always obvious at first – but there are limits to how much the developers can create and how much of that would include meaningful content. I’d still like to see more buildings opened up down the road, hopefully with some purpose but even just for exploration. Some of these buildings might be planned for future content, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The other big concern in the community is the lack of use of the massive PvE areas in endgame. Once you’ve completed all the encounters and side missions and found all the intel, there is very little reason to return to explore most of the map. There are plenty of ideas floating around about how to fix this, and Massive has already said there are additions to endgame coming soon, so we’ll have to wait and see.

On that note, the game’s first major update is due sometime in April and will add Operations (formerly known as Incursions), which are believed to be something along the lines of a large dungeon/mission or raid-like activity. Loot trading at the end of missions is also being added around that time. There are two additional free updates with new features and three paid expansions anticipated during the game’s first year. I’m looking forward to these, but the fact that the 3 paid expansions suffer from 30 days of exclusivity on Xbox One really pisses me off. A couple of days early access for one group or another is one thing, but a month of waiting for additional content that already exists just because of some exclusivity contract is the kind of thing the gaming industry can do without. Oh well, hopefully the free updates add enough to the endgame to keep me interested while I wait.

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Snowstorm outside of the Base of Operations – more commonly referred to as the BoO.

What’s Still Needed

As mentioned, the PvE areas really need to be better integrated into the endgame experience. There are lots of ways this can be accomplished, but it needs to scale properly for both solo and groups to keep with the rest of the PvE elements in the game. This is arguably the one area where Massive can take a page from Destiny. Adding random events, bounties, and repeatable dynamically-generated side missions are just a few of relatively simple ways this area could be utilized, and the community has lots of great suggestions for more involved options.

Virtually the entire community would also agree there also need to be some tweaks to storage and weapon skins. Weapon skins are cosmetic, but because of how they are applied to weapons they are treated as mods in your inventory and take up valuable space. Combined with the limited inventory space in your pack and stash and the fact that you may want to keep different gear sets and mods for different builds and inventory space becomes an issue once you reach endgame. Easy to fix, but it needs to happen.

Balance issues still exist – depending on whom you ask – in the Dark Zone, but it seems the devs are willing to keep working on this. Many players also argue that there needs to be other ways of gathering the DZ-specific crafting materials (Division Tech), as their respawn rates and the fact that they exist in a PvP area makes farming them problematic. Again, lots of suggestions and lots of potential for a fix.

In One Word: Potential

Overall, the best way to sum up The Division is to say that the game has lots of potential. Plenty of players will hate it, usually because it does something differently from how it would if they made the design decisions – nothing new in the gaming industry. In the end, I’d say this game has more going for it than Destiny had at launch, and if Massive continues to devote sufficient time and resources to the game it should be around for quite a while. I’ve enjoyed it so far and cannot wait to see what’s next.

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A couple of kids playing inside of a safe house. This isn’t part of any mission – it’s just detail.
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Life Is Strange – Review

Short version: Life Is Strange is one of the most unusual video games I have ever played – and without a doubt one of the best written and crafted. While the play style and themes will not appeal to everyone, it is an extraordinary piece of storytelling that clearly demonstrates the power of video games as an art form.

It is a game about choices. It is a game about friendship.

If you are reading this, then you more than likely have read a few other things about the game. If you are unsure about trying it for yourself, ask yourself two questions:

  • Do you only enjoy action games or games that are challenging at a technical level?
  • Do you have trouble investing yourself in characters while playing games, watching movies, or reading books?

If the answer to both these questions is no, then you should absolutely play Life Is Strange.

How I (Finally) Played Life Is Strange

To be honest, I’m late to the party. I didn’t even pick up the game on Steam until after all 5 episodes were out, so my experience will be a little different from those that had to wait between episodes. Actually, I didn’t even play much of the game on my PC. I started it, but didn’t even finish the first episode. Looking back, it was simply too easy to be distracted by other things in the early parts of the game – largely because I was playing on my PC.

Three days ago, determined to give the game another shot, I purchased the Limited Edition of Life Is Strange for PS4. I finished it last night – and I don’t regret buying it twice for one second.

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Aside – PC vs Console

I’ve seen a few reviews of Life Is Strange that compare the visual quality of the console version from that of the original PC. To put it bluntly, such comparisons are irrelevant. The visuals are about the same in either case, and this is not a game in which high resolution or graphical effects are important. That’s not to say the visuals of the game are not important – nothing could be farther from the truth – but those visuals are not related to the technical prowess of your chosen platform. Personally, I found the controls of the console version to be slightly more intuitive, but there are pros and cons either way. In the end, I think I found the game more enjoyable on the console because it was easier to immerse myself in the experience while sitting on my couch, in front of a large screen, surrounded by sound. It felt more personal this way.

First Few Minutes and Gameplay

My intention is to keep this review free of spoilers (You should absolutely AVOID SPOILERS if you haven’t played the game yet. Though I imagine it’s power will be felt even if some of the details are revealed to you ahead of time.), but I will describe what happens in the opening few minutes of the game. You play Max, an 18-year-old girl who has recently moved back to her home town to attend an art school and study photography. While she is struggling to fit in, another girl has recently gone missing. Max has an incredibly vivid dream of a tornado destroying the town, shortly before seeing her childhood friend get shot in the school bathroom. This is when Max discovers she has the power to rewind time…

The rest of the game is all about making choices and dealing with their consequences.

As you might imagine, the power to manipulate time lends itself to some interesting gameplay mechanics. Gameplay revolves around exploring the environment and speaking with characters, then making choices about what to do or say. The ability to rewind means that you can often try different options before deciding to move one. When Max rewinds time it moves around her, leaving her unchanged – along with just about anything in her possession. This enables her to take some creative approaches to problem solving. Overall, the game play is actually very simple, but it is used to great and powerful effect.

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Sound and Visuals

The game’s sound is reasonably immersive and helps ground you in Max’s reality, but the music deserves special mention. The indie folk style is not really my cup of tea in the least (I tend towards rock, metal, and blues.), but it fits the game perfectly. The best way I can express just how superbly the music enhances the experience is with these two statements:

  • I’ve been listening to the soundtrack in my car for the past two days, despite not usually being a fan of the style, just to revel in the experience a little longer.
  • I suspect that anytime I hear this style of music in the future, I will be immediately reminded of Life Is Strange.

As for the visuals, the game’s art direction is beyond good – at once majestic and intensely personal. At first, the emphasis on photography in the game seemed a little superfluous. As the game went on, however, I began to appreciate just well the writers integrated the use of photographs into the themes and presentation of the story. In the second half of the game, photographs are used to great effect to illustrate how your choices have a ripple effect on the lives of those around you, and the importance of photos just increases as you progress through the story.

Feelings and Themes

At several points while playing the game, I was reminded of a couple other stories that involve a sense of mystery in a small town. Last year I watched the TV series Gracepoint (an American adaptation of the British Broadchurch), which is a sort of murder mystery set in a small coastal town. That sense of mystery, combined with the tension felt between a cast of well-rounded characters, was also strongly evoked in Life Is Strange. The game also reminded me of my time playing the first few hours of The Secret World. Small town, mysterious sense of danger, coming to grips with forces larger than yourself – all of these ideas exist in both games.

Life Is Strange also doesn’t shy away from some heavy topics and themes. Loss, murder, privacy, suicide, quality of life, love, insecurity, sexuality, and personal responsibility are just some of the themes explored in the story. One truly remarkable thing about Life Is Strange is how the writers have managed to explore these themes without really steering you in one direction or another – there is rarely a “right” or “wrong” decision, which is often true in the real world as well. Other games have tried to do this, often by making decisions and morality largely ambiguous, but Life Is Strange manages to pull this off without the same degree of ambiguity.

A lot of this is accomplished through the fine art of subtlety. For example, I don’t think anyone would reasonably say there is a lot of strong sexuality in this game – although a different developer or medium could certainly have incorporated more sexuality into this story had they wanted to. That said, many who have played the game feel strongly about some of the romantic undercurrents in parts of the game. The beauty of what the writers have accomplished is that a lot of what this game shows you is dependent on what you bring to it and how you perceive things. It can mean different things to different people. Personally, I think one of the great lessons from this game is how true friendship and love are really one and the same – it’s about something deeper than our common thoughts on sexuality and romance. It’s about caring for one another and being human.

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Criticism

Some aspects of the game’s final episode have been criticized as “undoing” much of what occurred in the first four episodes. While I completely understand why someone would come to this conclusion, I do not agree with it. I want to avoid spoilers, so I’ll just say this:

While your decisions late in the game can “erase” some of your earlier decisions, those early decisions are in no way invalidated. They remain relevant to the story, and arguably take on an even larger significance.

That one issue is really the only common criticism I have heard from those that have really played Life Is Strange, which is impressive on its own.

I will admit to being a little disappointed that the game was not longer, but that’s just because I wasn’t ready to be done with its characters and story. I should also point out that several of the plot threads could have been taken in another direction and developed into something much different – many of which could have been made into some seriously interesting and fun games. But at the end of the day, I believe the writers likely told the best and most powerful story they could – taking things in another direction or making the game longer would have taken away from the whole and compromised something truly remarkable. Honestly, I’m not sure how DONTNOD (the game’s developers) can hope to top this one, but I’m more than willing to give them the chance.

Closing Thoughts

Life Is Strange is an amazing game – an experience – that takes the player on an emotional journey few games can match. As I right this, I’m still having a hard time coming to grips with just how good this story really is and how to explain it. As is true of all great art, it means a lot of different things to different people. It is a story about time travel, loss, bullies, compassion, responsibility, courage, guilt, fear, understanding, and love.

It is a story about choices. It is a story about friendship.

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The Division – Beta Impressions

Admittedly, I had lost much of my interest in The Division until recently.  What looked impressive – at least visually – at E3 a while ago seemed to have suffered from the now widely known downgrades, leading me to worry that Ubisoft was failing us yet again.  However, some of my friends from my Star Citizen org rekindled my interest.  I decided to preorder the game to get into the beta and also started poking about a bit to learn more about the game.

I’ve played the PC beta now, and it should be wrapped up soon.  I enjoyed the game, and I will be keeping my preorder – though I do have some lingering concerns.  Let us say that I am cautiously optimistic.  Here are my impressions of the game so far:

Performance, Visuals, and Controls

Overall, it appears that the graphics in the PC version are significantly better than those shown in console gameplay videos.  While at high settings the game still didn’t look quite as good as those earlier videos (your character doesn’t have a reflection in standing water/ice, for example), everything still looked good.

My rig includes 2 GTX 680 cards in SLI, and I was able to run everything on high – the game recommends a single GTX 970.  Everything was smooth and I didn’t experience any stuttering or other common issues.  When everything was running properly, I found The Division to be one of the most stable triple-A games I can remember.  However, Ubisoft does caution that nvidia users may currently suffer from some issues, and on a couple of occasions it appeared that some form of antialiasing or motion blur was acting up.  This resulted in everything appearing blurry and an odd halo effect around my character.  Simply restarting the game appeared to clear it up.

The biggest technical issue I experienced was a maddening tendency to crash because “Tom Clancy’s The Division has stopped working.”  This usually occurred after running the game for just a couple of minutes, and the lack of any explanation made it all the more frustrating.  In addition to the common “update your drivers” and “run the game in administrator mode” suggested fixes, it was also recommended to run the game in Windows 7 compatibility mode if running Windows 10.  It was also recommended to disable v-sync in-game as well as any third-party program features that involve an in-game overlay.  Both of these are things Ubisoft needs to get squared away before launch.  The issue of in-game overlays also strikes me as a little strange since it includes the overlays used by Uplay itself – and disabling the Uplay overlays actually results in a warning when trying to play The Division.

In the end, the change that appeared to have the most positive impact in letting me play the game crash-free was actually tied to how I manage my GPU.  Since my cards are slightly below the recommended spec, I was slightly overclocking them in addition to the normal fan speed boost.  Returning the cards to their default setting via Precision seemed to put an end to the crashes.  To be clear, there were no performance or heat issues prior to the crash, so this is a little odd in my experience.

Overall, everything is working well, but there are a few issues that need to be ironed out, and it’s important that Ubisoft gets this taken care of if they want a smooth launch.  I didn’t encounter any issues related to server loads, but I’m not sure they would have manifested during this beta.

Beta Limitations

On that note, this beta seemed a little limited to me.  It consisted of a single story mission, a few side missions, and several smaller encounters.  These all seemed to work well, but the fact that there were so few of them raises two concerning possibilities.  First, I hope that the limited number of missions in the beta is not indicative of a similarly small number of total missions in the final game.  If the rationale for the small offering is a reluctance to reveal a significant portion of the final game, this may suggest the game is small – too small to fair well post-launch.  Second, the small size of the beta could mean that the lion’s share of the game doesn’t receive sufficient testing.  Without that testing, there could be a lot of gameplay bugs in the final game – which would be similarly problematic.  Hopefully Ubisoft has a lot of internal testing going on to catch these issues before launch.

The beta was not only limited in terms of the number of missions available; entire systems were disabled during the beta.  Some of these appeared primarily story-based, such as the ability to view pieces of intelligence that had been collected.  This seems straightforward and probably doesn’t require much testing.  However, systems like crafting were also disabled during the beta, which is troubling.  Without testing, the crafting system could suffer problems related to bugs or imbalance.  Of course, it’s possible that the crafting system is so simple that testing is largely unnecessary, but that could be disastrous for a game that describes itself as a form of RPG.

Finally, I’m not sure how representative the beta map is of the final map.  The beta map felt large in terms of distance, but it amounted to a handful of streets with only a few functional buildings.  Unless the beta map is only a small portion of the game at launch, the game isn’t going to feel very open world unless more buildings can be entered than were available in the beta.

Gameplay

The gameplay felt solid, as did the combat.  Movement was smooth and didn’t suffer from stupid clipping or invisible wall issues common in open world games.  Accuracy and difficulty were good, though it’s unclear if the variety of encounters in the final game will lend itself to interesting gameplay over the long term.  I liked the customizability of the weapons and the fact that your appearance was largely separated from the gear you were wearing to boost your stats.

The abilities available in the beta were very limited – another area where I hope more testing isn’t needed – and were good for the most part.  However, I noticed that the Sticky Bomb felt largely worthless – it just didn’t seem to do much damage at all.  On the other hand, hitting the napalm tank strapped to a Cleaner’s back was most satisfying…

The encounters made sense in context and struck a good balance in terms of challenge and the time required to complete them.  The side missions were more involved and varied.  They also contributed to the story, though I’m not certain there is enough variety in the mechanics involved to keep the side mission from feeling distinctive from one another over the course of the game.

untitled-21_236847Story & Longevity

Let’s be clear – there is a lot of story potential in this game.  The cutscene following the single beta story mission and one of the side missions suggests that Ubisoft is capable of telling a good story – it remains to be seen if that ability will be applied throughout the game.

Since they are pitching this game as an RPG, Ubisoft needs to be sure to maintain a high focus on story and character development to avoid falling into a Destiny-like trap and becoming a one-dimensional shooter.  One way they can achieve this is to incorporate a gameplay element that has been used to great effect in other RPGs – meaningful player choices.  There is no indication of branching missions or storylines in the beta, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the larger game.  If Ubisoft doesn’t already have anything like this planned for launch, they would do well to incorporate story-based player choice in free DLC as soon as possible – and simply choosing what upgrades to work on first or abilities to utilize does not count.  I’m talking real character-tied choices that affect the game world and later missions.

Wrap-Up

I dabbled in the Dark Zone PvP (or PvPvE) area as well.  It has potential, but many players have expressed frustration with griefing, camping, and players generally killing one another for no reason other than “because they can”.  As a simple PvP zone, it is passable, but Ubisoft claims to want to make it something more.  A few tweaks here and there could do wonders, and the community hasn’t been shy about making suggestions.  There’s nothing that requires a massive rework, but this is another area that Ubisoft has some work to do if they want a good launch and positive reviews.

The game would benefit from some guild-like features.  Since you are limited to 4-person teams a massive guild system is unnecessary, but providing the ability to benefit from joining a guild or clan would be wise.  This could be coupled with clan-wide bonuses that could be expanded over time – similar to Guild Wars 2 perhaps.  Clan members could contribute crafting materials, DZ funds, etc. which could be used to construct clan upgrades over time.  Once complete, each upgrade could function similar to character perks that affect all members of the clan.  This would provide some long-term endgame goals and introduce a degree of sandbox gameplay.

Which brings me to my final thought:  As an online game, The Division needs to include at least some measure of sandbox gameplay to ensure long-term playability.  If the game consists of just the basic campaign, a handful of base expansions to earn, and the Dark Zone, I seriously doubt Ubisoft will be able to pump out DLC content at a quick enough rate to keep the game going and the community active.  Incorporating sandbox elements – which should usually be a no-brainer in an open world game – is often an effective way to ensure players maintain a vested interest in the game between major story additions.  An in-depth crafting system is one common example, but the beta has revealed nothing in this area.  At this point, we’ll just have to see how things go once the game has launched.

For now, I remain cautiously optimistic…

Destiny: The Taken King – Review Part 3

Wading In to 2.0

Hunting the Taken champions – initially on Earth and then on Venus and Mars – brought back a similar style of event to the Packs of Wolves I enjoyed from the previous expansions.  Find a zone with Taken in the area, hunt down a few Captains, and then an Ultra will appear.  Overall, I enjoy this type of gameplay far more than strikes, though it can be a bit frustrating at times.  At this point there was no way I could take down one of these champions and their attendant Taken horde on my own.  In fact, I don’t think I ever managed to take one down with only a single other player helping out.  This was sometimes a bit frustrating as on more than one occasion I found myself battling the champion alone or with one other player to have a group of three or four other Guardians arrive – about 5 seconds after the baddie despawned.  This demonstrates part of the challenge in communicating in an MMO-style game without any sort of global chat.

As far as the Taken themselves are concerned, my impression prior to playing the game was that Bungie was just reusing assets again.  It definitely doesn’t feel that way when you’re playing.  The different tactics employed by the Taken mean they are significantly different to square off against.  Their appearance and behavior are different enough but still rooted in the familiar.  Well done overall.

On to the Stormcaller.  The quest sent me off on a 2-part mission against the Vex.  First part was about par for the course, but the second part was suitably awesome.  It made you feel powerful and includes some good cinematics.

Improvements and Changes from 1.0

As you know, your Ghost has been revoiced.  So far, I prefer the original Dinklage version, but it didn’t matter much during the story missions because your Ghost doesn’t talk much during those.  You’ll spend far more time listening to Nathan Fillion’s Cayde-6 Vanguard Hunter over comms.  Overall, the combination of quest stops and cinematics breathes new life into Destiny’s characters that’s probably one of the biggest improvements from 1.0.

The quest system is nice and is a great way to better integrate the game’s content into some sort of logical approach that ensure the player always has something to do.  I generally had a couple of sidequest-like and a couple of main quests at any given time.  Following the conclusion of the main fight with Oryx, a number of other quests become available.  It has a feel of pointing towards a lot more content paths, but I’m not sure how long these paths actually extend yet.

Leveling happens fast and I didn’t feel any need to rush to 40.  Abandoning specific light scores on gear is a huge step in the right direction, as all of your gear contributes to your light level.  Ghosts have some effect now as well and the gear system just feels refreshed, although some details could use better explanation.  Or at least a “this stuff becomes available at 40” sort of heads up.  I received the Red Death exotic shortly after logging in, and even though it was the Year 1 version it stull proved helpful as I progressed through the story.  The Three of Coins item from Xur allows you the chance to get an exotic drop from any Ultra – useful to use when hunting Taken champions – and my first attempt got me an exotic helmet engram.  That engram yielded a helmet for another class and none of my other attempts got me anything better than a blue, but it’s nice to have the possibility.

I enjoy Vanguard bounties, and the ability to carry more of them and track them alongside quests is welcome.  Of course, the ability to carry more bounties is largely irrelevant when only 5 are available on any given day.  Three more are available in the Reef, but it seems Eris doesn’t offer them anymore.  Seems like they need a faster refresh or additional sources of different bounties – maybe each of the faction reps?  I also encountered a ????? bounty while patrolling the Moon.  Basically a series of three objectives that start out encrypted and slowly decrypt while playing.  This was a nice surprise and I’d like to see Bungie leverage more of this to add more to the Patrols.

The Gunsmith seems to have a purpose again, as you can test weapons from him to gain reputation.  Once you have the rep you can get higher-end gear from him – though apparently only on certain days, a la Xur.  These have a similar feel to bounties and encourage you to try different weapons, but again it would be nice if they refreshed more often.  I typically only play on the weekends, so waiting 12+ hours for a refresh seems a waste.

Reputation is still a grind, but at least you can earn rep with a faction at the same time as Vanguard.  Still no way for someone that depends on matchmaking like me to realistically gain reputation with Variks, but at least making progress with the factions is now viable.  The small number of Reef bounties makes progression there slow, but not much is available on that side anyway.  Barring a couple of story missions, I have yet to discover how to gain rep with Eris as well.  On the other hand, since anything that you can get from those with whom you can earn reputation require the new legendary marks, this puts another wall in place.

Having just hit 40, I haven’t delved deeply into trying to earn marks yet.  From what I’ve read, earning them is slightly easier than it was to earn their Year 1 counterparts in the past.  I’d still like to see some means of earning these marks while on Patrols, perhaps though public events.  However, one infuriating issue I’ve encountered so far is that it is evidently impossible to earn these marks until you reach 40.  By itself, this wouldn’t be a problem, but since the game mentions at one point that dismantling legendary gear can yield marks I dismantled a number of these as I leveled.  I never received a single mark.  I figured this was just a RNG issue and I was really unlucky.  Turns out I should have kept all my purples until 40 and then dismantled them.  Feels like I lost a lot based on a simple lack of information.  In other words, keep all your legendary gear stashed away until you reach level 40!

As far as the story of Taken King goes, I was impressed.  Finally flexing some muscle in terms of cinematics and using some NPCs, Bungie actually starts telling a story the way we all know they can.  The mission and map design also feels fresher.  A lot more vertical movement is introduced and some areas actually make you pause for a second and consider how to reach a location.  There is a subtle puzzlesque element at times that makes me think Bungie is finally starting to get a grip on what they can do with the Destiny IP.

As I mentioned previously, following the concluding fight with Oryx the game seems to open up a bit.  A number of questlines are introduced that suggest a fair amount of content remains.  I’m not sure if that’s true, but I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Dreadnaught Patrols – Finally some endgame NOT tied to strikes, raids, and the Crucible?

The Prison of Elders was billed as PvE-endgame, but it was essentially the same thing as strikes – only with less story and a big treasure chest.  Not what I’m looking for.  My last story mission in Taken King was focused on prepping the Dreadnaught for Patrol missions.  I haven’t started these yet, but from what I’ve heard there are a lot of secrets to be uncovered in Destiny’s first new zone.  I’ve already recovered a calcified fragment which ties into a quest for Eris – mentioned as 1/50 on the map that reminds me of the 5 gold chests in the previous zones.  I’ve also recovered a rune from a mini-boss that appeared after I triggered successive waves of Taken in what felt like a mini-public event.  Evidently these runes allow you to summon bosses in the Court of Oryx.  This sounds promising – like the kind of endgame that interests me – although some of what I have read suggests actually jumping into these without a prearranged group may not net you any loot.  Hopefully the mysteries of the Dreadnaught will allow someone like myself to experience a more enjoyable endgame experience then the standard raids, strikes, and PvP.

Wrap-Up

Overall, if you are dead set against Destiny then I doubt Taken King will change your mind.  If you like it, you’ll probably find more to like.  If you are a former player considering coming back, I’d recommend you do.  Admittedly, original players got shafted a bit in favor of new players, but if you got 40+ hours out of Destiny 1.0 like I did, then you got your money’s worth and shouldn’t feel bad about shelling out a bit more now.  Most of us have spent far more on games that offered far less, and Destiny’s core gameplay has always been solid.  Hopefully Taken King revitalizes the game and Bungie continues in this direction.  There’s lots of potential in this IP, so I hope it continues to expand and improve.

Destiny: The Taken King – Review Part 2

Uncertain First Steps into 2.0

I wasn’t sure if I would even purchase Taken King.  When it was announced I was immediately drawn to the Collector’s Edition.  It seemed like a great compliment to my Ghost Edition and I wanted to check out the Strange Coin.  Of course, since I already owned the game and first two expansions this seemed like a waste of money.  Like many, I felt that Bungie was focusing all the good editions on getting new players into the game while ignoring their existing player base.  Instant turn off.

Bungie’s marketing of Taken King was smart and impressive.  I received an email letting me know that if I completed a couple of achievement-like tasks before the release of the expansion I would get some bonuses.  I intended to log back in to play at some point, but never did.  Perhaps if some of those hadn’t been tied to the Crucible…  The customized trailer featuring your Guardian was also a cool touch, and I ended up preordering about a week before release.  I just picked up the basic option without any of the extras since I already owned the based game and other expansions.

I didn’t touch the game until the weekend following release, so I didn’t try 2.0 without the new content.  Nor did I experience server issues.  Once I logged in I received a couple of messages and some loot, including an exotic pulse rifle.  Cool.  Then what?  Initially I was unsure where to go to see what was new – I wanted to get my legs under me before diving straight into the new story missions, especially since the story from the last two expansions didn’t last long.  I also wanted to unlock my new subclass so I could level it as I played through the content.

I got a couple quests tied to my Voidwalker subclass and started working on them, thinking maybe I had to complete the quests for my existing subclasses before getting to the third.  Unfortunately, one of these quests was tied to the Crucible, as was another quest.  Fine, I’ll give it a go.

Simply put, while the Crucible is still not where I prefer to spend my time, it seems vastly improved and more fun than before.  I don’t know if this is due to rebalancing – seems like hand cannons are not the on-shot killers they were before – or due to improved matchmaking, but I found myself consistently in the middle of the pack in terms of my performance.   Although in 4 control matches my team never won…  All the same, I had a tough time completing the quest to get kills with specific abilities.

I looked around the Tower and found some small but noticeable changes.  Old upgrade items got replaced and there were no interactive boards for exotics, ships, and shaders which seemed to serve little purpose at the moment.  I found Xur and bought some exotic gauntlets for when I reached level 40 – hoping I would still have a reason to keep playing at that point.

Three things happened that pulled me back into the game:

First, the opening cinematic depicting an attack on the Dreadnaught.  Epic.

Second, I picked up a quest to hunt down Taken champions on Earth.

Third, I got the quest to unlock the Stormcaller subclass.

Destiny: The Taken King – Review Part 1

Judging from the reviews I’ve seen so far, Taken King is generally being received as what Destiny should have been all along.  Even those who gamers who give it a low score seem to agree on this.  For me, it’s enough to bring me back to the game, though it’s still too early to tell for how long.  Is there still room for improvement?  Certainly.  But is Taken King a significant step forward for both the game and for Bungie?  Absolutely.

Oh.  And evidently this will be a 3-parter…

My Experience with Destiny 1.0

Let me start by briefly describing my experience with Destiny to date.

I played both the Alpha and Beta on PS4.  I purchased the Ghost Edition, which worked out well as I might not have opted to buy the first two expansions when they came out.  I have always enjoyed the core gameplay and the setting is awesome on an epic scale, but there’s a lot I wasn’t happy with in the game.

I’m not a fan of the Crucible.  I tend to play FPS games on PC so I don’t have the controller skills to compete with most players, and it seemed the game never matched me with players around my skill level.  Just not my thing.

I played all the original story missions and strikes, but never tried the raid or the higher-tier strikes (heroic and nightfall).  The reason is simply because I would rather spend my time playing than trying to gather or maintain a group with which to complete these tasks.  This is partly due to how bad the game/PS4 is at enabling players to quickly team up and communicate, but mostly because I just don’t have the time for all that anymore.

One of my biggest complaints in Destiny was how virtually all of the endgame content was intentionally devoid of a matchmaking option.  I understand the justification that an ad hoc group would have a tough time completing these tasks, but since the functionality is obviously there why not let the players make that decision?

Of course, this would not be so bad were it not for the fact that the primary means of getting the best gear was tied to these tasks or the Crucible.  My favorite aspect of the game was probably the Patrol missions, especially when public events appeared, but there is no high-end loot down this path.

Anyway, I played Destiny quite a bit for the first month or two and then lost interest.

I returned to the game a couple months ago to tackle the content provided by the first two expansions.  Overall, I was pleased with the additional missions.  They provided a story that was easier to recognize as a tangible plot and made better use of the game’s personalities.  I really enjoyed the new public events tied to the House of Wolves, and the bounties to track down specific targets were fun.  At the same time, it didn’t seem like there was a great deal of new content added.  The Prison of Elders struck me as a way to recycle existing assets to provide additional “content”, but I’ll admit a rush when cracking open that big chest at the end.  At which point the problem of locking the good stuff behind a social wall reared its ugly head again.  The higher tiers of the prison again lacked any matchmaking, and grinding for reputation playing just the first tier would take far too long.  Nice that I’ve got some tokens for Variks, but I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to use them.

Again I leave the game, unsure if I’ll return.

Dragon Age: Inquisition – Review

More than any other game I’ve played recently, Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game experience that reflects what you, the player, put into it.  While claims of 20 to 200 hours of gameplay based on previews and developer interviews are still being debated, the fact is that this game contains an impressive wealth of content.  I’ve already experienced one moment in the game when I though “a lesser developer would have ended the game here and saved the rest for a sequel or paid DLC.”  Inquisition is a great game, a more than worthy addition to the series, and in my opinion, more than redeems Bioware’s reputation after the widely criticized DA2.  I’m roughly 30 hours into the game and still feel like I’m much closer to the beginning than to the end.

To give any readers some background on my perspective going into this game, I’ve played both Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2, but I did not finish either of them.  (It’s not unusual for me to leave games unfinished, owed largely due to my widely varied interests and busy life.)  I enjoyed DAO, but like many players, I felt DA2 was an utter disappointment.

For those that have never played a Dragon Age title or, like me, did not finish one or both of the previous titles Bioware has created the Dragon Age Keep.  This site allows you to review all your decisions from past games, edit them, and make any decisions you missed out on.  Then you simply hit a button to prep your world for Inquisition.  This is all based on your Origin account, doesn’t require you to export or import any save games, and functions regardless of platform.  For example, I played the previous two games on PC, reviewed and edited my choices on the site, and am playing DAI on PS4.  Since both my Origin account and PSN account use the same email, everything synced automatically.  Oh, and unlike many other games lately, Origin’s servers seem to have no trouble at launch.  Everything connects as it should.

This all make it possible to get into DAI even if you’ve never played a Dragon Age game in the past, but there are a few resources that might be beneficial to you.  One of the greatest aspects of this series is the effort that has gone into crafting the world – a fantasy world that feels both familiar and unique – and taking a look at these sites can help you get the most out of Inquisition.  First, there’s Kirk Hamilton’s A Beginner’s Guide to All Things Dragon Age on Kotaku.  This is a great primer on the game world and provides everything a new player needs to understand key concepts like “What are the Blight’s?”.  There are numerous sites out there that provide info on the two previous games, two examples of which are Michael Rougeu’s article on Digital Trends and the Dragon Age in 5 Minutes video from IGN.  This will introduce you to some of the key characters and events from past games, and ideally I’d recommend hitting all three sites, then visiting the Dragon Age Keep before starting the game.  This will mean you have to delay a bit, obviously, but in my opinion it’s worth it.  Anyway, on to the review!

Mountain Overlook – GameInformer

Character Creation

Upon selecting the option for a New Game, you are immediately greeted by a large explosion (always a plus), and so the story begins.  I’ll avoid spoilers, but during the first few minutes you are given the opportunity to fine tune your character’s facial appearance in a fine degree of detail.  You’ll also select a race, gender, and starting class.  You must choose between one of two subclasses, but this merely determines your starting skills and gear; you have access to both skill primary trees (plus two secondary trees) for your class from the beginning.  Many of the changes you can make may be subtle, but you can easily spend a fair amount of time fine tuning your character’s appearance.  Some player have criticized a lack of broader variety in the available options, but the available options are obviously based on the game’s art style.  It simply wouldn’t make sense to have a character with bright pink hair in Dragon Age.

Graphics, Art Style & Technical

Inquisition is a beautiful game.  The first major area following the prologue (Hinterlands), is a land of rolling hills, valleys and woodlands.  In terms of overall style, DAI falls somewhere between Skyrim and Guild Wars 2.  The bright color palette of the Hinterlands might not meet the everyone’s desires, but players should also visit the swamps of Fallow Mire and the frigid coastline of Storm Coast before making up their minds about the game’s visual style.

The game is well polished and remarkably bug free.  I’ve experienced only a single crash, and the only issues I’ve encountered involved either a hang during dialog with a character – which resolved itself after waiting a couple minutes – and a problem finding an NPC to turn in a quest because the NPC had somehow traveled to an unreachable location.  Simply leaving the map and then returning to a specific fast travel waypoint respawned the NPC in a nearby location.

The quality of graphics on the PS4 is high.  Draw distance is good, as are visual effects.  I occasionally experienced a slight pause in Haven (your main base of operations following the prologue) and an area loaded, but this would occur once or twice at most and only in that area.  Weather effects, wildlife, spell effects, building designs, etc. all lend to the immersion of the game world.  Cutscenes are done in-engine, and while part of me wishes they were full cinematics (mainly because Dragon Age cinematics are usually superb) the fact that so many scenes include dynamic dialog options makes this impractical.

Sound

Further enhancing the game’s immersion is the sound.  Ambient noises of rain and wildlife are superb, and the occasional dialog between members of your party is likely to make you want to try different party combinations just to hear more.  Listening to a Grey Warden and a Qunari discuss combat tactics is entertaining, particularly when the massive Qunari explains that wearing an eye patch makes his opponents predictable – often resulting in the loss of his opponent’s head.  The voice acting is excellent and helps the characters come alive.  Voices generally do a good job of conveying emotion that fits the scene, rarely feeling forced or out of place.  The game’s musical score is simply outstanding.  Sometimes the music offers the subtlest background, while at others it asserts itself to match and reinforce a particularly epic scene.  The scenes leading up to your introduction to Skyhold make especially excellent use of music.

Gameplay

In terms of gameplay, Inquisition would probably be best categorized as an action RPG.  It feels less tactical than previous entries in the series, but this may be due to the fact that I’m playing DAI on a console and played the previous games on PC.  My character is an archer, so my experience is largely limited to ranged combat, but the overall gameplay and feel of combat is positive.  Most animations are good, and the camera is generally cooperative.  Character movement feels fluid and natural, though perhaps a bit sluggish at times during combat.  Bioware has also included a tactical mode which can be switched on and off as needed.  This allows you to issue orders to your party in a much more tactical manner, though the camera in this mode could use some improvement.

Two of the most obvious issues with gameplay involve jumping.  For starters, the jumping animation leaves something to be desired, and your characters seems to jump straight up in a very limited fashion.  The tendency to get caught by small objects while moving makes jumping tedious and frustrating.  Fortunately, you don’t have to jump too often (though I found myself cursing my bunny-hopping rogue as I tried to dodge the fireballs spewed by a dragon).  The second issue is that the jumping button is also used as your primary means of interacting the with world.  This means that, more often than not, you will literally find yourself jumping up and down any time you try to pick up loot.  More critically, in instances where your interaction is time-sensitive, the fraction of a second it can take for the game to recognize an interaction opportunity can have dire consequences.  Perhaps they should have mapped the interact function to the right side of the d-pad.  It’s counterintuitive, but I do not believe that button is used for anything else, and it would solve some issues.

The game’s AI also bears mentioning.  Enemy behaviors are nothing special, but the behavior of your party members can sometimes be problematic.  Put another way, “Could you guys stop bunching together when we’re being strafed by a dragon?!”  The tactical mode still allows you to control all your party members throughout a fight, so it’s not a big deal.  As in previous games in the series, you have access to a system that allows you to customize the behavior of your party, though many players feel the system is less robust than in the past.  While occasionally frustrating, this is not a huge problem.  I was able to defeat the aforementioned dragon with all the behavior settings left at default, while only exercising limited control over my party members’ movement and potions.

As any reasonable player would expect, missions are functionally fairly standard.  You’re tasked with killing targets, collecting items, talking to people, and exploring areas.  This isn’t a bad thing; just don’t expect some groundbreaking approach to RPG gameplay.  While generally straightforward, missions tie in closely with the story and events of each area.  They all have a purpose beyond simple filler, are well-written, and make you want to complete them.  There are no quest hubs, and missions are equally likely to be introduced through a conversation with a character or by stumbling across a note in some abandoned campsite.  For a game that prides itself on incorporating player choice and consequences, it would be nice to include choices and branching plots into more of the missions, but most consequences outside of the main storyline are based more on if you completed a mission, not how you completed it.  Inquisition still embraces meaningful consequences more than most games, but there is still room for improvement.

For all you completionists out there, don’t expect to finish off all of a zone’s content your first trip there (not counting trips back to Haven to clean out your inventory).  Content in some areas requires you to face stronger opponents than you are probably ready for, some quests require materials you have to acquire from later zones, and still other missions (like quests for your companions) will not be available until later in the game.  This keeps you returning to areas multiple times, further minimizing the sense of a simple linear progression.

While combat and traipsing about the countryside are arguably the most significant aspects of gameplay, they are far from all of it.  Crafting is involved and requires both raw materials and schematics which can be found throughout the world.  Varying the materials used allows you to choose both an effect and appearance of your gear, and items can be upgraded with hilts, blades, pauldrons, and the like for added effect.  Another critical element of the game is the War Table, which is where you manage the Inquisition on a strategic scale, sending agents on operations to gain favor, recruit allies, investigate rumors, and explore new areas.  This keeps the gameplay connected to the big picture and ties in nicely with the other game systems.

Story & Characters

Last, and absolutely not least, are the story and characters.  This is where DAI really shines, but also where you have to invest some time to get the most bang for your buck.  Characters are all well-rounded, with distinct personalities and strong backstories which are revealed throughout the course of the game – if you take the time to talk to them.  It’s generally a good idea to check-in with at least one or two characters any time you return to your base of operations, and always after major advancements in the storyline.  I’ve frequently noticed myself spending more than an hour in Haven just swapping out some gear and talking to people.  It’s not simply a scrollfest, as you have to make decisions about how you talk to people, decisions which have consequences.  Your compatriots’ opinions of you can and will open up new missions and War Table operations for you through the course of the game.

Being invested in the characters helps with any story, but DAI doesn’t need much help in this area.  The overall story can be best described in a single word – EPIC.  While it may seem like your standard fantasy, save-the-world fare, Inquisition still manages to set itself apart.  The events and scenes leading up to the introduction of Skyfall are outstanding.  The way the world’s politics and religions are incorporated into the story are some of the best I’ve seen.  To say there’s a rich historical backstory would be a massive understatement, and most of this is presented through excerpts from books, notes, and songs you find throughout the world.  While I’m ashamed to say I have read many of these so far, it’s worth mentioning that you don’t have to read all of them to still get a strong feel for the world.

Wrap-Up

I’m certain there’s a lot I’ve overlooked, and I’m not even close to finishing the game yet.  While there is still room for improvement, Inquisition is easily one of the best RPGs of the year.  In fact, it’s probably one of the best games of the year, period.  A great story that’s written and presented well, made even better through the fact that you actually have a say in how it turns out.  The Dragon Age games usually lend themselves to multiple playthroughs if you want to experience everything, and DAI is no exception.  Most importantly for Bioware, Inquisition goes a long way towards reestablishing the proud tradition of the Dragon Age series.

This post was modified a couple hours after the initial posting to include additional information on bugs, AI, and mission difficulty.