Taking a break

Hey, y’all.

I’m going to take a break from writing for a little while. You may have noticed from the length between post dates that there’s been something of a drop in content lately, and it’s for good as well as bad reasons.

The good is that I have a lovely new job which, while rewarding, is leaving me a bit tuckered out in my spare time right now. I simply need some me-time headspace as I settle into the role.

The bad is that I’m still coming out of a particularly bad spot of depression and daily anxiety attacks. My overall mental state and sense of self-worth are miles better than a couple of months ago, but I need some time away from regular blog posts to help refresh.

So I’m not currently committing to reviewing every game I complete. I’m not going away so much as taking a step back. When I’ve settled in enough, mentally and vocationally, I plan on working as hard as possible on producing quality reviews and thought pieces for you all to dig into. I just need some time without serious commitment to the blog.

Thank you to every one of my readers. I’ll be back soon.

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The Limitless Potential of Pen-and-Paper Worlds

Some of the most memorable moments in gaming are when we’re surprised (and, perhaps, delighted) by some hidden layer of depth to a game. It doesn’t have to be a massive, groundbreaking idea; small touches can be eye-opening revelations for the player. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you’re warned in a mission briefing for the first level that some hostages don’t have long to live unless you defuse the situation quickly. Now, you might dawdle along the way, searching every enemy and trash can along the way, but if you take too leisurely-a pace, those people will be dead before you get there.

It’s an insignificant story detail, but it’s one that makes you think about the game on its own terms for the rest of the playthrough, lest the guys at Eidos Montreal pull the rug out from under you again. Calling out players on player-like behaviour was famously in Chrono Trigger, too, in which townsfolk testify against your in a trial if you stole their things or acted in rude ways that other JRPGs have taught us are game. In Stardew Valley, people sometimes ask you to “wipe your feet” when you come into their homes or shops. Worlds can also feel more realistic if the bits-and-pieces are laid out just right; it’s no accident that millions flock to each new Bethesda game for their “nothing nailed down” approach to game world design and patented (if buggy) approach to NPC behaviour and reactions to the player.

These details tend to amaze people because they make the game world feel that bit more believable, and it’s impressive when developers think outside the box enough to call out players for their more nonsensical learned habits. And it’s really important for games to pursue this because it really reinforces that notion of habitation, making virtual worlds feel more real and changing the way that we behave in them. These worlds are given depth.

However. Where we’re at in the games industry right now, in terms of technology, in terms of man hours, and in terms of business, it’s not entirely reasonable to expect meaningful and consistent depth from games right now. Even Bethesda, the giant that they are, seem to sacrifice a whole lot of stability for their expansive worlds, as even in that case the cracks are starting to show in their glitchy NPC behaviour and inconsistent level of interaction with the environment.

Technology is evolving all the time and I’m not alone in being very capable of looking past some glaring limitations of video games to immerse myself their worlds. And while I’ll continue to encourage and applaud advancements in game world engineering, there’s been a readily available resource for game worlds without limit for several decades, now. That resource is tabletop RPGs.

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My main experience with these games is from playing Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, and to a lesser extent Fiasco (which uses a decidedly dialled-back approach to roleplaying)- so bear in mind that the former two games are the core experiences that have spawned and shaped my opinions on pen and paper pursuits.

Boiled down into their most basic concept, tabletop RPGs are a platform for group storytelling. The DM or GM (that’s Dungeon Master or Game Master) writes a world (including locations and NPCs), and sets up a series of encounters for players to deal with on their quest. These plans must, of course, be malleable- there are no invisible walls to keep your players on track unless you railroad the heck out of them, and the mark of a good DM is not only in their writing skill but in their ability to react to players’ whims.

On the player side, you roll a character by selecting characteristics like race and class before outlining a backstory, which can be as detailed as you wish- the key is to isolate your character’s motivations. Then you move on to work out and assign your stats. A lot of people can be turned off by the number-crunching, but with a knowledgeable friend on hand you’ll be done in no time- and you’ll find it’s quite fun to shape a character’s abilities and persona. You will be spending a lot of time with them, after all.

When you’re actually playing, the interplay between player and DM begins. The DM describes the surroundings and events pertinent to what the player characters will notice, and the players describe what their characters may attempt to do given their surroundings.

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Therein lies the potentially limitless depth of tabletop RPGs: you’re free to attempt anything (within reason, of course), so your harebrained scheme to circumnavigate a massive battle by assassinating one important target might just work if you’re creative and lucky enough. And since the world is entirely in your collective minds, you can always ask the DM for more detail on parts of the environment that interest you. With a talented DM, you get as much detail as you want.

This potential for crazy, “just-might-work” improvisation gives players a level of freedom and agency that was frankly astounding to me when I played my first game of D&D back in 2012. Importantly, the system doesn’t feel broken thanks to the limitations of dice rolls and what your DM will decide is physically possible, meaning that progress feels earned and success does not come cheaply. There’s nothing quite like rolling a perfectly-timed critical success, or a devastating (and potentially hilarious) critical failure.

Some of my most fond and satisfying gaming memories came from the trials and triumphs of my characters in D&D and Shadowrun campaigns. I’ve improvised my way out of a hostage situation by telepathically throwing a grenade from my belt at my captors. I’ve cleared an entire room of enemies with a prayer to Thor and a thunderous blast of lightning. I’ve thrown a companion at a swooping hell-bird to have him strike it from the air. And I’ve won the trust of policemen in Cyberpunk Belfast by quoting Father Ted at them (“want to come through the park to grab a kebab, mate? G’waaaaan…”).

Tabletop/ pen-and-paper roleplaying games don’t have invisible walls. Your options to solve problems aren’t limited by the foresight of a rushed development team. You’re not limited to scant and dissatisfactory dialogue options. You’re not always forced to use violence as a solution. You’re not subjected to the uncanny valley. You’re limited only by your imagination, and with a good DM and some creativity you’ll earn some of the best gaming stories of your life. That’s not to say that you should replace video games, or even RPGs, with pen-and-paper experiences. They’re just a wonderful supplement to your gaming life while we excitedly await each new innovation in the world of video games.

Image credits- dnd.wizards.com, shadowrun.com

Salt and Sanctuary Review

FromSoftware’s Souls series has seized the imagination of millions of people, earning itself a rabidly dedicated fanbase. The games’ deadly levels are designed to encourage measured consideration and precision from its players, their Japanese take on Western fantasy tropes casts the genre’s aesthetics under a twisted and unique lens, and they project a believable sense of weight that really hammers in the sense that you’re inhabiting a world. FromSoftware has certainly dug itself a desirable niche for its unique product, and it’s not a market that many have explicitly tried to exploit- the most notable attempt being Deck13 Interactive and CI Games’ Lords of the Fallen.

Enter Salt and Sanctuary, a 2D action-RPG that’s unabashedly upfront about its Souls influence. It’s developed by Ska Studios, whose back catalogue includes the skill-based action games in the Dishwasher series that perhaps prepares them to make a Souls-alike better than anyone might have expected. While wearing Souls on its sleeve might easily have rendered Salt and Sanctuary a forgettably pale imitator, the game shows a welcome competence that cements its status as a great game in its own right.

While Souls games introduce their main characters’ quests in a more esoteric manner, Salt and Sanctuary’s story starts with a much more familiar place: you’re escorting a princess across the sea when disaster strikes and your ship wrecks on a mysterious and deadly isle and you’re off to find your charge. As clichéd as this premise is as video games go, the game’s narrative unfolds to reveal a tale that weaves together themes of purpose, creed, and divinity. It creates intriguing lore underlying the experience as you delve into the world of Gods and monsters.

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Creating your character is immediately familiar to Souls veterans as you choose your class and physical characteristics from a menu. Just like in Souls, your initial choice of class does not limit your ability to eventually wield any equipment or ability that the game has to offer; it simply pushes you in the direction of the gameplay style epitomised by each class with your initial stats and equipment. I normally favour agility in these types of games, but I fancied dipping my toes outside of my comfort zone so I chose to play as a Paladin from the list, amongst the Knight, Mage, Thief, Chef, Cleric, Pauper, and Hunter options. A really nice touch in the character creation tool is that instead of choosing a skin colour from a gradient palette, you’re presented with a map of countries in the world of Salt and Sanctuary, with your complexion matching whichever part of the world you specify your character as being from. While I won’t remember any of the names of the fictional lands I was shown, this option really helped to give a little bit of world-building context to a choice that we usually don’t think about beyond pure aesthetics.

Jumping into Salt and Sanctuary’s world and fighting off its hordes of hostiles is more reminiscent of the “feel” of Souls games than might be expected of a 2D action game. While the HUD and menus are very closely styled on Souls’ UI, I often found myself falling into very familiar mental patterns as I tackled enemies along my path. Apart from the relative ease of death (even minor enemies hit hard and can quickly chip away all of your health if you’re not careful, and you’d better be prepared to block or dodge the larger guys) I think that this largely hinges on the stamina gauge. Jumping, rolling, attacking, blocking, casting spells- all of these actions deplete your stamina bar, and if you’re caught in a tight spot with an empty bar you’re in a lot of trouble. This shared mechanic between Souls and Salt and Sanctuary means that you need to ration out each action before taking a second or two to replenish your stamina bar. Crucially, enemies’ attack patterns are finely tuned to force you to cleverly approach them with this in mind, and this measured ebb and flow is very, very familiar to a Souls player.

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The other series that people will frequently compare Salt and Sanctuary with is the Castlevania series. The vast and interconnected areas of the world are as evocative of those games as they are of Souls. As you progress through the game you’ll unlock movement-enhancing capabilities like wall-jumping and the ability to contextually reverse gravity. Playing this game actually made me think about how facets of Souls games seem, weirdly, to have a literal or spiritual founding in Castlevania. It’s funny how these things come around.

The list of mechanics that Sanctuary borrows from Souls is long. Individual weapons have their own move sets. Weapons’ damage scales off of your main stats like Strength, Dexterity, and Magic, and can be upgraded with specific items at a blacksmith. Experience points are accumulated from enemies in the form of Salt (this game’s equivalent of Souls), which are lost when you die but can be picked up if you make it back to the spot where you died and defeat your murderer. Traps litter the game’s many and varied environments which you’ll need to learn to watch out for. Your equip load is affected by your endurance stat and affects your roll speed and ability to equip heavier weapons and armour. There are semi-regular resting places, called Sanctuaries, which replenish your healing items and allow you to spend your Salt to level up. Progression through levels reveals shortcuts back to checkpoints that make death-runs easier. Much of the story and lore is hidden away in item descriptions. The list goes on and on.

Despite all of these similarities, though, Salt and Sanctuary distinguishes itself with myriad differences and innovations which shake up the formula and raise the game beyond its “clone” status somewhat. Your default healing items replenish your health gauge, but also diminish your maximum health until you next rest at a sanctuary or shrine. Every action that drains stamina has the same effect, adding an extra cost to casting magic and prayers on top of the focus bar which depletes as you cast spells to limit your usage between rests. This system really makes you think about rationing your actions and spells, preventing over reliance on healing or overpowered abilities.

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Levelling up is also distinct- cashing in your Salt for levels gifts you with Black Pearls that you spend to unlock slots in the expansive Tree of Skill. Nodes to increase your base stats and healing item reservoir brach out along paths that unlock the ability to specialise in the use of different equipment and abilities like armour types, weapon types, and spells. I was blown away by the sheer vastness of the tree, although I quickly grasped how to navigate it to pursue appropriate upgrades for my build.

The titular Sanctuaries are more than a replacement for bonfires from Souls’ checkpointing system. They’re tied into your chosen Creed (the specific Gods you follow) , and so can offer different items and upgrades to match your play style. Creeds work similarly to Covenants in Souls games, and can offer different bonuses from the effects of their healing item to the availability of certain high-grade weapons. At a Sanctuary you make offerings in the form of small stone statues to summon NPCs to give you little bonuses and services for the area. Summoning a Guide allows you to teleport between Sanctuaries, while the Alchemist allows you to transmute weapons into better ones. Creeds are levelled up by acquiring a greater Devotion level, which increases the item pool for the NPCs that you can buy stuff from.

Some Sanctuaries are automatically dedicated to a Creed that’s different from your own, but you can Desecrate the place with the use of a certain item to convert the Sanctuary to your own Creed, allowing you to use its services. This turns any NPCs in the place hostile, however, and you must defeat a guardian before the spot is fully claimed.

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Salt and Sanctuary sports a Dark Souls– esque dark fantasy aesthetic, working from a traditional western fantasy design with twisted gothic overtones. Despite taking its cue from Souls, Salt and Sanctuarys initially familiar look reveals its visual style to be just as unique and inspired as FromSoftware’s. The hand-drawn artwork and stilted yet expressive animation paint a moving picture that’s a touch more cartoonish than most gothically-inspired works, but Ska Studios owns it.

Indeed, Ska Studios’ talent for arresting visual design is exemplified by the varied and imaginative enemies you’ll clash with over the course of the game. From the more classical feral beasts and men to some more truly bizarre creations, your bestiary fills with a vast array of creatures that often perturb, sometimes terrify, and always intrigue. This is no more true than in the case of game’s many the bosses, who tend towards massiveness.

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The increased sense of scale really amplifies that fear of the dangerous and unknown as you approach each boss for the first time, which you’ll often know is a few steps away when you see the candles marking each encounter. The number of lit candles represents the win/loss ratio of the boss in that area- the more players die to a certain boss, the fewer candles are lit. This simple mechanic is really effective at building apprehension before you’ve even stepped into the boss fight, and it’s a stroke of genius. This feeling is only compounded when you enter an arena only to be staggered by the size and unfamiliar moveset of that particular beastie. It’s all down to learning that particular creature’s abilities and weaknesses, but Salt and Sanctuary does a swell job of raising the stakes when you’ve reached each boss. And that final, frenzied hit that takes them down is all the more fist-pumpingly satisfying for the way that time slows to highlight the felling blow.

Salt and Sanctuary is, by any measure, a resounding success. It stands on the shoulders of giants, yes, but it’s earned its spot up there. Ska Studios didn’t simply set out to copy Dark Souls in a 2D plane; they intimately understand what makes those games great, and use that not as a blueprint but as a canvas. It might be a derivative work, but it’s still a damn fine one with a slew of original ideas of its own. I’d recommend Salt and Sanctuary to anyone that appreciates skill-based action-RPGs in the vein of Souls or Castlevania in a heartbeat.

What Makes A Good Boss Battle?

Boss battles are about as deeply entrenched in video game DNA as life bars; it’s hard to think of a series that doesn’t feature some kind of boss battle. Even in games like Top Spin and Fifa 20XX, there are the big events like Wimbledon and the Cup Final that the game builds up to, where you’ll compete against harder opponents. In conventional story-driven series, boss battles help to break up the action; you’ll progress through a level, build up to the boss, overcome the boss, then move on to the next area. It’s a well-trodden and comfortable rhythm, and a perfectly sound way to pace a game. So, this begs the question: what makes a good boss fight?

Firstly, let’s look at some examples of bad boss fights. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, an otherwise solidly crafted game emphasising player choice, is marred with boss encounters that essentially force you to take down the bosses with good old fashioned murder bullets. Not only are these encounters particularly dissonant in pacifist playthroughs, they also betray the game’s tenet of freedom of approach. You can’t sneak past them without a trace, you can’t really hack stuff to your advantage; if you haven’t geared up with offensive gear in favour of a stealthy playthrough, you’re going to have much more frustrating time, and it’s not your fault because apart from boss battles, the game has been selling player choice.

Another frequently-touted example of a poor boss is the fight with the Joker at the end of Arkham Asylum, in which the Joker is beefed up on a more-potent variation of venom, Titan. While the fight doesn’t break gameplay consistency, since brawls with large Titan-enhanced enemies were already in previous encounters, the boss is egregious because it doesn’t make narrative sense. The Joker is a thinker; he’s dangerous because of his genius, not his physical prowess. He’s only a threat to opponents in combat because of his sheer unpredictability. Batman shouldn’t beat him in a battle of brawn, but a battle of brains, and the final boss fight with the Joker just broke the narrative and character consistency that the game had been wonderfully building up to that point.

So, then, a boss battle should be consistent with the game, both in terms of mechanical design and narrative design. Dishonored is a good example of a counter to Deus Ex, since both games encourage exploration and flexible approach to the levels. Dishonored has the protagonist Corvo Attano chasing down targets in a corrupt government, most of whom are related to his fall from grace as the Lord Protector of the Emperess. Dispatching these targets are essentially the main objective of each mission, so they’re acting as bosses in this game. Rather than requiring you to eliminate your targets through murder, Dishonored allowed attentive players to dispatch targets in non-lethal ways. For example, you can mark one target with a heretic’s brand, which leads to him being kicked out of his high office, effectively removing the threat he imposed. This approach to design allowed players to make choices which suited the narrative consistency of their play style, and none of the choices of approaching targets betrays the narrative themes of the game up to that point.

Setting aside narrative concerns, a commonly held belief is that a good boss battle tests what you’ve learned about the game so far. Bloodborne boss Father Gascoigne is one such boss that epitomises this philosophy. The second (or first, if you take a certain route) boss in Bloodborne, the Gascoigne fight takes place in a cemetery and is more or less a trial by fire; relentlessly charging you with formidable speed and power, players that haven’t yet learned to dodge and parry attacks will have a hard time beating him. You can also make use of the grave stones in the area to give yourself some breathing room to heal and time your attacks, which emphasises the use of environment that’s so important in Souls/Borne games. Lastly, there’s an item you can acquire before the Gascoigne fight that allows you to render him immobile for a short period of time, which let you get in some much-needed hits. This teaches you the importance of preparation and the rewards of exploration, as well as providing a narrative gut-punch once you understand the circumstances surrounding Gascoigne.

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Conversely, games have made use of boss fights as ways to expand the player’s mind beyond what they may have learned in the preceding sections of the game. Forced to adapt new strategies to deal with the boss, the fight often plays out more like a puzzle until you work out the right method of dealing with the enemy. The Metal Gear Solid series is famous for this approach; while much of the games focus on stealth, most of the bosses require unique strategies. The Psycho Mantis fight in MGS is well known for its genius, making the player plug their controller into the player 2 slot so that Mantis can’t read the Snake’s mind, rendering him beatable. In fact, each boss battle in MGS embraces a completely different play style; a prolonged sniper battle with Sniper Wolf, a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with Vulcan Raven, a simple fist fight with Liquid Snake… each encounter distinct and memorable as the last, and very little to resemble the core gameplay of the game.

I think that Shadow of the Colossus may be the purest example of this style. While your mechanical options are the same in each instance, each colossus requires a different approach; sometimes you need to bait a certain attack to be able to climb up onto them, sometimes you need to sue the environment cleverly, and sometimes you need to hit a weak spot. Climbing each colossus is a puzzle in itself, as you navigate their massive bodies in search of weak points where you can damage the creature. I think that game which use this approach to boss design tend to be more successful in creating more memorable and varied encounters.

All in all, I think that the best boss fights are those that are memorable. They should be hard, but fair, and most importantly, true to the game. It’s clear from Dishonored and Metal Gear that we can have varied, interesting and unforgettable bosses that improve the game rather than acting as a barrier to the player.

Image credits: alphacoders.com, gbhbl.com

Horse Armour 2.0- The Latest Stop In The Never-Ending Road Of Konami Mess-Ups.

Lately, it seems like Konami just can’t seem to stop messing up. It’s getting downright farcical at this point; like watching a child trying to chase a ball, only to keep kicking the ball further away at the last moment. Except that the ball is on fire, and the child is an apathetic company seemingly trying to duck out of the videogames business, and the field is psychological abuse of employees, and the child’s shoes are the fanbase, and now I’ve lost track of the metaphor.

Okay, let’s step back a minute. Konami is a company which makes the majority of its money in gambling and arcade machines, and in the wake of several years of flailing about with its key franchises, seems to be backing away from AAA game development (although it has recently stated that this is not the case, but I’ll take their word when I see proof). The only games that the publisher had to show at e3 were Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and the most recent Pro Evolution Soccer. Even if they’re not planning to completely abandon game publishing, there’s very little evidence that they have much for us at the moment.

For the past few months, there’s been a slew of negative press surrounding the company, to a frankly absurd degree. There seems to be a new piece of news every few days at this point, but there are some very prominent examples I’ll bring up to make sure everyone’s nice and up to speed. Despite several years of the Silent Hill franchise suffering something of a quality and identity crisis, the mysterious PT (“Playable Trailer”) teaser for Silent Hills arose on the Playstation Store as if from nowhere. Pretty much an overnight hit, the teaser was driven by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro and was a superb little slice of horror and clever use of environment. Sadly, the project fell apart (I mean, Guillermo Del Toro was on the project, so what could we expect?), but P.T. and Silent Hill fans found their wounds freshly salted when P.T. was suddenly lifted from the PS store, meaning that unlucky fans who had deleted the game to make space couldn’t re-download it.

Perhaps the deletion of P.T. was down to some rights contract tomfoolery, but what’s less forgivable is good old fashioned employee abuse. It came to light that Konami treats their employees worse than PETA treats its rescued animals. Reportedly, developers (even in senior roles) deemed to not be “useful” to the company any more- through whatever secret code that’s judged on- have been bumped down to menial jobs. Furthermore Hideo Kojima, Konami’s pet genius, departed the company just months before the release of MGSV. This led the company to unceremoniously boot Kojima’s name from the box and promotional art for the game, even though Kojima and the Metal Gear franchise are about an inseparable as any auteur- driven series. Not that this stopped Kojima’s name being plastered all over the credits of every mission in the game, but still. Not a great move on Konami’s part.

Finally, we have the most egregious moves on Konami’s part; the actions which betray a disregard for their consumers, and a startling misunderstanding of their own properties. A pachinko machine based off Silent Hills was a pretty stupid move, shown off in this gaudy monstrosity. The cacophony of pachinko noises, the flashing numbers, the pyramid head exploitation… it’s completely tone deaf. It’s almost like Konami is completely out of touch with its audience and franchise. And then there’s the Castlevania pachinko trailer promising “Erotic Violence”. Yeah.

The most recent piece of news, however, is just the cherry on the cake for me, cementing Konami’s farcically out-of-touch attitudes almost to the point that I’m not sure it’s not self-parody. A couple of days ago, Konami announced an upcoming piece of DLC for MGSV:TPP. More missions, you ask? Maybe a fleshing-out of the cut missions which reportedly round up the plot? No.

It’s horse armour. It’s literally horse armour.

… Sigh.

This has literally been a joke since Bethesda famously experimented with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion DLC way back in 2006 by releasing DLC purely aesthetic horse armour. This has been a running joke for 9 years. And here we are in 2015, with the most out-of-touch publisher in the games industry proving how out-of-touch it is. You really couldn’t make this up.

Destiny: The Taken King First Impressions

It’s been a year and some change since Destiny launched last year. Destiny’s always been a strange beast, an FPS skimming the surface of MMO (Bungie prefers it be called a “shared-world FPS RPG”, if you want the official classification). It’s a game of ups and downs- the core gameplay is ridiculously solid and satisfying, the environments are well-designed and compelling, the loot is varied and interesting, and the underpinning lore is excellent, if derivative. On the flip side, all that lore is hidden and scattered, the plot feels is barebones and incomplete, and the endgame has a serious barrier to newcomers due to player progression being largely dependant on random loot drops. That said, with a group of committed friends, Destiny is one of the most rewardingly compelling experiences around, despite its myriad flaws, and a steady trickle of new content has kept me coming back every few months to face new challenges with my friends.

Enter The Taken King, then, a major full-priced expansion. Overhauls abound, and the game spends some time walking you through these changes in your first couple of hours in the expansion. Where previously, character progression after level 20 was driven by “Light”, essentially the quality of your weapons, now you continue to earn experience points to reach level 40. The Light system is still around, but as far as I can tell it’s more of an indicator of the quality of your gear rather than a direct modifier on your player stats. In a nice touch, your level in TTK starts at whatever your light level was before the 2.0 patch, so you don’t skip a beat when you start up. A welcome addition is the exotic blueprint system, which means that when you acquire an exotic piece of gear, it’s yours forever, even if you dismantle it- you can trade some of your currency and resources to reacquire any items you regret losing, and certain items can be ascended to Year 2- level attack or defence scores once you’re at level 40.

As previously mentioned, Destiny’s weak plot and characters were always a thorn in its side, and TTK has made an effort to beef itself up in this department. Much of the story is driven through missions issued by your Vanguard Class leaders, especially Cayde-6, who countless players will be surprised to realise is voiced by Nathan Fillion. Driven by Mr Fillion’s natural knack for roguish charm, Cayde-6 has shot from relative obscurity to engaging character, and all it needed was some screen focus. The other Class Vanguard Leaders as well as Erin Mourn and a small handful of other characters have been fleshed out a bit more, and it works to the game’s credit. Bungie never really focused that much on its characters enough, and hopefully this is evidence that they’re willing to develop their characters further, because a world without engaging characters is hard to care about saving.

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The story section of TTK is completable in around 5 hours, which is about half the length of the original story. You’re facing down Oryx, the father of Crota, the Hive leader that you’ll remember being the final boss of the first expansion The Dark Below. Oryx is understandably miffed that you’ve killed his son, and has assembled a new faction, the Taken, by kidnapping and corrupting members of the other enemy factions. Story missions are more varied this time around, taking you around new and established locales as you face down the Taken, who are impressively different from their original enemy counterparts and allow for interesting combinations of Taken adversaries pooled from several different factions.

TTK has brought a slew of new content, especially to players on Xbox, who are receiving the originally PS-exclusive weapons and strikes as well as the new area, strikes, missions, and raid (which is not available until Saturday, presumably to allow more people to reach the required level and gear quality). The way that you follow quests has been overhauled, which makes it a lot easier to keep track of the multitude of quests you’ll be following simultaneously. There’s certainly no lack of content awaiting you in TTK; I’m 10 hours into the expansion, and I have about 15 ongoing tracked quests. There is an issue with quest objectives not always being entirely clear, however I’ve had fun decoding my mission tasks and the new patrol area with my companions.

Further increasing the variation on offer, each class has gained a new subclass- Warlocks gain arc-based abilities as Stormcallers, Titans wield hammers of solar light as Sunbreakers, and hunters gain the use of a void bow as Nightstalkers. As I’m playing a Warlock, I’ve been rocking the Stormcaller subclass to devastating effect- it’s a tremendously fun class to play; gliding about and blasting massive bursts of chain lightning through my foes feels incredibly powerful. I’ve seen the other new subclasses in action too; the Titan Sunbreaker class looks just as devastatingly potent, whereas the Nightstalker Hunter seems like a great support class.

All in all, I’m very much enjoying my time with TTK. The plot is still lacking and I still have some issues with the loot system, but I can’t ignore the wealth of new content and small changes which add up to an impressively fresh overhaul of the game. I’m 10 or so hours in after 2 days, and the expansion still feels unscratched and fresh; I think that’s a pretty good feat on Bungie’s part.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided- Don’t Augment Your Preorder

For those of you that’re out of the loop, Square Enix have announced their preorder incentive for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. It’s called “Augment Your Preorder”, and it’s kind of like the Kickstarter stretch goals system in that the more people that preorder the game, the more preorder bonuses there are to choose from, the last goal being that the game releases 4 days early.

Yeah. Screw this thing.

When are companies going to understand that divvying up content so that no (sane) person can have a fully complete version of a product, really pisses everyone off? It’s a terrible practice on a PR and customer relations level, and it just leads to degradation of the art form.

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The target number of preorders for the five (!) tiers of goals are secret, which probably means that no matter how many people fall for this rubbish, Square Enix gets to come out with a press release claiming that all of the tiers have been reached, and, yes, they’re very proud of how the community has already rallied around the game. I can just picture the smug release now.

Now, there’s been a fair amount of outcry, although I’m not sure how much outrage will actually lead to a change in this kind of practice. We’ve been putting up with this blatant disregard for customers and games as an art form for years now; as anyone who remembers the absolute clustermolest that was the list of Watch Dogs editions and pre-order incentives. Pre-order incentives in general tend to lead to a system of haves and have-nots, and you really don’t want a customer paying for a full-price triple-A game feeling like a have-not.

Now, I’m not totally against pre-ordering like many people are. For instance, I myself pre-ordered the Pip-Boy edition of Fallout 4, because that is a very exclusive product that I’d probably have to resort selling my organs for had I relied on eBay scalpers down the line. But, in this case, the blatant disrespect for the consumer is such that I just cannot condone pre-ordering this game. And that makes me sad, because I love Deus Ex, and the developers probably had little to no say in Augment Your Preorder program.