Patient Gamer – NBA2K17

The idea behind the patient gamer category was originally to review Xbox Live “Games with Gold” but I have trouble following guidelines.  Plus, not only does a gold membership give you access to free games, it also allows you to have a free play weekend.  You can download a full game, give it a try for the weekend, and then determine if you really want to buy it the following week.  For me, this is a terrible trap to which I am constantly trying not to fall.

A couple of months ago, I saw that NBA2K17 was available for a free weekend trial.  I downloaded it on a Friday and, by Sunday, I had already played through a full season with my beloved Philadelphia 76ers.  Since it is one of the few places you will actually see the Sixers win a game recently, I was immediately drawn in.  By Monday, I loaded the game and was in shock when it took me to the Xbox Store to prompt me for purchase.  After reluctantly forking over $60, I spent the next couple months weighing my decision.  I’ll try to break down some of my thoughts into pros and cons and we can all decide for ourselves the quality of this purchase.

Pros:

  • Overall graphics and attention to detail – After taking a few years off from sports games, I was pleasantly surprised by the realism and beauty of this game. The arenas are well done with realistic looking crowds, courts and scoreboards.  This may seem like a petty observation but there were many times that friends or family couldn’t tell whether I was playing NBA2K17 or watching a live basketball game.The player models were also very well done with each player having their own unique look and playing style.  The details, even down to their exact shooting form, was captured perfectly for most players.  It’s fun to randomly pull up an exhibition game between some retro teams and watch Magic Johnson dribble around with exaggerated high knees or Larry Bird hitting threes with his arms raised well above his head on release.

Draymond Green works up a sweat punching guys in the junk.

  • Control modes – Often times when you play a sports game, the buttons take a 9 week course to master most of them. In this game for every control, there is a simple or complex button choice.  For instance to shoot the ball, you can either hold down the X button or use the stick.  The stick gives you more control but is harder to get the hang of than just a simple button click.  This was appealing to me because while I was trying to get the hang of more complex button combinations, I was able to still use the simple controls to get by.  It wasn’t like some games (UFC, WWE, etc) where until you get a firm understanding of the exact combinations you are going to get throttled, repeatedly.
  • Career mode – Outside of just your standard play now modes, there are some other pretty interesting game modes. I’m usually not a big fan of online modes, so when I play games like this I am usually looking to sink time into modes that don’t force me into online play (this will be covered in more detail in future con items, I assure you) without a decent local play mode.  Career mode allows you to create your own character and starting with a couple college games, character build to your heart’s content.It also has a neat feature that allows you to take pictures with your smartphone and upload them to your career mode.  It takes your selfies and models them around your player model.

    When you have a face like this, who wouldn’t want to look at it as much as possible.

    Career mode allows you to take control of the day to day life of an NBA player.  You start with a generic player model and design everything about them.  You choose your position and what type of player you want to be.  As you play games, you are rewarded with points for how well you do.  You take the points and redeem them for leveling up different aspects of your player’s game.  There are several abilities, like free throw shooting, that you can only level up through practice.

    During the day, there are periods of time where the gym is open and you can go practice.  You can work on your shot or as other NPC’s come and go in the gym, play pickup games.  The experience earned in practices allows you to improve on things you couldn’t otherwise do by buying skill levels.As you play through the season, you can receive player awards, participate in all-star games, or attract new fans by hanging out with past and present NBA players.

    For gamers with a thing for leveling up characters, this would be your mode.

Cons:

  • Endless loading screens – As in most other sports games, NBA2K17 is made up of about 78% loading screens. When you turn on the game, the initial splash screen is discreetly a loading screen.  You can skip the intro video, which will then drop you to the main menu screen and another progress bar.  I think at this point behind this loading screen it’s going out to 2k servers to check for updates.  When that finishes, you will probably be awoken from your slumber by horribly loud hip hop music.  This is your cue to choose the menu that will advance you to your next loading screen.  If you choose an offline mode of gameplay, the update it previously was searching for will be downloaded at your next convenient load screen.Let’s say you want to play career mode and blow off some steam.  To get to an actual game play (you know, the actual point of turning the game on), you have to wait through two additional load screens and an additional load screen disguised as a pregame show to get there.  If you are counting at home, that’s a total of 5-6 load screens to get to actual game play in career mode.  You sit down, turn on your Xbox to play a little basketball and before you know it, it’s baseball season.
  • Updates – As previously mentioned, 2k is thrilled to pump out daily updates for this game. This would please most online gamers, but for me, it’s just one more thing to wait on in a loading screen that I have yet to see a return on investment with.  The updates won’t attempt to download unless you are in an offline game mode.  This means that if you bring up play now, GM or season mode, you are going to have an extra long wait time at your initial load screen whether you want the update or not.Another fun benefit of the daily updates being pushed down your throat is the game often time gets confused and the update will hang the game at unexpected points with no notice whatsoever.My favorite of these is when it occurs at the initial game launch.  You load the game up, some sweet hip hop music greets you and it plays a beautiful video of your favorite stars.  Without warning, Chris Paul stops moving and the music stops.  There are no error messages and no indication that the game is still alive.  You can attempt to resuscitate it by launching the game again but 2k is persistent.  They want you to have this update, no matter the cost.  When this fun issue arises, the only way that I’ve been able to resolve it is to clear the reserved game cache for NBA2K17 on the console.  This forces it to pull down the latest version (with a longer than usual load screen) and install fresh.  Try googling the phrase “NBA2K17 freezes” to see how big of an issue this is for users.Any game developer that can’t even properly push out an update without requiring its users to basically clear the game’s cache manually prior to updating doesn’t deserve my money.

Get used to playing games with this banner unless you want to quit everything you are doing and drop back to the main menu to install your daily update.

  • Feeling alienated – I realize that the NBA has doubled down on targeting a younger market to which demographically I don’t belong for several reasons. To say this in the nicest way possible, I don’t really care much for hip hop or rap music.  I’m not much of a fan of street ball either.  Does that mean I can’t be a fan of NBA basketball now?  Why is it not in the NBA’s and 2K’s best interest to open their doors to fans from all walks of life?I guess I’m just a little disgruntled as a 33 year old, un-athletic, lifelong video game player and fan of the NBA, to so obviously be the antithesis of this games’ target audience.  Oh, and get off my lawn while you’re at it!

 

Scorecard:

I’ve developed a scoring system to determine if you will like this game or not.  Add up your scores and I’ll let you know where you fall:

A:  (# of JayZ Songs You Know) (# of Kids You Have)

B:  (# of Lebron Jerseys You Own) (# of Hank Williams Jr Songs You Know)

C:  (# of Hours Daily You Play Online Console Games) (# of the ’89 Pistons You Can Name)

A + B + C = Your Score

If your score is greater than zero, you’ll probably enjoy this game.  My score is a sweet -13 by the way.  Oh, and don’t make me tell you to get off my lawn again!

 

Nerdstalgia: The Legend of Zelda

If I had to guess, I’d say that the biggest thing in gaming right now is the new Nintendo game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Since that game is less than a month old, it’s hardly appropriate for a Nerdstalgia or Patient Gamer review. So, let’s take a look at the game that started it all, The Legend of ZeldaThe Legend of Zelda was released in 1987. I was in third or fourth grade at that point, and I really doubt I actually had a Nintendo Entertainment System yet, so I didn’t really play it. My introduction to the series was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and even that I played only in small bits and pieces at a friend’s house. My first real experience with Link, Zelda, and Ganon was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Still, I think it’s best to start at the beginning of a series for these retrospectives, at least where I can.

I think remakes of the game probably cleaned up the translation some.

If I’m being completely honest, I really didn’t expect to like The Legend of Zelda that much, because I remember disliking The Adventure of Link. I started playing it for this post primarily because it’s a historically significant game, as not only the first entry in a classic video game series, but also possibly the first console RPG ever. I expected to play it and appreciate it for that fact, much as I can appreciate the movie Casablanca. I was actually surprised at how much fun I’ve been having.

The story is pretty simple. Ganon, the Prince of Darkness, has captured the Triforce of Power and was attempting to get his hands on the Triforce of Wisdom. Princess Zelda managed to split the Triforce of Wisdom into eight parts and scattered them around the world, but she was subsequently captured by Ganon. Now, the hero, Link, must reassemble the Triforce of Wisdom, infiltrate Ganon’s castle, defeat him, and save Zelda. This entire back story is shared in a quick prologue screen before you start your journey.

This may be one of the most famous screenshots/quotes in gaming.

That’s pretty much it for explanation. Games of this era had very little in the way of tutorials (since it was assumed you had the manual, which was a pretty stupid assumption for an industry that was marketed toward kids who had a tendency to lose everything they touched, but I digress…). You’re dumped into a field next to a cave, and you’re expected to find your way from there. If you go into the cave, you’ll be given a sword, and then you’re off to figure out how to make your way in the world, find the pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom, and save the Princess 1.

Once the game has started, you really are given no hints about where to go. Since this is an NES-era game, the “map” is pretty woeful, consisting of a grey screen with a green square indicating which square of the map you’re in. That’s something, but it means you’re in for a lot of wandering. It’s very easy to find yourself in an area that you’re not quite ready for, and the game is pretty unforgiving about that. It’s difficult in any sense, and not quite being certain whether the next screen will bring up enemies you can’t handle makes it even more so.

I love Link to the Past, and there are lots of places in this game where the link between these games is practically screaming at you, moreso than between The Adventure of Link and Link to the Past. The dungeon doors look similar, and most of the enemies are familiar, in a way that I have to compare, again, to watching a classic movie and seeing the origin of a lot of the tropes that now seem almost cliched.

The Legend of Zelda doesn’t hold up to modern games graphically, but there’s a lot to love with its simple depiction of Link and his enemies. Especially if you’re familiar with the enemies from later games, it’s easy to fill in the gaps of the crude graphics to see what the designers were going for (and what the enemies will evolve into).

If you enjoy the later Zelda games but haven’t played this one, I absolutely recommend picking it up. You should try it just to respect the series’ roots, but I think you may be pleasantly surprised by how fun this game is, even after thirty years.

The Legend of Zelda is available on Virtual Console for both 3DS and Wii U. Screenshots all come from the 3DS.

Nerdstalgia: Master of Orion

I have been playing video games for as long as I can remember. I remember thinking Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 was probably the best game of all time (I was very young. Don’t judge me.). I remember getting our Commodore 64, and spending enough time playing Jeopardy on it that I could pretty much buzz in on every question, confident that I’d remember what the answer was (I don’t think there were many puzzles on that one). Later, Lemmings on the Super Nintendo was the ideal puzzle game, and Final Fantasy II (Final Fantasy IV in Japan and all modern incarnations) was the best RPG ever.

All of these “best games ever”, though, pale in my memory when compared to Master of Orion 1.

I remember stumbling across the Master of Orion box among the other computer games, though I couldn’t tell you what store we were in at the time. Honestly, it wasn’t that flashy compared to other games; it was a basic black box, with a generic sci-fi scene (ships above a planet) and the name printed on the side of the box without even a fancy font or logo. I must have played other strategy games and liked them, because “Strategy” is the only thing that stands out on that box to me now, but, honestly, I don’t really know what drew me to this one.

To be honest, it’s been a few years since I’ve played Master of Orion, but not nearly as many years as you might think. Over the years, I have reverently moved the Master of Orion files from one external drive to another, periodically picking it up and playing a few games of Master of Orion, helping the Silicoids or the Psilons achieve their rightful places as the rulers of the entire galaxy. When I booted it up for this review, I wasn’t really worried that the graphics would look dated, or that I wouldn’t enjoy the gameplay, because it hasn’t been that long since I’ve played it.

The graphics and game layout are obviously a product of the time in which they were created, but they don’t really seem dated to me. It wouldn’t be too long after this game’s release that video games started being rendered in 3D. In a sense, these games had taken their 2D designs to their limit, and while the resolution of the screen and certain elements may show the technical limitations of their age, there isn’t a lot of room to criticize them, in my opinion 2

Even almost a quarter century later, the graphics are fine. They’re not flashy, but they don’t need to be.

The same can’t entirely be said for the game play. Most of it is workable. I wish I could zoom in and out on the map, and it took me a while to remember that simply clicking on the map will refocus it on my cursor. I kept trying to drag, which led to unexpected behaviors when the map would simply recenter on the last point where my mouse button was down. Still, most of the management is done using sliders (see the screenshot to the right for just one set of sliders). Lots and lots and lots of sliders. Each planet’s spending priorities are controlled by slider. Research priorities are controlled by sliders. Espionage and infiltration? Slider.

That’s not entirely a bad thing, since I prefer it to the way Master of Orion 2 did things (expect a review of that classic at a later date), but I suspect it would give the game kind of a clunky feel if one wasn’t compelled by nostalgia to love it as much as I do.

The game itself is one of the models on which most future 4X games would be based. The term itself was coined for this game. You start off controlling a single planet, and you slowly explore and expand your empire, exploiting resources as you find them. Eventually, you’ll find other races among the stars, and, as a would-be galactic emperor is compelled to do, you will have to exterminate them. Where other games in the genre would eventually allow you to win through diplomacy and alliances (and those aspects are at play during any given playthrough of Master of Orion), the only winning condition for this game is to be the last empire standing.

I hated this stupid GNN reporter. I’m pretty sure the inhabitants of Endoria that I haven’t evacuated yet probably hated him more, though.

Because of that, Master of Orion is actually pretty simple, comparatively speaking. You build up the infrastructure on each planet, making sure to balance that with protecting the environment (unless you play as the Silicoids, who don’t really care about things like breathing or radiation). Eventually, those planets can earn research points, save money, or build ships. Researching can improve any aspect of this. Early on, increasing your ability to explore, expand and exploit is going to be your main focus, but there comes a time when any young emperor’s fancy turns to love extermination.

When that time comes, you’re going to start building a fleet of ships intended for something more than defense. Ship design is pretty basic – you pick a size for the ship, pick one of the ship images, and decide what items to put in there. Available ship styles are dictated by the color of your flag and the size of the ship you’ve chosen. Engine, Armor, Weapons, Computers, and “special” items (like the colony ship unit that turns a ship into a colony ship) all fit inside. As your technology increases, you’ll have access to better and better items, and the existing items will get smaller and smaller.

Space combat is strategic and turn-based, but pretty basic.

All space battles will take place in orbit around a star system, usually in orbit of the star’s primary planet (stars in Master of Orion have no more than one planet shown), or in empty space if the star has no planets. The attacking fleet will be stacked on the left, with the defending fleet stacked on the right. Since you can have six ship designs at a time, that means you have at most six icons on your side (unless it’s your planet, in which case you get to control the planet’s ground-based missiles as well.

Battles are generally pretty quick; your ships can move one space for each “level” of engine they have, and the entire stack of ships fires at once. If your design includes a single set of missiles, but you’ve got a stack of 10 ships, then you’ll fire 10 missiles at a time from that stack. Beam weapons and missiles can be fired at separate targets, and, if you’re fighting against a planet, you may also use bombs to attack the planet. In addition to the playing through the strategic battle, you can click “AUTO” to simply watch the battle play out.

 

Planetary invasions are even more basic than space combat.

Once you’ve gotten rid of a planet’s defenders, you have to deal with any alien colonies that are in place. You could simply bomb them out of existence, but why not take advantage of the infrastructure your enemies have so kindly built up for you? You can simply transfer “colonists” straight to an enemy colony (even a single ship in orbit can send all your “colonists” to their doom, so you’ll want to leave a small fleet in orbit long enough to get your colonists delivered. Your colonists come equipped with the best weapons your technology can handle, and they’ll systematically clean up the planet of any pesky aliens before settling in (or, in the case of my screenshot to the left, they’ll die trying…).

In addition to diplomacy and warmongering, you’ll have to face random events. These events aren’t quite as varied as in the next game in the series, but they do occasionally put some of your people at risk, with the all-too-cheerful GNN robot informing you that your people on a given planet are all going to die if you don’t do something. There are also good events (a random planetary realignment might boost a planet’s ecosystem, or you may find ancient ruins that will boost your research), but those seem to mostly be reserved for AI players. I’m pretty sure GNN is biased toward players of the computer variety.
Also, somewhere, out there in the galaxy is Orion. Orion is the homeworld of an ancient advanced race, patiently waiting for the first player to find it and plunder it for some of the best technology in the game, like the aptly-named Death Ray. The only thing between the player and the riches of Orion is the Guardian. You’ll have to build up a decent fleet with some good weaponry to take out the very well equipped Guardian. There are tricks to maximize your chances (it doesn’t do quite as well against swarms of smaller ships), but that’s not to say it’s easy.

Master of Orion is now available on Steam for just a few dollars (I picked up Master of Orion and Master of Orion 2 for $5.99.). I can’t recommend either of the other two bundles, as they both include Master of Orion 3, which was a huge disappointment (I haven’t tried the remake yet, so I can’t speak to that). If you’ve any interest in 4X games and haven’t tried it, it’s definitely worth trying the game for which the term was coined.

The Patient Gamer, Volume 1

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

When we were discussing this group blog project, one of my co-writers suggested that we should review the Xbox Live Games With Gold games each month. Unfortunately, that same co-writer got a case of the “somebodies,” as in, “Somebody should review them, but I don’t really mean me.” For this first review, I nominated myself to be somebody. Games with Gold are, by necessity, older games, and I suggested that we should call the regular feature “Late to the Party,” but, honestly, the more I used it, the less I liked it. Thus, The Patient Gamer was born. If my co-writers don’t like it, well, they should’ve volunteered to review an old game.

The current Games with Gold are Borderlands 2 (360), Project Cars, and Layers of Fear. I would have been happy to review any of those three games (especially Borderlands 2, which I already owned and enjoyed). Unfortunately, something came up. That something was the announcement of Middle Earth: Shadow of War, the sequel to Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. That announcement reminded me that I’d never actually finished Mordor, so I jumped back into it.

Mordor isn’t a new game, and, if you’re reading this, you’ve almost certainly heard of it, even if you haven’t played it. Set between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Rings, it tells the story of Talion, a human who is somehow merged with a wraith and given a form of immortality. The wraith has no real memories of who it was, so the two start out on a mission of revenge against those who killed Talion and his family, while trying to figure out exactly what happened to them.

It’s a large, open-world game set in the Lord of the Rings universe, which is one or two points in its favor right there, depending on one’s feelings about Tolkein’s Legendarium. The combat is very similar to the Arkham series of Batman games, which is a huge point in its favor. When you’re surrounded by orcs and only technically fighting one or two at a time, the combat system still makes you feel like you’re in the midst of a huge brawl. The biggest winning feature of Mordor, supposedly to be expanded on in War, is the Nemesis system.

In the nemesis system, there are orc captains (or Warchiefs, at higher levels) who lead large groups of orcs. Those captains each have their own limited personalities, with traits that modify how they fight.  More importantly, if you encounter one, he remembers you. If he killed you (one of the major points of the game is that your character returns to life after death, and the orcs know that about you), he’ll make a comment about it. If you killed him and he

Otha Ugly Face is a new Nemesis.

I think this was the first time I’d met Otha. Just after taking this picture, a second Captain showed up and distracted me, giving Otha the chance to kill me…

“escaped” (which means you got the kill animation, but the game somehow decided that he didn’t actually die when his head exploded or whatever), he not only remembers, but may bear some scars (physical and mental) from that encounter. Burn an orc to “death”, and he may return with a fear of burning.

The whole thing makes the game’s open world seem more alive than it should, and increases the replay value immensely. Let’s face it, this isn’t Skyrim. The open world in question here is all set within Mordor, the heart of Sauron’s evil empire, and it’s populated almost entirely by Orcs, human slaves, and monsters. There’s no thieves guild or Companions to join, it’s just you and your weapons, with pretty limited quest lines. If it weren’t for the Nemesis system (and, to a lesser extent, the good will earned simply by being set in a pre-existing fantasy universe), Mordor would feel like a fun proof-of-concept in want of a game. The Nemesis system completely redeems that, and makes the quest to kill all the orcs (and regain the wraith’s memories, which, honestly, felt like more of a subplot than a driving force of the game) feel entertaining a lot longer than it would otherwise be.

All in all, the plot of Mordor leaves a lot to be desired, but the Nemesis system alone makes it entirely worth playing. I’d give it a 8/10, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.