Of X-Wings and Zombie Things

With new consoles and big games on the horizon, I’m feeling an urge to write about the games I’m playing before I end up with a big, multi-game post again. I want to chronicle my PS5 launch experience, and so many big games like Cyberpunk 2077, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are claiming space in my brain, so I want to share my thoughts on the two games I’ve been spending a lot of time with recently: Star Wars: Squadrons and Days Gone.

Star Wars: Squadrons

Although I missed out on the X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter game(s), I have mostly enjoyed the space combat components of many of the Star Wars games I’ve played. It’s not exactly “space,” but one of my fondest Star Wars video game memories is playing the Hoth level of Shadows of the Empire over and over and over again, and I played the hell out of the Rogue Squadron games. So I was all in when the trailer dropped earlier this summer, and I couldn’t believe the game was going to be out so soon after the announcement. And at $40? It seemed too good to be true! “Wait,” I thought. “It really does seem too good to be true.” And thus began the doubt. Was it going to be too short? Too niche? Too technical and inaccessible? I was nervous.

Well, as a wise little alien once said, “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” That alien was Yoda and, as usual, he was wrong. My fears were not only unfounded, they certainly did not lead to suffering. I really love Squadrons and am still playing it when I have time. The gameplay is not nearly as dense and technical as I thought it might be. It’s not as loose and arcade-y as most of the other Star Wars flight experiences, sure, but I actually prefer this type of flying. I think I’ve complained about this before, but I dislike flight games where you control a point out in front of your craft. As much as I loved the Rogue Squadron games, they controlled like that. When you tilt your controller in these games, the “nose” of your craft points in that direction. It feels unrealistic and unsatisfying to me. I much prefer games where you are controlling a point in the center of the craft. This allows for more realistic turns and you can do an actual barrel roll, as opposed to what would essentially be a corkscrew.

So, for me, that was the biggest win for this game: it feels good to play. Do I have to flip switches and monitor gauges? Yes, but there aren’t that many and it was very easy to pick up. It feels so cool to divert power to engines to increase the speed of my X-Wing toward a Star Destroyer, switch to weapons systems to launch a volley of blasts toward a shielding subsystem, then immediately cut to shields to make an escape. Well, try to make an escape. I’m often so determined to do as much damage as I can that I end up being destroyed before I can get safely away, heh. I was also a little nervous about the first-person perspective, as I usually prefer seeing the ship I’m flying, but I ended up really liking that, too. Again, my fears were unfounded. While I would like some kind of replay feature, where you see your ship and all the cool stuff you did from a third person perspective (like in the Ace Combat series), I found myself enjoying the cockpit view very much. Another one of my favorite experiences in the game is lining up a perfect shot on an enemy, unloading, and then bursting through the fiery remnants. I doubt it would be so thrilling in third person.

Squadrons isn’t quite as pretty as Star Wars Battlefront II, and it certainly doesn’t offer as much variety in terms of locales and ships, but there were still plenty of times I found myself in awe, scraping the hull of a cruiser with my TIE Fighter or rounding an asteroid to see a shattered Star Destroyer with beams of the nearest star cutting through my cockpit window. I’ve completed the story and played a handful of fleet battles, but I haven’t had as much time as I’d like with this game. With the new consoles, Cyberpunk 2077, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla coming soon, I don’t know when I’ll even have time to return to it. But I really liked it and I can’t wait to get back to it at some point.

Days Gone

One of the reasons I haven’t had as much time to play Squadrons is because I started Days Gone earlier this month, and I have been trying to knock it out before November hits. It’s a much bigger game than I expected, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It had a lot of negative press when it came out, but as we know by this point, often the negative (or positive) hype around a game has little to do with any given person’s enjoyment of said game. Gaming culture can be toxic, and tainting a game’s reception because of some predisposed perception of it (or its developers), without having played it, is just one example of that toxicity. It’s certainly not a perfect game, and seemingly could have used a bit more polish, but overall I am having a lot of fun with it.

Part of my enjoyment might be coming from my love of zombie games in general, and this game has elements of Left 4 Dead, Dead Island, and I’d argue there’s even a little Resident Evil influence in there. All of that zombie goodness takes place in an open world where you help to build up outposts, earn money to improve your motorcycle (mount), and go out on exploratory missions and tasks. This is My Type of Game™. I didn’t really think I’d be too into the idea of a motorcycle as a mode of transportation, but once I was able to start modding and customizing my bike, I was in. Throw in a custom Horizon Zero Dawn paint job and I was soon dreaming of how to quickly gain experience to unlock even better mods. I like games that have horses but to be honest, I rarely use them. I typically prefer to explore on foot. Throw in the fact that a loud motorcycle would attract the terrifying zombie hordes and I fully expected to leave my bike behind 90% of the time. Nope. I am almost never without my bike.

“Dude, where’s my bike?”

Speaking of the hordes, they aren’t quite as massive as I was expecting, but they are about as terrifying. Given the damage that just a few infected can do if they get to you, I knew I would never survive a close encounter with a few dozen or more of the rabid sonsabitches. So I steered very clear whenever I caught a glimpse of one. And then I found my first cave in the game, and if you’ve ever played a video game you know that caves are Where It’s At. There had to be something good in there. So I crouched low and started sneaking in, casting my flashlight about, watching for spookies. I got pretty deep before turning a corner and swinging my light toward a huddled mass of heaving infected, hunched and breathing heavy. They whipped their collective heads toward me and it was like that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest where Jack Sparrow is running from the big group of cannibals. I busted ass out of the cave and hopped on my bike quicker than you can say I am Legend: The Video Game. Later, when I was slightly more proficient in combat, I found a NERO camp under a railroad bridge. NERO camps are exciting because once you power them up and get inside, an injector that permanently increases a stat awaits. So I hopped off my bike and got to work on finding gas for the generator when I spotted a horde… above me, in a car of the train stopped on the bridge. I backed away slowly, but then I noticed there were explosive barrels, crates, and gas cans placed at seemingly strategic places around the camp. Could I take out a horde this early? I could just time my shots and take out a few chunks, then clean up the rest… yes, I thought, and decided to go for it. I positioned myself in the road below, shot a few of them to get their attention, and as they spilled out of the car, dozens of arms and legs clamoring over each other, I lined up a shot with a gas truck. I pulled the trigger. *Click*. *Ting*. Nothing. I hit it but it didn’t explode. Uh. Uhhh. They’re moving so fast, they’re going to get *click* I shot again. *BOOM* Huge explosion. But I was already jumping on my bike. I was two seconds too late with the second shot. The truck took out a handful, but the rest were already on me. I managed to get away but not without a few swipes to my bike.

I did take a horde out, eventually. I found one on the edge of a swamp and it seemed smaller than the others. I decided to see if I could thin its numbers with explosives, then run away and come back with more. I parked my bike facing away, then threw two Molotovs and two pipe bombs before the horde could react. It was perfect. Each pipe bomb took out 4-5, and the Molotovs looked like they got 2-4 each. I zoomed a short distance away on my bike as they chased me, but they quickly gave up and started ambling back to their original spot. I returned and did the same thing, and when I rode away this time I made sure to guide the stragglers a little farther than the core. When the core turned back I took out the stragglers with silenced guns, then went back to the very small remaining core and was able to just melee them. I don’t imagine I’ll get that lucky with the rest of them, but I felt pretty accomplished with the 45+ ears I’d collected.

It’s these types of events that really win me over in open world games. The outpost building, bike modding, and side quests mentioned earlier are key, too, but when there is enough freedom and flexibility in a world to allow for unique approaches to solving problems, I am 100% there for it. I love that if me and ten of my friends played this game (lol I don’t have ten friends – hi, Amy!), we would all probably have very different stories about taking down our first horde. I’m not finished with the story yet, but I think I’m pretty far. The story has been pretty decent, but even if they completely botch the landing, I can safely say that I enjoyed my time with the game and am looking forward to finishing every side quest, collectible, and mission. And then it will be… Days Done. Get it? Instead of Gone? Done? Okay, I’m out.

Late Fall Video Game Medley

I don’t love doing long blogs that cover multiple games, but I’ve had the fortune of playing several games over the last couple of months, and the misfortune of not having as much time to write about them. So, here we are. Because this is in large part my way of tracking my own thoughts about games, I should put a general spoiler warning out there, in case anyone happens to read this and has yet to play any of these games, particularly since some of them are very new. I’m not used to writing about newly released games, so yeah. The screenshots are especially potentially spoilerific. Having said that, it feels good to be “caught up” with my recent backlog enough that I can actually play new games and be active in the conversations around them. I’ll have to go back to playing specific Japanese games for my dissertation soon, but I’m giving myself until the New Year for that. So, without further ado, I begin with a couple of games that I didn’t finish.

Ghost Recon: Breakpoint

I haven’t played a Ghost Recon game since the GameCube days, but my friend wanted to play this co-op and I liked the idea of getting back to some multiplayer action. The story didn’t quite hook me, and as with the Division games, I wished there were more character customization options at the start, but I did have a fair amount of fun in my time with the game. Sneaking around in my tiger stripe camo, crawling through mud and resting behind a tree stump to line up the perfect shots on two unsuspecting enemies never got old. What did get old was clearing out enemy strongholds. It was fun enough the first few times, but after playing games in the Far Cry and Assassins Creed series’, it felt a little uninspired after a while. The lighting and environmental effects made traversing the map visually stimulating, but when I was playing alone I found exploration less rewarding than it was in other open world games. There were a few times in particular when I’d see something mysterious on the map, spend a fair amount of time carefully making my way to it, only to discover that it was blocked off for a later story mission or something. I didn’t dislike the game, but with so many games to play, I moved on without much regret.

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Borderlands 3

And Borderlands 3 is what I moved on to. I played and liked the first two games in the series, but I wasn’t rushing out to buy the third. I think I got the first two on sale, but I’m generally not much of a looter shooter fan. Having said that, I like playing games like this with friends, so the previously mentioned friend and I played this for a while after giving up on Breakpoint. Having not played the first two games for such a long time, the first thing that struck me was how crisp and vibrant the graphics were. The smooth controls that I remember made a return, so running or driving around from battle to battle was fun enough. The humor was, as expected, hit or miss, but overall it was a fun, lively world. But, as with Breakpoint, I eventually got bored, especially when not playing with my friend, and since we both had other games to move on to, we gave up on completing the story after a while. I can see myself going back to it someday, though, maybe.

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Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Edition

I was only ten years old when Night Trap came out, but my former diehard Nintendo fanboy self didn’t own any Sega system, let alone a Sega system add-on like the Sega CD. I have to admit, though, reading about a game with real video of young women running around in nightgowns was certainly something that ten year old me was, shall we say, curious about. The game’s role in the 1993 senate hearings on violent video games only increased my curiosity, but as you might have guessed by its inclusion in this post, it wasn’t until this year that I would get around to giving it a shot. I picked it up when Limited Run Games released a physical copy for several systems, but I didn’t get around to playing it until this past Halloween.

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And, oh boy, was it not a fun experience. I mean, on one hand, it was very campy and dated and I love things that are really obviously from a specific time period because they’re fascinating time capsules that offer a much more authentic view into the styles and culture of a time than you might see in a modern throwback TV show or movie. On the other hand, it’s a frustrating mess of a game that is impossible to really enjoy in terms of the video content because the core mechanic is not watching the screens on which action is happening, so that you can trap the many, many enemies that are trying to sneak into the house on other screens. For some of the traps you have to spring, you only have a 1-2 second window, and if you miss it, it’s game over.  I had waited so long to play it, though, so after making several attempts on my own, I eventually gave in and used a guide to beat it a few times. I think the core concept of the game is interesting, and if they had spread the story out enough so that you weren’t constantly having to miss narrative progress to trap enemies, it could have been a lot of fun. With the recent revival of the FMV genre, I would very much love to see a remake of this game, set in and satirizing the 90s.

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Alien: Isolation

Speaking of games I played for Halloween, I was very surprised by how much I liked Alien: Isolation. The game is a masterclass in atmosphere. From the persistently mindful use of lighting, to the accurate sound effects, to the appropriately retro futuristic technology, this game truly feels like it’s a part of the same universe as the films (particularly the first few). If I’m ever lucky enough to have the chance to design my own class on adaptations, I would seriously consider pairing the first Alien film with this game.

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I think my only real complaint is that the pacing near the end is a little frustrating. It’s from a British developer, but it does the thing that a lot of Japanese games do, where it keeps leading you to believe that the game is almost over, only to pull the rug out from under you and give you another challenge. In my experience, that move is effective once, maybe twice if you’re careful and one of the challenges is short. But when each challenge stretches the game out longer and longer, it starts to feel frustrating and makes me want the game to just end. This game isn’t as guilty as others (*cough* Death Stranding *cough*), and ultimately it didn’t overshadow the incredible achievements in the rest of the game. One of those achievements is respecting the alien and making it as formidable as it is in the early movies. It is truly tense and terrifying when the alien is nearby. In one area, I knew the alien was crawling around in the vents above me, searching, but I didn’t know hostile humans were also nearby. I sneaked over to a terminal and began stealthily reading an entry, when, well, I captured a video of the encounter:

The way this scene played out was quintessential Alien. Just when you forget about the alien, just when you let yourself get distracted by a strange woman hacking a terminal, hisssssss. Ya dead.

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The Outer Worlds

As a fan of Fallout 3 and 4, I was of course excited that a Fallout-like game was coming from the developers of Fallout: New Vegas and Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (which I loved). And it really, really feels like a Fallout game, down to the retro corporate propaganda posters and artwork. That’s not a bad thing, but it is inescapable. Weirdly, it felt like a kind of mashup of their experience with both BioWare and Bethesda licenses, because while the gameplay and style is certainly Fallout-esque, the party system and planet-hopping are straight from their work on KotOR II. So, in short, I was here for it.

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While the game isn’t as engrossing and immersive as a Fallout game, I enjoyed the more compact, punchy story, and I loved having my own ship and a crew. Parvati was my favorite, so I almost always had her in my party. I did miss a romance system, even if Parvati was off the table. I would have totally made a play for Celia Robbins, if I could convince her that she’s too good for that dumb merchant she was swooning over.

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Okay, ouch, never mind then.

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The game is stylized, so it doesn’t quite have the same realistic sci-fi wow factor that the Mass Effect games did, but I think it gives it a unique personality and will allow it to age more gracefully than the Fallout games tend to. I think they did a nice job of making the planets look unique and interesting, though I wish there were more to explore. The Outer Worlds doesn’t really break any new ground, but it’s a good, fun, safe game.

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Death Stranding

Phew. I just finished Death Stranding a couple of days ago, and I ended up playing it for over 75 hours, so my brain is still a little addled. From Hideo Kojima’s split with Konami, to the bizarre reveal trailer, to the celebrity cameos, this game was hyped to hell, so I did my best to avoid most discussion of it. It was everywhere, though, so I can’t say that I evaded the hype with 100% success, but its launch was (as is becoming normal for AAA titles) beset by a loud seeming-minority of people that absolutely hated it, which clashed with what seemed to be a fairly positive critical response overall. So I went in not knowing what to expect, really, and I was wary about making any judgments about the game until I was a good 20 or so hours in.

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There is a lot I could say about this game’s themes, characters, and messaging, but I’m going to keep that commentary brief (partly because this would be a massive post if I didn’t, and also because I plan on including some of it in my dissertation). So I’ll just say that Kojima is a very ambitious, visionary game director, whose love for Hollywood is apparent in how he tells a story. He tries to rely on style and visuals to tell the story, like, say, Stanley Kubrick did, but he seems to always pull back and use endless exposition as a crutch. The visuals in this game are phenomenal (the Decima engine is amazing), and I appreciate the chances that Kojima is taking with the narrative, but there’s not much denying that it’s sloppy and redundant in places (like the incredibly long and drawn out end sequences that I alluded to in my discussion of Alien: Isolation).

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Okay, having said all that, I still really loved this game. As I said, the visuals are stunning, and more specifically, the geology and various landscapes are amazing. Furthermore, the walking mechanic works really well because the landscape is mapped so well that your feet land where they should land, instead of on invisible planes. This made navigating the map an immersive and visceral experience for me. This was most obvious during my journey to scale the highest mountain in the game. I wrote previously about my experience climbing Death Peak in Chrono Trigger, and even in that 2D game I felt a weird sense of accomplishment at braving the elements and overcoming environmental diversity to reach the top of a snowy mountain. The same can be said here, though there was much more working against me.

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I should also point out that I didn’t have to climb to the top of the mountain. I was in the area, though, and it seemed like a fun challenge. Could I even do it? It was quite steep in places, and snow in the game quickly erodes most equipment that you’re carrying, so I probably couldn’t rely too much on that. Welp, I decided to give it a shot, so I strapped a couple of ladders, climbing anchors, repair spray, and an extra pair of boots on my back, and I set off on what looked like a safe enough route.

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It snowed almost the entire way up, so one by one, my pieces of equipment started decaying and becoming unusable. Sometimes I could climb pretty steep inclines, but this was before I had gloves or level 3 boots, so I spent a lot of time zig-zagging through deep but somewhat level snow. The storm increased in severity, and plodding through the snow began to take a serious toll on my stamina. It dwindled, dwindled, I would rest a little or drink some water, but I had to keep moving to keep from freezing and to protect what remained of my equipment. I slipped a few times, lost some cargo at one point, but I kept picking myself and my gear up and trudging along. Each time I thought the peak above me was the very top, I’d crest it and see that there was another to be won just a short distance away. I made it, finally, as evidenced by the screenshot below, but my stamina was shot, most of my gear was destroyed, and I wasn’t sure I had enough water or equipment to make the descent.

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Lucky for me [/sarcasm], a whiteout hit as soon as I began my descent, which meant I could barely see what was around or below me. I would plant an anchor and drop a rope, only to slide down into nothingness, hoping to find footing. I did, and I made it to the bottom having only faceplanted a couple of times, so when I finally reached a Bridges post I was on the verge of collapsing but filled with a sense of achievement and adventure. It was moments like these that made me love this game. The characters and stories and all that were varying degrees of weird and fun, but this, for me, was a game about adventure and overcoming all kinds of trouble. I really dug it.

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Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

I’ve only just started Fallen Order, but I wanted to leave my thoughts about the opening sequence before they fade or are subsumed by the rest of the game. I think it’s especially noteworthy given how similar but different it is from Death Stranding. Both games are very cinematic, but where Death Stranding ends up not fully trusting its audience to pick up on visual cues, the opening of Fallen Order is rife with them, and they subtly tell a whole story that connects previous events in the Star Wars universe with the game. There is no overt narration or pre-game text that explains the characters or settings, but we get small snips of dialogue or background animations that do that for us, making for a very natural feeling mix of visual and audio storytelling. The game uses a guided camera at specific points to draw attention to the background, and if you hold a second to take it in, you’ll see Republic cruisers, a droid control ship, and lots of Separatist artillery. If you’re familiar with the prequel trilogy of movies or the animated Clone Wars features, the game doesn’t need to say anything: you can deduce that the Clone Wars are over and both the Separatist droids and Republic clones are, like their ships, out of commission. This is confirmed by the appearance of Stormtroopers, placing this somewhere after the execution of Order 66 and (probably) before the events of A New Hope, when all Jedi have reportedly been wiped out. And this is all conveyed without the game saying “hey, just so you know, this game takes place…” Which is really cool, I think.

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Other than that, as I said, I’m not very far in the game, but I can feel myself getting hooked. Wielding a lightsaber feels, looks, and sounds great, I love that I get to travel around on a ship with a crew (callback to The Outer Worlds), and the environments of the only two planets I’ve been on so far are very detailed and Star Wars-y. The Second Sister, who I’m assuming is the main villain, seems super cool. My character feels a little float-y, which I never like as much as precise movement, but I will hopefully get over that if the rest of the combat is solid. I’m also marathon-ing all of the Star Wars movies and TV shows and reading the newly released Star Wars: Resistance Reborn, so I feel like I’m in the midst of another Star Wars Renaissance. I’ll probably post more thoughts on the rest of the game later, but for now I have a prospectus to write. Dang it. May the Force be with me.

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