Twenty Years of Pokemon – My Memories

Pokemon BlueOver the weekend, Pokemon Red and Blue turned 20 years old. That’s a whole lot of Pokemon over the years. Other than making me feel really old, it did get me thinking a bit about my journeys through the various regions in Pokemon’s world. From my very first Pokemon, to my more recent adventures, I thought I’d join in with the chorus celebrating Game Freak’s games.

My very first experience with the original games was actually through one of my cousins. He had Pokemon Red with him at a Memorial Day cookout – the year is lost to my memory though. I remember watching him make his way around the Safari Zone and thinking that it looked so cool. Flash forward to that Christmas – I wake up, head downstairs, and in the pile of presents that “Santa” brought was a Green Gameboy Pocket (which I still have, and works) and Pokemon Blue. I can’t tell you how much I played that game – I fell in love with the series right away. I, of course, picked the best starter ever – Bulbasaur – and he never left my party the whole game. I got him to level 100 (legit, without the Missingno trick – which I later abused), he was present in pretty much every Elite Four run I made and has always been my favorite Pokemon line. I went out and bought Pokemon Red so that I could trade my way to owning all 150 Pokemon. I can clearly remember battling my friends on the bus to Young Scholars in fifth grade – twenty minutes of Pokemon bliss. I never really watched the cartoon, but I loved the games – including the card game for a good handful of years. Twenty years later I still really love the games – I think they’re really amazing ways to introduce younger players to RPGs. They have a really surprising depth to the combat, going beyond the surface “Rock, Paper, Scissors” style that first time players see.

Pokemon Red

As the years have gone on, and as each subsequent generation has added in a tons of new Pokemon species, what hasn’t changed is the charm. Few games, and especially few big budget games, have the same level of charm that the Pokemon games do. It’s in the design of the different Pokemon, it’s the childlike wonder that each different region has (probably because the player character is a kid), and it’s in the simple, but well written dialogue. There’s a reason that every time a new set of games is announced that the collective gaming public goes crazy. For a huge portion of gaming’s community Pokemon has been a major part of our lives growing up. It was the game that got me interested in RPGs, and 100% completion in games. Now that Nintendo has re-released those first two games (and Yellow) for the 3DS Virtual Console a new generation of players can have that same experience we did, and us old folks can revisit Kanto all over again. Hell, I still have both of my cartridges for Blue and Red and I still am thinking of picking them up on the 3DS (mainly because the battery save on one of them has gone out).

There are still plenty of stories in the world of Pokemon to tell – I’m still waiting for Nintendo and Game Freak to bring them to the home console as traditional Pokemon RPGs, not as a spin off. As the community still finds more in-depth ways to dig into the combat, with IVs and EVs and Natures and all that, the competitive scene will keep getting deeper too. Nintendo has a track record with keeping franchises alive for a real long time – Mario is 30, Zelda just turned 30 this year, Metroid is coming up on that 30 year mark as is Mega Man (which I know is Capcom). With that in mind, I can’t wait to see Pokemon keep going on for years to come.

Games With Gold: March 2016 – Borderlands

BorderlandsNext month’s Games with Gold were announced a couple days ago, and I was really excited to see the second 360 title: Borderlands. It’s heading to the marketplace in the second half of the month. With that in mind I thought I’d write up a quick refresher/prep guide for one of the best games of the last generation.

Borderlands is a FPS/RPG that’s built around four-player co-op. There are four different playable characters, each with a different unique ability. It’s got a real strong emphasis on random loot – enemies drop random guns, shields, grenade and class mods, as well as rewards from quests and chests. Gearbox and 2K like to say that there are “bazillions of guns” in Borderlands, and I believe them. If you’ve come into hybrid shooter/RPGs recently, say with Destiny, you have a good base to get into Borderlands, just expect more RPG than shooter. Also, expect a hell of a lot more variety in weapons and loot. When they say random loot, they really mean random loot.

The big selling point for me with Borderlands is that it has a simple, but effective story that is full of actual humor. A lot of games try to be funny, but most fall a little short or feel forced. Borderlands actually is funny – the writing is great, it’s got some heady humor mixed in with silly sophomoric stuff too. I’ve played through the full game twice already – once solo and once with a buddy. It’s a game that is definitely more fun played with a group though – we actually had started a four-man run right at the end of the 360’s run – now we’ll be able to finish it.

Borderlands Handsome Collection

What I would recommend if you’re interested in Borderlands, since it’s going to be free, is also looking in the DLC for it. There are four packs to get – each one is a little different. One is horror themed, one is based around arena battles, one is built around the main “bad-guy” faction from the main story and the final one is all about Claptrap (the best character). Now I don’t know for sure what’s going to happen when the game goes up with Games with Gold, but I would bet that the DLC will be marked down at least a little bit. The other option could be if they make the Game of the Year edition – that includes all the DLC. Regardless I do really recommend grabbing the DLC – it’s all really good. The new levels make it easier to go about building your character, each DLC added in new unique and legendary items that are really cool, and honestly they all help tie together the story of the first game.

One last point I want to make is that since it’s now going to be backwards compatible, you’ll be able to play all three Borderlands games with the Handsome Collection as well. If you picked up that set on XBox One, now is the time to fill out the collection with the original. It’s a fantastic example of co-op gameplay that also works as a solo game. It’s got great humor, pretty perfect action, and a really good loot system that keeps grinding from being boring. If you missed it when it came out in 2008, this is absolutely a perfect time to pick it up. The series is still going strong with the Tales From the Borderlands games, and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a full third game coming our way soonish.

Fantasy Development: Call of Duty

Call of Duty: GhostsA few weeks back, I played fantasy game developer with the sequel for Destiny. I threw money, time and honestly, reality out the window and focused on making what I think would be the perfect Destiny game. Today, as a bit of a breather from talking about The Division, shooter news, and Destiny we’ll revisit the fantasy development idea. Today I’m going to make the best Call of Duty: Ghosts 2 ever.

Obviously it’s a bit of an assumption that we’re getting Ghosts 2 this year. We know that Infinity Ward is making this year’s game, but that’s it officially. I’ve seen a couple posts online – including bigger websites – saying that they don’t expect Ghosts 2. I completely disagree with that – yes the multiplayer fell a little once the weapon balance deteriorated, but the other two pillars of the game are set up perfect for a sequel. So I’m going to build off of that idea, and deal with multiplayer last.

First off, the single player campaign: let’s not make it single player. Black Ops III showed that the campaign works as a co-op story as well as a single player experience. So we borrow that idea – make the campaign playable (optionally of course) as a co-op game. The story was set-up at the end of the first game – you tracked down Rorke, stopped his plans, and then had the big twist. Rorke survives, wounds you, and captures you – credits roll, sequel set. Now, I think realistically there’s one question to ask before we talk story – is Infinity Ward setting up a trilogy again? So far Call of Duty likes to work in threes – the original series was three numbered entries, Modern Warfare was three games, and Black Ops has been three. So we’ll assume that is the plan here and know we have a final third game coming in a few years. With that set, we have the basic structure of the plot – Hesh (player 1) and his Ghosts squad that he took over from his father are tracking down Rorke and trying to find his brother Logan. There’s still room in that basic story to throw in plenty of Call of Duty twists and big moments – there is still an overarching story of the war going on too after all. But instead of finding Logan in this game, save his role for the third game. I would have this Ghosts 2 end with Rorke’s defeat – and in this story we’re crafting, he sacrifices himself to save Logan, completing the brainwashing process and setting up the ultimate confrontation in the third game: brother Vs. brother. It’s real simple, which does play into the Call of Duty stereotype, but believe or not actually works here. There’s no reason to keep trying to adding twists and turns and other bells and whistles. Go back to the basics – a simple story, with less complications makes for a much more engaging overall experience. Call of Duty has a habit of putting in a whole bunch of characters to the games – Infinity Ward in particular was guilty of that in the Modern Warfare games. Keep it small – four protagonists, an overwatch character to drive the narrative and two main antagonists – that’s it. Keep the story focused and you can start to shake off that stereotype a little bit.

Now, before we leave the campaign mindset, there is one thing that I would pretty much steal from Black Ops III. Treyarch, I think, got the idea from Ghosts‘ Extinction mode – tell a different story using the same pieces. Black Ops III has the Nightmares campaign – it’s the same world and basic setting, just a totally different story – the zombies have jumped from their mode into a story setting. Ghosts 2 could do something similar – Extinction and Nightmares can certainly exist in the same game. I would love to see something like that, because it offers up another way to keep the game alive for a longer time. It’s not a fully fleshed idea yet – I don’t know exactly how I would tell that story, but I still think it could work.

Extinction CoD Ghosts

Now, let’s actually talk about Extinction itself. Far and away that was the mode I played the most in Ghosts. It was the most fun part of the game I thought – no need to worry about the crappy weapon balance, or stupidly overpowered killstreaks. Just worry about beating progressively tougher AI monsters, ending with some pretty awesome boss battles. The achievements pushed the players to doing certain things that might have been out of their comfort zone, but not in a way that punished them. When the story finished, our group of survivors had actually left the planet – biding time on one of the orbiting space stations. Again, the story is perfectly set-up: tell the story of humanity beginning to retake our planet. Nothing crazy here – basic storytelling works best – it’s universal themes that the broad community can get behind. It also is sets us up for a DLC season – the first mission is establishing a beachhead somewhere; the DLC then tells how we began to branch out. If we’re still going under the assumption of a third game, we’ll need to close the DLC season with a big moment that leaves players wanting that final chapter. We got a taste of how I would do that in Ghosts‘ Invasion DLC’s Awakening map. That map brought us inside of Ball’s Pyramid, into the Cryptid tunnels. That’s how I would end this game’s season – our group finally moving into enemy territory, striking them on their own turf, ending with a fight against some kind of massive Cryptid. As for the actual gameplay, I really don’t think a whole lot needs to change. I like the four classes – they work well together, although I do think that the Tank class needs a little tweaking (my group tended to ignore a Tank and double up on Engineer – I played the Weapon Specialist as our damage dealer). Some of the perks could use a little tweaking – mainly the ammo types to make them all viable in different situations. Variety definitely suffered a little as we played the mode more and more – we doubled up on a couple items to make sure we had them in hand as often as possible. Keep the weapons on the maps, keep the money system, keep the armory and teeth system, keep the search piles and all of that – it helped separate Extinction from Zombies. I do like that a lot of the story was told through the intel pick ups too – I would however drop the random ones and make them all static pickups. Generally, I think Extinction is in a pretty good spot moving forward in terms of having a really strong base to build off of.

Which is a different story than we have with the multiplayer. Ghosts is such a frustrating game for me to look back on – I loved the multiplayer initially; but that changed real fast. First off, with this fantasy Ghosts 2, we’re keeping the basic movement and overall feel from the first game. No thruster packs, exo suits, or anything like that – go back to basic Call of Duty mechanics. Sliding and corner leans are fine – they fit with the world that the campaign established. And really I think the map design was fine, so I’m fine with Infinity Ward using similar thoughts for this game’s maps. One thing I would caution is adding in really big maps – they were definitely the weakest of the original game’s set and the DLC moved away from them. They can work, but they definitely take more work to get right. What really matters here is the weapon set. Now I can’t go through the plethora of weapons that we know are going to be there – that’s way more detailed than these fantasy development posts are meant to be. Instead I want to talk about a couple top level things that need to be looked at. First, get rid of built-in attachments. That’s a big part of what killed the meta – in particular in the assault rifle class. The Honey Badger, because of its built in silencer and really not reduced range was just too powerful. So get rid of that kind of weapon – just doing that already puts the gun game in a better spot. Second, the create-a-class system needs to be more traditional. Sure Ghosts had a lot of options to try out – you could load up on perks, or go with a really powerful weapon with lots of attachments. But it allowed for too easy creation of very over powered classes. Go back to a classic, ten item system and you bring balance back to the game. If you’re bent on having multiple perks possible, go ahead and put those Wildcards from Treyarch’s games in. In truth, those perks really need to be honed down a bit – there were way too many in there to mess around with. Less isn’t necessarily better, but less is when each option actually has utility. Finally, the big thing to really look at are killstreaks – in particularly the map-specific ones. Those streaks broke games just as much as over powered weapons. I’m fine with keeping the reward streak for completing the in-match missions, just take away huge ones that can kill entire teams. Replace them with a standard Care Package, maybe with the 7-10 kill streaks weighted higher. I think that goes a long way to bringing balance back to the meta across the board. No Michael Myers, no Predator, no Nuke that breaks the map. It all goes back to my core design philosophy with this particular fantasy development idea – simple works better. In the Call of Duty series in particular, simple is almost always better. The more variables you introduce, the more likely one of them will break the balance and seriously damage the longevity of the game. That’s a big part of why I am enjoying Black Ops III so much – there are only a couple guns that don’t measure up (I’m looking at you VMP) the rest are all totally viable. There will always be a gun or two that gets overly popular for whatever reason, but in this case there are a lot of them which keeps the games pretty well balanced. I hope that Infinity Ward has kept that in mind, and looked at what worked with Ghosts, and what didn’t and will give us the game that Ghosts could really have been – the true follow up to Modern Warfare.

The Division Open Beta Impressions

The DivisionThe open beta for The Division went live on Xbox One yesterday, and I ran through up to the level 8 cap. It’s essentially the same as the closed beta from early February, just with one more story mission added in and updates to the Dark Zone to keep it fair and fun. With that said, there’s still enough there to talk about as we get closer to the game’s launch. So let’s look a little more in depth on this beta and the new content.

The open beta starts exactly like the closed beta did – you’re level 4, and I’m guessing, starting in media res. You set up the Base of Operations again, run through the Madison Field Hospital mission to unlock the Medical wing and Heal ability – just like in the closed beta. The side missions and encounters are also the same – enough to get you leveled up to the cap and unlock the second upgrade on the Medical wing. The new content is a second mission, set in the subway tunnels that have been overrun by the Cleaners – flamethrower wielding enemies set on burning away the infection in the city. Completing this mission will unlock the Tech wing of the Base, which unlocks a second ability in that tree – the mini-turret. There’s also enough Tech supplies to upgrade that wing one more time, unlocking the upgrades for the Sticky Bomb. Essentially what the open beta is adding is a full second ability to use, along with three ways to tweak the Sticky Bomb – adding variety to the combat. Sure, in a pure PvE setting there isn’t a lot of ways to really explore that combat, but that’s why you head into the Dark Zone.

The Division Beta

Sure it’s still got a goofy name – Dark Zone still sounds like a bad show on late night cable to me – but the PvEvP zone is where the best gear in the game lives. We don’t get any new areas in the Dark Zone – the third area will have to wait until the full game launches – but Ubisoft did give the Dark Zone some attention between betas. I talked a little at the end of the last beta about a nasty exploit that let people run out their Rogue Status bounties by running into the boundary and being teleported back to the safe room. That exploit, along with a number of PC specific cheats, were fixed going in to this open beta. I spent a little bit of time in the Dark Zone – got a couple items, ran into a bunch of other players, and found the best weapon vendor in the beta – and I didn’t really encounter any huge issues. In truth, the Dark Zone felt a lot more populated than it did in the closed beta. I was at an Extraction Point with about 6 other players – who thankfully played nice and we all got our loot out. I saw AI enemies respawn at a rate that made it a lot easier to get loot to drop. I saw the chests in the Dark Zone actually have content in them more frequently. It’s a small sample size sure, but the Dark Zone feels a lot more fleshed out now, which really is a good sign moving closer to launch.

At the end of the day, this is still very much a beta. I had a couple weird lag issues that popped up that I didn’t notice in the closed beta – could be because the servers were dealing with more players. I actually got kicked from the game once last night too – but I chalk that up to the issues that Xbox Live was having last night. The loot is pretty limited, and it feels very much like Ubisoft tweaked the loot drops. In the closed beta, I was getting a much more even mix of weapons and gear – so far in this beta I’ve been getting a hell of a lot more weapons than gear; to the point where I was still wearing the default gloves even at level 8. I still think that the economy needs a little tweaking – credits are really hard to come by without selling loot. And my biggest question hasn’t changed at all – will this game have enough content to keep the playerbase engaged for longer than just March. Is the Dark Zone going to be deep enough to keep people playing? Is there going to be true end-game story content, or just capstone story missions? Is the full suite of abilities, traits and perks going to be deep enough over the course of the full game or are we going to be using Pulse and Heal the whole game? I don’t think any of those are invalid questions to ask, and I realize none of them could ever be answered by a beta realistically. But since The Division is the first real big launch of 2016 I think there’s a bit of extra pressure on Ubisoft to deliver here. Luckily we don’t have that long to wait to find out if they can – Tom Clancy’s The Division launches on March 8.

Blatant Speculation Time: Destiny’s Spring Update

DestinyWe have been hearing from Bungie for a while now that there’s a “substantial” update coming to the game this spring. While we still don’t really know when in “spring” that will be, we do know a couple little details that are important. The actual content is still totally unknown, the timeline is unknown, but who cares, let’s do some brainstorming and try to predict it.

First and foremost, timing. Spring is a pretty amorphous window for an update. Realistically we’re looking at either March or April for the update – May I think is too close to E3 and summer. By then I totally expect Bungie to be starting up the large DLC hype train, since conventional wisdom has that DLC coming this fall. Now, I’d rather see this spring update come to us in early-mid March – just because the game really needs a shot of content now. But I think it’s more likely to come around early April/late March. With The Division launching, basically in three weeks, I think Bungie knows that it is going to pull players away, at least for a little while. Fighting a full game launch with a content update is a really risky strategy. Waiting a couple weeks, or even until April, makes a lot more sense from a ROI perspective.

Vault of Glass Entry

In terms of content, we have a couple clues to build off of. First, there’s a Light level increase coming. Second, it’s PvE content. Finally, Bungie has said that the content has a focus on replayability. With that in mind, I think whatever we get is going to have less in common with anything we’ve seen yet. The only real PvE event so far was Queen’s Wrath way back at launch – and was timed. I think this spring update is going to bring something along that will stay with the game – maybe not on a permanent basis, but will be around until the next DLC. The Light level increase helps my thinking there. If they’re bringing the Light level up, it’s probably going to have some new activity tied with it to get that new gear. Every previous Light increase has included an in-game event to get that gear: Hard mode Vault of Glass, Crota’s End (and Hard mode), Prison of Elders and Etheric Light. Now, I’m not expecting a new raid here – I think that is going to be saved for the big DLC later this year. Instead, I think it’s going to be more on the scale of Prison of Elders. Three-man activities are easier for the wider community to get into, so I think we’re looking at a three-man activity. I have no basis for this guess, but if I had to put money on something, I’m going with a Horde Mode. Similar to Prison of Elders, but out in the wilds of the different planets – maybe even on the Crucible maps. Bungie’s done stuff like this before – Firefight in Halo and the new Subclass quests in The Taken King were basically different twists on Horde Mode. I think it’s an activity that fits with Destiny, not only thematically, but also gameplay-wise. It also gives Bungie a perfect opportunity to have clear steps for loot. Reach a certain wave, get loot at a specific Light level – nice and simple, just what the community wants.

Now, there’s no way of knowing for sure that’s what we’re getting. Tomorrow’s update could tell us exactly what it is, and it might be something totally different. Maybe we’ll get Faction Bounties to help rank up those factions faster than the current glacial pace. Maybe the old raids will get the Taken versions Reddit keeps calling for. Right now the only people who know what Destiny‘s future is are the writers and developers at Bungie. Maybe it’s better to keep things under wraps for a bit to drive this conversation; but I think they need to keep this open communication they’ve been having the last couple weeks. Hopefully we don’t have too long to wait to find out.

News and Notes Catch Up

Fallout 4 Box ArtWe’re still in a little bit of a lull in terms of big game launches – we’re a couple weeks away from The Division still, but there have been a couple headlines that popped up over the last couple days that have piqued my interest. Like I did with the FPS news last week, today I’ll talk a little about what I’ve seen and my interpretation of it.

We’ll start with the news today from Bethesda about the first three DLC packs for Fallout 4. Monthly DLC packs are headed to the Commonwealth starting in March, ending in May. The timing makes sense – the game came out in November, so most of the hardcore players have pretty much beaten everything that the base game has to offer, and really it’s just standard timing for big game DLC launches. The interesting part is that they come with a price raise. The season pass, until the 29th of February, costs $30. On March 1 though, the price will jump up to $50 to account for the new expanded DLC plans. So if, like me you’ve been waiting for the actual plans to pick up the season pass, now is definitely the time. I don’t think we know if that $30 will include everything moving forward, or just these first three DLC packs. What I do know is that these first three packs are pretty cool sounding. First up, Automaton will add the ability to build and create your own robot minions, and has some story content to go with it. In April, we get the Wasteland Workshop – bringing with it arena battles and new workshop items. The big one comes in May though – Far Harbor. Bethesda is calling it the biggest DLC they’ve built for Fallout, and it’s going to be set up in Maine. Now that we know that there’s more DLC coming after May, bringing the total value up to around $60, Fallout 4 will be staying on my Xbox all year long.

Mass Effect

Next up we learned today that a writer from BioWare, Chris Schlerf, has joined Bungie to work on Destiny moving forward. That’s in and of itself a pretty big news story, but bigger because Schlerf was the lead writer for the upcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda and had been on the team all the way back to 2014. In all likelihood, ME:A won’t be impacted too much by this – I would think by now that the story is all fleshed out and they’re in full swing to, hopefully, get the game out this year. Adding a writer from a studio that has a track record of consistently strong story content in their games to Destiny is a really intriguing move though. Destiny has been continually made fun of for it’s certainly threadbare story. Yes, The Taken King improved that side of things a whole bunch, but I’m really interested to see what bringing in someone from a studio that has always put a lot of emphasis on story to a universe that, I think, has a really strong potential is exciting. With Destiny 2 not coming until next year, that give Schlerf and the writing team plenty of time to come up with a real beast of a story.

I’m expecting this week’s Update to have a little bit of everything in it. They’re bound to wrap up Crimson Days, but now that we have the road map, I would love if they started to talk a little more about this spring content we’re getting. Tomorrow I think I’ll put down a couple of ideas that I really hope that Bungie at least has considered for the spring update.

Let’s Talk About Destiny’s Future

This week may have been the most important week that Destiny has had in a long time. Not only did we get Crimson Days – for better or worse – but we finally, finally got some actual guidance on what is coming down the pipe for Bungie/Activision’s game. The timing also sheds, potentially, a little light on why things have been quiet lately. Let’s talk about it.

DestinyFirst off, Bungie’s been saying for a while now that there’s something else coming this spring. There’s still no definitive time for when that comes our way – my guess is still April – but we know now that it’s a PvE themed event. And in truth, Bungie for the first time switched up their terminology with it – they’ve been calling all of this recent content “events”. This week they called it a content update – not the same that they’ve called the DLC, but still a different term could mean a little different actual content. And based on some of the details they outlined, that looks pretty true. A Light Level increase is coming – the first since the launch of Hard Mode put it at 320. The real eye-catcher to me though was that they said the content is designed with replayability in mind. That sounds like Strikes/Raids/Arena kind of content, and not timed content like Festival of the Lost/SRL/Crimson Days. Trying to predict what that is is a little silly right now though since we have absolutely nothing to go on, so I’ll hold off on that. I do have something that I hope it is though.

The other real big news dealt more with the long-term future for the game. Kotaku had an article a few weeks back saying that Destiny 2 was pushed back to 2017 – it had yet to even be announced and it was delayed. What we learned yesterday was that is indeed the case – the true, full sequel to Destiny will hit next year. We are getting something substantial this year though – with a “large expansion” this fall. My guess is that will be somewhere in between The Taken King and Dark Below/House of Wolves; probably paid content too – Bungie/Activision needs to bring in some revenue this year aside from just Silver purchases. And here’s the thing – that could be exactly what the game needs. Pushing a true sequel back to next year should make everything better. It gives Bungie more time to craft exactly the game that they want – and take everything that the community has said about the state of the game. My biggest hope is that they do move away from last-gen consoles – it has to be only on PS4/Xbox One. The only real question that I can’t help but ask is timing – 2017 is a long time away, and is a big window for launch. If it’s fall 2017, that might end up being too little, too late.

The Taken King Logo

Finally, my last takeaway from this week’s news is one that I don’t actually know is fact. It’s the timing of the news – Bungie put up their Weekly Update literally minutes after Activision posted their investor call notes. I don’t know for sure – and we probably won’t ever know for sure – but it really feels like that Bungie was held up a little by Activision on this. Maybe it was behind an NDA to not say anything before the investor call. Maybe it was a good faith thing to push both items up in the news cycle. Maybe it’s a result of the CEO shake-up at Bungie. Regardless, I think it made me think that Activision has a little more control over Destiny than we maybe thought. There’s still a long time to go – it’s still a ten-year plan for the series after all – so there’s still a lot to learn.