The Last of Us Part II: A Story Worth Telling? – DEBUG MODE

Generally I’ve avoided discussing extremely popular things when the iron is hot. I do this gaming YouTube channel in my spare time “for fun.” Trying to keep up with people who do it “professionally” while still maintaining a level of quality that I’m okay with would be utterly exhausting. But I decided to try my hand at chiming in on the discussion surrounding The Last of Us Part II. We’ll see how this goes.

This was maybe the hardest script I’ve ever written for this channel. The game is long, sprawling, and very ambitious. It’s kind of difficult to talk about because there’s so much there and it isn’t laid out in the most straightforward way. I think I managed to make my points in the end but I’m sure I could have done a better job somehow.

This video ended up being a lot longer than I expected or intended and there’s still a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t touch on at all. I barely talk about the gameplay and, really, the gameplay is not why I played the game so it’s not what I ultimately wanted to talk about. The interesting things to me with this game are story structure, pacing, and when it chooses to reveal information to the player.

Going from Animal Crossing to this was a pretty big change of pace. It’s a super bleak game so while putting the video together was a good challenge, it wasn’t nearly as fun. Next up is something I think will be more fun – at least for me.

Why I Stopped Playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons – DEBUG MODE

Is it possible? Two Debug Mode videos in such a short span? Nay, three videos! What new devilry is this? Only the wild year that is 2020 could bring about such unprecedented events!

Animal Crossing: New Horizons one of the biggest game releases of the year and in this video I explain why I quit playing. I do like the game though – especially in the midst of all the insanity this year. It’s extremely well made and very inviting – it’s just got fairly major design issues that push me away.

This is the first video of the kind of new format I’d like to continue exploring – not a comprehensive review, nor a list, but a vehicle for me to talk about just a subset of things about a particular game that I find interesting. Maybe it’s a particular mechanic, the evolution of the series, or an analysis of the story. I have more videos in the works and I’m hoping there will be two more out before the end of the summer which would be a big deal considering the historical upload pace of this channel. Then I’ve got to get back to the Arkham retrospective because there’s probably going to be a new one of those out in the near future.

XCOM: Chimera Squad review – DEBUG MODE

This is the first single-game review I’ve done in five years (the Arkham Asylum video from last fall was more of a retrospective). I’ve shied away from doing traditional game reviews for a variety of reasons – mostly because I find that uninteresting. My current philosophy with the Debug Mode channel is to do videos on whatever sparks my interest – thus we have this Chimera Squad review/discussion thing.

I really wasn’t sure if I’d like this game. A lot of the changes sounded like love-it-or-hate-it kind of things. I haven’t looked into what the community’s reaction has been. While I’m not a hardcore XCOM player, I do like the series a lot and have been following it ever since Enemy Unknown back in 2012.

Games of the Decade: 2010 – 2019 – DEBUG MODE

Like most of my videos, it took me longer to put this together than I intended. Needless to say, this year hasn’t been what anybody’s wanted so even though there are a billion things more important than video games – especially right now – it’s still worth taking a break and celebrating the medium before we get too much further into the new decade with all that it will bring.

I’m probably going to move away from these sorts of list videos. They’re fun to put together and they allow me to bounce around between all sorts of different games and genres, but they’re also incredibly time consuming. I’ve never done this channel for the views. I’d have stopped a long time ago if that were the case. Even so, I’d like to try my hand at subjects that have a better chance of sparking a conversation – focusing on individual mechanics, games, tends.

I’ve got several irons in the fire right now. My goal is to have more videos out this year than I’ve ever done before. That’s not a high bar, but considering my usual pace for these videos and the number of other things I’m also trying to do… well, I’m trying to push myself in a realistic way.

Batman: Arkham Asylum – DEBUG MODE

It’s been a while since I covered an individual game on Debug Mode.

After playing Marvel’s Spider-man last year, I was struck by how much it felt like the successor to the Batman: Arkham series. I’m surprised it took that long for someone to crib the style and mechanics for another superhero.

I love the Arkham games but it had been years since I played them and I wanted to know how well they held up. I played them all and have been working through doing an analysis of the whole series. I intend to cover all 4 currently released Batman: Arkham games – and maybe I’ll also do that yet-to-be-revealed Batman game eventually…?

People love Arkham Asylum. A lot of fans claim this is the best of the series. I don’t agree with that, but it sure was a landmark game and it much of it does hold up. Do watch the video if you’re interested. I know this game has gotten a lot of coverage, but hopefully I’ve been able to have at least a few unique insights on it. If nothing else, I think my opinions of the rest of the series will be a little more provocative. I’m excited to get to those games.

E3 2019

Here we are again. It’s my annual review of E3 the biggest week of video game news each year. The event ain’t what it used to be. This year EA opted out of doing a conference and Sony was entirely absent but everybody else still kept things alive and kicking. As we come to the end of one console generation the industry is shifting its attention to the future of games whether that’s streaming or yet more powerful boxes.

Microsoft Holds Its Xbox Event At E3 Show In Los Angeles
Keanu Reeves is a great hype man

Here’s my annual rundown of the things that most interested me.

Continue reading “E3 2019”

Debug Mode: Games of 2018

I’m still doing this Debug Mode video game show thing! In fact, I’ve been working on content for the channel a lot lately. If my plans don’t get too derailed, 2019 should be the biggest year yet (which is to stay I plan on releasing more than 2 videos – hopefully many more than that).

For now, here’s a look back at the games of 2018: the good, the disappointing, and my top 5 favorites. Happy New Year!

E3 2018 – Ranking the Conferences

“Who won E3?” is a silly question that’s still kind of fun to ask. I love video games and over the years I’ve gotten into following the industry as a whole. E3 might be less important than it once was, but it’s still an event that functions as a barometer for the games business. Almost everybody is there or adjacent to the event. Watching E3 informs you about upcoming games, but read between the lines and you’ll also be informed about what’s going on with the organizations and people who make them.

I heard one commentator refer to E3 2018 as a transitional year that everybody refused to acknowledge as a transitional year. I think that sums it up well. There were major games shown, but few major announcements. Sony and Microsoft seem like they’re in the thick of R&D on the next generation of consoles. Nintendo still seems to be rebounding from the stellar year they had last year.

Because I am a huge nerd, I watched all the press conferences from the major players (no PC Gaming Show or Devolver Digital) and will now recap them in reverse order of how good I thought they were.

7. EA

EA’s event marks the unofficial start of E3. They have their own event in LA where their fans and “influencers” can come and see play their games. It’s indicative of the company’s attitude as a whole. EA seems content in their little corner of the games market these days. They’ve got a couple reliable moneymakers in FIFA, Madden, and Battlefield and own a host of old, beloved IPs that they’re willing to exploit as mobile games if they need some extra cash flow.

EA is the most safe and businesslike of all the major game publishers. They’re dull. They don’t take a lot of risks. A few times a year they put out smaller, more intimate games from indie studios they’ve acquired or partnered with, but it really feels token at this point.

This year’s conference was completely predictable and included all the regular staples of an EA show but with a dash more awkwardness, I think. There was a lot of talking to developers, but it all felt canned and insincere.

BioWare’s Anthem was the most interesting part of the show. It looks like a Destiny/The Division style loot shooter with Iron Man suits and on paper that sounds fun. It looked fun too, but this is the sort of game that’s difficult to get an impression of in a stage demo – at least the kind that they’ve been giving.

6. Square Enix

It’s been a few years since Square Enix even had an E3 show so this was something of a surprise. Unfortunately, the presentation itself was surprising due to its brevity and lack of content. Most of the games shown off were seen elsewhere or were already known quantities.

Seeing Shadow of the Tomb Raider actually made me less interested in playing it. Just Cause 4 looks like another one of those games and has a lot to prove after the disappointment of Avalanche’s last couple outings.

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Square Enix’s Japanese franchises, but I think even those fans were left cold by the lack of significant announcements and especially the lack of news about the much-anticipated Final Fantasy VII remake which was announced years ago.

Before the show we thought we’d get our first look at Crystal Dynamic’s Avengers game. Surely now would have been a great time to reveal that since Infinity War just made $2 billion globally. I guess it’s not ready, nor the Final Fantasy Remake which begs the question: why did they even bother to assemble a presentation? Oh well, at least Keith David got paid.

5. Nintendo

For me, Nintendo’s presentation was the most personally disappointing. 2017 was a banner year for the company with the release of the Switch and amazing new entries in the Mario and Zelda franchises. Like a lot of fans, I was looking for Nintendo to paint a picture of the next year or two of Switch games. Instead we got a smattering of mostly previously announced games and then Smash, Smash, and more Smash.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate looks fine. It’s another Smash game, but I think Nintendo made a real mistake putting so much focus on one game. It worked better in previous years when focusing on Mario and Zelda. Those franchises have broad appeal. You could say Smash is broadly appealing as well – to a point. Despite featuring so many beloved characters, it’s still a fighting game and those are more niche than Mario and Zelda.

Also, it was easier to forgive Nintendo for focusing on a single game in previous years because we knew they were revving up production on a bunch of new, exciting Switch games… right? This presentation leaves me wondering how true that’s been. Does Nintendo really not have much more to show or did they just colossally overestimate the amount of fans who would just be content with Smash Bros.?

There was no Metroid Prime 4, no Mario Odyssey DLC, no Retro Studios project reveal, no Animal Crossing, no Pikmin 4, no old games remastered, and no additional info about the company’s forthcoming online service. Nintendo looked weak and that’s especially disheartening after last year.

4. Ubisoft

Ubisoft is a lot like EA except instead of being corporate and stodgy they’re oddball and awkward. Ubisoft tries so very hard to make their conferences fun, but I think they’ve been in a rut for a while in terms of actual games.

The main reason I compare EA and Ubisoft is that Ubi often feels stuck in a box creatively. There’s some unique stuff being produced on the periphery, but their bread and butter is open world games with different coats of paint. Do you want to shoot terrorists in an open world? There’s a Tom Clancy game for you! Do you want to slit people’s throats in an open world? Assassin’s Creed. Do you want to race vehicles in an open world? The Crew 2. Do you want to be a pirate in an open world? Skull & Bones.

That assessment is a bit reductive, obviously, but I feel like “do X thing in an open world” isn’t a compelling pitch by itself anymore. It hasn’t been for a while.

There’s nothing really wrong with what Ubisoft showed this year, but it was all so underwhelming. The regularly recurring series’ looked fine (except for The Division 2’s shockingly tone-deaf premise), but the more experimental games were presented too vaguely to really get excited about.

But Miyamoto showed up briefly and that was great. Nintendo didn’t even feature him this year! Why?

3. Sony

As I’ve been writing this and reflecting on the show, I realize that only three of the conferences actually made me excited about the video games they presented this year. Only three of them were “good” in my eyes.

Congrats, Sony. You made it. Barely.

Sony’s conference was odd from a presentational standpoint. It started off in a venue that looked like church or wedding tent complete with string lights. When the first trailer began we saw that they’d recreated a location from it. The rest of the presentations took place in a different location after a disruptive break in the action. Novel, but very, very odd.

Sony didn’t show many games, but the ones they did feature got a lot of room to breathe. Most of them featured extended gameplay segments and a little bit of story and character interaction. After so many action-packed trailers that were all style and very little substance, this was a breath of fresh air. It’s a far better way to show video games than imitating movie trailers or traditional ads.

Ghost of Tsushima and Spider-man were the standout games for me. The former was jaw-droppingly gorgeous technically and artistically and the latter looks like it’ll be a ton of fun when it releases later this year. We saw more of Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding looking weird and inscrutable as ever. Weird and inscrutable is all that game has going for it right now, unfortunately, because there’s been little-to-no clear indication of what the gameplay or story actually is or even when can expect the release.

I remain opposed to The Last of Us Part II on principle. The first game is one of my all-time favorites. The ending was perfect in such a way that continuing a story with those characters will only damage its mystique and ambiguity. Some would say Naughty Dog has earned the benefit of the doubt and that’s probably true, but I’d like to be given an idea of what story would be worth telling to risk spoiling the ending of the first game.

2. Bethesda

I resonate with more Bethesda-published games than those of any other publisher. The only stuff I don’t have any interest in are their mobile games and their MMO so Bethesda’s show was my personal favorite.

Bethesda is the only major publisher that’s currently championing the good, old-fashioned immersive sim (Prey) and the good, old-fashioned linear first person shooter campaign (Wolfenstein, Doom). I happen to really enjoy these types of games along with Bethesda Game Studio’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. I even tried Quake Champions recently having never played a Quake game before and really enjoyed my time with it.

If you were a Bethesda fan, you got serviced at this conference. New Prey DLC came out that night (and it’s excellent), a new Wolfenstein was announced, Quake Champions opened up to a wider audience, and of course Fallout 76 was detailed in-depth. Even Rage is getting a sequel. It’s a game that nobody asked for, but I appreciate that Bethesda is willing to give a disappointing IP another shot rather than letting it die completely.

Surprisingly, Bethesda Game Studios also revealed the existence of their next two projects following Fallout 76: a space game called Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI, the highly anticipated follow-up to Skyrim. We pretty much knew that both games were in development, but it was nice to hear actual confirmation. It seemed like they were saying: “please stop asking about these games. We’re working on it.”

But absolutely my favorite moment of the show was the announcement of Doom Eternal, a sequel to Doom 2016, my favorite game of that year. It’s not entirely unexpected, but it was by no means a sure thing and I’m super hyped that we’ll be getting more from the same team that brough Doom back from the dead.

1. Microsoft

Microsoft has been as boneheaded and corporate in years past as EA still is. They’ve been reeling and recovering from their disastrous Xbox One reveal for the entire length of this console generation. But under the leadership of Phil Spencer, the company’s gaming division has changed its stripes.

Xbox has presented a decidedly more consumer-friendly front in recent years with moves like Xbox 360 backwards compatibility on Xbox One and bringing most of its exclusive games to a wider audience on Windows. The company seems focused on restoring trust and goodwill with the gaming community.

This year’s presentation seemed to have the most games and most reveals of any conference and ultimately that’s what E3 is about. It was a show of strength and confidence as game after game was shown.

The lineup was diverse and included a healthy amount of indie and triple-A games from studios around the world. There were even several Japanese titles revealed like the new From Software game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and the stylish Devil May Cry 5 from Capcom. That’s surprising given Microsoft’s spotty history of support from Japanese developers and consumers.

The expected Xbox mainstays looked healthy and exciting even long-running series like Halo, Gears of War, and Forza Horizon. I’ve never played any of those series in earnest, but now I’m interested in the direction all of them are taking.

Other highlights included a look at Metro Exodus (which has sadly been delayed to 2019), our first look at Shadow of the Tomb Raider (which showed up at a couple other conferences later on), and the surprise of Dying Light 2.

It concluded with a showstopper: the trailer for Cyberpunk 2077 which, according to industry insiders who actually got to see the behind-closed-doors gameplay demo, was easily the game of the show.

Final Thoughts

As I’ve written this, I’ve cooled on E3 2018. It wasn’t a downright weak year, but it was a hesitant one – one that smacked of uncertainty and caution from top companies in the industry. We’re probably 2 or 3 years out from a new generation of consoles and that means we’re getting close to seeing the last big games made for this generation. While future prospects are exciting, they aren’t in view yet and what we have right now is a bit deflating after 2016 and 2017 gave us so many amazing games.

We’ve still got quite a year ahead for video games. Battlefield V, Spider-man, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Hitman 2, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Fallout 76, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and Forza Horizon 4 all drop this year along with the highly anticipated Red Dead Redemption 2. 2018 has been a slow year so far, but the second half could really turn things around.

State of the Switch

One year ago today Nintendo pulled back the veil on project NX which was revealed to be a hybrid home/portable console called Nintendo Switch.

I was instantly impressed by the concept and how well the original trailer showed it off. After being down on Nintendo in the Wii era, I came back to the company with the Wii U, a console with excellent games but a terrible ecosystem. The Wii U ultimately didn’t do enough to distinguish itself from the original Wii or Microsoft and Sony’s consoles and failed. Nintendo badly needed a win with their next device and the Switch looked promising.

Now here we are 7 months out from the system’s launch. The Switch remains the most interesting and exciting game consoles in years.

I exhaustively catalogued my thoughts on the Switch in a review earlier this year. Since then quite a few fantastic games have premiered or been ported to the system and some system updates have dropped.

The Good

I have mostly good things to say about the Switch. The library of games has been absolutely fantastic for the first year of a console. Zelda and Mario Kart led the way with a host of unique, mostly high-quality indie games filling in the gaps between major releases.

Although Splatoon and ARMS weren’t my thing, they were both new, exciting franchises that took advantage of Nintendo’s unique strengths in hardware and software development.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle went from being the subject of ridicule when it was leaked earlier this year to being an incredibly (critically and commercially) successful merger of Mario, Rabbids, and turn-based strategy puzzling.

Recently there have been some indie heavy-hitter making their debut on Switch like Axiom Verge, Golf Story, and Steamworld Dig 2. And much to my surprise, I am once again finding myself enthralled with Stardew Valley now that it’s available portably.

Super Mario Odyssey, one of the most anticipated games of the year, launches next week. Despite how incredible Breath of the Wild was, Mario Odyssey looks like it could be even better and most certainly will be a system-selling game.

Also of note: you can actually buy a Switch now without too much trouble. I expect the holiday rush will find them going out of stock again (especially post-Mario launch).

Just yesterday, the 4.0 system update dropped with a new video capture feature and a system transfer feature. The video capture is so far limited to 30 second clips and only in certain games that support the feature. but it’s kind of crazy that such a feature even exists on a portable machine.

4.0 also enables support for wireless Bluetooth headphones and headsets which gives hope that voice chat might be integrated directly in the system in the future rather than relegated to a smartphone app.

The Bad

The Switch remains a fairly barebones system outside of playing games. For me, that’s mostly fine. I don’t need a web browser, Netflix, or YouTube. I have that everywhere else. But other features found on Xbox, Playstation, and Steam like cloud saves and a more robust storefront would be welcome additions.

Virtual Console is still nowhere to be found. I was annoyed, actually, when Nintendo announced the SNES Classic Edition, a followup to last year’s hot NES Classic Edition which was infamously hard to get due to low stock. These mini-consoles feature some of Nintendo’s most beloved classic games – games I would love to play on Switch – not some stupid box tethered to my TV with too-short cords.

The only thing Nintendo has said about classic games on Switch is that some amount of them will be available with their paid online service. Unfortunately, they’ve delayed the launch of that service and Nintendo’s past online service offerings do little to inspire confidence that they will get things right when it does launch.

I haven’t had any hardware issues aside from the left Joycon connectivity issue at launch which Nintendo fixed quickly for free. But I will say that when playing portably the system can be a bit creaky. While my Joycon are still firmly attached to the side of tablet, there’s just a little wiggle to them that I hate. It’s never been a problem. I just wish the attachments felt a little more solid, especially when playing more intense games.

The Ugly

The Switch’s online app came out for smartphones over the summer. Meant to connect players in online gaming sessions and allow for voice chat in the most backward way possible, it lived up to the legacy of Nintendo really not getting the internet.

Looking Forward

The aging 3DS is still hanging on with notable Metroid, Mario & Luigi, and Pokemon remakes all coming out in the latter half of this year. The Switch will almost certainly never sell as well as Nintendo’s cheaper portable platforms of the past and such a large install base means more potential game sales for any given title on that platform. It’s unlikely that Nintendo will totally stop making games for 3DS as long as there’s enough profit there. But it’s hard to imagine a world in which Nintendo releases a 3DS successor. One way or another the Switch will supplant it despite the number of 3DSes sold.

Switch sales have been very promising though and industry reaction is positive. That is great news for indie games and third-party games coming to the system. It also sounds like Nintendo is soliciting a diverse selection of games for their console including the sort of hardcore western games that generally don’t appear on Nintendo’s platforms.

One year ago, nobody would have ever guessed that DOOM (2016) would come to Nintendo’s next console, but there it is alongside Skyrim, L.A. Noire, and Wolfenstein II – all third party games coming to the system soon. Personally I don’t really care to play any of these on Switch, but it’s great to see that support. Third party games like FIFA and NBA 2K are more important for mass appeal of the platform. Fortunately both of those are reportedly solid ports.

The Switch has become my go-to platform for most kinds of indie games. Given the choice between sitting at my desk, on my couch, or lying on my back to play a game, I’m going to choose that last option. Playing games is one of the ways I relax and sitting at my desk at home after sitting at a desk all day at work isn’t nearly as attractive.

Nintendo itself has announced a number first party games coming in the future. Franky none of them are as exciting as Zelda or Mario – not yet, anyway – but a system this successful is much more likely to have the full weight of Nintendo’s game studios behind it. And that’s very exciting given the stellar games we’ve been seeing in recent years.

Back on the Wii U, Nintendo’s gems were hidden behind bad marketing and a confusing system. With the Switch, Nintendo is once again making a console people actually want to buy and games that are even better.