Finally beat Gears of War (all of them)

While I was back east visiting family my brother was able to take a week off and we spent a good chunk of that time playing through all of the Gears of War games in couch co-op. He had already finished the main series, while I had never finished any of the games. I never got into them, and was more into Halo and Call of Duty multiplayer while the Gears games were popular. I had played a few missions of Gears 2, but that was about it. I somehow came to own all of the Gears games, however (through purchasing Gears 4 and Xbox Game Pass) and decided it was finally time to play them.

We started with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, and I was surprised at how good the game looked visually in addition to how well it played for being an eleven year old game.

What surprised me even more was just how satisfying it was to shoot things in the game. I remember not liking Gear’s style when I first played it, however I came around to it quickly this time. I enjoyed the satisfaction of nailing a perfect reload and firing off amped up bullets after each successful reload. I also enjoyed the variety of weapons, and how each fired significantly different than the previous.

Had I not experienced the game playing side by side with my brother on a couch I’m not certain how much I would’ve enjoyed it. The way the game separates the player characters on occasion makes for some of the most tense moments in all of co-op gaming. Once you’re on a separate path from your partner you can no longer be revived if you make a mistake. Often one of us would breeze through our section only to watch in horror as the other was overrun and killed forcing us to replay the section. As neat as a mechanic as the two path system is, it did eventually start to cause frustration and I’m glad the sequels allow AI characters to heal player characters.

One of the most enjoyable experiences came when we found a way to cheat the system in a sense. We had failed a boss fight, and decided to figure out what would happen if one of us stood where the boss would spawn while the other triggered the encounter. We were able to end the boss fight before it even began in this case and both burst out laughing for a solid minute after it happened.

Switching to Gears of War 2 was a little jarring graphically after the beauty of Ultimate Edition, but once the action started I was quickly able to get past the muddier textures. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing a remaster of 2 in the future as it would benefit greatly from a new coat of paint. Regardless, Gears 2 was an enjoyable experience with a bit more drama added to the story.

By the time we got to Gears of War 3, I was starting to experience a little bit of Gears fatigue. I’m sure this is mostly due to trying to power through the series in a matter of days (combined with the fact that I find it harder to tolerate long gaming sessions these days), but I think it started to affect my enjoyment of the series. In Gears of War 3, every sequence of events started to feel dry. You need to get somewhere and when you get there something will be wrong (no power, need to find something, etc.) and you’ll fight waves of enemies until you can get out of there and head off to the next place in the distance to do it again. Despite this, I did enjoy the grander scale of events that took place throughout the game. The game was more dramatic than the previous two, but also funnier at times (loved Carmine’s role!). Gears 3 did a great job at developing its characters and their motives, and it had more affect on my emotions than the other games.

In the final days of my visit we embarked on the start of a new Gears storyline in Gears 4. The game starts out feeling refreshing, with its new cast of characters and robotic enemies and I thoroughly enjoyed the opening act of the game. That fresh feeling didn’t last long, however, as it quickly transformed into just another Gears game with the same types of enemies and progression as the previous three. I felt conflicted as the game went on. On one hand it was nice to see the returning cast of characters fighting alongside the new generation, but I was left wishing they would’ve taken the game in a different direction. I would have enjoyed an outcast story, fighting robotic enemies not in an effort to save humanity (or delay their destruction it seems) but rather an effort to survive outside society.

I did enjoy the great visuals, sound effects and weapons, and ultimately I was left satisfied, even if I wished for something more. The variety of mission types, with ‘horde mode’ sections and wind storms were also a welcome addition to the Gears gameplay and I enjoyed the final boss fight, even if it was a little easy on our difficulty setting.

I’m glad I was finally able to sit down and complete the Gears series, as they were all solid games that were a blast to play co-op. It’s unfortunate that I missed out on such great games over the last eleven years, but playing all four in a week offered a unique perspective on the series. Playing them in close proximity to each other made all of their similarities stand out (which I’ve admitted may have hurt my enjoyment to some degree) and made them all of the games feel more cohesive. Overall I had a great time with the forty hours or so we spent playing the four games. You’ll notice I’ve omitted Gears of War: Judgement, which we didn’t play as we wanted to ensure we would have time to finish the main series. My brother has played Judgement and has assured me it’s just as enjoyable as the rest, but at this point I’m definitely suffering from Gears of War burnout and will have to take his word for it. It’ll at least give us something to play the next time we’re sitting on a couch together.



The joy of couch co-op with Gears of War Ultimate Edition

This week I’ve been playing Gears of War: Ultimate Edition (which is ‘free’ via Xbox Game Pass) with my brother, in split screen, on a couch in a living room. Couch co-op is often something gamers reminisce about, a seemingly left behind method of playing video games. Even if more games offered split screen co-op, I wouldn’t get to experience it as I live 2,382 miles away from my brother and visit once a year. I’m glad to have the ability to play through games via the internet, but there’s certainly something about sitting together on a couch that makes gaming more fun.

There have been moments of hilarity, as one of us stupidly runs toward a group of enemies bullets flailing sloppily past them only to die at a boomer’s feet, and moments of triumph as we hunker down and methodically advance toward an enemy position. We’ve been having a blast playing through the campaign, and have played for longer than we probably would have had we been playing online.

I don’t think I ever played through the first Gears of War on the 360, so it’s been nice to finally experience the start of the franchise. I’ve enjoyed each mission so far, and it’s been incredibly satisfying to shoot the variety of weapons in the game.

Once we finish Gears we’ll probably dive into working through the Halo campaigns in Master Chief Collection (I’ve only ever finished Halo 3, Reach and ODST).

Unfortunately, there’s not as many opportunities to enjoy a local campaign as there used to be. I remember having a blast in Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon games back on the N64 and first Xbox. I can’t think of many games on the current platforms that offer complete co-op experiences (Gears 4 is a notable stand out). On the bright side, during the 350 other days of the year there’s plenty to play together online, so I really can’t complain.

Checking out NBA 2k16

While on vacation, visiting my dad, and away from all reasonably useful internet (he has satellite internet with a 5GB monthly cap, I brought along a prepaid AT&T hotstpot that gets me 8GB 4G connectivity per $75 reload, and my phone which caps out at 10GB) I’ve been diving deeper into games I never really gave a chance before. For the past few days I’ve been spending a lot of time with NBA 2K16, one of many games downloaded to my hard drive that I’ve never played before.

I’m not necessarily a fan of basketball, but I tried to watch some of this year’s NBA finals so I’m at least somewhat familiar with the game. I tend to enjoy sports games, but for some reason never got around to checking out the NBA 2K series. It took some time to get acquainted with the controls and the flow of the game, but once I started getting the hang of it I had a blast. I’ve been playing MyGM mode and have already turned the Philadelphia 76ers into a serious playoff contender (mostly because I’m playing on the lowest difficulty) and have petitioned to move the team to Baltimore (voted against 19-1) just for fun.

The moment to moment gameplay is a thrill, as momentum swings back and forth several times throughout games (I’ve experienced several nail-biting OT affairs already). I’ve had just as much fun losing as I have had winning, as every game produces its own unique moments that add to the overarching story of my inaugural season as the 76er’s GM.

The presentation during the games feels top notch, however the pregame and halftime shows tend to feel awkward, mostly due to the robotic animations and voices of the presenters (Shaq looks downright creepy at times). These seem to work to mask load times, which means that you can’t skip them entirely, but must wait thirty seconds or so to get into the action (the loads are longer before each game). This slows down progress, and makes the game feel sluggish at times compared to the quicker interruptions of a game like Madden.

I’ve tried playing the Spike Lee story mode, however I’ve found that if my internet connection drops just for a moment it’ll kick me back to the main menu and I’ll lose whatever progress I’ve made so far. It’s annoying that this mode requires an internet connection, but I assume it has something to do with the micro-transactions tied to its virtual currency.

So far I’ve enjoyed NBA 2k16 a ton, and I’ve found myself thinking about how I’m going to continue to improve my franchise even when I’m not playing. I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of my season will play out as I spend even more time with the game.

Telltale’s Batman: Enjoyable story, tiresome gameplay

This evening I finally got around to finishing Telltale’s Batman game (on the Xbox One), and although overall it was an enjoyable experience, I did have some issues with it. Its strongest element is the story, which adds some unique twists to the typical Batman tale. The story unfolds at a pace that feels right, and there isn’t a lot story wise that feels unnecessary. Everything has a purpose and often a payoff at some point throughout the story.

The game features some unique takes on typical Telltale gameplay, with a system that allows Batman to slow down time and set up a series of attacks that play out through a QTE sequence once completed. The first time this happens it feels awesome. You get to decide how to take out each enemy and once it gets going and you hit all the buttons you’re presented with an action sequence that feels personally choreographed. Unfortunately, this mechanic is used one too many times, and toward the end of the game I was rolling my eyes every time I encountered one.

Another overused gameplay mechanic is the investigation system. Batman will approach a crime scene and you’ll have to look at each piece of evidence and link them together to see the full picture. This system slows the gameplay to a crawl, and feels entirely unnecessary. What’s worse, is that there’s no explanation on how Batman can see something like a splatter of blood and a weapon and know exactly what happened hours earlier. He’s never like “this is what could have happened based on the evidence” but rather states as a matter of fact what happened. Toward the end of the game I was groaning every time I was presented with one of these sequences, and only continued playing to see the conclusion of the story.

Overall, Telltale’s Batman is a middle of the road Telltale game. It’s not nearly as strong as The Wolf Among Us or Tales from the Borderlands, but it’s not the worst Telltale game. By the end of it they set up a sequel, and I only hope that the next game in the series adds some more variety to the gameplay portions of the game. I had more fun doing the QTE sequences than I did anything else in the game (they feel really good), and Telltale’s Batman would be a monumentally better game if it took out all other less effective element of gameplay.

Battleborn’s last breath?

Earlier today the struggling shooter Battleborn effectively went “free to play”, validating the long standing rumor that it would indeed end up being free. Most would agree that Battleborn’s troubles are mostly due to the fact that the game launched just before Blizzard’s Overwatch, which quickly took off to become one of the hottest games of 2016. It may not have been fair to compare the two games, as they play quite differently, but they were similar enough in most people’s eyes that they decided to pick one title (Overwatch for most) and stick with it.

I was incredibly excited for Battleborn’s launch, especially after reading about how it would blend MOBA gameplay with a shooter. As someone who was a casual fan of MOBAs (but never any good at them) it seemed like it would be the perfect game for me. I eagerly awaited its launch, and early on I found it to be fun, if a little slow moving. As days went by, however, I found that the hardcore player-base got so good that I couldn’t have fun playing anymore as I would be overwhelmed by more skilled players. What made things worse was that teams of randoms never seemed willing to communicate, and I would often get matched against teams of players who were mic’d up.

As Overwatch neared release I started to get more and more excited by the hype surrounding it. I caved and bought it for PC on release day which ultimately led to me never returning to Battleborn. I had so much fun in Overwatch from the very first moment I launched it that I couldn’t see myself wasting any time playing Battleborn that could be better spent in Overwatch. Once or twice, out of curiosity, I tried to give Battleborn another try, but each time I was met with longer and longer matchmaking times (on the Xbox One) only to have to spend thirty minutes or so to complete a match when I finally got in. This didn’t prove to be fun, whereas in the same time span I could’ve played two or three games of Overwatch. More recently I launched Battleborn one last time, only to sit at the matchmaking screen for a full twenty minutes without finding a match (there were no server issues reported with either Xbox or Battleborn at the time).

I’ve always felt like if Battleborn ever wanted to make a splash at all, it should have gone free to play long ago. It remains to be seen if the free to play model will have a significant impact on the game’s player-base and perception going forward, however I personally think that I’ve already had my fill. Still, I’m going to try it out on PC (I already own it on PC from a Humble Bundle) to see if the new influx of players can make things fun. I’ll be sure to post an update after playing a round or two of the PC version of the game to see if any of my feelings have changed.

Xbox Game Pass is here, and it’s a great value for new Xbox One owners

When I first heard about Xbox Game Pass earlier this year I was excited, especially after finding out that you would be able to download the games as opposed to streaming as you do with PlayStation Now. $9.99 a month gives you access to over 100 Xbox One and Xbox 360 (backwards compatible) games that can be downloaded and played as much as you like as long as you’re a subscriber. This is a great way for anyone who is new to Xbox One to get a great library of games for very little upfront investment. Many of the games have been available at deep discounts or for free as part of Games with Gold, however there’s still plenty to try out even for those who have been gaming on the Xbox One for awhile.

Last night I queued up several games, including NBA 2K16, Mad Max, Payday 2 and Grid 2. I’d download many more, but my data cap wouldn’t be happy. Other notable titles (most of which I already own) are Halo 5, Gears 1-3, Massive Chalice and Roundabout. There’s plenty to check out, and there’s even a free 7 day trial if you’re unsure of the service. If you have the bandwidth I’d recommend enrolling in the trial and downloading any games you might have missed out on over the years.

I’m looking forward to seeing what additional games come to the service as it ages, and am glad Microsoft is continuing to support Xbox One owners with another great service.