Sea of Peeves

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Love it, hate it or if you’re somewhere in-between, there’s little getting around the fact that Sea of Thieves suffers from a glaring issue: There’s bugger all to do (and not much point in doing it either).

If gameplay is King, then for some reason Rare decided to appoint the iron throne to a ruler as bad as Joffrey, because at it’s core the game is nothing but a series of fetch quests. You set sail, you gather some stuff (Chests, skulls, livestock), then you bring it back for cash rewards – rewards that can be spent on items that only have a cosmetic purpose. The biggest irony being you that can’t even really see the fancy new tricorne you treated yourself to, as you play from a first person perspective.

However, although the core gameplay objectives are more than a little lacklustre, the general gameplay execution is sublime. The way you interact with everything in the game is basic enough not to be complicated, but involved enough not to be simple. Sailing a ship for example – one of the main things you’ll spend your time doing – involves a series of manual tasks like setting the sails, raising the anchor and relying on the compass for navigation. It’s very hands on if you’re on your own in a sloop, whereas the galleons really require the careful coordination and cooperation of an entire crew! Successful sailing and navigation can be very rewarding in itself. The game world, with day/night cycles and variable weather conditions, is also very remarkable and a thing of beauty. Between the gameplay handling and the game-world, you have a rock-solid foundation to build on – even if you kept the simple fetch quest mechanics.

The reason I believe this to be true, is because of the parallels between this game and Elite Dangerous. In Elite dangerous you do the same basic stuff – you ferry items about for cash, and you might find yourself in the occasional shootout with rival ships; albeit of the space variety. The main difference is though, in Elite Dangerous you can invest the money on proper stuff. Stuff that improves you. Progress!

The counter argument to this is that it would unbalance the game, but the game is already unbalanced. If you head out on your own in a sloop, you won’t stand a chance if a passing galleon with anger management issues takes an interest in you. You’re much better off trying to fly under the radar. Sea of thieves could play into this. When most people think of improvements, they initially think of increased health and firepower – which would certainly be an option – but customisation can be much more than that. For the lone adventurer, how about a sloop upgrade that ditches the weight of cannons in favour of advanced speed and manoeuvrability, in order outrun enemies? What about a water tight deck upgrade so you can lose them in a storm? Or a shallow keel upgrade so you can take advantages of the shoreline. A paint scheme that makes your ship harder to spot? These are the type of options that Elite affords the player and, rather than unbalance the game, it opens it up to different ways to play; it gives your sandbox more options. More reasons to carry on playing.

Another great addition that could be pinched from Elite would be bounties. Being the feared Blackbeard of the seas is a lot of fun, but what if it came with some risk attached to all that piracy and griefing? What if, the more you hostilely engage other ships, the more a bounty goes up on your own ship? Hunter becomes hunted, as players take to the sea to hunt you down for the massive bounty on your head! They could even introduce a GTA-like stars system, where an NPC navy man-o-war spawns in to try restore order to the seas. It would all need to be carefully balanced for risk and rewards, but there’s no reason why piracy couldn’t have it’s own level/faction – where stolen chests are cashed in for bigger rewards than ones that are simply found on islands. Bounty hunting itself could be another new faction, where you take on quests to hunt down notorious pirates on the server. Pirate leader boards! None of these things would drastically change the core game, they would just introduce systems of progress around elements that already exist in the game and give them some meaning.

Sea of thieves is clearly lacking content, but a lot of people can see  – or really more feel – its potential. There’s something there; something special. New epic quests and a depth of content might be an answer, but I’m not sure it’s the right answer. There’s something to be said about writing your own story as you play the game, rather than adding new content that writes it for you; I think the answer simply lies in creating more meaningful progress systems around what is already there to ensure the players and their friends keep on writing.

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Subnautica Pre-Review (Xbox One)

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“Just look at the world around you
Right here on the ocean floor
Such wonderful t’ings surround you
What more is you lookin’ for?”

Although not officially released yet, Subnautica is one of those weird titles that has been around for a while. Rather than release it in its final form and at full price, it’s been pushed out quick, cheap ‘n’ dirty on pre-release platforms as they continue to iterate through development cycles. Somewhere along that agile development line, when they think it’s good enough, a “done” flag will get poked into it and it will get an actual release – generally at full price. This is what has recently happened to the PC version, and the Xbox version probably isn’t too far away. So how “done” is it, what is it and is any good?

Subnautica is a survival game with twist; most of it takes place “un-da da sea”. Also, although it’s sand-boxy and open world, it does have a decent narrative flowing through it; it’s certainly more single player story than it is creative sandbox. For the most part, the things you collect and build all have very functional purposes. You can express a little bit of creative dexterity, but your main focus will be building for necessity rather than decorative pleasure; there’s little scope for 50 foot phallic monoliths here! Instead you’ll be building to stay alive, to explore further and to advance the story. Don’t mistake “functional” for dull though, as you’ll likely be impressed – if not surprised – with what this game has on offer.

Without giving too much away, your world starts pretty small. The game begins amidst something going terribly wrong. You’re frantically strapping yourself into a life pod, as you desperately evacuate the space ship you were on. When you regain consciousness in the cramped confines of the life pod, you find yourself crash landed on a oceanic planet; the massive flaming husk of your abandoned spacecraft is visible a distance away. With open sea stretching to the horizon in every other direction, your little life pod becomes your only sanctuary and you must instead look down for answers, as you dive into the sea.

This begins the hunter-gather mechanics typical to most of these types of games, albeit underwater; an environment that sets it apart from other games of a similar nature. Surviving under water adds a few unique difficulties. If you’ve ever been in a swimming pool or the sea (and assuming you aren’t a fish) you may have noticed that breathing underwater is a bit of an issue. If you didn’t, then you probably aren’t around to read this. In Subnautica, if you don’t take heed of this simple yet vital fact, you won’t be around long either. Along side more typical factors such as hunger and thirst, oxygen (and the careful monitoring of how much you have left) becomes one of the core mechanics in the game.

Starting out it will severely limit how far you can explore, but even later on when you have more tools at your disposal, it’s an issue that never really goes away. In fact, if you aren’t careful, it’s easy for the longer air supplies to lead to complacency as the lure of resources takes you deeper into the unknown. It’s all too easy to navigate yourself into a twisting cave network and realise too late that you haven’t got enough air left to get back out. You’ll notice that being underwater makes navigation much more taxing in general as, with every direction of travel open to you, it’s very easy to get disorientated. Keeping track of where you are and where sanctuary is in relation to your remaining air supply is easily one of the biggest dangers to manage in the game.

That’s not to say there aren’t other dangers lurking beneath the surface though. You’re lucky to have “landed” in a relatively safe if-not-pleasant area of the ocean, but as you venture out further and deeper, there’s a few surprises waiting for you – very few of them friendly. This is somewhat unfortunate, because Subnautica isn’t really a combat based game; you’ll spend most of your time avoiding, rather than engaging danger. The game does a good job of creating a sense of this danger as well, through subtle use of background noise and music. It’s hard to forget you’re little more than a tadpole in a very large pond – and when the game does remind you it’s often brutal, sudden and with little warning.

Rather than an oppressive danger, Subnautica has more of a mysterious danger about it. The deep murky environments are filled with strange bright fauna that entices you in, and each area usually rewards you with new materials or secrets to discover. Most of the narrative is delivered to you via discover-able databanks that get entered into your PDA, but also from scanning all manner of weird and wonderful flora and fauna. There’s a lot of detail here and they’ve done a thorough job both creating and explaining the ecosystem – if you can be bothered to invest the time reading it all. The result is that there’s often never a dull moment, despite the endless exploration. “Often” is a key word there though – as Subnautica is far from perfect.

Although the game does give you some direction, most of the time you have to progress the story through simple exploration. This means there’s an element of luck in which items you discover, which in turn can be quite frustrating as they’re quite easy to miss. Also, it starts to become clear that some events are triggered by building certain items – items that you don’t necessarily need and can overlook. It’s not the most intuitive or fool-proof system and can leave you at a loss with what to do next. It’s always going to be a delicate balance with this type exploration game – guiding you along without directly showing you the way – and  although Subnautica does do a decent job, it’s not always spot on.

It’s not the games main issue though. The main issue are the bugs. The numerous, numerous bugs. From minor graphical issues, to more game breaking stuff, Subnautica is currently a bit of a mess on Xbox. It runs poorly, with frame rate drops, slow environment loading, poor textures, weird graphical issues and clipping. Base building seems to be a law unto itself, with some sections that snap together nicely, and others that brazenly defy you for no apparent reason. In short; it needs a lot of polishing and tweaking under the hood before it’s fit for release. Most of it is pretty forgivable, but some of the bigger issues include saves not always working (don’t trust it when it says the save is complete – leave it an extra 30 seconds), falling through the environment (due to slow screen loading) and poor draw distance. With navigation and exploration both being key gameplay elements, that last issue is a real hindrance and hard to forgive.

Despite the problems, Subnautica’s potential shines through. Even in it’s current state it’s still a very captivating and complete package, which is unique enough in it’s field to really stand out. You’ll get to build some cool underwater bases, explore the deep in some impressive vehicles and, if you take the time, uncover the history of the planet and the reasons behind your current predicament, as you battle to overcome it.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

We’re all emotional beings. Well, most of us. There’s definitely a few emotionally-dead fucking psycho’s out there – but most of them seem to reside in parliament, rather than the gaming community. Actually, there’s quite a few in the gaming community now that I think about. Anyway, I digress (already).

We’re MOSTLY all emotional beings, with feelings and erm, stuff. When we play a game, we’ll invariably feel a certain way about it. We’ll either enjoy what we’re experiencing, or we won’t. We then put those feeling on the game, and translate it into good or bad.

I’m enjoying myself = good game. I’m not enjoying myself = bad game. Simple stuff right?

You may then go on, especially in the case of the games reviewer, to explore those feelings in more depth and analyse what is causing them. Why is this game not making me happy; What is wrong with it? Or, this game is awesome; what is it about the game that’s making me feel this way?

Makes sense? The only issue I have with this, and where the waters get a bit muddy, is how variable our emotional state is, how blind we are of it and more importantly of how it affects our outlook. To give you an example – and it’s not a video game, but I believe the principle is the same – I started watching Black Sails on amazon prime, or at least tried to, but wrote it off fairly quickly; I wasn’t enjoying it. We’ll call that point A. Some months later, I started watching it again, got really into it and it went on to be one of my favourite shows – we’ll call that point B.

The only real variable between point A to point B is me. The show is the same show. However, if you’d asked me to review the show at point A, it would be a very different review to one you’d read if you asked me to review it at point B. I’m fairly certain that I’d have found reasons to explain why Black Sails isn’t very good if you asked me about it at point A; The acting isn’t very good, the story is too slow, or cliche, or something else. I’d have been able to explain it and make it sound like a logical and reasoned critique as to why it’s not a very good show. It is only with hindsight that I can now see that I was the issue. It’s hard to analyse these things, but I expect that the issue was down to me having just finished the season finale of Son’s of Anarchy (multiple seasons, hundreds of hours) and I was still too emotionally wrapped up in that to transition straight into something new. When I came back to Black Sails at a later date, I was in a more open minded state. But, as I say, it’s only going back to it that I now have sight of the real issue. Had I not, I’d still tell you Black sails isn’t very good if you were to ask me.

Most reviewers are never going to get that hindsight, and it makes me wonder about how flawed the process is. Or at least how fair or even reliable it is. When you review a game, you’re tied into a deadline. You need play, form an opinion and write it up in a very narrow window. You don’t get to put it down and come back to it in a few weeks time. You only get one bite of the cherry and if on that particular day you’re sick to death of cherries, well, it probably isn’t going to turn out favourably for the cherry.

It also makes me wonder about more conscious bias. If your cat got run over that morning, you may not be aware that it manifests itself as a poor write up of the latest twitch shooter that afternoon. However, there are things we’re completely aware of. I can’t fucking stand point and click adventures. For every inspector Clueso moment, where you cunningly determine what you need to do with an item because of message hinted at earlier in the game, there’s 10 other moments where you arbitrarily have to stuff a turnip in a keyhole to make a magic pixie appear who opens a door to another dimension. It’s a fucking stupid, stupid gameplay mechanic that often boils down to either trying every item on ever thing, or resorting to an online guide to tell you what to do next. They’re all shit!

So, given my open disdain for the genre, should I even go near reviewing a game from it? I know my bias against the genre will openly factor into my opinion, and won’t necessarily be fair to the game. Objectively, I can recognise that Simon the sorcerer is visually appealing, has amusing writing, good voice acting (From Arnold J Rimmer) and pleasant music….but it’s a point and click adventure so to me its gameplay is fundamentally broken and well…. shit. When I play this type of game I know I’m going to get annoyed by it and eventually fed up; there’s nothing I can do to control those emotional responses. I also know that’s completely out of touch with those that like this kind of thing (aka idiots). So what can you do? There’s no way to really account for the emotions you’re aware of, let alone the ones you aren’t.

 

Ultimately this is all just food for thought. We’re all human and it’s this kind of thing that makes us human. I do think it’s interesting though, on a philosophical level, that we can’t even reliably trust our own opinions with complete certainty; external pressures are always acting on them. Writers just need to be as conscious of this as possible and back up their opinions with examples as much as they can. I think the onus is probably as much on the reader as it is on the writer to appreciate the highly subjective nature and questionable validity of reviews. The reader needs to appreciate that if a game gets 7 out of 10 it doesn’t mean it is 7 out of 10 – it just means that person, on that day, in that frame of mind thought it was a 7 out of 10.