Sunday, August 21, 2016

First Thoughts on No Man's Sky

No Man's Sky is apparently another good example of how terrible massive hype can be for your product. It's true that few things live up to hype that big (personally I don't think Star Wars VII did either) but I think it was difficult for NMS not to be as hyped as it was. How can you avoid to get peoples mind boggling when you tell them that you've got 18 quintillion procedurally generated planets to play around with in a game that is bigger than the actual universe? Can you really be at fault then when people don't at the same time realize that procedurally generated sort of is the opposite of carefully crafted which in turn might mean not-so-well-thought-out? Spore will forever be the prime example of what happens when someone tries to cram everything into a game without making sure that anything of it is actually fun. We already know minimalistic can be fun - just look at Tetris. Maximalistic seems to be harder to grasp.

Fortunately personally, I wasn't too hyped about NMS. Excited and interested for sure, but I had a feeling already pretty early on that if a truckload of procedurally generated content was all they were going to boast about, it wasn't going to hold up for very long (this doesn't mean I am cleverer than everyone else, just more pessimistic). But like I said, I was interested nonetheless. Partially for the technical feat of it and partially because it still was a game about exploring space. Since Escape Velocity is one of my all-time favorite games and this sounded like a much, much larger 3d version of it, NMS was already early on on my radar to keep track off (I have since also checked out the actual spiritual successor to Escape Velocity, Endless Sky, but that is matters for another post, possibly).



Before I decided to buy it I actually watched a couple of reviews of it. I often do this if I am about to spend more-than-usual amounts of money on a game I am not entirely sure about yet (Pokemon games always have a free pass). The reviewers pretty much confirmed what I thought would be the problem with the game and since my interest to experience it myself was still there I decided to buy it, eventhough reception was somewhat mild. About a week ago I bought it, second hand actually, and have since spent a couple of hours with it. And so far it is pretty much what I expected from it.

A lot of other reviewers have already summed it up pretty well - It's difficult to put your finger on NMS. Is it fun or not? The problem isn't the hype as such - I think it deserves to be hyped for the technical feat that it is. Why everyone seemed to think this would automatically also make NMS awesomely fun to play is beyond me. I think the problem with NMS boils down to the fact that you can be so easily overwhelmed by it. It is huger than huge and no person will ever even come close to discovering all the planets there is. Everyone ever playing probably won't come close to it. One might wonder why you should even bother making a game that big, or maybe why you as a player should even bother going around doing discoveries at all? In almost every other game any area the player can go to has been designed to further the experience of the game - you can't think of NMS that way.

If we get down to the facts of it, gameplay wise I think it has received more scorn than it deserves (mind you I have only tried the ps4 version, I've heard the PC version had some troubles of its own). I heard a lot of complaints about the inventory management and the UI in general, personally I don't think it's that big of a problem. Yes you are required to be pretty spartan in your collecting, in a game that is all about gathering. It seems like an odd design choice and I can agree it would've been nice to at least be able to store items somewhere else than in your very meager exosuit and spaceship storage (although upgradeable). Everything you want and need to craft requires different components and you only really have space to focus on one of them at the time, especially counting in the fact that you need to run around with materials to power up your suit and mining tool as well.



I don't find this a huge problem however, it just means you need to do some careful planning. Make sure you know what you need and go out to collect only those things. So what if you come across a very rare item/material along the way, or something you know you need for some other item? Leave it, mentally map it or just be ok with the fact that you can't pick up everything you see. NMS is a lot about "be ok with it". And not in a "the game is badly designed so deal with it or leave" kind of way but "this is not the game you were looking for, but there is actually an entertaining game here so take it for what it is or leave" kind of way.

One reviewer was annoyed by the fact that every planet seemed littered with artifacts, items and structures left around by other alien creatures. It made it feel like every planet had already been discovered, so what was the point of even going there? This is a simple case where a choice of fun game design trumped over realistic game design (like how even the most realistic of survival games never require you to take a dump). Personally I can't see any fun whatsoever in landing on a planet that is literally just material to collect. Part of what makes a planet interesting is to see if there is intelligent life and if they left something behind. My critique would rather be that it's all very samey, and I will get back to this. So I agree that it gets repetitive, but I disagre that there shouldn't be anything. That would in the end become even more repetitive.

Graphically I also think it has its ups and downs. On the one hand the orange glow of space really bothers me. Is it to make the planets easier to see? Is it just in my part of space? Am I in some sort of orange nebula? I wanted the darkness of space and the orange color just makes it look like I am flying around in carrot soup. I hate it, in fact.

Space apparently also available in pee yellow


On the other hand I've walked for minutes just taking in the scenery. On the first planet I landed on, a comparatively nice planet it turns out, I found a cave system close to my space ship where I just wandered around looking at things, pretending I was actually there. It was very serene, beautiful and definitely fun. Right then and there I did feel like a true explorer, transcending even the feeling I had when first running around in Skyrim, following map markers and being curious about what was around each corner. Here I had an entire planet for myself (basically), massive cave systems, gorges, cliffs, trees, beautiful flowers and weird looking creatures to explore. At that moment I even felt like I didn't need to leave that planet at all. That was a rather important feeling, it turns out.

And it is a truly awesome feeling when you look up at the sky, see a planet or moon far away in the distance, hop into your spaceship, lift off and fly there. Imagine if you could just decide from one moment to the next that you wanted to go to the Moon (and the Moon wasn't just covered in sand, but also other stuff), and then go there. As you slowly rise up from the planet you're leaving, look down and see it all spread out under you - it slowly dawns on your that you just left a planet, it's actually the size of a planet! And you've been there, on a tiny part of it and left a tiny mark on it. There is sooo much more of that planet to explore, so why are you already moving on?

This is a fundamental question in NMS that you should think very carefully about. Unless your first planet turns out to be a pain in the ass, survival-wise, consider spending a lot more time there than the game prompts you to. Getting your spaceship fly-worthy takes less than an hour, unless you wander off like me. But is the grass really greener on the other side? I haven't played NMS long enough myself to verify this, but I have feeling that the more planets you visit, the less fun they become. The more will the procedurally generated fact of the world grate on you and the more anonymous they will become. Oh look another dog-dinosaur looking animal. Another cave system, another set of green flowers. Another block that gives me iron, just like the other block on that other planet that gave me iron. It's comes down to whether you prefer a life of one-night-stands or a few lovers that mattered. Maybe you shouldn't be so quick to move on and take some time to savour where you are.

NMS in a close update?

NMS is a very lonely game. You'll meet other aliens, which don't feel real at all and that you don't care anything about so it can be very daunting that you are basically all alone in that massive game. I think the game would've truly profited from being a multiplayer game, because eventhough Hello Games has said gamers can interact with eachother, this doesn't seem to be true. If it should be something like Eve Online or maybe like the multiplayer in Dark Souls, I don't know. But I would've loved some sort of hub where I could get some interaction from people, yet retain the possibility to fly off to a lonely part of space whenever I felt like it. NMS needs a civilized part, a part of the Universe where there are cities (or at least a city) and not just rocks and grass. This, I think, could make the game truly amazing.

I haven't visited overly many planets myself so far, maybe five. And eventhough they visually look fairly different they play out almost identically. Some might be more difficult to play on because of environmental issues, but there are almost the exact same things to do. The soup might be mixed differently but it has the same ingredients. Because of this you are just as likely to find something exciting around the corner as on a planet 100 lightyears away, for better or worse. If you jump from planet to planet hoping the game will offer more, that is when you will be sorely disappointed. If you go on a treck to find the fun the first couple of planets couldn't fulfill, you'll have a bad time. The game offers you basically everything it has straight from the get-go and I don't think that has to be a bad thing, it's just unconventional and takes some getting used to. Like mentioned, it might make you wonder why even bother with 18 quintillion planets in that case, but they're just there. They don't make the game better or worse, there's just more of it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Star Trek: Beyond *Review* Spoilers!

When people ask me what TV-series I like I often start by saying "Star Trek". Sometimes I get a bit more precise and say that I like all of them a lot, but Voyager is probably my favorite because that is the first one I got really in to. Overall however I would have a hard time comparing them, eventhough I have been known to do so in the past, as I feel they are all very well done, worthwhile and bring their own ideas to the Star Trek Universe.

Of course I am also a big fan of most of the Star Trek movies. Yet again I would have a hard time picking a favorite - I am one of the few people who thinks the first Star Trek movie is brilliant (when it was revealed that V'Ger was actually the Voyager space probe I was completely amazed, it gave me a complete new sense of what kind of story telling sci-fi was capable of), I belong to one of many who thinks Star Trek: First Contact is one of the best sci-fi movies ever and I almost cried of joy (because the scene was so awesome, not because it wasn't sad as hell) when I watched the opening scenes of JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot (coincidentally all these three are the first of their lines). I was less enthusiastic about Star Trek Nemesis and to be honest I don't consider Wrath of Khan all that entertaining - there, I said it. It was a while ago since I watched Star Trek 3-6 so I get them all a bit confused and jumbled in my head, but my overall memory is still one of getting the Star Trek feeling from them. So they're not all great movies, but at least you've got the characters and the Star Trek core still feels present in all of them. Until now.



This week I went and saw Star Trek: Beyond and I don't want to say it's a bad movie, although I think deep down that is really what I think about it, but what is almost worse than that - it didn't really feel like a Star Trek movie. It completely failed to give me any Star Trek feeling, and I was almost angry when I left the cinema. A lot about the Star Trek universe can be silly and goofy (more about that shortly) but this movie just ended up feeling plain stupid to me.

It didn't start out well with the opening scene. As I watched it unfold I remember my thoughts being "oh sweet mercy, I hope this isn't setting the mood for the rest of the movie because I don't know what I even just witnessed". That scene was just ridiculous from beginning to end. I realize, and even thought about it as I saw it, that they tried to envoke the idea of the comic Star Trek, the Star Trek that gave us The Trouble With Tribbles (one of the best original ST episodes) but it fell so flat it was like when someone tries to be funny and you just end up feeling ashamed for them. That scene definitely had me worried for the rest of the movie.

If you haven't seen the Tribbles, you've missed out.

And unfortunately it just never got any better. Scene after scene I just ended up sitting there thinking "that's not a thing!" or "are they doing this, for real?" in exactly that ashamed-for-them kind of feeling. We're talking sci-fi here! I'm pretty damn lenient about what I allow in terms of imagination, but that doesn't mean it's ok to make scenes that just end up being completely laughable. Let me mention a couple of scenes that really grated on me and that felt like they had given them absolutely no time for thought, they were just shoved in for effect (if you think I have misinterpreted any of these scenes, feel free to explain them to me!);


  • When they jump from the ship, they make it look like they slide down and jump forward to escape the ship tumbling over. How is that even remotely possible considering the size of the Enterprise? Even if they were jumping in any direction they would've been smashed by the impact of being so close to something so damn huge. THEY ARE SLIDING DOWN A STARSHIP DAMN IT! IT'S HUGE! You just can't outjump that.
  • Not a scene per se, but the villain... where do I even get started. When his motivation for all his evilness was revealed at the end I just sighed, it was so silly. I'm not saying people haven't done worse things for less, but in the movie world that makes for a very boring villain. And it was. And he says things like "I've spent lifetimes looking for this thing" whereas Bones (or someone) says that the crew from USS Franklin must be 100 years by now. Hardly what I'd call "lifetimes" and besides, did he do all the searching from that planet in the  nebula? Was he hoping the doomsday weapon would just wander into his hands by waiting around? The fact that it actually does just proves the lazy writing.
  • Speaking of the doomsday weapon... they make it out to be so horrible, but using it seems way too difficult for it to be truly dangerous. Why does he have to spread it in the airways? Is it so that it acts faster? Because what would happen if it acts too slow? It just disappears? Or was Krall worried they'd find a way to counteract the effect? In either case, the weapon never ends up being anywhere near menacing enough to warrant all the kerfuffle and dread they're trying to make us feel about it.
  • In the first half of the movie they make it seem like the nebula is some ways off Yorktown (the name of which made me realize how horribly America-centric Star Trek can be, considering it's supposed to take place in a vast Universe full of species), yet when Krall launches his attack it looks like the nebula is just around the corner. If it is, then how is it possible that it has not been charted yet? Don't give me bull about how difficult it is to traverse, I find it unbelievable that they would choose to build such an important structure so close to a nebula that is completely uncharted.
  • As we're talking about bad decisions, why would you choose to send your best starship and crew into said nebula just because some alien you've apparently never even encountered before (assuming since they don't have their language on record) says they're in trouble in there? If that is how you go about things then you will not be a strong force to reckon with for very long - just look at what happens, which is exactly my point.
  • The exploding swarm, just... wtf. I'll admit the scene was somewhat cool, for about three seconds. But then I just couldn't understand why the heck they were exploding? I can understand that they'd be rendered useless, but does that make them explode? If they had explained it by saying something along the lines of "if they're rendered useless/cut off from the command centre they will self-destruct" then maybe (like they do in the anime Heavy Object), but we get nothing like that. To me this is like those scenes of vehicles exploding just for bumping into a tree.
  • Why is Jaylah saving Scotty? It seems like a very risky thing to do on a planet where everyone is against everyone and she is all alone. She doesn't even know he has any worthwhile skill or that he is human until after she has saved him.
  • Why is the fast-drying trap-goo breaking immediately when Jaylah knocks at it, but it can withstand gunfire/laserfire from the enemies?
  • The scene where Kirk drives around on the motorbike was just /faceplam. They choose the rockiest damn planet in the universe and think having him motorbiking around is going to look plausible? It would've been so easy to make that scene look less stupid, just make it less rocky!


I could probably go on all day, and some of these are just minor things I would normally not even care about. I'm usually not someone who gets all worked up about minor inconsistencies or bad scenes, but when basically every scenes is like this it just racks up and gets impossible not to notice or care about.

My face during the opening scene.

Worst of all though was all the squandering of characters this movie does. I didn't feel like a single character got any good screen time, not even the ones that actually had quite a lot of it, like Kirk and Scotty (weird that Pegg would give himself so much screen time btw). They're just there, delivering lines. None of the character development from the first two movies whatsoever. Most just feel underused, like Bones and Spock who don't get anything worthwhile to do. I had to think to remember what Sulu got up to in this movie. Some are there but are just not explained, like Manas. Who is he? What is he doing there? What the heck was he good for in the movie because he accomplishes nothing and could've basically been replaced by a big rock and it wouldn't have changed anything. Jaylah was alright though.

The movie almost had me intrigued for the first half, even with all the stupidity that was going on. I was almost ready to forgive it when they discovered Franklin and I felt like it might at least have a story-line that wraps up in a cool way. But no. In the end it was just one dumb scene after the next. Kralls line of reasoning could've made sense if they had given it more development, more time to sink-in, like they did with Khans (admittedly Khan has the benefit of being part of the series where he gets more explanation, I think this is needed for this kind of character that Krall in a way is trying to be). I never got the feeling that anything the characters did mattered, I only cared for them at all because they belonged to the universe I love so much. They don't say or do anything that comes off as funny or clever or even thought-through.

I'm sad too Elba...

Unlike the first movie (of this reboot trilogy), this movie completely failed in making me worry for the future of the Federation since I did not worry about Yorktown. The whole idea that the entirety of the Federation would be at risk because what happens at Yorktown was so badly explained that it never seemed like a real danger. It failed in making me awe for the villain like I did Cumberbatches Khan. Not because Elba lacks the charisma or potential, far from. I think he could've made a brilliant villain with better writing. It just makes me angrier knowing what Elba could've done with a better character. It failed in making me weep for the characters like the opening scene of the first movie. It failed in making me feel anything but disappointment, and probably the most disappointed I've ever been with a Star Trek movie exactly because the first two were so good. But even the less good movies of the past have been entertaining to watch, I have never regretted seeing any of them and would rewatch them anytime. This one, not so much.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

3 Things Pokémon Go Need To Fix ASAP

I know pretty much everyone has a bone to pick with Pokemon Go right now. It's true that Niantic has handled the launch less than well, eventhough I am far less annoyed with it overall than a lot of people seem to be. Technical issues are one thing - havng to reload constantly definitely gets on my nerves. Lack of communication is just plain stupid - such an easy way to avoid frustration and misunderstanding and yet so many companies fail at this over and over. I also agree that Niantic might be prioritizing things wrong when they want to make sure to launch a game that isn't working very well yet in as many countries as possible rather than trying to fix it. But then again, the people in the countries that don't have Pokemon Go yet might disagree, for all I know they'd rather have a broken game than no game at all - I can sympathize with that. Setting those frustrations aside however, there are still things about the game that give me reason to worry. Maybe even more so because they, at least for now, seem to be "working as intended" as far as Niantic is concerned.


The Eggs
There has been a lot of speculation and experimenting around the mechanic with egg hatching. Everything from putting your phone on robot lawnmowers, on your pet while they're running around in the garden or on turntables. When people aren't busy trying to get the eggs to hatch without having to move around with the phones themselves, they're busy trying to figure out how to make the eggs hatch, period.

It's clear that it involves moving around, or rather moving the phone, in some sense. But not just in any sense. Some moving arounds are clearly better than other moving arounds. Just looking at my own experience I've gotten no reaction when trying to get progress in a moving car, very little progress when going on a bike and very sketchy progress when walking (albeit this has both been beneficial and disadvantegous for me). I've got an almost 7km (4 mile) ride to work and even when I try to keep my phone active for the majority of the ride (setting safety aside) I barely get more than a 1km worth of progress on my eggs. Rumour has it that to prevent cheating, there is a mechanic that prevents eggs from registrering progress if you move faster than a certain speed. Whatever that speed is however, no one really knows. Clearly it is somewhere between walking speed and bike speed, my rough guesstimation would be maybe 15km/h (9mph).



The fact that there (most likely) is a speed limit doesn't bother me at all. In fact it would probably bother me more if there wasn't, because boy could you hatch many eggs on a flight. It would be silly, even game breaking in my opinion, not to limit it in some way.

What does bother me however is that even when I am walking in a leisurely pace, there is really no telling when my eggs are going to hatch. Even taking the same walk will hatch my eggs (with the same distance value) at different intervals and there are few things more frustrating than a set value acting like what seems close to randomly. I've got my goal, my quest, I need to walk 5 km. So I walk 5 km, but my egg doesn't hatch. Rarely does it hatch from walking less than the set distance, but that has happened too. It wouldn't bother me if it was off by a couple of hundred meters, but it's a lot more than that, and so consistently for me to completely stop bothering to even keep track of it. I just shrug and think "the damn thing will hatch when it hatches".

People are speculating that this is because of how the game keeps track of your movement. It's probably reasonable to assume that Niantics servers can't keep spot on track of every player at any given moment - I realize that. Instead it seems like they update your position in intervals, every five or ten seconds and then deduces how much distance you've travelled since your last check in. I also think this is how the game determines your speed. I don't know if I am imagining it, but I think I get more progress on my eggs on the bike rides where I stop every now and then to do some catching than on the rides I don't.

Either way, and even if I do understand the technical limitations, something needs to be done. The way it is now egg progress feels way too random and sketchy to feel like progress at all. I've had my egg jump from 3,5km to 4,8 after what could not have been more than a couple of hundred meters. That's one of the very few times the sketchy updating has benefited me. More often than not I walk a distance only to see that my egg progress has been rewarded half or less of that. It makes egg walking feel a lot less like a destination and a lot more like something that just happens while you're out catching Pokemon. And then after all that walking you get a Jynx in your 10km egg anyway. Maybe working as intended?

The Items
I could complain that items that are said to have a 30 minute timer actually start somewhere around 26 minute for no good reason at all. But isntead I am going to complain about the fact that I feel like a lot of the items that say they're supposed to do something, don't really do something. I'm not expecting Mewtwo to ascend from the skies and snuggle into one of my Pokeballs just because I threw out a lure or an incense. But I do expect some sort of action beside Pidgeys and Zubats (and Drowzees and Rattatas). They're a dime a dozen and putting out an incense/lure does not mean I want more of them.



I understand that there are only 151 Pokemon to catch, and they want us to savour it for as long as possible. Obviously they can't hand out rare pkmn left and right. But incense and lures are fairly rare things as well. I'm level 20 and I've had 5 or so incenses, around the same number when it comes to lures. I'm only just over halfway through the Pokedex so clearly there are still a lot of pkmn left for me to find, even if you don't count the legendaries. Considering they only last 26 minutes, it's only a very small portion of game time that is going to be affected by these items. Unless of course you buy them in the shop. But why would anyone pay for anything that barely seems to make any difference? It's in Niantics own interest to make these items more interesting for us. And it takes like, a billion Magikarps, to get a Gyarados anyway so would it really hurt so badly if three of them decided to flop our way because we put up an incense or lure?

The Gyms
Right around the corner of where I live (yet not close enough for me to attack it from the comforts of my home unfortunately) is a Gym. It's been blue for 95% of the time and level 10 for a lot of that time as well. As I started getting the hang of Pokemon Go and how Gyms seemed to work I started wondering about something.

If I need to fight a gym to increase the prestige to be able to put my Pokemon in there to be able to claim my reward (with me so far?)... then what happens when a gym is a max level and can't increase its prestige anymore? That means I can't get my own pkmn in there to claim the reward and fighting it will only benefit someone else and not me. The best thing I can do at that point is wait and hope that someone from an opposing team weakens the Gym enough for me to be able to squeeze in one of my own pkmn. This in turn means that other people of my team are my rivals as much as they are my allies. Or rather, they're only my allies as long as they strenghten my own chances of staying in a Gym. It's counter intuitive and it's really no way to build any kind of team spirit.

Niantic cleverly avoids this problem in Ingress because there is no reward beside prestige to be had from claiming and owning areas in that game. In Pokemon Go however there is a very real reward. So 10 coins every now and then might not seem like much, but it's get a bit annoying when my local gym is claimed by the same person for weeks and there is nothing I can do to get in on the action because it's my own team!

There is also a lot more to do at an Ingress Portal

Now maybe you'd wonder what would be the point of gyms if owning it didn't reward more than the honor of owning it? Well, it works in Ingress and trust me - the Ingress players are fierce about their Portals (the sort of equivalent of Gyms).

In Ingress Portals wane over time, they deteriorate, meaning that without someone from the same team coming around to power them up every now and then they will eventually power down and become neutral again. I don't know if this is a function the Gyms share in Pokemon Go, but if it isn't it should be. I think it's a great idea since it requires active playing and not just set-and-forget.

Otherwise I think Niantic need to rethink how players of the same team can benefit from claimed Gyms. Maybe anyone from the same team that comes into vicinity of that Gym could get their daily reward, even if they don't have a pkmn in there (maybe this option should only be available if the Gym is at max level, I am ok with that)? Or maybe Niantic need to make it possible to get coins from some other means, or maybe change the way you get coins in the game completely? Either way, as it is now it's a bad thing when someone from your team claim a gym and raise it to max level without you, and that is just silly.

I could talk about a whole bunch of other things, like balancing issues to name one. Balancing is something that can take some time to get right however so I am going to bide my time on this one and see how Niantic handles it. For now I am just going to have to contend that every Gym has three Vaporeons in it.