The Epic PC debate

The ongoing debate about Epic Games Store (EGS) is getting boring and tends to go around in circles. There I said it.

The latest game to announce being a timed exclusive to EGS is The Outer Wilds, from developer Mobius Digital. A small indie game that used crowdfunding but has really angered backers who regard it as having gone back on previous promises to deliver the game on Steam at release. As more and more games have been confirmed as exclusive to EGS we continue to see a similar uproar from many PC gamers.

If you go to any internet forum or reddit there are those who see Epic doing good, creating competition and perhaps making Valve up their game when it comes to their dominance over PC gaming. Often stating ‘it’s just another launcher‘ or it is like Amazon Prime or Netflix streaming services. On the other side of the debate Steam fans see rising prices due to reduced key resellers, loss of features and forced exclusives.

Stitched screenshot of the Steam and Epic Games Store main store pages.

I understand both sides of the debate but get bored at the often poorly made points of those defending Epic. You see EGS is far from another launcher. It’s a service, a platform which is in effect a walled garden. No one knows whether it’ll even exist in five or ten years (*cough* Desura). And when one of these services no longer exists then your whole library of games is gone. Forever.

Comparisons with the streaming services like Netflix are nonsensical. With subscription services you are never emotionally invested in them. You watch your content and then stop paying if you wish. You don’t lose anything. On platforms like Steam or EGS you are actually buying games. You build up a virtual library of games on virtual shelves. As your spend more and the library gets bigger the perceived sunk cost becomes even more. It makes it difficult to detach from the service. Media streaming services like Netflix are actually closer to game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass or EA Access.

More often that not even when people explain the huge number of features that are available on Steam those on the Epic side don’t always acknowledge those points. Epic may well improve their offering but the list of features on Valve’s platform is immense. Even in the last year we’ve seen native DualShock 4 support, Proton (so Windows-only games on Linux) and a completely rebuilt Friends client (think Discord). The claim that Valve don’t work on Steam anymore seems to be based on personal opinions rather than actual fact.

For years Valve have been seen as the guardians of PC gaming, arguably even more than Microsoft. At a time when Microsoft was pushing the wholly underdeveloped Games for Windows-Live initiative, complete with plans to charge for PC multiplayer gaming. Valve were building a complete PC-based gaming ecosystem. Full lifecycle from store purchase to playing games. With new features like Big Picture Mode, Achievements, Community Market, In-Home Streaming, Proton Linux support, SteamOS, Cloud Saves, Broadcasting, Steam Works, Wishlist etc. If you use these features then the removal of them matters. Even though it’s a tiny audience some players may have been looking forward to The Outer Wilds on Linux. However as a game on a Windows-only client that leaves them in the dark for now.

Of course the 12% fees for developers on Epic versus the higher charges on Steam may help developers bring games to market but consumers don’t necessarily understand or directly see the benefit. Something Epic CEO Tim Sweeney has noted. And it isn’t the first time PC games have been exclusive, and paid to kept off competitors stores. Actually the Oculus Rift storefront for VR did this first. Furthermore it is arguably the only valid strategy Epic Games have to displace a mature and very established competitor. Consumers won’t buy games away from Steam unless you remove that choice. Exclusive content has been used for decades to entice gamers onto competitors products and services. And it is ironically competition, even if not as PC gamers might want.

Although I am a multiplatform gamer, even I’ve found myself sucked into this debate on EGS. Trying to explain why PC gamers are angry at Epic or the publishers being paid for EGS exclusivity and it gets really difficult not to have sympathy with those criticising Epic. Often the conversations descend into hostility and toxicity. I can’t fathom those defending anti-consumer practices when it comes to exclusive platform games. Certainly I understand the use of exclusivity deals however I’ll never defend the tactic.

Interestingly Epic yesterday announced a huge month-long sale on their storefront, which has generated some goodwill. The sale essentially sees Epic offering £10 off for games over £13.99 to bring some quite significant percentage discounts on lower priced games. But this sale is arguably a good tactic for consumers and a way to drive them towards EGS. Or at least might have been, but since the sale started many publishers have removed their games from the sale. Arguably the first good thing we had seen from this new storefront. At least for consumers. Although for now I’m just going to stay away from the Epic vs. Steam debates.

The Division & Destiny sequels

Over the weekend I saw streamer MarcoStyle mention he intends to move away from The Division 2 and play other games. Whilst this isn’t really news. Streamers constantly change games or move on from things. It seems to be a case of another of the more well known original The Division streamers moving away from the series. I remember before launch comparing The Division 2’s launch with that of Destiny 2 and that it would face the same challenges. And after watching the launch of Ubisoft’s latest Division game it feels like there are similarities.

In September 2017 Destiny 2 launched to good reviews (84 on OpenCritic) but within weeks faced a backlash from the community over a number of issues; a reduced feature set, lack of endgame content, changing XP rates and egregious microtransactions. We never saw sales figures but it’s likely that the game was successful although by the time of Destiny 2’s first expansion, Activision Blizzard stated publicly it wasn’t happy with sales of Forsaken. How much that led to the breakup with Bungie is speculation, although it’s hard to imagine that overall revenue and microtransactions sales didn’t play a part in the decision making process.

The Division 2 also launched to good reviews (83 on OpenCritic) and there appears to be criticism of lack of content and broken builds although praise for some of the new content in the game. Interestingly MarcoStyle specifically called The Division 2 endgame more casual in his aforementioned video, stating that it felt like it was more for people who only play a few hours a week. Similar criticisms were levelled at Destiny 2 at launch.

We have heard nothing on the sales figures from Ubisoft about The Division 2. Odd given they were very vocal about the first game’s launch setting company and industry records. The March 2019 NPD figures (physical and digital USA sales figures) included some news :

Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 was the best-selling game of March 2019 and is now the second best-selling game of 2019. Launch month sales of Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 are the sixth highest in history for an Ubisoft-published game.

NPD March 2019 (ResetEra post)

This probably explains why there have been no press releases about sales because unlike the first game it has set no milestones by the looks of it.

Of course this isn’t meant as criticism of either game and there is much detail around how the games are different. The Division 2 is about to get its first Raid and that will probably boost player engagement. And Destiny 2 players seem to love the Forsaken expansion. This is no ‘hot take’ and maybe stating the obvious given both games are similar Live Service games from large western publishers. It simply has been interesting to observe how the games have launched very similarly; good reviews, limited or lower sales after a very successful first game, tailing off player engagement and criticism of endgame content. And indeed what is also probably true of both is that the developers moved onto the next games straight after launch.

I am still torn on whether to pick up The Division 2 at some point. I really enjoyed the first game and it was streamers like SkillUp and MarcoStyle who helped me master some of the metagame. The beta for The Division 2 left me cold and I got the distinct impression it was more of the same albeit improved. Recently I have been enjoying shorter, narrative experiences and looking forward to being able to try new games all the time. With one game already my Live Services game of choice, I’m not that keen to start more. I just don’t need more games as a service at the moment. And that continues to be a reason why I’ve not purchased The Division 2.

Update 17th May 2019: Since publishing this post, Ubisoft confirmed The Division 2 didn’t meet expectations. There are probably many reasons for why; fatigue with GaaS games, lots of competition, Fortnite and people bouncing off the first game hard. Although probably more interesting is the why are all these AAA, big budget, western developed GaaS games failing to meet expectations? Maybe a thought for another day.

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition Review

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition reminded me of playing Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Given there are similarities between the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot and Sony’s Uncharted series, this clearly isn’t an absurd comparison. However there are definitely a few things this Tomb Raider did much better than that original Uncharted. For example not filling your screen with inordinate amounts of enemies shooting at you. Indeed although the combat probably isn’t as strong overall, I much preferred this slightly more realistic approach.

I have a sporadic history with Tomb Raider. I played the first one in 1996 and marvelled at it, much like everyone else at the time. And after playing the sequel I then didn’t pay attention to the series until Tomb Raider: Legend on Xbox 360. I also played a bit of Anniversary at a friend’s. So whilst not the biggest fan of the series I do appreciate the impact the games have had.

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition screenshot of Lara in action.

There is a lot to like about Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. Which came out nearly a year after the original release, in early 2014, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition updated the 2013 release for the new (at the time) Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles. It has some open-world components and there is some freedom to explore or revisit certain areas on the map. However this is largely a game pushing you on to the next part of the game.

On PlayStation 4 the game runs at 1080p and 60fps, although it does struggle to stay near the 60fps target with frame drops frequently occurring. And this can vary by level. Some of the more wider, open vistas can particularly cause the framerate to stutter. However I didn’t personally find this to be that irritating but this is subjective. It’s worth mentioning I don’t tend to run my PlayStation 4 Pro with boost mode enabled but my understanding is that that it can get the game much closer to the 60fps target.

The game got stuck on a loading screen once, although closing the game and reloaded resolved this. The graphics are muted and they definitely appear to be dated in places looking very much like a game that was designed with previous generation consoles in mind. Although with some great close ups and cinematography the game still has plenty of wow moments. The rendition of Lara Croft here is extremely impressive (particularly the facial features and hair).

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition screenshot of a cutscene moment from the game.

Overall I liked the story, although I thought the first third of the game was when things were at their best. As the story progresses enemies encounters ramp up, in difficulty and number. And the story advances into fantasy elements. It’s fine but earlier on there is more of a survival aspect. A sense of Lara working through every hurdle. Enemy encounters are more sporadic and shorter. The story takes a slow burn approach to build-up Lara which works very well. The realism is conveyed brilliantly, particularly when Lara gets injured. The weapons and combat are OK, but without crouch and cover button (you go into cover automatically where near some objects) it can get a bit frustrating and simplistic at times.

One thing the game does is encourage you to explore and rewards you for this. You need salvage for improving weapons and other items for XP to unlock skill points. And if you explore then you find more that will unlock things faster. It isn’t particularly in-depth but they have added puzzle elements to some of the things you can find. I think Crystal Dynamics nailed this balance of exploration and rewarding you for it. And indeed the pacing of unlocks was such that it was fun unlocking more moves or tools.

In terms of annoyances the game does rely on Quick Time Events (QTE) far too much for my liking. You often die if you relax as these play and it then becomes a Dragon’s Lair style game of trail and error to pass these segments. I wasn’t a fan of these which I found broke up the flow of the game if you didn’t pass first time. Although the frequent changing of the camera to scripted locked angles makes the game feel very cinematic. Which I’m sure was intended and again really helped to improve the presentation.

Although I knew the Tomb Raider reboot had been very well received back on release in 2013, I wasn’t necessarily sure I would like it. However I am glad to say I thought this reboot was brilliantly done and pretty much a perfect duration. It fits in well with a more modern and relevant Lara Croft. And I am looking forward to soon trying the probably equally as well received Rise of the Tomb Raider. Looking back on this game and it’s probably not an overstatement to regard it as one of the best Tomb Raider games I have ever played. Indeed it’s one of the best games I’ve probably played recently.

Played on PlayStation 4 Pro.

My thoughts on MMOs in 2019

This summer is going to see some excitement around MMOs. In June we will see the new chapter; Elsweyr for The Elder Scrolls Online. Shortly followed by the Final Fantasy XIV expansion; Shadowbringers in early July. On top of that World of Warcraft: Classic will finally arrive in the summer and rumours of a possible new World of Warcraft expansion being announced at Blizzcon 2019 are beginning to circulate. And finally even Star Wars: The Old Republic is getting a new expansion; Onslaught in September 2019. So there is a fair amount of new content coming for some of the more established MMOs.

With this in mind I thought I would write a very quick summary of my thoughts on how I feel about some of the most popular MMO games, given that MMOs and similar Live Services games have often dominated my playtime in recent years. This is concentrating on existing games rather than brand new MMOs that are yet to be released.

Currently playing: The Elder Scrolls Online

I’ve written about this before and I don’t need to say too much other than this is my current MMO/Live Service game of choice. I’ve already pre-ordered the latest expansion; Elsweyr. The only issue is that I don’t feel the hurry to jump into this new chapter content straight away having played a fair amount of the game in the last few months.

Given up on (for now): World of Warcraft

I made the mistake of picking up Blizzard’s 6-month subscription offer back in October and I haven’t played the game a great deal. In truth I’ve barely spent much time with Battle for Azeroth’s new content. My 2018 return to the game saw me playing more Legion content and catching up on old zones by levelling new characters. I’m struggling to find enthusiasm to play World of Warcraft anymore at the moment. So for now a good break from the game is probably the wisest choice.

In addition World of Warcraft: Classic doesn’t hold much attraction for me. I only started playing the game during The Burning Crusade expansion and even though I enjoyed the demo of Classic last year I don’t think I have the appetite for the original game. This is going to get a lot of attention though and for those players interested, whether they are reliving old memories or not, this should provide a fascinating experience. As a streamer recently said this is probably more akin to a seasonal event but will likely generate some interesting stories.

Not played in a while: Guild Wars 2

I’ve written about the original Guild Wars recently saying how I never spent enough time with that game. And unfortunately the same is true of Guild Wars 2. At the moment I’m enjoying The Elder Scrolls Online too much to go back to this. It’s a shame because I do have content I would like to experience like the Personal Story and Living World, but for now it isn’t happening.

Would love to try: Final Fantasy XIV

This seems to be the de facto recommendation for players looking for the best MMO in 2019. And for good reason. Square Enix’s MMO seems to have gone from strength to strength since the 2013 relaunch A Realm Reborn. However whilst I would be keen to give it a go, as ever with any Live Service like this, I’m trying to hold off because of the time and cost commitment. In addition it also sounds a bit like World of Warcraft in that for solo players there is a lack of endgame content (i.e. not even using LFG). And that is a slight concern for me if I got into this game.

Previously played: Star Wars: The Old Republic

I played Star Wars: The Old Republic for a few months when in came out in late 2011. And from the sounds of it a lot has changed in the last 8 years. Indeed this always played a bit like an offline RPG and there might be more content for solo players now. However whilst that appeals somewhat this might remain a once visited memory for me. It is good to see a new expansion arriving in September though.

The ‘not quite MMOs‘, but in the same category

Might be done with: Warframe

This is probably sacrilegious to write in 2019. Digital Extremes looter extraordinaire is the darling of most on the internet right now. And again for good reason. However I feel removed from this game, currently struggling to get back into it. The never ending and constant release of new items to collect along with more group oriented modes recently introduced has cooled me on this game. So why might I be done with it? Well it’s more about catching-up and having already amassed nearly 400 hours in a 18-24 months span I did get a little bit exhausted with Warframe.

Need to play: Path of Exile

Similar to the previous game, I feel a bit burnt out on isometric ARPG games in general which has impacted how many I’ve played recently (i.e. not many). Also the short seasons in Path of Exile mean I feel I need to jump in with a view to commiting for a month or two. And there are simply too many other games requesting my time at the moment. In no way a criticism of this game. At some point I will give it a proper go.

2019 is all about…

The Elder Scrolls Online will probably be the MMO/Live Service game I play most in 2019. With a new Chapter coming and a game I still find incredibly engaging it is hard to imagine playing something else instead of this. As noted there are a few games that are tempting or I would like to play again but when it comes to MMOs I feel less is more, and actually concentrating on one game is the best decision.

I haven’t really kept an eye on upcoming future MMOs and therefore there is a chance something emerges that takes my interest but is probably unlikely.

We Happy Few (Impressions)

I first remember seeing We Happy Few at Microsoft’s E3 presentation in 2016 and immediately it stood out with the fairly unique setting and aesthetics. Although I haven’t played the game that much, just over six hours, these are my initial impressions. I may return and spend some more time with the game although I currently have a large number of games on my backlog that I would rather be playing.

We Happy Few is a first person, action adventure, survival game crossed with some open world elements. Originally it was released as an Early Access game on PC which was then developed into a full retail release. Set in an alternative 1960’s UK where the outcome of World War 2 was different.

What it does well:

  • The setting and visuals are fairly unique.
  • Strong narrative. There’s a sense of a good story here.
  • Custom difficulty settings. As well as different difficulties levels, you can choose a custom setting which allows you to adjust individual elements such as combat, survival etc. For example, combat can be at the hardest difficulty setting, whilst stealth is switched to easy mode. Everything is explained very clearly to the player.

Things I didn’t like:

  • I encountered a few small graphical glitches and some FPS does drop in places.
  • Controls can be fiddly, you need to precisely hover over the item in question to select which can be tough when it’s bobby pins on top of a searchable cabinet or something. Many open world games have this issue but it feels like the controls work better with a keyboard and mouse.
  • Combat is overly simplistic. If fighting a mob it is far too easy for enemies to hit you off screen, where you never saw the hit coming.
  • Loading times as the game generates a level can be very slow.

Probably my biggest issue is that I didn’t like the survival elements which is at the game’s core and can often feel at odds with the more linear campaign. It feels like two separate games with a sandbox world to play in, which was reigned into a more concise story mode. You can adjust the difficulty on the survival elements so they can be ignored although you are still continually picking up food and drink items no matter what the difficulty setting.

As mentioned We Happy Few is a game that has some intriguing parts, although no doubt the game has some issues too. So it is one I might return to in the future but wanted to note my thoughts for now.

Played on Xbox One X, via Xbox Game Pass.

Wolfenstein: The New Order Review

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game I’ve had on my ‘to play‘ list for a long time. I first received it as a present near release but didn’t make much progress. Indeed it was a game I mentioned on one of my earliest backlog updates on this very website. However at long last I’ve finally managed to complete the story of the game. Although if I’m honest towards the end I had to really force myself to play the game through to completion.

Overall the game felt greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t excel in any areas in my opinion although it was fairly enjoyable. The biggest strength felt like the alternative universe set in a 1960’s where the German Nazis not only won World War 2 but went on to dominate the world. Certainly a far cry from the series earlier 3D games (the last I played was 2001’s return to Castle Wolfenstein). The setting feels original and unique. As if a lot of effort and thought went into this part. The story is fine, with lots of NPCs in the story, although I found them flat and didn’t really much care for them to much as the story played out.

The game has some very nice level design and environments. It really goes to town with its storyline and set pieces. The game uses health and armour packs to provide a ‘retro’ feel given most modern first person shooters have recharging health or shields. I kind of thought this worked well.

Technically the game on consoles runs nicely at 60fps and dynamic 1080p. The graphics have a nice amount of detail even for a game that came earlier in this generation of consoles. It also use has gritty visual style that suits perfectly. I can’t be certain of how long it took me to play through but I would guess somewhere between 20 to 25 hours. It certainly isn’t the shortest game. Oh and yes, the Easter egg is fantastic.

However there are things the game didn’t do well in my opinion. Most notably its use of stealth. It feels like the game was forcing it as a playstyle far too often with few tools to actually play it that way. If you can sneak through a set piece by remaining undetected it will make that part easier. However later on the levels and placements of enemies made this harder or more tiresome and I ended up just going in guns blazing as I couldn’t be bothered with the stealth anymore. The perk unlock system is also just a set of challenges to unlock something, rather than anything more in-depth.

The game includes five difficulty levels which is great, although the main difference seems to be the amount of damage you and enemies take rather than improved AI or anything. Until the final few levels I played the game on the default difficulty but for the last few levels turned the difficulty down and found myself preferring the game that way. Unlike other games such as Halo: Combat Evolved on Legendary, the game just becomes mostly irritating rather than changing the experience massively. At harder difficulty the ‘retro’ health packs and armour pickups obviously become more important.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is nothing I would regard as stunning but equally far from the worst single player, story-based first person shooter than I have played either. Never as downright sterile or flat as something like Halo 5, but equally doesn’t reaches the unique heights or set pieces of something like Titanfall 2’s campaign. If you enjoy the ride and accept the game for what it is, then it is a fun and strong modern update on an old game. A solid reboot.

Played (mostly) on PlayStation 4 Pro. Previously played the opening level on PlayStation 4.