Another Year Goes By

2019 was the worst year for gaming, except all the years preceding it

It has become a hallowed tradition among writers, especially in the videogame space, to claim that *current year* is the best/worst ever for the industry. Like most traditions, its absolute rubbish. The truth is, 2019 was an interesting year for gaming, where small and medium studios released (or patched) great games while large publishers pushed out garbage or participated in outright political repression.

To sum up the year would have to contend with both halves. It would have to list all the good, great and important games that came out this year, and all the myriad of controversies and scandals that threatened to drown them in press coverage. 2019 really felt at times like a twisted example of Newton’s Third Law of Motion; for every good game released, there must be an equal and opposite controversy (more than one to my horror).

This is why I decided in my first year end’s summation to start with the bad then work towards the good. Listing all the scandals and controversies of 2019 that I could recall, then addressing the games that I actually liked. I won’t be banging on a lot on each subject, as chances are I already wrote about it extensively. That said, I won’t be listing either controversies or games in order of importance since I don’t really believe in numerical rankings. The lists are organized in order or recollection. Thus the more important things might be listed first. That said I will be cheating a tad and keeping my GOTY (Game Of The Year) pick for last. Enjoy (I doubt it)!

2019’s Controversies

Activision-Blizzard Silences a Hearthstone Player to Aid Chinese Repression of Hong Kong

Oh boy, straight out of the bat and I am already going in heavy. Yes, you read this right. On the 7th of October, Activision-Blizzard banned Hong Kong player Blitzchung from Hearthstone, alongside the two commentators in the tournament he won, for speaking up for the people of Hong Kong fighting government repression.

There is no way to spin it, even though Activision-Blizzard tried hard. The reality was that the company was cooperating with the authoritarian regime of Xi “Winnie the Pooh” Jinping in the oppression of the people of Hong Kong fighting for democracy. This was beyond disgusting considering that originally the company even withheld the rightful prize money Blitzchung won in the tournament.

Of course, Activison-Blizzard tried hard to make us forget about the situation, announcing Diablo IV (already known a year before) and Overwatch 2 (who really clamored for that!?) to try and divert attention while issuing a non apology for their reaction to a “tough e-sports moment”. As though Blitzchung uttered some racial slur instead of showing support for basic human rights.

If anyone needed more proof to the amorality of large corporations, the entire affair offered it in spades. Let me remind you that Activision-Blizzard could life the ban at any time, instead of just tepidly reducing it. The fact that they are not doing it is their active participation in, and support of, the repression of the people of Hong Kong. It is absolutely abhorrent.

Anyone supporting Activision-Blizzard by buying their products at this point is, by definition, supporting this cold calculus that prefers the Chinese market share over basic human rights. Suffice to say it prompted me to delete my account, a decision I don’t regret for a moment.

Of course, this wasn’t the only thing Activision-Blizzard was up to this year: Laying off 800 staffers and developers earlier in the year even though the company posted record profits. Tried to monetize its games to a ridiculous degree in particular its Call of Duty franchise. Lost its partnership with Bungie and the Destiny franchise (to be fair, not a huge loss but a sign that Bungie doesn’t see any benefit in associating with the publisher) and its top executives used tax refund stock buybacks (the company doesn’t even pay taxes!) to sell their shares and make millions off what amounts to insider trading. What can you say but… nauseating, yeah, I think that sums it up quite nicely.

Anthem and BioWare Are Dumpster Fires

Can anyone recall that Anthem came out this year? Anyone? Yes, it surprised me as well that Anthem was, indeed, launched this year. Released in February (though in the most confusing staggered release that has to be seen to be believed), the game proved to be a mess from start to finish. A boring slug of repetitive missions, broken AI and generic story that somehow made Destiny at launch look better in comparison. The only interesting thing about the game proved to be the expose Jason Schreier of Kotaku broke regarding the behind the scenes development of the game.

I recommend reading the expose which I shall link here. That said, for those already familiar with it, BioWare proved to be a mess of a development studio, with no real leadership or vision while exploiting its developers. Developers were worked to the bone, many suffering mental breakdowns and counted as “stress casualties”, a military term for soldiers suffering mental trauma! Worst yet, it appears that this wasn’t new, in fact, it was part of the “BioWare magic”, a term that now induces nausea for me.

All of this led me to re-evaluate BioWare’s entire gaming catalogue, for the worse, knowing what I do now. That said, it didn’t help Anthem one bit and the game seems to be dying quietly, which for once, I approve. Electronic Arts would do well to shut down the development studio and fire everyone in management, which I suspect it will do if the latest Dragon Age installment would prove to be a commercial flop (or not meeting “expectations” no matter how absurd they are). At this point in time I am actually rooting for BioWare’s failure considering the harm and abuse it heaped upon its employees.

Fallout 76

I am so tired of Fallout 76. I hadn’t bought it. I hadn’t played it. Yet every month I must be reminded of its continued, sinful existence due to the controversies it manufactures. I am oh so tired of even thinking about it. This attempt at a “Live Service” game from Bethesda was so ill conceived that the gall the company had to actually sell it makes my blood boil.

I am not going to start rattling off each and every controversy it generated. If I did, if I even tried, I am sure I would fill an entire novel worth of pages. There is just so many and it is all so exhausting. I don’t want to. I won’t in fact. Regardless, Fallout 76 would not stop generating headlines throughout 2019. In fact, just a few days before writing this summation it once again dominated the gaming news cycle with a new hacking controversy.

If Bethesda had any sense it would kill the game already instead of allowing it to shamble on. It won’t, though, because it can still make money off of it, and that is the honest truth. So long as its worth it, Fallout 76 will continue to exist and Todd Howard will keep showing his face in public, the lying git. God, can it be midnight already so I can down this entire champagne bottle?

Lootboxes and Battle Passes

One of the positive developments of 2019 had been the increased crackdown on lootboxes. Countries and politicians had enough of the filth of gambling in games and finally started pushing back with bans, inquires and legislation. Though its still far from being completely removed from gaming, large publishers do seem to have taken note and started shifting away from the gross business model of taking advantage of children and addicts.

That said, the new model of battle passes is coming to dominate the scene and is almost as atrocious as lootboxes. Using similar psychological manipulation, the battle pass tries to get players to invest time and, more importantly, money in “Live Service” games, shackling them to a single product. My encounter with the first battle pass in Apex Legends was quite the learning experience.

Suffice to say, battle passes are “optional” in the same way that grinding in most MMOs (Massive Multiplayer Online) is optional, i.e. not at all. They are designed to entice and entrap players with the promises of unique cosmetics and unlocks, as well as offering experience boosts. At the same time the game puts speed bumps and artificial ceilings on earned experience points so as to not allow players to complete a pass quickly, thus dictating the completion rate.

I was completely frustrated by this system. I felt both the pressure and stress it created and it managed to sour my opinion of Apex Legends, a game I love everything about except this insidious battle pass malarkey. It managed to burn me out of the game to such an extant I can’t play it as religiously as I used to anymore. Its that bad.

If this is the future large publishers envision for gaming, than I made the right call abandoning them altogether. Independent and medium sized developers have managed to fill the void the so called “AAA” games have left quite nicely. In fact, its those developers that have pushed the envelope and created some of the best games this year. If it were not for Apex Legends, I wouldn’t have actually played a single “AAA” game this year and I don’t feel bad about it.

Battle passes are just the most recent poison large publishers are trying to push down our throats to maximize their revenue and am certain plenty more games are going to be ruined by their inclusion, and many gamers hurt by their psychological manipulations. Frankly, I have no idea what to do to combat it besides what I’ve done recently and that is to simply walk away from “AAA” titles. Only time will tell if a better solution exists.

Google Stadia

When writing the initial draft for this post I completely forgotten Google Stadia. Yes, I could not recall that this year, Google once again launched a failed product that hadn’t been well thought out or developed. Google Stadia was a disaster through and through, bringing lag into single player games, which I guess could be counted as an achievement of sorts.

It was obvious the system hadn’t gone through proper testing and is years ahead of its time. As it stands, the current internet infrastructure in most of the developed world cannot support the service and it was made painfully apparent from launch. However, I will give Google credit for inventing new ways to screw gamers. Games already don’t have physical copies, making their ownership by gamers doubtful. Now with Stadia, companies in the future could finalize their vision of controlling consumer access to games and nickel and diming them for basic access to their gaming library, thus maximizing profits further.

It is a hellish, dystopian glimpse of the future of gaming, and one which will come to fruition once the technology to support it becomes more widespread. Just wait a few years. When you will be billed for every minute of Call of Duty or Battlefield you play, you would have Google to thank for pioneering this expansion of the rentier economy into our gaming world.

2019’s games

Finally we’ve made it through the worst of 2019 and into the best of it. After slugging it through controversy after controversy we can at least take solace in the few good games that the year produced. Again, as stated before, the listing is made in order of recollection rather than importance except the GOTY which I saved for last. This is because I don’t believe in numerical rankings. Please enjoy, you’ve earned it.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker

Yes, I am well aware that this game launched in 2018. However, with bug fixes and additional content, it became playable in 2019 so as far as I am concerned it counts! Regardless, you can read my review of the game here. That said, it was great to once again experience an epic fantasy game that hit all the right notes, alongside great writing and characters. That said I do want to emphasize the word “epic”, as in both in size and length. You really need a lot of time to experience the full story of Pathfinder: Kingmaker so take that in mind when purchasing a copy.

Sunless Skies

A sequel to Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies takes the great atmosphere and cosmic horror aspects of the original and transplants them into space. Everything is bigger, better and greater. It improves on the faults of the original and though it still has a few issues carried over from its predecessor, is an overall great game. I will review it in the future though I still need to finish the main story. Suffice to say, a gem you shouldn’t miss.

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2

Talking about sequels, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 was a game I dreaded playing. So good was its predecessor that I feared the sequel might not live up to the standards it set. I was (mostly) wrong and am glad for it. I had a lot of fun with this sequel, which like Sunless Skies, remembered that game sequels are about adding, improving and fixing things that didn’t work in the original game rather than cutting content and copy pasting. You can read my review of it here. Cadia still stands!

Grim Dawn

I don’t have much experience with ARPG (Action Role Playing Games) and Grim Dawn has been my first foray into them. That said, I’ve been enjoying the game’s mechanics, atmosphere, setting and writing. So far, I actually managed to advance quite further along and if it weren’t for a nice deal on Monster Hunter World, I might have finished it by now. Sadly though, I still have plenty to do in the game before I could give it a fair and comprehensive review. That said, I have enjoyed my time with it so far and hopefully will get to review it in the coming year.

Apex Legends

Yes, I still love Apex Legends. It is my favorite team based battle royale game and the only one in the genre I can stomach. I love its characters, its mechanics and its aesthetics. I abhor its battle pass which made me stop playing the game for long periods of time, burned out from the psychological pressure. It was also the only game from a large publisher that I played all year and only because it was free-to-play (though I did waste money on the first season pass). You can read my first impression here, but I still stand behind most of it. That said, I am weary of it thanks to the battle pass system.

GOTY: Pathologic 2

It had to be Pathologic 2. It just couldn’t have been any other game. The third sequel on this list, Pathologic 2 is to gaming what Shakespeare is to theater and the English language. It is one of the most thoughtful games ever created which explores many aspects, not just of human society and philosophy, but of gaming as well. When both the game and meta narratives are woven together so expertly, you know you are dealing with a masterpiece.

I don’t think there is a more important game to close this decade of gaming with than Pathologic 2. It is also a remake, so if you, like me, couldn’t get over the frustrating mechanics of the original, Pathologic 2 got you covered, allowing you to “enjoy” the story. I put quotation marks around the word enjoy because I am not sure if its fair to say that I drew something so simple as enjoyment from it.

Its a game that is hard to explain, a game that should be experienced by all and you too can read my attempt to review it on the site here. Better yet, just watch MandaloreGaming’s review (of the original and the remake) or Hbomberguy’s two hour thesis, both of which I’ll link below.

MandaloreGaming’s excellent review of the sequel

hbomberguy’s great disseration of the two Pathologic games

With this, 2019 and the 2010s are done and good riddance I say. Now brace as 2020 rolls in and new games are released, followed closely by new controversies and scandals. See you in the trenches!

Broken Mirror

What Call of Duty: Modern Warfare tells us about ourselves

Growing up I vaguely remember hearing an old Chinese fable. In the fable an emperor wishes to buy a gift to his favorite concubine and purchases the latest technological marvel – a mirror! He keeps it in a trunk so to present it in the birthday celebrations but the concubine, curious, opens the trunk and runs away in tears. When asked about it, she tells the emperor that he is cruel for bringing a new, beautiful concubine to replace her.

What I found interesting about the fable was the fact the concubine, upon seeing her own reflection, chose to flee in fear rather than explore further. Of course we could conclude that this is the place where the fable falls apart under modern scrutiny but that fact remained with me to this day, surfacing up as I looked into the controversy surrounding Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Before we go on I’d like to hang a nice disclaimer over this article: I didn’t purchase or played the new installment in the tired and creatively bankrupt franchise. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare already exists, it is arguably still a good game with a good story. There was no need, nor call, for a soft reboot which is the new installment that goes so far as to reuse the very same name. Its all a cheap marketing ploy and it is infuriating. Putting that aside, I did watch several reviews and read on the main controversy.

Skill Up in particular did a good job in covering it in depth. For those unaware, the game was banned in Russia as it depicts atrocities committed by Russian mercenaries. Now, the Russian mercenaries operating in Syria are undoubtedly ruthless war criminals, there is no need to even question that. However the game used terms and incidents which alluded or invoked atrocities committed by the United States armed forces, in particular in Iraq. Call me crazy, but appropriating American war crimes to Russian mercenaries smacks a tad wrong for me.

Of course, people were riled up by this and for a good reason. I hate historical revisionism just as much as the next guy and it seems like plenty of people were ticked off. That said, it didn’t stop the game from being another huge financial success, probably helped, and not hindered, by the controversy. Activision made a quick cost analysis comparing the United States market, still one of the most wealthy and influential one world wide, and the Russian one, a cratering economy with currency that is only worthwhile as kindling, and made the right decision. Well, not the morally or ethically right one, but considering it was rewarded with a shower of cash kind of invalidates the other two, no?

In his review Skill Up continues to delve into the game’s story and mechanics, portraying a work that attempts to be edgy and norms breaking while at the same time being safe and predictable. This is no surprise for me. You are not going to shift millions of units by showing American imperialism as it is; a ruthless, brutal and cowardly subjugation of countries where state of the art technology is used to bomb civilians back to the stone age while snipers terrorize the survivors and shoot at ambulances and medics. That might confront the target audience with the horrors their country perpetuates. Instead the Americans are framed as the good guys who are held back by politics from doing the right thing and go rogue to help plucky resistance fighters stop the mean Russians. I want to remind people this was also the plot of Rambo 3, in which the Taliban were portrayed as the heroes. Gotta love the 80s.

Half way through the review, Skill Up surprises the viewer and shifts from Call of Duty: Revisionist Warfare and into Spec Ops: The Line review. I love Spec Ops: The Line, though love may not be the right word for it. Is there a word that encapsulates respect while being depressed and horrified? Well, Spec Ops: The Line is one of my top 10 favorite games and a game every gamer should play once, ONLY once. It is a game that takes the generic American military power fantasy and forces the player to confront its actual bloody cost. Emphasis on bloody. It doesn’t pull any punches and is so soul crushing that by the end you feel completely drained of emotion.

I understand why Skill Up juxtaposed the two games. In a way Spec Ops: The Line is the game Call of Duty: American War Crimes’ writing attempts to be. At least that would be a generous reading of it. In reality, mister Skill Up is quite mistaken since Call of Duty: Abu Ghraib isn’t art. It is a commercial product aimed at teenagers and young adults who like power fantasies. Its ambition from the start was not to explore human misery and suffering but to sell as many copies as possible. Thus comparing it to Spec Ops: The Line smacks a tad of missing the point. Call of Duty: Guantanamo Bay was always going to have an insipid story whitewashing American war crimes whether its writers wanted it to or not. Because that is what shifts the most units.

I keep going back again and again to the financial motive. The reason is simple: The decision to white wash American war crimes in Call of Duty: Bay of Pigs is a conscious decision by Activision in order to maximize their profits. I already showed the economic rationale for alienating one market in order to profit from a much larger, more lucrative one. As much as I’d like to finger wag at Activision for such a despicable move I find myself neither outraged or surprised. After all, Activision simply made the choice that was the most profitable for it, and in our economic system, that is the only ethical choice for a multi national entertainment corporation.

As written before, their decision has already been validated by the sales of Call of Duty: IranContra. Its basically the only parameter measuring righteousness in a capitalist society. If the game had flopped, that had meant the market rejected this revisionist, power fantasy, cold war fever dream of a game. However by all indications this game is a stellar success, one befitting an entertainment juggernaut. There is a reason that for all its faults and dips in quality, the Call of Duty series continues to dominate the military first person shooter genre. I don’t really blame Activision for revising history either. Sure its a horrible thing to do and there should be a special circle of hell for historical revisionists, but it didn’t do it to advance an agenda like most politicians do, so much as to secure its profits. Because Activision knows its core demographic, especially in the western hemisphere, and it knows what would placate it and convince it to shell 60$ for its Reagan era rejected action movie Hollywood script.

This is the reason why the revision was made. Not because Activision hates the Russians, pretty sure if the situation was reversed it would have placated the Kremlin instead. No, the revision was made to appease the consumers because shining a light on the atrocities committed by the United States armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to name just two RECENT examples, would alienate them. Making a Spec Ops: The Line story with the sleek Call of Duty: My Lai Massacre mechanics is an appealing dream, but a dream nonetheless because there is no financial incentive for Activision to make it. Spec Ops: The Line, as excellent as it is, was still a cult classic. The word ‘cult’ should alert the reader to the small scale of success it garnered. Though financially successful, there is a reason why we have 20 iterations of Call of Duty yet no sequel to Spec Ops: The Line.

Skill Up of course was somewhat aware of the fact. In the video he admitted that the original developers of Spec Ops: The Line are currently working not on a sequel but a battle royale style game because that is whats popular, and its understandable. The studio has to make a profit for the publishers and thus its work will always aim to appease the largest consumer base and often adhere to the current trends. Anyone wishing for Call of Duty to be for once, subversive, were simply deluding themselves.

By now a theme emerges. Developers and publishers are trying to please consumers in order to make a profit. In that pursuit, they are willing to launder war crimes just to appease a segment of that consumer base, even if it means alienating other, lesser segments. Yet I absolved said developers and publishers from fault. Why? Well, going back to the fable of the concubine and the mirror, its the consumers who run away in tears when forced to confront the crimes of their fellow country people.

Numerating the crimes of the American empire is a long and arduous task better suited to smarter creators than myself. Renegade Cut in particular has done many great videos on the subject and I highly recommend watching their channel. That said, there is no escaping the subject when talking about Call of Duty: Dresden, the latest in a series of games that aims mostly for a North American audience, as it is both the birthplace of the series and the main market for its products. It is no coincidence either that a military first person shooter would revolve around a country which instigated the most wars in recent history while committing the most war crimes. The War on Terror has been raging non stop since 2001 and has a conservative death toll nearing a million people, mostly civilian. Reconciling this with escapist fantasy is impossible. Which is why Activision didn’t try. It chose to handwave it away because its audience would not be able to stomach it.

This is after all a basic human coping mechanism. Ignoring or denying the evils in our societies allows us to live a more comfortable life of ignorance. So long as we erect these walls we can pretend that the real human cost doesn’t concern us. Facts like our taxation funding civilian bombing or our consumerism allowing for sweatshops and modern slavery to prosper don’t register and dampen our spirit when we ignore them. How much more terrible would life be if one constantly thought about the human misery one created by simply existing and participating in modern society. I know that as a person with high anxiety and depression I’d probably break down into a sobbing heap of a man if I had to contemplate this every waking moment.

So I don’t, and neither most people. We go about our lives repressing that knowledge or, if our environment already built protective walls, completely oblivious of it. Any media that will seek to break through and undermine this blissful existence will, most often, be shunned. How many people ignored the horrors of the Vietnam war because it didn’t sit comfortably with them. How many ignored what happened in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and so forth. This is of course not a uniquely American situation either. Being born and raised in Israel, we were rarely, if ever, confronted by the horrors our government afflicted the Palestinians. The media rarely reported on the cost of our aggression to the Palestinians. Even today we devote far less time to the suffering of people in the Gaza strip as to the suffering of Israeli citizens living next to it, never asking how did things get to this point.

The worst part is not the discomfort, but the feeling of losing your foundation. Everything you thought you knew suddenly becomes a lie. Everything you were so certain of, was just an illusion. It can have a real traumatizing effect on people. Worse yet is the anger, an anger that often can’t find an outlet because the people that perpetuated most of this scam are either long dead or beyond your reach. You are adrift, rudderless and unsure if there are any safe ports in this suddenly hostile world. Why wouldn’t you just repress it all, forget these revelations and go back to a life of joyful consumption.

Corporations know this. They play along with it, they feed it and reap the rewards in a gruesome symbiotic relationship. They sell us the power fantasies we crave, assuring us that we are in the right, we are in the clear and our nation, so long as its a primary market, is the good guys. So long as its profitable for them, the large publishers and developers won’t change a thing. Its amoral, certainly, but its not immoral because we buy it. We absolve these companies from responsibility by constantly purchasing these games. No wonder critics may tire of it, but for the population at large its exactly what they want, what they crave.

That is the real issue that Skill Up and other critics can’t or won’t contend with. The success of Call of Duty: Hiroshima is proof that people want the same fantasy, the same reassuring piece of stale media to reinforce their beliefs about the world, beliefs partially formed by said media. They don’t want to be challenged by the media they consume. Simple as that. Thus, better, more complex and grey stories are often rejected by the mainstream audience. They don’t want to think about the complexity of morality and righteousness in a world where such terms are near impossible to define. No, they want to be reassured that their side is right, even when its not. Otherwise they won’t purchase the game, and Activision will lose a cash cow. Can’t do that so more of the regular slop.

In a recent article Martin Scorsese lamented the death of cinema and the rise of theme park commercial movies. While the film maker was much maligned for diagnosing correctly that Marvel movies were not cinema, i.e. high art, he was wrong in diagnosing the reason for their prevalence in popular culture. Its not that the Hollywood system now churns these empty spectacles for audiences thus teaching them to enjoy a flavorless product, but rather that the successful studios were those that catered for that exact taste. It may be a bitter pill to swallow but in reality most people go to the cinema to see a blockbuster movie filled with explosions and recognizable plot points and villains and heroes that are easy to recognize and understand. The studios producing these movies are the most successful thus able to produce more of them, a basic economic fact in our late stage capitalist world. The same goes for Call of Duty: Nagasaki.

Once we are willing to look at the mirror and see the faults in ourselves, we will be able to enjoy a much richer, more complex world of mainstream games. Until then we’d have to satisfy such hunger with the scrapes smaller studios attempt to provide. However Call of Duty: Highway of Death won’t do it since it has no incentive to do so. Because under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption.

The Blizzcon

Never a more fitting name

I always found it an interesting quirk of the English language to shorten the word convention into con, which can also be read as the word meaning a scheme to defraud people. In 2019 the two readings merged together in the Blizzard Entertainment convention, or Blizzcon for short. And what a con it was.

There is no need to repeat the fact that Activision-Blizzard banned a Hearthstone player for expressing support for the Hong Kong protests, along with destroying the careers of the two casters that allowed him to do so. There is no need, but I feel like we should keep it in mind. Activision-Blizzard did this to appease the Chinese government, an authoritarian regime that is curtailing basic human rights for minorities, occupies a sovereign nation and is all around corrupt. Again, something to remember.

Thus this year’s Blizzcon was put under the shadow of the Hong Kong protests and the Chinese government’s overreach in silencing western voices supporting said protests. Thankfully some real gamers and activists organized to protest the convention throughout the weekend, but overall they were not successful in stopping gaming news outlets from throwing themselves at Activision-Blizzard’s feet in printing non apologies and soft ball interviews while rushing to regurgitate the public relations spiel that the entire convention is set around.

I am not going to reprint the obvious lies that Blizzard Entertainment’s president, who is a fascist bootlicker and thus dubbed fascist bootlicker #13581234 in this piece, spouted in his commencement speech and subsequent interviews. Repeating the lie, even to debunk it, merely strengthens it as it disseminates it to the greater public. Instead I will simply distill the central claims and explain just how moronic they truly are.

There are three main points in fascist bootlicker #13581234’s babble: Activision-Blizzard apologizes for getting caught suppressing free speech, Activision-Blizzard supports free speech so long as it advertises its product and Activision-Blizzard would like you all to shut the fuck up about Hong Kong. These are the main takeaways.

The first is quite clear. Fascist bootlicker #13581234 droned on and on about how much bad Activision-Blizzard were in handling the entire affair and how “sorry” they were. Not sorry enough to unban Blitzchung and restore the casters, mind you, just sorry everyone made a stink about it. What really stuck out for me was the fact he called Activision-Blizzard’s actions “hasty” in banning and “slow” in explaining the reasons for the ban. Now call me crazy but a multinational corporation with thousands of employees and dedicated community managers takes two(!) full days before banning a player for advocating for basic human rights sounds quite on the slow side for me. As a discord server moderator I’d be remiss not to ban people within 12 hours of committing an offense, and I’m quite lazy.

Of course you can chuck it to Activision-Blizzard having fired 800 employees, many of them in the community management department, earlier this year. They then re-listed the positions to hire cheaper labor who wouldn’t be getting benefits and pay raises associated with veterancy. Classy.

As part of the apology, fascist bootlicker #13581234 threw their Chinese partners under the bus, saying the propaganda post in Chinese social media was unauthorized by the main office. This is an old trick of business partners pretending to disagree and publicly feud in order to appease their respective audiences. The Chinese company gets to be patriotic and Activision-Blizzard gets to pretend to western audiences that it doesn’t support the message.

If Activision-Blizzard really didn’t agree with it, fascist bootlicker #13581234 could have asked the message to be rescinded and the Chinese company apologize for acting without Activision-Blizzard’s permission but it didn’t, and it wasn’t. This is quite evident through both companies’ actions. The fact is, Blitzchung and the casters are still banned and that is all the evidence you need for Activision-Blizzard’s tacit approval of the post.

The second point regards the principle of freedom speech which is so enshrined in Activision-Blizzard’s conduct that they banned a player for using it. Now, fascist bootlicker #13581234 was quick to hide behind technical legalities when broaching the subject. Blitzchung technically broke the tournament rules by doing the unthinkable of using videogame tournaments to advocate for basic human rights rather than the consumption of more product. Quite the sin in the eyes of a corporation only interested in the bottom line. Worse, these human rights clashed with the opportunity to make money from the lucrative Chinese market so…

I’ll admit that breaking rules and guidelines should carry repercussions and not all speech should be tolerated BUT, and it is a huge but, advocating for basic human rights is the kind of rule infringement you gloss over. Sure, in the most literal interpretation of the law a felony was committed and punishment must be meted out but we don’t live in fucking ivory towers but in the grimey reality filled with grey areas and human rights abuses. I mean, come on, how much of a coward must you be to hide behind the technicality of rules and guidelines that you yourself write and change all the time!?

This of course side steps the bigger issue in which claiming neutrality or enforcing rules that help silence protest against an authoritarian regime is aiding that regime. That is the truth fascist bootlicker #13581234 obfuscated with his shameless rhetoric. The fact still stands that Activision-Blizzard aided an authoritarian regime to silence protest of said regime. No amount of empty platitudes and legalese can distract from that fact.

Which leads us to the last point. Activision-Blizzard tried to downplay the entire affair because in reality it needs the Chinese market. The company, like any major corporation in late stage capitalism, needs to continuously grow its bottom line or investors pull out, causing the stock to crash and heads to roll, often those of senior management who already amassed a fortune (woe to them /s). Chasing those profits, it will and have partnered with despotic regimes for the sole purpose of increasing revenue. Cost benefit evaluations found that principles get in the way of making profits and moral stances don’t really help grow a consumer base.

I used the word consumer because that is what it looks for. People to buy its products. The sin of Blitzchung in the company’s eyes was to jeopardize the growth of said consumer base by blacklisting the company from a huge untapped market. Thus he was made an example of. This is also why Activision-Blizzard pulled all the stops and showcased Diablo IV and Overwatch II, hoping to dazzle its consumers and the gaming press into reporting on these announcements alongside the non apology rather than the protests outside of the convention, and it worked.

Which is the con. The entire event was nothing short of a marketing ploy to sell product to people who, truth be told, are nothing if not die hard fans who tie their identity to the product. They were marks looking to be scammed and fascist bootlicker #13581234 provided. He gave all the empty words to assuage their guilt as they shelled out the money to participate in a hype machine that sees them in the most dehumanizing terms; Whales, dolphins, targets. Not people, not thinking, feeling human beings. Just product to be squeezed for cash and sold to investors as revenue potential.

Some dissented. Shouting here and there for Hong Kong’s protest. More stood outside the convention center and protested. Too few. The vast majority bought the snake oil fascist bootlicker #13581234 was selling them so they may consume product for the sake of consuming product. If it wasn’t so tragic it would have been funny.

That is the rub. The entire convention is manufactured hype created by public relation ghouls to generate “buzz” for the product so that idiots would buy it, oblivious to the many many failings of modern Blizzard Entertainment as a developer. It has to be said that it was also insulting in its announcements considering Diablo IV was already confirmed nearly a year ago after the previous debacle (do you not have phones!?) and Overwatch II is a sequel to a flagging game that is already fading from public perception, replaced by a trendy game that is destined itself to be replaced by some other vacuous creation.

The fans of course ate it up, and why wouldn’t they. After all, they are fans and as I wrote before, nothing more terrible exists than a videogame fan.

All in all Blizzcon 2019 was exactly what I thought it would be, and what everyone else should have expected – a non event. A complete waste of time and resources for everyone involved. Morons cheered for information they already had, conscientious people tried to remind soulless consumers of possessing an actual heart and fascist bootlickers lied and hid behind legal technicalities. Even writing this article is a waste of my own time.

That said writing this article I was reminded of when Blizzard Entertainment helped United States law enforcement agencies in tracking down criminals through their World of Warcraft logins. I hope the idiots that keep supporting Activision-Blizzard remember this the next time they make a joke about China or Xi Jinping. Wouldn’t want to lose those Battlenet accounts. Not that it matters to me because I already deleted mine so I can call Xi Jinping a fat miserable fuck who has a small knob which is why he feels the need to oppress his subjects. Also that he looks like Winnie the Pooh.

Oppressive Greed

The Rubicon was crossed, in more ways than one

It took me a while to get to the Blizzard keffeful (certainly a word I don’t get to use often!). I have been going over it again and again, trying to understand it. Not Blizzard’s decision, mind you, that is easy to understand, painfully so. No, what I was trying to understand was the shock and surprise many expressed on YouTube and social media. If anything did surprise me was the amount of pushback Blizzard actually got.

If you’ve been living under a rock (and if you have, do you have a spare room?) the entire episode involved Blizzard banning a Hearthstone player for expressing support for the Hong Kong protests as well as the tournament commentators that allowed him to express said support. The ban was quite severe, stripping the player of his rank in the game, banning him for an entire year and denying him his rightfully won prize money. Effectively, they destroyed his career in response to supporting basic human rights. Similar fates befell the commentators. What a class act.

While Blizzard would soften some of the punishment due to public outrage and political pressure as politicians saw an opportunity to score some publicity out of the event, the underlying reality hadn’t really changed. Blizzard used its power to silence a protest against an authoritarian regime oppressing the people of Hong Kong. It signaled that human rights and freedoms are against their flimsily enforced EULA. In effect, it sided with the Chinese government against the very people struggling to protect their rights. How can I emphasize this enough!?

Some view this as crossing the Rubicon, the historical event where Julius Caesar led his legions south of the river to occupy Rome, destroying the Roman republic and installing what would become a tyrannical regime over the generations. I always squirm at historical analogies but if we really had to call attention to this pivotal moment, I am afraid that ship, as they say, already sailed long ago. Large publishers have crossed the Rubicon so many times by now that you might as well pave over it and install a toll booth to generate some revenue.

Try to understand that as reprehensible Blizzard’s actions are, they are merely the logical end point of a corporation obsessed with profit. For such a corporation, anything that aids in the creation and accumulation of money for its investors and shareholders is kosher. Selling out human rights for Chinese Yuan is just increasing the bottom line for the quarter one in the financial year. If anything, the suits in Blizzard did what was right for the company by banning Blitzchung, they protected their bottom line.

While you are shocked about Blitzchung’s banning, where were you when publishers gutted games to sell already produced content on the first day of the game’s launch, in effect shipping games with locked content on the disc! Where were you when publishers introduced loot boxes to videogames, bringing gambling mechanics into a space populated by children and teenagers that were actively targeted by the mechanic. Not to mention many addicts and psychologically vulnerable people who were preyed upon by loot boxes. Worse yet, these loot boxes often gutted long established content from games (such as cosmetics) in order to sell it for hard cash. Later on they also aided in the introduction of grind into more and more games as loot boxes started offering solutions like skill boosters and in-game currency to skip said grind. Do you see the psychological manipulation on full display yet?

How about online passes which attempted to curtail the used games market, basically penalizing people for purchasing them and trying to force them to buy new copies. How about all the special edition faff (another great word!) that is cheaply produced but steeply sold and in recent years turned into a tiered system of special editions which literally gate content and access according to price. What about the patents publishers filed for various matchmaking systems designed to psychologically pressure players into purchasing microtransactions?

I could go on as these are just a few examples I could remember from the top of my head. There are plenty more over the years in which publishers schemed to drain the public of their hard earned cash. After all, these corporations don’t produce anything. They are not game developers making art. They are financiers, investing in game development then packaging the final product and marketing it for profit. The amount the developers then get is dependent on contracts but the bigger publishers often buy development studios in order to control that as well. Blizzard is not an independent entity but joined in the hip to Activision, one of the worst publishers around whose CEO has often been compared to the devil himself, which is an insult to the devil who at least can disguise his lack of humanity.

Once you see it through that prism its not that hard to understand the rationale behind the bans. The upper echelons in Activision-Blizzard made a cost benefit assessment. They believed they’d lose x amount of players in the west while gain y amount of players in China and so they dropped the ban hammer because it would be more profitable for them. Trying to appeal to their moral or ethical side is as much a waste of time as shouting at the wall, with even less satisfaction, because morality and ethics don’t increase profits. Hbomberguy demonstrated this through his analysis of “Woke” brands.

Not to mention that the people making the decisions, those in upper management, are not part of the same social circles as the rest of us plebs are. The investors and CEOs are often extremely rich individuals who are insulated from the moral outcome of the practices they implement in their “content” thanks to that extreme wealth. Google any major publishing CEO’s net worth and you would not be disappointed. These people don’t view gamers as people but as wallets to be milked. Whatever they decide which negatively impacts our hobby they won’t suffer from. If anything their wealth and position makes them more sympathetic to the likes of the Chinese government than the people of Hong Kong fighting for their freedom. After all, they belong to the same class as the rulers of China and its top officials, not the grubby proletariat trying to escape the daily grind of life with some electronic entertainment.

This is the sad truth. Gamers are the real commodity for these companies, and investors are funneling money into them not on the back of strong game catalogues or artistic merit but on how well these companies monetize said gamers. This is what drives investment analysis and the wild share price swings. Its sickening, but it doesn’t make this any less true.

At this point, the few of you who actually read my column are probably feeling hopeless and it is understandable. The system is literally rigged against us. However it doesn’t have to be. Outside of moral outrage and making noise on social media, there is something gamers can do to fight the abuse and blatant corruption. We can start campaigns of conscience to bring light to these abuses. We can pressure politicians in western democracies to actually legislate and regulate these companies, We can vote to elect politicians whose platforms will include such reforms. We can keep the issue alive and in the minds of gamers and mainstream media and force such a reckoning. It is also useful to remind people large publishers avoid paying taxes, sometimes at all, thanks to tax loopholes that should be erased.

Only through strict regulation will these companies do what is right, because as we’ve seen before, they won’t otherwise. It was government action and threats of more regulation that has caused them recently to pivot away from loot boxes. They should all still pay for the people whose lives and savings they ruined with their addictive mechanics. They should pay for silencing the people of Hong Kong. They should pay. It is up to us to make them pay their fair share.

Get political, because Activision-Blizzard already proved that the large publishers are political, and their politics of greed puts them squarely on the side of tyrants and oppressors. Remember, they will sell you without a moment of remorse, so show them no mercy.

#FreeHongKong #RevolutionofourAge

Yet You Live in a Society

Social media exposes some of the deep issues in the gaming community

The day started well enough. I woke up early for a change, had a lovely cup of tea then left the house to take care of all my errands. By the time I came back and sat at my desk I had bought some freshly baked croissants from my favorite bakery alongside a can of cola, my only guilty pleasure. All in all, quite a good morning. Then checking Discord notifications I found out I was tagged in one of the servers I acted as a staffer on. Curious, I checked the message and kissed my pleasant morning goodbye.

The message was quite short; a simple taunt of “hey dumbass” and a link to a reddit thread concerning Apex Legends. I didn’t dig too deep but apparently there is a current controversy regarding the newest season, its monetization and the way its community team and lead developers had been addressing community dissent. I say these things because I really, really, and I don’t know how I can stress this enough, really don’t care. I don’t care because I’ve already been burnt out from the previous season and am currently not playing Apex Legends. Since the end of that season, I have been alternating between cRPGs (Pathfinder:Kingmaker) and grand strategy (Hearts of Iron IV, Europa Universalis IV and a bit of Stellaris) games and haven’t kept up with things.

I don’t hide the fact I love Apex Legends. It is my favorite game in the battle royale genre. I like the characters (especially Wraith), mechanics, feel and visual of the game. I enjoy playing it; alone or with friends and though I haven’t touched it in months, I may go back to it at some point in the future. That said, that doesn’t mean I agree with or have to defend the game and its creators, especially when they misstep or are just plainly wrong.

Like I stated above, I haven’t dug deep into this new controversy. I just read the titles of some of the videos I saw in my feed and listened to one or two of them briefly. Since I have no interest in the game at the moment, I have no interest in hearing about it either. From what I did gather, Apex Legends’ playerbase is up in arms after being squeezed for extra dollars during the current season since Electronic Arts is desperate for some cash and Respawn Entertainment is getting the much deserved backlash, prompting its lead developer to rant about entitled gamers. Am I right? Am I wrong? I don’t really care as I wrote before. It doesn’t really interest me at the moment and I don’t have much of a voice or influence to do anything about it. Sorry folks, I have other things on my mind.

So why was I tagged? Well, I’d assume part of it was because in that discord server (which is an EVE Online discord server mind you) I’m known both for loving Apex Legends and being a salty asshole who often calls out people for well-deserved reasons. I am not going to defend myself. I wish I was a nicer person but I am quite the unpleasant individual when it comes to EVE Online and its byzantine politics and tribalist mindset. I’m certain the individual saw an opportunity to piss me off and frankly succeeded. I did tag them back later on and wrote a litany of profanities just to clarify my stance on the subject. Setting that aside, this whole event made me think a little about the reasons behind tagging me to begin with. What was their grand design?.

I am guessing the person thought linking the reddit thread would act as a “Gotcha” moment, that rare proof that obliterates the opposition – the smoking gun, the vial of poison, the killer’s gloves. The reality though, is quite different. There was no “Gotcha”, since I didn’t read the story nor was in the loop. It did annoy me enough to illicit a response but not a constructive one and my stance regarding Apex Legends hasn’t really changed. I enjoyed the hours I put into the game so far. Whether or not the game developers are literally idiots who don’t understand how to foster good community relations is not going to change my mind about my past experiences. So why link it? Why try and antagonize me? The question kept bothering me.

I pointed out before the tribalistic nature of EVE Online, but in reality the same can be said for gaming in general. Many people will have their favorite games, games they may not be good at, but still feel are part of their identity. They build communities around them and incorporate them into said identity. I read and often hear “I am an X or Y player”. This denotes their “allegiance”, their “loyalty”. This declaration will often precede a defense of a game or an attack on a competitor or some other game that perhaps encroaches on the territory of their chosen game. That identity is important to them after all, and they must protect it.

In a way it does seem silly. After all, a game is a game, not real life. Yet these people derive some of their self worth from those games. After all, they are key parts of their identity. They are gamers who in the gaming culture are part of a “tribe” be it first person shooters, grand strategy players, or your run of the mill fast clicking simulators also known as real time strategy games. Some of these games though can be quite bad. Some of them, especially due to the state of game development and publishing in our current time, can be downright broken. Fallout 76 and Anthem are just two recent examples and there are sadly more I could probably find if I tried looking at previous years. I don’t think it’s a crime to love these games. After all people like The Room and that is a terrible movie whose appeal I never understood. Some people can like bad art. It’s a matter of personal taste and if they can derive enjoyment from it. I don’t see a reason to look down on them for liking such games.

The problem starts when people attack others for highlighting the flaws in those games. Fallout 76 is a bad game on every conceivable level, and yet some people defend it so vehemently to a worrying degree. They dismiss any criticism as being biased or unprofessional. They refuse to reckon with reality because it doesn’t just threaten their enjoyment of the game, but their whole identity. They invested their self worth in the game, being fans of the series and accepting its awfulness would be tantamount to admitting their own diminished status. They can’t accept it so they attack the sources of criticisms. When you don’t have a defensible claim, attack the legitimacy of the critics. It’s laughable, for sure but sadly all too commonplace. I see it everywhere in the gaming space. Because in gaming, you must have a winner and a loser.

This is the other part of the equation. Identity and self worth are derived from the game, but that game is in competition with others in its genre and the general gaming landscape. It’s an artificial competition created by publishers who wish to sell more copies of a game. Seeing these nascent communities, publishers and their public relations firms recognized their potential and hijacked them. They turned them into marketing ploys, supercharging the player base by using the games themselves against them. Skinner boxes and achievement bars, collectables and collector’s editions, not to mention the foisted sense of competition with other big named franchises. They created rabid fans by rewarding the most loyal, the most determined, and released them to the wild.

It’s no wonder these fans now see attacking one another as acceptable. The woes of the fans of one game is the joy of the fans of its rival. Especially in oversaturated markets, often in popular genres like battle royale currently is, the rivalry is quite mean and destructive. I remember playing Playerunknown Battlegrounds and seeing many deride Fortnite players as being children or childish due to its flashy graphics and cartoony art style. Even though Playerunknown Battlegrounds is a grey buggy mess that for me at least, was a tedious and frustrating game to play. Not that Fortnite enticed me either. In fact, I wrote the whole genre off until Apex Legends arrived on stage.

This brings us full circle. Apex Legends, let’s be fair, combined the hero shooter genre with the battle royale one to make a unique game that had plenty of energy and style. Unlike some of its competition it was free to play and launched in a perfect technical state which had sadly become an outlier rather than the norm. It was fun for me to play and I even reviewed it favorably. Do I regret that review? No, I stand behind it. At the time it was exactly as I described it and the memories I have of it are filled with tense firefights and hard won victories. That said, I can love a game and critique it. I can enjoy it and acknowledge its developers’ abhorrent behavior.

This is the crux of the matter. After showing my love and devotion to the game, it became, at least for others, embedded in my identity. They never asked me if I defined myself by the game, instead they assumed so. The moment the opportunity presented itself they couldn’t stop themselves from trying to “humiliate” me for my preferences.They thought they were “showing” me how hypocritical I was for liking a game whose developers and monetization had gone out of control. In their mind, admitting to this, accepting this was tantamount to betrayal. It was conceding defeat and thus making them morally superior to me because their games, thus their identity, wasn’t tarnished by a recent controversy. It is as childish and infantile as it sounds. Which is what really infuriates me.

Because it is these people whose fanboy mentality helps maintain the status quo in gaming, one where publishers hold all the cards and us players are but cattle to be exploited for the real customers – the investors. It’s those people that engage in fanbase wars that help no one and only further entrench developers and publishers into certain niches to peddle the same game over and over year after year. It’s those people who tried to silence critique of their favorite games by claiming various things from media bias to reviewers not being “good” at the games. It’s this slavish devotion to franchises that helped normalize many a horrible practice in video games. From microtransactions that “support the developers” (citation needed motherfuckers), the explosion of useless tat in collectors’ editions that themselves became tiered, incomplete products that would be patched later but were forgotten because “road maps” (ask the Anthem fanbase how is that working out for them, the whole two that are left) and so forth. Any criticism, any dissent and you were labeled anti gamer. You had to accept these practices or else these frankly inferior products compared to previous generations would cease to exist (good!). If all else failed, if all the excuses were brushed away for the flimsy webs of deceit they were, they’d turn the responsibility back to you. How can you critique the industry if you take part in it, by either consuming its products or earning money from writing about it. How can you critique society if you are part of it?

This conjured in my mind the famous comic strip. It is infamous to say the least and often used to bash anyone whose defense against a critique of a system is the fact those who levy that criticism participate in it, either blinded or willfully ignoring the fact that there is often no alternative to that system. I’ve seen it plenty on social media, and sadly in real life as well. Time after time these people think themselves clever for pointing out that since we participate in broken systems just to survive or enjoy the few things in life that can actually give us joy, that any critique meant to improve them is meaningless because “You live in a society!” like the clever kids they are. It is a self-assuring nihilism. If you point out such things, then nothing can be better and thus doing nothing is justified. Why struggle when the result will be the same regardless? A sickening justification of doing nothing.

In the end though, the reality is that these people had surrendered from the start. They weren’t, and still aren’t willing to fight for what is right because that is troublesome, risky not to mention unpredictable. They either benefit from the system (their so called status and mediocre games) or learned to tolerate it like the sheep they are and any danger for this status quo threatens them as well (how will I be an elite gamer otherwise!?). They are the worst part of the community for telling the rest of us to stop struggling, stop complaining, critiquing and striving for better video games, better work conditions for developers and actual legal oversight on lootboxes.

To these people, sorry but I am part of society, which is why I fight to make it better, because I care about it since I participate in it. This is why I’ll keep critiquing, keep calling out things and obviously support any action that teaches Respawn Entertainment and Electronic Arts that they can’t abuse their community with shitty monetizations. If you aren’t going to help me then stay out of my way because I have no time for your cowardice. Why don’t you go and buy more lootboxes, maybe one of them will contain your balls/ovaries. Also next time explain WHY YOU TAGGED ME TO BEGIN WITH. Maybe then I won’t have to write 2000 word articles like this!

Featured image taken from The Nib and is the property of Matt Bors

Civilization Decline

The Sid Meier’s Civilization series is reaching its inevitable end

In previous drafts of this article I apologized for the clickbait headline but this time I decided not to. Partly because my childish mind finds it clever in a ‘13 year old’ kind of logic. Partly because I keep writing and deleting this article. What should have been a simple write up turned into a hellish week and a half of multiple drafts.

The difficulty comes from the subject matter. It took me several writing attempts to come to terms with what really bugged me with the Sid Meier’s Civilization series, and how that feeling came to be. In a way, it was shocking. The sort of revelation that had it occurred in a different field of my life would be life altering. However since it revolved around an aging and frankly, dying, computer game franchise had little importance.

The main problem the series always had was a lack of personality. I know that sounds a tad ludicrous. A turn based strategy game having “personality”? Sounds silly, I know. In reality though, games do have personality. It is born from a combination of factors such as graphics, art style (do not confuse the two!), dialogue, story, characters, voice acting, actual game mechanics and so forth. All of these come together to create the game’s “personality”. It is this personality that made me fall in love with Starcraft and Total Annihilation to name a few. It was the complete lack of it that made me drop long time series like Command and Conquer and its spin off Red Alert (why are the third installments always so horrendous?).

The Civilization series has always lacked a personality. In the past, that didn’t really matter since it had little to no competition. After all, the Civilization series was a trail blazer in its inception, putting turn based strategy on the map along with few other games. As time went on though, the Civilization series remained more or less the same while the landscape around it shifted and changed.

I am not going to sit here and claim the series itself hadn’t changed as well. It has certainly polished and further developed its mechanics, making leaps and bounds between certain entries. Graphics had certainly improved, so did the strategic depth to some degree. Tactical gameplay was even added with the removal of the dreaded “death stacks” (the ability to pile many units on the same tile and just demolish everything in their path) and unit upgrades. On the whole the series is far better mechanically and graphically than its previous iterations, but that is a given.

In a way, modern Civilization games remind me of an Ikea showroom or a trophy display case. Cold, alien and really boring. Sure it is well constructed and can be even impressive to watch when its all set in place like in the catalogue. Yet once you try to actually live in it or mess with it a bit, thats when things pretty much fall apart.

It wouldn’t have mattered much to me that current Civilization games are so mediocre, had it not been for Mandalore gaming’s review of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri is pretty much, hands down, the best game ever to come out of the Civilization series. A spin off published in 1999 which was revolutionary for its time. It is a game I still play from time to time to enjoy good story telling, characters and an imaginative world.

I am not going to review the whole game, instead I’ll add a link below to the original review by Mandalore. Of course, seeing an old review wasn’t really what brought me to re-evaluate the entire Civilization series. It was the tacked on review of Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth. If you are an Alpha Centauri fan, you would understand the hype that surrounded the game. We had been starving for years for a continuation, or at least an overhaul, of the original Alpha Centauri game into the modern mechanics of Sid Meier’s Civilization V. Civilization: Beyond Earth looked just like that. In the end though, all that hype led to disillusionment and anger at that product we were sold. It was no Alpha Centauri, just a re-skin of Civilization V with the barbarians changed into aliens and everything else being generic to the point of maddening.

Mandalore’s review (highly recommend)

Remembering that colossal failure really brought home just how generic and bland the Civilization series had become, or perhaps had always been. That sort of crystallizing moment where everything falls into place and you finally grasp the bigger picture. Civilization games had always been soulless, mechanical creations devoid of personality. Whatever fun features they had (like the palace that morphed with player achievements) were sandblasted away to deliver the most generic, safe experience. I can’t find real fault with Civilization V or Civilization VI’s core gameplay, but nowadays I can’t find any reason to play them either.

Its a scary thing, to outgrow a series you loved as a kid and as a teen, but it seems like Civilization has nothing really to offer me or any of my friends. We’ve moved on to games that either have more personality or are more mechanically complex. I’ve spent more time playing Paradox Interactive games or re-visiting older iterations such as Alpha Centauri. It is a sign of the times that I couldn’t bring myself to play more than an hour of Civilization V for the purposes of this article. As for purchasing a copy of Civilization VI, I couldn’t justify that to myself. Thankfully I had played a bit on a friend’s copy but overall it just didn’t capture my attention the same way Stellaris or Hearts of Iron IV do these days.

So why the anger, I asked myself? Why am I angry that these games that I loved no longer measure up to present standards? Why am I attacking their character, exposing them as nothing but mechanical constructs lacking a soul? Why am I so bitter about all of this? Well the answer had been provided a few paragraphs before. Because Alpha Centauri exists.

If you watched Mandalore’s review, you’d have seen that Alpha Centauri has the thing Civilization games lacked – Personality. The game oozes it. From the design of the factions, the datalink monologues which are superbly voice acted, the secret project’s (wonder equivalent) videos and base buildings, all of it creates it. Add to it the monument view, an actual story and the alien lifeforms being more than just mere nuisances, and you get a game that earns its place in gaming’s hall of fame. That game came out 20 years ago and seemed to promise not just a new direction for the series, but revolutionary features (such as complex unit customization).

I wrote before that Alpha Centauri was revolutionary for its time, and it certainly was. Sadly though,it didn’t prove to be the series’ French revolution, but rather the 1848 revolution (high brow history joke). In all seriousness, Alpha Centauri’s features never seemed to translate back to the rest of the series, which quickly abandoned it to focus on sandblasting every unique feature so it would all be smooth and easy to learn and generic.

In a conversation with my brother he highlighted that fact to me. Playing a civilization in Civilization V or Civilization VI is meaningless because outside of a couple of unique units, a unique building and a bonus or two, they are all interchangeable. What separates say Russia from Egypt? Egypt can build wonders faster while Russia gets more strategic resources. Compare that to the difference between the Spartans and the University in Alpha Centauri. Each faction had an ideology behind it which could be felt through the datalinks entries and secret projects. You knew what each stood for and how these ideologies came to be. You knew their leaders. Compare that to Civilization where there is no real difference between George Washington and Rahmsas II.

In my eyes, Civilization games became safe and homogeneous so as to appeal to everyone. As pointed out by friends and family, Civilization V was an easy jump in point for newcomers and veterans alike. It had new mechanics and enough changes in the formula to entice old players while proving very friendly to new players who had little to no experience in the turn based strategy genre. Couple it with the graphics and comfortable user interface and you got a very appealing game, for a while. Yet in terms of complexity or feeling, there really is nothing there. Completely soulless.

I pointed before that the series had been a trial blazer. That said, once a path had been established, others would come following through to stake their own claims. In the last decade, crowdfunding and medium sized publishers had been helping to nurse back turn based strategy games. After a long drought, we’ve seen a large boom in the genre with no signs of slowing down. Sure, not every game is a hit, and the Civilization series still dominates the market, but there is more competition which is willing to do what Civilization is too afraid to do: Take big risks.

Endless Legends is one of those competitors. I have my gripes with the game but I have to admit it has many of the strengths Alpha Centauri possesses. It has a narrative, unique factions, style and heaps of personality. Of course it is let down by its awful combat mechanics and laughable unit customization but it still tried. Yes, it faltered in some areas but it still made up for it in many others. On the whole I find it a much more memorable, much more replayable game than Civilization V is.

This was just one example of many, not to mention hybrid games which have taken advantage of advances in computer technology to bring new experiences to life. In this whirlwind of innovation and experimentation, the Civilization series is being rapidly left behind.

The worst part though, is that I know it could do better. 20 years ago the studio behind Civilization released a gem into the market in the form of Alpha Centauri. 9 years ago it overhauled many of the series’ core features. It has the people, the funds and ability. Yet when it tried to re-do Alpha Centauri, it failed spectacularly to the dismay of us all. I think that is the point that sticks with me the most. How could the minds behind Alpha Centauri be so unimaginative and boring 15 years later.

In the show “Misty”, the protagonist Go Hye-ran berates a co-worker that tried to steal her spot as the news anchor. The colleague bemoans Go Hye-ran’s iron grip on the anchor’s chair, saying she doesn’t have that much time in it either way due to her age. Go Hye-ran replies that she will keep that seat because unlike her competitor, she has known real hunger. Not that of the physical kind, but the hunger for the next scoop, the next scandal. Her competition may be younger, but it doesn’t possess the same hunger as her which is why she lost. As I wrote this article, that exchange popped back into my head. How fitting I thought to myself.

Civilization had cemented its spot at the top, but in doing so had become fat and lazy. It became corporate and safe, making that reliable cash but in return, forgot the very hunger that won it that spot. Now younger, hungrier studios are seeking to take its spot and considering the reception for Civilization VI, it may be losing that grip already.

I think that is the greatest tragedy of the Civilization series, its wasted potential. Maybe that is what angers me most. Or maybe I just want Alpha Centauri II

Quantum State of Stupid

David Cage seems to have never played a computer game in his life

I am going to be honest with you this isn’t the article I had planned for today. In fact, I already had another article thought up which I only needed to put to paper. However, as usual in our current gaming news cycle, things came up and forced me to re-schedule. What caused me to push back my article was a tweet by David Cage about how Detroit: Become Human was a great game that changed his life and showed how games can be about more than just senseless violence.

I mean, for God’s sake David, not in public!

Now, you might think that is the most pretentious thing a game producer can say about a game they made, and you would be absolutely right. You’d also wonder though, why a game producer would engage in an act of self fellatio in public. One commentator put up the theory that David Cage had simply meant to use a disposable twitter account to post this ego boosting tweet and just messed up, which is even more sad. Regardless, it allowed the internet writ large to make more fun of David Cage, gaming’s Uwe Boll.

The comparison to Uwe Boll, the German movie director, is a tad unwarranted. Uwe Boll makes horrible video game movie adaptations, but they are meant to flop. David Cage makes horrible video games because he can’t make movies. Yes, David Cage wants to make movies, no matter what he says in interviews, because all of his games are pretentious attempts at making a Hollywood blockbuster in game form.

Seriously, this is a guy who talks about emotions and the industry’s need to grow up, and yet every game he produced looks like it was written by a 13 year old boy. I say boy, because David Cage’s sex scenes seem like they were ripped from a 13 year old’s understanding of what sex is like.

Jim Sterling in an almost accurate portrayal of David Cage

Worst yet, David Cage is a coward. I know he is a coward because when people started drawing political comparisons to racism in Detroit: Become Human, David Cage quickly put an end to speculations by saying that they were not connected. This infuriates me because not only did he heavily, and I do mean heavily, steal examples of racism from history and exploited them in his game, he then tried to pretend he did so without any political meaning… I mean, just wow!

When people attacked him over allegations of rampant racism and homophobia in his studio, David Cage was quick to parade Jesse Jackson and Ellen Page as a shield from criticism in the tone of “I am not racist/homophobic, I know a black/lesbian person”. It was exasperating to say the least.

I think this is the place to put a little disclaimer saying that I didn’t actually play any of his last three games. Instead, I watched them on YouTube and saved myself a whole bunch of money. In fact, I had more fun watching different Let’s Plays of the absurdity that is a David Cage game, then I would have playing the actual games. Why? Because they are not real games.

David Cage games are just based on “press X to advance plot” and quick time events mechanics; essentially walking simulators with too many cutscenes, too little plot or character and worst yet, laughable dialogues. They aren’t even that great in the genre as I found Until Dawn a much better, more suspenseful game than Heavy Rain which many consider to be David Cage’s magnum opus, and ain’t that pathetic.

What irked me the most from his comment wasn’t just the nerve to masturbate in public, but the sheer ignorance on display. He touted his game as some digital messiah, showing the masses that gaming can be more than violence when there is already a plethora of games that did just that, much better and long before David Cage crawled into the video game industry to try and be the king of the pond.

So instead of just pouring more vitriol on poor David Cage, I’ll take the opportunity to educate him, and the readers, on the many games that have little to no violence or use said violence to tell compelling games and even cleverly subvert player’s expectations. Perhaps David Cage will learn something, perhaps he’ll even grow as a person. Honestly though, I doubt it.

Subnautica – The beautiful oceanic world of Subnautica is a gorgeous and mysterious place to explore. It takes the elements of survival games, a well crafted world and gives the player a goal: Escape. Though there is some violence, the player is often discouraged from engaging in it and the weaponry and gadgetry is more aimed at evading hostiles than actually murdering them. If you want to watch a good Let’s Play of it, I suggest Neebs Gaming’s series which is quite hilarious (link below)

Neebs Gaming’s excellent Subnautica series.

Papers Please – There never was a game that did so much with so little. A game in which you play a border crossing station worker in an authoritarian state trying to survive and feed your family. As the game progresses, the amount of regulations and documents to check becomes ever more oppressive. Every day brings new dilemmas. Will you let a mother reunite with her child even though she doesn’t have the right paperwork and get a citation, or will you go by the book and deny her entry because you’ve already got two warnings and another one will mean no paycheck to buy food, medicine or heating for your sick and starving family.

Fez – A beautiful game about exploring using 2d graphics on a 3d axis which allows for some clever puzzles. The game is just gorgeous and fun and I enjoyed every moment in it.

Stardew Valley – My all time favorite game. This nicely pixelated game allows the player to build their own farm, explore mines and just enjoy a nice country life while revitalizing the local village and getting to know its inhabitants. Its fun, relaxing and can be 100% violence free. It also invoked more emotions in me than whatever polygon count Ellen Page has in Beyond: Two Souls.

The SimsThe Sims series has four entries already and is all about managing the life of a simulated person in a simulated neighborhood. Whatever you personally feel about the franchise, you can’t dispute that its hardly violent and allows people to live out their all controlling fantasies of a perfect life. Also the Sims themselves emote better than any David Cage character ever did.

SimCity – Before the franchise was murdered by Electronic Arts’ greed, the game series allowed you to build and manage a city. That is all. You just built a city according to your wishes and tried to manage it as it changed and evolved. The only violence possible was enacted by natural, and sometimes unnatural, disasters which you’d have to contend with.

Any game with Tycoon in its title – Seriously. Pick one from a hundred. None of them are about violence.

Any racing game – See the above.

Farming Simulator – I don’t like Farming Simulator. I hate Farming Simulator for being such a boring game. Guess what David Cage? It isn’t violent.

Euro Truck Simulator 2 – Its a game about hauling goods across Europe and growing a business. It has 0 violence and allows for a relaxed, peaceful gameplay.

Of course there are more non violent games but you catch my drift. Now let’s proceed to games that are violent but use that violence to make a point:

Shadow of the Colossus – In Shadow of the Colossus you play an adventurer trying to resurrect a woman by making a pact with a demon to slay the colossi who roam the forgotten realm. Some of the colossi are so huge as to technically qualify as skyscrapers and the game does a great job of pacing encounters by long riding segments, exposing you to the world. It also has a touching story about love and sacrifice that is carried with almost no dialogue. Unlike a David Cage game that has a lot of dialogue but hardly any emotion.

Max Payne 1+2 – I love the first two Max Payne games. They are masterpieces in writing and execution. The first game is a film noir style, third person shooter following the exploits of undercover cop Max Payne, who is looking for the people who pushed a dangerous narcotic that caused the murder of his family. He gets caught in a whirlwind of violence and corruption that leads to a brutal killing spree that is both satisfying and emotionally damaging. By the end of the first game I was emotionally drained as I released my finger from the trigger. The second game deals in the aftermath of such tragedy and how empty and broken Max really is from his experience. Its a sad tale of a man who went over the edge and can never return. Two true cult classics which I still replay from time to time to remind myself there is such thing as good stories in video games.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – The granddaddy of the first person military shooter, for better and worse. While it did sire a terrible gaming legacy of derivative, copy pasted games, it did also reinvigorate the first person shooter genre that had gotten stale by that point. However its greatest strength is still its story that shows the limits, and cost, of military intervention. There is a reason why the scene of a city getting nuked is still shocking and well remembered to this day.

Spec Ops: The Line – I both love, and hate Spec Ops: The Line. It is a game that takes all the tropes and cliches of first person military shooters and turns them on their head. It is a game that lets you revel in the violence before pulling the rug under your feet and planting you face first in the mess that you just created. It is a game that leaves you an empty husk by the end. A game that I could only play once and yet almost every scene and level is etched in my memory. A game that has a lot to say about the relationship between player and player controlled character. It is more mature than any game David Cage has ever and will ever produce. It is, simply put, art.

Of course, these are but a few of the games I know and care to remember on such a short notice but its more than enough to drive in the point that David Cage is full of it. In reality, gaming is already choke full of good games that tell adult stories much better than anything David Cage’s 13 year old brain could comprehend. The fact he is so ignorant of the industry he works in is more an indictment of his lack of awareness and ability than anything else. So perhaps David, you can start playing actual video games instead of those elongated cutscenes you try and sell us as games. Also how is Detroit: Become Human non violent when a character uses a rocket launcher to blow shit up!? Tell me David… TELL ME!

The Moomin Meta Game Failure of our Time

Moomin Amatin is what you get when you mix a dictionary with a kool-aid bottle

Disclaimer: Salivan Harddin is a member of Snuffed Out [B B C], a former member of Pandemic Legion [-10.0] and is acquainted with penifSMASH (we talked like, twice, omg bias!)

If you’ve played EVE Online for the last month and tried to keep up with any of the game’s news, the banning of Brisc Rubal would probably be something you’d be aware of. Not only did it make the rounds in the New Eden media circles, but even gotten coverage from the wider gaming press. To give you a short synopsis, Brisc Rubal is a member of The Initiative. [INIT.] which is part of the Imperium coalition that elected him to the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), a body that discusses and debates upcoming changes to the game with the developers as well as acting as a conduit for the woes of the playerbase. Since it gets privileged information, the players are bound by non disclosure agreements (NDAs). That said, the CSM had been embroiled with plenty of controversy since its establishment, with Brisc Rubal seemingly the latest in a long line of players to take advantage of their position to leak privileged information for personal gain. Of course, if you did follow the saga to its eventual conclusion, you would have learned that Brisc Rubal was actually innocent all along.

Of course, following the exoneration, people wanted to know who told on Brisc, and why? Theories cropped up and it all culminated in a confrontation between Killah Bee and Hy Wanto Destroyer on the Meta Show. I can’t comment on the regular quality of a show produced by the dregs of New Eden, also known as Imperium News Network (INN for short, flaming pile of trash for accuracy), but it was a bizarre episode. Killah Bee, himself a member of CSM, inadvertently confessed that he informed CCP Games on the possible breach following a conversation he had with penifSMASH on the upcoming changes to high angle weapons (HAW). As it turned out, penifSMASH had acquired Dark Shines’, one of The Initiative’s fleet commanders who got banned alongside Brisc Rubal, Molok titan and regretted it. The rest, as they say, is history. Killah Bee informed CCP Games, CCP Games banned Brisc Rubal and another two players, one of which is the aforementioned Dark Shines, and a whole rollercoaster of speculation and backpadeling ensued.

Of course, mentioning penifSMASH’s name to The Mittani, one of the two hosts of the show, was enough to to cause the latter a stroke. I admit, I have never seen a grown man so enraged and possibly coked out of his mind. He flew into a rage, grilling Hy Wanto Destroyer for details and just constantly shouting that he is The Mittani and he needs no evidence because he is The Mittani! I mean, it would be entertaining if it wasn’t so pathetic. This is the leader of the largest coalition in EVE Online, a man boy so out of touch with the game that he has to assert that he knows whats up while obviously being utterly lost and trying desperately to gather crumbs of information from Hy Wanto Destroyer’s mutterings. (I tried embedding it half a dozen time but either I am retarded or WordPress is)
He is The Mittani, he knows everything! (except not)

So why The Mittani was so enraged? Well there is a lot of bad blood between penifSMASH and The Mittani harkoning back to the days of GoonSwarm [OHGOD] when The Mittani was treated with the seriousness he deserved: None. Its not really clear to me what happened during those times and in the few public conversation penifSMASH had which I witnessed, he only said that the anger was justified, which already shows that penifSMASH, unlike The Mittani, is healthy enough to recognize when he is in the wrong and like a decent human being, own it and move on. I know this seems petty but as we go down the Moomin rabbit hole it will all make sense.

Regardless The Mittani, still upset and coming down hard from his drug fueled craze (allegedly), sent his lackeys to write a hit piece blaming the entire event on penifSMASH because of reasons. Thus enters Moomin Amatin, a sad little man so desperate to get The Mittani’s approval that he’d go to any lengths to appease his master.

Now I haven’t really followed Moomin’s career in INN closely because I have much better things to do with my life but I am no stranger to his writings. He has the Sion Kumitomo problem of needing to sound intellectual. You know the type; uses big words, long sentences and a lot of hyperbole. I get it, anyone who writes has that phase when they try to show that they are really smart. However most good writers grow the fuck out of it. For Moomin, that style is his life. His self esteem hangs on it!

Moomin goes about investigating the same way inspector Clouseau goes about gathering evidence: Like a blithering idiot. Once he gets the expected responses from penifSMASH and Hy Wanto Destroyer (that is, fuck all) he goes on to write his spin piece how it was all a clever ploy by penifSMASH who hates The Initiative because of reasons and how Hy Wanto Destroyer is nursing a snake and should act before its too late or The Initiative will have no reason to trust him and so forth. To be frank I skimmed most of the article because it was the most amateurish, blatant propaganda and disinformation piece I’ve ever seen, worthy of Fox News. Fuck the evidence, he is The Mittani!

Usually I’d just scoff at such blatant stupidity put on full display and leave a disparaging remark, insulting the intelligence and integrity of the writer, which I did. Of course my very respectful and totally innocent comment got deleted by the moderators who are obviously the enemies of free speech (when goons get banned, but weirdly not when others do), but I shrugged it off and made jokes about oppression to my fellow Snuffed Out pilots. However being linked excerpts of the article and reading them thoroughly as well as the comments of the imbeciles buying this blatant cow shit (equal opportunity insulter) made me quite mad. I admit it, I got angry.

Very respectful!

I got angry because, in the end, I care for the truth. I care for the whole story to be told in the most neutral and impartial way. That is why I have kept off writing about the whole Brisc Rubal situation since things kept developing and I felt like I didn’t have a complete grasp of the entire affair, which as it turns out, I didn’t. Its why I write battle reports on the New Eden Report, tired of spin, hype and general inaccuracies and wanting to do justice by the pilots and fleet commanders who actually participate in those struggles. Because I’d like to think it all matters in the end.

You might think its a bit naive of me, and you may be right. Yet the fact Moomin blatantly misconstrued the truth and sought to create a vast conspiracy theory with penifSMASH at its center is something I feel shouldn’t be overlooked, but used to repeatedly bash him until his empty skull caves in, in-game of course.

The problem with Moomin’s article, besides the fact his reasoning skills are limited by the tiny oxygen intake his mouth breathing allows him, is that it undermines itself. Moomin has no evidence to work with so he keeps insinuating, using the pilot’s employment history as some sort of evidence. He has no ability to process the idea that people can, and often do, change their perspectives and relationships. He also can’t point to any “End Game” plan that penifSMASH supposedly has. I mean if you are accusing him of conspiring to take down The Initiative and failing, at least explain what purpose it would serve in the grand scheme of things.

Moomin can’t do that of course, because Moomin is a propagandist. He is the Joseph Goebbels of INN, only able to spout lies that convince the faithful, the converted, the indoctrinated. Buying into his own kool-aid, he had long thrown away any critical thinking skills he possessed, if ever. Thus, the uncreative hack fraud works to keep the line members happy by spooking them with the specter of penifSMASH. He is also trying to drive a wedge between The Initiative and Snuffed Out, to keep the former chained forever in service of the Imperium. After all, The Initiative is a much better organized, more experienced PvP group in the Imperium. Though the Imperium has a few gifted fleet commanders and special interest groups (SIGs) of its own, The Initiative is still a formidable power within the coalition and losing it will cripple the coalition somewhat.

Thus Moomin works to saw the seeds of doubt and fear. Snuffed Out is bad! It tried to take down your leadership! It tried to destroy you with the dreaded “meta game”, a term so frequently misused as to be devoid of any meaning it once had. Fear the outsider, trust in the coalition, after all when was the last time The Mittani had led you astray (2015 and 2016 called, wants to know why you never call them back). Snuffed Out doesn’t have your best interests in mind, and so forth and so forth. God, just writing this down makes me want to go and chug a bottle of bleach to kill the brain cells dedicated to his infantile writing.

Yet for all of Moomin’s ramblings, he can offer nothing, no insight. I kept wanting to shout time and again: WHY MOOMIN, WHY IS HE DOING ALL OF THAT!? No answer of course. To answer the question would simply raise more questions. The reality is penifSMASH finally bought a shiny Molok only to be disappointed by his purchase and complaining to his friend Killah Bee which was a lapse in judgement, nothing more. Twisting it to some nefarious plot is a skill Moomin doesn’t possess. You need actual brains to try and and concoct a good conspiracy out of it, and brains are sadly something Moomin wasn’t blessed with.

The most insulting bit is the fact that there is no artistry to these lies, no delicacy or some complexity. Its so blatant, so obvious that it infuriates me that such scumbags get away with it. That they are considered a legitimate news site while in reality being a third tier tabloid rag. When you make The Sun look respectable in comparison, you done fucked up. Just to take a page from their playbook, I am going to show you how their loaded questions work:

Is Moomin Amatin a pedophile? Does he molest little girls or boys? Is he a member of an EVE Online pedophile ring that includes Dirk MacGirk and Xenuria? Is The Mittani aware that there is a pedophile ring operating in Goonswarm Federation [CONDI] and what does he plan to do about it? After all he is the leader of the alliance and the coalition. I mean, I am only asking questions!

Jesus Dirk!

This is what he does. This is what INN does. They keep insinuating and planting seeds of doubt and division. They have no evidence, no real knowledge or facts. Yet they push relentlessly the most absurd theories and notions to insulate their captive audience. When you call out their bullshit and expose it as what it really is, they hide behind the “Just asking questions” tag, feigning shock horror that you’d go and trample on their sacred freedom to ask misleading, loaded and malicious questions to lead their gullible flock.

There is no good faith basis here, no equal valley where we can meet and discuss facts, they don’t care about facts! These people are so twisted and deranged that they have convinced themselves and others that the entire game is against them. Everything that happens in the game is some sort of ploy or scheme to hurt them. Nothing is their fault! World War Bee? You mean the Casino War which CCP Games endorsed! The developers themselves are against us! More whining, more crying and of course, always spin things.

Some of you would wonder, well, why? Why do they do these things? The simple answer is fear. These are mentally ill people who invested their entire image and identity in the game. They built their thrones on lies and misappropriated credit and fear their exposure. People on the know how, people who had helped build those empires only to see themselves marginalized and thrown out are treated like the enemy. Endie, Darius JOHNSON, penifSMASH, all part of the founders of GoonSwarm, all treated like traitors and mentally ill. Because they know the truth, thus they must be discredited, persecuted and destroyed. Because they can see the emperor has no clothes and allegedly snorting cocaine.

Thus they have their useful idiots like Moomin spout off propaganda for the masses to consume and remain ignorant while suppressing any shred of the truth. Create narratives, build that “us” versus “them” mentality and always be vigilant of penifSMASH, for he may pop up behind you and snag your Vexor navy issue! The sad part this seems to work, but I’d be damned if I’d allow it to go on unchallenged.

Now when is The Mittani going to address the rampant pedophilia going on in his alliance? Just asking questions!

(I am in no way insinuating that The Mittani uses recreational drugs or that Moomin Amatin is a pedophile. Not so sure about Xenuria and Dirk McGirk though…)

Story Time

The real issue with lack of story in computer games

I have a habit of watching old reviews on YouTube. I either put them as background noise while playing strategy games, or watch them while eating. I enjoy listening over and over to the way different people analyze a game and present their opinions. The focus on certain aspects, the consistency or lack thereof in a series, the style of presentation, I find them all fascinating. I say this because I have recently watched several reviews of various Call of Duty and Battlefield titles.

In particular the Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 reviews had weighed down on my mind. The game, the latest installment in a… somewhat(?) venerated series had launched without a single player campaign, which rubbed certain reviewers the wrong way. Now, I myself had not played a Call of Duty game ever since the first Modern Warfare title whose story was good, not great. I also understand, by watching reviews and reading comments, that the series’ main campaigns had been getting sillier and sillier with each installment. With many people playing Call of Duty for its online portion only, axing the single player campaign seems quite fine. Like removing a vestigial tail. So why were people angry?

This question gnawed at me for a while and when I finally sat down to ponder it, it didn’t take long to reach a conclusion. There are several things wrong with removing a component of a long standing franchise. I may have found the Call of Duty series a pandering mess (just reading the synopsis of some of the titles is enough to induce a migraine) but many people do like these stories and buy the games for the single player aspect (those mad bastards!).

Another issue is the trend chasing. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 has sacrificed its single player campaign for a few cooperative missions and a battle royale mod. With so many battle royale games saturating the market already, its no wonder some long standing fans were turned off from the franchise as they felt abandoned by it. After all, if there is one thing Call of Duty was known for was its fast pace, twitch reflex combat. Sidelining it for some battle royale mod, no matter how well implemented, feels like a betrayal of the very core foundation of the series. I know that feeling well considering Battlefield V had a battle royale mod announced for it close to release and as a lifelong Battlefield fan I voted with my wallet and said “no”.

However it wasn’t until Apex Legends that the full answer came to me. See, all the things I detailed above are important. They are core component of what makes Call of Duty basically Call of Duty. It is the reason people pay 60$ at least for the basic game, not to mention season passes, expansions and cosmetics. Angry Joe said it best when he stated that they basically removed a third of the title’s value. That is what at the heart of the removal of a single player campaign; expectations.

It is always about expectations. The computer games industry had conditioned us that certain titles, priced at certain values, will contain a set amount of content. In first person shooters, that content may vary by franchise, but most often its a single player campaign and a multiplayer component. When you purchased Call of Duty you bought a story and an online component. That is why you paid 60$. For a while, that was seen as a reasonable price but with the rise of free to play games and independent titles gaining more mainstream appeal, that pricing point has become tenuous at best.

Thus, when Call of Duty basically threw away one of its key selling points and added a mod that, while I understand functions well, is still anathema to the core experience of the series. So much so that it lost much of its identity and advantage over its competition. This forced fans to ask themselves if they are still willing to support such a title when there are alternatives elsewhere, much cheaper yet just as good. After all, you don’t see anyone going after Apex Legends or Counter Strike: Global Offensive for having no single player story or experience. In fact, both titles are enjoying huge popularity, with the latter being a staple of online first person shooters for decades and the former threatening to unseat Fortnie as most popular battle royale game with its monstrous growth in popularity.

Of course, there are other factors in play here as well, such as Activision-Blizzard’s nickel and diming of its player base, but up until now, that base was fine with some of it so long as the core experience remained the same. Get a new title, play an over the top, cliche laden campaign, have some online matches then move to the next release. Rinse, repeat. Messing with this formula by removing a key component had thrown the whole equation off. How can you justify buying the same title for the same price when it has less to offer you than before? A new battle royale mod is nice and all, but it is still part of the online experience. Merely a new multiplayer mod to add to the rest. It is no substitute for the single player experience.

Activision-Blizzard is not alone in basically gouging out core features that had been the standard in computer games only to sell them back later on or just ignore them completely. We as consumers already lost cosmetics, full game on release, demos, betas and the list goes on. Now we are losing story as well. Just read Electronic Arts’ line on the single player campaign being a mistake or the fact that their first Star Wars: Battlefront game launched without a single player campaign either and the second one included one only due to fan backlash. The reason for the backlash? The pricing.

I pointed to expectations previously and I’d like to repeat it. When we purchase a 60$ game, we expect a certain experience. In major published first person shooters, it is the campaign feature. Regardless of the overall quality and length (a discussion for a separate article), we expect a single player story. It is how first person shooters had slowly evolved. Heck, Call of Duty’s entire success as a franchise to eclipse Battlefield was thanks to the first Modern Warfare’s title blowing everyone’s minds. Having such a poignant story showed everyone that gaming can tackle mature, adult themes while having fun gameplay.

Taking it away is removing a third of the experience. A battle royale game in the Call of Duty series is not a bad thing altogether, and as I mentioned before it seems Blacklight (Black Ops 4’s name for its battle royale mod) is quite a fun experience. However I don’t think, and as comments and reviewers have demonstrated, its worth 60$. There is a reason why Fortnite and Apex Legends are thriving, and that is due to be a free to play experience. I enjoy playing Apex Legends immensely. If it was sold at 30$ I may have bought it. As a full priced release though, I’d hesitate immensely because my expectations of a 60$ title differ greatly from a 30$ or a free to play game.

That is the heart of the matter. As time went by, we as consumers have been getting diminishing returns for the same dollar price. While people argue about inflation and how games should cost more, the consumers have been getting less and less at a time where development costs have remained more or less stable as profits soared. Now they’ve gouged out a major component and sold us the same title, banking on previous installments’ reputation to purchase an inferior version. Its not just insolent, its downright depressing.

It is depressing because people continue to purchase these titles. It is depressing because for all the cost saving, corner cutting measures major publishers deploy, there are still good stories waiting to be told that never get the option or platform to do so. If it weren’t for the stories of the Call of Duty and Battlefield series, we wouldn’t have gotten an amazing title such as Spec Ops: The Line. Now with the story component erased, what is the point of a new installment? To re-do progression? To have a slightly more polished version even though current online connectivity allows patching and overhauls? What differentiates previous Call of Duty titles outside of a reskin? Well, the fact that they offer us less for the same exact price.

This is the ultimate problem with removing story experiences from major titles. It is the exposure of the underlying greed which turns us into cynics and nihilists. What else would publishers strip from their flagship titles? I don’t wish to speculate for fear I’d be giving these people ideas. What is for sure, is that the games we once cherished as complete packages have become a threadbare affair, not worth their asking price. Pour one out for Soap Mactavish.

Evolving the Review

Computer game reviews need to adapt to the new gaming reality

The one good thing that came out of the entire Fallout 76 (my god, I get tired just thinking about that game) debacle for me was the discovery of the Skill Up channel. For those of you who don’t know, Skill Up is a very talented game reviewer on YouTube. His reviews are more akin to long form essays that are well researched, brilliantly built, wonderfully presented and just tied up in a nice narrative ribbon. Just from a writing perspective I must give him mad props.

Now after sucking off Skill Up’s proverbial… thing, I wanted to address one of the points he made in his videos. In his review of Destiny 2, Skill Up dissented from the wider critic praise given to the game, instead calling it a more shallow copy of the first game. Of course, if anyone remembers the original launch of Destiny, it would make them scratch their heads. After all, Destiny 2 seemed to have launched with a lot more features and a lot more content than its predecessor.

Skill Up of course, had an answer for this seeming contradiction. While it was true the original launch of Destiny was a lackluster affair, the game had since been patched and iterated upon with downloadable content and expansions to the point that it quite surpassed its sequel in many areas. The sad fact though, was that many game critics didn’t play that final version of Destiny. Most of them played it around its launch window and after writing their reviews continued on to the next game launch. You can’t really fault them considering their job is to review games. Unlike consumers that often buy a handful of titles a year, game reviewers who wish to remain relevant must keep up with all the major releases in a year.

A good example is Zero Punctuation. Zero Punctuation is one of my favorite game reviewers partly due to his wit and partly because of the way he approaches game reviewing itself. The man posts a video a week, with only the end of the year video being a re-post. This means he reviews 53 titles a year. That said, not all of his reviews are of games themselves, as at times he may highlight important events in gaming history or just pull a sneaky retro review during a barren post major release season. Even so, around 80 percent of his videos would still feature games published in that current year.

Think about the amount of work each review entails as games continue to grow in size and complexity. To give a personal example, one of the early reviews I wrote was for Battletech. As a MechWarrior and MechWarrior Commander fan I was excited to see a new take on the franchise a la XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I must admit I wasn’t disappointed as the game was pretty much everything I wanted and more. Yet before sitting down to write the review I had sunk more than 50 hours into the game in order to finish the main storyline and explore many different options and other side content before I felt confident enough to give my final verdict.

Of course, game reviewers who make actual money reviewing games have the luxury of time compared to amateurs such as myself. Still, just looking at the amount of time I invested in a game such as Battletech, it is comparable to a working week, without taking into account the script writing, the filming, editing and other activities needed to produce good reviews. The amount of work is staggering, and the worst part is that launch seasons can pile the work unevenly. October is already referred by many as “Broketober” due to the amount of major game launches that hope to capitalize on the approaching holiday season. Being a major game reviewer during that time must be quite stressful.

Thus, game reviewers have very little time to invest in re-visiting old games. In another video, Skill Up re-visited No Man’s Sky and reported how the many features that the game was lambasted for missing had since been added, along with myriad of fixes and other improvements that made the game resemble its initial trailer rather than the blend, featureless mess we received at launch. However, most reviews of it still up will be of its launch build because game sites can scant afford to have staffers review old games when new ones are constantly published at a wallet strangling rate.

The problem is, with most major publishers moving towards a “games as service” format (I got plenty to say on that subject but will do so in a separate article) the old style of reviews becomes inadequate. As Destiny proved, whatever faults the game may possess at launch, as time goes by, more and more content is added on a yearly basis, enriching the game and often times fixing a lot of the initial complaints. By the time the game is more or less “complete” it may be radically different than what it was at the beginning and old reviews will not reflect that or give accurate information to prospective buyers, which is kind of the point of game reviews in general.

Another factor to consider is the technological shift. In the past, you shifted a physical copy and that was that. Cartridges, floppy disks and CD-ROMs represented a final version of a game. The moment they were out, that was that, over. If developers wanted to iterate upon a game, they needed to make a new boxed product and have it shipped as well. This meant that reviews could also be final since there was no real way to change or add to the game.

Of course, nowadays games get shipped broken all the time and subjected to day one patches thanks to internet connectivity. Almost every gaming household has a stable internet connection and with game launchers and digital distribution platforms like Steam, applying patches has become an easy and automated process. With the elimination of the need for physical copies comes greater freedom for developers to iterate on their games. Prominent examples are the Paradox Interactive games, each the subject of numerous expansions and downloadable content packs.

Stellaris is my favorite all time Paradox Interactive game. It is the game I have sunk the most hours in other than perhaps EVE Online. The fact is, every year sees new content added to the game with expansions and free patches that fundamentally alter core mechanics. Just last year the Le Guinn free patch (paired with the release of the MegaCorp expansion) saw a complete revamp of the game’s economic systems, changing the way many players including myself play the game. Any review predating it is now factually incorrect, doubly so to reviews from the time of the game’s launch in 2015. Even my own review of the patch is guaranteed to be obsolete within a couple of years as new content and changes are made.

The last example are online games. I already mentioned EVE Online so allow me to elaborate further. EVE Online is a complex game filled with politics and espionage. It is the game that ignited my writing passion. I started by writing battle reports on major engagements where hundreds, even thousands of players fought each other in a myriad of wars and conflicts. It is a living massive multiplayer online game where player interactions drive the narrative. Stepping away from it for a few months and only recently returning both to the game and to writing, I was amazed at some of the major political upheavals that happened in my absence. To catch up to the current political landscape, fleet doctrines and other mechanical changes will take me weeks. Keeping tabs on it all is a full time job considering the amount of player contacts you need to make and maintain.

All of this pretty much proves that the old, set in stone, game review model just doesn’t fit the constantly changing, shifting reality of modern game development. Games have become to some extent living breathing things. Constantly changing and updating by their own nature or the vision of developers and publishers. Thus what was true yesterday no longer applies to today and even less for tomorrow. Navigating this constant change as a consumer can be a real nightmare, as you are deprived of reliable sources of information.

Some outlets have recognized this shift in the gaming landscape and have made strides in hiring staff to write either exclusively on certain games or have existing staff return to older titles to give them a second look. That said, I still think this is more of a stopgap than a real solution. Some reviewers online dedicate themselves to covering certain games or gaming genres and thus often give updates on the same game regularly, while others re-visit their old work to try and see what changed.

That said, I have no real solution to offer. Even Steam user reviews are not a good metric to use since some could have been left by players that have since abandoned the title. Consumers though, need guidance. They need reviews that they could trust and that would give a full picture that will enable them to make an informed choice. So far, some games are being passed over due to bad reviews that refer to earlier builds, while others coast on good reviews that have since become obsolete due to unwanted additions such as microtransactions (looking at you Call of Duty: Black Ops 4).

Whether its a constantly updating review page for a game or weekly re-review of older titles, some sort of system is badly needed. Unfortunately, like the rest of you all I can do is just to keep up to date with my favorite games and write a new review with every major patch or content release.