Animal Crossing: New Horizons has some amount of ‘New’ but can it be both not enough and too much?

Opinion, Video Games

Day 8 of the Write A Stupid Thing Every Day, or W.A.S.T.E.D., quarantine challenge that I’ve imposed on myself.

By: William Chandler

I, like many, was extremely excited for a new Animal Crossing game to release. I’ve given the Animal Crossing franchise many dutiful years of service from a young age, beginning with the Gamecube game simply titled Animal Crossing. It released in the United States on September 16th, 2002, a full year and a half after the Japanese version’s debut as Dōbutsu no Mori on the N64 and about 9 months after the Japanese Gamecube port. This game still represents the franchise at its most pure. The mechanics were simple, the art style unique, and the charm endless. I played Animal Crossing for a year, from the age of 8 to 9, nearly every day. I would return to it periodically for years afterward. There truly was nothing like it.

Fast forward to 2020 and I am 25 years old. Time has seen to the release of three more main entries in the Animal Crossing series, Wild World for the Nintendo DS in 2005, City Folk for the Wii in 2008, and New Leaf for the 3DS in 2012. This is to say nothing about the several spin-off games released between 2012 and now. New Leaf seemed to ignite a passion in the greater world that needed, nay, demanded more Animal Crossing. Something that I, as a small boy crouched on the floor in front of a TV in 2002, could have never imagined. Animal Crossing was… weird. Hell, still is weird if you forget just how used to it you are. A talking, capitalistic Tanuki places you in debt as the first order of business in this new and foreign world and then repeatedly preys on your inability to pay. A tunneling mole yells at you if you neglect to save your game. A dog, the only animal in all of the world of Animal Crossing who wears absolutely nothing in the form of clothing, is the foremost musician and his super-stardom inspires a fanbase so rabid that it would make the K-Pop industry red with envy. How could a game so strange develop a similarly rabid fanbase?

The answer probably has equal parts to do with just how comforting the game is to play and its irresistible cuteness. These two things combine into a sinister product that is fun and addictive. It is designed to keep you coming back day after day and that’s okay. In terms of addictions, this has to be the least predatory of all time. “Ah, I need to check on my flower bed every day,” ranks low on the list of cries for help. And originally this was about as complex as the games were. In the first Animal Crossing, you could count the number of mechanics on two hands. Talk to villagers, shop at the store, donate to the museum, upgrade and decorate your house, just to name a few. The genius of the game lies in just how easily these few and simple mechanics spiral out into a much grander vision of a living, breathing town full of likable, goofball characters. A town that you slowly begin to call your own as you exert your influence over it with every passing day. I never played any of the Seaman games but I feel there is a kinship between the two series in that they both give this feeling, although one more successfully than the other.

And, after 7 long years of waiting, our collective prayers were answered. Animal Crossing: New Horizons released on March 20th, 2020 to immediate success and became the best selling game in the franchise in only six weeks. I imagine we’ve all changed a lot in 7 years and it seems as though I’ve changed into a person who no longer enjoys Animal Crossing. Or perhaps it is Animal Crossing that has changed for the worse. The doldrums of the day-in day-out style of play began to wear on me within the first month. Why, I wonder, is it that a game so much like the one I love can be lesser in my eyes? It could be that they are too similar and I’ve simply grown tired of the formula after five entries in the series. After all, all of the mechanics that I listed as being in the first game are still present and accounted for nearly twenty years later. Or is it the ways that the franchise has changed that makes it less lovable? The additions of the crafting system, Nook phone, Nook miles, and mystery islands only work to complicate something that was once purely about interacting with your villagers and your town. More likely, it is both of these things and more.

A small complaint I had early on, but one that bothered me far beyond reason, is just how frequently I noticed villagers repeating themselves, sometimes as soon as the very next day. Penelope, a villager I really dislike, said her ‘Moon Mouse’ line to me maybe 20 times in 60 days. Perhaps it is rose tinted nostalgia, but I don’t recall this happening as often in older entries. Speaking of disliking villagers, the villager tier lists out there represent a new and sort of dark version of Animal Crossing in which people min/max the game’s mechanics in order to achieve the perfect island. A utopia of sorts, populated by only the exact villagers deemed “good enough” to be allowed there. This is, in my eyes, against the spirit of the game which is, to some extent, learning to love thy neighbor even if you don’t especially like them. You can’t always pick the people in your life. That said, players should enjoy the game the way that they want and I, by no means, am judging anyone for enjoying playing this way. However, for me, seeing the game enter the public consciousness primarily in this way has been off putting. Why is it that the buying and selling of turnips for maximum profit has been discussed so in depth over the last two months despite its relatively minor focus in the game itself?

Likely, I am just sad that I’m no longer a part of the club I helped found. All of the charm of Animal Crossing is present and perhaps better than ever in New Horizons. The writing is more clever and oh, God, the music. The music continues to be a highlight for every entry in the franchise and their ability to iterate on some of the same themes while still having a unique style for each game is to be commended. I would never insinuate that New Horizons is a bad game but I do feel as though some bit of Animal Crossing’s soul is lost with each new release.

Persona 5 Royal is certainly different from Persona 5, but perhaps not different enough

Opinion, Video Games

Day 7 of the Write A Stupid Thing Every Day, or W.A.S.T.E.D, quarantine challenge that I’ve imposed on myself.

By: William Chandler

I lucked out and didn’t play Persona 4 until Golden had released on the Vita. I say lucked out not because Persona 4 is a markedly worse game than Golden, but because the changes made to such a great game are something that I would most certainly feel compelled to see. This approach to releasing a (finger quotes) definitive edition of Persona games, with more content and fleshed out side stories, years after the release of the original, began with Persona 3 Portable. I can very easily imagine someone making this very same complaint then, followed by someone newer to the series making this complaint for Persona 4 Golden. Here I am, many years later, making the very same complaint about Persona 5 Royal. That complaint being: Persona 5 was a great game and Persona 5 Royal is ever so slightly better.

Not much of a complaint, eh? It’s true that more of a great thing is always welcome but, in a world where your time is ever so limited, can it be hard to justify another 100-plus hour excursion into a world you’ve already experienced? Of course. Am I doing it anyway? Sadly, yes. I am replaying what is essentially the same game, this time with much of the wonder sanded down to an almost facile routine of familiarity. The overall story is as it was before but with some bolted on extensions here and there, fleshing out the characters more and adding some new characters to support the existing cast. At my current point, around halfway through the base Persona 5 content, there is already enough involvement with new characters and mechanics to keep me invested. The new guidance councilor confidant is great and fits in exquisitely with the pre-existing narrative, but I’m not as convinced by the new freshman girl yet. I hear she gets a lot more screen time in the epilogue that is exclusive to Royal. They’ve also gone and added a lot to Akechi’s role as a confidant which was very needed the first time around.

It’s a funny thing. I am happy to see more content added to a game I really loved, but this act of revisitation to a story that already felt complete, flaws and all, feels a bit like I’m needlessly dredging up the past. It is an act of reliving nostalgia that is both soothing and mildly unhealthy. Overwriting memories of the original in favor of something new and shiny. My version of the Persona 5 protagonist in Royal has his shit considerably more together this time around, after all. But, I suppose, if I had the ability to go back and make changes, however small, to a time in my own life I felt was flawed, I’m sure I would do it.

Gaming on a 2016 Macbook Pro out of desperation

Opinion, Video Games, Video Games?

Day 5 of the Write A Stupid Thing Every Day, or W.A.S.T.E.D, quarantine challenge that I’ve imposed on myself.

2010 feels like so long ago

By: William Chandler

I’ve been spending most of my time at my significant other’s apartment due to quarantine and, sadly, that means being away from my beloved computer. My sweet, beefy baby that ensures I can play even the newest, most taxing of releases at maximum settings. While this distance certainly improves my productivity with non-gaming related ventures, it also means that any downtime I may have must be killed in a different manner. While this is generally okay because it allows me to get back into the habit of watching movies (my Criterion Channel subscription is finally seeing some use) or writing more, sometimes I just get that… that itch, you know? Sometimes you just need to play a video game. Enter the desperation of gaming on my 2016 Macbook Pro.

I scowled as I scrolled through my Steam library, once a bountiful harvest when viewed from any Windows machine, now a desolate wasteland of old games I’ve either already played or probably couldn’t run when looking at it from Mac OS. But wait, what’s that? From a far distance down the list gallops a game neither taxing nor one I’ve ever made the time to play, and yet I’ve always heard positive things about it. It’s beautiful. It’s glorious. It is The Banner Saga.

I was excited to finally experience this gem from some developers who were formerly at Bioware, a studio near and dear to my heart. The setting and story are intriguing from the jump and it’s the perfect game to play using only a trackpad since the primary gameplay loop is turn based strategy with a bit of text adventure mixed in. Alas, upon booting it up, I’m forced to reconcile with the fact that the integrated graphics in the 2016 Macbook Pro, when used in the notoriously poorly optimized for gaming Mac OS, are insufficient for even a moderately taxing task such as this. The game chugs at seeming random intervals, although mostly in the non-combat scenes, and occasionally seems content to just halt periodically before jittering to life again.

Perhaps dual booting Windows through bootcamp would help but I really am not interested in buying another Windows license so I suppose, for now I’ll just have to deal with it. I’m interested in seeing how Disco Elysium runs on a Mac so perhaps I’ll write about that in the near future. Or I’ll just play through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for like the fifth time.

The Division 2 kept my friend and I entertained for 4.5 hours

Opinion, Video Games
Image courtesy of Giant Bomb

Day 4 of the Write A Stupid Thing Every Day, or W.A.S.T.E.D, quarantine challenge that I’ve imposed on myself.

By: William Chandler

I had a pretty rough relationship with The Division at its release in 2016. Outside of acting as an excellent test of my computer’s new graphics card, I found very little to like. Its repetitive and bloated mission structure offered no enjoyment other than a sort of zen like state one could enter when shooting things, which lasted only for a short while. Then there’s the story, which is an ineffective and melodramatic chain of events about an outbreak of a super flu and the subsequent downfall of society. Huh. Like that could ever happen. Anyway, I still played it for nearly 50 hours because I couldn’t seem to stop. Buried deep within The Division is a great game and maybe, just maybe, The Division 2 has dug deep enough to find purchase.

The gameplay of The Division 2 remains much the same as the first but it feels more satisfying. I understand that is an immeasurable quality but you’re just going to have to take my word for it. The movement system is improved in its responsiveness and the animations for taking, leaving, and vaulting cover are just sublime. Honestly, all of the animation work is great. The gunplay feels similar but a bit more punchy thanks to less bullet spongey enemies, which was a major complaint I had with The Division. Enemy units may take far fewer shots to kill, but so do you. This leads to encounters feeling fast and brutal with the tide of battle swinging hugely in one direction or the other very quickly. If you aren’t keeping track of the locations of the enemies well enough, you may find yourself surrounded and in trouble fast.

Honestly, many of the improvements are small and focused around mechanics orbiting the core loop of the game. You still have a large city map to scavenge through, undertaking main and side missions, with a healthy dose of collectibles and looting to pad out the game’s length. However, this time the world reacts to your accomplishments. Upon completing a number of missions for a settlement, that settlement undergoes a visual and functional upgrade that reflects your progress, just like your base of operations. This goes a long way to keeping you invested in the game beyond the story. This time the story is mostly inoffensive but sadly remains a focus of the experience with frequent cutscenes that drag on a little too long, which is especially true for a game that is primarily intended to be multiplayer. I don’t have time to sit around while my whole party watches cutscenes independently of one another. Maybe force everyone to watch them at the same time? I dunno.

Who knows if any of this is enough to keep me playing into the late game but I am truly enjoying my time right now. For now I have a pal or two to play with so we’ll likely stick with it.

Mafia 2 Definitive Edition is a-ok

Opinion, Video Games

Day 3 of the Write A Stupid Thing Every Day, or W.A.S.T.E.D, quarantine challenge that I’ve imposed on myself.

By: William Chandler

I heard some hullabaloo on the web recently about how people are angry with the quality of the Mafia 2: Definitive Edition. I’ve yet to run into any of the bugginess or performance issues that I see people talking about in the first few hours with the game, but I do agree with the general sentiment that more could have been done to bring the game closer to modern standards. While my resolution of 2560×1440 now appears to be fully supported, a lot of the textures show their age when displayed with such crispness. At the end of the day, however, I’m just happy that it runs better than my previous tango with the original version, because Mafia 2 is absolutely a game worth playing in 2020.

In terms of late 2000s GTA-style open world games, Mafia 2 stands among the best of the best purely based on the quality of the story and character writing. The story attempts, and mostly succeeds, with its best rendition of well-trodden and sometimes tropey ground, particularly if you’re familiar with obvious inspirations like Goodfellas and the Godfather Part 2. However, where it deviates from that formula is in its devotion to showing more of the mundane, low-level aspects of crime life, helping the story punch far above its weight. In a film, the main character working their way up from distrusted underling to mafia heavy-hitter would be relegated to a few scenes or a montage but Mafia 2 presents the grunt work in all its glory. Roughly half of the game, in fact.

Gameplay wise, it is markedly better than its peers in terms of shooting. Controls are snappy and responsive, and the cover system ,while somewhat sticky, is not finicky and allows for cover to be taken and left by the single press of the A button on a controller. Driving may be up to taste but i think anyone who appreciates a heavier driving model will dig it.

But honestly, the best part of Mafia 2 is getting to live out that crime family fantasy I’ve always had as someone who obsessed over The Godfather as a kid.

Shopkeepers in video games should be nicer to me

Opinion, Video Games
Image courtesy of the Giant Bomb Wiki

By: William Chandler

Day 2 of the Write A Stupid Thing Every Day, or W.A.S.T.E.D, quarantine challenge that I’ve imposed on myself.

Shopkeepers in games give me anxiety. Much like in real life, I want to have a good, mutually respectful relationship with the people who provide me with goods and or services. I’m not trying to be best friends with the guy who serves me coffee or the merchant responsible for selling my weapon attachments but I try to be as nice to them as possible. Unfortunately, they don’t always make this easy. Sometimes they’re just rude to you from the jump. I get that people are not always immediately trusting, and I can respect that, but is exchanging niceties just too much to ask for?

I’ve been replaying Dark Souls 2 recently, the Scholar of the First Sin version, and I couldn’t help but feel put out by just how rude the blacksmith has been to me. I mean, I bought the key to unlock his shop for him and he didn’t even give me so much as a thank you in return. As if shopping in his store is a gift in itself. How about a discount, pal? The crusty, old skeleton lady gives me a discount and she’s a fucking transient.

However, by far the most upsetting part about video game store owners is when they harshly acknowledge if you didn’t buy anything from them. For instance, the very same blacksmith will scold you for wasting his time if you take a look at his wares but don’t fork over the dough for anything. Is that really a great way to treat your customers? I can’t imagine there are too many other folks showing up at this coastal town in the midst of this undead pandemic in order to buy a halberd.

Maybe we’ll grow closer over time thanks to the magic of capitalism but I’m not sure my wounded heart will ever heal after such poor customer service.

The best part of Dragon Age: Origins is Awakening

Opinion, Video Games
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Cover art courtesy of the Giant Bomb Wiki

By : William Chandler

Day 1 of the Write A Stupid Thing Every Day, or W.A.S.T.E.D, quarantine challenge that I’ve imposed on myself.

Some loose thoughts on Dragon: Age Origins and its expansion, Awakening.

Dragon Age: Origins is, unlike KOTOR, Jade Empire, or the Mass Effects, a slow burn of a story that really only gets better as it goes on. The beginning is a dreary, morose origin of your choosing that doesn’t skimp on the spectacle, but does cut back on the Golden Age Bioware bombast ™, at least in the plot department. In my particular case, a collegiate wizarding dropout that is forced to enlist in the military after his friend gets cancelled for not telling his GF about his blood fetish. The end of the world makes an unceremonious return to a bunch of people who know it’s there and just can’t be arsed to deal with it. There’s regular shit to do, haven’t ye heard? Fields to till and politicking to bungle. All the cards are laid out on the table after the battle at Ostagar which is roughly four hours into the game. I’ve seen the end already and know exactly the form it takes. No mystery, no suspense. This stands in stark contrast to the hushed whispers and conspiratorial end of the known universe in Mass Effect, the true nature of which presents as a third act reveal. For this reason, I think, Origins has a much less gripping early game but it only goes up from here.

Not mechanically speaking, though. The game is much the same at hour 50 as it is hour 1, with the exception of more frequent difficulty brick walls to careen into once you’ve lulled yourself into a false sense of security with the combat systems. Nay, the game truly shines in just how in control of the whole experience you feel. Decisions are laid at your feet at a regular pace from the very beginning and it’s difficult to tell that they are even decisions sometimes, much less which of them might just come back to haunt you later. The ending also changes in its fine details to reflect exactly what you have or have not done. In my first full playthrough of the game, completed last month, I realized that I didn’t care for Zevran all that much. I didn’t want him out of the story or dead or anything but he’d just be that party member in an RPG whom you mostly ignore through the end of the game unless you really need something lockpicked. I’d chat with him on occasion but his particular brand of ‘I’m a silly and horny assassin boy with a lonely backstory’ just didn’t do it for me. He betrayed me later on, like he knew exactly how I felt about him, and I had to set him on fire. Whoops. Guess I won’t see you in the sequels.

Replay: Mass Effect

Opinion, Video Games

By: William Chandler

232274-944902_99714_frontI’ve been meaning to replay the original Mass Effect for quite some time now. It stands as not only my favorite of the first two Mass Effect games but rounds out the holy trinity of Bioware games that is also comprised of KOTOR and Jade Empire. If I took the time to make a concrete top ten list of my favorite games, it would likely hold a pretty high spot. My love for the Mass Effect series is also tinged with regret. I’ve never actually even played Mass Effect 3 due to a lost save file that I carried through the first two games and a lack of motivation to start anew thanks to the quite controversial reception of the third game. After a nasty relapse and subsequent rage quit of my horrible addiction to ranked League of Legends, I decided to begin a full series play through in order to finally wrap things up for both Commander Shepard and myself.

Frankly, just thinking about how long it has been since the first Mass Effect came out makes me physically ill. It was nearly nine years ago and I was twelve years old. I did at least two full play throughs of the game in the week after its release, one renegade and one paragon, and I would later take my paragon file into Mass Effect 2. After which I wouldn’t ever play a Mass Effect game again. Well, until now that is.

For some reason the first things I thought of while installing Mass Effect onto my PC were the damned elevators. The ones on the ice planet of Noveria to be precise. I remembered their strange mosaic-like frosted glass windows that made them feel like they doubled as tacky bathrooms. I also remembered just how hated the elevators actually were at the time of the game’s release in 2007. The elevators served as some fairly lengthy and far too frequent loading screen cover ups which, if player reaction was anything to go by, was almost a worse idea than just having some long as shit loading bars. Back then I didn’t really mind them. Boy, was I tolerant. In the year of our Lord 2016, those things are actually the devil. They kill pacing and the frequent comrade conversations that I remembered from before actually are not all that frequent. I think I heard Garrus and Wrex (because those are the only two companions I ever use in ME1) bicker one time in my full 25-ish hours with the game.

Upon reaching the menu screen I felt some deep nostalgia from the music. I remembered it being great but, man, is it actually incredible. Honestly, the entire soundtrack is just aces. It’s one of the things from Mass Effect 1 that has held up the best. It’s highly electronic, of course, but it is sparse and tasteful enough that it never overstays its welcome and the incredible orchestral accompaniments are saved for some of the most memorable sections of the game. Outside of the soundtrack, however, the audio is surprisingly lackluster. Ambient audio is either barely acceptable or entirely not there and just about anything other than the bass filled gunshots are pretty bare. I think of my frequent MAKO drives along the surface of the empty side-planets and can really only call to mind the faint whirring of the MAKOs engines, another decidedly passable effect. At some point I just wound up turning on a podcast to fill in the silence.

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Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst and open world level design

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

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Initially, I was pretty okay with Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. I’d played the little beta they put out a month or so back and enjoyed myself somewhat, especially since the game does FEEL like Mirror’s Edge. The free running aspect of Catalyst is still, for the most part, just as satisfying as the original game ever was. Running, jumping, climbing and the sense of speed are all intact in a way that bamboozles you into believing you’re about to have a good time with the Mirror’s Edge sequel / reboot / whatever that you always wanted. But then the open world aspect slowly rears its ugly head in a way that even I didn’t expect.

You start off in a small piece of the full city and more finger quotes districts open up over time as you complete story and side missions. The map does pack itself to the brim with hideous little icons to check off of a list like the worst Ubisoft open world offenders but I didn’t take much issue with it in Catalyst because I figured since it was fun traversing the city, that just happening across these activities naturally would be better than specifically beelining my way to them from the other end of the map. Sadly, the world is only deceptively open. The rooftops may as well be really giant hallways for how many options you have to get from one place to the next and, because of this, you’ll find yourself running back and forth across the same rooftops utilizing the same moves over and over again. For instance, there’s this rooftop near the runners’ hideout that has two horizontal vents several yards apart which you will traverse repeatedly. One is relatively high so you’ll slide under it and the other is lower to the ground so you’ll likely mantle over it on your way to pick up another uninteresting story mission. By my count, I completed these exact motions in this exact spot roughly 15 times in the first 3 or 4 hours of play because you have to return to the hideout so frequently and you don’t unlock fast traveling until several main story missions in.

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