Sigy Says – Life is Strange Review

The narrative driven, choice based adventure game has been a pretty big hit ever since Telltale made The Walking Dead. Lots of other studios have taken a crack at creating uncomfortable and trying scenarios for gamers to rack their minds with. Those studios usually forget to make choices have deeper meaning or create decisions that exist within a binary function of “right” and “wrong.”

Life is Strange attempts to tackle the problems these games typically face. It doesn’t quite nail the impact of decisions (deciding to go with an all or nothing type ending), but it certainly sidesteps the issue of viewing the world in terms of black and white.

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Life is Strange (PC [reviewed], Linux, OSX, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360)
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: Between January and October 2015
MSRP: $19.99

The main plot follows a week in the life of Max Caulfield, an 18 year old art student studying at a prestigious school in a fictional Oregonian town. She witnesses the death of a punk rock girl and, in a moment of desperation, turns back time. She doesn’t know what happened or how she did it, but manipulation of the very fabric of space and time is within her control.

The tale then follows her path to uncover the source of her powers, the reason behind the murder she originally witnessed and the problems facing Blackwell Academy. Lots of the story deals with a coming of age type narrative arc, before giving way to a murder mystery straight out of Law & Order.

The real meat and potatoes comes from all the different branching choices you’re given. Life is Strange deftly handles choices without falling back on “right” and “wrong.” Most decisions will never seem better or particularly easy. It’s all about figuring out how you would react or what causes the least amount of harm.

Max’s power of time control is also wonderfully worked into the gameplay. Once you make a choice and see the impact play out, you can immediately rewind to attempt the alternate option or just to tinker around with different outcomes. Instead of relying on the player to keep different save files or playthrough a second time, you can see basically all of the decisions first-hand.

There is one key part of the story that rips control away from Max and creates a heartbreaking encounter that can potentially end in tragedy. There are also story arcs that tackle the implications of getting a “do-over” and changing “destiny.” It’s not entirely original, but its application is very well done.

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What’s not so great is the dialog in the earlier episodes. Until around the mid-point of Episode 2, the writing is a bit wonky. Things like, “hella amazeballs” and “for cereal” are uttered without a hint of irony. It feels like an adult was trying to remember what being a teen was and mixed up some memes online.

The acting is also stilted, at first. I’m guessing no one was exactly sure how the game was going to pan out during the development of the first episode, but it just feels like a lack of direction was going on. Some of the lines are either a bit too soft or lack any dramatic weight. This does eventually pick up and turn into genuinely great performances (save for the final episode fizzling out), but it’s not thoroughly mesmerizing.

There are also some uncanny valley moments with the presentation. While this runs on the Unreal 3 engine, the characters are stiff and the environments feel detached. There is a very touching scene in a pool, but it looks like two dead mannequins floating in nothingness. I couldn’t get around that image, either.

What I did truly love was how gameplay elements were organically woven into the story. There are a lot of puzzles sprinkled throughout Max’s adventure and it’s awesome to not feel like you’re simply a spectator. You have to use critical thinking to figure out solutions based on the powers you’ve been given.

One scene has you gather chemicals to create an IED, blow open a door and then rewind so you end up on the other side. It’s a really awesome accomplishment. It truly feels like you came up with the answer on your own.

Chapter 4 is where this really shines. You have multiple pieces of information you’ve gathered over the course of the game that you’re required to piece together. You have to take a long look at any correlation and connect the dots. Even if you fail, the game has a few work-arounds to get you back on track (excluding your rewind).

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The final chapter drops the damn ball, however. There is a stealth section that is entirely pointless. Since you can rewind and remain in place, there is literally no reason to have characters searching for you. You cannot fail and pressing forward serves no repercussion. I understand it was a narrative device, but it utterly fails as a piece of gaming.

Honestly, the game was building up to a crescendo that Episode 5 never delivers. The definitive ending is certainly gut-wrenching, but the 2 hours leading up to it feel like a cop-out. It seems like DONTNOD had no idea how to really make your actions take affect or just wanted to impose their own will on the story. Regardless, Episode 5 does away with all of the good that the rest of the game exhibits.

There are some light puzzles, but everything is a forced, linear path and the dialog amounts to nothing more than expository exchanges with main characters. Some beats will tug at the heart strings, but most will just bore you (do I need to see that damn picture changing cutscene each time?).

That doesn’t destroy all the good that Episode 3 and 4 bring, but it does bookend the game with average scenarios. It starts slow and ends with a whimper. If you chopped out a little bit of the first episode, you could honestly combine it with the second and get the same result.

In all honesty, a lot of these games seem to crumble under marketing hype. Developers never know when to chill out with how cool their games are (or publishers pressure them into overselling their creations). Life is Strange is more about the relationship between two friends and how choices aren’t the end of the world (until they literally are).

I hate to be so harsh to a game that tackles such dark, dramatic and realistic topics like sexual abuse, stalkers, suicide and bullying, but most of the elements drag down the experience. The ridiculous twist of the real villain is also completely out of left field.

The game creates characters that feel like 3 dimensional beings and demands you look at them as more than caricatures, then the final chapter ends up labeling you a hero and the main bad-guy a psychopath. Dammit.

Still, Life is Strange is absolutely worth a playthrough. It’s not the best thing around, but it has an excellent mixture of gameplay and narrative heft to feel like a really important piece of gaming history. It will also resonate deeply with people who have suffered through similar tragedies in life.

I just wish DONTNOD nailed every aspect. This could have been a stone cold masterpiece.

6.5

All Right

Slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy this game, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.

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Forever Alone?

After playing the Rainbow Six: Siege beta for a few hours, I’m not quite convinced that Ubisoft’s decision to axe a single-player campaign was the best choice. This has nothing to do with my own preference for campaigns, mind you, just that the netcode is pure garbage.

My memories of the Rainbow Six series are almost entirely dedicated to the online portions. I loved Rainbow Six: Raven Shield for it’s open-ended structure. It fit perfectly into co-op play and gave great competition to Counter-Strike for competitive play.

I played the hell out of terrorist hunt in Rainbow Six 3 on Xbox with my friend, Corey. He and I eagerly anticipated the expansion, Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow, and continued to bounce between the two games in co-op campaign and terrorist hunt for a few years. We just loved experiencing that game style together.

As for the plotlines, I don’t really even recall what any of them were about. A tactical shooter is more about replicating a tense, life and death situation then it is about presenting any thought provoking questions to the player. Just take a look at how muddled the plot is in Rainbow Six: Vegas.

The sequel to that game was almost entirely a prequel. Apparently the first game didn’t make enough sense to enough people, so Ubisoft had to detail where the villain came from (I guess being Russian/Chinese wasn’t enough for Tom Clancy fans).

The Tom Clancy universe of games aren’t really tailored around being solo excursions. Splinter Cell was the first time that going alone made sense. Sam Fisher was a better ghost then the Ghost Squad and his mission was to leave as little a trail as possible. Bringing another player, while fun, wasn’t a requirement.

Even that series got expanded into a multiplayer affair. In the latest game of the series, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, the game is markedly improved when in co-op (since the AI is brain dead). It feels excellent to coordinate your attack with a friend.

Even with pointless BS like this.

Enough with Ubisoft games, though. How about the fact that the last gen versions of the upcoming Black Ops III don’t feature a campaign? Well, if not for the price tag, I wouldn’t see this as an issue. From my times working at GameStop, most people didn’t even know Call of Duty had a campaign.

People used to tell me that they would tinker a little with it or plow through the thing on Easy and then forget it existed. Why Activision keeps trying to bolster the campaign is beyond me. Instead of wasting money on putting Kevin Spacey in the game, I think Activision should be boosting the MP up with a larger map count and more modes.

I’m also thinking of one of my favorite shooter franchises, Unreal Tournament. It’s new pre-alpha just released and it’s extremely fun. What doesn’t it have? Any kind of extensive single-player mode. There are bot matches, sure, but nothing in the way of story or character development; the game is focused on delivering the most fast paced and finely tuned multiplayer experience possible.

Having a game forgo a single-player campaign isn’t that big of an issue. To use Hollywood as an example, two of the biggest film releases this year were Max Max: Fury Road and Pitch Perfect 2. Both movies didn’t try to appeal to anyone outside of their target demographic.

Men wanted a more action focused film and got just that with Fury Road. Women were dying to have an all female cast be represented in a way that wasn’t sexist or objectified and got that with Pitch Perfect 2. Funny how disregarding a huge portion of the general population worked in those films favors.

There is nothing men can relate to, so let’s just cancel the whole thing. – Stupid Movie Executive, 2015

With Rainbow Six: Siege excluding a single-player campaign, I think Ubisoft is realizing that the main attraction and lasting appeal of the series is online. Now, I’d agree with them under normal circumstances, but this is Ubisoft we’re talking about. They tend to abandon support for their games a few years after release, leaving online a wasteland.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, the netcode is currently horseshit in the beta. I’d join matches and the entire game would be littered with pings of 380. I have a 50 MBPS download, so my ping shouldn’t be higher then 40.

I’ve seen this happen time and again with a lot of newer releases; developers rush the game out to meet some arbitrary release date and the lasting appeal suffers. All conversations focuses on the horrible launch and how disappointing the online experience ends up being.

With a single-player mode attached to Rainbow Six: Siege, I think gamers would be more forgiving of any online deficiencies. The game truly marks an arrival of next-generation style gameplay. Destructible environments and particle effects not only make the game looks expensive, but have a tangible impact on the gameplay.

With a strong internet infrastructure, I feel that Rainbow Six: Siege could be a game changer. Without that (which is more then likely going to be the case), I don’t think gamers will stick around. That lack of single-player is going to feel like a wasted opportunity.

For the most part, I feel that a lot of developers should focus more on the strengths of their game’s concepts then on ticking off some checklist for marketability. Just like Unreal Tournament doesn’t need a campaign mode, Rainbow Six: Siege shouldn’t require one.

Remeber how this game had a campaign? Yeah, I don’t either.

Games don’t exist to cater to everyone at all times. If you don’t fit into the mold of what Rainbow Six: Siege aims to do, then just skip the game. Don’t complain that Ubisoft made a bad decision to eliminate single-player. Don’t nag EA to provide an offline option to Star Wars Battlefront when the entire concept was designed with multiple players.

It’s pointless to want every game to be the same. Not all shooters need a campaign mode, just as how not every fucking game needs tacked on multiplayer. We need to stop having developers split their teams into single and multi-player offsets and combine their powers to make the best possible experience they can. If that happens to be multi-player only, so be it.

Is Dragon’s Crown Sexist? (Short Blog)

Is Dragon’s Crown really that controversial of a game? What, exactly, is wrong with the art style? Sitting here and listening to TotalBiscuit’s podcast, I’m stunned. I’ve seen coverage of the game on Destructoid, but I didn’t realize how bad the public image was.

For starters, I haven’t been the most accepting of people online. I typically over-react to situations and condemn developers for their indiscretions. Even this past weekend, I expressed how I was happy that Phil Fish was leaving the games industry.

Still, when I don’t have a problem with the sexual depiction of women in a game, you should probably come to the conclusion that nothing is wrong with the art style. I don’t care if you find fault with it, but I don’t really see the point.

It’s like we’re shouting at our own problems. In the past, I’ve typically lambasted things like Street Fighter and Dead or Alive because of how scantily clad the women are. The real issue: there were no women in my life to talk to.

About the only complaint I can hold up is unfair difficulty curves. Sometimes games just do not teach the player well enough. They Bleed Pixels is an example of such. The first 4 worlds have a steady increase in difficulty, but the last level is maddening.

Regardless, I think we, as adults, need to grow up a bit. Most of the debates come from how insensitive the depiction of women is and how they might traumatize our children. Since we have the power to buy the product, you can simply not buy the product.

That’s a startling revelation, I know. I truly believe, though, that we’re projecting our own failings onto gaming. There is always going to be a game that truly sucks, but if the only problem you can find in a game is how bad the art style is, why are you complaining so much?

It’s a valid complaint and I accept it as the reason you may not enjoy something, but it’s not the sole factor for deeming something as bad. Just because you disagree with something doesn’t mean it’s objectively bad.

My time watching Game Grumps has taught me more about how to view gaming. I even wrote a piece that focused on some aspects of Dust: An Elysian Tail that ruined the game for me. My opinion wasn’t based in hatred or even subjectivity.

When you can tangibly call out a feature of a game instead of relying on pure emotion, it feels great. It’s much better than throwing stones at self-conflict. Obviously your own investment counts for a lot, but I’m tired of reading opinions where the only negative is how uninvested someone is.

So, this blog is unfocused and probably totally off base. Regardless, I’m fed up with spreading hate and seeing hate. I just want us, as a global community, to stop being so entitled and righteous. Sometimes, we just need to have fun.

I may be completely unable to have fun, but dammit if I’m not going to spread cheer around!

I also must add, I don’t mind the Polygon review of Dragon’s Crown, which sparked the debate on the podcast. The reviewer, Danielle Riendeau, doesn’t focus on the supposed “sexism”. It’s just a minor thing that conveys her opinion to like-minded people. Just find another review to agree with!

“Girlfriend Mode” My Ass!

Editor’s Note: To Gearbox’s credit, President Randy Pitchford seems pretty pissed about the whole situation. He took to Twitter stating “Borderlands 2 does NOT have a girlfriend mode. Anyone that says otherwise is misinformed or trying to stir up something that isn’t there… The future DLC Mechromancer class has a skill tree that makes it easier for less skilled coop partners (any gender!) to play and be useful.” Pitchford didn’t deny Hemingway’s statement, citing it as a “personal anecdote” and following with “there is no universe where Hemmingway is a sexist – all the women at Gearbox would beat his and anyone else’s ass.” But that still doesn’t change the fact that sexism continues to be an important issue in the gaming industry and culture as a whole.

Developers and stupid comments seem to be going hand in hand these days. First we get Crystal Dynamics shooting themselves in the foot and now we have Gearbox making asshats out of themselves. It’s insane to think how grown adults can’t figure out how to properly speak to journalists about their games.

Still, the most recent instance with Gearbox’s John Hemingway just does not make sense to me. Are the developers intentionally trying to not sell their product to women? When I first read the quick blip for Eurogamer’s article, I immediately thought of a mode where the female character would bond to one character and heal them.

Instead, the gaming world is now treated to something unintentionally sexist. To say that female gamers require additional assistance in their games is ludicrous. If the main idea was to appeal to significant others who are bad at video games, why not just label the mechanic as noob mode?

Still, I’m a white male and I’m getting outraged at something that doesn’t really impact me. I’ll never know what it’s like to be a woman and have people constantly harassing me, so I took to Twitter for some quick comments.

I asked my co-worker’s girlfriend and another co-worker of mine (the now infamous Jozie). Both play games and while they may not be experts or as hardcore as I am, they certainly can hold their own in terms of ability.

As you can clearly see, both aren’t too happy about Hemingway’s comment. While he may not be a ravenous sexist, he certainly is unfounded and ignorant. Just like the controversy over Dead Island and their “Feminist Whore” skill, developers need to realize that in-jokes aren’t funny to the masses and knocks against female stereotypes are unfounded and ridiculous.

To further drive the point home, an old friend of mine was quite the gamer. She couldn’t best me in Call of Duty or Gears of War, but she certainly wasn’t a slouch either. Gaming with her on “Hard Mode” wasn’t some futile attempt to make myself look better. She honestly was up for the challenge and liked not having the game be a cakewalk.

I’ve also known quite a few female workers from local GameStop’s that are interested in some pretty awesome stuff. My best friend Jim’s old boss loved “Dark Souls,” a game that makes most grown men cry. This very lovely girl, Jen, was a huge fan of Fable and Call of Duty and she used to ask me pointers on how to get better, instead of cowering in fear of harder difficulties.

I also recall of two twins who were gigantic Pokémon fans. While that may not be the most daunting of titles to topple, just having the sheer dexterity to finish any of those titles is a pretty monumental accomplishment. I’ve only ever beaten two Pokémon games and I sink hundreds of hours into each.

My point is I don’t understand why developers are still treating women like unskilled peons. According to ESRB polls, around 40% of gamers are women. If you total up all sales of the previous “Borderlands” (as presented by VGChartz.com), you get about 4.55 million copies. Imagine if 40% did not buy the sequel. You’d sell close to 2 million copies less.

That is something that Gearbox probably doesn’t want to face. Sadly, they may see a pretty big decline come September. Borderlands didn’t have the easiest start of any new IP, but it did well on the charm of its gameplay and word of mouth from gamers.

If the new word of mouth is that Gearbox is a bunch of sexist idiots, maybe Borderlands 2 won’t sell so well. While I can’t predict what will happen, I will say that developers need to start treating their potential customers a lot better.

Enough of the bullshit where women apparently suck or that being offended is solely your fault. Start thinking about what you say and maybe I’ll give a shit about your work. Until then, you’ve lost a prospective customer.

Cate Archer isn’t pleased.