Small Packages, Good Games

In between long and involved games like chapters of Assassin’s Creed and The Witcher, I really like shorter games with tighter stories that I can play through in a week or two. Especially when I don’t have a lot of time to devote to gaming. Two shorter games I played this summer that really impressed me were Watch Dogs 2 and Soma.

Watch Dogs 2

I loved playing this game. Watch Dogs 2 has the perfect balance of open-world and a directed story. I could while away a gaming session exploring a beautifully rendered San Francisco and Bay Area, stopping for coffee at a donut shop, trying on new outfits, cruising the harbor or pretending to be a part of impromptu parties and street gatherings. I could explore hidden basements and rooftops, looking for new key data and the points to spend researching it. For a day, I could be a cab driver, toting citizens around the city – or helping them catch as much air as possible by zooming up San Francisco’s many hills and launching ourselves (in the car) from the top of them. There are so many neighborhoods to explore and reasons to do so. And, you can post it all on an Instagram type feed called ScoutX.

party

Meanwhile, there’s a fairly immersive story waiting for you that ties into real-world issues by proposing that one man, Dusan Nemec, is using the tools at the disposal of his tech corporation, Blume, to gather data on network users (hypothetically, me and you) for financial gain and influence. The data is exchanged in secret deals with health insurance companies (order a pizza using the app on your phone and your health insurance premiums might just go up), home security companies (do you know who has access to your new smart home?), the local police (use and abuse of power and cooperation with local outlaw gangs), the FBI… the list goes on up the chain until the game has you believing that no data is safe from attack and abuse. It’s pretty scary and reminiscent of reality in a way that has you thinking about the trail you leave online.

I’ve always been of the opinion that if someone finds me interesting enough to trace, good luck to them. I surf recipe sites, book review sites, gaming sites, some science, a little porn, and too much social media. I’m really not that interesting. But my digital footprint could be useful in the right hands when it comes to manipulating my opinion on certain subjects, such as an election.

The point of the game is to take down Blume and the process is fairly straight forward. Get some dirt, spread it around, and invite others to roll in it with you. Of course, this gains Nemec’s attention and he’s not a friendly foe. The stakes rise far higher than I expected from this outwardly fun game, and the plot points hit harder. I came to truly care for the members of Dedsec, even though they sometimes felt a little too young and radical for my homecooked and mow it to perfection twice a week self. 

What I Loved Most

Driving. Or, more accurately, riding my Sayanora motorcycle from one end of the city, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up into the hills behind Oakland. I only killed one other motorcyclist on these trips (which I, of course, felt terrible about), and managed to limit collateral damage to a few traffic lights and several stop signs. I was much more dangerous with four wheels beneath me. Or should I say Marcus was? Marcus was much dangerous in a car. In a van, he was downright destructive. The guy was a terrible driver. 😉

I never got tired of driving across the Golden Gate Bridge or simply watching the city unfold around me. The environment is amazing and the fact you can stop off at any point and engage with it never failed to tempt me.

I also really enjoyed learning to sneak around Umeni security corps and gang members. I excelled in the art of distraction and spent most of my research points learning to sow greater chaos.

The network puzzles were awesome, except the ones that had timers attached. I actually sucked at those but managed to get through all of them, sometimes with naught but a second to spare.

And shopping. I really enjoyed shopping. In what other game can you buy and wear a donut shirt?

donutshirt

What I Didn’t Love

Not much, to be honest, though the level of violence available never stopped bothering me. For some reason, I thought hackers would be peaceable types who favored quiet takedowns or a completely hands-off method to achieving their goals. Probably naive of me.

Apparently, if you immediately freeze, Umeni Corps won’t shoot. They’ll arrest you and escort you from the premises. I never managed this feat. I was shot every time and had to replay several missions several times in order to learn the path of least resistance out of a building – until I become a more accomplished chaos engineer, that is.

I also didn’t like that it was so easy to kill people with things like, um, forklifts. The first time was an accident and I stared at my screen, completely horrified. The second time was deliberate as I learned to remotely pilot forklifts, cars, motorcycles, vans, and scissor-lifts into enemies, maiming, crushing, and killing. Bad guys. Mostly bad guys. Load up something explosive and the effect is even better. I never felt quite right about killing people, though, and opted in most cases for a melee attack that probably broke necks, but I could tell myself they were simply knocked out. You know, like in Assassin’s Creed.

Dusan Nemec was a tool. I loved his eventual takedown. So, I didn’t love him, but his character was perfectly scripted. From the man-bun and not a hair out of place face fur to his stupidly expensive track pants.

In Summary

While searching online for the reason there was so much trash blowing around the streets of San Francisco (I thought it might be a real-world effect caused by my causing too much chaos, like in Dishonored), I came across a lot of Reddit and other forum comments calling the game trash, a waste of time, and absolute garbage. I disagree. I thought the game was FUN, well-scripted, just difficult enough to be a challenge, and filled with enough activity outside the main quest to be worth the sticker price. I grabbed it on sale for less than $20 and wouldn’t have been upset to have paid the usual $50-$60.

The game ran bug-free and seamlessly on my PC, which is running a fairly old (now) Intel Core i5-4460 CPU with only 16Gb of RAM, and a GeForce GTX 970 graphics card.

I logged 40 hours of playtime and though I completed the main quest and quite a few side activities, I felt I’d barely scratched the surface of the world environment. There was a lot left to do and the main quest holds (in my opinion) substantial replay value.

Recommended!

Soma

Before playing The Evil Within, I hadn’t known horror survival was a genre. What I love about games like this is the tight, compact story, and the different style of gameplay they encourage. These aren’t necessarily “kill them first and ask questions later” kind of games. You don’t advance by learning to hold two guns (swords, machetes, flame throwers) at once. More usually, the player is presented every level with a new puzzle that encourages you to think about what you’ve already learned and apply it in a new and interesting way. Sort of like Prince of Persia, but with way less jumping.

I had forgotten everything about Soma by the time I got around to playing it, except that maybe I’d bought it on my daughter’s recommendation. I once watched a trailer for this post-apocalyptic game set under the ocean where you went from station to station in a sub, avoiding scary things. It was a top-down, 3D affair (think Diablo III) and looked pretty immersive. I forgot to add it to my wishlist, though, and never saw it again. Then my daughter started talking about a game called Soma that was post-apocalyptic and underwater. And it was on sale. So I picked it up.

Soma is eerily similar to that lost game, except that it has an FPS interface and the only sub you get your hands on breaks soon afterward because of course it does. Getting around in a sub would be too easy – and boring.

Basically, the story is that you’re this dude, Simon, and you have something wrong with your brain. The result of an accident. The game begins with you (as Simon) visiting the doctor who is going to scan your brain with the hopes of developing a treatment regimen. You go to this lab and sit in a chair and a mechanical screen lowers over your head as you engage in foreshadow-y banter with the doctor – about how Native Americans believed that cameras could capture a person’s soul. As Simon is plunged into darkness, you, the player, is, of course, thinking about what this computerized brain scan is going to capture.

When the screen lifts, you’re in a different room. It’s dark and really, really creepy, and once you figure out how to turn the lights on, it’s not much better. The room is littered with broken machinery, which has, ah, something sort of growing on it, something that at first glance is part machine, part biological – maybe – and then there are these suits.

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You quickly ascertain that you’re not where you thought you were and over the course of the game, you also discover that you’re not what you thought you were. Oh, and the world has ended, and you’re basically humanity’s last hope.

What I Loved

While you’re dodging scary AF creatures that KILL YOU, the story delves more deeply into the themes of what makes us human, and thoughts about our viability and survivability as a species. All stuff I LOVE.

The voice acting is thoughtful and I really enjoyed getting to know the two main characters in the game, Simon and Catherine. I was invested in their adventure.

The creep factor is real and I jumped several times as horrors ducked around corners and crept up behind me. I further loved the fact that there is no combat option – the only way to survive the game and win all objectives is to sneak your way through the increasingly weird and depressing ruins of the Pathos station.

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Oh, and there are a couple of neat twists to the story, and one or two decisions you must make that really hit quite hard.

What I Didn’t Love

The way the ending was handled. No spoilers, but initially, there was a complete sense of “well, damn.” I was depressed about how things had turned out and a little annoyed that the developers had ended the game the way they had. Tabbing out of the end game credits delivers an epilogue that is much more worthwhile, being the ending I’d expected all along. I don’t know if the first ending is a fake-out? If so, I think the segue into the second ending could have been handled a little more elegantly.

In Summary

Overall, I loved this game. I’ve raved about it to several other gamer friends and despite the small hiccup toward the end for me, I thought the story was super solid. Deeply thoughtful and compelling. The first ending does work quite well, it’s just… I like my endings a little happier.

I was hooked by the story from beginning to end and played this game in two days – which is nearly unheard of for me. I usually don’t have that sort of time to devote all at once, but also, this is a really short game. I clocked only 12 hours over the course of a single weekend.

I got this one on sale and would probably wait for a sale again rather than pay $30, but I did think the bang was worth the buck. Soma delivered a nearly flawless gaming experience and a totally immersive story. It’s easy to learn the rules, and while the story is tight, you can roam off the beaten path to explore more of the world if you want to. I can imagine the game could be replayed a couple of times, therefore revealing more clues.

Highly recommended. I’ll be looking out for more from Frictional Games.

 

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