Jack Gardner

 
I was sorely tempted to just write, “It is a Telltale game,” for this review, because I think that over the last three years or so people have come to understand a lot about what that means in terms of gameplay, graphics, and overarching game design. However, I think that you all probably expect a bit more effort from me than that, so hopefully as we go through this spoiler-free review we can better our understanding of Telltale Games and their body of work.
 
One of the most refreshing things about Telltale Games is that they don’t do the same thing twice when it come to their narratives. The Walking Dead tells a gripping tale of grisly sacrifice and survival. Both seasons focused on a single protagonist and developed them over the course of five episodes into characters for whom players really cared. More than that, the first season was about a leader, the second was about a follower struggling to grow up. The Wolf Among Us spins a dizzying tale of neo-fantasy noir, complete with suitably muddy issues of crime and justice. Players become a moral authority within the Fable universe, the word of law for the denizens of Fabletown, no matter how much they grumble. Each season that Telltale has made tells a different narrative in a different way while still using the same underlying game mechanics and graphics engine. Tales from the Borderlands sticks with the mechanics, but adopts a more comedic, lighthearted tone that stands out from three seasons of grim and gritty violence.
 
Tales from the Borderlands Episode One - Zer0 Sum kicks off the five part season by introducing players to Rhys and Fiona, the unreliable protagonists of the series. They’ve been captured by an enigmatic resident of Pandora who wants to know the stories that led them both to him. They each take turns telling their version of events, sometimes breaking in on one another to correct a misremembered moment or interject what “really” happened. Rhys, a corporate ladder climber for the evil Hyperion Corporation, and Fiona, a fast-talking Pandoran con artist, make for an entertaining duo. Telltale successfully plays off of their differences to great comedic effect.
 

 
I love these choices for the narrative direction of their fourth game series, if for no other reason than because it is a different approach to video game narratives. It is far from the first video game to have a framed narrative told through unreliable narrators, Dragon Age II used the same storytelling device, but game developers rarely opt to try to take their stories this direction. Unreliable narrators and framed narratives present numerous difficulties, especially in video games, but when it works, it works fantastically. The best part about Zer0 Sum is that the writers, Pierre Shorette and Adam Hines (presumably with some input from Gearbox’s Anthony Burch), use the unusual narrative mechanics of framed storytelling for some great laughs. They aren’t using the device just because; the use has a definite goal in mind and it pays off, which testifies to how well Shorette and Hines know their business.
 
In addition to the functional narrative difference between Telltale Games’ previous efforts, Zer0 Sum represents a huge change of tone from what many people have come to expect from the studio. Tales from the Borderlands takes a very lighthearted stance when it comes to its world and characters. Everything is clever, a little bit tongue-in-cheek, even the violence. You can kind of see Telltale’s roots in the Sam & Max adventure games shine through if you squint a little. The changed attitude and infusion of humor make Tales from the Borderlands pop. It comes as a breath of fresh air released between the ends of both The Walking Dead Season Two and The Wolf Among Us and the release of Telltale’s six part Game of Thrones series.
 
It would be a mistake to place the tonal change completely in the writer’s hands when the art direction perfectly captures the Borderlands vibe. Telltale’s game engine really thrives when it is paired with graphic novel or comic book material, which proves to be very helpful when adapting it to Borderlands. The stylized world of Pandora lends itself very well to Telltale’s art style, resulting in a very aesthetically appealing game. Players of Tales from the Borderlands will notice the improvement and appreciate it, especially if they have played previous Telltale series and felt underwhelmed by the visuals.
 

 
For all of my talk about story mechanics and visual styles, like all Telltale games, Tales from the Borderlands lives and dies on the strength of its narrative. In that regard, Telltale came out guns blazing. Zer0 Sum propels itself along at an almost breakneck pace. There are few dead moments where it feels like nothing is happening. I loved the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but one of the things that I felt held it a bit back was the occasionally ponderous pacing. There was a lot of quiet that served less as introspection and more as waiting to find the thing that moves the story forward. In the grand scheme of that first run of five episodes, it wasn’t a big deal, but there were definitely moments I found myself wishing it would move along. There are relatively few quiet moments in Tales from the Borderlands, but even the rare opportunity to relax has something going on that makes player decisions and actions feel immediate.
 
Beyond pacing, Tales from the Borderlands begins answering one of the big questions I had while playing through Gearbox's Borderlands games: Where are all the "normal" people? Tales from the Borderlands helps players understand how Pandora functions as a society. It turns out that the people who live there aren't all insanely violent and some are just average people trying to make their way on a world gone mad. Really, that's probably part of the core message of the Borderlands games. The world, life, is crazy and there aren't really any normal people. Just some that act a bit crazier than others. I'm interested to see if that message evolves as the future episodes release.  
 
I have a bit of a test that I sometimes run to see how people with short attention spans and less inclined toward games might react toward a more story-heavy game. I play the first half-hour of a game with a family member or friend and get some feedback on what he or she thinks about what they just saw. I usually don’t mention the test in my reviews since it only tangentially helps me to get a fresh perspective on what I just played. However, it is interesting in this case because I did the test with the same person for both the first thirty minutes of The Walking Dead Season One and Zer0 Sum. I was a bit shocked that they had completely different reactions to both. The Walking Dead gameplay left such a small impression on them that they didn’t remember the experience at all. On the other hand, they really wanted to see more of Tales from the Borderlands. In both instances, this person insisted on just watching the gameplay unfold. The results of those informal tests tell me that the narrative is strong enough to inspire interest that exists separate from the typical Telltale game mechanics.
 

 
Ideally, I think that game developers should approach game design in a way that weaves mechanics and narrative together. I loved this year’s Transistor so much precisely because everything in it, gameplay, narrative, setting, etc. furthered its message. Usually it isn’t a good idea to separate mechanics from storytelling, but in Telltale’s case, the mechanics aren’t important to what they’re trying to say with their games. In fact, the biggest criticism I can level against Tales from the Borderlands is that it doesn’t do anything interesting with the mechanics that have now supported three complete episodic games, all three of which have been insanely successful. It is hard to fault them for staying their course or from arguing that the design is ineffective. Choosing dialogue options invests players in the protagonists and makes the story feel personal. Participating in combat via quick-time events makes the danger feel more immediate. Placing the burden of gameplay almost entirely on directing conversations and making decisions eases development for Telltale. I get it. However, I think the challenge for Telltale in the years ahead will be blending gameplay and story together more effectively. They found a combination that functions, but until they find a better way to present their amazing work they’re barely scratching at the surface of something incredibly powerful.
  Conclusion:
Tales from the Borderlands Episode One – Zer0 Sum is a Telltale game. Expect a lot of story, dialogue choices, and quick-time action sequences. If you were too impatient for their earlier titles, Zer0 Sum might have enough momentum to sweep you up into the larger drama. However, if the gameplay of previous Telltale adventure titles turned you off, Tales from the Borderlands doesn’t do anything that might change your mind. On the whole, I found it laugh-out-loud funny more than a few times, was generally smiling, and thought that it was one of Telltale’s best efforts to date.
 
Tales from the Borderlands Episode One was reviewed PC and is now available for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android (so, basically everything)

Jack Gardner

 
Starting today, rascally poros take over League of Legends' Howling Abyss map for the next couple of weeks allowing players to enjoy The Legend of the Poro King game mode. 
 
From today until January 6, players can partake in the most precious battles of all time. The new game mode revolves around a new ability that allows players to throw poros at each other and summon the mighty Poro King. 
 
 
For a few more specifics on the game mode, check out the release page. For a look at one of the most adorable images in the world, click here. 
Maybe Riot will keep the Poro King as a full champion? A guy can dream, right?

Jack Gardner

 
Blizzard's free-to-play card game finally makes its way to Android tablets (but only in certain countries), the iPhone and Android phone versions are still on the way early next year.
 
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft hit Android tablets today in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Though not available in the United States quite yet, it should be available worldwide in the next couple of days. Unfortunately, that's as specific as Blizzard was willing to be regarding a US release. 
 
"Hearthstone's intuitive interface and approachable design make it a perfect fit for tablets, and we've put a lot of effort into ensuring players have a great experience on a wide range of Android devices," said Mike Morhaime, Blizzard Entertainment's CEO and co-founder. "We're excited to welcome Android players to the Hearthstone community, and we're looking forward to bringing the game to even more mobile platforms—including phones—in the future." 
 
Regarding the long awaited phone versions of Hearthstone, Blizzard announced last December that they will be available in the early months of 2015, rather than making their 2014 year end release goal. 

Jack Gardner

 
Ciri, a woman burdened under the weight of ancient blood and prophecy, joins Geralt as a playable character in The Witcher 3. 

CD Projekt RED decided that adding another playable character would provide new narrative opportunities that players would be able to enjoy. Ciri is the last of a lost Elven lineage and wields considerable power, a power which has drawn the wrath of the Wild Hunt and the Kingdom of Nilfgaard. The CD Projekt stresses that her inclusion as a playable character isn't the a shift in focus from Geralt. "[Ciri] is not playable in the same way as Geralt -- the game is still about him, his story," they clarified.  
 
The team also has this to say about Ciri:
The announcement comes alongside the release of several new screenshots that can be seen here.
 
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is currently set for release on May 19.

Jack Gardner

 
I’ll be more upfront than usual; Dragon Age: Inquisition is a fantastic game. The staggeringly large scope, excellent score, eye-popping visuals, and engaging gameplay, BioWare executed everything almost flawlessly. I’d recommend it to almost anyone, even people who aren’t typically drawn toward RPGs. Inquisition has issues, certainly, but none that would prevent me from endorsing it. If you are just looking for my recommendation, there you have it. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in a deeper dive into Inquisition, taking a look at the seemingly minor issues that keep Inquisition from rising into the stuff of video game legend, read on.
 
I think it fitting to begin a discussion of Inquisition by addressing the glitches that plagued my opening hour of gameplay. I spent around three hours attempting to satisfactorily begin the game. Character creation proved to be particularly difficult. No joke, all of the facial hair floated a good six inches off of my protagonist’s face, dissuading me from touching any of the glorious beards on display. Perhaps more importantly, the lighting in character creation looks nothing close to the lighting elsewhere in the game. Meaning that my first character, who I intended to look Middle Eastern, ended up looking like he had a fake spray tan that would never, ever come off. Though I initially thought I’d try to live with the abysmal results, I quickly ditched him because Dragon Age decided that he was going to be regarded as a lady by all other characters in the game, a rather significant glitch for which there was no fix. My second time through the creation process went much better, though depending on camera angles and lighting my protagonist could either look really awesome or like the world’s biggest simpleton. I thought I was in the clear.
 
However, Dragon Age kept switching him from a mage to a rogue midway through the tutorial. It took over a dozen reloads before I was able to successfully make it through the introduction and progress into the game proper. With those initial glitchy hurdles cleared, my experience was nearly error free, excepting the occasional giant falling out of the sky. I only encountered one major glitch after the opening ordeal. About halfway through Inquisition, the game introduces a new character who can be customized. If players choose to customize that particular character, there seems to be a 50% chance that their main protagonist’s voice could change to the default option if they had opted for the non-default voice during character creation. This happened to me with no way to reverse it. There are few things as grating as spending 40 hours with a character sounding one way only for them to suddenly begin sounding completely, irritatingly different.
 

 
Glitches aside, people interested in the PC version should know that Inquisition’s mouse and keyboard controls handle terribly. I could only handle about two or three minutes of gameplay before I decided to plug in a wired 360 controller, which proved to be a far superior experience.
 
A tactical RPG originally made for the PC, Dragon Age: Origins required strategic thinking and micromanaging that lent itself very well to a mouse and keyboard. To a lesser extent, that was also true of Dragon Age 2. However, I found Dragon Age: Inquisition to be more of an action game with RPG elements, which lends itself better to a controller than a keyboard. A tactical camera and customizable companion tactics allow players to fine tune strategies, but I literally never used either of those functions, never even touched them. Granted, I played through on Normal difficulty, so perhaps higher difficulty levels require a more tactical approach to combat. The fact remains that I approached combat almost like I would a button masher and had a great time. The change isn’t a bad thing for the Dragon Age franchise, but prospective players should be aware that Inquisition’s gameplay differs significantly from that of its ancestors.
 
The strength of BioWare’s writing team remains unchanged. To summarize the initial plot: The Chantry, the leading religious power in Thedas, convenes a special council to begin peace talks between rebellious mages and their former Templar handlers, an attempt to halt a disastrous war. Something goes horribly wrong and the entire council is obliterated in a magical cataclysm that creates The Breach, a massive portal to the Fade, a realm of spirits and demons. In all the commotion, a single individual emerges from The Breach, the bearer of a strange magical mark on their right hand. As that person, players make choices that shape the world of Thedas for better or worse. It is a great set up raising numerous questions for players to explore. What is the role of faith in times of peril? Is the protagonist divine? Can the current events all be rationally explained? Is there a god looking out for the people of Thedas? Unfortunately, none of these questions are really explored to much meaningful depth. It was a bit of a disappointment, especially given where the series might be going in the future.
 

 
If anything makes up for my minor grumbles with how adequately Inquisition explores its own themes it is how well BioWare succeeds in characterization. Far and away, I found the dialogue to be the strongest part of Inquisition. BioWare really isn’t afraid to explore waters that most other video games still aren’t ready to touch quite yet. One of the most compelling companion characters, Dorian, is a mage that prefers the company of other men. He’s not treated as a stereotype or a token character. He’s a fully formed individual, which is rare to see in most Western games. A more succinct way of putting it is that Dorian’s sexual orientation isn’t something that defines him as a character, rather he’s written as a person who happens to be gay. He’s also bold, brimming with clever quips, and can occasionally put aside his façade of bravado to try and be a good friend. BioWare isn’t content to rest on its laurels after crafting a character that most studios wouldn’t have bother with either. Krem, the second in command of the Bull’s Chargers mercenary company, breaks new ground as the first transgender character in the Western AAA game space. Despite not being one of the core companion characters, Krem stands out in the land of big budget games as a minority character written in a humane way. Much like Dorian, Krem’s gender identity isn’t the thing that defines him, he’s a person before anything else.
 
I only mentioned two out of a cast of dozens. Who could forget Cassandra, the hard case Seeker with a hidden love for trashy romance novels? Or Sera, the kooky-yet-practical city elf that seems more than a little unhinged? Or what about… I could keep listing names for paragraphs, but I think you’ve probably understood my meaning. Lesser writers would stop short. Cassandra would just be a stuffy warrior, Sera would just be crazy, Dorian would just be another gay stereotype. Heck, Krem would be a one line anomaly in a typical game. But BioWare adds just enough to make each one seem fleshed out and real. Each have their own motivations, goals, and desires. They have needs and wants that are directly communicated to the player and others that are only hinted at and suggest greater depth. Despite the fantasy setting and the supernatural threats that close in on every side, Dragon Age: Inquisition manages to paint more realistic people than many games that strive to be more grounded in reality.
 

 
As I played Inquisition, I slowly began to feel an absence. I tried to shake it off, but it continued to grow as I progressed. Then, somewhere in the midst of court intrigue, large scale warfare, and demons raining from the sky, it suddenly stuck me how disconnected I felt from it all. It wasn’t that the characters are written badly, several of them are easily the most brilliantly written video game characters I’ve had the pleasure to come across. It also wasn’t that Dragon Age: Inquisition is boring; there are plenty of things to do and the game aims to be visually stunning at all times. It didn’t even seem like the problem was on a narrative level, an issue usually found in even the biggest AAA games. I really struggled to pin down exactly why Inquisition felt so impersonal, and it wasn’t until after the credits rolled and I had an opportunity to reflect on the game and BioWare’s previous accomplishments that the answer hit me.
 
One of the most positively received video games to come out of BioWare is Mass Effect 2. The wild, incredible narrative ride ratchets up over time to climax in a suicide mission made all the more satisfying by the time devoted to interacting with and learning about the team that risk their lives alongside the player. In other words, Mass Effect 2’s effectiveness stems from how the narrative and game design choices all revolve around each other, intertwined and inseparable. Practically every mission either links with a certain character, advancing the player’s relationship with them, or propels the plot forward. Almost no missions in Mass Effect 2 consist of dead air (except, of course, the planet scanning), every moment crackles with purpose to one end or another. To invest players and keep up the narrative momentum, BioWare kept every mission carefully directed and allowed for little in the way of exploration.
 

 
BioWare seems to have taken a different approach that centers on the vastness of the areas they’ve created. It is easy to see why; clearly a lot of time went into the awe-inspiring environments. However, the mission structures applied to these huge spaces feel very similar to what you’d find in an MMO. For many people that might not be a problem, but it leads to a relatively inert game both in terms of player engagement and game narrative. That’s why I had trouble pinpointing the problem at first; the disconnect isn’t on a traditional narrative level. Instead it is the result of a uniquely game-related design choice. Unlike Mass Effect 2, many of the missions, even some that involve companions, require backtracking through previously explored areas to kill bad guys/collect items/destroy things A, B, and C. They aren’t engaging tasks. You’ve probably done them thousands of times in other games. None of those things are as memorable or meaningful as the time Garrus tried to assassinate his ex-squad member, Sidonis, and was either talked into or out of it through conversation.
 
I spent almost 100 hours in Thedas, and there were still areas I hadn’t fully explored. I completed the game at level 24, even though the game recommends the final mission for character levels 15-19. The world BioWare created was so big that the side stuff overtakes the main narrative, despite it being the least interesting part of the experience. It seems telling to me that “Leave the Hinterlands” has become a piece of advice repeated again and again. Players are getting wrapped up in checking all the boxes, going into every nook and cranny, and engaging less with the characters and narrative. That’s a shame, because the main quest missions are easily the most interesting parts of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I just wish that there were more of them and less uninspired open world quest design.
 
Herb gathering exemplifies the issue perfectly. The game begins and it is exciting to stumble across herbs and harvest them, so you tap buttons to go through the gathering animations again and again. They’re all over the place. Then you discover that it takes herbs to replenish your supply of health potions. Gathering herbs stops being a cool diversion and becomes a necessity. Later you learn that it takes herbs to upgrade your potions, too. At this point, you will be willing to commit murder to not gather any more herbs. What started as a fun diversion becomes a mind-numbingly boring task. Sure, you can send soldiers to do it, but they’ll only bring six or seven plants back at a time, but you could collect double that in the time it takes them to bring more back. Even by the end of the game, I was scrabbling for more herbs, more crafting materials. It took me out of the world and diverted my attention from narratively important tasks.
 

 
With the writing talent at their disposal, BioWare’s decision to focus away from the dialogues is perplexing. I don’t mean that Inquisition lacks in the dialogue department at all, but rather there was a slight design choice that clearly emphasizes the open world gameplay over the conversations. One of the things that I loved about both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series was that practically all conversations with significant NPCs that had more than one sentence to say were done from multiple fixed camera angles that created more engaging visuals than the player controlled camera was capable of providing. It made conversations feel more immediate and exciting. While that is certainly still present in Dragon Age: Inquisition, more often than not players will be kept in the broad player controlled camera during conversations.  
 
The design choice encourages players to leave the conversation with the NPC whenever they’d like. On paper, that seems like something a lot of players would want, but in practice I think it creates a lot of distance between the player and the sidequests or extra dialogue players might want to have with their companions. I understand that it is a large game and players have a lot to do, but are we really too busy to want personal conversations with important characters? I don’t think so, and I can’t help but feel we lost something rather important. 
 
Ultimately, the estrangement from Dragon Age: Inquisition hurt my perception of its narrative. Perhaps I spent too much time pursuing side content and not enough on finishing the core missions, but by the end of the game everything felt stacked in my protagonist’s favor and the climactic finale seemed like little more than a formality. This could be an indication that the narrative itself is a bit flawed on how it approaches the overarching conflict in Dragon Age: Inquisition, but that’s probably a spoiler-filled topic for another day.
 
 
Conclusion:
 
Despite the glitches, the feeling of disconnection, and the wall of text that might indicate otherwise, I very much enjoyed my time in Thedas. The criticisms I had were small, but they’ll be the reason Dragon Age: Inquisition isn’t remembered quite as fondly as Origins or the Mass Effect series. Dragon Age: Inquisition left me wanting more, curious as to where the franchise might be headed next. Color me doubly curious since many loose ends from both Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 are resolved by the time the credits roll in Inquisition. I opened this review with a recommendation and I’m ending it with another. Do yourself a favor and play Dragon Age: Inquisition. Any missteps it makes pale in comparison to the enjoyable experience it can offer.
 
Dragon Age: Inquisition was reviewed PC and is now available for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360

Jack Gardner

 
End of the Line, an animated short created in Source Filmmaker, tells the age old tale of Red vs. Blue, but this time there's a train full of death. It is really well done and it deserves the praise it has been getting from the internet since yesterday. In fact, Valve has officially recognized the fan film and released a Team Fortress 2 update along side its release. The update includes several End of the Line in-game items and animations.

 
In addition to the short film and the TF2 update, there are shirts, posters, and soundtracks available. 

Jack Gardner

 
Bandai Namco has announced that a new Godzilla game will be rampaging to PS3 and PS4 next year. The new game starring the terror of Tokyo will include appearances by many of Godzilla's familiar enemies, like King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Mechagodzilla.
 
Other than that, this game looks a bit perplexing. 
 
 
Apparently players will control Godzilla with the goal of trampling through cities and foes to destroy Energy Generators and collect G-Energy. All of this will be done with a "Movie-Style Camera Angle System" which sounds like something a vengeful camera god would come up with scourge the lands with confusing camera controls. 
 
Whatever the case, I do enjoy the humorous take on the game in the trailer, which might be a good indication that the game won't take itself too seriously. I'm probably in the minority of people who will definitely be looking forward to whatever weird concoction of gameplay Godzilla ends up being.

Jack Gardner

 
Josef Fares founded Hazelight, a new development studio under EA, with a core team composed of veterans who worked with him on Brothers. The indie studio's first project is still unnamed, but is teased at the end of the video announcing Hazelight. 

 
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was a fantastic accomplishment and I really can't wait to see what Hazelight has in store for those two gentlemen on that train. 

Jack Gardner

 
The development team decided to push back the release of The Wither 3: Wild Hunt one more time in order to iron out some of the finer details. Though it was originally slated for release this month, The Witcher 3 was delayed into early 2015 back in March. Now fans will have to wait until May 19th, 2015 for the release of Wild Hunt.

The board of CD Projekt issued an apology to their supporters:
While the news is surely a disappointment, at least CD Projekt has the good grace to apologize, right?

Jack Gardner

 
Today, the game engine that will power Deus Ex titles on PC and next-gen consoles got its first screenshot. 

Eidos Montreal posted to their website today announcing Dawn Engine, a new high fidelity game engine. The engine itself is based on a heavily modified version of IO Interactive's Glacier 2 software.
 

 
Eidos also teased something that it is calling Deus Ex Universe, which it clarified doe not refer to an MMO, but rather a series of projects that all connect to the world of Deus Ex. Eidos Montreal's community manager, Sacha Ramtohul, commented on DEU by saying:

Jack Gardner

 
"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." - Cersei Lannister 
 
Much like last month's first episode of Tales from the Borderlands, the first installment of Telltale's six part Game of Thrones series quietly launched today. The story follows members of House Forrester, a noble family that has fallen into a precarious position during the War of the Five Kings. In terms of continuity with the HBO show, the game takes place roughly around the end of Season Three and continues until the beginning of Season Five.
 
The press release also notes that several actors will be reprising their roles from the show for the game, including Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Natalie Dormer, and Iwan Rheon. Telltale hints that additional cast members could be appearing in later episodes.
 
 
Iron from Ice is available now for PC, Mac, and PlayStation 4. It will be releasing on Xbox One and Xbox 360 this Wednesday. This Thursday the iOS version will make its way to the App Store, while an Android version will become available sometime later this month.

Jack Gardner

 
Ever wondered what life is like for a slice of bread? Since making Surgeon Simulator, the folks at Bossa Studios have been able to think of little else.

 
I am Bread tells the exciting and fateful story of a slice of bread that just wants to be perfectly toasted. Finally bread enthusiasts will have the game they deserve! Expect to see I am Bread on Steam Early Access this Wednesday, December 3.