Game Ramblings #151.1 – Forza Horizon 5: Hot Wheels

More Info from Microsoft

  • Genre: Open World Racing
  • Platform: PC / Xbox Series X
  • Also Available On: Xbox One

Original Forza Horizon 5 Ramblings

Forza Horizon always plays that line between fun and realistic at a base game. Their expansions then either lean towards one of those. For Hot Wheels, it’s definitely leaning into the fun.

This feels a bit like deja-vu in that I’ve already done an x.1 ramblings on a Forza Horizon Hot Wheels expansion. However, that’s not a bad thing in this case. The original run of this theme felt like a layer on top of the existing gameplay. It threw some Hot Wheels tracks into the normal environment and called it a day. This is very much a step up. They’ve built an entire new world for this expansion, consisting of three environment archetype islands (desert, snow, and jungle) set in a large interconnected world in the sky. It’s an incredibly well constructed landscape that really pushes the Hot Wheels theming far better than the previous run.

Compared to the previous one, this also just feels much more playable than I remember. That one had some weird things with physics where opponent AI would have problems staying on the track or staying on all four wheels. I didn’t see that at all here. I think some of that has to do with a much increased use of magnetic tracks that keep you really locked down, at least compared to my memory. On the general driving side there feels like a much larger inclusion of randomly fun track elements. There’s things like water slides, corkscrews, a giant half pipe, boost fans all over the place, and more that just make you feel more like you’re in a childhood playroom than in the base Forza.

That’s not to say it’s all great, but what’s weird here isn’t really a surprise. The events aren’t really that different to the base game. The AI is still rubberbandy as all hell. Like the FH3 expansion, the Hot Wheels cars are largely impractical if you use cockpit view and you end up depending on regular cars. It’s very distinctly an expansion to widen what Forza Horizon 5 is, which is the pattern they’ve followed in the past and isn’t really anything of a surprise here.

This is ultimately a case where you know what you’re getting into. If you liked Horizon 5, you’ll like this. If you didn’t the theming isn’t going to be enough to get you on board. It’s a stupid fun bend on the core Horizon gameplay, which is really all I want. It adds some more events to a game that I will routinely come back to every few months for a few hours, and give me some things to do until the next expansion comes out, and again that’s expected and for me is perfectly in line with what I wanted.

How’d It Age #2 – Star Ocean: First Departure

More Info from Square-Enix

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PSP
  • Also Available On: PS4, Switch
  • Originally On: Super Famicom

This is definitely one of those games that kind of got away. It didn’t come out in the US until the PSP, and I completely missed the boat on that. It coming out again a couple years ago on modern consoles reminded me of its gap in my library, but it still took until now for me to finally get around to picking it up.

It’s been almost 6 years since the last Star Ocean in my playlist, and the benefit of hindsight shows so much of how that game ended up where it was. My likes playing that one basically read like a laundry list of my likes here.

This is a relatively short game, clocking in at under 15 hours. Because I finished around level 75, you can get a good guess about how quickly I was leveling up. The other benefit is that this allowed me to power through the skill list extremely fast. That in particular is one of my favorite things about leveling in this game. Ya, you get your leveling stats, but the skills are key. Want to load all in to offense with random armor breaks and offensive boosts? Go nuts, load into those skills. Want your healer to just spam heals to support your glass cannon shenanigans? Go ahead and load into skills that reduce cast and cooldown times. Take all of that and load into skills that reduce your point usage and increase your EXP gain and you’re just flying through the game. The customization possibilities there are a lot of fun and really end up being the focal point of a core metagame that still really works well 25 years later.

The combat also still manages to be fun, despite its relative simplicity. There’s definitely been games that have done it better in the years since, not the least of which are newer SO titles let alone series like Tales Of. However, this works well enough to allow me to just forget about how modern action-focused JRPGs have gone. The simplicity of having movement, an attack button with a fixed chain, and a couple of skill hotkeys is such an easy thing to fall into. I’m not remembering combos and weaknesses and anything extraneous. I’m just watching out for attacks, dodging them when I can, then spamming the hell outta my attack button to kill things. It combines with some of the skill stuff above (hell ya random dodge chance!) and the short length of the game to really just be enough to keep me going.

The things I do end up missing though are some of the little modern features that just aren’t here. The first of these is really just a lack of direction, and I don’t mean that quite so literally. Every story cutscene ends with a point where you’ve kind of got a random chance that they actually tell you something useful about where to go. More often than not I was just aimlessly wandering. Sure, people will complain about being handheld, but having a blip of like just generally go around here goes a long way to letting me explore and check things out while still eventually knowing the right way to head. I also just severely miss autosaves. Again, I think a lot of people will go “well, they make the game too easy” but I would argue just the opposite. Autosaves allow games to be much harder without wasting the players time. Save often, make individual combat situations difficult, and let players die without time loss. Modern JRPGs have started leaning into this a lot and I much prefer having a quick retry / reset to just before the fight to regroup option because a lot of the general fights in this game were just needlessly easy.

This is stupid, but I also just hate the town layouts. Why are the shops and inn so far apart from each other in pretty much every town? Why are the layouts all mazes without central squares? This was made more frustrating by the fact that you run faster in straight lines than diagonals, so navigating towns was just a slow process.

So then the question is less of a did it age well, because it did. It becomes more of a is it worth playing now? I think it’s a yes, perhaps with a bit of hesitation. If you’re kind of on the edge for the genre, I’d perhaps steer you to something modern likes Tales of Arise. If you’re a heavy JRPG fan, absolutely. There’s enough here to be fun, it’s short so it won’t waste a bunch of time, and it’s still entirely modern enough in combat feel to not be distracting. I may recommend waiting a bit for a sale, but even at its current price of $21 on PSN/Nintendo eShop, that’s not too bad of a deal for a pretty solid piece of gaming history.

How’d It Age #1 – Need for Speed Carbon

More Info from EA

  • Genre: Racing
  • Platform: PS3 (via rpcs3)

I have a certain affinity for this era of Need for Speed games. They aren’t necessarily great games. The driving certainly isn’t the best. Their stories are campy as all hell. The AI is pretty frustratingly rubberbandy. However, they have an inexplicable level of fun that I can’t quite put my finger on. That fun is something that was lost for me in newer entries like Heat, where the driving was similarly intended to be arcadey but just never clicked with me. Carbon on the other hand has a few specific things that I can point at that really feed that feeling well.

The AI in these games could generously be described as unfair. You can be 10 seconds in the lead, then the AI magically gains enough speed to catch up and pass you. However, Carbon breaks that up in a way that still works well against modern games. Having an AI partner in the races just causes all sorts of wonderful chaos. Their core feature is that they can be a few different specs (blockers, drafters, and scouts), which all have their own version of wonderful chaos. Want to just clear your opponents and run free? Use a blocker to knock them all out of the race. Want to really push speed as a main motivation? Use a drafter and chain speed boost your way to victory.

These things even pretty specifically come into play in some event types. One of the most chaotic event types in the speed camera event, where you win by having the highest total MPH captured on a set of cameras. Normally this should generally just go to the first place car anyway, but with rubberbanding that isn’t exactly the case…..which is why you exploit your AI helper. I can’t tell you how many of these I won by purposefully knocking my ally into a wall at the start of the race, causing them to fall seconds behind. They would then go into a MASSIVE rubberband and easily win the events by 50-100mph. Exploit? Sure. Fun and funny as hell? Yep.

The same general idea could be used in normal races. Let your ally fall a bit behind, let them inevitably slingshot forward, then let THEM win the race. Ultimately the metagame at play here is for your crew to take over a city, so it doesn’t really matter if it’s you or the AI winning, as long as it’s your crew. It’s a great way to reinforce the whole overarching story in a way that continues to feel fresh. Seeing this kind of use of rubberbanding AI is just something I don’t think I’ve ever seen. Rubberbanding alone is something that I don’t generally see to this level of chaos in modern games, but being able to exploitatively use it to your advantage is something that I’m finding completely unique to this title.

The other thing that still works is that the driving is just really smooth. This is where I had my biggest problem with NFS: Heat. That game felt like it was forcing you to drift, and it made the driving feel really clumsy. This game just feels extremely tighter at high speeds than is realistic. It’s a very specific style of arcade game, but it means that once I get up to speed the game feels more about timing my turning flow, and less about trying to use mechanics to keep my speed up. It’s a driving style more akin to the Burnout games than later NFS titles, which tended to lean into a heavier floaty style that pushed drifting to the max. In terms of the two, I much prefer the way this or Burnout feel.

That said, hoooooo boy the story. It was campy at release. It’s just bad now. I’m not going to sit here and say that the NFS series has ever really had a good story, but oh boy is this such a specific style of camp that just doesn’t age well. In a lot of ways it feels kind of like your typical Syfy movie, where things are a really weird mix of camp and over seriousness that just doesn’t mesh well. It’s worth zoning them out. You aren’t missing anything.

This era of NFS is such a specific type of game, and it’s surprising to me how well it still works. If you go older than this into the PS1 era, those games just feel aged – even with greats like the original Hot Pursuit. If you go newer than this, they just feel like different games – whether it’s the clear Burnout Paradise sequels that worked well or some of the more experimental titles that….just didn’t. These sorta open world tuner titles though? These are my thing. I can drop into games like Underground and have fun, and Carbon really does a decent job of still holding up that style of gameplay. They may not have ever been great but it’s hard to not just have fun with them.