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.

Shelved It #18 – Halo Infinite

More Info from Microsoft

  • Genre: FPS
  • Platform: Xbox Series X
  • Also Available On: Windows, Xbox One

This feels like a game that was searching for an identity that it never found. It’s very clearly Halo, but it tried to push too far into the Ubisoft open world formula, and it doesn’t really feel like it made it there. While the shooter part of it works really well, it felt dragged down by the rest of the metagame in the half dozen or so hours I put into it to the point where I just didn’t feel like picking it back up.

The core mechanics of this game are still as good as ever. Ya I get if a console shooter isn’t your cup of tea, but for what it’s aiming for it’s still incredibly fun in moment to moment combat. The guns have really clear archetypes and you kind of fade into the ones that you like to play with the most. Aim assist is just present enough to reduce the frustration of aiming on a gamepad. Running enemies over in vehicles is still fun. The Ghost being as small as it is meant that I could pretty much bring it anywhere, including into encounters it didn’t belong. However, it’s the enemies that still work the best.

Halo enemies always had really clear purposes, and that still works here. Grunts are still your fodder and effectively die in one hit, but they fit the role of distracting you well. Jackals still have the pain in the ass shield, which encourages you to get into melee range or use explosives to clear them out. Larger enemies like Brutes encourage precision in order to kill them faster via headshots. New enemies like the Skimmer add a level of verticality to throw you off just scanning at ground level. In general, the encounters are built well around sprinkling a few different types of enemies to make you approach them in varied ways based on the environment. In a vacuum it works well, and in past games it’s been able to be balanced against slow growth due to the linearity of the experience. That is all gone here.

The open world nature of this entry just feels like a mistake. Rather than having crafted encounters along a relatively linear path, you’ve got random encounters that constantly pop up going between points. Rather than the core gameplay being progression through a story, you’ve got a lot of miscellaneous stuff scattered about. The problem is that there’s only so much you can do with this kind of gameplay. It’s Assassin’s Creed or Ghost of Tsushima without the variety. You don’t really have the ability to do large scale traversal puzzles like that series. You don’t really have the choice to do stealth-focused gameplay or action-heavy sequences as a distinct choice. You just have guns blazing.

Where this ends up dragging is that every encounter feels the same. As you’re going from story point to story point you’ll inevitably see a bunch of encounters. However, it all bleeds together. You’ll see your half dozen grunts, a couple jackals, and a couple brutes/hunters/elites. Rinse and repeat. Between story spots you might see a half dozen of these. You’ll also see typically a handful of side quests – rescue a squad, destroy a base, kill a target – that also just have the same combat. Because the open world just has so much ambient combat, you quickly reach a point where it becomes a chore to traverse, rather than fun to traverse.

Within a pretty short time I basically just started hijacking the first Ghost I could find and running around guns blazing. From a practical standpoint, it made encounters much easier to skip because I could just zoom right on past. When I got to an encounter I did need to engage in, it also meant that I was in a moving resource with infinite ammunition and pretty predictably high power. From a min/max standpoint it was just far more effective. However, whenever I didn’t have a Ghost the game instead just felt like a chore. At that point I knew this one wasn’t working out for me.

It also ultimately didn’t help that there’s no co-op. I’ve played almost every entry in the series exclusively in co-op, so not having that is a huge drag. I could see this style of metagame working well in co-op because I could log in with the same group of people, run around for a while doing whatever as we shoot the shit, and over time we could progress through the game. Doing repetitive things over time wouldn’t matter as much because that’s kind of not the point of just having fun playing games in that group setting. Not having co-op at launch – although it’s apparently coming soon™ – is a baffling decision for a series built on co-op stories and multiplayer gameplay.

Infinite just kind of feels open world for the sake of being open world, and it feels to me like an anchor around the game’s neck. The core shooting mechanics are still fantastic, but when you are doing repetitive ambient encounters instead of crafted linear segments, there just doesn’t feel like any sense of progression or growth. Every encounter gets kind of samey, and over time I just felt like avoiding them entirely. For a game built around combat, not engaging is a weird thing. In all likelihood I’ll revisit this when co-op finally launches, but for now this one feels like a swerve that isn’t working for me.

Game Ramblings #159 – Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

More Info from 2K

  • Genre: FPS
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Windows

It’s been a long time since I played a Borderlands. I loved the first couple, quickly fell off The Pre-Sequel and altogether skipped 3. However, this one pulled me back in with a somewhat more unique setting thanks to them diving full into Tiny Tina’s shenanigans. I’m not going to pretend that the writing felt like it was aimed at anyone older than 12 years old, but boy does the game loop still just work.

If I was to point at one thing that made this work so well for me, it’s that the typical Borderlands gameplay just slots right in. Those games already had elemental attacks, so there’s your fantasy magic. Those games already had alien creatures, so fantasy-focused characters just slot in. Those games had the sirens, so mages just fit in place. The core was there, so even in a completely D&D focused setting it all feels entirely familiar. Guns are perhaps a bit weird, but whatever it’s D&D. I’m sure someone has made it work.

That’s not to say that things felt stale though. The way I built out my character felt unique in a way that I don’t remember being able to push in previous games. I ultimately went with a two-class combination of the Spore Warden and Clawbringer class archetypes. The first of those is a poison summon-focused class with an emphasis on critical hits. The second is a fire/lightning summon-focused class with an emphasis on damage mitigation. The obvious thing to notice there is that I’ve got three elemental damage sources already, but it’s more than that. The crit + damage mitigation let me do silly things with stats.

Ultimately my character ended up being a glass cannon. All of my stats went into three things – crit chance, crit damage, and elemental damage. I did nothing with any mitigation stats so if I took damage I was more often than not dead. However, my increased crits meant I could save myself in almost all situations extremely effectively with a kill while bleeding out. If not, my mushroom summon could also revive me while my secondary wyvern contined to dish out damage. Also, because my summons had three elemental types I could build into a fourth (in this case, health drain) that helped me stay alive at a higher rate while still hitting enemy weaknesses. I furthered this by exclusively picking shield wards with low health pools but quick recharges, where my goal was to have its recharge be less than 2 seconds. Basically, I could probably take one hit but would need to be getting out of harm’s way, but could quickly rejoin the fight afterwards.

It’s a build that for me really hit into the strengths of how they setup the classes for this game. They really kind of just turned the ridiculousness knob a bit more and pulled out some unique combos that feel like they’re pushing the mechanical boundaries for the game in fun ways. It let me mould my gearing around my class setup, and in this case allowed me to treat the game as more of a cooperative experience despite playing in single player. It’s the kind of thing that really is truly unique to the Borderlands series.

I will give a shout out to their overworld change as well. Getting rid of vehicles is one of the best things about the metagame here. Rather than travel through miles of garbage to get to your main story locations, you have a relatively nice area to explore. It’s got a lot of side quests and collectables and combat encounters to do. However, it’s also much faster to get through. It’s a fairly common improvement that the game has shown. Everything here is much tighter. As an example, the side quests feel much better integrated into the story’s golden path, so you can do them as you wander through instead of going out of your way. They’re also generally more often substantial side stories rather than collection quests. The whole experience is very much Borderlands with less padding, and it’s to the benefit of the game.

That said, the screenshot above in which you seduce a drawbridge is indicative of my main problem with the game. The comedy just feels immature. Some of it is funny, but I found myself groaning instead of laughing more often than not. In a lot of ways, it really just made me feel old…..which might be true, but it’s not something that I ran into in past games. It’s things like the queen of the land being a unicorn named Butt Stallion, or seducing the drawbridge, or Torgue’s cursing being bleeped while being far more common under the guise of trying to stick to a teen rating. Rather than trying to hit a rating, it just feels like it was written for that level of audience. It was never egregious enough for me to not want to play the game, but the writing definitely was not helping the game for me.

This game feels like it’s going to end up on my long term short list. Borderlands 2 filled that role for a long time as the game I could hop into and just play for the sake of playing. Diablo 3 filled that role for a while, especially on the Switch. Of late that distinction has gone more towards games like Forza Horizon. However, this one may take over for a bit. It’s just such a well refined gameplay loop that it’s easy to hop in, and for me it’s made the series feel fresh again. In good news, gear hunting after the first play through also means I can just ignore the comedy and gear grind, which is probably what I wanted anyway.