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Review – Forza Horizon 4 (PC, Xbox One)

Microsoft – 2018

The Good

  • Stunning Visuals
  • Gameplay has a ton of variety and courses and cars
  • The car Livery system is pretty great

The Bad

  • The PC version is a pretty mediocre port of the console version
  • There are a lot of bugs.
  • The Online Scene isn’t great

Racing is a genre of games that I don’t really obsess over but I often come back to. It’s quite possibly my secret favorite genre. I bought an N64 so I could play Cruisin USA, I played a ton of Gran Turismo 2 on my Playstation, I played a bunch of Need for Speed games. the only X-Box 360 title I have played with any amount of play time was Forza Motorsport 4.

I’d been kind of looking at trying one of the Forza games in the Windows 10 store, though I was a little apprehensive early on because, well, it’s the Windows 10 store. I’ve used Windows 10 enough that I can say I’m ok with keeping it around some so I went ahead and decided to dive into Forza Horizon 4, which is the newest title in the series. It was on sale and I had a bunch of Bing Rewards credit so I picked up the Ultimate Edition for a steal and have been playing it pretty regularly since.

So, Forza consists of two core series. The Forza Motorsport Series is a more traditional “Pick a race and run it” style game, the Forza Horizon series is a more open world experience. Each of the Horizon games take place in an approximation of a different real world region, Forza Horizon 4 takes place in the countryside of the UK near Edinburgh. It centers around the Horizon Festival, which is a sort of gathering for racers to show off their skills in different types of racing. The point is, there is some sort of vague plot to this game, you meet with some of the organizers and they give little cut scenes occasionally. Each race type culminates in a longer showcase event, that one of the characters has been building up to. It’s not going to win any writing awards, but it’s there. There are sub stories as well, though it all amounts to an excuse to drive a car and win some sort of race.

For example, one of the sub stories is a series of events hosted by a Vlogger who is showing off cars that appeared in video games over the years. Like the Ferrari from Outrun or the
Lamborghini Countach from Test Drive. Another has you participating in a series of outlandish stunts as you work do some side work for a filmmaker as a Stunt Driver. There are a series of special event races which culminates in a Halo themed run driving a Warthog. Another has you race a massive hovercraft as it storms over the terrain.

These are all in addition to the more standard races that make up the core Horizon Festival series. The Horizon races are broken up into types you might expect, Off-road racing with trucks, Street races with lots of tight corners and turns, Road races which are a little more forgiving than street races and have a few more straightaways. You start off with only a handful of events available but unlock more as you level up your skill in each type of race. Eventually the entire map is essentially covered in events.

The map itself is pretty good size. It can take a pretty good while to circle the entire area, and even just traveling across it can take five to ten minutes, depending on how much you go off road or what car you’re driving. In addition to race events, there are all sorts of activities on the map itself. Speed Trap challenges to achieve a high speed at a certain point, Drift Zones where you accumulate points by drifting around a series of turns, or Danger Signs where the object is to see how far you can jump your car. Like regular races and mini stories, doing these activities, unlocks other activities.

When all of this gets old, there’s also the hourly Forzathon events, which are sort of impromptu gatherings of players who all work to do the world activities for accumulated points. These, admittedly, get a little old, they last 10-15 minutes and it involves doing the same speed trap or danger sign jump over and over and over and over while a meter inches upwards for the group. It really feels like these could be given some more variety, maybe a series of checkpoints for everyone to race through that span the map or something. These events give special Forzathon Points which can be used to buy special weekly exclusive items.

Thinking of buying, the game’s other progression system is through accumulating cars and player outfits. You can’t exit your vehicle but your avatar appears on race start and completion screens and shows up in your car driving. You earn clothes and cars through a variety of methods, winning races and leveling up the different race types is one. You can outright buy cars with your winnings. You can also win prizes through Wheelspins which are earned from victories and leveling up your character. These are pretty much what they sound like. A big prize wheel spins and you get an item afterwards.

It’s notable to add that there is no real world cash shop. You buy the game, and that’s it. The Wheelspins especially feel like something that would normally be a “pay $1.99 and get a wheelspin” item but there is no way to buy extra wheelspins. They must be earned by racing. This is good because frankly, micro transactions are kind of hurting the game industry. It’s a little frustrating since it means you get a loot box that you can’t control and may get some garbage emote out of it instead of that rare car that happened to show up as an option. Fortunately the game pretty much showers you with Wheelspins.

So, while there aren’t any micro transactions, this does lead into my first complaint. I purchased the Ultimate Edition on sale, so it didn’t seem too bad, but the game kind of feels like it almost needs the $99 Ultimate Edition package, for anyone who has any intention of seriously playing the game and the expansions. In addition to including the current (Fortune Island) and unknown second expansion, the Ultimate Edition comes with a ton of cars and the VIP Pass, which includes a bunch of perks like double experience and free wheelspins and whatnot, all things that make the progression of the game fly by.

My other major problem comes from how shoddy the PC port itself feels. The game itself plays well and looks great and on the whole, I am happy, but it has a lot of weird quirks and a lot of bugs that feels like they stem from the whole “Windows 10 Cross Play Xbox experience” or whatever it’s called. For example, there is an elaborate and nice Photo Mode in the game, but the only way to get the photos into a useful sharable format is to first share them to your Forza Profile on the Forza website. I mean you can print screen them, but the actual export produces a much nicer quality image.

I also feel like the lack of a user defined radio stems from this weird Xbox wrapper. The in game radio is all right but gets a little old after a while, having the ability to point a user radio station to a folder of MP3s would be amazing. You can play whatever music you want of course on something else, but the game is really bad about auto turning to a new radio station during races and the console version apparently doesn’t have a way to permanently mute the radio at all on the volume slider. Between this missing feature and the lack of screen shots saving to the drive, it’s like the game just doesn’t have access to the file system. It’s more of a Windows 10 problem than a Game problem, but it’s kind of a problem.

On Windows 10 problems, I have also had problems getting updates to take and the game to launch, a problem others have had as well. Sometimes it just doesn’t launch with no helpful errors. I also had to do a complete reinstall to get the Fortune Island DLC to take.

I also kind of hate the complete lack of in game chat, which i understand is also a side effect of the cross play aspects with the Xbox One. The text chat is all done via these little emote meme phrases and you can only “equip” 4 at a time.

Most of these problems, aside from the literal game breaking updating issue, aren’t game breaking. The pluses really outweigh those negatives. Racing games aren’t for everyone, but this one is pretty awesome. It’s visually amazing and the lack of micro transactions despite how easy it would have been to add them is really great. I’d definitely recommend the game, especially if it’s on sale.

Review – The Binding of Isaac (PC)

So, the makers of Super Meat Boy, Team Meat, apparently have an old school Nintendo Fetish of the worst kind.  First you have Super Meat Boy, which has vague connotations of Super Mario Brothers.  Though the reality is the name is all it really has in common with Super Mario Brothers, that and being a side scrolling platform game.  The Binding of Isaac is sort of like this, only with The Legend of Zelda.  It sort of has the same cadence and style in name and shares a lot of game play style.

The reality is, other than the basic interface design, The Binding of Isaac shares very little with The Legend of Zelda.  The presentation is similar but the game itself is a rogue-like.   This game’s primary gimmick, and the source of it’s possible lone flaw, is it’s randomness.  It can be extremely cruel at times.  The ability to complete the higher levels tends to be closely associated with the items and upgrades you find.  These upgrades tend to be pretty random and are also often dependent on if you have enough coins to buy them.  This can lead to some rounds where you manage to become an overpowered juggernaut and others where you’re essentially the same guy on Level 3 as you started out.

Assuming you can even make it to level 3 without upgrades.  There is also the problem of keeping yourself alive in this random mess.  Some rounds, enemies will almost always drop hearts and coins, others you’ll get nothing.  There does seem to be some level of algorithm in place to keep things fair, it just could use a bit of tweaking.  The game does do a pretty good job of keeping the earlier enemies easier and the later enemies more difficult.

It also is surprisingly not as frustrating as it seems like it should be.  This was a trait shared by Super Meat Boy.  It also becomes easier as you become accustomed to how the enemies act and move.  Now, granted it does start to shove curveballs at you like nobody’s business later in the game, like having the laser blasting aliens with small corridors to navigate, and swarms of flying spitting creatures in a room full or rocks.

Despite the frustration, the gameplay is pretty solid, and decent.

The real likely turn off to some people is the game’s somewhat grotesque nature and it’s somewhat mocking of religion gameplay.  The Binding of Isaac is a story from the Bible where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  The basic plot of the story is that Isaac’s mother is told by a mysterious voice that her son has become corrupted and he must be taught humility, or something along those lines.  There are numerous references to biblical elements.  This is mixed in with what is essentially a horror house of bloody enemies often based on bodily organs.  Often enemies spew blood pellets or drop piles of shit on the floor.  It’s generally something that people who have a more sensitive disposition will probably find offensive.

This game has one final really great point going for it, it’s cheap.  It’s almost like some sort of experiment in marketing but the game is only $5, which is hard to pass up.  It’s frustrating as hell but it’s fun enough that it’ll keep you coming back, assuming you’re not turned off by the slightly disturbing imagery involved.

The Binding of Isaac is available on Steam here.

Review – High School Dreams (PC)

April 15, 2010 | DR Studios

Back in my college days i played a fair number of Japanese “dating simulators”.  The style pushed by these games tends to be still image graphics with walls and walls of expositional text.  Occasionally you make a choice.  It’s sort of like a Choose your own adventure book.  High School Dreams is sort of an American take on the same basic concept.  This game has a fairly rough development history according to Wikipedia.  Originally developed by Eidos, it was dumped when SquareEnix bought out Eidos.  After being dumped, DR Studios went on to develop the title themselves before being released on the GreenMan Gaming download service.  Several sites such as IGN still list this game as canceled despite being released in early 2010.

Originally I had picked this up because I wanted to try out Greenman’s service and it was the cheapest thing on the site that wasn’t a DLC, being on sale for around a dollar.  After playing through I have to say I was rather pleased with the game itself.  You play as the “new girl” in town and must navigate through the ins and outs of the High School social network.  The game pushes itself as a dating simulator style game and there is a “main plot” of courting one of the 6 main male character in order to get a date for the Prom, though the prom occurs only a few weeks into the school year so it’s more of a Homecoming event than anything.

The game has much much more depth than simply trying to find a date for the prom.  It actually has so many concurrent social mechanisms running at once things become a bit overwhelming at times.  I will say that it is impossible to actually manage to “go out” with all of the guys at once time during one play through.  For starters, your clothing options all influence what different folks think of you, so you’ll never be able to impress everyone at once.  Even if you try rotating the wardrobe, there is the problem of needing to buy more clothes to fulfill every option.  There are several mini game jobs to play to earn cash but this will eat into the time you have to interact with everyone. 

There is also the basic underlying idea of interacting with the world eating up time.  As you talk to random NPCs you can learn different bits of gossip, then you can turn around and spread this gossip.  This is sometimes necessary to help keep yourself from gaining a poor reputation.  There are also numerous magnets hidden around to collect, though they do not serve any purpose as far as I could tell.  In order to help better your friendship with your best female companion you’ll have to have the occasional sleep over which can be made more beneficial by updating your room’s furniture. 

In short, being a new girl in High School is a lot more work than I’d ever expected.

The game is not without it’s short comings.  I have my suspicions that some of these shortcoming were spawned from the game’s rocky development cycle.  Basically, they lost their publisher and budget and had to cut some of the ambition out of this title.  For example, there are a few additional male characters that seem like they were originally intended to be options during the dating sequences.  The game itself is also somewhat buggy.  The path finding mechanisms are iffy sometimes for the NPCs.  The game itself takes an eternity to load, at least it did on my wimpy laptop, though once the initial load is over it runs pretty briskly.  By “eternity” I’m talking at LEAST ten minutes once you leave the title screen, probably more like fifteen.

The game also lacks a lot of overlap between the characters that really could flesh out the world.  For example, you can end up “dating” 3 or 4 guys at once and no one seems to notice or care.  You never seem to get a “what the hell I thought we were friends”.  Also, despite that I ended up very high on the scale with the nerdy photographer guy, yet had only done one favor for the class clown guy, there were suddenly rumors about how pathetic I was for going out with the class clown.  Really?  I barely interacted with the guy.

This brings up another point.  Every one of your dating options is a blatant stereotype, though fortunately, you do tend to find that they are more than their stereotype would suggest, though not MUCH more.  There is the pretty boy, who won’t even speak to you; the jock who is obsessed with basketball; the nerdy photography obsessed guy, who ignores his best friend who is a girl for you; there is the lonely goth kid who spends all his time reading and indoors; and finally there is the “token black guy” who is into music.  It tends to make selection on things like gift really obvious from the start.  Also disappointing, you almost never interact with anyone outside of the school itself other than when you go on a date.  You pretty much never just happen to run into someone at the mall or the beach or the park.  The interactions are somewhat limited as well, unless you’re at a point for a special event, you get the same idle chit chat whether a guy is totally indifferent to your or if he’s totally in love with you.

There are also some issues a bit with pacing.  Thankfully, the learning part of the school day is totally superfluous.  You get up, get dressed, go tot school, the clock jumps to 3 PM.  The clock runs very quickly though, which is frustrating when you’re trying to complete some fetch quest for one of the many NPCs.  On the other hand, the game tends to plod along before getting to any level of a resolution.  After about 2 weeks of in game time, I was wondering when this game’s plot was going to go somewhere.  It barely gets off the ground unfortunately.  You do fetch quests and pick the “best” chat choices until you get asked to the prom.  Prom culminates in a series of mini games to see if you can win being Prom King and Queen.

The Prom mini games are mostly rehashes of the job mini games.  These actually are surprisingly varied and reasonably fun.  Each has 3 difficulty levels though the difficulty is more based on not missing things more than actually getting more difficult.  There are a few match the music notes DDR style games.  There is a matching game at the Laundromat, the ice cream parlor has the most challenge where you must quickly fulfill orders while keeping your supply of Ice Cream stocked.  The park ranger has you plant flowers in the flower bed though I’m not sure if there is any way to actually lose this mini game.  Completing mini games on the higher levels also earns special outfits that generally have a high appeal to one of the 6 boys you can court.  Doing the Cheerleading game for example will net you a cheerleader outfit which the Jock loves.

The overall result is a huge mixed bag.  Maybe I’m just viewing it from the wrong perspective, not really being anywhere near the target audience for this title.  It’s extremely ambitious in it’s presentation but at the same time it’s lacking some key interactions to make the world feel rich while at the same time coming off as a bit rushed.  On the other hand, I’m sure my daughter will love playing this game over and over just for the dress up aspect.

High School Dreams is available here on Greenman Gaming.

Review – The Path (PC)

Tale of Tales | March 18th, 2009

Ok, so I did a review a while back of The Graveyard, also by Tale of Tales.  If the graveyard is essentially a pointless tech demo, The Path is the final product.  The Path takes the story of Little red Riding Hood and creeps it out into a spooky horror story.  You must navigate each of 6 sisters through the woods to meet with Grandmother at her house.  The only instructions you get from the game are to “Stay on the Path”.  The path is just that, a path running through the forest from your starting location to grandmothers home.  It is straight and empty.  You can very much simply stay on the path The Graveyard style and walk “up” to grandmother’s house.

The fun and real point comes when you leave the path.  For in the forest is where the wolves lurk.

The problem is that the wolves are more or less all metaphorical.  I have read several other reviews and analysis of this plot that for the most part, each of the girls goes through some sort of ravaging or rape, which is metaphorical for the wolves of the forest.  There is no sex in this game mind you, anything sexual is merely implied and any point where it would occur, the screen simply fades out.  Each of the girls has a special location in the forest which will trigger some sort of event.  For example, one girl will encounter a man camping in the forest.  Another encounters some sort of spirits in the middle of a lake.  These encounters essentially all end badly” and your character will wape up in front of Grandmother’s House battered and wounded.  Once entering Grandmother’s House you are treated to a bunch of random “creepy stuff” in an on rails FPS perspective.  Depending on items collected and events passed you will get added bonus rooms to this end sequence.

After completing the trip with a girl you return to the start and get to repeat the trip with another girl.

I get the point of the game.  There’s sub tones of keeping yourself on the straight path and obeying and not trusting strangers in the woods.  On the other hand, you get zero points for staying on the path and going to Grandmother’s home.  I do somewhat appreciate the intrinsic artistic metaphor of it all to a point. 

The issues on the concept almost all lie in the presentation.  The biggest flaw is the plodding pace that the girls travel.  It’s pretty much as slow as the grandmother in The Graveyard.  There is a run option when you hold shift but irritatingly, as you run, the screen shifts to a more top down angle which obscures your perspective and makes it difficult to see where you’re going.  I’m sure this was done to enhance the metaphor of running blindly into danger or some bull shit but there is only so much crap you can throw at a person before the experience gets ruined.

There are also other issues such as unclear direction for where to go.  You can unlock a map but by the time you’ve collected enough flowers to do so, you’re likely going to have completed the game and who cares.  Navigating blindly and being “lost” is kind of fun for the first girl or two but eventually the player will get the point and want to just push what little plot there is onward.

Which brings up another issue.  The plot is pretty vague.  Once again, there is only so much that Artsy can fill before the person playing, or more accurately, in this case, viewing, will take before they want some sort of explanation.  The biggest oddity is the Forrest girl which wanders around near the player the whole game.  There isn’t much explanation as to who she is, there are implications that she is the Grandmother, or that she is the forest spirit or that she is the “real wolf”.  Who knows, who cares.

I will say one thing for this game, it goes on sale occasionally.  While I personally don’t feel it’s worth bothering with at it’s $10 regular price point, it’s probably an ok play if you want an interesting artsy game for a couple of bucks when it’s on sale.

The Path can be found here on Steam.

Review – The Graveyard (PC)

Tale of Tales | March 21, 2008

I’m going to be up front here.  This isn’t much of a “review”.  It is more of a commentary on a “game”.  The graveyard is not a game in any real traditional sense.  Even Universe Sandbox, which is more of a simulator, still has some gamey aspects to it.  The only real gamey aspects here are the fact that it runs on a PC and is a 3D rendering with basic controls.

There is no real plot, there is only one character, unless you count the birds in the background.  You play as an Old Woman.  Your goal is go guide her through a Graveyard to a park bench, then guide her out of the Graveyard after a little cut scene song.  You can experience all of this yourself for free fortunately, the demo is free, though there is a paid version available.  The only difference is that in the paid version, each time you play the game, there is a chance that the old woman may die while sitting on the bench.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to quit the game once the woman has died, pressing escape only brings up the menu describing how to play the game.

It’s hard to push judgment on something like this.  It delivers everything it promises to be, the real issue is it doesn’t promise to BE anything.  The presentation is fairly nice.  It’s a really interesting tech demo.  I also plan to play through Tale of Tale’s title The Path, which seems to be a bit more involved, so there’s some promise that The Path will at least have a decent presentation.

Maybe I just don’t “get it”.  Even if it were meant to be some sort of statement about dying to help you reflect on life or whatever, there isn’t much to go on to feel sympathetic towards the Old Woman.  The song during the interlude is corny and weird and doesn’t help present a very emotional atmosphere to encourage very many deep thoughts on life and death. 

The Graveyard reminds me of going to a museum a bit.  You see a hunk of twisted metal called “art”.  It’s supposed to be meaningful and representative and metaphorical and make you thing but in the end it’s mostly just a hunk of metal.  Not even the kind of metal hunks that look like roosters made from pitchforks or wreckage from a car or anything, just a hunk of twisted metal.

The Graveyard and it’s demo are both available on Steam here or via the Tale of Tales website.