Review: Ghost of Tsushima

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Between Players
Review: Ghost of Tsushima
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Episode 022

Ghost of Tsushima is a masterpiece. The gameplay was an amazing refinement of previous open world adventure games, the writing gives you a sense of belonging seldom seen in its genre, and the scenic environment design is a feast for the eyes and salve for the heart. Buy it now. Own it forever.

A review summary

SuckerPunchStudios blew away all of the expectations I had for Ghost of Tsushima, here to for I shall refer to as Ghost. I was already a fan of their work starting from the Infamous First Light, a shorter stand alone title set in the neon glow of Seattle after the events of Infamous Second Son. The studio’s ability to make a unique IP with fun mechanics and movement polish that has inspired others was clearly the right set of ingredients to build something new.

Upon seeing their first few trailers I had my doubts as to whether or not Ghost could be genuinely engrossing as it seemed culturally and tonally so foreign compared with their previous works. I am happy to say I was wrong, and beyond wrong I was utterly overwhelmed with my miscalculation to the point of delight.

If not for the suggestion of a dear friend of the show, Josh Hunt, who remarked that this was definitely, “a Zach Meyer-ass Game!” I may not have had the pleasure of entering the samurai movie buffs favorite setting. To fight a hoard of invaders, right wrongs, write poetry, take in the sights, and enjoy fast paced sword fights with a myriad of artificial rivals shouting and slicing their way towards me. It was indeed as he said.

Another aspect of Ghost that lands so well for me, is the way the story and choices are presented to Jin. To what extent the decisions you make play out to effect the outcomes but there was a clever writing trick involved that sucks you into being the good guy at every possible moment, only to see some of those decisions thrown back at you. Occupants of Tsushima are not always completely honest in their calls for help. Some of their stories are deliberately manipulative in a way that good story tellers snag you with.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention the incredible landscapes and photo mode tools available in Ghost. In a year of lockdown with the Covid-19 Pandemic creating uncertainty, grounding flights, and keeping folks at home, the digital Tsushima islands were a beautiful escape. They provided all the seasons, conditions, and amenities that a traveller yearns to see. The photo mode became a place for me to really drink in the sights and post too many pictures or postcard style screen captures to the main Twitter feed.

From Rolling hills and sandy shores bright and vibrant with the sun, to the snowing desolate mountains of the north, and nearly every point in between, Tsushima felt like a place were I could go and rest and enjoy…while running from Mongol warlords.

Ghost of Tsushima – on Playstation


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And thank you for listening!


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Special Thanks

IllustrationEvan McIntyre

Red Dead Redemption 2 – Review

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Between Players
Red Dead Redemption 2 - Review
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Episode 019

Transcript

In April of 2020, I finished a play-through of Red Dead redemption 2. I know I’m terribly late to the party but this review is partly my thoughts on the game itself, and partly what I would have done to change it. 

I’m a huge fan of open world games and if you’ve been listening to this podcast for any length of time you know that I play a lot of them. I’ve played the Ubisoft ones, the Rockstar ones, I even play CD projekt ones. And each company’s design teams have a philosophy and a style that’s unique. They all seem to focus on different mechanics to enhance the experience of your virtual chore list.

Rockstar seems to be chasing the idea that they’re making a movie that you play through. Something more cinematic that guides the player actions, more than its contemporaries. For me, Rockstar adopted this approach to game creation around the time of Grand theft Auto 4’s release.

Based on the scale I use of 0 to 3 points for games I would say that Red Dead Redemption 2 for me lands at a solid one. I will be spoiling the plot of the game but not yet first I need to talk about some of the details of the mechanics and design that are really great the things that I appreciated about the game. 

Setting the table in the old west

It’s clear from the moment you start playing the game that Rockstar really loves westerns. Searching for your lost wounded companions in the snow capped mountains looking for shelter to recover lick your wounds and wait for the blizzard to subside so that you can move down away from this Rocky icy prison,Rockstar waste no time introducing you to the cast of characters the basic problems and the systems that you can use in the game.

A ton of care and craft has gone into everything from the catalogs in the general stores when you’re purchasing supplies to the feed and horse manicuring that become a strangely addictive mini-game in and of itself. 

The towns are organized around the hotel, the post office, the general store. How the main street is where all the respectable businesses are and the back streets are where you’ll find your junk salesmen and hawkers.

Backroom card games, drunks stumbling along in the street, hunger cold and heat all create a really immersive vibrant and seemingly complex world to adapt to. 

But this is a video game after all, everything from The wanted system to the train schedules are programmed and exploitable. But this is no way diminishes the fine polish and obvious care that was taken when building each and every one. 

Aside from these mechanical wonders, the music is absolutely mind blowing. Every instrument the dynamic responses to player inputs such as galloping leaves you breathless in Wonder at how much effort it took to construct such a thing. Literally I could listen to the game for hours.

I would be remiss if in this criticism I didn’t point out the fact that it is a genuine technical marvel. And to my tastes, the best version of RDR2 you can play is the online experience. It allows you to rely on and enjoy the crafted world and all of it’s systems freely in a way that the main campaign doesn’t really require you to.

I recall upon starting up the online experience for the first time in landing in a snowy landscape I was unable to do much except for run from shelter to shelter as hyperthermia chased me across the snowy barren plains. 

This feeling of tension, insecurity or vulnerability was such an earned thing that even through my frustration I felt that it was a brilliant component to their game. 

But TLDR; this is not a review of RDR2 online, this review focuses on the main campaign which I believe suffers from the lack of an editor’s touch. 

Starting here I’ll begin to spoil aspects of the story and what I believe to be the critical issues with the game itself. 

A great YouTube game reviewer who goes by the handle NakeyJakey, has a lengthy review that definitely identified some of the things that I felt were wrong with the game and although I don’t agree with all his points or even the metaphor he chose to relate his point, I think most of our thoughts are shared in terms of what Rock Star thinks is fun and what I think is fun. 

If you don’t know

If you haven’t played the game yet the basic plot relationship with and to a band of outlaws who are running from a group of government agency law officers known as the pinkertons led by a charismatic and morally compromised patriarchal figure Dutch who is also a known villain in the original game that came out on the previous generation of hardware. 

Throughout the game you’ll be working to keep the gang safe, earn money, and deal with the consequences of other people’s actions at the behest of Dutch. 

Now that we’ve dealt with all the simple stuff from here on in it’s going to be spoiler Central. 

I have two points that made the game unsatisfying for me:

  1. Most of the game play systems aren’t consequential even though I am forced to use them initially.
  2. The Loyalty arc for Arthur, doesn’t ring true for me.

Systems without consequence

My first criticism of the game has to do with the emphasis on these interesting gameplay systems that initially are your means of survival and income but then immediately become forgotten after your first Big heist. 

When you get to your first real base camp after leaving the mountains, you are compelled to hunt and sell animal parts in order to gain enough income to start replenishing the camp and your own supplies. money seems very hard to acquire and everything seems expensive in the early stages of the game. But after one robbery you start to see how easy money can be made and how inefficient and ultimately empty the hunting and bounty system is for you as a player. 

This goes into one of my first axioms in entertainment which is please respect my time. Don’t make me hunt and bounty for 4 hours only to essentially abandon these as a needed form of income for the rest of the playtime.

Ditching Dutch

My second major issue with the game has to do with the relationship between Arthur Dutch and the gang. When discussing this part of the story, the writing and how the characters react with a friend of mine, he offered up the observation of the game wanting to tell a story about the cult of personality and the difficulty for people to break away when they feel a sense of loyalty to others. 

As someone who played the first title, I already know something that the other characters in the game don’t know. I know that Dutch is not a good person. and try as the writers might to get you to empathize with some of duchess’s decision making or even occasionally allow him to make good decisions, I know that in the end his ego or selfishness or something will ultimately drive a wedge in between you and everyone else. 

So knowing this it was very hard for me to at all like or trust Dutch as a player which means that playing as Arthur a person who claims to trust Dutch almost implicitly was very very jarring. I have empathy for Arthur but it was like watching a slow motion car crash. I know that the car crash is going to happen and I’m just waiting for Arthur to come to a realization that this person is not good for him and will ultimately hurt everyone. 

And I feel like the game doesn’t make that transition in any subtle way. Arthur is a deeply complex and interesting character he is strong and quiet and compassionate and ultimately he is the big brother to everyone he comes in contact with. Fiercely loyal and occasionally willing to bend his own morality to help someone he feels will benefit for it. 

However given that, once Micah’s characters are introduced to the story I feel like the game doesn’t try to mask Dutch’s weakness to influence at all. He very clearly respects people who are powerful or bold or even foolhardy. Even if you forgo the fact that Micah is an agent working for the pinkertons, his influence on Dutch seems ludicrous compared to Arthur whom Dutch seems to frequently say is the favorite.

And this is basically where the game started to lose me and just continued as every mission became a weird contention between duchess foolishness and idealism which is more like selfishness masked by grandiose self-delusion. Arthur has to complete a task that is supposed to get us to that next safe place that duchess found for us and it turns out surprise surprise that that place and the thing that Dutch wants you to do is not safe and is going to get everyone killed. 

It’s not until very late in the game that people start to rebel and Dutch’s true colors are revealed but even as this is happening Arthur seems to be unreasonably willing to forgive duchess crimes against the group and sometimes against Arthur. 

There are many small and medium-sized characters whose missions and locations are fun but ultimately run a ground because in the back of my mind I know I have to deal with Dutch and Micah in the future. 

However the post game game is probably one of the better parts of it. After the main story resolves between Arthur Micah and Dutch, you pick up with John Marston. The protagonist of the original game and is the only significant member of the gang trying to part ways, but is constantly being forced back in by Dutch. 

Fixing Dutch Arthur and Micah

Aside from cutting out chunks of the game such as the section where you’re on the island in the Caribbean which I believe is Cuba or something similar, the thing that I would change the most if I were rewriting it would be to alter how Arthur reacts to Micah’s addition to the gang. 

Post jailbreak, the tension that is expressed by the members of the gang and Arthur should play out as a slow tug of war as Micah’s influence grows the gang starts to split between Arthur and Dutch as a leader. 

There is some hinting of this close to the end of the game but it’s not well paced until everything implodes. 

I’m not saying the game shouldn’t have lost or deal with bad or abusive family Dynamics or any of these other ideas that are trying to be expressed in the game’s writing, but at some point I was tired of seeing the writing on the wall and I wanted someone who seems so reasonable like Arthur or some of the other side characters to make a decision to start breaking with Dutch and have their be a contention. 

If the game slowly started to break into two halves then there would be a war between them. Dutch could attempt to win people back and Arthur could be a great leader and provider and convince members of the gang to stay with him which would allow you as the player to genuinely influence the party’s size and success based on how you are taking care of them. 

This would better allow you as a player to have a reason to engage with the other gameplay systems they introduced to you such as the camp improvement to-do list, hunting, fishing, and bounties. It makes these systems meaningful in the story because you would be using them as a way of keeping the party healthy and out of trouble. 

This would also allow the robbery or outlaw system to feel more like a risk/reward. Robbing trains would be lucrative but it would create opportunities for harm to the gang which would affect their loyalty to you. etc..

I think this would have made for far more engaging and gratifying as an arc. Plus you could employ a branched ending that still leads to the story arc with John and his family. If Arthur’s gang wins at the end, then John only faces a few remaining enemies. Or if Arthur’s camp is overtaken by Dutch, then John has leave just like he did in the main story. In fear.

In closing

Red Dead Redemption 2 ultimately left me feeling disappointed. Partly in myself. What must have been a monumental creative effort just didn’t stick the landing for me. I like it when studios build interesting interconnected worlds that feel lived in which Red Dead certainly has a lot of life. I just wasn’t a fan of the yarn they spun with the interesting lives of the Van der Linde Gang.

It’s an uncompromisingly beautiful, character driven vision of the American west that delighted me in it’s aesthetic but in it’s story I could not find purchase.


Thank you for making it to the end of the review. Looking forward to your reactions to my review, please @betweenplayers on twitter or drop me an email howdy@betweenplayers.com

See you next time.


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Special Thanks

IllustrationEvan McIntyre

Marvel’s Spider-man

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Between Players
Marvel's Spider-man
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Episode 014

A Review

2017-2018 were years of plenty when it comes to open world, sandbox-y, AAA action adventure games. Amidst this sea of excellence, we were hit with Insomniac Game’s take on Spider-Man. A game I didn’t know how much I needed until I finally got my hands on it.

Much like the Arkham series before it, and from which many of it’s designs cues are taken, you are granted the experience of being Spider-Man. I mean, in the Arkham games you are Batman but in Marvel’s Spider-Man, you feel like New York’s friendly neighborhood do-gooder.

Spider-Man is a game that feels like something new, even though it’s filled with mechanics and set pieces that we have been playing with for a few years now. How it achieves this for me is through polish and pacing. Polish in the views of the city, the ease at which you can swing around building, toss bad-guys in combat, web darn near anything and transition from roof top to black top without breaking a sweat. Pacing in story beats, combat encounters, and character perspective swaps all working in concert to tie you the player to the great characters in Spider-Man’s world.

What rocks

  • You feel like Spider-Man.
  • Swinging through Manhattan is fun and kinetic. Easy to pick up but takes some practice to master.
  • Unlock-able costumes add a real motivation to collect all of Peters junk.
  • Script, story, and voice cast/performance was amazingly top notch.
  • The music in the game feels so full and connected to your actions. Everything feels connected and cohesive.
  • Good re-writes or re-working of core characters to make them more believable and engaging.

What fell flat for me

  • In lower difficulty, the gadgets feel like insta-wins.
  • The DNA puzzles.

Based on my notes, the game earns a solid 3 out of 3 stars. Which means you should go and get it ASAP. As open-world games go, Spiderman synthesizes all the great things from its Arkham parents, and then adds a levity and charm that only one web head can. If you want to really enjoy yourself when sitting down to your PS4 you really can’t pass this adventure up.

This is Zach, keep playing.

Listen to the show on:

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Special Thanks

GuestDanh Hoang

Original Score – Artist: John Paesano

Music & Audio ConsultingJosh Hunt

IllustrationEvan McIntyre

Just Cause 3

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Between Players
Just Cause 3
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Episode 013

Howdy friends, this is Zach, with a Single Player episode in which talk about my 10 glorious hours with the zipline, sandbox, explosion factory Just Cause 3. So let’s take a second to appreciate Rico Rodriguez’s talents as a wire-fu demo man of the people.

Avalanche Studios has been making Just Cause games since 2002, but JC3 I think marked a crucial turning point in the serie’s cycle where a form of stunting became the primary goal of the mechanics presented to you for getting around the islands of Medici.

Sandbox and or Open World games have, what I like to think of as, gift wrapping mechanics. They  But unlike many games where you have to wait for story beats to have access to the full range of traversal tools that are available, Just Cause 3 suits you up right away. The only thing the game does, in terms of upgrades, is amplify the already absurd level of versatility that your movement possesses.

JC3 wants you to get into the action immediately. In fact it seemed like every story mission was just a whip lashing me to blow up more stuff. I’m surprised they hadn’t added a DMC style grading system to rank your destruction style. Oh wait, they did think of that. Destruction challenge modes let you revisit demolished enemy strongholds and start a fireworks show that ties time and destruction into a scoring system. Seeing how I ranked against my other destruct-ologists was fun and leads players to experiment with the options without the reprisal of enemy troops.

JC3 is only the second title in the series I have played, however, for 10 golden hours I was totally hooked. This game is a rollercoaster conducted by Michael Bay’s dreams. Even the driving outperformed my expectations, a feature that frequently slips past the hardworking teams of code machines spinning magic out of thin air.

Sadly this is the part of the review where I need to explain why there wasn’t an hour 11 or further. Avalanche made a truly entertaining and hilarious game. Unwrapping the carefully folded paper and peeling back the tape on this gift of a game was amazing.

The wind got pulled out of my sails around the chapter titled A Terrible Reaction started and the plot jumped into the driver’s seat. And to be fair, Just Cause games are not about the plot. The plot isn’t good or bad, it simply exists to tie things together and give you context for blowing things up.

Just Cause allows for ample amounts of freedom and creative problem solving, but this level asks you to be stealthy while you blow things up, and while I am not against stealth in games, it really doesn’t make any sense in a game where one of the primary movement mechanics is used offensively ( eg zip-lining into an enemy ). I honestly could have done without the interruptions and exposition about what this paper thin dictator was trying to pin on our heroes. Just let me get back to destroying bases ala your favorite 80’s era G.I. JOE.

One way I would have solved this, would have been to create a popularity meter. Rico can cause destruction, and if he blows up civilians his popularity plummets and the regime rises, however, as he destroys the dictator strongholds his renowned grows. And you could tie that into NPC aggression, so in less pro-Rico areas he gets the cops called on him more often for being a disturber of the peace.

At the end of my time, I really enjoyed JC3, for what I played of it.

What rocks

  • Rico’s voice work was fun but he could have delivered even more 90’s era action quips.
  • The visuals are dialed in in such a way that I never felt lost navigating Rico or knowing the direction of incoming fire.
  • All the vehicles are intuitive, easy to learn, and met my expectations.
  • The enemy NPCs are appropriately bad at catching Rico, but on the hard difficulty they become excellent marksman which makes movement even more essential to survival.
  • The XTREME sports angle adds something fun to the traversal of Medici that really doesn’t exist in any other titles.
  • Hijacking enemy missile turrets creates excellent chaos opportunities.
  • Parachute/grapple gun physics are amazing.

What fell flat for me

  • Story beats, other characters are all completely boring and border on annoying.
  • Most of the guns feel the same-y, the weapons either have exploding rounds or they don’t.
  • Forced “sneaking”

Based on my notes, the game earns a solid 1 out of 3 stars. If you are looking for a fun but shallow distraction and you see it on sale, pick it up. It is easily the best action movie you will play. But if you want to be “invested” in a title for longer than that you may want to look to a different sandbox.

So what do you think? Are you into the Just Cause series? Have I got it all wrong? Have I got it all right? Let me know but hitting me up on Twitter or sending an email to howdy@betweenplayers.com

Until then, this is Zach, keep playing.


Listen to the show on:

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Special Thanks

Guest – Robert Meyer

Original Score – Artist: Henry Jackman & Zach Abramson

Music & Audio ConsultingJosh Hunt

IllustrationEvan McIntyre