AV Club’s Best Games of 2016 (so far)

It’s already that time of year… people are making lists for their favorite things at the halfway mark of 2016.

AV Club did it for their favorite games so far of this year here.

Pretty solid list. There are definitely games here that I haven’t played yet but are on my to-do list. Namely, Firewatch, Oxenfree, and Inside (which I can’t play yet since it’s only on Xbox One).

As for my list, it’d be pretty short since there haven’t been too many games this year that have grabbed me. Uncharted 4 would definitely be at the top.

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Most Anticipated Upcoming Games

Final Fantasy XV (Sept 30, 2016)

I was a die-hard fan back in the days of IV, VI and VII but have fallen off the wagon since. I bought XIII but was less than impressed.

I haven’t kept up with every detail about this game so will probably wait for the reviews to come in before committing to this one. But I’m hoping SquareEnix can recapture the magic.

 

Persona 5 (Feb 14, 2017)

I actually haven’t played any previous Persona game (and am still debating over whether or not to buy a Vita just to play P4) but everything I’ve seen of Persona 5 looks like it will be amazing.

The anime aspect, the Tokyo setting, and the bold design style are piquing my interest big time.

I got to play Catherine on last-gen and thought it was a great mix of puzzle platformer and character-heavy story.

 

Mass Effect Andromeda (March 2017)

Easily my most anticipated game.

The Mass Effect trilogy was the highlight of my Xbox 360 gaming experience. I played the crap out of those games multiple times.

The games had major flaws and plotholes, but the Star Wars-esque setting and the interesting characters are what kept me coming back for more.

I’m hoping for more of the same in Andromeda.

 

Other games that I’ll probably end up checking out:

The Last Guardian, just to see what the hype is all about
Watchdogs 2, initially excited about the first one but reality of it kept me from even playing it
Rise of the Tomb Raider, my enthusiasm dulled after having waited so long for it to show up on the PS4

What do you guys think?

Also, I want to do a Let’s Play soon but most of these games on my list are RPGs which aren’t exactly conducive to focused recorded gameplay. I’m thinking I’ll try recording a couple of episodes of Persona 5 and see how it goes. But I’m open to anyone’s opinions.

Let’s Play: Life is Strange

I only decided to give this game a try because it was appearing on so many people’s Best of 2015 lists and hints at some crazy twists.

I was definitely intrigued even though it seemed like a pretty generic walking simulator for emo teen girls.

Boy was I wrong! I loved playing this game, and it really hit me in the feels! Really glad I ended up doing a Let’s Play for my first run-through.

Hope you enjoy it!

Tom Clancy’s The Division: A User Interface Review

(Originally posted on April 7, 2016)

By now, most people have had a chance to read or formulate a review on Tom Clancy’s The Division. Among long delays, my feelings for it waxed and waned, but ultimately I enjoyed traversing through an apocalyptic Midtown Manhattan.

My approach here is to not really review the overall game but to focus in on the User Interface (UI) and some of the User Experience (UX) to see what the game does right and what could have been improved.

Let’s do this!

Overall Impressions

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From my first view of the game, I was very intrigued by the design philosophy of the game to use a more flat and clean approach. By now, the flat look has been more widely adopted in games such as Destiny or more obviously Apple. Much of today’s design community eschews the skeuomorphism look, which basically attempts to recreate real life textures and objects.

But when The Division was first announced, the look was much more unique and definitely stood out in my eyes. Luckily they’ve largely preserved the approach from Alpha stages to the final game.

A lot of it works well, but flat and clean doesn’t always mean simple and easy. Some of the content requires the design to do a lot of heavy lifting to make it easy to understand, and the system here for the most part handles it well.

To compliment (or offset) the flat look, all the UI elements have a dimensional, angled orientation. It helps make those elements feel like an immersive part of the game, which I’m usually not a fan of since sometimes information gets displayed at weird angles. Borderlands  didn’t work as well because there was always something that was hard to read or blocked by another element. Here, that doesn’t seem to be much of an issue.

The biggest thing for me was the strong usage of color, especially the orange. It’s used to indicate all the most important UI elements that the player should see while the rest is usually in white, with red as emergency or restricted indicators. Working well to stand out from the game’s overall drab and gray palette, the orange always manages to pop, even if it’s just a thin line on the screen.

 

HUD

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This is the main UI and I think it’s fairly elegant in design. There’s a lot happening but it’s still successful in being concise and unobstructive despite having it constantly in the middle of the screen next to the player’s character.

It’s also nice that the abilities and items are composed in a way that indicate which buttons they’re mapped to. Items on the left side are mapped to the left bumper and left d-pad, and right button items are on the right. Makes sense!

There are a few nice touches here and there such as a small progress bar for weapon reloading and a HUD element that only appears on the backpack when a player stores an item in it.

But the thing about the simplistic approach is sometimes it goes too far. A few of the elements were just too obtuse and I had to scour the internet to find out what they indicated. Such as items dropped on the floor are indicated with a generic icon even though it could be any of a dozen types of items. Why not have specific icons instead, especially since they’re already designed and used in other parts of the UI? Another confusing element is the ammo indicator, which shows the amount in the current clip and the amount overall. But it took me forever to realize that the number in the box further below was the ammo count in my secondary weapon. There’s no graphic indicator to explain what that is. It’s literally a number in a rectangle.

Main HUD Grade: B+

 

Map and Wayfinding

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One of the most impressive UI elements is The Division‘s map feature.

A virtual map sprouts out around the character for a 3-D view of the area. The map spins and zooms, and it looks very cool. I don’t have too many quips about this feature. There are extra functions but I never needed to dive into them because the overall map is implemented very well.

In the HUD, the radial map is pretty typical of what you find in modern games. The developers didn’t reinvent anything here, but I like how the objective is listed next to the map along with its distance away.When a player selects a waypoint, the HUD shows the path with a thin orange line hovering above the roads. It’s a really nice element that looks clean and is fairly responsive.

My only complaint is that usually I’d focus too much on the guiding line and not even look around at the amazing environment. It’s a case where I maybe would’ve rather not have a guide and just a final point marker to leave it up to me as to how to get there.

Map Screen Grade: A

 

Menus

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This is where the bulk of the game info resides and there’s a strain on the UI system to arrange it in a way that is comprehensible.

Color and simple typography really do a lot to make sense out of everything. Choosing to mostly stay with silhouettes of items helps as well. It mostly works mainly because the designers adhere to a consistent system and grid. In Batman: Arkham Knight, the menus were all over the place as far as design systems. One menu would use a radial circle, the next would have a hexagon grid, another had rows of squares. As a player, I was constantly feeling confused and jolted from one screen to the next. The Division is head and shoulders above in that aspect because of its unified approach.

Again the stripped down look sometimes leaves the player guessing as to what the information is, such as the mod indicators on the weapons. It’s nice to see when a weapon has mods, but there’s no way to decipher what mods are what with just a row of colored rectangles. Further in, a weapon screen shows the mods in detail so then just leave it off the main inventory screen.

My main problem with the menus is in the item comparison options. It’s maddening that I can’t easily compare weapon types or mods to each other. If I’m viewing a shotgun at a vendor, I can only compare it to the three weapons I have equipped and not the shotgun I have in my backpack. Also, for some reason you can’t compare stats for mods at the vendors at all.

Another issue is how hard it is to sort through and view appearance accessories. Names like “Modern Work Boots” and “Trendy Work Boots” don’t do a whole lot for me. And you can’t view the item very easily until you’ve selected an item and exited out to the prior menu. Plus the vendor who sells appearance items won’t let you preview an item until you buy it first! What a racket this lady has in the post-apocalypse!

The vendor UI has more problems that I kept struggling with. Sorting and ordering features need to be added. The item cost and how much money the player has aren’t prominent enough. Too prominent were the character level requirements. If an item has a level too high for me then the whole area is colored red, but if I can equip it then I don’t care what the item level is. I would’ve much rather been able to easily see the price and how much I had.

Menu Screens Grade: B-

 

Verdict

I think The Division does a lot right in the way of UI and UX. Games such as this and Destiny show that developers are getting more savvy and placing more importance of good design and layout.Consistent adherence to the design philosophy and smart, restrained usage of color and typography are all winning elements of their system.Again, when the information load per screen increases, the simplicity starts to struggle. Although that occurs in any case. It’s a great feat that The Division doesn’t really break down when faced with that challenge.

I was going to complain about how the game over-uses the indicator for taking cover, showing the A (or X) icon on virtually every wall, but then I realized that most of the UI and HUD elements can be turned off! It’s an ingenious option that I hope becomes an industry standard.

In general, I hope a lot of developers examine The Division and what it does right for UI. If so, then the future is bright for games and design. At least brighter than the future of New York depicted in this game.

 

Overall Grade: A-

Life is Strange, Episode 1 is free to download

Life is Strange is a fantastic game. If you like living out the life of a teenage girl. With time travel powers.

The first episode (out of five) is now free to download on various platforms. I highly recommend giving it a go.

I’ll admit that the game is a bit slow to really get going, probably not until midway through the second episode. But once it gets its hooks in you, it wont let go.

I was surprised by how attached I got to several of the characters in the story. The writing is a bit shaky at first but the episodic release structure allowed the developer to right most of the wrongs by the end.

One of the best surprises for me of 2015, and the emotional resonance is a level that very few other games (indie or AAA) are able to achieve.

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