Blaugust 2019: lessons learnt

Today is the last day of August and Blaugust 2019 is officially over for Later Levels. After plenty of planning, 31 articles, a whole lot of effort and a little bit of luck, I’m pleased to report we made it through our first blogging festival and are feeling quite proud of ourselves.

Thank you once again to Belghast from Tales of the Aggronaut for hosting this annual event and to Naithin from Time to Loot for bringing it to my attention. It would have been impossible to get through it alone so I must also thank Phil for returning to blogging and joining me in this adventure. The past month has been a challenge and it’s going to take a while to recover; but it’s also been a great experience, full of lessons to take into the future. Here’s what we’ve learnt from participating in our first Blaugust.

Asking for help isn’t a weakness

As mentioned above, it would have been incredibly difficult for me to manage a post every day this month by myself. A career change in July has been keeping me busy recently and fitting training into my spare time means fewer hours for blogging. As soon as Naithin tagged me in his article about Blaugust, I knew I wanted to take part – but I was also aware there was no way I was going to be able to make it through to the end of August on my own with only two weeks available for planning.

So, I reached out to Phil to ask if he’d like to team up. Together we could conquer the mountain of posts ahead and emerge victorious. Asking for help can be hard but it isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s one of intelligence, knowing what your strengths are and having amazing people around you that you can trust. The teammates who supported, readers who cheered, mentors who encouraged and partners who cared – you’re just as amazing as the Blaugust participants themselves.

Organisation and flexibility win the battle

Writing a post every day for a month when that workload is split between two people – sounds easy, right? Well, we’re now able to confirm that it’s not the case. A lesson we learnt very early on was that the effort involved in making it through this blogging festival was going to be a lot greater than we’d originally anticipated. I think we’d assumed that somehow it would just all work and the articles required would come together on time, but it turned out to be a lot more challenging than that.

Organisation and flexibility won the battle for us. Phil and I set up a shared spreadsheet so we could track who was posting on which days along with the subjects we were writing about; and when one of us was worried about not having an article ready to meet a deadline, we’d together to juggle the schedule around and come up with a solution. As stressful as it was sometimes, I can’t deny that the thrill of overcoming an obstacle and posting on time was kind of exhilarating.

Believe in yourself

As written above, I was well aware I was going to be unable to make it through Blaugust on my own this year. Teamwork makes the dream work and all that: it was fun tackling the event as part of a team and having someone there to bounce ideas off was very productive. But I won’t deny there’s a part of me that wonders what it would have been like to have completed the event by myself; I can imagine the sense of accomplishment felt by those participants doing so must have been huge.

Maybe for next year’s blogging festival we can look at taking the best from both worlds. Who knows: perhaps you’ll see two articles a day in August 2020 as Phil and I retain that cooperative aspect which seemed to work so well this time around, but attempt to write a post each. It’s certainly possible with a bit of planning. Blaugust has taught us that it’s important to know your limits and when you need to ask for help – but you also need to believe in yourself and take a risk every so often.

Well done to everyone who took part in the event this year. Regardless of how many posts you published throughout August, you’re all winners!

Editorial: August 2019

Welcome to August’s editorial post, a monthly progress report which rounds-up all the happenings here at Later Levels along with the games we’ve been playing. With Blaugust 2019 almost done and additional posts this month, let’s take a look at recent events.

Statistics:

Followers:

  • WordPress: 1,131
  • Twitter: 524
  • Facebook: 61
  • Instagram: 173
  • Twitch: 74
  • Posts:

  • Published: 31 posts
  • Most viewed: Wonderful women in video games
  • Most liked: The return to blogging
  • Most commented on: Same old story: video games and replayability
  • My favourite: Trust, friendship and Team Ico’s games
  • Games played:

  • Beyond Good & Evil (videos)
  • Coloring Pixels (videos)
  • Kumo demo (preview / video)
  • Ord. (video)
  • Syberia (videos)
  • Syberia II (videos)
  • The Elder Scrolls Online
  • Blogger highlights:

  • Favorite Sega Genesis Games by Nathan from Gaming Omnivore
  • Hypersexualization of Female Characters by HideNGoShauna
  • Online Friends Are Real Friends by CaitlinRC from MindGames
  • 30 Days of Soundtrack by Quietschisto from RNG
  • Morality in Video Games by Brink from The Brink of Gaming
  • Blog life:

    There was a part of me that thought we wouldn’t make it through the Blaugust event, but I’m happy to report we’re almost there – there’s just one last post to go before we can officially say we’ve posted every day for an entire month. I must say a huge thank you to Phil who officially returned to blogging became my partner-in-crime throughout August to make this happen, and we’ll be sharing our thoughts on the event tomorrow. Well done to all the other bloggers out there who took part this year: you’ve been amazing and deserve a medal for all your hard work!

    In other blogging news, we had the pleasure of spending a weekend in Bristol with the lovely lads from GeekOut UK recently. It was the first time my other-half and I had taken my stepson along with us and he was so excited to finally get the chance to meet Tim and Jake. A very successful attempt at Locked In A Room’s Parallax experience was followed by a trip to Forbidden Planet, before Dan from nowisgames.com joined us for a few beers and board games. Hopefully we’ll make it back over to that side of the country in December.

    Real life:

    As well as the awesome Bristol visit mentioned above, there have been a few other events this month. A trip to Namco Funscape in London gave us the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the arcade; and the following week we went along to the AI: More than Human exhibition at the Barbican (look out for a post about that in September). Phil spent a few days at gamescom in Germany, although the event wasn’t entirely what he expected; then closer to home, I went back up to Birmingham for Insomnia65 despite my reservations after the last one (more details soon). And finally, we’ve signed up to participate in the next London 10K for SpecialEffect so we’ve dug out our running shoes to get started on the training.

    Speaking of home, our garden renovation is almost complete and we’ve been toying with the idea of turning part of the summerhouse at the back into a dedicated gaming area so we can stream next year’s GameBlast20 from there. Unfortunately though, work on that is going to have to wait as my other-half managed to dislocate his knee a few weeks ago. It’s quite difficult to do building work while you’re hobbling around on crutches – but easy enough to call for more cups of tea and make requests to pass the controller, apparently! To be fair though, it’s a rather painful thing to do and recovery is going to take a while so I’m on sympathetic-wife-duty.

    Gaming life:

    At the beginning of the month I struggled with gamers’ block: so many games in my library but none of which appealed. I took the advice of Luke from Hundstrasse and returned to the PlayStation 2, and an afternoon with Beyond Good & Evil seemed to help. I wasn’t so keen on Syberia and Syberia II however; they may be classics but returning to these titles just made me remember how much I dislike Kate Walker as a character, because I find her responses to the events happening around her very confusing. A post about this is already drafted and ready to go so come back next week if you want to find out more.

    The rate of good campaigns on Kickstarter has massively decreased in recent years but I managed to back three in quick succession. Theropods is a pixelated point-and-click featuring dinosaurs which looks very promising; and Kumo feels like a cross between Journey, RiME and The Witness. There’s also the intriguing Missing in Jericho that feels as though you’re in a real-life detective story – more about that soon. Playing the demos for the first two made me realise that it was time to review my review policy and how my feelings towards writing such posts have changed since starting Later Levels almost three years ago.

    Coming up:

    Events:

  • 16 September: Gamers blog party
  • 19 September: International Talk Like a Pirate Day
  • 21 September: Someday You’ll Return stream
  • Until 27 September: Blogger Blitz
  • Take a look at the Side-quests page for more
  • New posts:

  • The folly of Kate Walker
  • An interview with Becky Frost from SpecialEffect
  • There’s more than meets the AI
  • My attempt at making Sweetrolls
  • Do sexualised characters impact us negatively?
  • And now over to you guys: what have you been up to lately, and what have you got planned for the coming month? Is there anything the community can help with or get involved in? Let everybody know in the comments below so we can show our support. Thanks for reading!

    gamescom 2019: Control

    I approached the Control demo at gamescom this year with very little knowledge. I knew it had a female protagonist called Jesse and if you read my post last week about playing as the opposite sex, you’ll know I’m always interested in games with a strong female lead.

    There was no queuing required this time as I’d booked a slot for the fast-track queue using the Experience PlayStation app. I highly recommend checking this out along with Linistry if you’re heading to gamescom next year otherwise it can take around two hours of lining up to play. The bookings become available at 09:00 so you need to be quick as there are only ten or fewer slots per game; more become available at 13.00 but the same rules apply.

    The demo began in a maintenance area of an unknown facility with a task to speak with the janitor, having only received brief advice about how to play. The controls are standard for a third-person shooter and I was put straight into the action with an enemy encounter just around the corner. Equipped with only a pistol, I gave it my best against the strange zombie-like enemies dressed in armour. There was no explanation at this point about who they were and why they were so weird but I had no time to consider this as the fight began as soon as I was spotted.

    I completely underestimated the difficulty of Control as I died three times on just this collection of baddies. As explained by the hints on the loading screen, the combat is about managing resources. The gun has limited ammo yet slowly recharges and if you empty it, you are penalised with a short delay. One of the enemies had a powerful shield protecting their health and it took many shots to take down. I had to pause between small salvos of shots to allow the ammo to regenerate. If I emptied the gun, I would have to wait several seconds which is enough time for the enemy shield to restore. This is similar to how shields work in other games such as Borderlands.
     
    After finally working out the trick to taking out tougher enemies, I finally made my way to the janitor who had some surreal dialogue for our protagonist and her internal monologue reflected this. I soon had my instructions to make repairs to the power plant but not before falling through a non-existent hole in the floor into a kind of simulated training area to learn more about the movement mechanics. Jesse has some powerful moves at her disposal and I was introduced to a dash which aided with crossing significant gaps when combined with jumping. I continued through this training segment, getting used to the jumping and dashing mechanics, while still not knowing the reason for having these abilities.
     
    Moving onto the power-plant itself I learned a bit more about the enemy as Jesse referred to them as ‘The Hiss’ while speaking with a member of security, who then asked if ‘that’s what they’re called now’. So if the in-game characters aren’t clear on what’s going on at this point, then I know this will be a slow-burning story. I was getting the government involvement vibe at this point, considering how the protagonist was dressed and how people were responding to her. Nothing was explained in the demo but I carried on with my repair task.

    Unfortunately, because I had died so much, my playtime was cut short as we were all asked to finish up before I could get to repairing things. It’s a shame as I expect it would introduce more of Jesse’s powers and hopefully explain where they came from. There were a few smaller battles to be had with weird floating aliens that gave off an impressive warping effect to the air when killed. The game will look impressive with all the supernatural effects going off at once later on. What I saw from it was pretty enough visually, and the characters were very detailed in cutscenes including facial animation and lip-sync.
     
    Control will be available to purchase by the time you’re reading this, and I expect much of the mystery will have been uncovered. I found the combat to be harder than I expected at first but it might just take some getting used to. I hope this game is more than just impressive visuals – so if you have the full release and can provide any further insight into the story, please let me know in the comments. No spoilers though!

    gamescom 2019: Borderlands 3

    Oh Borderlands, what fun we’ve had over the years. I don’t remember much of the first game but played Borderlands 2 for many hours on multiple platforms. Its claim of containing a billion different guns was no lie, with each core weapon having many combinations.

     
    Poor Claptrap has had some bad press over the years and some have compared the robot to Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars as an attempt to entertain children. Funny when you consider the game has a PEGI 18 age-rating in the UK. I quite like Claptrap and his social awkwardness and penchant for puns, probably because he most reminds me of myself. He’s always been helpful to his Minion, the protagonist the Vault Hunter, and has saved their lives on more than one occasion. Claptrap didn’t make an appearance in the gamescom demo sadly but that may have been on purpose.

    I mentioned in my round-up post earlier this week that the queue for Borderlands 3 was nowhere near as long as it appeared. The wait was around an hour and didn’t lack for entertainment, with at least one guy in the queue stripping down to his undies while the 2K Games staff cheered him on. That was the most enjoyable queuing experience at the whole event as there was the typical Borderlands level of comedy mixed in with cartoon violence. However, I was praying that they didn’t try and convince me to dance as well, and luckily for everyone else that didn’t happen.

    Once inside the play area, each station was set up with an Xbox One controller and the loudest set of headphones I’ve come across. The gunshots were deafening but it added quite a punch to the gameplay. I immediately noticed the player had a better feeling of movement than in previous releases with added motion when changing direction or stopping without it feeling heavy. It’s hard to describe the addition, but hopefully you’ll know what I mean when you get to play it. I’ve included a video of the demo further down so be sure to check that out and you should see what I mean.

    Borderlands, Borderlands 3, gamescom

    Even though the game is out in a couple of weeks, the gameplay is so smooth and enjoyable enough that I was more than happy to queue for a go. The gun play is fast, deliberate and full of variety with lots of exciting weapon mechanics. I selected the Siren class in the demo, which was equipped with a shotgun and rifle that had no reload and would fire faster the longer you held the trigger. It’s like an automatic rifle with a long-range scope but little recoil and fast rate of fire. This isn’t obvious at first as the weapons are visually unique compared to their real-life equivalents.

    As for the Tediore shotgun, if you’ve played Borderlands before you’ll know that the gun is thrown like a grenade and explodes when reloaded. I’d forgotten this at first and wondered why I blew myself up as I reloaded it while facing a wall. This is one of the weapon mechanics that is unique to the franchise and adds variety to the gun-play. The third title claims to have gazillions of weapons this time but I don’t know how we’ll tell the difference considering a billion is already an absurd amount! There were weapon drops in the demo but I didn’t take the time to investigate them, so I had no hands-on the various damage types unfortunately. The one grenade type was of the bouncy kind and because it was such frantic section of the game I didn’t get to check out what it actually did!

    The playable segment was the mission shown back at E3 in June and ended with a boss called Mouthpiece, who is a big dude with a shield and loudspeakers to cause an area of effect attack. Sadly I failed a couple of times while trying to figure out how the attacks were signposted, but there were plenty of smaller enemies to kill and achieve second wind instead of dying. After finally completing the demo, I was getting ready to walk out but saw everyone was still playing. The whole room was empty of players when we were brought in so luckily I realised it was a time-limited demo and started a second run. I selected the gunner class and was able to try out the mech-style ability before running out of time and, while it was short-lived, it was thrilling to stomp around in a big robot firing lasers everywhere.
     
    Overall I was delighted with the experience and while I wasn’t too excited by a similar-looking sequel, the gameplay feels so refined I’m now looking forward to getting back into Borderlands again. There are only a few weeks until the game is released on 13 September 2019 and I probably wouldn’t have considered buying it straight away. Having now got a taste of the title, I’m looking forward to it. Is anyone joining me with Borderlands 3 once it arrives? What did you think of the demo if you’ve also had the opportunity to play it?

    gamescom 2019: Final Fantasy VII Remake

    Final Fantasy VII was a killer title for the PlayStation in 1997 – except I didn’t buy it straight away, or was even vaguely aware of it. I only picked it up when my mum took my brother and me to a car-boot sale one weekend and we saw the title selling for cheap.

    I remember her parking in the Tesco nearby to buy food while I remained in the car with my brother in the pouring rain, reading the manual to get a head-start as soon as we got home. Does anyone else remember games coming in cases with a full booklet? Perhaps that’s a little bit of development time saved for something else more significant.

    It’s a strange memory to have but I feel it’s an important one I’ve always remembered because we fell in love with Final Fantasy VII almost straight away. I wasn’t used to playing RPGs or Japanese releases, so the turn-based gameplay was alien at first but the plot didn’t fail to draw us in. Joining Cloud on his journey from amnesia, to terrorism, and finally on the way to saving the world had us gripped. When a particular character died, it hit me hard emotionally as I hadn’t experienced such loss in a video game before. That’s because we didn’t play anything with as much depth in the story.

    One last point to make on the original was that we didn’t actually finished the title the first time around. In the last moments of freedom before heading for the final area, I spent hours and hours levelling the characters, aiming for the maximum stats possible. This was futile; it would take hundreds of hours to do but that didn’t stop me constantly running around in circles in the forest at Mideel to trigger the random encounters. I did manage to complete it for the first time many years later once I convinced myself to finish it regardless, OCD-levelling be damned.

    Fast forward over 20 years to today, when we’ve patiently waited for the promised remake to appear and meet our lofty expectations. No other entry in the Final Fantasy series has come close to VIII except Final Fantasy X as it introduced voiced characters, but still lacked the grit of the PlayStation original. We’ve also moved to a more active combat system instead of the original turn-based experience, which is a welcome change. I do miss the strategy of the older system where planning ahead was crucial but I understand the free-moving combat is much more accessible.

    After queuing for two hours at gamescom, we finally got our hands on the remake and played from the middle of the opening sequence up to the Guard Scorpion boss battle. The demo is voiced in Japanese but subtitled in German and we were able to change it to English to understand what was going on. Cloud and Barret were playable throughout with the ability to switch between them in combat but only controlling Cloud out of battle, just like the original. The active combat was very much a button-basher using attack and block buttons until pausing the battle to use the combat menu.

    The same options for abilities, magic or items return but with the addition of the action meter from XIV, which builds with basic attacks and spent on the use of abilities. The demo included a tutorial on staggering enemies by building a bar with repeated attacks which, when full, would stun them after landing a magic attack. Once in this state, the enemies take increased damage which is crucial for this boss battle as it would have taken much longer to defeat without it.

    Those encountered in the run-up differed by whether they were a close-quarter or ranged attacker. The latter was inaccessible by Cloud and so Barret with his Gatling gun comes into play, with pressing up on the directional pad switches characters. While fighting you can issue commands to the other characters to help the battle flow without the need to switch between them continuously. It will be interesting to see how this works out with more than two, assuming four is the standard as in the original.

    Sadly it wasn’t possible to play with the levelling system or Materia in the demo, but I did notice in the video while queueing that you can see the Materia slotted in the weapon in-game which is a nice touch. Some additional details regarding how the system will work in the remake are available online should you want to know more.

    What I liked about the demo was finally seeing Cloud and Barret back in action again. Their characters are very detailed in the remake and now voiced, which is what you would expect from a recent release. It felt very much like Final Fantasy XIV in exploring the environment, looting chests and seamlessly battling enemies unlike the original. It’ll be good to hear the English speaking voiceovers which will no doubt add a bit more character than the voiceless protagonists of the late 1990s, especially Barret with his no bullcrap attitude.

    I may have been playing the title wrong, but I didn’t quite enjoy the button-mashing basic attacks needed to build the ability and stagger bars. However, I mustn’t let nostalgia get in the way and should remind myself that the original game also included the need to spam the attack command over and over in some situations. Limit Breaks have returned and are as flashy as ever, with a variety of special attacks that are impressive to watch. Overall I was pleased with what I saw but won’t let expectations run too high as the attempt to modernise the gameplay will likely conflict with my memories.

    Please leave a comment below if you’ve seen or played the Final Fantasy VII Remake demo and let me know what you thought. I’ve tried to not get too far into the details until I’ve got my hands on the finished version. Look out for my post tomorrow on another game I got my grubby mitts on at gamescom: Borderlands 3.

    gamescom 2019: a round-up

    I’m writing this halfway through the last day of gamescom 2019 after finally having been able to get my hands on some games. The past few days have been both amazing and challenging at the same time due to it being my first time at the event.

    If you’re someone who loves being part of a crowd then you may well disagree, but I’m not alone in thinking the organisers may have attempted a new visitor record. Moving around within the halls wasn’t too bad unless you were in a rush, but there were a few choke points in the corridors between halls with crowd-control. The queue length for most games was up-to two hours, although some were visibly deceiving and moved faster. However, there was no instant gratification to be had at this event.

    gamescom 2019, Borderlands, Borderlands 3

    I’ve always enjoyed the Borderlands series and, even though the third installment is due out in just over two weeks, I wanted to have a go. A Reddit for Gamescom revealed details about the queue for this particular game and that it was much quicker than other queues of its length. So I jumped in first thing on the last day and was able to play roughly an hour later. Once I was inside the play area, it was obvious why: there must have been 50 or more stations.

    My longest queuing experience was for Final Fantasy VII Remake in the PlayStation section. I saw that the queue at the Square Enix stand was massive and thought that for Sony’s area would be shorter. I finally made it to the front over two hours later even though they had 24 stations set up, and my thoughts on the game will be posted tomorrow. Thankfully I had a book to read but I almost forgot what I was queueing for by the time I got to my destination.

    gamescom, Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy VII Remake

    The PlayStation section became my favourite due to it being a welcoming space with plenty of things to do. A stage hosting frequent live-streams had lots of seating space and there was plenty to play, with quick access to titles such as Dreams and Medievil as well as the longest queues for Death Stranding and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The Experience PlayStation app provides digital queueing but I found the spaces were quickly taken. It was a case of spamming the RSVP button at 08:59 to grab a booking when they became available at 09:00 – although that would have been for one game only so the other slots were gone immediately.

    Another reason I enjoyed Sony’s area so much was the PlayStation Plus lounge exclusively for subscribers which I really appreciated. They served free drinks and had a balcony overlooking the show floor where I spent an hour taking photos and recording time-lapses. It was a great feeling to be there and watch everyone else moving around, glancing up and likely feeling envious. The lounge wasn’t completely obvious so you could forgive attendees for not realising it was there. They also had a playable version of Erica but again, there was a queue so I skipped it. It’s now available anyway and was already on my to-buy list!

    gamescom, PlayStation

    The PlayStation app also has a reward system for scanning QR codes after playing each game, with a dynamic theme as a reward for scanning all of them. It was a fun side-mission to collect these even though the staff were quite happy to share them regardless of having played the specific title or not. I don’t know if Microsoft or Nintendo had an equivalent because I sadly didn’t spend any time in their areas. There was a general digital queue for any participating stands but I wasn’t impressed with the offerings: DOOM Eternal, Dragon Ball Z Kakarot, Wasteland 3 and The Witcher 3. It didn’t appear there were many companies taking part in this service, which is a shame and I hope they improve on it next year.

    I’ve learnt a few things from my gamescom experience that I would like to share for those that visit next year.

    Wristbands can be obtained inside the venue

    Upon arrival I followed the masses from the nearby train station through a very long route snaking around the venue. It was confusing as most people were continuously moving forward to tents scattered along the path. These were issuing colour-coded wristbands indicating your age group and I jumped into a queue, which took half an hour before I received my red 18+ identification. These tents are also inside the venue with much shorter queues and so they can easily be obtained any time. They’re designed to last so unless you cut it off, the wristband will last all four days.

    Research digital queues before the event

    As mentioned earlier, PlayStation had their own digital queuing via the Experience PlayStation app and Linistry provided queues for other games. This is apparently a new feature this year and will no doubt be improved upon in 2020. It gives you the freedom to roam the event while waiting for your time slot, before heading over to the fast track of the particular title you’re after.

    BYOS: Bring Your Own Stool

    If digital queues aren’t your thing and you prefer good old fashioned queuing, then bring something to sit on! I noticed recyclable cardboard stools were given out by three companies if you played their demos so be sure to make that a priority. Some visitors had brought their own foldable camping chairs showing their gamescom knowledge. The longest queues are two to three hours, if you can wait that long.

    Try the currywurst mit pommes

    I was actually quite surprised by the number of food stalls compared those at UK gaming events. I can’t speak for pricing as I’m not used to the Euro and the British Pound is weaker than ever, but you can’t beat currywurst mit pommes. Seating is a problem unless you walk your food over to a chill-out zone (not recommended) so I had to sit on a curb because I didn’t bring my own stool.

    Getting around the venue

    The Koelnmesse venue is massive and well air-conditioned, but there were areas crammed with people all trying to move in opposite directions. Find the side-routes between halls and avoid the main corridors when it’s busy as crowd-control can really slow everyone down and cause frustration. For halls that run parallel with each other, there’s usually a route between them outside and I recommend taking them. I found that because Germans drive on the right-hand side, the flow of people around the individual halls stick to this format.

    Stuff I can’t comment on

    There were a few things I wasn’t so interested in seeing and so can’t comment on: anything eSports related, the various streamers broadcasting live, Google Stadia, Facebook Gaming, FIFA 20, Call of Duty, and sadly the Ubisoft section as it was mostly Tom Clancy titles. If you did attend these sections or play the games, please do leave your thoughts in the comments below in case I missed something special!

    gamescom 2019, crowds, queues

    Cologne itself was a wonderful experience, and the architecture is eclectic to say the least. The tram service I used from where I stayed in Marsdorf was fast and efficient. I felt terrible for not speaking any German but that didn’t cause any issues as everyone I talked to was quite happy to converse in English. At the time of writing, I still have one last day in the city where I’ll be visiting the chocolate museum overlooking the river Rhine followed by general sightseeing.

    I’m not sure whether I’ll attend gamescom next year at this point but I will certainly miss the city – including one particular potato restaurant that has changed my life – so watch this space!