An Epic Debate: Ben’s argument

The popularity of Fortnite has been transformative for Epic Games. But with huge success has come rivalry with Valve, gamers unhappy with exclusivity deals, rumours of stressful working conditions and many unanswered questions. Later Levels has joined forces with Dan from for An Epic Debate, in which we’ll be giving our opinions and thoughts on the company over the coming week.

It’s one of those things in blogging that whenever I feel I’m about to go against the tide of public opinion, I need to clarify my position. I was asked if I supported what Epic Games are doing with their store in securing exclusivity for certain releases. Actually I don’t care – it doesn’t impact me as a console gamer – but I support the principle of what they’re doing because I believe strongly in competition.

Let me be clear though, this is not a post that discusses working practices or how Epic made their money. I might write more about those in the future but (contrary to many opinions, it seems) I can agree with one aspect of a business and disagree wholeheartedly with others.

Like any rational, sensible person, I do not support any aspect of video game ‘crunch’ or any team member working the sorts of hours being spoken about in the news right now. Not just at Epic but at any studio where it has raised its head. Even one of my favourite gaming series, Mortal Kombat, has been subject to this of late and if I’m honest the game feels tainted as a result. I would much rather have waited months for a title that didn’t push people to breaking point.

Had I known prior to my pre-order, I might not have bought it.

Fortnite is another one of these games and it’s especially relevant given it’s Epic I’ve been asked to write about.

Also, I should also say I’ve been buying products from Epic for 25 years, maybe more. I managed to convince my Dad to write a cheque to them to upgrade to the full version of One Must Fall 2097 from shareware in the 1990s, Unreal Tournament remains one of the greatest games I’ve ever played and Gears of War is a series I can’t get enough of. I even bought early access to Fortnite: Save The World before the Battle Royale came along and turned pop-culture on its head.

It’s safe to say I’ve been a long-term customer of Epic then.

It’s kind of irrelevant though because the crux of what I’ve been asked about is whether or not I support what they’re doing and you can, in my mind, replace Epic with any company you like.

They’re trying to get a foothold into a market dominated by Steam. Valve have held all the cards in terms of online distribution since 2004 and the release of Half Life 2, with no real, viable challenger. If Epic want to offer developers a more favourable split of the revenue (88/12) to Steam (70/30) then I have no problem with that. If they want to waive royalties for the use of their Unreal engine if games built with it are sold through the store, then I have no problem with that too.

Epic are in a very fortunate position to have a healthy bank balance and they are using it to get traction. If a developer decides that they want to publish on the Epic Games Store instead of that platform then I don’t understand why that’s a problem either. At the end of the day, a developer wants to maximise the return from sometimes years of work and 88% is better than 70%. I would suggest you look at some of the more outspoken indie creators on Twitter about how much they struggle financially to bring us the games we love.

The reality is they will probably publish on both but if more developers go to Epic exclusively, you can bet it will prompt Valve to react and change its structure to win them back.

So how does it impact the consumer? Well, you’ll still be able to play the games, the prices aren’t going up, the developers get a larger cut (which must be a good thing!) so that only leaves one thing.

From what I can tell, the wider issue seems less about Epic or Steam but more about the requirement for another installer on the desktop. We all want convenience, I get that, and the ability to access an entire software library from a single client is the ideal. No-one wants to have to remember whether the title they want to play is on Steam, Epic, GOG, Blizzard, Uplay, Origin or a game-specific launcher, but it is what it is.

Feels like a small price to pay from where I’m sitting.

I don’t remember there being an outcry when Microsoft effectively secured the exclusivity to all future Obsidian, Ninja Theory, Playground Games, Undead Labs and Compulsion Games’ output when they bought those studios. Or when Sony tied up Insomniac’s Spider-Man. You have to switch to a completely different machine to play those. Double-clicking on an icon seems much easier in comparison if I’m honest.

Maybe I am just an uneducated console peasant who doesn’t understand the wider vagaries of PC gaming politics but ultimately I think competition is good. What Epic are doing will prompt Valve to react and innovate to protect their position, which in turn will cause Epic to do the same and vice-versa. Developers will get more return from each game that is sold, and consumers will be able to choose which platform to buy their games on, possibly at different price-points. Yes, there will be some exclusives but to a console gamer like me this is nothing new and a part of the wider gaming ecosystem.

At the end of the day, nobody is forced to buy a product on the Epic Games Store if they don’t want to, and if the gaming populace really wants to send a message to Epic and those that publish through that route, then they just have to vote with their wallets and not buy the game.

It’s not what you play, it’s who you play it with

I’m writing this the day before Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 releases. At least for me and all the other season pass pre-orders. If you bought the Ultimate Edition, you could be playing now but if you only have the standard you have to wait another few days. Sad, but true.

That’s a comment for another day. What I wanted to write about was a question Kim asked me recently: “Why don’t you write about how exited you are for The Division 2?” Relatively straightforward at first but the truth is, I’m not. I’ve dropped a load of money on a game I’m not hyped about at all.

So why spend the money? Well, because Pete is beyond excited about the game.

Every Tuesday night, Pete and I play games online, or at least try to as sometimes life gets in the way. I look forward to it each and every week and I’m always gutted if we can’t play. Over the years we’ve played all sorts including Destiny (both the original and 2), Rocket League, Strange Brigade and currently Fallout 76. We’ve also played The Division.

Pete loves The Division. I’ve never known him be so passionate about any other game. He loves the setting, the look and most importantly the grind. Long after I was bored (and frustrated) with the bullet-sponge baddies, Pete was playing it on multiple systems and ranking up his characters to super powerful levels. He’s an absolute Division nut and his enthusiasm is infectious.

I love seeing passion in people, I love being a part of their happiness and it’s games like The Division which give that. Am I looking forward to the actual game? Not really. Am I looking forward to playing it? As long as it’s with Pete, you bet your backside I am.

Anthem: video game Marmite

Ok, cards on the table… Here it comes… Confession time: I like Anthem. I get the criticism, I really do. The lore is opaque, the loot is dull, the systems for tracking quests and equipping gear are clunky at best and the loading screens… oh god, the loading screens are awful.

I also agree that underneath all the rubbish is, potentially, a real gem. A diamond in the rough. Why? Because the actual gameplay is superb. Flying your Javelin (think Iron Man armour) through the world is a thrill, the combat is excellent and the game looks gorgeous. Hovering about the battlefield in my Storm Javelin (Mage), I get a glorious view of the Colossus (Tank) and Interceptor (Rogue) working their way around at ground level, as the Ranger adds support at close quarters or range. Once you get your head around the combat it’s a treat. Each mission lasts around ten or twenty minutes and it’s done. Alternatively you can explore the world at your leisure.

Then it’s back to Fort Tarsis where you switch to first person mode to speak to characters and accept quests. Here it’s a completely different pace. Hectic combat replaced by slow exploration and in depth reading of the lore. It’s the complete opposite of what’s gone before.

And that, for me, is why it works.

I have limited time to game and so I need something that will work with both my time and what I want to play. Some days I’m in the mood for a few short missions, other days I might want to zone out and fly around to explore. There are also days when I want to immerse myself in the world and its characters. Anthem allows me to do it all and as a result we really suit each other.

Despite all that, I’m not going to recommend people jump in and buy it. I just can’t. Yes, it works for me but taking a step back I know it’s not a good game overall. There are so many things that need work, and if you want a mission-upgrade-mission-repeat scenario you’re going to lose your mind over the loading screens and inaccessibility of it all. It’s a game that the majority will lose patience with very quickly unless BioWare and EA address it.

It’s something I take no pleasure in saying either. It feels so much like it wants to be The Division or Destiny and yet hasn’t learned from any of their mistakes.

So, Anthem. Do you love it or hate it?

Welcome Back, Pilot

I have a strange relationship with battle-royale games. I love the concept of them and enjoy playing but once I’ve won a round I lose interest really quickly. In some part of my brain I see it as the point at which I ‘complete’ the game and lose the desire to go back for more.

It might be because I was brought up on releases in the 80s and 90s where once you finished the game’s objective that was it. No online component, no DLC, no expansion packs, no nothing. What you bought is what you got.

So what’s the endgame now? You win a round and then win some more I suppose. Grind for some cosmetic stuff (or pay for it if the mood takes you) and that’s it. I don’t entirely get it but millions of people do and that’s actually a very good thing. It means they play the games, pay the money and support developers and other staff across the industry. Cool.

Needless to say I jumped into Apex Legends when it launched the other week and soon added a victory there to my PUBG, Fortnite and Blackout wins. As before, the desire to play it slowly left me but this time something was different. This time I had been inspired to play Titanfall 2 again.

Why? Because when Respawn Entertainment developed Apex Legends they not only set it inside the Titanfall universe but used a very similar game engine. Movement is slow fluid, the shooting is spot on and the design impeccable, as the rave reviews for the Ping system will attest.

Jumping back into Titanfall 2 has been a brilliant decision. I’d forgotten just how good it was. Apex Legends doesn’t have the double-jump, wall-running or giant mechs and I can see why. They wouldn’t work in that environment. In Titanfall 2 however, they’re amazing. Grappling up to a wall, dashing along it, jumping to another, shooting, sliding off and into your Titan is a fantastic feeling.

The single-player campaign is a masterclass in design too. The way each level is structured is reminiscent of the best design Nintendo have used with Mario: start with a game mechanic, show player how to use it, make it progressively more complicated, end simply. In Titanfall those mechanics are everything from grappling, to wall running, to messing with time to just blowing stuff up with a huge Titan. It’s inspired.

The multiplayer is superb too with multiple game types. My favourites are Attrition and Frontier Defence. The first is effectively a standard deathmatch and you start off just trying to take down other pilots. Simply bunny-hopping around won’t help you here, you’ve got to be alert to walls, grapples, zip lines and all sorts. There are also AI ground troops running around the battlefield too. Then as the round progresses, Titans start dropping in and you’ve got massive mechs to deal with also. That these machines can operate independently of the player means that you could have both Titan and pilot trying to kill you at the same time. By the end of each round it’s absolute chaos.

Frontier Defence is horde mode by any other name and you team up with three others to face five waves of soldiers, robots and titans. It’s harder than it sounds but the five rounds are a perfect length, the two guys commentating are spot on and the level progression (player, titan and difficulty) is perfectly balanced.

Multiplayer servers are pretty slim in terms of player numbers and I’ve seen them as low as 1,500 recently but also as high as 20,000 on Xbox in the last week or so. It’s the nature of a game that never got the mainstream traction it deserved in an already crowded market.

I hope the success of Apex Legends continues for Respawn and allows them to build more in the Titanfall universe. Whether it’s a third game in the series, expanding the Apex Legends world to include mechs or something else I know it’ll be superb and worth a lot of play time.

Dedicated to my backlog: Ben

Following on from the start of #LoveYourBacklog Week on Monday and Kim’s post yesterday, I thought I’d have a go at digging through my backlog and picking out some of the ‘highlights’.

Game most likely never to be played: Dark Souls II

I try so hard to like the Dark Souls games, I really do. I’ve played Demon Souls, Dark Souls (including the remaster), Dark Souls III and Bloodborne. The closest I’ve got to clicking with a game in the genre was Nioh but even then I only lasted two bosses before I lost interest.

I think it’s the repetition of Dark Souls II. I don’t mind the grind but running the same gauntlet again and again and again to power up sufficiently to take on a boss just doesn’t work for me. I need variety, especially when the opportunities to sink into a gaming session are so limited.

Shortest game – and longest game too: Red Red Redemption 2

My shortest and longest is going to be the same game: Red Dead Redemption 2. It was a Christmas present from my brother and even though it’s hailed as one of the greats, I just don’t know when I’m going to find time to play it with Anthem, The Division 2, Fallout 76 and Mortal Kombat 11 going to be taking up my time for the foreseeable. So it’s the title that’s been on there the shortest but I have a sneaking suspicion it might become one of the longest too!

Game which has spent the longest time on the backlog: Football Manager 2009

The clue’s in the name.

The person responsible for adding the most entries to my backlog: Keza MacDonald

Formerly UK editor at IGN and Kotaku, and currently video games editor for The Guardian, I have been reading Keza MacDonald’s journalistic work for years. Hers is an opinion I trust, even if I might disagree. Its probably why I’m determined to find a way to get a Souls game to click, her book You Died: The Dark Souls Companion is great reading.

Long story short, I trust her recommendations and would love to spend an afternoon drinking coffee and talking games.

That’s it from my Steam library for now – how about yours? To find out how you can join in with #LoveYourBacklog Week, take a look at Monday’s post.

Great gaming moments

Gaming. We love it because of those moments it gives us. The unexpected that can make you smile, curse, gasp or scream. There’s no other medium like it and why, I like to think, we all love it so.

With that in mind, here are a few gaming moments that stick in my mind.

Assassin’s Creed Unity online

A complete car-crash at launch and not much better when I picked it up a few months later, Assassin’s Creed Unity has gone down as a lesson in how not to do things. Which is a shame because when it went right it went really right.

Online was amazing. I’ll never forget the first time I teamed up with three other assassins and we swarmed over the Parisian rooftops. We were a wave of silent murder, climbing up towers, leaping off, rolling, running, dashing through windows. The guards never stood a chance. It all felt so fluid and free.

Then the game crashed, kicked you out and you had to keep your fingers crossed you’d reconnect. But for the brief moments it worked? Unbelievable.

Mortal Kombat X-Ray Moves

Remember the first time you saw a finishing move? Some made you laugh, others made you say how gross it was and some even made you wince. They are so ridiculous, so over the top though that they arguably lose their impact over time. Not so the X-Ray Moves.

Unleashed in the middle of a fight they zoom in to see ribs crack, backs break, bones shatter and spleens sliced wide open. All in glorious slow motion. Even now I still groan in shared pain every time I see one. They are so brutal, so violent and so well executed that their impact just isn’t diminished. The visuals are complimented by the sounds as slowed down the muffled screams are drowned out by the sharp crack of bones cutting through the fog before it’s all rounded off with a well timed vibration of the controller.

It’s a moment that never gets old.

Halo Warthog escape

At the very end of Halo the player is tasked with escaping the collapsing ring by driving along in the game’s signature vehicle, the Warthog. Might not sound much on paper but when there’s two of you playing (one driving, one shooting), the epic Halo theme music booming out of the speakers, explosions going off all around and the huge Duke controller rumbling in your hands it’s really quite special.

That it all happens after the grand final battle makes it a thrilling, fitting end and I loved it.

Molten Core for the first time

Coordinating 40 people to do anything at the same time is hard. Coordinating 40 people across the world to take down an ancient lava-tornado god-monster armed with a huge, fiery hammer, most of whom have never met in person is bordering on the heroic. That’s what it took to complete one of World of Warcraft’s first and most legendary raids.

It takes time to even get to Ragnaros, taking down multiple sub-bosses on the way. Then the fight itself is epic, and even the slightest deviation from the plan or your specific role can spell certain doom for the entire raid group. It’s a colossal effort all round and the feeling of completion is really quite special. So much so that it was traditional to take a picture of the whole party around the defeated foe’s hammer.

I only did it once and wish I could find the screenshot (it was ten years ago!) to share, but the experience lives long in the memory.

So what are your favourite gaming moments? It could be when The Legend of Zelda theme plays, using the pedal to duck in Time Crisis or zombie-dogs through a window. Maybe it’s a last minute winner in FIFA, a perfectly-timed resurrection in Overwatch or breaking into Shadow Moses. Let us know in the comments!