Star Wars: Aftermath – Empire’s End

February 2017 saw the release of the final novel in the Star Wars Aftermath trilogy; Empire’s End. This is the series that bridges the gap (somewhat) between Episode VI and Episode VII. Over course of the these three books, we’ve been introduced to new characters as well as been able to peek in on a few of our favorite personas from original trilogy.

In retrospect, I was a bit cold on the original Aftermath. I didn’t care much for many of the new characters introduced, and I didn’t like the way the story seemed to jump all over the place. With the release of “Life Debt”, I began to feel a little more at home in Wendig’s post-ROTJ era, but still had my reservations. Now, I’m happy to say that I’ve actually come to enjoy several of the new characters he’s introduced. To me, Empire’s End is easily the best of the three novels in the series.

Those curious about the secret identity of Supreme Leader Snoke in Episode VII, will still be disappointed. Despite what many readers suspected to be a major tease regarding that character’s origins – nothing about the character is actually revealed. What we DO get in this story is a lot of background info on the planet of Jakku, as well as the Emperor’s plans post-mortum. It seems like Lucasfilm will be unlikely to give us any major revelations outside of the actual films,  but we’re certainly getting plenty of hints and breadcrumbs.  But YES – in this novel, you will finally see the fall of the Imperial Remnant and the reigns of power being handed to the New Republic. This alone, makes this novel worthy of your attention.

I’ve been an open critic of Chuck Wendig’s writing style in the past, and I’m happy to say that he seems to have really toned it down in this novel. This books reads much more like a started fantasy novel in terms of verbiage and standardized punctuation. To me, this one actually feels like it was written by a professional author and not some amateur who’s looking to make his name by being different and daring.

If you’re a serious fan of Star Wars and you love to consume every morsel of new information out there. This book is a need-to-have.

Story: The bulk of this book follows the characters that we’ve come to know from the other Aftermath novels, as well as longtime fan favorites. This story, when combined with the other three books, puts a nice end-cap on the events that occurred in Return of the Jedi, and helps set the stage for what we eventually see in The Force Awakens. However, even thoug ha lot of answers can be found here, fans are still left asking plenty of questions.

Recommended:  FOR HARDCORE FANS.

Review: Baldur’s Gate II (Enhanced Edition)

Finally, I bring you my review of the final chapter in the Baldur’s Gate series. For those that are interested, and might have missed it, I reviewed the enhanced edition of the Original Baldur’s Gate back in September. This was followed with a review of Beamdog’s official DLC: Siege of Dragonspear in January of this year. Now, after what seems like eons of time spent in the Forgotten Realms, I’m proud to share my thoughts on this remastered, classic CRPG.

First, a bit of a history lesson. Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, is the sequel to the extremely popular PC game, Baldur’s Gate. It was released two years after the original and closely follows the formula that made Baldur’s Gate such a smashing success. The sequel used the same game engine, with some additional polish and refinements. Baldur’s Gate II continues the story of the original title. In fact, players of the first game are even able to carry over saved data to the sequel. A year after the original Baldur’s Gate II was released, an expansion pack; “Throne of Bhaal” was also made available. This expansion extended the storyline of the original game, and added a new optional area.   In 2013, Beamdog Studios gave Baldur’s Gate II the “Enhanced Edition” treatment as well.  This update combined both “Shadows of Amn” and “Throne of Bhaal” into one package. It also includes a new third scenario “The Black Pits II” (which itself is a sequel to the additional scenario found in the first Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition).  The Enhanced Edition also modernizes the game for today’s computer systems. It adds widescreen support, updated multiplayer functionality, and cross-platform compatibility. Also worthy of note, just like with the initial release, players can import saved data from both Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition and Siege of Dragonspear into Baldur’s Gate II Enhanced Edition.  –  Being the most accessible version of the game, it is the enhanced edition that I’ve spent the last several months playing for this review.

While there many enhancements and differences between the original Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II,  the differences between the two Enhanced Edition are much less obvious. Both games actually run on a modified version of the BG2 engine. So the actual changes from one EE game to the other are mostly cosmetic.

The story of Baldur’s Gate II, starts shortly after the events of the first game. If you’ve played Siege of Dragonspear, the events of that game actually fill in the gap between BG1 and BG2. When the game starts, the main hero and his companions find themselves being held prisoner by a mysterious magician. The first goal in the game is to get your bearings and escape from captivity. Shortly after doing so, one of the lead characters is “arrested” by an order of powerful wizards. The focus of the game then turns to finding a way to rescue this individual. This thrusts the players into the middle of some major political intrigue. Naturally, things are not as simple as they seem at first. As you continue to play and explore the world of Baldur’s Gate II, you will find yourself immersed in the rich and vibrant world that is Forgotten Realms.

Fans of Dungeons & Dragons will feel right at home. This game, just like the original Baldur’s Gate is based on the core Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition rules. Also, the Forgotten Realms setting is a D&D mainstay. Just like with the first game, players can create and will encounter characters based on classic D&D races and classes. Also, much like a real game of D&D, players are able to explore and do as they please. The main scenario of the game is ever present in the background, but there are endless quests and side-stories for players to pursue and enjoy.

The game is filled with classic D&D tropes and cameos. From things as mundane as talking swords to legendary magical items, fans of D&D will be sure to finds references to some of their favorite places and characters

Like the first Enhanced Edition game, this one features a number of difficulty levels. All of the original options are included, as well as the new Story Mode (super easy) and Legacy of Bhaal (insanely difficult). Being nearly identical to BG:EE,  this modern version of Baldur’s Gate II also suffers from some of the same strange issues. In the 70+ hours I sunk into this game, I observed a number of odd glitches and behavior. For example, the party AI is often troublesome. Characters do not stay in the selected formation, they wander off in odd directions, and sometimes during battle, even when selected, they just stand there doing nothing instead of executing the actions requested of them. I even encountered one serious game-breaking issue towards the end of the title that caused me to have to reload a saved game and redo over an hour of play. To be specific, upon a defeat, an NPC did not yield an item needed to progress in the game… serious glitch. Also, the Steam version of the game seems to have some issues activating achievements correctly all of the time. But, when considering the absolute vast scope of the title, it would be nearly impossible to squash every potential bug. Despite encountering a few glitches, the game is overall very stable and enjoyable.

For my playthrough, I enjoyed the game in a single-player setting. But, it is important to note there is a multiplayer option. This is certainly welcome and in fact, can be a very rewarding way to play. The only downside is that a game of this size would require some serious organization and commitment between friends in order to really make the most out of this option.

In a nutshell, fans of the original game will certainly find themselves right at home with Baldur’s Gate II. As will fans of D&D and other CRPGs of the era. For younger and modern gamers, a title such as this can seem rather daunting and perhaps even a bit overwhelming.  As with many older games, there’s little to no handholding. And, with a game of this size and complexity, that can only make things seem even more challenging.

That being said, if you like western-style RPGS, and open-world games like Fallout, Skyrim, etc – this might be a series that you should consider. Baldur’s Gate II not only continues the story of the original title, but the Throne of Bhaal chapters even put a final end to story as a whole. Playing these games through to completion is very challenging, but also extremely satisfying.  Having only dabbled with the original game back during it’s release, I am proud to have finally played both entries to their completion. Both games are simply works of art. Now, with the Enhanced Editions available, these gems can once again be enjoyed by retro gamers like myself, as well as new players who may be unearthing them for the first time.

Difficulty: Variable–  Baldur’s Gate 2 features a number of options when it comes to difficulty.  Easy, Normal, Core Rules, Hard, and Insane. The Enhanced Edition also adds options for “Story Mode” and “Legacy of Bhaal”. The latter options making you either invincible or cranking up the difficulty to a point that makes the game nearly impossible.  I’m proud of being able to have completed the original game on this new insane difficulty, but I must admit that I was unable to even get through the first half of BG2 on “Legacy of Bhaal”. With the increased characters levels, seemed to come even more challenging opponents. “Core Rules” was my go to on this title.

Story: As one might expect with a Dungeons & Dragons title, the storyline is everything here. BG 2 extends the lore and storyline of the original game and brings it to it’s ultimate conclusion. Main scenario aside, this game is filled with side quests, background lore, and even character romances.

Originality: Being both a remake and a direct sequel to another game, certainly costs any title a little bit in the “originality” department. But BG manages to keep a fresh feel by presenting the player with totally new areas and cultures to explore. The storyline is also engaging enough to keep things from getting stale.

Soundtrack: Just like with the original Baldur’s Gate, the music in the game is overall very well done. It has a classic western RPG feel to it. It does lack a bit in diversity. The voice acting is also a mixed bag. Some of the characters are spot on, while others just sound silly and out of place. Again, this game suffers a bit from when I call Repetitive Sound Syndrome. NPCS and party members have a habit to repeating the same phrases over and over to the point of being annoying.

Fun: If you’re a fan of CRPGS and/or Dungeons & Dragons, you’re going to have a blast with this game. However, many players many simply not have the patience for the old-school style found here.

Graphics: At time it was released, Baldur’s Gate was top of the line. Today, even though a lot of work was put into modernizing the Enhanced Edition it looks quite dated. Yes, the new textures are beautiful, but the character sprites suffer a bit.

Playcontrol:  While most point-and-click games are pretty simple to control, Baldur’s Gate suffers from terrible AI. It is not uncommon for NPCs to get stuck on terrain, walk the wrong way, etc. I also frequently struggled with being unable to enter buildings due to all of my characters crowding around the entry way. Also, the new edition  of the game is not without it’s share of bugs that can interfere with your progress. These are largely the same complaints I had with the original Baldur’s Gate EE.

Downloadable Content:  No – At the time of this writing, no DLC has been announced for BG2 EE. The game comes complete with both BG2 and it’s original expansion.  It also contains a new third-scenario “The Black Pits 2”.  Which, is really a continuation of the “The Black Pits” chapter found in the first BG:EE.  Overall it’s a pointless little add-on, but still worthy of a look.

Mature Content: Fantasy Violence, Mature Themes

Value:  This game currently sells for $20. Considering the amount of content packed into the title, it’s a steal at that price.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Baldur’s Gate 2 Enhanced Edition is a must-have for both fans of the original game and for fans of CRPGs as a whole. It’s a classic game packed with tons of content. Even with some of the glitches and faults of the remake, the redeeming qualities of the game outshine any faults it might have. For some of the reasons outlined above, I can’t claim to give it a perfect score, but it comes damn close.

Available on: PC (Steam and GOG)

Nerd Fuel: Community Coffee- Cafe’ Special

It’s been a month since my last Nerd Fuel post, so I figured I better get crackin’! For this review, I decided to stick with a traditional, non-flavored coffee. I wanted to try something unassuming, so when I saw a box of “Community Coffee”, I thought – why not.

Community Coffee is a brand that I’d never tried before, but it’s a longstanding favorite for many coffee drinkers. I picked up a box of the Cafe’ Special, which is essentially Community Coffee’s “house blend”. This is a medium roast blend, that’s right on the line between medium and dark… it’s mild enough to be enjoyed by nearly anyone, but it has just enough roast to it to bring out a hint of that dark, rich flavor. To be quite honest, upon purchasing this coffee, I didn’t expect much. But I’m pleased to say that I was quite impressed with the smooth, balanced and even complex flavor of this coffee. So much so… that I might have to crown this as my new favorite general purpose blend. Yes… I daresay that this coffee rivals my longstanding favorite: Donut Shop.

Cafe’ Special is one of those coffees that is “normal” enough to enjoyed by your grandparents, but also rich and complex enough to satisfy your modern hipster. So, if you’ve just bought your first Keurig machine and you’re still looking for a standard go-to, this might one worth trying.

Score: 4 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Yes. Currently, Community Coffee Cafe’ Special is my new mainstay, general purpose brew.  I know it seems like a generic, everyday brand of coffee…  but as they say: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

Tech: My Tech Picks (Spring 2017)

I last posted a “tech picks” update back in the fall. So, I figure that it’s about time to refresh my hardware and technology picks for those who read the site and are curious about such things. – Since the fall, a lot has changed, but a lot has also stayed the same. Here’s where I’m at these days:

Computer Platform:  Windows PC – Just as I was in the fall, I’m still using Windows as my platform of choice. MS continues to baffle me with some of their recent decisions, however. Windows is a solid and stable option, but they continue to throw a wrench in what would otherwise be a well oiled machine. (In-OS advertising, etc). I’ve been both a PC and a Mac owner, and I can tell you without hesitation, the only thing keeping me on the PC platform is upgrade-ability and the level of customization that a PC provides.

OS: Windows 10 ( 64 bit Version 1703) – Since my last Tech Picks post, Windows 10 has received a refresh. The most current version is now “Windows 10 Creator’s Update”. Much like the “Anniversary Update”, this update is pretty solid. But again, it is not without it’s faults. It seems MS is getting greedy and sneaking in advertising anywhere they can manage: notification, file manager, start menu, etc. Luckily, these can all be disabled if you do a little poking around. But overall, it’s a pain in the ass. The OS itself does seem a bit more polished in terms of UI. Gamers will want to pay attention to the new “Game Mode” offered in this build of Windows.  But thus far, I’ve seen very little improvement by enabling this setting.

Hardware: No updates to my main rig since the last post, with the exception of my monitor.  I did upgrade to a new ViewSonic screen – larger and with a better response rate. This monitor also features “freesync” technology, but I am unable to take advantage of this since I run an Nvidia card.

CPU: Intel i7 950 @ 3.07ghz

Mainboard: GA-X58-USB3

Physical RAM:  12gbs

Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 960

Sound: SoundBlaster Z

Storage:  Main: Seagate 2TB Hybrid SATA    Secondary:  Hitachi 1Tb   External:  Seagate USB 320gb

External Media:  DVD RW & Memory Card reader

Power: 750watt

Monitor: ViewSonic VX2457-MHD 24″ (2ms 1080p FreeSync Gaming Monitor)

Mobile: Android  – Google Pixel (Android Nougat 7.1.2) – If you read my last Tech Picks update, you’ll remember I switch from Windows Phone to Android. At the time, I was running a Nexus 6 – I have now taken the full Google plunge and adopted the Google Pixel as my daily mobile device. I love this phone beyond words. Everything about this device pleases me. I like the looks of the phone (even if it is an iPhone clone), the Pixel Launcher provides a great UI and integrates with vanilla Android perfectly.  My own personal preferences led me to select the standard Pixel over the larger Pixel XL.

Tablet: Microsoft Surface No change here. My personal needs for a tablet are very limited. I mainly only use a tablet for reading comic books and doing some light searching while in the living room. Despite now using an Android phone, I see no offerings in the tablet area that tempt me to make a switch to Android. For my purposes, the original Windows RT surface is perfect.

e-Reader: Kindle Paperwhite – No change here.  The Kindle Paperwhite is an elegant and universal option that serves my needs perfectly. Yes, there are newer Kindle options available. But the Paperwhite remains my go to device.

Virtual Digital Assistant: Google – I make full use of the Google Assistant that is available on my Pixel.  This is true both in speech and now with the virtual “assistant” chat bot that Google offers. I use my phone for 100% of these needs. Despite using Windows on my desktop, I do not engage Cortana on my desktop any longer. (A shame, I felt there was much potential there – but MS seems to continue to cripple Cortana by limiting her interaction with non-MS services).

Web Browser: Chrome– While Microsoft continues to improve Edge with each new version of Windows, the browser still pales in comparison to nearly any other. Chrome continues to be my browser of choice due to it’s performance and integration across all my devices.

Search: Google – Google has become my main search engine of choice. I still applaud Bing for providing result that are just as good, but for me – the integration with other Google services wins out over the pretty interface that Bing provides.

Email and Calendar: Google/Gmail – Widely supported and extremely efficient. Those who are concerned about ads and preference sharing may still find Outlook/Hotmail to be a better option. But these are not concerns that I hold.

Office Suite: Microsoft Office 2016 Nothing beats it. As far a desktop application suite, Microsoft office is the best.

Cloud Storage: OneDrive and Google Drive – As a Windows and Office user, I’ve found OneDrive to be a very convenient online storage solution. It integrates well into both Windows and Office 2016. OneDrive works great with Android and other platforms as well. These days, I use OneDrive mainly for PC Back ups, and I use Google Drive for photos and general storage. But, both are within arm’s reach at any time.

PC Gaming Services: Steam No change. For PC games, I’m pretty much a Steam only guy. The only time I buy anything on GoG or other platforms is when it’s not available on Steam.

Music Management:  MusicBee – No change here either. I have a large digital music library, all tagged and sorted. To manage such a huge collection, I need the help of software. MusicBee is my music manager for the desktop. It integrates with my phone and makes it easy to transfer files to Google Play Music on my device.  For streaming, I use Google Play Music, Sirius XM and IHeartRadio. I still keep and maintain a local MP3 collection, but I enjoy the vast stream-able library that Google Play Music offers – I turn to the other services for live media.

Wearables: Fitbit Charge HR–  I still own and use my older FitBit Charge HR model (albeit not as religiously as I should). Lately, I’ve been engaged in a special “Wii Fit U Project” so I’ve often had a Wii U FitMeter clipped inside my pocket as wll.

Home Gaming Consoles:  Currently at our house we own the following: Wii U, PlayStation 3 (First Gen), PlayStation 4, Xbox 360   (there’s a spare Wii in the closet).

Mobile Gaming: Both my children and I have a Nintendo 3DS. I also have an old PSP collecting dust.

DLC Review: Final Fantasy XV – Episode Gladiolus

Final Fantasy XV fans, the first proper DLC release has arrived! It’s time to dust off your copy of XV and dive into Episode Gladiolus! That’s just what I did, and I’m here to provide you with all the details.

For those that may not know, Episode Gladiolus is the first chapter of Paid DLC content for Final Fantasy XV. It is included with the Season Pass for the game, or is available for about $5.00 on it’s own. The chapter focuses on the character of Gladiolus and takes place about half-way through the main XV storyline. (There’s a part of the main game where Gladiolus departs the company of the other heroes to attend to some “personal business”  – This DLC is that business.)

The story here focuses on Gladio as he undertakes a special set of trials with his mentor, Cor. The actual content itself is rather short, providing players with maybe an hour’s worth of busy work. Essentially, you control Gladio as he ventures into a secret Kingsglaive Proving Ground to do battle with the mysterious “Blade Master”.  Is he is able to defeat the Blade Master in combat, he will have proved himself worthy to hold the title “Shield of the King”.

Despite being rather short, and as some have criticized, “pointless”, I found the DLC to be overall entertaining. The backstory was interesting enough and being able to experience combat from Gladio’s point of view was an interesting change of pace. For the most part, this chapter controls just like the main game, with the exception the combat mechanics. Gladio’s combat is very “hack and slash” based. When controlling Gladiolus, you have three main moves; Strike, Block or Dodge. Each of these will, over time, fill a “rage meter”. Once full, Gladio can execute special attacks, dealing massive damage. The trick to the whole thing is learning how to effectively parry attacks and strike your opponent while they are vulnerable – then getting out of the way before they can counter attack.

As you progress through the story, there a number of unique boss battles. Each boss has their own strength and weaknesses. But the real challenge here is survival. Gladiolus has a limited number of health restoratives at his disposal. New ones can be found by exploring every nook and cranny of the dungeon, but even then – the number of potions are finite. So, you will have to learn to use them sparingly or you risk facing the final boss with very little to help you .

Upon defeating the Blade Master, Gladio will receive a special weapon and skill that carry over to the main game. Also, two additional features of the DLC will also become accessible. The first, is something called Score Attack. This is essentially a timed version of Episode Gladiolus. The point here is play through the scenario again and see how many points you can rack up before either the timer runs out or you complete the scenario…  rather pointless,  but maybe that’s your sort of thing. Whatever.  If you can manage to rack up a score of 500,000 points, you will unlock a special costume for Gladio in the main game.

Next up, is something called the Final Trial. This is an optional sparring battle between Gladiolus and Cor and certainly the most challenging battle in this DLC package. I pride myself on being able to defeat nearly every optional boss or challenge in the Final Fantasy series,  but so far I have not managed to best Cor in battle.  But… this content is still fresh – and I haven’t given up!

Finally, one other thing worthy of note is that this DLC was released alongside the FFXV patch 1.07. This patch also includes the long awaited “Final Fantasy XV – Chapter 12 verse 2”.  A short optional addition to the game that provides more information behind the infamous 13th chapter of the main title. This add-on ties in nicely with Episode Gladiolus as it also allows players to control him, and see the events of the game’s 13th chapter from his perspective. Not to mention, it fills in a number of plot points that have left players confused since the game’s original release.

Overall Impression:  A short but sweet add-on to Final Fantasy XV. This DLC provides exactly what was advertised, a story focusing on the character of Gladiolus. It integrates well with the main game, and provides a few optional challenges of it’s own.  Casual fans may not get much out of it, but those who are dedicated to XV should find enough here to hold them over.

Value: Yes. This DLC is very short. But for a price of $5.00, I find it hard to complain. For that amount you get about an hour of single player content, as well as some optional challenges to keep you occupied.

Nerd Fuel: Green Mountain – Peru Cajamarca (Organic)

Daylight Savings hit hard this year. The last week or so has proven to be quite a chore in the mornings, but as always, I was able to turn to my good friend the coffee bean to find the motivation needed.  Recently, I stumbled upon an unfamiliar box in the grocery store, a new organic offering from Green Mountain, the “Peru Cajamarca”.

For those that get into all the details, this is another of Green Mountain’s eco-friendly, organic coffees. As you might have guessed, the beans come from the Cajamarca Region of Peru. Which tends to be famous for their low-yield but high-quality beans. It’s a medium roast, with a complex smokey flavor. I was rather surprised at just how flavorful this coffee actually is. There’s a lot of different things going on here. It’s rich, but smooth. It has a bit of a woody flavor to it, but with a subtle caramel apple finish. It all makes for a rather luxurious cup of coffee.

To get down to it; I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this coffee. The Peru Cajamarca has quickly become one of me new favorites. It’s very drinkable, and it’s plain enough to be enjoyed by most. But there is a subtle complexity to it that will satisfy your average coffee snob as well. This is certainly one of Green Mountain’s top-shelf products. I look forward to seeing more in this line.

Score: 4 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Yes! In fact, I’ve already gone through two boxes of this stuff in the last month. A simply wonderful coffee for nearly anyone.

Wii Fit U: Update 1

I’m now two weeks in to my Wii Fit U experiment and I have had time to develop some thoughts on the game/program.

First off, I want to say that I am making progress with the software, albeit very slowly. But, at least the numbers are not going up. My routine with Wii Fit U is as follows:

I am trying to eat a little more sensibly. But, to be honest, I’m used to pretty much gorging on whatever I want. Trying to diet cold-turkey would be an absolute disaster for me. So what I’m doing instead is focusing on managing my breakfasts. Instead of grabbing a McMuffin in the morning, I’m trying to replace the junk food with something semi-healthy instead. For example, I’ve been drinking a Bolthouse Farms breakfast smootie, or eating a Cliff Bar several days a week.  I still allow myself one no-so-healthy breakfast during the work-week. Other meals and weekends are free-reign.  As I continue to progress, I’ll tighten the restrictions on myself.

I also try my best to play Wii Fit U every morning, Monday-Friday. Just when I think I’ve seen everything the game has to offer, it prompts me with some new statistic or it unlocks some new feature. For example, the other day it announced it was now setting a daily “calorie burn goal” for me, and it uploaded this data to the Wii Fit Meter. This interactivity continues to impress me.

That being said, I’ve had enough time with the game to make some judgments. When I first started Wii Fit U, I was expecting a very guided experience. But the game is not really that at all. Instead of holding your hand, the game pretty much just gives you the keys and lets you run wild. Eventually, it will allow you to participate in more activities, but for the most part you’re on your own. With this in mind, I’ve decided that Wii Fit U should be looked at as more of an activity center than as a regimented weight-loss program. Yes, there are tools in place to help you monitor your weight, but the game offers little in the way of guidance. I am now to the point where the game is telling me how many calories I need to burn in order to maintain my current weight loss, but that’s largely the only feedback I’m receiving.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People who want to start exercising but who might be too embarrassed to go to the gym or to step outside, may find exactly what they want with Wii Fit. It offers a number of useful activities from the privacy of your own home. But I feel like the game alone is simply not enough for someone who is wants to go from “couch to 4k”, as they say.

I will continue my current routine and make semi-frequent posts on my progress.

Review: For Honor

I’ve decided to take a break from some of my retro reviews to look at a brand-new title that I’ve been anticipating for some time; For Honor.  For those of you who have been living under a rock, For Honor is a faction-based, hack-and-slash combat game by Ubisoft. I’ve been watching this title with interest ever since it was originally announced and now I’m here to share my thoughts.

To start, let’s discuss what this game is all about: Battle. In For Honor, you fight. That’s pretty much it. Players can choose between three main factions:  Knights, Vikings and Samurai. Each faction has a number of different heroes to choose from. These are broken down into four “style” classes – Vanguard (basic fighter), Heavy (strong defense, tank type character), Assassin (agile, speed-based) and Hybrid (combines various styles).

When you first start playing against others, you will be prompted to join a faction. This sounds like a big decision, but in reality, it doesn’t matter which faction you choose. You can join the Samurai faction and play a knight hero. The choice only comes into play for multiplayer rankings. Ubisoft has decided to go with a “season” model for For Honor. So at regular intervals, battle results are tallied and recorded. Players assigned to the winning faction will receive large in-game rewards. But, before we get into the nuts and bolts of the multiplayer, let’s take a look at the core mechanics of the game.

The first time you start up For Honor, you will be prompted to take a tutorial. I highly suggest that you do. This will teach you the basics – and you’ll need it. For Honor plays like no other title I’ve ever seen. The whole focus of the game is essentially, hand to hand combat against others. So you will learn how to defend against attacks – and do it from different angles. When fighting an opponent, you will need to watch them to determine from what vector they are attacking from. If they swing from the right, you need to defend against an attack coming from the right. If they strike you from overheard, you need to raise your shield to deflect the attack from there, etc. When attacking, you can choose either a light strike or a heavy strike. Light strikes are fast, but weak. A heavy attack will deal more damage, but it takes longer to execute and leaves you open to an attack. So it’s often best to save these until your opponent is distracted or stunned, etc. Strategy is the name of the game.

Once the tutorial is out of the way, you’ll want to play through the game’s Story Mode. This mode of gameplay builds upon the tutorial and actually introduces all the factions and classes. By playing story mode from start to finish, you will get a crash course on every type of playstyle offered in the game. On top of that, completing the story mode actually unlocks the full multiplayer experience.

The actual story for the game is pretty simple. It takes place in unnamed fantasy world, perhaps even an alternate version of Earth. For ages, war has raged between the Knights of the realm, and the nearby horde of Vikings. Recently, a group of Samurai from a far-eastern nation have relocated to the outskirts of the realm as well. The three groups are manipulated into engaging in an endless war by a mysterious character known only by the name Apollyon. I’ll stop there, lest I ruin the details revealed in the story mode. But, as the lore of the game unfolds, it makes for a rather interesting backdrop to the game itself.

As you progress through the game story, and even as you participate in multiplayer. You will earn gear and acquire “steel”. Steel is the currency in For Honor. You can spend Steel on a number of things. You can use it to purchase blind grab-bags for weapons and armor, you can purchase emotes and vanity effects for the heroes, you can even use it to purchase “Champion Status” – which is a something like a premium subscription that you’d find in a free-to-play MMO. When you have Champion Status enabled, you will earn more EXP and steel through the various activities in the game.

Leveling up and earning steel are important to your progression in the game. As you level, you can unlock “feats” which are abilities and special moves that you can employ. Steel is important for the reasons described above. Of course, with today’s games being what they are, if you don’t want to sink a lot of time into grinding, you can pay real money for bundles of steel from the in-game store as well.

For someone first starting out, I recommend spending as much time as you can experiencing the Story Mode and replaying it at the various difficulties that are offered. Doing so is great way to earn steel and unlock Scavenger Packs (weapon and armor grab bags). Also, as you complete the various chapters of story mode, you can create or log-in to Ubisoft’s special club account and unlock various goodies that carry over to the game, such as banners and emblems, etc.  All of these unlockables are strictly cosmetic. In fact, so are the rewards that were given to beta testers and Deluxe Edition players. So if you missed out on the alpha or beta tests, preorder, or if you chose not to spend the extra money on the CE of the game. Don’t worry. Aside from a few free days of champion status. You have missed nothing. The game is an even playing field for all.

Once you’ve found a hero that enjoy the most, and you feel pretty confident in your abilities, then it’s time to dive in to the real meat of the game: multiplayer. Multiplayer is where it’s at. This is where the fun is. This is especially true if you actually have friends to play with, as you have ability to group with them. For Honor currently offers the following multiplayer modes:

Duels  (One-on-one combat)

Brawls (Two-on-two team combat)

Dominion (Team-based, zone capture matches)

Skirmish (Team based, point-per-kill matches)

Elimination (Team based deathmatch)

Blood Bath (Classic deathmatch)

When you participate in Multiplyer, you can choose to be matched up with random players or you can go in with a pre-made party of friends. (Premade parties are handled via PSN, Xbox Live, etc). If for some reason, the game cannot match you with other players, AI bots will inserted into the game to fill any gaps. Sadly, the multiplayer has been plagued with some connectivity issues that seem to pop up from time to time. Also, the PC version was found to be rife with cheaters and botters shortly after launch. Ubisoft’s steps to combat this actually resulted in some innocent players getting slapped with inappropriate bans, etc.  Not a good start…

As mentioned earlier, your performance in multiplayer is scored and ranked. Scores are tallied at the end of each round (X number of days) and factions are ranked accordingly. Once all rounds are tallied, and the multiplayer season has ended, rewards are distributed. It seems Ubisoft is hoping to enter the ever-growing eSports area with For Honor. Personally, I think the game may be unique enough to help them get their foot in the door.

For me, the attraction the game is threefold. First, I like the traditional fantasy setting. It’s rooted in reality. No magic, no high-fantasy stuff. It’s swords, axes, armor, etc. It’s dirty and brutal. Second, it’s non-traditional. Most MOBAs or deathmatch arena games involve guns and explosions. For Honor focuses on hand-to-hand melee. To me, this is a refreshing change of pace. Finally, almost every type of arena-multiplayer mode can be found here, which is not really unique in itself.  But when combined with the other two facets that I mention above. It makes for an interesting experience.

Finally, I want to mention one last thing about the multiplayer. Ubisoft made an interesting decision here, when it comes to the faction warfare. As expected, the game itself is not cross platform. This means, if you play on the PC, you’ll only be playing against other PC players.  But, at the end of each season, the results of the faction war will be totaled between all platforms. Ubisoft claims, that the results are not simply being recorded for rankings, but that they will influence the continuing lore and storyline as the game itself is expanded in the future. So, what does that mean? Well, if they are true to their word – let’s say the Knights sweep season 1 and make huge strides across the territory map. According to Ubisoft, this will influence how future seasons and storyline content are handled. I’m very interested to see how true to their word they will be and what exactly this will mean.  Time will tell.

So, if you’re tired of the WWII or futuristic shoot-em ups, or if you’re just looking for a unique multiplayer experience; For Honor might be something worth considering. For me, I love European knights and I love anything Asian. So this game was right up my alley.

Difficulty: Variable –  The story mode offers playable chapters in Easy, Normal, Hard, and Realistic. The first three a self-explanatory.  Realistic Mode is essentially perma-death, with no UI queues to indicate from what vector an opponent is going to strike.  Multiplayer is a horse of a different color. You’ll be playing with and against players of all different skill levels. So when playing online you’ll never know what to expect.

Story: A game like For Honor isn’t expected to have much of a storyline. But, surprisingly it does! The lore behind the game is explained in Story Mode, and it expanded on by players willing to hunt “observables” (points of interest that, when inspected, provide more detail behind the game world).  The game’s story basically provides a set up for the multiplayer combat. I’m curious to how or if, this might be expanded on in the future.

Originality: Competitive shooters and MOBAs are nothing new. But For Honor manages to take this tried-and-true formula and make it into something unique by using non-ranged weapons and a refreshing game world.

Soundtrack: The game features and minimal soundtrack. It’s very tribal sounding – perfect for the setting of the game, but not very listenable on it’s own. The voice acting in the game is simply top-notch.

Fun: For people who like competitive online games, and eSports style arenas, For Honor is a thing of beauty. However, in the multiplayer landscape one will always come across players with sour attitudes, those who attempt to cheat, and quitters. This is just the nature of the beast. If you’re not the type that enjoy friendly competition, or if you have trouble accepting that there will always be someone better than you, you’re not likely to have a very good time. – At the time of this writing, the game suffers from some pretty drastic balance issues between some of the heroes. I fully expect this to be fixed in the coming months. But for the time being, a great number of players do seem to taking advantage of this knowledge. New players not in the know may find themselves stomped pretty hard.

Graphics: For Honor is a beautiful game. Everything from the landscapes, to the detailed textures themselves are gorgeous. In fact, I play this title on the PS4 simply because my PC does not meet the minimum requirements to run it. (This is the first game I’ve encountered where that’s been an issue…  TIME TO UPGRADE!) When playing through the story mode, take time to explore and admire many of the breathtaking landscapes. It’s that good.

Playcontrol: This is where some will struggle. The controls for this game are very non-traditional. Now, that doesn’t mean they are bad. In fact, the controls are very responsive and actually make a lot sense. But, they are just not typical. This is where the tutorials come in. A little patience may be needed to get your mind wrapped around the controls. But, once you have it, it becomes second nature.

Downloadable Content:  Yes.

As mentioned in the review. Most of the free DLC already available consists of vanity emblems, armor designs, etc. Players can purchase steel, feats and wardrobe items. Future DLC will be released on a schedule coinciding with the multiplayer seasons. As seasons start and end, Ubisoft will release new heros, gameplay modes, and maps. Currently, the plan is to make these free for all. But players who are willing to drop money on the season pass, will get access to this content early. So, by the sound of it – everything is free. But those willing to pay will get early access and some exclusives skins.

Mature Content: Violence and gore.

Value:  Currently, the base game is retailing between $50-$60. A Deluxe Edition with features some skins and other vanity fluff sells for $70. Finally, the The Gold Edition, which features the season pass and the Deluxe content will set you back $100.00 – Knowing that the future DLC will eventually be free for all diminishes the value of the gold edition in my eyes, but this really up to personal preference.  I’m not sure I feel that the base game is worth $60. But I fully expect to see this price come down in the future.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – For Honor is an example of a game with massive potential, that seems to suffer from today’s “micro-transaction” culture.  It has vision and atmosphere. However, the multiplayer portion (which is the main draw), has shown some early signs of instability. On top of that, the unlockables are lackluster and seemed way too overpriced for what you get from them. To me, this is an example of the game dev’s dangling the carrot just far enough that a large number of players will take the easy way out via their credit card. Despite this, there are certainly some positives with this game. The graphics are stellar and the combat is innovative and fun. I’m certainly no stranger to online mulitplayer in many of it’s various forms. I used to play Doom and Quake back in the old days, but in recent years I haven’t dipped my toe in many of the “MOBA” games that become popular. So, in some ways For Honor is my first foray into the world of ranked-eSports, if you want to call it that. And for a large part, I’m thoroughly pleased with what I’ve seen here. But, I feel that For Honor needs quite a bit of polish if it wants to hold the attention of gamers for very long.

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, and PC

Nerd Fuel: Eight o’clock Coffee – The Original

I’ve been putting in some late nights lately. As usual, these sessions have been fueled by coffee. I’ve been on a bit of a personal quest to find another “every day coffee” that’s as good as Donut Shop. Recently, the Duane St. Blend by Laughing Man has been the closest contender thus far. But, I won’t stop until I find something that wows me the same way Donut Shop did.

So, this week I decided to try one of America’s oldest, original coffees; the fabled Eight o’clock coffee.  Some used to call this “the coffee your grandparents drank”  but these days, it’s more likely that your great-grandparents drank filled their cups with this. Eight o’clock coffee has been an American staple since the mid-1800s and it hasn’t change much since. It’s a very basic, middle of the road blend. Sure to impress few, but offend even fewer. Until I bought this box, I admittedly never bothered to sample any of it.

Upon first tasting this, I was surprised at how good it actually was. It’s certainly a quality coffee and not some cheap factory floor sweepings. I had no issues drinking it as my daily brew for as long as it lasted. But, it didn’t really have any special spark that stood out to me. Eight o’clock is a simple, generic run of the mill coffee blend.  It’s a good decent coffee, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Score: 3 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Unlikely. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with this coffee, there’s really nothing special to note either. This is a basic, every man’s cup of joe. But, there are others that seem to do it better.

Wii Fit U: Starting Out

So, I’ve spent a few days getting started with Wii Fit U and I’m here to share my thoughts thus far. There’s a lot to talk about here and since I’ll be making several posts over the coming months I’m going to use this first post to share my initial thoughts.

The full Wii Fit U package includes the following: The game itself, the Balance Board accessory, and the Fit Meter accessory. I’m going to take a moment to discuss these.

The balance board is really the core of the Wii Fit experience. It debuted with the original Wii Fit and is still around for Wii Fit U. Essentially, the Balance Board is a flat platform that serves a number of purposes. It’s a scale as well as a pressure sensitive “controller”. Nearly all of the Wii Fit games and activities make use of the accessory.  The Fit Meter is an optional accessory. The meter is a very basic pedometer that keeps tracks of steps. It features an IR sensor that communicates with the Wii U game pad. Data collected by the Fit Meter can then be transferred into Wii Fit U. This allows you to track steps and calories burned when you’re not actually playing the game itself.

The game itself requires a small installation footprint on the Wii U, followed by an update. There are also optional components that you can install the Wii U itself if you choose. But this is not necessary.  Upon starting the game for the first time, you’ll be prompted to create a new Wii Fit U data file. This is linked to your Nintendo ID/Mii. Next, you’ll be asked to perform a “Body Test”. During this process, the game will ask you some basic questions about yourself and then take your weight. Finally, the system will then provide you with your “Wii Fit Age”. For example, you might be 20 years old in real life, but based on your weight and other factors, the game may declare that you have the body of a 30 year old. – The results here, can be brutally honest. For me, the game wasted no time letting my know that I was “obese”.

Wii Fit U then takes a snapshot of this information and even asks you to take a selfie. The information is dated and recorded into your data file.  Over time, the game will routinely prompt you to retake the body test, at which time a new picture and data snapshot is recorded. This allows you to monitor your progress over time.

Once all this is out of the way, you can dive into the meat of the game. Now, let me stop here and state a few things. Wii Fit does a great job at explaining all of the various options that are available. But, it doesn’t really seem to provide any guidance on WHAT you should be doing. I was expecting there to be some kind of “coaching” in regards to what activities are best for a new user, but so far I’ve not found any such suggestions. This is a bit of a disappointment. I suppose that unless things become clearer as I continue to play, I may have to turn to the internet for some suggestions. I don’t like just doing random exercises with no rhyme or reason.

I should note: there is a “personal trainer” option. But for what I can gather, this only allows you to select an X number of calories that you wish to burn and then assigns activities to you that, when completed, will have burned that number of calories. So that is not the coaching too I was hoping for.

Speaking of activities, I want to take a moment and provide a warning to anyone who is considering purchasing this game. In order to participate in every activity offered in Wii Fit U, you will need a few accessories that are not included in the box. First, you’ll need a Wii Remote and a Nunchuck. But, you really want to go all out and get either a Wii Remote Plus or the Motion Plus accessory for the original Wii Remote.  Second, (and this is where they get you) you actually need TWO separate Wii Remote Pluses in order to play all of the games. So – know this going in.

Wii Fit U also incorporates one of the Wii U’s most unique features, MiiVerse. There’s a community option in the game that allows you to view and interact with with players (to a small degree). For example, let’s say I set a walking challenge for myself. Once I meet that challenge, other players in MiiVerse will see that accomplishment and can give me a “Yeah!”  (the equivalent of a Facebook “like”). As always Nintendo keeps interactions between strangers very limited so, on it’s face, this is a very novel feature. But one that’s certainly not unwelcome.

I’ve only scratched the surface in this first post, and I have a lot more exploring to do with this game. So I’m going to spend the next two weeks really digging into the title, then I’ll be back with an update. I think I’ll actually spend a little time focusing on certain areas of the game with each future post in hopes to really figure out how to get the most from this title.  Stay tuned!