Re-Review: Payday: The Heist

2011 was a great year for gaming.  It was a year when the industry began to move away from the AAA blockbuster or bust model, and move towards publishing smaller, inexpensive titles while at the same time putting out some of the best titles of the decade.  The first-person shooter was undergoing some growing pains as it transitioned away from  an environment stuffed full of self-serious, overly-dramatic, grey-brown shooters and Overkill Software’s Payday: The Heistfelt like a breath of fresh air, at least to me.

Payday: The Heist  is an online, multiplayer co-op shooter centering around a gang of criminals fending off increasingly large waves of cops as they attempt to steal shit, get away, and get paid.  The 4-player co-op model was built off of previous successes such as Gears of War‘s Horde mode, and Valve’s Left 4 Dead franchise.  What made Payday unique, at the time, was the way it committed to translating heist genre elements into gameplay.  The game contained a large variety of scores, from stealth-focused diamond heists, to classic Heat-style bank robbers, to exciting smash and grabs.  It was a modest success at the time, and the game has been mostly abandoned by the player base for Payday 2, so the question is: how does Payday: The Heist hold up after all those years?

Pretty well as it turns out.

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Not Pictured: My flawless, no-kill diamond heist

During my time with the game I was easily able to slip into my old loadouts and play-styles, as well as strategies for the various heists (no doubt Overkill’s inclusion of original heists into Payday 2 helped out).  The shooting feels as responsive as ever, and the game retains much of charm and high energy that it had six years ago.  One thing in particular I noticed was how well the in-game UI aged.  Allies, enemies and objectives are highlighted by having their outlines visible to the player at all times, which is useful when planning out your heist, keeping track of your allies during a firefight, and ensuring that your tools work properly.  Many of the mechanics remained intact for the sequel, a testament to the quality and polish of the original design.

What has not aged well, however, is the menu design.  Payday: The Heist’s main menu is ugly as sin.  The text is barely legible against the blurry, action shot oriented background, and selecting menu options has no tangible feedback.  Same goes for selecting guns, abilities, and maps.  Everything blends together, and it is sometimes hard to tell what you’ve changed, or if you’ve changed anything in the lead up to a match.  In addition the AI companions are useless, a not unexpected discovery.  They don’t get in your way, but can’t really be counted on to do much of anything except act as bullet sponges.

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My partner in crime for the evening had never played the game before, and as such I also got to see how the game played for someone new to game.  Overall the game still appears approachable to new players, but it suffers from a lack of explanation on casing features and the escalation of assault waves at times feels random (though to be fair one would imagine that 20+ dead cops in two minutes would actually require a much more violent and swift response in reality).  We also struggled with one of the games escort missions, when our target’s outline faded and we forgot to take him to an extraction point, though this did lead to one of those fun moments where my partner held off an assault wave by himself while I dragged the target uphill in gunfire.

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Also hope you like watching this meter fill up.  Three times.

Overall Payday: The Heist still holds up, even if it is rough around the edges.  It is still as capable of creating those exciting, nail-biting moments now as in 2011, even if the games polish has faded over the years.

Payday: The Heist is rated M and costs $14.99 on Steam.

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Stress Relief Gaming: Stardew Valley

My last gaming post featured one of my favorite games for stress relief: Slime Rancher. There’s been a few updates to the game since my post, but if you haven’t seen it it’s still worth checking out. (You can find it here.) Today, I’m gonna tell you about another de-stresser of mine that I just recently got in to: Stardew Valley.

I love shooters and RPGs just as much as the next person. But sometimes I just don’t feel like dealing with it, you know? Sometimes, I don’t wanna sit down and play Civilization where unless I’m at my top game I’m gonna get my ass handed to me. I don’t wanna play a strategy game like Fire Emblem because it’s time consuming and strategy games are not easy on the brain. So that said, I think it’s important to highlight games that are not so much about winning as they are about working toward a goal.

Stardew Valley is, at its core, a farming game. But it’s so much more than that simply because of how much content there is, and the variety of things that you can do within the game. The thing I appreciate about Stardew Valley most is the fact there’s not a “right” way to play the game, or a certain order you have to go in to advance. The game is set up so that you wake up at 6am every morning, and what you do from 6am to 2am (when your character will pass out if you don’t get them into bed) is entirely your business. You wanna fish all day? Great. You wanna mine all day? Sure. Water plants and chop down trees? You do you. Hey, there’s an event today. You wanna go? No? Okay, catch you later bro. There’s so much to do, but basically none of it is forced. So now to introduce you, let me take you on a little tour of my farm.

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This is the character/farm creation screen. It is just as important as your character creation screen in your favorite RPG, if not more because which farm you pick will also guide your game experience and farm layout. You have your choice of creating a male or female character, naming them, and selecting their outfit. There are dozens upon dozens of choices for each aspect of your character, meaning you can spend quite awhile on character creation. The right panel gives you a selection of 5 different farm types that will accentuate one of the various skills you can foster in the game. The first farm with the red house is best for a farming focus, the second farm best for a fishing focus, the third farm best for a foraging focus, the fourth farm best for a mining focus, and the last farm where “monsters come out at night” is best for a combat focus. There’s no “best” farm for beginners, so feel free to choose whichever farm calls to you–though I will say that, personally, I don’t want to deal with monsters at my farm and spend a lot of time outside at night, so I’d personally not recommend the last farm to first time players looking to relax.

Selecting an animal preference will determine what animal you choose to adopt later in the game. When your pet reaches maximum affection, the game will notify you that “So-and-so loves you.” Isn’t that precious?

I decided to go with the third farm with a foraging focus.

So here’s the setup: the game opens with an adorable grandpa writing to his grandson/granddaughter (that would be your character) from his deathbed. He tells them that there will come a day when they are weary of the world and all the pitfalls of modern (consumerist, corporate) life. On that day, open the letter that he’s enclosed with this note. The game then shows an office with “Joja Mart” and their slogan “Thrive” plastered on a long line of dismal, blue-grey cubicles. Nameless little people are clacking away on their keyboards, staring at their computers mindlessly. The camera eventually pans to your character, staring sadly. A little teardrop appears over their head to express their utter misery. You then go through the motions of opening up the desk drawer, opening Grandpa’s letter, and finding the deed to a farm in Stardew Valley. Your character then leaves their job to start their new life as a farmer.

So here’s what my farm, the un-creatively-named “Verdant Farm,” looks like 3 in-game years later:

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So that’s my little farmhouse behind my character. If you look in the top right corner, you can see the time of day, the date and day of the week, the season, and the weather in the first box. Below that, you have your current funds as well as the exclamation mark which is how you access your journal, where the game encourages you to complete certain tasks for monetary rewards. The weather changes day by day and has differing effects on the world around you; certain fish only come out on rainy days in spring, for example. Also when it rains, there’s no need to manually water your crops. The day of the week is also an important feature that helps lend the game a certain semblance of reality. “The Queen of Sauce” re-runs, which teach your character to cook, only run on Wednesdays and Sundays. Pierre’s General Store, which will be the main source of your seeds until you’re able to craft a seed maker and other cooking/farming essentials, is not open on Wednesdays.

There’s tons of features to this game, and I’ll try not to inundate you with too many specifics. I think it’s safe to say that if it’s been in a farming game before, it’s in this one. The last thing I’ll mention specifically is what sets this game apart from other farming games: the friendship/romance component.

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Your character can develop a relationship with basically everyone that lives in town. Each character has a set of loved, liked, neutral, disliked, and even (god forbid) hated gifts that you can give to them which either increase or decrease your friendship level with them. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try and figure them out for yourself. If you’re lazy and afraid of rejection like me, you can find all of a character’s likes and dislikes on their wiki page. You’re allowed to give each character two gifts per week. You get extra friendship points if you give someone a gift on their birthday; the calendar in town will tell you whose birthday is when.

When you get a high enough friendship with people, you can trigger a special cutscene that will give you some personal insight into that character. For instance, I walked into Emily’s house when he had four friendship hearts and found her dreaming about me.

Though you can bond with everyone in town in some way, there are only twelve characters available to romance. The plus side is that ALL TWELVE of these characters are bisexual–meaning it doesn’t matter if your avatar is male or female, you can marry whoever you want.

It’s such a small feature, but it’s so amazing considering the amount of games that restrict (or completely ignore) same-sex relationships. I’ve been playing a lot of Fire Emblem lately and I cannot tell you how frustrating it is that there is only one (if any) gay option in them. And only for the avatar character. There are so many characters that would work infinitely better if they were allowed to be gay in those games. But luckily, that is not a problem in this game.

The final note I want to end on is the music. This is the real stress-relief component of this game. The music is fantastic. Smooth, relaxing, and unobtrusive. The music changes each season–with spring being wistful, winter being reflective. I’ve actually downloaded some of the songs to go to sleep to at night. If you don’t want the game, just find the soundtrack somewhere. You won’t be sorry. But I have to say, at $15, the game is more than worth it.

Stardew Valley is available on Steam for $14.99. The soundtrack is available on Steam for $4.99.

 

What I’m Playing: Slime Rancher

Hey Everybody! So today I’m going to talk to you a bit about my newest and most favorite form of stress relief: Slime Rancher.

Slime Rancher is an adorable little game and the first project of developer Monomi Park. (You can find their website here.) The game is currently available Early Access on Steam, meaning the game isn’t quite done yet, but is still available to buy; you just have to be patient in waiting for the game to update. The most recent update was just released this past Thursday, January 19th. Though they did not release any more major features, these people seem to really be mindful of their community of players by responding with putting out bug fixes and quality enhancements as they are able.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good startup.

But now on to the main event: Why should you get this game? It’s simple, really. It’s just too cute. I’m a sucker for cute, and I know I’m not the only one. The world of Slime Rancher is innocent, peaceful, and beautiful–perfect for temporarily forgetting about your terrible boss, your boring job, the dishes in the sink that need washing, the laundry–really anything. The second you hear these adorable slime creatures giggle as they bounce around your character like jellified puppies, you’ll be hooked. The slime creatures themselves are bright blues, pinks, greens, and yellows; the water-laden world is sparkly, clean, and really quite romantic at times. The Slime Sea has some spectacular sunsets you can witness on a daily basis right outside your front door. And since the world has no other signs of life but your own personal ranch, the game feels almost like a naturalist escape.

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A group of Tabby Slimes from my ranch.

Thus far the game has four distinct regions: The Ranch (which also encompasses The Grotto and The Overgrowth), The Dry Reef, The Indigo Quarry, and The Moss Blanket. Each of these areas is vibrant, from the rust-colored Dry Reef styled after picturesque canyons, to The Moss Blanket that is distinctly jungle-themed with rich greens, blues, and touches of purple. (There are two more regions in development, but there is no word when those areas will be released.)

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The Indigo Quarry
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The Moss Blanket
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The Dry Reef

The concept of the story for Slime Rancher is simple and unobtrusive. You could probably play through all the content and have no idea what the story was. It’s there to add a bit of context, and more might be done with it as the game continues to be updated, but as it stands, the in-game story serves as flavor text to the charming, alien world of the slimes. The basic idea is your character is named Beatrix, and you’ve come to a planet far away from earth for the purpose of setting up a slime ranch–where instead of cattle, you keep slimes. And you sell their “plorts”–their poop, essentially, which sounds gross and yet still manages to be adorable because plorts look like gems and not what we think of as excrement–for money on the Plort Market. The Plort Market is like the Stock Market, only with less corruption and scandal.

How do you get the slime creatures onto your little patch of alien-heaven? Well, you venture out into the wild and you suck them up. Don’t be alarmed, the slimes seem to think it’s great fun to be sucked up into your vacuum gun. The most you’ll get out of them is “Whoa!” And once you have a little corral set up for them, all you have to do is aim, shoot them back out, and there you go. You’re a slime rancher. (Pro Tip: Invest in high walls early on because those little suckers like to bounce and stack on top of each other, and they’ll bounce right to freedom if you’re not careful.)

In addition to distinct regions, there are also slimes that are unique to each area. Rad and Crystal Slimes can only be found in the Indigo Quarry; Hunter Slimes can only be found in the Moss Blanket, etc. There is another mechanic in the game that allows the fusion of two unlike slimes into a larger, infinitely cuter slime called a largo. Pictured at the top are my personal favorites from my ranch, the Honey Hunter Largos, which are a mix of (you guessed it) Honey and Hunter slimes. The advantage to having largos on your ranch is you get twice the plorts for the food you feed them–which means more money. Also, you know what’s cuter than a slime? A bigger slime. I mean look at them! They’re so happy.

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But every good game has to come with some risk. The downside is that, if not carefully monitored, your adorable and beloved largo can turn into a Tarr, which is an ugly, nasty little abomination that consumes other slimes and turns them into Tarr as well–until soon you have a whole infestation. I know you don’t want that. So monitor your largos, friends. (Another Pro Tip: largos only turn into Tarr if they eat a plort unlike either of the two slimes that makes up the largo. So if my Honey Hunters ate a Honey plort, they’d be fine. But a Rock or Tabby plort? Not so much. So only keep your largos corralled with other largos or slimes of the same type.)

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A Tarr.
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I had to include this one. Look at it’s poor, scared little face. (Don’t worry. I saved it.)

I think one of the things this game has going for it is that you have complete control over how much time you invest into it. You can pick it up for a few hours here and there, get one or two things done, and then go about your business–or you can also sink more time into it if you want, and you’ll still have things to do. The recently introduced “Slime Science” has a resource-gathering component that’s bound to take up some time if you choose to delve into it. But you don’t have to, and certainly not all at once. It’s a game that can fit into anyone’s life–especially if you don’t feel like you have the kind of time to devote to playing games like The Witcher 3, for instance. They’re huge and immersive and wonderful, but if you don’t have at least 6 hours to devote to it at a time, you’re not going to feel like you got anything done.

This game is also perfect for gamers who are looking for something non-combative. The closest the game comes to combat is when your rancher has to fend off Tarr. The peaceful music turns intense and I generally spend a few moments looking around wildly thinking “Where is it?” before it will inevitably fly through the sky at me in a charge. All you have to do is shoot the Tarr with water a few times and they dissolve, so it’s really not a big deal; and you can go days in-game without seeing a Tarr if you decide to play it safe and stay inside at night when they’re most likely to pop up. Once you get into the Slime Science mechanic, there is a blueprint available for a water cannon, and if you place one where Tarr are likely to show up, you’ll never have to worry about them again. Easy-peasy.

So if you have about $20 to spare and are looking for something a little more zen, I’d say Slime Rancher is worth it. And you’ll be supporting a brand new developer that, from what I’ve seen, is interested in listening to their players to provide the best gaming experience they can, which is something I think we can all get behind.

If you do decide to pick up the game, or if you already have the game and decided to read this anyway, leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Slime Rancher is available on Steam  for $19.99.