open world

How I Got to Elite: Dangerous

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Steam informed me recently that a game on my wish list was on sale. I don’t add items to that list often, but there are a few I forget are there. I checked it out and found that it was Elite: Dangerous.

I didn’t know much about it off the top of my head, but investigating the store page reminded me of the appeal. Open world. Milky Way galaxy recreation. Massive scale. MMO. Flight simulator.

So I bought it…

But first, let’s start in the mid-90s. For the record I was unaware until recently that Elite: Dangerous had previous installments during this time period. Had I known this the story would be different.

Anyway, I happened to pick up Lucasarts’ space combat simulator X-Wing when I was a kid. The box art and screenshots entranced me. I too would get to experience the ultimate freedom of space travel and get to blast Tie fighters into sparking fragments along the way.

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After several disks worth of installation (this was the original DOS version), I was ready to play and within minutes I was in the cockpit of the X-Wing, adjusting shield levels, engine speeds, and aiming at various vessels. This was what I was waiting for. True freedom.

This sense was quickly dashed, if only momentarily, when I noticed that those stars and galaxies and planets far off in the background were merely that, background. There would be no interstellar travel for me. Just intense space combat, and the promise of thrills like the films.

This series was quite popular as it turns out, spanning into the next decade with its sequel Tie Fighter offering the best experience in my opinion.

Still, there was that desire to fly among the stars that gnawed at me.

Let’s flashforward several years to the late 2000s. This is when I first tried EVE Online. This, I thought, was it. This was what I had always wanted. An entire galaxy to explore replete with space stations and starships, enemies and allies, and everything in between. Yes, it truly offers all these things.

Here I had my chance to be a renowned star fighter, but I could also be a pilot, a space miner (and perhaps have a daughter who would wrote a song about such things), an industrialist, or even a scheming CEO of a corporation filled with other real people to manipulate and command.

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The options were endless, but so was the path to progress it seemed. Now don’t get me wrong, EVE Online is great at what it offers, but it’s also demanding. And slow. And cutthroat. Eventually everything becomes a point and click affair, even space travel, which is more about navigating menus rather than space itself.

It’s not hard to admit that I enjoyed the game, generally but it is hard to admit that perhaps it’s a little more daunting than I would like for something that I want to truly enjoy.

At the end of the day, EVE Online offered quite a bit, more than I imagined in fact, but it still missed that certain something.

There were other games that came close, like Star Trek Online, with its arcade-ish space combat and the ability to lead away teams on planets. If you’ve wanted to be a Starfleet captain, or even a Romulan or Klingon, this is your chance. It’s a lighter version of EVE Online, to be sure, but its content is still entertaining and the fantastic setting is a bonus.

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After years of playing games, it’s safe to say that some of my earliest wishes have been buried under layers of reality and disappointment, but fortunately they have also been augmented by gaming experiences that have truly been enjoyable in unexpected ways.

So there I was the other day, loading up Elite: Dangerous. I tried the training missions, thinking that this really is a very similar game to EVE. Except that I was sitting in a cockpit. And that I could fly to any available star. And fight. And dock with space stations.

Then it hit me.

No, not that asteroid I collided with because I was still calibrating my controls.

No, it was something else: the realization that this is the game I had been wanting to play for almost twenty years!

Even better is the fact that Elite: Dangerous’ developers have already declared (not speculated as in the case of EVE) the kind of content they will roll out, like planetary landings and such. This is more than thrilling, and I feel like I’ve finally come full circle with those expectations born from the back of the X-Wing box all those years ago.  

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So, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prep my ship for travel to see either the Sol system in way I’ve never been able to or what lies beyond the other side of the galaxy’s core.

The Sims 4: Evolution

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In the deep past of the Earth, there were millions of years of all kinds of life. A common point of reference is the age of the dinosaurs, a time when large, kingly beasts roamed the world and competed for food and shelter and sexual dominance. Unfortunately, the dinosaurs’ days were numbered, through no fault of their own. Smaller, more versatile animals became the order of the day in order to survive harsh climate changes, catastrophes, and so on. While it’s easy to think of evolution as things getting bigger, better, grander, more expansive, there comes a time when things can get too large to continue to sustain, and a new method of survival must be adapted.

The Sims 4 has been released recently by EA (Electronic Arts) and Maxis. It’s received numerous acclaims to its new mechanics, and at least as many complaints about features missing from the gameplay. If you’ve played a Sims sequel before, then you know the drill. You get a brand new base game stripped of all expansion content, some new features are added that are specific to the sequel as a sign of progress. Then you have to wait over the next few years for all of your favorite content to come back one way or another in the form of re-imagined expansion packs.

The problem many are having with The Sims 4 is that, compared to The Sims 3, there are many lapses in content and choices of gameplay mechanics that seem to be a step backward. Some content, like life stages such as toddlers, and Sim amenities like swimming pools, dishwashers, mail men, firemen, just to name a few, are absent with no promises that they’ll return. Another major issue is the return of loading screens, a feature met with revulsion by most Simmers who have a long standing history of associating loading screens with interminable waiting time, in favor of the open world of The Sims 3.

What is going on here with The Sims series’ newest entry, and why does it seem so… low on its needs?

 

The Sims 3

Let’s look back briefly at the previous entry. It was a polarizing experience upon its release as new things always are, but it boasted a brand new open world feature. While people complained of rabbit holes (buildings with no interiors), the world was mostly open to you at a given time, and at first this was the biggest selling point for me. While I greatly enjoyed The Sims 2, it was exhausting sitting through lengthy loading screen after loading screen just to change lots. It was a huge damper of the flow of the game, and made me want to avoid all travel sadly. So for me, the open world meant smoother, less interrupted gameplay more than anything else.

There was, however, that initial loading screen that continued to slow down as more and more expansions were added. I was looking at upward of five minutes of loading sometimes. Craziness. The expansions began slowly with their attempt to interest me (World Travel and Ambitions were neat but meh), finally hooking me me like a fish with a few strong entries (Late Night, Seasons, and Generations), and then leaving me a litter underwhelmed the rest of the time.
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At the end of the day, the problem I ran into with the Sims 3 is that I had access to a lot of content, but none of the “neighborhoods” or “towns” could ever support my attempt to access all the content at once. My favorite town was Late Night’s Bridgeport, a gorgeous Manhattan-esque theme city with urban apartments and suburban dream homes. Good luck, however, trying to play Bridgeport with your Werewolf guitarist, who also moonlights as a solo singer, provides interior design tips, dabbles in horseback riding, time travel with his dog, and Egyptology, all while taking care of his multi-generational family, who run a succesful resort hotel while attending college. There simply was no room on the map for all those things at once, and even if there were, the initial loading time would have been tremendous and the gameplay full of stutters and freezes. No fun.

The open world was an impressive feature, but also a liability.

The Sims 4
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There’s little to say about The Sims 4 that hasn’t been said by others already, but it’s fair to say I was skeptical once I discovered just how many features were missing. Sure, the inevitable expansion packs will replenish the Sim world with opportunity and variety again, but it’s hard not to feel that you’re doing without. And yes, The Sims 4 does have new core mechanics that stream line gameplay. Sims can multitask, loading screens are back but they are thankfully a percentage of a fraction of the loading time of previous entries. The world, despite not being open, is still beautifully detailed, even if it’s nothing more than a backdrop. What The Sims 4 really provides us, unless the developers “eff it up” is a chance to a better future for this game.

The Sims 4 doesn’t start out with itself painted into a corner, but at the start of a long road. The game world can now be added onto easily and modularly, which indicates that as new features are added you won’t have to stop your gameplay in Sunset Valley to play your superstar Sim in Starlite Shores, or switch to a different map for your ghost hunting witch. You can just click and go. Hopefully.

The Sims 4 may not be the behemoth that The Sims 3 was, but at least it won’t collapse under its own weight. It’s a more stripped down, versatile entry. It’s more evolved in that it doesn’t have unnecessary features tying it down. Humans no longer have tails, and we don’t lament that fact because we currently have no use for them. Evolution is about what makes things better for the future, though it can sometimes be very difficult to let go of the past.