Tag Archives: Game Review

ARK: Survival Evolved Tree Forts and Dinosaurs

I love playing co-op games with my kids. When I looked at ARK: Survival Evolved (currently in Early Access on Steam) it looked like just such a thing. When I dug into it and learned that I could host a LAN server in my house, and edit The Island to be a bit less deadly and a bit more generous, went all in with my sons.

Before long I had all four of my kids playing with me, and each other.


Currently my girls are the heavy hitters, training mobs of small dinosaurs, and then marching them into harm’s way. The game’s A.I. spawns some tough beasts, but short of the epic boss battles (which we have not bothered with), and the Alpha T-Rex (which we haven’t run into), nothing stands for long against Keliana’s swarm of dilophosaurs and dimorphodons, or Gleek’s hopping mob of giant frogs.

Keliana and I did run into a bit of trouble with our expedition from the north-east river mouth, but that wasn’t her fault. I shall now tell you about it.

We  attempted to bring 24 tamed dinos and one tricked-out crafting raft southwest through narrows and swamps. We discovered, after it was too late to turn around, that the size of our mob and the size of our raft made the trip extremely tedious. It didn’t get dangerous until I got fed up and decided on a side trip.

My plan was simple. Ride Terry, my pteranodon who kept fouling the raft’s travel, from our mob’s location at the western edge of the Eastern Plains east and south to a platform we’d been building in the middle of the Eastern Forest. There he’d be high, dry, and safe. I would then parachute back, timing my glide to get me most of the way to safety. It’s a high platform, and I’d seen my son make that kind of glide before.

(Note: The logic that goes “I saw my son do a thing in a game so it is a thing I can now do” has never gotten me into trouble before, I swear.)

A dimorphodon named Zed was following me and Terry. Unfortunately, Zed fell behind, and I forgot he was there. I landed Terry safely, lined up my jump, and leapt back the way we’d come. My chute popped perfectly, and my glide was going to be LONG. Then Zed caught up, flew straight at me, and fouled the lines of my chute.

I dropped fast. Not killed-by-the-fall fast, but definitely short-of-my-goal-by-80% fast. I landed in a boulder-filled vale just to the west of the platform. The vale’s only other major feature besides boulders was hungry carnivores. I emptied my shotgun into a ‘raptor, then finished it off with a pike only to discover that a carnotaur had stopped quarreling with a pair of sabertooths, and was charging me.

Carnos charge in straight lines, and turn poorly. I used the terrain to my advantage, and attempted to lead him back into his sabertoothed foes. It worked perfectly, except for the part where they decided to share a meal. I now had three carnivores chasing me.  I almost ran headlong into another sabertooth, but it leaped and I ducked, and then I kept running.

“Keliana, where are you?”

“North of that purple light. There’s a cliff between me and you. You’ll need to go around it.”

I turned and checked to see how close pursuit was.

I screamed.

The game does a really good job of getting predators right. They don’t roar or screech unless they’re fighting. They come at you teeth-first, and quietly.

I had a perfect view of three sabertooths, one carnotaur, and behind them, just starting to take interest, a pair of tyrannosaurs who I may have run a bit too close to without noticing them.


The nice thing about video-game cliffs is that if they’re not sheer, sometimes you can cheat them, running sideways and down, and landing without having broken your bones. I did this, knowing that my pursuit could do the same thing.

I splashed through shallows at the base of the cliffs, and then saw that I was being charged from the front by a velociraptor. It was over.

Then I saw that the velociraptor had a saddle on it, and there was a woman in the saddle.

“I’ve got you, Dad!”

I missed what happened next, because it happened behind me. I did get game alerts telling me that my tribe’s pets were killing things, but they went by too fast for me to count. I saw exactly zero flashing red alerts, which meant that Keliana had killed everything chasing me without taking any casualties.

That’s my girl.

The title of this post includes the words “Tree” and “Fort.” I’ll spare you the extended description of the  tree fort my kids and I built on the edge of the Writhing Swamp, and post a nice screencap instead.


Are we playing this game the way it was meant to be played? If the online PVP tournaments are any indication, we’re doing it all wrong.

I base-jumped into a pack of carnivores and got rescued by my daughter, who was riding a velociraptor.

Wrong is fine.

Redshirts Expansion, Now With 100% More Me!

My friend Jonathan “Skippy” Schwartz is Kickstarting the expansion to his super-successful Redshirts card game, and I’ll just show you my favorite card now before saying anything else.

RedshirtHowardRedshirts has a great game mechanic. The object is to kill off your own crew members. If they actually succeed in their missions and return healthy, you’ve clearly done something wrong. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s pretty easy to pick up. David Reddick’s art is perfect for it, and I’ve been led to understand that in this expansion I’m not the only creator of things to be garbed in ominous red and sent doomward repeatedly.

Check it out, folks.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

I really enjoyed the first two Borderlands titles. I even enjoyed the stories, which is kind of ironic since my introduction to the first game was my friend Brandon telling me how much fun it was in spite of the terribly disappointing story.

I don’t write game reviews, but I’ll try to describe my experience with the latest Borderlands installment, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, in meaningful ways.

Game Play

Lots of people have complained the BL:tPS felt like more DLC for Borderlands 2. This is an outgrowth of something I actually appreciated: all my game-play reflexes from Borderlands 2 totally fit. That was a big time-saver.

The new stuff here was invigorating. Enumerated:

  • Low gravity and butt-slamming! I had to build a new set of twitch reflexes, but once I did it was pretty rewarding.
  • Action Points start at Level 2! Oh, thank goodness. One of the worst things about BL1 and BL2 was that your choice of Vault Hunter means very little for the first four levels of game play.
  • The Grinder! About 1/3rd of the way through the game there’s a mission from Janey to repair the machine that grinds up weapons to make better (sometimes) weapons. This was fun.
  • More Dialog! Your character actually has a voice this time around. You don’t get to choose what to say (this title’s  from Gearbox, not Bethesda, let alone Bioware) but you have a personality.

What did I not like?

  • Broken maps! In three places the story quest ground to a halt while I looked for the path to something critical. The low-grav jumping had me thinking I was in a platformer, but no, I was lost because the entire path required me to walk off the edge of the map. (Note: In Borderlands 1 & 2 this is reserved for Easter Eggs and Instant Death.)
  • Loooong quests. “Artificial Persuasion” in particular had several points of re-direction (“that didn’t work, let’s try this… on the other side of the map!”) and felt like it should have been staged as four different quests.
  • Platforming? Not quite. All the jumping around makes you think you can scale some things, but no, this game is still kind of 2-dimensional. Not everything can be jumped on — even things that are within jumping distance. It’s frustrating to fall through things, or bounce off of invisible walls while trying to get from point A to point M without trudging past points B through L.
  • No difficulty setting. This is a real turn-off for me, especially in a game where the story has finally gotten really interesting, because it means I need to grind and grind and grind in order to be tough enough to slop my way through a fight that you super-twitch kids will blast through on raw skill.


Gearbox delivered a pretty amazing story. I won’t spoil anything for you, but here’s some background: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel takes place about four years after the events of Borderlands, and about one year BEFORE the events of Borderlands 2. (It’s prequel AND a sequel, and they doubled down on giving it a goofy name.)

The four playable characters are people we’ve all met in the previous games, and two of them were NPCs we had to beat during boss-fights. The story-driving NPC, Jack, is the main villain in Borderlands 2, and is probably my favorite “I hate this guy” character in any story or game.

How, then, would the writers build a game with a satisfying story if half the playable characters and their boss turn out to be monsters?

Answer: Wow.

Better answer: If George Lucas had played these games prior to writing the Star Wars prequels, we’d have had much better movies to chronicle the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the rise of Darth Vader.

I’m impressed. Everybody in the story–EVERYBODY–acted from logical internal motivations, and responded rationally to external pressures. NOBODY did things because of plot-pressure. And the end was, at least for me, very satisfying.

If you plan to play, but haven’t finished yet, be sure to sit through the credits after you beat [REDACTED]. There’s sequential art running alongside the the scrolling list of names, and that art will complete the stories of Athena, Nisha, Wilhelm, and CL4P-TP.

$60 is a lot to spend on a game, but according to Steam, I’ve logged 35 hours on it, and my son has logged 30 (using the shared library.) Between the two of us, that’s a dollar an hour for play-time. Granted, I only bought ONE copy… I’m totally going to wait for the sale before buying enough copies for my kids to play with me at the same time.

Breaking the Borderlands

“Honey, I have a shotgun for you.”

I sent this message, and then I dropped the shotgun in question on the floor of the cave and awaited a reaction.

My 19-year-old daughter and I were wandering through the Zaford’s stash cave during the Clan War mission of Borderlands 2, so it’s totally okay for me to be giving my teenager a shotgun by throwing it on the floor of a cave. Video game shotguns can take a lot of abuse.

The color-code on this shotgun was orange, which meant it was from among the very rarest and most powerful class of items. When you see an orange item, you jump on it, so of course Kiki snatched it up, pulled up her inventory screen, and then messaged me back.

“Oh, Daddy. I love it.”

KikiGotAShotgun“Kiki” is my daughter’s online nickname, and by happy coincidence this particular weapon had flavor text associated with it : “Kiki got a shotgun.” When the player reloads the weapon, she will throw it, but instead of tumbling away and exploding like some other magical Borderlands video-game guns, this one will point itself at the nearest enemy and fly towards it, firing as it goes. The flavor text encourages you to imagine what it would look like if a witch on a broom had a shotgun. Oh, and when it flies away a new copy of the gun materializes in your hands, beamed there from your storage deck because video game science fiction is a lot like magic.

But that’s not really the salient point.

See, ultra-rare items show up in chests or loot drops with such tiny frequency that the average player might not see one at all during 20 hours of play. Most players spend dozens of hours grinding their characters up to high levels, and then gang-raiding boss monsters over and over in hopes of an orange drop. And even then, unless they’re doing this during the level-capped “Ultimate Vault Hunter” playthrough, the item is going to be several levels lower than they are. A low-level rare item doesn’t do much good against high-level enemies.

It is unusual, then, for someone to hand another player an ultra-rare item that is leveled perfectly for their character.

I’ve done it dozens of times, because I’m a filthy cheater.

See, from one perspective, the Borderlands games are all about finding new weapons, shields, grenades, and artifacts so your character can face higher-level enemies as you move through the game. Play runs like this: navigate through the level until there’s a fight, have the fight, then stop for five minutes and compare the loot drops to the things already in your inventory. In single player mode this is kind of fun for a while, but in multiplayer mode it quickly gets boring.

From my perspective, the Borderlands games are about teaming up with my kids to kill things in an imaginary world of endless violence, experimenting with play styles and team strategies while laughing at the things our characters say as they interact. Stopping every five minutes for loot comparison crimps the mirth. So I got my hands on an editing tool for our save files, and solved the problem.

The editor has a button that will bring all the items in my inventory up to my level, which means the super-cool stuff I found back during my level 10 slog is still super-cool when I’m level 35. It will let me duplicate items (I did not give Kiki my only copy of that shotgun), and I can even create items in my inventory—items that would exist legally in the game, but which I’ve not yet come across.

Better still, the editor will let me clone elements from one character’s save file and build a brand new character at whatever level or game stage I want, so that I can, for instance, jump online with my daughter and join her level 25 quest without grinding for eight hours to create a level 25 character first.

The Borderlands games do not have a difficulty setting. If they’re too difficult, you are expected to practice more, or grind for hours in order to find more effective weapons, and usually the player must do both. There are hard-core players who have done exactly this, and who have hundreds of hours of hard-fought game play invested in a single character who has lots of cool tools.

And I expect that some of those players resent the fact that people like me exist. I have a dozen different characters, and they ALL have cool tools, and while I also have over a hundred hours logged in the game, I certainly haven’t “earned” the collection of rare and ultra-rare items these characters field.

So what? When my daughter said “oh Daddy. I love this!” I felt like I had TOTALLY earned that moment. I also earned the four hours she and I and my youngest son got to spend together one Saturday, engaged in a quest that would have been eight levels too high for her, except I leveled a copy of her character and inventory from 25 to 32.

Kiki is coming home from school in a couple of weeks, and I suspect there will be lots of Borderlands mayhem spread across the screens in my house. There will be laughing and shrieking and cheering, and maybe we’ll pause for some loot comparison when something cool drops out of a boss piñata,  but whatever happens I’m looking forward to it, and I’ll have the editing tool handy in order to make sure that we all get to play the game we love.

(Dear “Rick’s Games Stuff”: thank you for creating Gibbed’s Borderlands 2 Save Editor, because family time beats the loot-laden snot out of frustration.)