Gaming, review

Curious Expedition

You can’t move for retro looking Roguelikes these days. It often feels like almost every other game carries with it the mechanics of earning abilities as you progress but losing equipment and progress, having to start your playthrough essentially from scratch, but with the idea that each time you start over the game is a little easier than the last attempt. Most tie this to a Metroidvania style game, getting you to explore a large 2D environment. This is where Curious Expedition differs.

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Curious Expedition isn’t a side scrolling platform action game, no, its developers Maschinen-Mensch, style it as an “expedition” game wherein the player is tasked with becoming a notable person from the 19th Century who embarks on an expedition to find hidden pyramids, return home with treasures and become the worlds most famous explorer, this is all played out with a Civilization Revolution style map that you move your crew across, clearing fog of war, finding villagers, causing volcanic eruptions and running out of Sanity as you “progress”. Games take maybe an hour to ninety minutes to get from your first expedition to your last, provided you get that far, meaning its quite fun to just switch on and not have to really focus on what you’re doing, its fairly light as far as Roguelikes go.

The presentation its quite quirky, every discovery, trade and decision is played out using diary entries that provide the game with its character, sommetimes they really portray the seriousness of any particular predicament (I had someone break a leg and I had to decide whether to leave them or try to heal it, I had to go with the former as I didn’t have the equipment to do the latter, thus making my inventory space smaller so I had to also leave some other items behind) or adding humour at times. It’s a lovely way to portray what looks like quite a static game and each entry is really well written, which gives it the feel of those Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular in the Eighties and Nineties.

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There are a few things that confused me though, I can’t say the game doesn’t try to teach you its mechanics, maybe I just didn’t grasp things well enough. As you explore the map your Sanity meter depletes, this can be replenished by eating consumable items such as chocolate or by sleeping at any villages you find, but both of these can be hard to come by. When the meter reaches 0 you’re crew begin to make mistakes (such as the aforementioned broken leg or they drop items from your inventory, making the rest of the journey even harder) and you’re encouraged to try and make your time walking as long as possible, fewer longer trips results in less Sanity being lost than more frequent but shorter trips.

I couldn’t really grasp the battle system either, its turn based and relies upon dice rolls, but beyond that I didn’t really get on with what the games tutorial was telling me to do, these battles take place against things like wild animals that are patrolling area’s you are walking through or villagers that happened to take offence at your presence (as not everyone is always pleased to see you). It was these moments that led me to getting my Game Over’s as I just didnt have the correct members in my expedition to have the correct dice in order to fight anything off.

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The games biggest disapointment however is that, currently at least, its missing a multiplayer mode. From what I can tell the developer has been working on one, at least they have been for the PC version thats been out since 2016, but when playing it, there was no sense of competition or urgency to beat the other Explorers and I couldn’t escape the feeling that a turn based game, with players starting at different points on the same map, racing to find the pyramid first, finding ways to make progress harder for the other competitors, would have made this game an essential couch co-op title rather than a fun little distraction.

Formats: PC (Steam), XBox One (version tested), PS4 and Switch
Release Date: 2016 (PC), April 2 2020 (Consoles)
Publisher: Thunderful Publishing
Developer: Maschinen-Mensch
Code provided by Thundeful Publishing for review purposes.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: The Banner Saga 2 (PC)

I’ve already covered Stoic’s The Banner Saga 2 in a first play, but this is our meat feast topping article. Our Caravan is loaded with whatever supplies we can afford and we wander across the landscape, settlement to settlement attempting to flee the Dredge. Fortunately for you, dear reader, our review isn’t even remotely as oppressive as the atmosphere in this heavily story driven Tactical RPG.

As with its predecessor, The Banner Saga 2 is all about survival. What we have here is essentially a survival horror SRPG, minus the guns, zombies and obtuse puzzles. It has that atmosphere that you have no choice but to keep going, keep pushing on, knowing that the equipment you carry probably is barely sufficient enough for you to progress. You’re forced to feel incredibly vulnerable by the exhausting experiences that your small band of survivors are struggling to live through as the size of your caravan increases and decreases between settlements and other places that try and promise an element of respite but don’t always succeed in doing so.

As before this is all played out against an utterly beautifully created backdrop, your troop treks across a canvas on which they are absolutely dwarfed by the scenery around them. Which, whilst these images would look absolutely stunning hung up on a wall, they only help drive home just how desperate your plight is as does the rather Game of Thrones-esque events of The Banner Saga 2’s plot, with key people leaving your band at key points and the end of each narrative element.

As before this is all played out alongside an isometric turn based battle system, and whilst on the surface it looks like Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics, it really is anything but. As with the rest of the game you feel overwhelmed, your forces not as strong as the Dredge that pursue you and battles are en exercise in just surviving long enough to chip away at your foe, often resulting in you losing all but one or two of your forces. Stoic have introduced new elements like a class type that can buff other party members who are on their last legs, allowing them one last enhanced attack in order to try and turn the tide of the battle. There’s a genuine sense that in order to progress your party needs to band together, treating them all as single units is tantamount to disaster and this is enforced through the relationship between Bolverk and Folka. Placing them nearby to each other provides a defensive boost to Bolverk, but this also opens up the risk of the latter being hurt by the swing of Bolverks second axe (which also has an equal chance of hitting your foe instead).

The fact that this overpowering element of being on the brink of failure during every aspect of the game, that any wrong choice during dialogue sequences, a wrong choice whilst buying supplies or equipment or the wrong manoeuvre on the battle field could all spell disaster, is always there can be a little too heavy for some and I think its fair to say that The Banner Saga 2 is best played in bursts of a settlement or two at a time. Which is easy to list as a negative, but I don’t actually think it is, its not a game that you could feel too burnt out by and it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome, the wait between the first instalment and this one felt like an eternity on my part and that we now get to continue the tale is incredibly welcome, especially as The Banner Saga 2 stands as equal to its highly recommended predecessor.

Gaming, review

Miracle Mia

It’s been a while since I actually reviewed a game, the last one being back in September for Sayonara Wild Hearts, so a couple of weeks ago when Shademare reached out to me on Twitter and asked if I would be interested in taking a look at their title Miracle Mia, I perused a few trailers and thought sure, why not?

Miracle Mia is best described as a story-driven 2D action game. You play the titular Mia and have to fend off a variety of foes using her magical tennis racket as you progress through a series of pastel-coloured and beautifully realised locations. What makes the game unique is the aforementioned tennis racket, enemies aren’t defeated in the traditional sense of just hitting them (though that is an option), the idea here is to repel their attacks back in the direction they came from (or towards another opponent) in what is, in my opinion, quite a clever mechanic.

On that mechanic, the key thing here is just how well it works, the game moves at a decent pace and you never really feel like the controls are lagging behind you in any way, they’re perfectly responsive which comes in handy as the difficulty ramps up.

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There’s some element of platforming here, with Miracle Mia utilising jumping, dashing and teleportation techniques to traverse the terrain, there are times where you have to rely on quick reflexes and times where you’ll be battling whilst also performing some mildly complicated control pad gymnastics, though for the most part, these moments are usually filler between fairly static battles. The challenge comes from moments where you have to combine a variety of things in order to progress, such as dashing through opponents in order to stun them but making sure you don’t stay on a fragile platform for too long. It really does make for some energetic play.

Aesthetically, its very pleasing, the variety of locations are wonderfully realised and carry over a very Japanese aesthetic, though I’d have to say that the magical girl theme to pretty much all the main characters only really works from a distance, when characters faces appear closer alongside speech bubbles (in order to further the plot) it does tend to look very generic. Thankfully though these moments, whilst common, tend to happen whilst you’re playing so aren’t massively distracting, allowing you to soak in the tones and themes presented to you as you progress.

Unfortunately though, its the story and its presentation, that does begin to drag this game down, then there’s its length, now I’ll admit, I didn’t reach the end of Miracle Mia as it began to strain on my ability to stay interested, it just seemed to be quite a long experience (there’s a chapter select and I think I counted ahead to over 20 chapters), with everything that was introduced in the time I spent with the game, it didn’t really need to feel like I was going to have to spend a lot longer with it than I already had to see its end, there were enough interesting ideas on show for a short, sharp experience, after all, its better to leave the player wanting more than it is to have them wondering just how much more there’s going to be.

Formats: PC (Steam)
Release Date: 23 August 2019
Publisher: Shademare
Developer:  Shademare
Code provided by Shademare for review purposes.

Gaming, Mental Health

Cult of the Company – The Outer Worlds and Edgewater

To begin with, I’m placing this under both my Gaming and Mental Health headers, the first reason is obvious as its a post about The Outer Worlds, the second is because I’m trying to look at the mindset of the people of Edge Water. I’m only a few hours into the game but will do my best to refrain from posting spoilers. For clarity I have the power regulator I need for my ship but I’ve not yet actually installed it on the ship.

Even at this early stage Obsidian Entertainment’s The Outer Worlds have thrown up some food for though, most notably in the people I have met so far, and most importantly regarding the mental health of the inhabitants of the town of Edgewater. Edgewater is a community that was created by and is owned by a company called Spacers Choice and is set up in order to provide tinned “Saltuna” to colonies throughout space. It’s the first settlement that the player happens across and where you begin to interact with the games inhabitants and whilst there’s a focus on the physical health of the citizens of Edgewater, which is pretty poor due to their diet and working conditions, its the mindset of these people that is definitely where my intrigue lies.

The very first person you can talk to once you have landed in the Emerald Vale sector of Terra 2 introduces you to the motto of Spacers Choice “You’ve tried the best, now try the rest. Spacer’s Choice”, but its not until you reach Edgewater that the mindset of the people begins to show itself. This is most apparent, in my opinion, in the person who runs the Spacer’s Choice Cantina, one Amelia Kim.

Amelia works hard, after all, with how muddy it is outside the doors of her bar, its not easy keeping those floors clean. But there’s more to her than it seems, you see its very easy to get her to start talking. She wanted to be a scientist when she was younger, but it seems at some point she let go of that dream “thats the problem with dreams, you wake up” she says (I may be paraphrasing there). There’s a deadened look on her face, and questions outside of the operation of her bar seem to scare her. This pattern is repeated through the rest of Edgewater, from Silas the gravedigger through to the towns supervisor Reed Tobson, they all do as the corporation tells them and don’t ask questions regardless of the impact this has upon themselves or each other, in the belief that it is for the betterment of Edgewater as a whole.

This means that those who fall ill are quaruntined out of the way, they’re not currently working, and thus dont serve the higher purpose and so aren’t entitled to treatment (even though people work in order to make sure they receive treatment if/when they do fall ill), those who leave Edgewater, for whatever reason, are shunned as deserters, so if you’re not serving Spacer’s Choice by working in the Saltuna Cannery (or one of the more localised jobs like the towns vicar, who himself is treated with suspicion) then you don’t belong within this particular society.

It does feel like a commentary on our own work culture, how many people go in to work unwell or return too early because of the pressure from their boss not to take time off, or the social stigma from their colleagues because they’re “skyving”? Whether its our physical or mental health we return, dutifully, to work, potentially causing others to fall ill and not being able to work to the best of our abilities, all to serve (normally) a company that we’re actually a tiny part of, we prioritise of others over our own health through fear of making things more difficult for others, although its also because time off comes with financial punishment (which for some people also means they may not be able to afford the prescription charge for their medication in order to get better and return to work in a better state in the first place).

The people in Edgewater have become convinced they are a part of something, again this is reflected in the real world. How many of us have worked in jobs where the “benefits” of the job also happen to aid the company you’re working for? I’ll give you an example. I used to work as a cashier in a bank, before I started I was made an appointment with one of their staff members in order to open a current account with said bank with me ultimately switching from one high street bank to the high street bank I was becoming an employer of, my wages were then paid into this account. From talking to other members of staff these was standard practice for this particular chain of banks (though not all of them do this, I believe), and you’re led to believe that your wages have to be paid into the account you’ve now taken out with your employer. This makes you both employer and customer, it enables you to talk to other customers about the benefits of banking with your employer as you have that experience to pass on to the customer (not that they like you referring to customers as customers), but it also helps various elements of that bank beyond those conversations with its customers, it helps the banker, branch and region all meet their targets and also means that that chain of banks also has a customer that other banks may not have (especially if you only use one account or then want to take advantage of the convenience of having your current account, savings account, credit card etc all under one roof).

So, when you’re walking around Edgewater, listening to the likes of Amelia talk, ignoring her dreams and grinding out her menial job for very little benefit to herself, its very hard to ignore the feeling in the back of your mind that this isn’t healthy. Whether thats the developers intention remains to be seen and I think, for those that are also playing The Outer Worlds, you may have already clicked as to what path I took for that first big decision the creators have you make.

 

Gaming, review

Dangerous Driving

I recently discussed my love of racing games when I did a #ThrowBackThursday for OutRun 2006 and I’ve done some race reports for my attempts at racing online in GTSport. Now I have a brand new racing game to discuss, Three Field Entertainments Dangerous Driving which released earlier this week on PlayStation 4, PC and XBox One.

Dangerous Driving is one of those games thats not shy about its influences, its a pure arcade racer where racing lines and braking points are further down the list than just being outrageously fun. For those that know nothing about it, Dangerous Driving is the latest racing game by Burnout creator Alex Ward, and the pedigree shows. This is Burnout in all but name, albeit it pre-Paradise. Which isn’t a bad thing, not that Burnout Paradise was bad, it was anything but. But like Burnout was prior to Paradise, Dangerous Driving is an incredibly focused piece of adrenaline fueled gaming.

You’ll notice from the very start there’s little in the way of menu’s and options, theres a number of different events ranging from standard races, through takedown events to, my personal favourite, Heatwave mode wherein you chain boosts by using up the full boost bar up without letting go of the controller button. Whilst there’s also a number of different racing class, from Sedans,  SUV’s, Coupe’s and ultimately “Formula DD” or F1 to you and I.

The reason for this stripped back approach is that Three Fields are a tiny team of seven and they’ve put this together in a similar small space of time. Even so, ignoring the lack of polish on the front end, not to mention that theres a distinct lack of in-game music, you can see where all their efforts have gone as the gameplay is pure “in the zone” gaming, and when you are managing to dodge traffic and the persistent wrecks (every Takedown you perform leaves your opponents carcass on the road waiting to take you out on the following lap) you’ll be right on the edge of your seat, not daring to blink as chaos ensues around you.

Things aren’t perfect though. It’ll take a while to get used to the camera position and the sun glare, apparently the team had a discussion over what construes as “dangerous driving” and driving fast whilst blinded by the sun was one of the things that came up which they’ve seen fit to include here. And for what its worth, their goal of making the driving dangerous by including it has been achieved, whether or not it was a good idea is open to debate, after a while its easy to ignore most of the time but sometimes wrecking feels a little unfair due to being blinded. Likewise the chase camera is low to the ground and close to your rear bumper, it does pull back a bit when you’re boosting but its still closer than most games, again, this is a design choice based upon giving the player that sensation of speed. The front bumper cam is even lower. Cars can feel a little unpredictable at times, in particular the SUV’s. Now I’m not a rage gamer, I’ll generally turn a game off through frustration before I’m swearing at it, but Dangerous Driving has driven me close a number of times, especially when in the SUV’s and unfortunately you can progress to a different class without completing the prior one first. Which, whilst being standard progression for this sort of game historically, I can see it frustrating some. Lastly the steering sensitivity is a little high, you can turn it down in the options but at the time of writing the game doesn’t save these changes so you have to change it every time you start the game up.

These are only minor niggles though, and some are definetly done on purpose to provide a challenge for the player and set Dangerous Driving aside from the faux-arcade racers like Forza Horizon. What we have here is an excellent addition to the genre, it may or may not be the case that I’ve given it an easier time due to a lack of anything similar on current hardware, its pedigree and the developers cashing in on nostalgia, but provided this leads to Three Fields bringing us more Dangerous Driving in the future, I’m really happy to recommend that anyone looking for some balls out fun gives this a go.

 

Formats: PlayStation 4 (Version Tested), PC, XBox One
Release Date: 9th April 2019
Publisher: Three Fields Entertainment
Developer: Three Fields Entertainment

Gaming, review

RICO

Buddy Cop movies are great right? All that comedy and action thrown into one roller coaster of a movie! Who doesn’t love Lethal Weapon (well, apart from 3 and 4), 21 Jump Street, Rush Hour and The Other Guys? And now you can play a part in that too thanks to RICO. Because here is a game that takes half of what we love about those movies, the action, and encourages you and a buddy to take on the “Wunza” roles as you bust down doors and burst open some perps heads. Sounds great, right?

Well, it is. It works like this, there are three game modes, Quick, Case Mode and Daily which all sort of intertwine with each other. Case mode is where you will be spending most of your time, here RICO takes on a Rogue-like quality, you’re assigned missions from a mission tree that are progressively harder, you always start in the games Killhouse with only a handgun in your arsenal, as you progress you can purchase better guns, attachments, grenades or heal. However, once you die its game over and you’re back to the Killhouse to start a new case with only your starting handgun available. I’ll admit it took me a while to figure out that you do get to keep your equipment, but not for this mode, it’s all there, waiting to be selected in Quick mode. Which leaves you with the headache of “do I buy that gun again or do I spend money on health”. What does carry over however is the Traits that you unlock by earning experience and leveling up, these cover abilities like quicker reloads or damage multipliers and are assigned to your chosen character where you can pick up to three unlocked Traits depending on your play style. The latter mode is Daily, here the developers upload a handful of different scenario’s, one for each difficulty, with set equipment where the aim is to post a fast completion time to the online leaderboards. Once each scenario is completed your given credits to unlock skins for your guns.

Now like I said, the concept of the game is that you and a mate play this cooperatively, bursting into rooms and shooting the bad guys, There are other mission completion elements too, sometimes you’ll be tasked with collecting evidence, which is just discovering a randomised number of green brief cases, or diffusing bombs. These tasks can be assigned to you from the outset or appear as you work your way through a level and are much of a muchness. The fun ones are when the game asks you to complete a set amount of sliding kills, or clearing a number of rooms whilst still in slow motion, and here is where the co-op play really excels as you are often in a position where you can approach certain rooms from two different entry points, allowing you or your partner to provide a distraction whilst the other applies the skill. However here there’s also the risk that your partner could get in the way which was a situation my eldest daughter and I found ourselves in a few times when we were playing couch co-op.

Whilst all of this sounds great, and when it all works, RICO is genuinely great fun to play in co-op, it definitely doesn’t really work as a single player game as there’s very little meat on the bone here. There’s also a few minor niggles too, for a start it’s really weird playing a first-person shooter that doesn’t have any rumble feature, it makes you feel disconnected from the onscreen action and is a genuine shame when you get your hands on one of the games shotguns as they’re really satisfying to use within the games claustrophobic environments, adding a kick from the pad would have accentuated that further and made them great fun to play with. The sensitivity is also a little off, it feels too twitchy on its default setting, and whilst you can alter this, it initially put me off the game a little to begin with. However one thing that did spoil RICO more than I would normally like to admit was that due to its procedurally generated levels furniture can sometimes get in the way, I got stuck on more than a few chairs and on more than one occasion when tasked with finding piles of money or collecting evidence I was blocked from reaching the item I was searching for by an office desk or changing blind that had been placed in my way.

These are minor gripes though because like I’ve already said, when played the way RICO wants you to play it: sliding through doors, breaking them down and unleashing lead into the heads of bad guys, RICO is gloriously good fun.

Formats: PlayStation 4 (Version Tested), PC, Switch, XBox One
Release Date: 12th March 2019 on PS4, 13th March 2019 on XBox One and 14th March 2019 on PC and Switch
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Developer: Ground Shatter
Key provided via Keymailer

Gaming, review

Drowning

Drowning is a game that is about a school boy (its never expressed that the narrator is a boy, but the games creator has stated in its synopsis), moving from Year 7 to Year 8 and ultimately Year 12 (so the game starts with the narrator being 11 years old) who is suffering from depression and how he deals with having depression during his school years.

It’s a strong subject, and the manner in which the tale is told suggests its a deeply personal matter to Polygonal Wolf. As you slowly walk through the games different locations, following a strict path, text appears suggesting a conversation between the narrator and their own mind. It’s all sensitively done and at times genuinely moving and cathartic, and aside from the occasional grammatical and spelling error (for which I’m not one  to judge!) its down to Polygonal Wolf’s talent to get, what I presume, are his own thoughts and feelings down in a manner that the player can relate to.

 

The tale is told as you walk through some beautiful settings, all created in a low polygon and pastel effect with the tone changing, alongside the music, as the narrator gets older and their depression becoming deeper. What starts off as an almost innocent walk through some woods, full of bright sunshine and bold colours, later develops into dark, cold atmospheres that it would be easy to say are cliche but perfectly fit with the words that appear on screen.

However, whilst Drowning is great at getting all of these feelings down, when the narrators mental health begins to find its own voice, and begins to challenge what it is being told, be it positively or otherwise, the dialog can feel a little clumsy and forced, as though the writer knew what they wanted to aim towards and just headed straight for it, much like the linear path that the player is forced to walk along. It never really feels like you are part of the conversation, nor that there is any room for discussion to go beyond a certain path, which ties into the way the game handles its multiple endings.

The initial ending is easy to unlock, its literally following the path laid out in front of you until the game reaches its conclusion and the credits roll. But there are three other endings to walk through, all of which involve convoluted exploration that, due to the linear nature of the path (there’s nothing to suggest you can leave the intended path at any point unless your literally pushing against the walls on either side at all times) I can’t see how anyone would figure out how to unlock them. I personally only experienced them after following a guide to see if they offered anything different.

That being said, an initial run through for one ending only takes about half an hour, personally speaking as someone who has received treatment and is still undergoing treatment for depression, Drowning is a title that I’d urge anyone to play through in order to either maybe understand their own inner monologue and realise that, actually, this happens to an awful lot of us, or if you care for someone you know to be struggling, it could help give you a better insight into why they act the way they do.

Formats: PlayStation 4 (Version Tested), PC, Switch, Vita, Linux, Mac
Release Date: 31st January 2019
Publisher: Sometimes You
Developer: Polygonal Wolf
Key provided by Sometimes You via Keymailer

Gaming

Apex Legends

Lets get this out of the way, I’m not much of an FPS player, I mean I did used to play them a fair bit, but we’re talking TimeSplitters, Rainbow Six 3 Black Arrow and Rainbow Six Vegas as titles that I played a hell of alot of, oh and Overwatch (on which I used to play either Lucio or Zenyatta). Anything that had a more serious lone wolf style element to it and, well I was useless, so I never put in the time to get better because quite frankly I’m not of the disposition to spend time doing something I’m not enjoying to just get better and be part of the “in” crowd.

A week ago, EA and Respawn surprised everybody (well, nearly everybody, those at EA and Respawn and a select few “influencers” knew what was going on) and released a new FPS with a Battle Royale theme as a free-to-play title, set in the Titanfall universe (a series I’ve heard great things about and I do own the second one, but have never actually played) but not featuring some of the elements that make Titanfall Titanfall, to which everyone (again, except those at EA, Respawn and said “Influencers”) collectively said “Say Whaaa?” (including crossing our arms across our chests) before downloading it and collectively becoming hooked.

It’s totally surprised me that 1. EA have released this in the manner in which they have, and being honest? I’m waiting for the catch, waiting for that mistake thats just round the corner that will send everyone back to Fortnite. 2. That I’m enjoying it as much as I am, dont get me wrong, I’m monumentally shit at it, I think I have over 30 games (not alot compared to some) but only have 8 kills. My accuracy is ridiciulously poor, I panic under pressure and I hang back and am usually the first in my squad to be taken out. So why am I enjoying it so much?

Well, the squad based element would be enough to put me off, its not like Overwatch in that you can blend in to a team, do the job your chosen Hero/Legend/Whatever is designed to do and get by, here you HAVE to be good at FPS games AND be a useful member of the squad using your Hero/Legend/Whatevers abilities properly and not being a burden on the other two members of your squad as the three of you fight to be the last team standing out of 19 others. However, there does seem to be an element of camaraderie amongst the community, and those of us who dont know which end of our weapon is which are (so-far, it has only been a week afterall) accepted.

I think also, that the games ping (you can point at stuff/in a direction and hit a button to alert your squadmates), revival and respawn systems encourage you to stick as a team and after all, if theres three of you versus two of them then the odds are in your favour even if one of you cant hit a barn door even if you’re stood right in front of it, at least that person (me) can act as a distraction to your opponent (or thats how I justify not receiving a slew of abuse through my TV’s speakers, not that many people verbally communicate anyway). I’m assured it gets even better when you’re playing with people you know or have opportunity to play with regularly, but as I find socialising a bit of a challenge and feel really awkward talking over a headset I’m yet to experience that side of the game.