Saturday, 19 January 2013

Also: this

This past week I didn't get in much more Dragon Quest IX, but a bit. I've been playing Alpha Centauri, Spec Ops: The Line, and Dark Crusade. I'll hold off on DQ9 to give a full review when I beat it, but I have a few thoughts on the other three games.

Alpha Centauri is a game in the civilization genre that came out in the 90's. It was released shortly after Civilization 2 as a matter of fact. It's really a classic game, similar to how Blade Runner is a classic film; it's worth playing because A) it's great, B) it has influenced games that came after it, and C) it has a lot of high-brow influences in it. It follows the standard Civilization formula: you build cities, develop and expand them, discover technology, and you can conquer other civilizations. Except it's in space - the premise is that a colony ship departed Earth to land on Alpha Centauri, and the ships occupants Balkanised into several factions with opposing ideologies. You have your religious fanatics, militarists, economists, scientists, communists and environmentalists. Oh, and a faction built off UN principles, for which there is no effective one-word "ism".

The game isn't perfectly balanced; certain "wonder" improvements (buildings that can be built once, by one faction, and provide a permanent or long-term bonus to your whole civ) provide truly incredible benefits. But that issue aside, the game really is a lot of fun. It has solid gameplay mechanics, with the option to fully customize your units; you can take unit improvements and mix and match them how you please. It has excellent voice work and excellent writing. Every technology has a little quotation or soliloquy related to it, and they're either quotations from famous philosophical works or intellectuals, or they're well-written in-character speech/book-excerpts. I have a background in philosophy and this is the only game that has freely quoted Immanual Kant, as well as demonstrating an understanding of what the quote actually means. Far Cry 2 had Nietzsche references but they really just made it seem stilted.

If you like civ games you owe it to yourself to go to and buy this.

Spec Ops: The Line apparently caused a buzz by having a relatively sophisticated and critical look at US military involvement in the middle east. I haven't got far enough in the plot yet to really know for sure where it's going, but the theme of horror resulting from military presence is firmly established early on, and is effectively continued. The most striking moment for me was when me and my two man squad had the drop on two guards. The guards were having a conversation about how they are fighting for peace, and despite being bombed and burnt out, Dubai was still a really beautiful place. One guard said he would go to sit alone and listen to the wind, and enjoy how it reminded him of the forests from his hometown. And then I shot them both to death, because, well, I had to, and they would have shot me. This sort of scene is basically a cliche. An indictment of violence and militarism. But it's well-done, which is quite rare. You aren't drowned in sentiment, and how much of it you take in is essentially up to you, which makes it much more effective; a cut-scene that you are forced to watch, with closeups of crying children et cetera is too much. But a pair of guards, 30 feet away, whose faces you can barely see and whose dialogue you don't have to listen to is effective because it's real and your engagement with it, as voluntary, is more meaningful to the player. When I feel like a game is telling me to feel this or that way, I'm very resistant to the feeling. But when I'm confronted with a situation and invited to feel however I want to, or even ignore the situation and gun them down immediately, it feels real.

The gameplay isn't much to write home about however. It reminds me of Gears of War, which I found clunky and not fun. Spec Ops is also a third person over-the-shoulder shooter. Making it mandatory, basically, to press a button to go into "behind cover mode" is a mechanic a whole lot of games have used for years, and I've never liked it. I can use it; but I don't like it. You also have to swap out guns from dead enemies, because you will run out of ammo for your own guns. I kind of like that; I always like using a variety of guns in any shooter. I'll get back to you about where the story goes on this game when I finish it. I'm not sure if I can recommend it yet.

Finally, Dark Crusade. Last week I mentioned that even discussing the game made me want to play it again, and here I am. It's one of the last iterations of the Dawn of War series. I say that because I don't consider that Dawn of War 2 is really a part of the series; they changed the core gameplay so much that they alienated the fans of the series while failing to draw in a new crowd. But Dark Crusade is great. It's set in the Warhammer 40k universe, and you can play as the Eldar, Space Marines, Imperial Guard, Necrons, Orks, Tau or Chaos. It's a little absurd that the Necrons and Tau are included but the Tyranid are not. It's also disappointing. They were brought into the next game in the series but they really missed the mark there, so never mind.

I like to play the Eldar. The webway building lets you teleport 10 squads around the map to any other webway gate in about 5 seconds, and that just does it for me. The game is fast-paced and fun. It has a gameplay mechanic that takes all of 15 minutes to figure out, but it has enough depth that you can have many hours of fun with it, even if you only play one faction. Central to the gameplay is claiming "strategic points" on the RTS scenario. There are two resources; requisition and energy. Energy is acquired from power plants you construct, and requisition comes from strategic points. Once you've planted your flag in one (takes maybe 20-30 seconds) you gain a bit more requisition per second, and you can build "listening posts" on them to increase that. The resources are used to build squads and replenish the units in those squads if they die. On the strategy map, you conquer a territory and this confers some advantage to your faction; I think there are about 24 territories, including the home territory of each faction.

The writing and voice-acting is melodramatic and silly, which fairly suits the setting. So many different alien races duking it out on some wartorn planet: what do you expect? That said it's all pretty fun, and the flavour dialogue is appropriate, if silly. I really recommend the game if you like RTS. It's not deep in the way Supreme Commander or Starcraft 2 are, but I like it for that. I never had the discipline for those games. This one is just fun.

I saw my views spiked today, so I really thought I should update; if people are reading enough to expect an update on Saturday I ought to provide one.

Keep gaming.


Saturday, 12 January 2013

Ramirez, do everything

Well I saw the doctor, bought snow tires at great expense, and arranged for an academic appeal in between buying books, doing readings, grocery shopping and attending class... Saturday posts should be feasible - extras if there's something extra to post.

I played Diablo 1 extensively, and Diablo 2 quite a bit (though enthusiasts of the game wouldn't agree with that estimation). Diablo 3 was a highly anticipated game for me, and as such, I played the hell out of it the week it came out. I got my mage to level 60, the last few levels feeling very grindy indeed, and lost interest. I was in the first act on Hell difficulty and finding it very, very tough going, and also finding very little enthusiasm to progress further.

A lot of people complained about being obliged to be online constantly to play the game. There are a plethora of remarks online, but if I'm going to post my views on games I do have an obligation to opine as thoughtfully as I can - dated though this point is. All I have to say is that even if you have no interest in multiplayer (and I don't really have any interest in that) it's still odd that anyone made such a big deal over the mandatory server connection to play. The reason is that Steam games all require you to log in to play, and Steam is a massively popular game distribution platform. It is possible to play Steam games offline, but first you have to log in online to enable that function, so if your internet unexpectedly fails, you're out of luck. I just don't think it's a very big deal.

Diablo 3 was competent - extremely competent - in most every detail of its execution. The writing was lacklustre however, and the voice-acting was as well. I'm comparing this title with the most recent other major Blizzard launch that I played, which was SC2. SC2 was my game of the year for 2011. I really loved it, beating every mission on Brutal difficulty and getting every mission achievement. I wasn't great at multiplayer, but I did get ranked gold in 1v1 matches as Protoss. SC2 had excellent writing, direction, voice-acting, and the mission scenario developers deserve an extra accolade for going above and beyond in creating 27 missions, each of which had unique challenges and thrills.

Diablo 3, on the other hand, has only minor elaborations on the basic gameplay devices we're familiar with from Diablo 2. As in Diablo 2 it has several Acts, where you battle progressively more powerful demons until you fight the titular badass. They made Diablo, the character, hermaphroditic ultimately, which I found a rather interesting choice, even if it had no real impact on the story or symbolism.

The character's abilities are generally interesting, and I enjoyed playing my mage overall, probably on the first playthrough most of all. As usual, the amount of time it takes to get decent gear becomes truly inhibitive, and this is what has always driven me away from the series. The fighting also gets incredibly repetitive. This criticism might be unfair, insofar as repetition is not avoidable for this game - it's built right in there, an essential part of the very popular formula. Its popularity is an argument for the value of the formula as well. But especially when the enemies get so difficult that the little roving minibosses can and will kill you upwards of 10 times, and the only battle tactic is to get in as many hits as you can before you must flee or die, repeat ad nauseum... then the game is a chore. For me the game isn't worth 60 dollars.

My mage seems to be voiced by the same guy who voices the protagonist from Gothic 3. This is actually disappointing - not because he's a bad voice actor, but because he is a good one. He was not allowed to emote at all with the mage. This was obviously an artistic choice on the part of the director - something about how the mage is a robot or a vulcan or a pre-recorded telephone directory, a choice probably intended to establish that he is so intelligent and awash in arcane mystery as to have left any human emotion or reaction far beneath him. There is a snippet of the sardonic, witty vocal sniper I know from Gothic 3 in the sewers section, where the mage is the straight man against the prolific voice actor who voices the jeweller, Covetous Shen, but this is simply not enough. This archetype has been around in gaming for a long, long time - someone who is so super-cool that they don't emote like a real person - and it is never effective at contributing to a characters impact. It's a tired cliche, and while I have no problem with stereotypes as such - they can be done well (see the film Stardust) - this is one which didn't deserve to be repeated often enough to become a cliche in the first place.

Discussing games usually makes me want to pick them up again. I've thought about dredging up Warhammer 40k Dark Crusade again, for instance, even though I've played it to death. But with D3 I feel only a vague interest in trying it a bit more, and that's quickly squashed when I remember how dull it is to level characters, and how long it takes. They've expanded the loot slots on characters in D3 so there are many, many more equipment slots now. This might make it more interesting for some people, but for me it's only more uninteresting micro-management - more frequent now are the times when you have to closely examine the latest drop in the newest line of glittery dungeon-crawler apparel to try to live up the fashion standards of the snobby hellspawn around you. And you just never find Gucci gift-wrapped off the side of the road, you know. It's always some cheap Korean knock-off.

I've been playing Dragon Quest IX on my DS lately. I like a lot so far. I'll talk about that next.


Saturday, 5 January 2013

Have a frank and productive new year

Not a lot to say. I've been busy for the last two days with... things.

I can elaborate on my probably unpopular opinions w/r/t Diablo 3 and Borderlands 2 however.

I'm very much a gameplay oriented gamer - story and graphic design and... other auxiliary features are important but secondary. I don't have to justify my priorities in games, but I will say this. A game is something which you play. You can analyze it, or dissect it,  or "experience" it, and you can do all of those things to a chair as well, but I think we can all agree that a chair is for sitting. Similarly, a game is for playing. Therefore, the gameplay is the feature of the game that makes it a game. Gameplay is the most important feature of any game, QED.

I played Borderlands very thoroughly, bringing three characters to the max level; Siren, Hunter and Berserker, and I came close with the Soldier. I played a lot of the DLC as well, so clearly I really liked Borderlands. Borderlands 2 is in many ways simply an update on Borderlands 1 following the exact same formula. And having said gameplay is what I care for most, and the gameplay in the two games is eminently similar, how can my enjoyment differ so greatly? Perhaps because I played Borderlands 1 until I really had no more desire to do so. This was one well-spring of joy that got tapped dry for me, so serving it in a different glass didn't wow me. That said I feel there was one very distinct difference between the two games in gameplay. That is the volume of enemies and the time it takes to clear an area. In Borderlands 1 you could move from room to room relatively quickly in single-player; a lot of rooms had 2 or 3 baddies, and you could enjoy a sense of steady progress. Borderlands 2 is more like air-travel; hurry up and wait. You wait in the car for an hour to get to the airport, wait there for a few hours and get to the plane, and then wait for your connecting flight, et cetera. It takes much too long to clear an area in Borderlands 2, and the reason is the ridiculous extent to which enemies respawn from their little doors of mystery. Also many areas are multi-tiered, requiring you to clear out the first "floor", climb some ramp, start fighting on the second floor to find all the enemies on the first floor have respawned, and you've triggered a few on the top level as well. And all of these guys will have to be killed 2-3 times, effectively, due to respawns. Headache.

That said, the new characters are fun, I played the Sniper because he's good for soloing what with kill-at-a-distance, and enjoyed popping guys in the head. The story is undoubtedly better written, and Handsome Jack's whole... deal... was pretty good. There were fan service elements pretty thoroughly sprinkled in there, and everyone has a pretty partisan view on those so I'll leave it at saying they're ubiquitous for better or worse.

The game used a ton of blue and green tones, I found, which is a poor choice in my opinion. They're just not easy on the eyes in an environment where you have to spin around trying to figure out where you're getting shot from. Similarly, the enemy colouration schemes often caused them to blend in the with the background colours, which is poor design. Opinions may differ on this, but that's what I experienced.

This game is not worth the triple-A cash it costs. Play Borderlands 1. It will cost way less, and it's a powerfully similar experience.

I'll actually leave D3 for Tuesday, when classes resume, since I probably won't be able to game much before then.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Main Screen Turn On

Happy New Year.

Far Cry 3 is great. There's a lot of buzz on the 'net about weird shit it does w/r/t post-modern story elements... my strong urge is to put that out of your mind if you've been exposed to it, or not to read it at all before you play the game. The only interesting insights into the story which inform your gaming experience will come from your own experience; this isn't a general truism, but it is true w/r/t FC3. The game handles well; it is a competent shooter with a decent stealth mechanic. Now, I played both FC1 and 2 a heck of a lot so I will compare it to them. It is easier than either of them, and more garish, for want of a better word. I'm given to understand that what I refer to as "garish" is intentionally so in order to make the player reflect on his own position as regards gaming as a whole, but I find that pretentious and stilted (the writer of the game refers to FC3 as a building which should have six legs but only has four, and this makes "stilted" a uniquely appropriate critical predication). I will simply take all game elements at face value, because irrespective of their deeper signification they inescapable have the value of their prima facie existence, for better or worse. So; garish. There is island racing, island hold 'em, island skeet-shooting (with real birds!) and some interesting weapon challenges. FC1 and 2 had none of these. All of the objective-oriented gameplay in FC2 was immersed in the realism of the location, even the side-quests, and there were no side-quests in FC1.

I said the game is easier. Enemies can only see you within about 30-40 meters of you, which is dumb. In FC2 even if you had a sniper rifle you had to stand well, well back in order to be able to use it without being seen, such that it was still quite difficult to aim. There's this "target-painting" mechanic in FC3 which is silly as hell; it lets you see enemies through walls, once they're painted. That said, I had a whole lotta fun. I don't always finish games these days and I finished this.

I found every character in FC3 who is a resident of Rook Island to be very well acted, directed and characterized. It is competent in every respect of its execution, and excellent in a few; characters, acting/direction, and GUNS. However excellent it be w/r/t guns however, Far Cry 2 did it better, I'm afraid to say.

Play it.

I also started BG1, and then BG2, and then BG2 ToB again recently. I'm not going to talk about them. I just find it funny that I'm revisiting my blog and playing this damn game again for the umpteenth time.

I found XCOM Enemy Unknown to be a disappointment. I liked and played a lot of Fallout Tactics, and find the latter game to be superior to XCOM in just about every way. Indeed, this comparison so robustly expresses my feelings I don't feel the need to elaborate... I'm not pretending to give gaming news that is accessible to people without gaming experience, so I recognize if you have played neither game this is meaningless to you; that's fine. Play both is my advice. XCOM is a very well-reviewed triple-A title; every such should be played. Fallout Tactics is a personal favourite - it should also be played.

Dishonoured was a marathon game for me. I played it into the ground in a few days - so clearly I liked it. And I did like it! A lot. However, you realistically speaking unlock every ability you want in the first three missions if you are thorough, and you unlock every ability you actually need in just the first mission if you play carefully. So: the game is easy. It took me a lot longer because as soon as I discovered the game incentivizes being "Good" I tried my best to be so, and then I learned you can go through the whole game without killing a single individual, so I did that, because I felt the game was challenging me to: there is, after all, a points-bonus at the end of every mission for the reward "didn't kill anyone". That's a very clear indicator that A) you can do every mission without killing anyone, and B) this is a goal, a challenge, inherent in the game. It is therefore disappointing as all hell when you get to the very end, and having voluntarily made your gaming experience exponentially more difficult by your commitment to pacifism, you find the ending sequence gives zero cognizance whatsoever to your unstained karma. You get the "good" ending, ok, but I'm totally certain you'd get that as well if you simply kept your killing to a minimal standard.

It's a great game. Play it!

I also beat Dark Souls. I don't want to elaborate overmuch on this topic. The game is exceedingly difficult, and combines a finely honed modern physics engine and modern graphics with a very old-school approach to gaming. It is well-compared with original NES RPG titles, like any D&D game on the NES or SNES. I like this game more than Dishonoured or XCOM, and recommend it more heartily. It is punishingly difficult and this is probably why; I derive a lot of enjoyment through triumphing over adversity, when it comes to games.

I played Alpha Centauri recently, the expansion. If you like civilization games (Any of the capital C Civilization titles as well as a few other colonialist games of the same genre, titles aren't coming to mind) then you owe it to yourself to play this. This game is to civ titles what Blade Runner is to sci-fi movies. A classic, stand-out with excellent production values, innovation and brilliance. Mind you, the original Alpha Centauri has most of the artistic perfection; the expansion is merely competent w/r/t art, though it has fun elaborations on gameplay. This one is a classic.

Speaking of classics I bought Master of Magic from Great Old Games... it actually is also a civilization game, but not the type that you need to have played in order to consider yourself informed about the genre. It's a lot of fun and has a wide variety of gameplay mechanics, all solidly intergrated. It's latter day successor is Warlock: Master of the Arcane, but the pathetic thing there is that this successor simply has less to it. Master of Magic had far more gameplay elements, and I do not think there is a persuasive argument that any of them needed to be shaved off. It was very well put together.

Hesitantly; very, very hesitantly; I'm looking at a Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday update schedule. We'll see. It's not like anyone is reading this thing.

Oh, Post-Script: Borderlands 2: disappointment of the year, even more than Diablo 3.

Game on.