Archive for Design Reviews

Dear GamerGate – Please form a Consumer Organization Kthxbye

Note: I have added a followup article addressing common complaints here.

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The core of GamerGate came from the cultures of Anonymous and 4Chan, and so that group has taken it on faith that being leaderless is good, and that having no central organization is good. I’ve come to the conclusion that that is exactly wrong.

Speaking as someone who has tried to engage #gamergate here, on twitter, on reddit, and in IRC, I can tell you that trying to move things forward in any direction is impossible. I say this as someone who is sympathetic to some of its goals, but cautious of its underpinnings, and highly critical of some aspects of it as well (as readers of this blog will note). I try to explain points of view to reasonable people, only to have other people throw unrelated stuff in my face and demand answers. I spent 20 minutes explaining that it was unreasonable for one #gamergater to want XBox to stop banning people from voicing rape threats to other players, only to have people shout at me on twitter “THAT’S NOT WHAT GAMERGATE IS ABOUT!” No, but that’s what I’m talking about IN THIS PARTICULAR CONVERSATION WITH THE GUY THAT MADE THAT POINT.  (Man, does twitter suck for this whole debate)

And then I go to Reddit and read how depressed people are because a loose cannon went off to yell at devs.  Seriously.  GamerGate is not going to get far until it can win over devs, because we are the ones who spend all of the money that make it so that games journalists can pay rent.

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I Watch Anita Sarkeesian So You Don’t Have To. But You Should.

So, my Twitter feed has been full of people who believe that Anita Sarkeesian wants to corrupt my brain, and convert me into being an SJW zombie, thus ruining every game that I ever make.  Because I have no free will and am part of the politically correct machine, I watched most of her video-game oriented videos.  And I gotta say, watching these videos really made me angry.  Because she spoiled the ending to about a couple dozen games I haven’t finished.  Seriously, Anita, a spoilers tag is customary here!

Now because I want to save any of you from becoming sheeple who might be infected by an opposing view by actually watching and considering her work on its actual merits, I thought I would pull a USA Today and share what I found to be the four primary takeaways from her videos so far in easily digestable form:

  1. Games should show more women capable of strength, agency and power in your game world, instead of being relegated to simply being background props or quest objectives that could be replaced with a sock monkey.
  2. Game designers should be less lazy in reaching for the same, tired stereotypes – or merely xeroxes of male leads – but especially stereotypes showing women as disempowered, and find ways to depict more female characters in more interesting and unique roles.
  3. Game designers should keep in mind that a lot of people (and not just women) have a viscerally negative reactions to scenes showing violence against women (particularly as many have first-hand experience with it), so maybe we shouldn’t just throw these scenes in casually.
  4. Seriously, all the dead, spread-eagled naked women in games are kind of creepy.

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Noodling Along in Kirby

I haven’t been posting all week because I’ve been taking a much-overdue vacation. Whilst tooling through the forests of Oregon, I noted to myself that this was the first vacation out of town that wasn’t either a trade show or a Christmas break I’ve taken in something like five years. This is way too long.

I’ve always been a sucker for wacky input devices, but I’ve been so far severely disappointed with my DS, partially because some exec thought it the flagship title, Metroid: Hunters, should be an FPS you control via stylus (note to anyone working on a DS game: this really sucked). Still, I wasn’t ready to give up on it, and so I picked up two games for the DS before I hopped on the plane: WarioWare: Twisted and Kirby’s Canvas Curse.

Twisted is like the other WarioWare games, only the cartridge has a little mini-gyroscope built into it, and thus many of the little many games require you to tilt the gameboy to work, which is novel. I will note that this was completely impractical while sitting in coach on the plane. Overall, this game falls into the ‘OK’ category — oddly, the WarioWare format kind of hurt. One of the things about input devices is the degree in which the interface becomes second nature. The fact that all the games are different, and none lasts for more than 5 seconds makes it oddly hard for you to master this new gameplay paradigm. Still, I love the idea of building in the input device into the cartridge itself.

Kirby, on the other hand, is a delight to play. I bought it on a lark based on Penny Arcade’s random endorsement. It’s a 2D platformer, only Kirby is a ball, and you use the stylus to draw him ramps or walls to block his progress. Think Super Mario meets Lemmings, controlled solely by stylus and you get the idea. The number of ways the designers were able to stretch this simple paradigm is also quite impressive. It takes a little getting used to, but unlike the gyroscope, you do so very quickly. Once you do, drawing paths for the little guy is absolutely mesmerizing.

That’s not to say that the stylus has a huge future as an input device. It definitely smacks of a novelty feature, albeit one that’s done well, and I don’t see a lot of games copying Kirby’s gameplay. But if you have a DS and like old platformers, I’d advise picking it up.

My Review(s) of Call of Duty 4 and Battlefield 4 Single-Player

It’s my own fault, I suppose.

CoD4 and BF4 both came out in Autumn of last year, but in both cases, I deferred my purchase of them to the Winter, in order to have a couple of other games to play on my XBone, therefore attempting to justify my decision to be an early adopter.  As a result, I played the two games’ single-player campaigns back-to-back.  There were two problems with this plan.

1) I believe, as many of my generation does, that the only proper way to play a first person shooter is with a mouse-and-keyboard.  Hell, I’m an athiest, but I’m pretty sure if there’s a God, he would have included ‘thou wilt play FPS games with mouselook’ as the eleventh commandment.  There are some exceptions – I loved Splinter Cell, but that’s a game where if you shoot your gun, you’re likely doing it wrong anyway.

2) I know, I know, gamemakers have a lot to say on the horrors of war, and hoo-rah and all that, but I kind of like it when my games, including my first person shooters, are, you know, FUN.  I vastly preferred the old Doom and Serious Sam mentalities of ‘mow down comical amounts of very silly enemies’ to what has become the de facto standard for shooters nowadays, which is gameplay that is more akin to the shooting gallery at the county fair.  But even the tone helps – I loved Far Cry: Blood Dragon, and would heartily recommend it to anyone who likes their games to be — you know– FUN.  I was completely able to get into the Bad Company offshoots of Battlefield, largely because they did such a good job making an entertaining band of misfits as your adventuring partners.

By contrast, I pretty much hated both Call of Duty and BF4.  In fact, my favorite part of both games was the loading screen sequences in Call of Duty, which were wonderfully Reznor-on-Acidesque in execution.

Now, I know that these games are really about multiplayer – which is unfortunate, since as an old geezer, I’m going to pretty much refuse to play these on multiplayer.  On a mouse and keyboard, maybe I could hold my own, but I’m pretty sure with a controller, 90% of my time will be spent trying to line up a shot while cursing, and the other 10% of the time will be spent dead.  While still cursing.

So I’m only judging the single-player experience.  Which in both cases, was kind of wretched.

Call of Duty 4’s was so easy and vapid that one hesitates to call it ‘gameplay’.  You simply lurch from shooting gallery to shooting gallery, trivially lining up shots on ineffectual bad guys, then moving to the next set piece.  Most deaths come from world designers being overly cute – spawning a guy behind you.  There was only one mission that I thought was particularly tough – a fight on an oil derrick that seemed to go on forever and that I never could seem to win – but it turns out that it, too, was easy, the mission was just bugged and wouldn’t trigger it’s ending cinematic sequence.

By contrast, BF4 actually had moments that required strategy, planning and tactics, so I guess it gets the nod for actually being a better game.  That being said, a lot of that difficulty comes from the Worldbuilders apparently being allergic to placing save points on levels, and then attempting to lure you into using vehicles halfway through that have all of the durability of a wet paper bag.  Also, their AI is so simplistically psychic that the difficulty is artificially inflated.  There is no sneaking and flanking enemies while your squad holds their fire.  Once shooting starts, all AI will apparently focus on you, which makes most of the gameplay ‘find a corner of the building so that you can edge around it in such a way that only one enemy will have line of sight on you at a time’.  Of particular note, the world is full of rooftop turrets which lure you in, but if you attempt to use them, you will be shredded faster than Richard Nixon’s secret files.

The story in Call of Duty can be charitably described as ‘powerfully stupid’.  Our gigantic space gun is captured by an undetectable small army of astronauts with machine guns that work in space, which results in us being attacked and pretty much conquered by South America.  And by ‘conquered’, I mean that they managed to capture San Diego, but not LA.  But the end result of this is that we have nothing – no army left.  Except for a rag tag group of soldiers including yourself.  And, you know, an aircraft wing.  Also, a column of tanks.  And some high-tech air strike capabilities.  And a dog, who happens to be the single deadliest thing on the whole goddamned battlefield.

Your dad spent his whole life telling you how awesome ‘Ghosts’ were, and coming up with ‘tests’ to prepare you.  These are just described to you – who knows what the hell that means.  Ten years later, he sends you off to rescue a Ghost.  At some point, you are rescued by a Ghost.  Who turns out to be dad.  Surprise!

The bad guy is also a Ghost.  He apparently holds a grudge because dad had the audacity to leave him for dead when, you know, a reservoir was dumped on him.  Yes, in this reality, governments destroy dams and flood their own cities in order to kill 3 special forces units.

In most games, you get angry when it turns out to be only 3 hours long.  With Call of Duty 4, there was instead a sense of palpable relief that I no longer had to endure that so-called ‘narrative’.

Battlefield, by contrast, is a much more believable story, if you can disregard the preposterous level of badassitude that you apparently have compared to the rest of the army.  Entire US military actions are stalled until your 3-man squad come and save the day.  Humorously, every time you leave the battleship your squad calls home, you’ll return to find that it’s been taken, and your squad has to retake it.  And when I say, ‘your squad’, I mean ‘you’, as if you ever put your controller and watch for five minutes, you’ll quickly discover that your squad is about as lethal as a declawed kitten.

Call of Duty has all of the cast diversity of a klan rally.  If you see a woman or a black man, you can rest assured that they’ll die before the end of the mission you’re in.  Even the primary enemy, the former ghost, is white, assuring homogeniety in cutscenes even as you cut down swaths of South Americans in normal combat.

Battlefield 4 is much more diverse, with the second half of the game putting both a black man AND a woman in your squad!  Of course, they hate each other, and spend most of the time reminding each other – and you – that they don’t like or trust each other.  Despite the fact that you are ostensibly squad leader, there is no hotkey for ‘please, you two, shut the fuck up, we’re STEALTHING here’.  But don’t worry, at some point they’ll suddenly have a whiplash-enducing change of heart so sudden that you’ll be somewhat surprised they don’t pull the jeep over and start dry-humping on the spot.

Both games have the beautiful set pieces you’ve come to expect, but I guess I’m no longer impressed by these, especially since both games had the SAME SET PIECES.  Destroyed dam?  Check.  Enduring an attack on an Aircraft Carrier?  Yep.  Call of Duty does get points for having more LUDICROUS set piece fights, so there’s that (I’m talking about you, airplane rescue scene).

Both games also have the mechanic of ‘hit X to do something cool, special-forces-like and scripted’.  Hit X to rappel on the side of the building, hit X to activate the pumps, hit X to play tiddlywinks, you get the idea.  I get what they’re trying to go, I guess, but the net result is a sense that these moments were designed by people who felt like Quick Time Events would be too complicated.  X OR Y?  Fuck that!  Just X!

Both games also have ‘stealth’ missions, and in both cases, they’re impossible to stealth through.  Battlefield, in particular, has a mission where your boss warns you, for the LOVE of GOD, DON’T SHOOT OR KILL ANYONE.  This mission forces you into a gunfight within 60 seconds of starting, and ends with you blowing up a battalion of tanks before you’re allowed to escape.  Somehow, on your return, your commanding officer neglects to admonish you for apparently kickstarting World War III into gear.

Special mention should be given to ‘the fucking Dog level’ in Call of Duty.  Your dog gets shot in the leg, and you get tasked with carrying the dog for the rest of the mission.  Needless to say, you can’t carry a dog and a gun at the same time, so the whole mission is ‘haul the dog 30 feet, put the dog down, and then attempt to kill all the bad guys, rinse, repeat’.  Note that everytime you put the dog down, your teammates will shout at you to pick it up again, despite the fact that there are still bad guys shooting at you, and that your squadmates seem about as effective on their own as a toddler with a potato gun.

Call of Duty’s saving grace, I suppose, is the ending sequence, which is a triumphant climax involving a well-done tank battle and a moderately well-done train chase, which has a fulfilling and satisfying ending – which immediately after the credits, they torpedo in order to set up the inevitable sequel.

Battlefield 4’s ending, by contrast, is utterly befuddling.  Not to give away any spoilers or anything, but the last 60 seconds involve you choosing which one of your squadmates to sacrifice for the greater good, you pressing the button to blow them up, and then the credits rolling.  Try not to think too hard about that final mission, because if you do, you’ll come to the inevitable conclusion that you have no idea how what you did should really resolve anything.

If I had to play one game again, I would beg you to reconsider what you’re doing to me, but if a gun was involved, I would hesitantly reach for Battlefield 4.  There was just more actual fun and interesting challenge there.  Call of Duty’s terrible single-player is well-documented, enough so that Zero Punctuation named it the worst game of 2013, something I considered to be hyperbole at the time and, while I don’t know if I’d go that far, I definitely see how it merits being in that discussion.

Meanwhile, if you want to play a GOOD single-player shooter-like experience on the console, go play Splinter Cell: Blacklist.

Design Review: Ryse: Son of Rome

Well, I had to get SOMETHING on launch day with my XBone because, as is well-documented, I’m a well-documented Playstation Hater.  In fact, one of my great joys about my shiny new console is that I will finally be able to watch Blu-Rays without using a PS3 controller (a controller that, I note, sometimes seems to drain itself if I watch 2 movies in a row, despite the fact that it does nothing but sit on the coffee table during that time).  So yay.

I chose Ryse because Crytek seems like a very good choice if you want to see how far a new console can go.  And for what it is, it is very good, if what you are looking for is a graphical tech demo.  And it is definitely a launch title – short, slightly buggy, and oddly enough, load times that alternate between being near instantaneous and up to 45 seconds long – sometimes for the same fight.

The game is gorgeous, with several breathtaking views and scenes that really sell the total war experience.  There are several gorgeous set piece areas, although for my money, my favorite was the sojourn into the ‘Edge of the World’, an outstandingly creepy looking forest that culminates with facing the barbarians at the food of a Wicker Man filled with your legion.

Now, the game itself can best be described as ‘quick time events as core gameplay’, which surprisingly doesn’t play like a bad thing.  Every enemy you face can be finished with a QTE.  Miss the QTE and your bad guy still dies, but pull it off and you’ll be rewarded with some kind of boost – health refill or damage boost – and doing so is pretty crucial to some of the larger fights.

The biggest problem with the game is that there is precious little change to the formula you encounter early on.  You unlock more wonderfully gore-y finishers as the game progresses, but the core combat you pick up at level 1 remains fundamentally unchanged, with growth coming mostly in the number of enemies thrown at you in a row between breaks.  For this reason, the game’s short length (I’m figuring about 6 hours, or 45 minutes per chapter) is probably a good thing, as the combat starts to wear out its welcome not long before the end.

The main hero is supposed to be about strength more than agility, which means he never seems as fast and nimble as I want him to be, although this may be a product of my recent forays into Tomb Raider, Splinter Cell and Last of Us.

There are some very nice experiments and new game feels in here. In larger battles, you can direct your archer support to fire volleys into the crowd (a fun task to pass to the wife while I’m trying to kill fools).  Every now and then, you command your army to form on you and march as a phalanx, ordering when to shield up or do a mass pilum throw – something that is by no means challenging, but is a lot of fun, and a nice change of pace experience.

The game’s bosses all are fairly vanilla, although the level designer who did Boudica’s first boss fight deserves to go to a special level of hell for throwing a pack of not-very-easy trash at you when you chase her off, which you have to fight at depleted health.  It’s not a lot of fun to wax a boss 4 times in a row, only to end up being smothered by a motley mob you’d easily dispatch if you were at full health.

Also with you in that special level of hell can be the jackass who decided that I can’t skip through the expository dialogue before a boss fight when I fight a boss 10 times in a row.

The story is… well, close enough to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator that you’ll believe that someone, somewhere, should be getting royalties.  That being said, I liked Ryse’s characters a lot better, with some great dialog and mocap.  In particular, Basilius’ mocapped soliloquy in Bretonnia was a delightful treat, and the aforementioned Boudica is a wonderful character, despite the fact that her character’s face lies broken and bruised at the bottom of the Uncanny Valley.  Also, I am fascinated that the Keira Knightley’s Guinevere apparently is going to be the new template for costume design for warrior babes from pre-medieval England.

Microtransactions are present in the game from the outset (you can buy level upgrades and multiplayer customizations).  They are obvious enough to be annoying and prompt a muttering of ‘I already gave you guys $60 bucks’, but weren’t in any way necessary to beat the game, nor were they advertised very heavily.  The GUI itself follows the new Microsoft Windows 8 ideal of multisized panels on an assortment of pages, which would actually work well if the flow didn’t suck terribly.

Overall, this is a nice game and does a good job of validating your XBox One’s existence, although it’s certainly not going to win any GotY awards.  It definitely does herald a higher bar for game visuals that we’ll be seeing over the course of the next gaming generation.

Goodbye, Diablo 3 Auction House

The trick with playing with real money is when you start letting that real money drive game design decisions – or even give the appearance of doing so.  When Diablo III launched last summer, most people (myself included) felt like the game just wasn’t as sticky as it was in the old days.  Since the one thing that was significantly changed in the design was the introduction of the Auction House (for either real money or in-game gold), this was pointed to as a culprit- clearly, said the players, loot rates were driven down to make people used the auction house (this link is a very good read, btw).

Diablo 3 has no real reward loop – there is only a frustration loop, which can be temporarily alleviated by using the Auction House. As the game progresses in the hardest difficulty (Inferno), the frustration part of the loop gets longer and longer, as upgrades become more and more difficult to buy…. New players will not experience Diablo 2’s reward loop, and will not get hooked. They will enjoy the game, get to the end, and (for the most part) wonder what the big fuss was about, lose interest, and wander away….

Out of necessity, Diablo 3’s reward system has to account for the Auction House. Because equipment is never destroyed, in-game rewards can never be too frequent or powerful or they will flood the Auction House, eventually trivializing game difficulty. There have been many solutions proposed (here is one particularly insightful discussion), but the reward system seems so intertwined with the Auction House that it’s difficult to see a radical change coming.

One of the interesting points made by the players was that the issues were made worse because the playerbase was so much larger.

 Even World of Warcraft‘s auction houses exhibit roughly the same behaviour because each shard contains only about 5,000 players. But when you find what looks like a good item in Diablo III, it inevitably turns out to be not quite as good as you thought because there are so many better ones already on the auction house. If you can see the farming output of millions of players and compare it to your own findings, of course your loot is going to seem like crap.

No matter what the truth, the players will want to assume the worst out of the developers.

Cheng’s comments are a blatant lie, and while a lot of people claim that this voids Blizzard of fixing loot drops, it actually confirms it. You see, there is no single-player offline mode, so what is Cheng talking about fixing rates for players who never use the Auction House?

In a postmortem of the game in March, former game director Jay Wilson admitted that it hurt the game in unforeseen ways.

Wilson said that before Blizzard launched the game, the company had a few assumptions about how the Auction Houses would work: He thought they would help reduce fraud, that they’d provide a wanted service to players, that only a small percentage of players would use it and that the price of items would limit how many were listed and sold.

But he said that once the game went live, Blizzard realized it was completely wrong about those last two points. It turns out that nearly every one of the game’s players made use of either house, and that over 50% of players used it regularly. That, said Wilson, made money a much higher motivator than the game’s original motivation to simply kill Diablo, and “damaged item rewards” in the game.

Even though Wilson believes the RMAH has accomplished the goal of reducing account fraud (third-party Diablo 2 item trading sites frequently stole passwords and credit card information), and asserts that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that many people do want it based on the number of transactions happening daily, Wilson now freely admits it was “the wrong solution” to the problems Blizzard was trying to solve. “It’s not good for a game like Diablo. It doesn’t feel good to get items for money, it feels good to get items by killing monsters,” he said, echoing the complaints of a vocal group of fans.

It didn’t help that the economy quickly hyperinflated, helped largely by a couple of untimely dupe bugs.

Although its anonymity may make it subject to skepticism, several weeks after the game’s debut a source claimed that there were at least 1,000 bots active 24/7 in the Diablo 3game world, allegedly “harvesting” (producing) 4 million virtual gold per hour.[4] Most of the gold generated by the ruthlessly productive, rapidly adapting bots found its way to third party vendors in a black market which undercut the prices in the sanctioned, in-game auction houses… An exasperated player complained in August 2012: “I purchased most of my gear for around 5 mil [gold] early on. I’ve been farming for awhile [and] have saved around 30 million gold [but now] I can’t upgrade the gear I have … Where is all this money coming from? Why is everything so expensive?”

It would seem it is time for this experiment to end.  Today, Blizzard announced that they will be removing the Auction House as part of the next Expansion pack.

“When we initially designed and implemented the auction houses, the driving goal was to provide a convenient and secure system for trades,” reads the post. “But as we’ve mentioned on different occasions, it became increasingly clear that despite the benefits of the [auction house] system and the fact that many players around the world use it, it ultimately undermines Diablo‘s core game play: kill monsters to get cool loot.”  The auction house will be shut down on March 18, 2014.

Which once again goes to show, screw with your core game loop at your own peril.

Design Review: Last of Us

I just finished “Last of Us”, or as my wife likes to refer to it, the “Dumpster Moving Simulator”.  It is good — very good — but I found it short of the accolades that I had heard about it so far, which were all along the lines of ‘we should stop making video games, because it’s been done now.”  There, I would beg to differ.

Don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of the game which are very well designed.  The characterizations of the two driving characters are both excellent, especially Ellie the girl.  There’s a grim horror going on, and yet the writing still does the good job of reminding you that she’s a teen, struggling with teen problems and feelings, while all of this horrible shit is going on around her.  Naughty Dog did a marvelous job here, and there are definitely lessons that Bioware could learn.  That being said, I have some quibbles.

First off, my overall happiness with the game can be directly linked to how much I’m forced to wield a gun.  Now, I’m from the previous generation that believes that God intended for man to control his pixel-rendered shotgun with mouselook, so I always have trouble on the console. Despite that, my aim’s not THAT bad.  The end result was as if the game was trying to demonstrate a world where everyone is armed but gunpowder was ineffectual.  Maybe its just me, but it should take fewer than 3 shotgun blasts at close range to kill a normal guy.  Fortunately, molotov cocktails have the explosive effect of a portable nuke.

Stealthing was a far happier experience, and for the most part, much better done.  There were some obvious problems.  For example, as Ellie followed me, she seemed wholly unaware that the point of stealthing was to hide FROM the monsters, which meant that there were several panic-inducing situations where I’d turn around to find her standing at the feet of the enemy I was attempting to avoid.  Also, if you’re trying to sell me on ‘be so quiet you can’t even move quickly’, the illusion is quickly broken when your companions break the silence every 10 seconds with an ‘over here!’ or a ‘to your left!’ or even a ‘FUUUUUCK’ when I kill something.  Yo, girl, we’re still stealthing here!

The technical part of the audio design of the game leaves a lot to be desired.  A lot of the best color and characterization of the game happens in barks as you traverse the world, but the designers chose to make those barks happen in real 3D — which means that if Ellie’s AI starts to lag behind you, you’ll only hear about a third of whatever witty quip she voices.  At some point, I turned on voiceover captions, just so I could be sure I didn’t miss anything important.

The level design has a fair number of problems.  Lots of stealth levels with guys camped around blind corners, for example, so you have no choice but to fail once.  Lots of inconsistency with walls that you can climb and walls you can’t.  Also, I’m gonna take this girl out for a year, and never teach her to friggin’ swim?   All to manufacture some contrived environmental puzzles.

And then there’s the overall “Elysium Problem”, which is a new term I just coined.  In the movie Elysium, they did such a good job portraying human life on Earth as deplorable and cruel that I didn’t WANT these people up in my shiny clean space station — and when I come home feeling like I want to flip on Fox News, perhaps you’ve missed the mark.  Similarly in this game, you meet so few decent human beings throughout the game that after a while, you don’t WANT them to acquire redemption.  Ultimately, this includes the main characters, as you realize that you’re really no better than anyone else – bloodthirsty savages.  And hey, wouldn’t that ending have been much better with a Bioware-style choice?

Don’t get me wrong — it’s still a very good game.  Good story, good character, very natural inventory controls.  They even have a pretty good little crafting system in there.  I do think I prefer Uncharted, though.  I suspect it’s because I like solving Indiana Jones puzzles more than moving dumpsters.

Design Review: Don’t Starve

Don’t Starve is a fascinating little game available on Steam.  The best way to describe it is that it’s a crafting game with the soul of a Rogue-like.  Your character is dropped on an island (for no discernable reason) and given a simple mission: survive as long as you can.  This is harder than it looks – it took me several tries to get past the 3 day mark.

The island you’re dropped on is randomly generated, with nothing but raw materials you can use to craft tools, shelters, and other things to help you survive.  And much like a Rogue-like, your fate is often in the hands of the random number generator.  Start in a world without much flint, for example, and you’re in for a  very short game, since you won’t be able to create an axe you need to chop down trees which you need to craft a fire, which you need to keep away the evil… something or other.  When it’s dark, it’s real dark, so who knows who ends up munching on your little hiney.

The art style and music are both fun and whimsical, which is nice when juxtaposed with the subject matter of the game – survive or die.  This creates a humor that is wonderfully silly and black at the same time.  But the real joy in the game is exploring the world, and discovering what new encounters and items you find, and what new interactions you discover.  Traps are more effective if you bait them, for example.  Pine cones are lousy for starting fires, but nice fuel once its going.  And not every mushroom is edible without… side effects.

Each game is more different than you would expect, largely based on the world around you.  Gold is required to unlock new science advances, and in one game I spent two weeks helplessly scouring the world for gold.  The next game, I ended up joining the pig people in a war against the nearby spiders.  The game after that, I set up a sprawling rabbit farming enterprise, due largely to a fortuitously placed carrot field that was helpfully near a field sprawling with the little critters.  Your goal is survival.  How you get there depends on how well you adapt to the world around you.

I can’t say that I’ve gotten very far yet – so far, I’ve only managed to survive 12 days max – and there are things not to like.  The science machine, in particular, seems somewhat jarring and out of place, in a game otherwise pushing so hard to live on the lamb.  Night time successfully captures the feel of being tedious and long, largely by being tedious and long.  And while I may not yet be well-versed in the mechanics enough to declare some scenarios as unbeatable, its sure true that some of them seem that way.

Still, this game was a lot of fun, and merits more eyeballs, especially if you happen to like Raphian crafting games.

Gears of War Review

(Old Salvaged post from 2007, reposted by request – attempting to set the date)
Well, I finished it on Casual because, as readers of the site may have surmised, I am not actually hardcore. I am fine with this. I’m splitting time with lots of games right now anyway.

I’m still not good at shooters on a console. I’m better than I was. I can actually target something with a sniper rifle pretty quickly, but I can’t seem to compensate for weapons going off-target as I hold down the trigger.

David’s suggestion to change the art to ‘not suck’ in the options screen was right on, and helped a great deal. It came a little late, though it made the final boss mob fight a much more pleasant experience.

Remember how Unreal and Quake used to go to great lengths to show how beautiful they could make a gaming space? Both Rainbow Six and GoW seemed intent on showing me they could do squalid.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t fall asleep in any story bits, but I still left not knowing exactly what happened, or why we made a pit stop at my dad’s house.

It seemed like the overall backstory was pretty cool, too, but the only place I can seem to find information about it is GameFaqs. And whoever wrote that FAQ berated me for not being hardcore enough to know this stuff.

It’s cool when monsters say ‘Boom’. Especially right before they explode.

That freaky crossbow is the most difficult to use weapon since the goo gun in Unreal.

What happened to health bars and health packs in shooters?

It’s 10X easier to use Rainbow Sixes cover system, but it’s 10X cooler when Gears of War’s works right.

Hey, Epic, if you’re going to have huge levels that depend on you only walking in certain parts of the map, how about making the AI for your sidekicks smart enough to not walk there? Kthx.

While you’re at it, if you could make the AI smart enough to not run kamikazi charges into the final boss monster, that’d be great.

Overall, though, the AI in GoW runs circles around the AI in Rainbow Six. (Wouldn’t it be cool if we could put ‘em in the same game?) Still, there were numerous times I was begging for the ability to give my troops a direct order – a feature that GoW definitely skimped on.

I didn’t hate the voice acting, which is rare, and I actually liked 3 of the four main characters. Unfortunately, the fourth is Dom, the guy who has all the personality of a peanut shell, and who is with you on all the two man missions. Don’t look now, but Baird’s character actually showed evidence of character development!
Not enough sniper rifles lying around. I spent far too much time using the gun that looks really cool but isn’t. And no, I didn’t use the cool looking bayonette even once.

If you’re going to make me choose a weapon based on icons and not names, how about making sure the weapons have easily identifiable silhouettes? Why am I confusing a sniper rifle for the shotgun?

Why straight humanoid enemies? Why are they called locusts when they really appear to be just pruny people?

Their change of pace levels were pretty good. The berserker levels were tense as hell. The APV and mine cart episodes were frivolous fun.  I really enjoyed the reloading minigame, once I got used to it. This, of course, was on the final boss level. It’s easy with a sniper rifle, and undoable with the machine gun. That game took me something like 7 hours, and I suck. One wonders how fast someone with Halo chops would get through it, or how much longer
it would take me on Hardcore or Insane. My sample attempt at it was… not encouraging. In Hardcore reality, the fate of the human race is decidedly screwed if they’re depending on me.

Overall, a good pickup, despite my bitching. I’d definitely pick this one up if you get a chance.

The HoMMunity Speaks

On January 25th, merely a week ago, the HoMM community (which quaintly calls itself the ‘HoMMunity’) started a petition drive to delay Ubisoft (disclaimer: ultimately my employer) from launching Heroes of Might and Magic V in it’s current beta state. The gaming community was still smarting in the shorts from “HoMM IV: Ship It, 3DO Needs Cash NOW”. HoMM IV was considered a pale shadow of HoMM III (still considered by many to be one of the finest turn-based strategy games of all time).

The people who ran the notable HoMM community sites felt that the HoMM V beta (which is currently up on FilePlanet) did not bode well for HoMM V’s imminent release. So they not only collected signatures and started email campaigns of press releases to the gaming press, but they also employed an interesting tactic I don’t think I’ve seen used in a game community before: news suppression.

As of 2pm GMT today (Sunday 29th) administrators of the major Heroes of Might and Magic fan sites around the world have signed a News Suppression Pact in protest to a premature release of Heroes of Might and Magic 5.

The pact was signed by Age of Heroes (International), Archangel Castle (France), Behemoth’s Lair (Poland), Castle Gobs (International), Celestial Heavens (International), Drachenwald (Germany), The Genie’s Lamp (International), Guardian’s Grove (International), Heroic Corner (Russia), La Torre de Marfil (Spain) and The Oracle League (International). All other HoMM websites are also invited to join this pact.

As representatives of the online HoMM Community, we, the pact members, strongly believe that Heroes of Might and Magic 5 will not be of sufficient standard and quality if the release is rushed for March 2006. As admirers of HoMM series and supporters of the current Heroes 5 potential, we will not tolerate a blow delivered by the release of an incomplete and unbalanced game.

Apparently, the loss of the support of the Community sites was enough to make the developers rethink their plans, less than 24 hours later.

The producer of Heroes of Might and Magic V, Fabrice Cambounet, has announced today on the official forum that Ubisoft will delay the release of the game.

Ubisoft’s decision means that the development team will have more time to finalize the game, add features and remove bugs. The publisher will not repeat the errors made by 3DO a couple of years ago, but instead deliver a product that is on par with the other Ubisoft games that were released during the past few months. It also means that the voice of the community has been heard, thanks to over 2500 signatures and numerous mentions on gaming news sites. We wish to thank you for the tremendous support you have given us over the past few days. Your feedback about the controversial News Suppression Pact was also very important: it showed us that the community is mature, dedicated to its franchise and able to debate the choice of action that was chosen. We hope you understand that time was running out, that there was still a strong possibility to see Ubisoft confirm the March release date that is still showing on various Web sites, and that it was extremely important to make sure that the Might and Magic series didn’t get another unsuccessful game. Ubisoft also deserves our gratitude. They listened to our requests, understood the reasons behind our petition and committed themselves to creating a game worthy of the Heroes name.

The part that is of interest to me is not, actually, whether or not HoMM V was actually saved, and whether or not it will conquer the world. No, the interesting thing to me is the news suppression tactic. Marketing games nowadays depends so heavily on word of mouth and creating buzz. In network theory terms, reaching centrally-located customers with long reaches to other potential customers is important. What’s interesting here is that those customers all realized it, and used their power as leverage.