31 May, 2009

I Am Back From The LAN Party

written on Sunday, May 31, 2009

And it was very nice, but I'm a little burnt to write anything intelligible.

Games Played

Nations @ War (mod for Battlefield 2)
This was Friday night. Nations @ War proved to be the best co-op shooter again. I can't wait until they move it over to the Crysis engine so it will crash less. Even the Linux server code segfaults like mad.

Quake Wars
Quake Wars is always good for the two or three hours it takes to run through the stock maps. For some reason no one makes bot capable maps for the game, which is a bit of a shame.

Flatout 2
Flatout 2 doesn't take itself too seriously. And I take it even less seriously than it takes itself. Matthew added a bunch of modded cars to the game, and I tried the weirdest ones. The weirdest and most effective turned out to be an ice cream truck (probably modeled on the truck from the old Twisted Metal games).

Left 4 Dead
Once there were only three of us left, Left 4 Dead was played. We went through the entire campaign, which took less than four hours. But we had a good time.

Games Slept Through

Rise of Nations
We had too many people to play RoN without breaking into multiple groups, so I just took a nap instead. It was nice.

And now, bed.

30 May, 2009

I Am At The LAN Party

written on Friday, May 29, 2009

That is all.

Well, okay. I guess I could say something about the LAN party. It's been years since I attended the first one. They were a different affair back then. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit was a game high on the agenda, and everyone played. Moms and dads and kids and grandma.

Honestly, I think I partly ruined it. I wanted some basic competence out of whoever was on my team when we were playing Counter-Strike. When I got killed and my teammates standing right beside me had no idea who was shooting at me and from where, my patience went poof. It's irksome when no one has my back. So I got mad. The parents and grandparents left. And we stopped playing deathmatch or anything more competitive than racing games. I'm not egotistical enough to think it was entirely my fault, but I didn't help.

I miss the older folks. They were fun. But we also don't have games for them. The industry still mostly produces bang bang kill kill. They could join us for Nations at War, since that's co-op against bots, and as long as we leave the bot count the same, who cares if they're not being super effective? (Heck, I often spend my time in N@W just messing around with high explosives.) We could also include them in Flatout 2. I wouldn't want that many people for the stunt events, as Flatout 2 makes everyone wait while one player takes a turn. But the races and demolition derbies could be fun.

There doesn't seem to be anyone making family friendly multiplayer on any platform that isn't the Wii. Well, there's a couple shameful 360 games, but it still seems that almost no one but Nintendo is willing to put their A teams on family friendly stuff. Marketers seem to be confident that badass outsells wacky regardless of how much badass is already out there. I think wacky's underrated, personally, but I don't have a degree in marketing, so maybe they know better.

Truthfully, though, it's a challenging design environment. You need to make luck a big enough factor that weaker players stay engaged, while making skill important enough that better players feel rewarded. You don't want people to be eliminated from play, or they'll get bored and want to do something else. Ideally you want the game to scale from one to many players, and even allow drop-in drop-out play. Variety is very important because different people like different activities. And lighthearted fun is not what devs are used to. It's not an easy transition for everyone.

And ideally what we'd want for the LAN parties would be playable on PC by more players than the consoles (which are where the money is) support. Yeah. That's never happening. Our best bet might be organizing virtual events in Free Realms, or freaking writing a game ourselves. :P

29 May, 2009


written on Thursday, May 28, 2009

Killing Floor is violence against monsters, but it's still super gory. Limbs detach. Bodies are covered with burns. Monsters blow into tiny pieces. I've come to refer to the first wave of any game, which consists mostly of using a knife to separate heads from shoulders, as The Melon Harvest. And the sharpshooter class only levels up by turning various heads into showers of blood and skull bits.

The Wikipedia page on aestheticization of violence says the issue goes at least as far back as Plato and Aristotle arguing over the place of the arts in an ideal society. Plato thought they were dangerous and should be banned. Aristotle thought catharsis was valuable and necessary. I think they were both twits for even proposing an ideal society. The greatest philosopher, Douglas Adams, summed it up best. "People are a problem."

If you want to be like Plato and ban all possible sources of bad feelings, you're just going to drive the arts underground and make it even more dark and upsetting because the artists are being persecuted.

If you want to be like Aristotle and offer catharsis, there's always going to be someone in a messed up mental state who's going to fixate their illness on it and do something bad. And there's always going to be someone willing to blame the art instead of the person who committed the act because they don't like the art and want it banned.

Enough social commentary. For me, there was a twinge when I posted the Killing Floor Slo-Mo video. It was the thought that some people would find it horrifying and that they were right. And while there's a whole industry around horror as entertainment, a part of me feels that maybe we shouldn't enjoy this stuff so much. We can't excise this part of our makeup, but would it be better if we could?

It's a ridiculous impulse. Violence and transgression is part of our nature. It keeps us strong. Fear is a part of our nature. It keeps us safe. Wanting to see and experience things that trigger emotional responses is part of our nature. It keeps us engaged.

But the twinge keeps us moral, lets us curb our violence and fear to let us trust and be trusted. It's the foundation of our ability to cooperate and be social.

I guess the thing I needed to remind myself of was that there's nothing wrong with that discomfort. It's a system of checks and balances and the conflict between them is just the signal that they're working.

28 May, 2009

Review: Killing Floor

written on Thursday, May 28, 2009

I am so torn on Killing Floor. The action is satisfying, but the perk system is a nasty grind that takes some of the fun out of it. Single player is dull, but co-op (with a decent group) is pretty awesome.

Also my review scale leans heavily on replayability. But Killing Floor forces replays because there really isn't too much content there: six maps and eight zombie types (and that's counting the final boss). Left 4 Dead has more content in a single campaign, and people criticized it as being way too short. And honestly, the replayability isn't precisely the point.

The point is to consider the impression the game left me with. At a two, I'm glad it's gone and wish it had never been. At a three I'm glad I played it but feel pretty done with it. At a four, I may go back. At a five, I love it and wish it would never end.

This does hurt games with annoying bits at the end. Mario Galaxy springs to mind. But I think that's an important lesson to developers. If you don't leave them wanting more, and instead leave them wishing you'd knocked it off a few hours earlier, players aren't going to remember your game fondly.

By this standard, Killing Floor is in the three camp. I'll go back if PA guys on my friends list jump on. And I hope they will because they're a fun bunch. But if I could only play public games with complete strangers, I'd never touch the game again.

I guess it boils down to this, I had fun. 3 of 5. But if you don't have a good group to play with, I do not recommend this game.

Hmm. I avoid giving the game two scores by adding a huge caveat. And the final score that will show up on the spreadsheet looks like a positive review. I don't want to start adding asterisks to the score column, so let's just be clear that this is my blog and these scores reflect my experiences with games. They are not buying advice and haven't been since I established my scoring standards back on Sept. 2, 2007. That's good. I hate when I go back and discover I said the opposite of what I'm saying now (Aug. 30, 2007).

27 May, 2009

Keepalive: Killing Floor, Space Invaders Extreme, Plants Vs Zombies, Lego Batman

written on Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I think I'm mostly done with Killing Floor single player. I've got level three in every perk except Firebug and Commando. Those perks are a pain to level and the level four (never mind five) perk requirements are insane. I saw a guy who after one week had level five Firebug. There's no way he did that legitimately. I've already discussed how grinding entered the FPS space, most notably with CoD4. But since these games aren't MMOs, there's no one to care about cheating. They've already got all the money they're going to get out of you.

There is a lot of achievement cheating in the FPS space. I see maps like Perkbuilder in the map list for Killing Floor. I've never actually gone to watch achievement farming in progress because it sounds super dull. Monsters spawn in a pit and you shoot them. In a bizarre way, I kind of respect it. They're sacrificing short term fun for longer term gain. But then they go and act like it makes them better people somehow. No. You can kill monsters better because you cheated. That's not worthy of respect. Then again, I'm not really able to respect developers who get the grind to reward ratio as wrong as Killing Floor either.

Someone on the PA boards suggested that there should have been 10 or more levels of perks so that it wouldn't be ages between seeing one. I still think the requirements for maxing them should be lower, but that would have helped. Then again, it could have been worse.

Right now most of the people in my Steam friends list are idling (just leaving their computers on) in Team Fortress 2 because Valve added unlockables that just randomly happen, completely unrelated to gameplay. Just stand around, and you get useless accessories (hats and maybe watches) to slightly customize your character. I guess Valve was feeling some pressure from EA's Battlefield Heroes, which is a free to play, simplified version of Battlefield 1942 that makes its money by selling you hats and outfits to customize your character. Plus TF2 was on sale for $10 over the weekend.

I don't know. I just know I play games to have fun or, in the case Space Invaders Extreme, to get my ass handed to me. Seriously. I started over, easy path all the way. I'm still stymied. Maybe I need to be focusing on the UFOs and getting Fever Mode more often. Maybe I need a bigger screen so that I have some idea what killed me. Maybe I just need to suck less. I don't know.

I keep dinking with Plants Vs Zombies. Mostly I play survival mode to try and unlock all the possible plants for my Zen Garden. I've got most of the day and night types. So far the kelp is the only water type I seem to get, which is pointless. I should stop. But I probably won't for a while yet. I've grown my wisdom tree to 150 feet. And I've got enough money that I could grow it to 200, but that may be the worst grind of all, because there is no indication that that will ever pay off. I should probably just check out a FAQ, see that there are no more goals I care about, and move on.

We started Lego Batman co-op last week. It's boring and lame. We have more fun horsing around, making fun of how boring the puzzles are, and making up politically incorrect names for the special suits Batman and Robin have to wear to get past the puzzles. Terror Suit Batman (who drops bombs) and Maid Service Robin (who vacuums up Lego parts) will surely have exploits that are the stuff of legend. If I had a camcorder, I'd be sorely tempted to YouTube that crap.

I'm finally pricing external hard drives to back up all my stuff so I can reformat and free up some disk space. Eventually that should lead into me being able to start my Blood video walkthrough. A quick Google search turned up instructions to get Build Engine games running under XP. So that's promising.

Heheh. Shadow Warrior.

26 May, 2009

Keepalive: Space Invaders Extreme

written on Monday, May 25, 2009

Okay. I may have given the impression that Space Invaders Extreme was easy. It can be. But there are easy and hard paths. And the hard path is kicking my butt. And it's such a short cycle that the "just one more game" effect keeps me playing. I burned my spaghetti. :(

I'm also learning the techniques. Yes, it's Space Invaders with technique beyond, "lead the last guy". Power ups are essential to surviving and only drop when you shoot enough invaders of a particular color. It changes how I pick my targets. Powered up invaders also change target priorities.

Tiny indicators tell how an invader will behave. Some carry shields which take a few shots to destroy. Some explode and take out the invaders next to them. Some drop straight down when you shoot them, so you better be ready to follow up, or they'll kill you in short order. Sometimes it seems like there's too much to keep track of and I'll get killed by an errant reflected shot and want to just drop the game.

But after every stage I can adjust to make it harder or easier, so I'll hang with it for now.

25 May, 2009

Keepalive: Killing Floor, Space Invaders Extreme, Plants Vs Zombies

written on Monday, May 25, 2009

This post was 15 minutes late.

I've been dinking around with some of the Killing Floor servers that allow extra players. Take this picture, for instance.

There are eight players in it. That's only two more than normal. But there are forty on the server, so every street in the map looks like this. And if you look in the top right corner, you can see that there are 204 monsters that need killing in this level. They don't all spawn at once or the server would crash, but some servers have it set up so that there can be 64 monsters in there with forty or fifty players. It's not my preferred way to play, but it was interesting to see.

Space Invaders Extreme is an updated version of the 1978 game. It just came out on Xbox Live Arcade, but I picked up a used copy on DS. It's always weird to get someone else's save game, especially on a game like this where you can't actually erase it and start fresh. Luckily, the previous owner really didn't like the game and only cleared the first two stages. I, conversely, find it charming. It's definitely built as a portable game. Stages are very short. You get a fresh three lives every stage. Shooting the UFOs that wander by can open mini-games or a roulette bonus game. There are simple power ups. I'll probably be able to finish the thing and write it up tomorrow or the next day.

I'm not playing much Plants Vs Zombies. There are still a couple achievements I haven't gotten, so I may go back for them. But there's not really a point to playing the game. There could be. They can definitely still add new plant types, add different types of missions, etc. I'll look forward to the sequel. But I think I've farmed the original for about as much fun as I can.

24 May, 2009

Game Journal: Killing Floor

written on Saturday, May 23, 2009


I've definitely turned the corner on Killing Floor. Now that a bunch of us are getting our perks up to level three or higher, Hard difficulty is becoming feasible. Take this picture, for instance.

Those are the two surviving members of our four man squad standing over the last boss. On most Hard games we don't even get to see the last boss. I don't think our tactics have changed or improved that much. I think it's just that with higher level perks, we do more damage and can hold our ground against the horde. Also, I can solo the game pretty easily on Normal now, which I do to level up my perks because in co-op games I like to be lookout / backup and don't get many kills.

Speaking of which, here are the slow motion clips out of a solo playthrough I did tonight. It's much cooler when there's six guys laying into a wave full of monsters, but even solo it shows the game's gore, sounds, reload animations, etc.

MediaFire Upload

I just wish I had the HDD space to be recording all the time. Some of the stuff I saw today was utterly glorious. There's a map called Manor which has a fence monsters jump over to enter play. We had six players on hard difficulty and a freaking avalanche of Clots came over it. Me and two other guys whipped out our knives and destroyed an avalanche. How often does that happen?

What does happen fairly often is that by wave four or five, the group holes up somewhere and creates a kill zone. People have accumulated enough money to have good weapons and when the monsters are pouring in, covered in fire from the flame throwers, being torn to bits by the shotguns and grenades, and the slow motion kicks in and it's all just hanging in the air as you keep firing, it's amazing. I stuck with Killing Floor because I was bored. But now I'm sticking with it because it's providing me awesome on a regular basis.

I'm still not convinced that having it take weeks for players to build up their perks to the point where they have access to that awesome is anything but a mistake, but now that I'm enjoying it, I don't care. :P

The perk system does also raise one other issue. If we can beat Hard now, but it's just because our perks are high enough that it plays like Normal, it makes the difficulty system seem more like raiding tiers in World of WarCraft than standard FPS difficulty settings. It's not about how good you are. It's about how long you've played. And we're talking about substantial differences here.

A level zero Sharpshooter does +5% damage with certain weapons. A level five Sharpshooter does +50% damage, has -75% recoil, and reloads 50% faster. There's no comparison. The game rewards grinding over good play. Ideally if you play so much, you get good anyway, but there's no guarantee of that. Additionally, you get money for kills, so if the level five is killing everything, you may not even be able to afford a better weapon and armor the next round. That seems like it could be a problem for getting new players to stick around.

23 May, 2009

Review: The Red Star

written on Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Red Star (2007, Archangel Studios) is an interesting mix. Most of the game is a brawler. As a bralwer, it's fairly mediocre. There aren't too many moves and most of them aren't particularly satisfying. Well, the big slow guy can impale a guy then beat him against the ground. That's pretty good. And the small fast woman can do an air combo. Yay. But it's still painfully repetitive. It's also punishingly difficult. But that's not in the brawler part.

Every so often you have to fight a boss, and the game turns into a bullet hell shooter. Yeah. I know. Crazy. At first it's not bad. But later bosses will fill the screen with pain, and if you don't get a high rank on every stage (by not getting hit), you don't get enough upgrade points to take on the later stages, and there's nothing you can do but start the entire game over. There are no difficulty levels. There's no stage select. Start over.

No thank you.

2 of 5

The game is competently made and all. Part of me thinks it deserves a three for people who like bullet hell and don't mind having to start over from scratch. But those people aren't me, and this is my blog. :P I preferred Neo Contra. :O

22 May, 2009

Game Journal: Killing Floor, Plants Vs Zombies, The Red Star

written on Friday, May 22, 2009

This post was ten hours late.

Whoops. I almost missed today entirely. I've been wasting so much time on Killing Floor I don't know if I slept or played through when I should have written. You could call that a good thing, but it's really not. I don't play KF because I love it. I do it because it's better than what I should be doing.

The same could be said of Plants Vs Zombies at this point. I've finished the game twice, and farmed enough money to get my wisdom tree to 75ft. Once it's to 100, I will have thoroughly exhausted the game.

I've also gone back to The Red Star. We bailed on it when the co-op got too rough. I went back to play single player with the other character. It's so much nicer being able to maneuver. But the last boss is a huge pain and I plan to write a review without finishing the game.

21 May, 2009

Game Journal: Killing Floor

written on Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Call of Duty 4 is a landmark game. It beats Halo 3 as the most played game on the 360 some months. When you add in the other platforms it can be played on, it probably beats Halo 3 every month. One of the reasons it's so successful is the way it rewards players with "perks". Some players automatically drop a live grenade when they die. Some shoot bullets that easily penetrate walls. Some can pull out a pistol and keep shooting even after they've been killed. You play. You get points. You earn perks. Attaching this mechanic to a multiplayer FPS was divisive at first. Many people didn't want to have to be at a disadvantage both because they were new at the game and because they didn't have the same abilities as people who had invested more time. But ultimately the strategy seems to have worked. Killing Floor also has a perk system, but I'm wondering if it isn't more liability than asset.

There are six classes in the game. Only three of them can gain gain XP during the first round of any game because the other three classes have to get kills with certain weapons to level up. Why even have that first round?

Also, the differences between the classes aren't very big to start with and become more pronounced. Why even have classes when the only difference is 10% more melee damage vs. 10% more head shot damage? It takes dozens of hours to level up a perk. Most people will never do it. I guess I wouldn't care, but the more specialized roles sound like more fun.

And finally, the system makes people play badly. If you need welding points to level your Support Specialist class, please just play some single player. Don't weld every door in the game and trap the team in with a bunch of monsters. Likewise, when someone is back pedaling as fast as they can, don't get in their way to heal them just because you want some Field Medic XP. If you're a Commando, shoot the greatest threat, not the monster that gets you the most XP.

CoD4 perks sound like nice bells and whistles. Killing Floor perks make me feel like I have to grind for a hundred hours just to "unlock" my class. And we all know how I feel about grinding.

20 May, 2009

Game Journal: Killing Floor

written on Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I've put in some more hours with Killing Floor. Going through a learning curve with other people is usually an interesting experience. You learn the tricks and techniques, the exploits and strategies. Some you discover and share. Some you pick up from other players. I wouldn't call it social. No one talks about real life. But it's... interesting. The main thing I'm learning about Killing Floor is how people learn to tolerate failure.

On the Penny Arcade server I've been playing on, the game is set to Hard. I can't finish the game solo on Normal, and for every extra player the game throws a bunch more monsters at the group.

This is a solo run and you can see eight active monsters and one dead one. Imagine this times three or four and you get an idea of what you have to face down in multiplayer. It's frequently wall to wall monsters. As soon as you take a hit, your vision goes blurry, making it hard to even pick your targets.

Shortly thereafter, it's frequently death. I've never won a game on that server. And that's been the main learning.

You don't win Killing Floor on Hard; you lose as well as you can. Once I was backed into a corner. My team had fled and the horde was bearing down. I dropped a live grenade at my feet and started knifing guys. I was dead before it detonated. It was a good day to die.

But some people aren't comfortable with losing. I understand the other PA server is set to Normal difficulty now. I have mixed feelings. I like to win, but I've gotten used to fighting like mad for that last shred of hope. Anything less doesn't seem worth it somehow. The zombie apocalypse shouldn't be manageable.

19 May, 2009

Review: Plants Vs Zombies

written on Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Plants Vs Zombies (2009, PopCap Games) is basically a tower defense game. Zombies attack from the right. The player places plants to stop them. Personally, I like it better than Desktop Tower Defense or any other tower defense game I've played.

I'd say this is largely because it keeps me busy. In many tower defense games, I just place towers and upgrade occasionally. There's not much to do. But Plants Vs Zombies adds resource gathering. You have to plant sunflowers (or special mushrooms) which generate sun power. So while I'm under siege by zombies, placing new plants, and seeing where my defenses are starting to weaken, I'm also constantly collecting sun power to keep my reserves up. And I'm picking up money the zombies occasionally drop so that I can buy upgrades. For some people, this might be too clicky, but I enjoy the feeling of barely managed chaos.

Besides being stimulating, the game also allows for a fair amount of strategizing. Most tower defense games give you half a dozen towers and have you learn how to use them. Plants Vs Zombies gives you many times that amount (once you've unlocked everything). The trick is deciding which ones you'll need for a particular battle. Before the fight the camera pans across the street, showing what types of zombies are inbound. If you see a lot of zombies wearing bucket helmets, you may want to take some magnet mushrooms to remove them. If you see pole vaulters, you may want to invest in some tall defenses. Occasionally it's annoying to realize I chose wrong and have to start the level over. The game could definitely benefit from a fast forward button to get through the slow ramp up phase. But that's minor.

5 of 5

Yeah. I know. But I've already played halfway through the campaign again and am still enjoying it. My strategy is getting a bit stale, but I've enjoyed the game for almost thirty hours and it only cost ten bucks.

18 May, 2009

Curse My Cheap Ass Bones!

written on Monday, May 18, 2009

This post was 20 minutes late. Plants Vs Zombies. Again. It's $10 on Steam. Just go buy it already. :P

House of the Dead Overkill and MadWorld are on sale at Amazon. I'm sorely tempted, but I just can't bring myself to do it. You see, I want to see them do well on the Wii, but what I've heard about them leads me to believe I won't really get much out of them.

Overkill is a light gun game. That is not why I care. I care because it's adult content. (It's over the top adult as it's parodying exploitation films and their gratuitous violence, sex, and swearing.) If it tanks, publishers may decide that only family friendly games with "party" in the title are worth doing on the Wii.

I don't know. I was going to continue about how Overkill is too short and MadWorld is (I've heard) too repetitive. Then I'd give my history supporting other Wii titles, how I way overpaid for Zack & Wiki ($40) because it was the enthusiast press poster child for good use of motion control. I somewhat overpaid for No More Heroes ($30) because it was (rightly) purported to be a brawler with bizarre trappings. Blah, blah, blah.

What's the point? That ship sailed a long time ago. Some companies will keep trying for crossover hits that can appeal to traditional gamers and the Wii demographics at the same time, but those are so few and far between I should just put the thing in the closet. I can't even remember the last time I used it. Was it Boom Blox or No More Heroes? Either way that would make it around a year ago.

17 May, 2009

Keepalive: Plants Vs Zombies, Killing Floor

written on Sunday, May 17, 2009

This entry was an hour late.

Whoops. I was messing around with the garden in Plants Vs Zombies and lost track of time. That's probably a good sign, huh?

I've finished the puzzle mode and am starting the survival mode. That seems to be the best place to make money. By controlling the flow of zombies into kill zones and using upgraded sunflowers to generate lots of power in a little space, I can afford the space it takes to put down marigold plants which do nothing but generate money used to unlock stuff. They always seemed pretty useless during the normal campaign, but Survival Mode lets the player change the plants they use between waves, which allows for upgrading up the wazoo.

Speaking of upgrades, I've gotten most of my classes in Killing Floor up to level one. The game has a number of jobs you can do (Medic, Support, Sharpshooter, etc.) and as you perform them, you upgrade your abilities. It's mostly just stuff like X% more damage with the class' preferred weapon. But it adds up. Personally, I would stick to easy mode until unlocking the higher level abilities, as many of the enemies in normal mode can kill you in a few hits. Plus every time you get hit your vision goes all wonky, making it hard to hit anything.

The only real problem is that Killing Floor is super stingy with the upgrades. It takes forever to unlock them. And it's not fun enough to encourage that much play time. Much like Left 4 Dead, it's the same game over and over. But unlike Left 4 Dead, the pacing of the game is very uneven. To an extent, I like that. Left 4 Dead was paced a little too consistently and felt like the same fight over and over. But Killing Floor literally is the same fight over and over. There's even a configuration menu where you can tweak exactly what combination of baddies appear in each wave of the game. So once you've played the game a few times, you know exactly what's coming, which is a shame as the game has a lot more zombie types than Left 4 Dead and could keep things a lot more interesting by mixing things up. One wave could be a huge swarm of basic types, or just a few big bruisers. I'm not sure that would be enough to keep me playing long enough to max out my levels, but it would certainly help. Oh, and you can't max out medic in solo. You only level up by healing other players.

When you play on public servers with people you don't know and will probably never see again it's called pubbing. It a special case of the Jean-Paul Sartre quote, "Hell is other people." I don't recommend it.

16 May, 2009

Keepalive: Plants Vs Zombies, Killing Floor

written on Saturday, May 16, 2009

I decided to spring for a couple of games on Steam. Admittedly, at $10, Plants Vs Zombies wasn't to far to spring. And it's turned out to be a really solid game. You generate sun energy. You use that to buy plants with various offensive and defensive characteristics. The plants wipe out zombies. It's all pretty straightforward, but learning how to use the different plants to the fullest has been a fun challenge so far. I've finished the main game and am over halfway through the twenty mini-games offered. Then there's nineteen puzzles, and ten survival mode levels to try. Plus there something called the Zen Garden. So far it seems like a way to generate money to buy special cards. We'll see.

I also picked up Killing Floor. Call it a weakness, but when I start hearing lots of good things about a co-op FPS, I have to buy it. Those things can be very hard to find, and it's nice to be able to play in the early days when finding players is easy. I'm enjoying it so far. But a lot of groups seem to crumble when the hard to kill zombies show up, which is understandable as none of the weapons seem to have much real stopping power. We'll see.

15 May, 2009

Game Journal: Free Realms

written on Thursday, May 14, 2009

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm just about ready to shut up about it. But it's got kart racing. How could I not at least try it?

I never see any games with humans when I check the racing lobby, but racing the AI is still pretty fun. I haven't seen any indication as to how you earn levels racing or buy different karts or racing attire. There was probably some pointer when I started the game a few days ago that I forgot about. The game really could use the "find a quest" button from Perfect World. But then so could every MMO.

There are also demolition derbies. (That word looks funny plural.)

The major difference between Free Realms' demolition derby and the norm is that the karts can hop in the air. Sometimes this can help you dodge. And if you can time it just right, landing on top of another kart does big damage.

The kart physics are a little loose and floaty. Every turn is a powerslide, essentially. It took some getting used to, but it's trying to be cartoony, so loose and floaty is appropriate.

I also wasted some time with pet training.

To train an animal to do a trick, you watch the computer draw a pattern in red, then trace it in blue. If you're close enough, the pet does the trick. The pet gets XP which lets it do the trick better. And you earn XP which allows you to learn new tricks to teach. It's super boring. Giving my pet a stupid name was the most entertaining part. :P

14 May, 2009

Game Journal: Free Realms

written on Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I can safely say I've spent enough time (five hours or so) with the card game in Free Realms to have an opinion.

From the perspective of someone who doesn't seriously play CCGs (Collectible Card Games), it seems well put together.

Here we see a combat in progress. I'm not going to explain what everything means. After all, Free Realms is free and the tutorial in the game explains it better than I could. I will mention that I saw one game where each player had fifteen minutes total to make their moves or forfeit. That's a nice feature if you don't have time for a long game.

My main issue is the same as my issue with all CCGs. They're designed to be money sinks. Maybe I could spend the same amount I spent on Phantom Dust and be able to build a nice variety of decks. But I don't know that, and I'm not putting down cash to find out. I've seen too many of these games (just Magic: The Gathering, but that was one too many) and am very aware of how the temptation to get the hardcore players to pay through the nose for a specific card can ruin the fun. I don't like to grind in games, and I sure as #($& don't want to grind with real money to get rare cards.

That said, I've enjoyed using the starter deck against the AI in the game. It makes me work for my wins (at least I feel like I'm working for them). It's a nice change of pace from other activities in Free Realms.

13 May, 2009

Keepalive: Free Realms, The Red Star

written on Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I played a bit more of Free Realms. I met my first person who talks. I don't think English is his or her first language, but I play at off hours, so I often end up playing with Europeans.

Currently, I'm finding mining and the combat classes to take the most grinding to level. With mining, I play the puzzle game to get ore, just like I did with cooking. It's okay. It's the smelting that's destroying my soul. Smash, pour, stoke, pour. The same 22 second cycle repeats over and over. And it earns almost no XP. And what's worse, I can't actually use the bars because the crafting class is subscriber only. But my OCD can't look at all that ore I've mined and not smelt it. I don't know. I should stop. I probably won't.

I'm feeling the same about combat. I should just forget about it. I've got all of two abilities (outside of normal hitting). Most of the gameplay is just waiting for cooldowns while spamming the basic attack button. There's some situational usage. One ability is better against multiple attackers. But I'm playing a ninja, who generally doesn't hold up against multiple attackers, so at that point I'm just spamming everything and hoping I don't die. It's less interesting than being a mail carrier and takes ten times as long to level. Who would do that?

Also, it's worth mentioning that the game has unpredictable downtime. Often the friend server isn't working so you can't add friends. The code redemption system (for getting special items) wasn't working. I got very used to that being part of MMOs that charge $15 a month, so I barely notice it. But if you've never played an MMO, you'll probably be a little appalled that people pay money for games they can't always play.

Tuesday night co-op featured more of The Red Star. It's gone on longer than I was expecting and we're still having a pretty good time with it. Actually, I think MK: Shaolin Monks was more fun, just because the cut scenes were MST3K worthy. The Red Star didn't have the budget for that. Instead, it has a text briefing from your commander, then he "transfers some data" to you, which is really just the game's loading screen. We joke around that our commander is actually sending us whatever music he's been illegally downloading off of the internet and then amuse ourselves by naming improbable genres and artists for him to be really into this week. :)

The game itself is basically a brawler with guns. Neo-Contra meets Golden Axe. Maybe it's just that I'm playing the burly character, but I find the combat somewhat plodding most of the time. Sometimes we get attacked by enough baddies that it gets hectic enough to get my attention. And impaling guys on my lance and then beating them against the ground is always laughs. But traversing lightly populated areas is just dull. Especially when the bad guys dodge too much. Come on! Get on with it already!

The best part of the game is usually the bosses. They're often presented from an overhead view and I have to think fast to dodge their attacks. We've actually recently realized that since we can shoot through each other, we can use the healthier partner as a boss shield. And by trading off when we fire, we can overcome the game's gun overheating mechanic. Strategy! Yay!

I'm still finding the game pretty mediocre on the whole, but that's typical of brawlers, in my experience. The combat is usually pretty simplistic. The three quarters perspective can make it difficult to judge attacks. The small scale of the characters makes the action feel less important and less intense. Devil May Cry (and later God Hand, God of War, and Ninja Gaiden) brought production values and much more interesting fighting the genre. But they did this by making the brawler one player only. Having only one player lets you get away with more special effects, a closer camera, and a more involved combat system. But I think there's still room for significant improvement in the multi-player brawler.

12 May, 2009

Game Journal: Free Realms

written on Monday, May 11, 2009

I know, I said I was going to play the card game. But then I discovered the Post Office profession. An MMO where you can play as a mail carrier... You pick up mail that's been scattered about. You throw left and right into mail boxes as you run down the street. You drop dog biscuits to keep man's best friend off your butt, and you constantly look for short cuts and speed power ups to avoid taking too long and failing the mission. I'm not going to say the being a mail carrier in Free Realms is awesome, but I will say this.

Why does no other MMO do fetch quests this well?

Perhaps it's because Free Realms isn't trying to be a horrible time sink. The level cap in the game is level twenty. I think I maxed out the Post Office profession in under four hours. Every other MMO is trying to keep players on the hook with mostly just combat for months. Free Realms has a lot of simpler games. I wouldn't say they're less challenging or less fun than combat in traditional MMOs, either. Some mini-games have a goal, bonus goals, and elite goals. I haven't cleared the elite goals for any game ever, so there's definitely challenge. And even if I were to beat the elite goals, there are leaderboards where I could check my high scores against the rest of the world and despair all over again. The card, board, and racing games provide more direct competition. And getting in a party to fight monsters, could provide some co-op entertainment.

I don't know marketing, so I have no idea if Free Realms can succeed in the US with this broader approach. But given what's happened with the Wii and DS over the past few years, and the overall quality of the experience so far, I wouldn't dare dismiss it.

I'm considering getting a subscription ($5 a month) to try out the other professions once I max out the free ones. Knowing me, I'll burn out early next week and never get to that point, though. The combat classes take forever to level and are less fun than cooking or carrying mail, to me.

11 May, 2009

Keepalive: Defense Grid, Elite Beat Agents

written on Monday, May 11, 2009

I think I'm done with Defense Grid. The lack of feedback and lack of feeling like I know what I need to do next time has made the difficult later stages completely uninteresting. Slow play plus a significant trial and error component makes it not worth my time. I don't even have anything else I'm super eager to play and it's not worth my time. :P

Thanks to nine year old Campbell Salmon, I finished Elite Beat Agents. While we were killing time back stage for the play we're in, he played through most of EBA on the one star difficulty. When he got to the end, he handed it over to me to see how it ended. It was still hard enough that I failed out a couple times, but now I can say I saw the end.

So... finish Phantom Dust or try the card game in Free Realms? I have no attachment to the story in Phantom Dust, so it would almost feel better not to finish. I could save the final level and the bonus stages for a rainy day. Or maybe I should kill a deer for the documentary experience. Or maybe I should finally get an external hard drive to back up all my stuff and reformat my stupid PC already.


10 May, 2009

Game Journal: Defense Grid

written on Sunday, May 10, 2009

I picked up Defense Grid for $5 on a Steam sale (currently going on as I write this). You may remember my Demo Impression from earlier.

The game still looks good.

Still, I'm glad I got it cheap. It's not a bad game, by any means. But it never really satisfies.

A lot of the game is trial and error. If you upgrade wrong, the next wave will walk all over you. There's a checkpoint system that's supposed to make that easier, but the way the checkpoints are placed I never end up going back to the point in time I wanted to. There's a fast forward function in the game, but it's still annoying to have to do the same three moves every time to get back to where I wanted to. A simple quick save mechanic would have worked fine.

A lot of the game is wishing my towers weren't so dumb. Certain towers are strong against certain enemies, but enemies come in a pack and the towers always shoot at whoever's in the lead. It makes me feel like I'm not really in control of my success or failure. The game adds one feature, a player targeted orbital laser, that can be used every couple minutes to deal with especially pesky foes. But it almost feels like an admission by the designer that the towers don't do what you want. "Here's a tool you can use to mop up the enemies even the best laid tower arrangement will occasionally let through. Sorry about that."

There are more tower types in the full game, and I've enjoyed experimenting with them. Combining the tower that slows down enemies with the short range towers lets them be more effective. Uh, I guess that's the main new tower I enjoyed. :P

I'm more than halfway through the game, and I feel comfortable saying that there is no story worth elaborating on. 'Nuff said.

09 May, 2009

Review: Phantom Dust

written on Saturday, May 9, 2009

Full Disclosure: I'm at the final boss fight, but I think it's safe to call it here.

The going gets tough near the end of Phantom Dust. There was one fight where I had to take on two heavily armed opponents by myself, and I had to use a special power that only works on opponents on the ground, so I had to survive long enough to take one of them out of the equation, knock one down with enough energy left over to execute the ground attack, and survive to win the fight. There were other difficult fights in the home stretch, but that was the worst. Although it must be said, when I stunned the last guy with his own attack, waited for his Aura to regenerate just enough so that my Aura Backflow attack would knock him over but not kill him, and finished him off with the required ground attack, it was gratifying.

I've built three decks so far. The third one is really just for messing around with. By and large my two main decks haven't changed significantly in a long time. This is partly from information overload.

I've got 250+ powers to choose from. I'd definitely spend more time doing it, if it wasn't such a pain. Having to back out of a fight, run down to the card machine, and then dealing with the giant wall of powers is just too much. As it is I just keep buying new cards, pondering what kind of deck they'd do well in, then forgetting I ever bought them.

But it's a very well made game. I only wish it'd gotten a sequel so it could have been refined even further.

4 of 5

Oh. I almost forgot. The story is worthless tripe with cardboard cutout characters and no real point. In other words, it's a video game. :P

08 May, 2009

Game Journal: Phantom Dust

written on Friday, May 8, 2009

In the previous discussion of Phantom Dust's mechanics, I neglected to mention how the card metaphor actually works on an Xbox controller. There are four colored buttons on the Xbox controller (face buttons). When you stand over a card and press a button, it gets assigned to that button. At first this was a little disconcerting as it means the buttons never do the same thing. But eventually I got used to it and it was part of the challenge to keep my abilities and their location in mind at all times. And sometimes I'd be fighting near my card spawns and accidentally overwrite a power I was trying to use. That was just me being dumb and I learned to stay clear of the cards when combat was afoot.

I also had some problems with falling and debris damage. I might have just taken one hit, but thanks to all the follow on damage I could lose half my health. But the enemies are just as vulnerable (even more so as they tend to dodge off the sides of catwalks and buildings). In fact I won a fight that came down to tricking an AI into lunging off a cliff, so I really shouldn't complain.

I discovered that I can fight old battles over for more money and cards. Thanks to that discovery, I was able to earn enough to buy a new deck that allows me to combine three different types of cards. But I also didn't make much progress on the game because I was beating the same levels repeatedly.

It's definitely a testament to the game that even with a simple one on one battle, using the same cards, things can play out differently every time. It's somewhat frustrating when you get a bad shuffle and get little or no Aura in your initial seven cards (four in your hand and three on the map). But you can always just start the match over if it feels like a waste of time.

I also enjoyed getting to know my opponent. The game gives you basic stats on your opponent as you play. Health, current Aura, max Aura, and the color types of all held abilities are all visible. If an opponent's holding nothing but defense or nothing but offense, you can adjust your strategy accordingly. And in fighting one opponent a half dozen times, I began to have a pretty good feel for what was in his deck, and knew exactly what it meant when he drew his funny colored status changing card. It meant it was time to watch what color his next attack was. If it was purple, reflect it or absorb it to use it against him. If it was some other color, use cover and wait it out.

The fight duration also makes the game a lot more palatable. Once in a while you'll have evenly matched sides with strong defenses, but usually a fight ends pretty quickly. I'd guess less than ten minutes. So even if you do get screwed, you haven't lost much.

It's unfortunate that the game only supports competitive multiplayer. I would have loved to have made this a co-op Tuesday selection.

Sorry for the choppy nature of this post. Between the play performance and playing the game, I didn't have time to do much editing / reorganizing.

07 May, 2009

Game Journal: Phantom Dust

written on Thursday, May 7, 2009

This post was thirty minutes late. The fact that I had to pry myself away from the game to write it is probably a good sign.

Phantom Dust was recommended on some forum (Penny Arcade or Quarter to Three or both) as one of the best games for the first Xbox that too few people played. So I found a copy on half.com and started playing it. When it was first mentioned, it was described as a card battling game. I generally hate those, but I was desperately bored, and didn't want to go back to Free Realms to try their card battling game. (Tycho, from Penny Arcade, was extolling the virtues of the Free Realms card game on the latest Gamers With Jobs podcast. But he has an appreciation for the arcane and tolerance for the grind that I do not.) Luckily, Phantom Dust is part card game and part action game, so it's much more up my alley.

Your character is given special powers by the world blanketing, amnesia causing phantom dust. Powers come in pellets (ever since Pac-Man, I suppose). The most common pellets raise your level, allowing you to generate Aura. Aura is the energy needed to use powers, which fall into many schools, but basically resolve into Attack, Defense, and Other. You build a "deck" of pellets (The game seems to mix metaphors.) based on powers you win at the end of fights and buy in the store. When you actually battle, only three pellets appear on the field at any one time, randomly chosen.

This gives the game the same basic strategy as Magic: The Gathering or any number of other card games. If you don't have enough level up pellets in your deck, you may not be able to use all your cool abilities. And if you stack up on single use cards, you may run out, which means you start losing health until you die. And if you want to try and be clever, you can use some of the rarer cards to pull off fancy tricks. One card does damage based on how much more health your opponent has than you, doubled. So I let the opponent beat me down to half health and one shotted him. It was gratifying.

But it isn't all about the cards. If you maneuver well and use cover, you can avoid most attacks. If you're very confident in your dodging abilities, you can reduce the amount of defensive cards you carry. But maybe you like playing defensively. Pile on the cards that reflect attacks and the cards that erase attacks from the enemy's inventory and watch them run their deck out and die (if they don't shoot themselves to death first). It strikes me as kind of boring but aside from bosses (who don't use decks), it's a viable strategy.

The game also changes things things up in the later stages. In one level the cost of all powers is halved so you can bring out the big guns. In another, every power is one use only, so you have to make careful choices. And of course there are the boss fights.

My only real complaint so far is that many of aspects of the game outside of the actual fights are awkward and slow. It takes hours to get to the point where you have enough cards that you can start building interesting decks. Too many of those hours (and all the hours in the game) are spent running around the hub world trying to figure out which random person has your next quest. And the actual mechanics of building a deck are tedious. I suppose that's a balance issue, because if it were quick and easy you'd just throw together the exact deck to breeze through every fight. But it makes a core game activity tedious and discourages experimentation, which is where a good portion of the fun of the game lies.

I know this reads like a review. And I feel like I know the game enough to call it one. But really that's what all game journals are. They're really long and in depth reviews, the kind most folks in the enthusiast press could never write because not nearly enough people have the interest or patience to read them. But this feels like a good format for Phantom Dust. The game mechanics are fairly complicated and take some time to explain.

Irrelevance has its privileges. :)

06 May, 2009

Keepalive: Phantom Dust, theHunter

written on Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I didn't play any Phantom Dust today. I burned through three chapters yesterday and wanted a break. In some cosmetic ways, it reminds me of Crimson Sea 2. They both feature a hub area I visit between missions which is full of characters I don't know and who don't seem to develop. They both focus on a few people with sci-fi magic powers. I wonder if they are based on Japanese comics and / or cartoons I've never seen, or if it was easier to get them made when the possibility that they could spawn comics and / or cartoons was built in. There's a lot that's different about them, but I just got a weird sense of déjà vu every time I ran around the hub world, buying and organizing new abilities.

And now, pretty pictures.

Oh yeah.

And I've discovered the main key to getting close to deer. Crawl everywhere. It seems ridiculous. In real life, crawling through tall grass is super noisy, and deer don't hang out around rustling grass. But in theHunter, it got me this close.

That's as close as it got before it saw me and bolted. I don't think I've ever gotten that close to a wild deer in real life, and I've spent a lot of days taking long walks in areas they frequent.

Here's another shot from the same session.

Yep. Crawling gets you close. I only got close to female deer in this session, so I still haven't shot anything. And I'm still not sure how I feel about the idea that the goal of the game is to kill animals. Full Disclosure: I've been a vegetarian since I saw that cow lowered into the raptor cage back in 1993.

In most games, you kill people and monsters because they're trying to kill you. It's as simple as that. A few games add non-combatants that can be harmed. theHunter's giving me defenseless innocents to kill. That's the point of the game. I'm not down with that.

I'm curious to explore that discomfort in the safety of a virtual environment. But I suspect that virtual or not, there's no going back from pulling that trigger. I don't think there's really any gore in the game. But I believe you can track via blood trail. I remember one player writing that he injured a deer and when it finally bled enough or just got tired enough, it couldn't do anything but sit there, watching him walk up and shoot it in the face.

I am so not down with that.

05 May, 2009

Demo Impressions: Zeno Clash

written on Tuesday, May 5, 2009

I was actually going to ignore Zeno Clash entirely and start talking about playing Phantom Dust on the original Xbox, but I've thrown you enough curveballs lately.

Zeno Clash is a first person fighting game. Historically, those suck. Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is the only FPF (first person fighter) I've played that even felt functional. Or it was. Zeno Clash is also functional. I'm still not going to call it good. Sometimes punches seem to connect or miss randomly, but it mostly works.

But I think the reason people on the internet have talked so much about the game is that, in addition to being in an genre that almost doesn't exist, the setting and art are also well outside the norm.

Where is this place? Is it a giant sand castle? The character designs are also pretty out there.

Well, okay. She looks pretty normal, or at least human. But this guy definitely does not. It's a testament to the developers' skill with Half-Life 2's Source engine that they've managed to used the facial animation system so well on faces that are definitely not human.

And what's more gratifying than seeing this look on the face of someone who was all sneers and death threats less than a minute earlier?

Not. Much.

Still, the voice acting is terrible, which sort of kills the atmosphere. And I've heard the game takes something around five hours to complete, so even at $20 I'm balking. I'll probably pick it up on sale.

04 May, 2009

Review: Elite Beat Agents

written on Monday, May 4, 2009

Elite Beat Agents is a quirky rhythm game for the DS. You tap on dots and trace paths on the touch screen in time with the music. There is also a story going on which usually has to do with someone in trouble. If you do the tapping and tracing well, their fortunes turn around. If not, their lives fall apart and you have to start over.

In the beginning, I found the game charming. Near the end, it started to suck. On the last few songs, I could do the first two sections perfectly but would consistently fail out on the third section as the game threw a wall of dots at me. It felt like the designer was wasting my time, making me replay sections I had obviously mastered. Overall I'd still say it's a fun game and worth playing, but I'd recommend sticking to the easy difficulty.

3 of 5

Full disclosure: I did not finish the final song. It is a pain, and I felt I should stop playing before it made me hate the game.

03 May, 2009

Demo Impressions: Free Realms

written on Sunday, May 3, 2009

I keep not doing what I plan to be doing lately. Instead of trying out Zeno Clash, I tried out Free Realms, a Sony free MMO, mostly for kids.

There are many jobs in the game, each with different outfits. Here's the mining (prospector) garb.

When you click on some ore, you play the mining mini-game. There are a pile of different professions in the game. From cooking, to mining, to go-kart racing, there's a lot to do.

Once you've got the ore and take it back to the smelter (or stove for cooking) you play a more involved, multi-step mini-game to create the finished goods. There's not much depth to these games, but they work. I kept feeling like I should be holding a Wiimote, instead of a mouse, to play them. :)

There is combat in the game, but I've generally found it less interesting than the other games.

It also took about five hours of play before I was running into subscriber only quests left and right. I suppose I could have tried doing the lower level stuff in more careers, but some entire careers (e.g. archery) are subscriber only. The mini-games actually take some effort to play well, and give the player more to do than the combat in many MMOs. If the "subscribers only" reminders didn't make me feel so unwelcome, I could probably have wasted a week or so in Free Realms.

02 May, 2009

Keepalive: theHunter, Cryostasis Demo

written on Saturday, May 2, 2009

I spent some more time with theHunter. As podcast listening games go, it's very nice. Apparently your abilities level up. I am now level two at tracking mule deer, which seems to mean mule deer leave many more tracks than they used to. I still only saw one deer and it was female. But there were lots more deer sign to catalog. I wonder if I will ever fire my gun.

I also played a demo for Cryostasis. It's a first person shooter set on a frozen ship. Your warmth is your health, so you regenerate your health by turning on lights and heaters and ovens and warming yourself by them. And you often come across bodies where you jump back in time to play a pivotal moment in their past. If you play it right, they don't die and the body disappears, allowing forward progress.

Novel ideas aside, the combat is pretty terrible. Many of the crewmen have come back as zombies. But it's always the same three zombies, so it breaks the sense of place. I kept wishing it was more like Penumbra, which mostly skipped combat altogether.

In the interest of completeness (and never having to talk about the game again), the graphics were pretty and the frame rate sucked.

I downloaded a demo for Zeno Clash, a first person brawler set in a completely bizarre fantasy world. We'll see if it can top Dark Messiah of Might and Magic.

01 May, 2009

Review: GTA: Chinatown Wars

written on Thursday, April 30, 2009

GTA: Chinatown Wars is a well made game. The driving works. The fighting works. The camera controls basically work. :P The drug trading is addictive (durr hurr). The story is terrible but occasionally funny. The touch screen activities (dumpster diving, lotto ticket scratching, planting / disarming bombs, etc.) add to the experience. The missions are generally kept short. They have checkpoints. And the feature to automatically warp back to the start of a failed mission is very handy. Being able to shake the cops by forcing them into walls and trees gives me something more interesting to do than just run away.

I pile all those things up together, and they look great. But the game's getting a three. I know it's getting a three. Why doesn't the experience coalesce for me? (I don't know why I'm using (misusing?) big words and fancy grammar lately. Let me know if it's annoying.)

For one thing, most of the game is driving from place to place. Driving is route planning and execution.

Route planning is tedious. The GPS always plans a terrible route, so I always have to do it myself which means scrolling around the mini map, looking for the closest main roads, and memorizing the route.

The execution is also not fun. I get the car onto the center line and hold on the gas, occasionally side swiping other cars, but mostly just taking a straight line down a main street, turning onto another main street, and riding down the new center line for a while. I could have taken more taxis to skip the driving. You can even whistle into the DS microphone to hail one. But then I wouldn't find new drug dealers, happen across drug vans to hijack, or know the city well enough to evade the cops later on.

GTA: Chinatown Wars has a lot of well implemented bells and whistles. It's probably an important game that will show a lot of other developers how to better use the DS. But the core activities, driving and fighting, are still clunky enough that my overall experience was less than the sum of the parts.

3 of 5