31 July, 2011

Summer Doldrums

written by Blain Newport on Sunday, 31 July, 2011

Ah summer. Between the media blitz of E3 and the lead up to the holiday season (which usually starts in late August), there aren't too many large releases. This can be good for the indie games, since they get more attention.

The main game I'm seeing get attention is Bastion, a downloadable game for Xbox. Even if I had an Xbox, I'd rather not buy any downloadable games on it. If a game's good enough, the PC community will donate time and effort to keep it alive for many years. Console makers can't justify that kind of time and effort to shareholders.

So where does that leave an old PC Gamer?

Saints Row 2

Saints Row The Third has been putting out a lot of great promotional videos. I've tried to avoid most of them as I like to be surprised, but from the reactions I'm seeing on the PA forums, it's going to be a symphony of ridiculous chaos. And unlike Just Cause 2, it will have robust co-op support.

To make the wait more bearable, I decided to load up the latest Gentlemen of the Row mod and complete the game, again. But since I was using the bizarre appearance portion of the mod, I went with a slightly unusual protagonist.

It's not a very good Hellboy, but between the limited options of the character creator and the fact that I was doing it from memory, I am satisfied. And truth be told, the main character in Saints Row 2 is significantly more vicious than Hellboy and doesn't sound like Ron Perlman, so a perfect likeness might have been too weird.

As it was, I enjoyed running around as big red, pretending the revolver I favored shot "really big bullets".

Plus he just looks cool.

EYE: Divine Cybermancy

Hungering for something new, I spent too much money and bought EYE.

As you can see from this picture of a knight in a subway, it's kind of a mishmash. There's stuff about aliens and artifacts and conspiracies. You use guns and psychic powers and high tech abilities that let you take over enemies. It's interesting for how much weirdness is in it, but it's also uneven in quality. The interface and menus and upgrades are pretty confusing sometimes. But with not much else coming out, I can spare a little time to figure things out.

24 July, 2011

Free To Stay Away

written by Blain Newport on Sunday, 24 July, 2011

I've been trying the free to play games again, and it's not working for me. I even got tired of League of Legends early in the week. It's not a bad game, but there's just something about making these cute little avatars do violence to each other that feels too removed to be satisfying and too aggressive to fit with the art style. I think a direct control scheme (as opposed to click to move) might help the former.

Alliance of Valiant Arms

I actually tried War Inc. first, because Steam said it had co-op. But Steam lied, so I deleted it immediately. It's nice to have internet fast enough that you don't feel obligated to play something just because you invested a lot of time in the download. But back to the subject...

This is the co-op mode of AVA. If you look in the top left corner you can see that this is not part of a map, you are looking at virtually the entire map. Three sets of doors spawn waves of bad guys who run at you with knives. You die in two or three hits and subsequent waves are better armed. Co-op DooM is more refined.

I tried some of the versus multiplayer. The map wasn't much bigger. It was like the worst maps in Counter Strike being played over and over in order to earn enough game points to buy marginally better weapons and weapon enhancements that degrade over time. If Dante's Inferno is to be believed, there is at least one layer of hell itself which is more pleasant than this game.

Global Agenda

Global Agenda is basically a free to play MMO about fighting robots. As action MMOs go, it's not terrible. It's less crazy than Champions Online, which is probably good for some people. For me, the most entertaining thing about the game was the fact that it let me create a character resembling Futurama's geriatric robot magnate Mom, then watch her be an action hero who shoots robots.

But at about level fifteen the game seemed to run out of solo content. And while I did appreciate the variety of the randomly generated instances, the fighting didn't have enough oomph to keep me satisfied.

Zeboyd Games
A couple guys from the Penny Arcade forums made some games which finally got released on Steam. They aren't free to play, but at $3, they're close enough.

Yep. They're SNES era JRPGs. They've added many delightful improvements (a run button to cover terrain faster, silly enemies and stories, and a finite number of random fights before you're free to explore at your leisure), but when I'm winding my way through yet another maze, knowing that I have to explore the entire thing or miss out on loot I'll want to have for the boss fight, I can't help but feel it's still not streamlined enough. Plus you make permanent choices between abilities when you level up. I often found myself wishing I could change those choices retroactively to correct mistakes or just experiment more with the combat system. At $3, they were a treat. But after playing through both, I'd probably pass on spending even the time it would take to play another.

Iron Grip: Warlord

The following picture probably makes Iron Grip look about three times as fun as it actually is, and at $10, it's probably a bit overpriced. But I enjoyed the demo enough to play it for four hours, so they earned their money through an older form of free to play.

Iron Grip is a co-op FPS tower defense game. You can see why I was particularly intrigued. The main problem with the game is lousy difficulty balance. Easy starts way too easy. But Medium is nigh impossible without human backup or exploiting the map and enemy AI pretty thoroughly. Also, the turrets are so weak that the tower defense aspect isn't worth much. That said, I did enjoy parts of my Easy playthrough of the game.

At it's best, Iron Grip let me play a super soldier. In the picture above, I have been set on fire by a flame thrower and am still strong enough to hold back an enemy platoon by myself. Did I mention I was on fire? But with great power, comes great responsibility. Should I be thinning the herd, focusing on enemy armor, or seeking out the enemy leader to damage morale (the primary way to win)? Feeling like you are the one soldier capable of turning the tide of a war is very empowering. It's the Dynasty Warriors of FPS.

Killing Floor

While it's payment model isn't in keeping with the week's theme, at less than thirty dollars for a hundred and fifty hours of fun, Killing Floor is probably still the best value on this list. I still enjoy feeling out the strengths and weaknesses of a new group, tying to decide what role to fill, and telling the occasional bad joke. Why I enjoy this in Killing Floor and not in any other FPS or MMO may forever be a mystery.

17 July, 2011

Horror, Hollywood, and Faery Tales

written by Blain Newport on Saturday, 16 July, 2011

Dead Space 2

While there were a couple slow sections in the middle, overall I'd say Dead Space 2 is a high four, if I were still putting scores on things, that is.

The combat is still not my favorite. It's good to back yourself into a corner so you don't get surrounded, but the third person camera goes squirrely when you do. And there are occasionally sections where you're probably boned until you've been through it once or twice to know when and where bad guys spawn. But once you know, the fights often becomes trivial.

My favorite thing about the combat was that EA's unlocking system doesn't work right and I got a bunch of nice guns from the very start of the game and for free, letting me experiment more than I otherwise would. I do plan to play through the game again at some point, but that's because it's a good ride with some variety, a decent story, and good production values, not because of some manufactured compulsion to own / max out all the guns.

Top Tier Blues

I feel bad for the top tier developers, in a way. Mark Twain supposedly said golf is a good walk spoiled by a little white ball. I suspect as the writing and production values of games approach Hollywood quality, we'll hear more people saying games are good movies spoiled by difficult, confusing, and tedious interaction. It's taken incredible leaps in technology, billions of dollars, and lifetimes of work to get games to a point where people can say "That looks cool except for the game part." That's probably frustrating.

Faery: Legends

It's a simple turn based RPG with some nice window dressing.

You can design your own male or female faery and as you upgrade them, you change their appearance even more. For me this made for some strange decisions. I chose my main attack element based on which wings looked best. But I stuck my faery with some pretty ugly antennae because I wanted a specific ability.

Anyone who's played Mass Effect will find this conversation interface strangely familiar. I don't think choosing "renegade" has a big effect on the game, but some allies will let you choose a special ability for them if they like you enough. There's even a potential to make a certain amount of romantic choice in the game, although it also doesn't amount to anything gameplay-wise.

The game itself is pretty much fetch and fight, but you can choose which you want to do sometimes. I felt it more realistic for an eight inch tall creature to lean toward diplomacy rather than violence. :)

While it's probably too simple for RPG fans and too complicated for most kids young enough to want to play with faeries, it's got nice music and visuals, decent writing, and a nice flight model / camera that makes the getting around feel pretty good (tight areas excepted).

Tower Defense Failures

While I did write down a list of the annoyances I found in many tower defense games, it all boiled down to giving the player enough info to make good choices and making the feedback clear enough that mistakes are obvious. If either is lacking, success and failure feel random and meaningless.

11 July, 2011

Back And Busy

written by Blain Newport on Monday, 11 July, 2011

I'm back and the Steam Summer Sale is done.

During my no-internet time, I found out you can only earn perk advancement in Killing Floor while online. :P And I dug some more holes in Terreria, but nothing interesting came of it.

I also spent some time with Devil May Cry so I won't be totally rusty when I start the next video talkthrough. That game was so difficult in 2001 that many people quit at the first boss. I don't blame them. The boss is tough, and the terrain and camera angle don't always help, which can make the fight unfair.

Since I've been online I've been fairly busy, even to the extent of being a day late writing this post.


It's a tower defense game, but you run around between and on top of the towers shooting bad guys. It also has co-op so you and a buddy can shoot bad guys simultaneously. When you're facing down a wave of baddies, flipping between weapons to pour on the damage and keep them slowed, it's great. But the second you falter, which is pretty easy on one or two maps with tricky terrain, all the damage you were doing stops and it's game over.

This isn't so bad in single player where you just restore to a previous wave, but that option isn't available in co-op, where you're likely to have people of different skill levels and need more room for misunderstandings and mistakes. Ah well.

Random Tower Defense Games

Part of the reason I picked Sanctum up (besides it only costing $4 during the sale) was that I've taken more of an interest in tower defense games in general. This is largely because my father enjoys them. There's practically a cottage industry just churning these things out at this point. In fact, I'm starting to see where people have reused the same engine and just changed the appearance of the enemies. That isn't necessarily a bad thing if enough is changed to make the experience different, but some sites crank out a new game every day, which puts them past the point of bothering about design. I'm thinking I'll write up a list of the most common design issues I'm seeing next week.

Dead Space 2

I wasn't a huge fan of the first game. I felt like I'd seen most of what it had to offer by the end of the intro, and I felt the same way when it was over. But the sequel puts a lot more effort into keeping the story alive and ditches the tedious puzzles. It's still got puzzles, but they're usually much easier and quicker. I may have more thoughts when I'm done with it, but my current feeling is that Dead Space 2 is an okay game elevated by many millions of dollars of window dressing into a good, scary experience.

The Games of Christine Love

Christine Love got some attention from the more academic folk a while back, and I had downloaded her games, but never installed them.

The first one I played was "don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story". It's a game about being a high school teacher dealing with student drama in the year 2027. The hook is that the school lets you tap into the kids' social networking, giving you "behind the scenes" info for the choices you have to make. It's an interesting game which definitely expresses some outside the norm views on social issues, so I can see why the academics were into it. Personally, I just enjoyed the jokes and the general vibe of helping people being the most important thing.

The second game I played was Digital: A Love Story. It's set back in the BBS era and is about falling in love and solving puzzles. As someone old enough to have spent time on BBSes and FidoNet, I was surprised to find myself pretty bored with the game.

The posters weren't fun to read like the kids in "babe", so eventually I was just mining for the next clue to solve the next puzzle. There was eventually a bigger story, but I'd already learned not to bother with the fiction, so I noted the puzzle elements and just moved on. The writing of the romance parts wasn't bad, but as in Half-Life 2, I have no acting choices as the main character, no way to express myself. So the love story is just a story, not an experience.