26 February, 2012

Slow Week

written by Blain Newport on Saturday, 25 February, 2012

Star Trek Online ground combat sucks past level ten. Apparently you have to have a particular party configuration or it just becomes unplayable. Every Klingon ground party I encounter has a freaking Dahar Master in it. Dahar Masters are legendary Klingon warriors. The Star Trek wiki lists three names.

I could continue venting, but it's pointless. I might go back to the ship combat, but I might just delete it.

It is also worth noting that at some level, the premise behind STO is that the quadrant has gone to heck in a handbasket. Everybody is fighting all the time. I understand why they did it, but Star Trek had higher hopes for our future than endless war.

Other than that, I played a little more Wolfenstein and did some pre-production work for my next set of videos, which I hope to start Monday. It wasn't a gamey week.

19 February, 2012

Pleasant Surprises

written by Blain Newport on Sunday, 19 February, 2012

Call of Duty games rarely go on sale. But Amazon is trying to gain traction with their digital download service, so they're selling Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (which registers on Steam) for $5.

WARNING: There is a major spoiler in the picture below.

FURTHER WARNING: If you care about the plot of this game, you're a silly goose.

I figured a game version of a Michael Bay movie would be fine for five dollars. And it was. It was especially fine when I turned off Depth of Field and could see the enemies again. I swear the only two words out of my mouth during the first two hours of playing the game were "FROM WHERE!?" with the "did I just get shot" implied. Turning off Depth of Field also drastically increased the frame rate, which made lining up shots much easier.

As for the game itself, it's good. People talk about the endless streams of bad guys and how heavily scripted the CoD games are, but I just played through FEAR and Half-Life, and I respect Infinity Ward for not making their enemies bullet sponges just to show off their fancy AI. If you shoot them fast, good! You'll be fighting enough of them that you'll still see the fancy AI sooner or later. My favorite behavior was seeing enemy soldiers taking two steps out of cover, getting shot at, and falling back instead of making a suicidal run for the next piece of cover.

Also on special for $5 (though this time from Steam) was Raven's 2009 version of Wolfenstein. I've already talked about enjoying Singularity (Raven, 2010), and Wolfenstein is unsurprisingly similar. But the hub areas of Wolfenstein make it feel like the more mature game. Though the geometry is constant, the different encounters you have make it feel like a changing place, as Nazi dominion and resistance determination increase.

The soldiers in Modern Warfare 2 are more interesting to fight. But Wolfenstein adds classic pulp elements (the occult and Nazi super science) to spice things up.

The one thing I would change about Wolfenstein is to add a New Game+ mode where you can go through the game again with all the upgrades you got in your first playthrough. There were a lot of weapons and upgrades I barely used and probably would have enjoyed, especially if I had enough extra money that I could blow it on the more exotic types of ammo without feeling irresponsible. Also, the whole mechanic of encouraging the player to scour the levels for Nazi gold hurts the pacing of the game and the feeling of being a freewheeling pulp action hero. New Game+ could have fixed that. Oh well.

UPDATE (2012 Feb. 25): I saw a pop-up after the credits that said you could start a new game with cheats enabled, but when I started a new game, there were no cheats. I finally noticed that when you select the difficulty for said new game, there's a small cheat option in the bottom right corner that defaults to disabled. So while it may be poorly implemented, the option to give yourself all the weapons, powers, upgrades, and money does exist. Also, you can turn people's heads into giant, featureless pumpkins for some reason, perhaps a reference to the ancient joke about id calling their follow up to DooM "Smashing Pumpkins Into Small Piles Of Putrid Debris".

I tried Star Trek Online and have had some good fun with it. I am Lieutenant Fiza, captain of the U.S.S. Moogie. (Regardless of rank, the person in charge of a ship is called captain by the crew.)

Being a female Ferengi Starfleet ship captain tickles my crazy bone. It's too bad I can't visit Ferenginar in the game. :(

Sillyness aside, I'm actually enjoying both the ship combat and away missions so far. The ship combat is the stronger of the two. Maneuvering to keep your weapons on the enemy while keeping up the fire and adjusting shield strength is enough to keep me occupied. And when I fired a last phaser blast to knock down an enemy's shield just before launching the decisive photon, I felt like I was having a classic Trek combat moment.

The away missions are more fighty than any Star Trek outside of the Dominion War, but so far I've enjoyed that. I've been using the squad controls to set up crossfires (since attacks from the flank actually do more damage) and beaming in mines to soften up patrolling enemies.

12 February, 2012


written by Blain Newport on Monday, 6 February, 2012

For no apparent reason, I've been on a shooter binge. Half-Life 2 and the episodes, Crysis 2, Fear 1 and it's two expansions, Fear 2, and even Half-Life 1 since I figured if I was doing a comparative study, I should head back to the first shooter with well regarded enemy AI.

Overall, I'm not a fan of "good" AI. The AI itself isn't the problem, it's that developers feel the need to make enemies super durable so that they live long enough to show off their behaviors. When point blank head shots can't down a foe, the power fantasy is suddenly less powerful than real life.

Crysis and Fear have stealth clauses where if you shoot an unaware opponent in the head they die immediately, but that mostly serves to highlight how bizarre it is that they don't die from the same bullet in the same head on other occasions.

Games did used to be harder, but that wasn't a good thing. Half-Life 1 was far and away the hardest game I played. And Fear will kill you in a flash on normal difficulty. It's good that this mostly went away. The fun in these situations is adjusting on the fly, making new choices. Dying only gives you the choice of repeating everything since your last save or quitting. Neither of those is interesting or fun.

Once you turn it down to easy, Fear and it's expansions can provide some pretty great firefights. Moving from cover to cover, tracking enemies to avoid getting surrounded, and matching all of it to the rhythm of shooting, reloading, and switching weapons is pretty great.

The expansions also added in the ability to bash open doors, and the feeling of barreling through everything in your path, being unflankable because you're bashing and shooting and jumping and running so fast you can't be caught is ridiculously great.

The second expansion (Perseus Mandate) also added in monsters that pull you into the ground. Fear has tons of blood puddles and pitch black shadows, but these monsters made them scary.

The expansions had their problems, but there were good additions that I miss when I go back to the stock game.

05 February, 2012

Co-opting Cheating

written by Blain Newport on Saturday, 4 February, 2012

On a recent co-op night, Chris and I decided we had played enough Minecraft, and it was time to shoot some mans. We tried Battlefield: Bad Company 2. But the cheating in that game is hideous. And it's easy to tell who's cheating. They're the ones who are instantly popping their aim from one target to the next without ever looking around like a normal human. Plus Battlefield keeps historical data, so it's painfully obvious when someone's skill level suddenly jumps through the roof.

It's so easy to tell who's cheating that it appears EA, DICE, and Punk Buster aren't really trying to stop them. This may be because they've simply stopped bothering with Bad Company 2 now that Battlefield 3 is out. You never really buy an EA multiplayer game, anyway. You only rent it until they shut down matchmaking.

But if you can't beat them, why not join them?

If you can't be bothered supporting the game, turn off all the anti-cheat stuff and let people go nuts. The only reason cheating is appealing is because it gives you an unfair advantage. Once the playing field is level, the good players are still going to mop up because they know how to use cover, prioritize threats, and decide which weapons to use in which situation.

The gameplay will certainly devolve, but watching how the game devolves could be informative. Why ever carry an SMG if a sniper rifle can get you one hit kills at any range? What classes aren't useful anymore when the rules change?

In fact, I'd love to see a game designed like this from the ground up. Build something that's all cheating all the time and see what that experience teaches.

04 February, 2012

Used Games

written by Blain Newport on Saturday, 4 February, 2012

Microsoft recently floated a rumor that the next Xbox won't allow for used games, probably to see if the threats Gamestop made to them would be ugly enough to make it a bad idea. Well, maybe Microsoft didn't float it. The internet is pretty good at making up its own rumors. But the result was the same, a lot of pontificating about the nature of used games, most of which was a waste of time.

For one thing, digital distribution doesn't allow for used games, so the point will be moot in a decade or two. For another, and I don't think I've heard nearly enough discussion about this, we've had used books, music, and movies since the things were invented, and all of those industries have done fine, at least until they ran up against the aforementioned digital distribution.

Long story short, as markets move to digital, the shrinking amount of retail dollars will be fought over more and more viciously, more and more wastefully. In the meantime, I'll be playing games (Crysis 2, for example) that I bought for $5 online.