Team Fortress 2 Goes Free-to-Play


If you’re the one gamer in 10,000 that is interested in playing Team Fortress 2, but not enough so that you’ve actually been willing to spend money on it, then you’ll be glad to know it has officially gone free-to-play. Going forward Valve intends for the game to support itself purely through micro transactions.

7-Minute Saints Row 3 Trailer: "Steelport is a Very Friendly Place"


Yep, that’s Saints Row.

Conquest of Nerath in Review


The new Dungeons and Dragons board game is Conquest of Nerath and my favorable review of it is up at Gameshark.com.

Wizards of the Coast has kind of been on a roll lately with very good and highly accessible board game explorations of the D&D brand. I liked both Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon a lot, and I found that they were cleaner and more direct than other popular dungeoncrawl-themed board games out there. Some folks didn’t care for their simplicity or their streamlined qualities, but the games were clearly intended to be approachable and easy to play. Conquest of Nerath is like this too. It’s a fairly basic Axis and Allies-style “dudes on a map” game with some added detail in unit differentiation and faction-specific event cards. There’s also a small but effective questing mechanic.

It’s not innovative, groundbreaking, or incredibly original. But it totally works, succeeding as a traditional example of this kind of game that eschews the newfangled mechanical bells and whistles of its peers. This is a game where you should be chucking the dice into the boxlid, not clucking over how clever the resource management scheme is. It knows what it wants to do, and if you want to do the same thing it wants to then you’re going to have some fun with this title.

Columbia Games finally reprints Slapshot

After announcing it something like five or six years ago Columbia Games, venerable publisher of great block wargames like Hammer of the Scots, is finally reprinting Slapshot, a light n’ nasty hockey card game that’s been out of print forever. I’ve never actually played it because I’ve never so much as seen a copy of it, and aftermarket prices kept me away from it. I’m looking forward to checking it out, I’m not much of a sports fan but I do like a good sports-themed board game and this looks fun. $24.95 retail, which is very reasonable for this kind of game.

Slapshot is a wheeling, dealing game for hockey fans. Each player assumes the role of team manager. The object is to skillfully manage your team into the playoffs and then win the championship. During the regular season you can improve your team with drafts and trades, but injuries can upset the best of plans. Ultimately, your skill as manager determines if your team wins or loses.

Slapshot includes 54 zany hockey players like Slash Gordon, Puck Rogers, Ian Jury, Cheap Shot, Le Goon, and Jack the Tripper.

Slapshot is fast, furious, fun, and simple to play. Lace up your skates and checkout the game celebrated as the closing game each year at the World Boardgame Championships.

Slapshot was originally published in 1975 under the name Team by Gamma Two Games. The game was designed by Tom Dalgliesh, Lance Gutteridge, Ron Gibson, John Gordon. Slapshot has been printed under license several times since.

Dungeon Siege 3 Impressions


No High Scores

So I promised to have Dungeon Siege 3 impressions posted yesterday. Those plans change when you’re offered to join your buddy for $2 pints. Me saying “no” to Bell’s Two-Hearted IPA is just not gonna happen. Last night, though, I did put a walloping two hours into Dungeon Siege 3. It is very decidedly average, so far. It’s not bad. It’s not particularly great. It’s very, very playable. It’s the kind of game you buy and enjoy for a bit, not really regretting the purchase, but barely remembering it a year later. I could change that tune, given how little I’ve played so far, but I feel like I’ve got the game’s number already and am not expecting much in the way of surprises. Here’s some stuff that stuck out to me during my first sit-down…

Because it’s an Obsidian game, and given their history, I should point out that this is the single most polished game I’ve seen them release. We’ll see how it goes, but as of right now: Bravo! PC controls aside, the game works.

The PC controls are close to not being awful. That’s not a backhanded compliment. When you’re just walking around the environment, getting into combat with groups of two or three guys, they seem very usable. This is a trick. They’re not and it’s because of the wonky camera and the bizzare decision to have you control how the camera turns from left to right using the A and D keys, while using the right-mouse button and on-screen pointer to determine movement. Guys, the WASD combo has lasted for like two decades now because it’s a very useful way to control forward, back, left and right. The mouse has been used for nearly as long as a means to control the camera. This is how it’s meant to be and when you try to reinvent the wheel by reversing it bad things happen. And they happen at the worst possible time.

My character is Katarina (I think). She’s a ranged character who uses a rifle at long range and pistols to fend off enemies close in. She’s got a neat accent and an ample bosom. She is your prototypical video game heroine. (I’ll leave it to to decide if that’s a good thing.) Being a ranged character means actually being able to keep your distance from your adversaries. Obisidian very nicely included a block/dodge control (spacebar for block, spacebar plus movement for dodge) that is effective at letting you escape melee and create that distance. The problem is the camera. Typically when you execute this roll back manuever the camera, ever so sure that you want it pointing at your back, flips around to match your facing. So when you come out of the roll you have zero visibility of the space behind you; you know, where all the guys trying to kill you are. So you need to flip the camera around to see, but you can’t just do a quick wrist flick with the mouse (technically you can hold down the Control key and spin the camera with the mouse, but this is a pain too), so you have to hold down A or D to rotate the camera, which happens all too slowly. By the time you come around and can see and shoot an enemy he’s right back on top of you. This is manageable when there’s only a couple dudes chasing after you, but if you get in a bigger battle it’s a nightmare. I aim to switch to my 360 gamepad when I get back to the game tomorrow (tonight is the podcast), and it sounds like that’ll mostly mitigate the issue. I’m glad the controller options is there, but that’s still not acceptable. You release on the PC, you need a passable way to control the game with mouse and keyboard. This is not negotiable. Not everyone has a 360 controller at the ready.

Even taking that factor away, the camera could still use some work. You have only two view options, one that’s relatively over-the-shoulder and one that’s pulled back away. I like the pulled back view, but it’s bit too top-down. You can’t see nearly far enough ahead. Again, not a big problem for melee characters who want to close the distance, but playing the ranged characters can be frustrating because you feel like you should be able to see further down the road and you can’t.

The combat itself I rather like. It’s unremarkable, but it looks like it’ll get the job done and it’s pretty to look at. The character skill system looks like it’ll allow for a lot of variation in how you approach combat. There’s no character building to be done outside of combat, but you don’t really expect that from an action RPG. Character building is divided into the distribution of three types of skill points:

- Ability points: These are core character actions/skills. There are nine total abilities and you don’t get a point to put into them at every level, so you have to be choosy. (I’m not sure of the exact distribution.)
- Proficiency points: These you do get at every level and are used to upgrade and customize your Abilities. There are two proficiencies for each Ability and you can put up to five Proficiency points into each one.
- Talent points: These are general character improvements. There are three tiers of Talents, with only the first tier unlocked to start. Like Proficiencies, you can upgrade each Talent up to five ranks.

The fact that each character has unique options across Abilities, Proficiencies, and Talents, ought to give the game a fair bit of replay value, assuming they really do force you to adjust your play style.

No High Scores

The story… There’s a bunch of stuff about the 10th Legion, some kind of mega army that was laid to waste by the game’s antagonist. My character is a descendant of the commandant or something, raised in hiding from Glenda The Bad Witch. (I really am bad with names.) Some guy named Odo (probably familiar to fans of the first two games?) has called back the offspring of the Legion to wreck Evil’s ugly face. I’m not clear on why the descendants of the Legion are better equipped for this goal than anybody else. I mean my dad could be Eisenhower and that doesn’t make me suited to be Supreme Commander NATO Allied Forces. Perhaps there’s some legacy traits passed down or something special about the 10th I’m not aware of? I’ve got some review guide stuff I need to look at it and see. DS fans, do feel free to school me in the comments on the finer points of the story, while I get my lay of the land. Anyway, you show up at the big meeting and the house is on fire and everyone’s dead, and thus begins your hero’s journey.

I’ll wrap this up with a quick comment on the co-op. I haven’t touched it yet, but I’ve seen some complaints about the fact that the “guest” in a co-op session can’t take their co-op character back to their own game. (There was a pretty damn funny Penny Arcade strip about it this week.) That is going to annoy some people, but having seen how the game plays I can understand it. The co-op and single-player games work in the same environment. Characters created for a game are tied to that game. It’s not that the host has all the power and the guest gets squat. The host’s character (I’m pretty sure) is just as tied to that game, but being the host, they can continue their game whenever they want and the guest can’t. It’s unfair, but the game isn’t built to let two people start a game, go off and play those characters by themselves, and then bring those two characters back together again. It doesn’t work. Now, if Obsidian had wanted to throw players a bone, I think they should let you take your “guest” character and copy them into a duplicate game and continue, losing only the ability to use that character in the original game. That way, if your host buddy quits on the game half way through and you want to continue alone, you have that option. Either way, it is understandable why they designed the game this way. That is, assuming I’m not missing something; again, I haven’t actually played this mode yet.

More to come on this one next week.

Dragon Age 2 DLC and Playable Mass Effect 3 at Comic Con


No High Scores

Planning to hit the San Diego Comic Con? Yeah? You lucky dog, that means you’ll be on-hand when Bioware unveils new DLC for Dragon Age 2. Oh, and you’ll be able to play some Mass Effect 3. (Spoiler: It’ll be like playing Mass Effect 2.) Oh! And you can dress up for their “first annual” costume contest. I’m sure that’ll be a site to see. Here’s the official word from Chris Priestly on the Bioware forums:

BioWare is once again returning to the San Diego Comic Con and this year, we are bringing Mass Effect 3 and a never before seen, Dragon Age II DLC with us. Comic Con begins Thursday July 21 and runs through Sunday July 24 and we will have all sorts of awesome BioWare coolness at our base in the Hilton Gaslamp hotel. This will be the first opportunity for fans to play Mass Effect 3 as well as the next Dragon Age II DLC. In addition, we will be hosting the first annual BioWare Costume Contest on Friday, July 22 for the best BioWare inspired costumes. We’ll be giving away awesome convention swag, opportunities to meet members of the BioWare staff, and we’ll have a special designated area for cos-play character photo opportunities and much more.

Make sure you come and visit us at the Hilton Gaslamp (401 K Street) to experience everything live (remember, you do not need a comic con badge to take part). If you can’t visit us in San Diego, make sure you stay tuned to the BioWare Pulse TV broadcasts where we will be keeping everyone up to date with live broadcasts all day, each day.

Spotted at Joystiq

Dear Retailers, U r Dum


No High Scores

Hey, that’s not me talking, that’s 1C publisher Darryl Still. Why should you care? Believe it or not, 1C (publisher of King’s Bounty and Men of War) is second in size only to Ubisoft among European-owned publishers. (I know! I had no idea either!) Also, Still has been around the block a time or two. In addition to working at EA and Nvidia, he helped launch the Lynx and Jaguar, two systems that I’m sure, in another hundred years, history will look back on kindly. (I kid because I love.) In truth, he doesn’t so much call US/UK retailers dumb as he talks about how great Steam has been for PC publishers (given the fact that the brick and mortar retailers are dumb). From his interview with CVG:

The PC has been at the forefront of most technology shifts in the market. I was very aware of this at Nvidia. Most breakthroughs in console technology have their roots in the PC market. Most leaps in games development come to the PC first and then work their way into the SDK’s of the console manufacturers. But for the longest time we’ve been told by retail, in the UK and US especially, that PC games is a dying market.

It has been getting less and less shelf space and less and less focus in store, but in all that time we, as a PC publisher have seen absolutely no drop off in demand. In fact the dichotomy between us being told by retail there is no demand for our product and us being asked by customers – by e-mail, phone etc. – where they can find our games is quite shocking.

Ribbing aside, he’s on the right side of this one. Go read the whole thing.

Out of the Park Baseball 12 Now Available


No High Scores

Out of the Park Developments sent us word that their latest of iteration of everyone’s favorite spreadsheet-based baseball sim is now available. The new features list includes a revamped financial system (better contract negotiations, vesting options, buyouts, etc.), improved trading AI, simplified online leagues (in terms interaction, not features), more ways to interact with the game’s athletes, the ability to use real-life transactions and as-played line-ups with historical leagues, and “other core engine improvements.”

I loved me some OOTP back in the day, but I just never gelled with the UI they brought into the game when they first made the move to Sports Interactive (a core design that survives to this day, although it is improved); too much re-inventing of what Windows already does better in terms of navigation, panes, scrolling, etc. Unless that changes or they add the ability to see the action play out on the field, Microleage style, I don’t really see myself going back. That said, it’s as good as these games get (which is pretty damn good). Bill’s online league is still going strong and I’m sure if they decide to make the move over to version 12 you’ll hear about it here.

Here’s the full press release…

OOTP Developments is proud to announce the release of Out of the Park Baseball 12, the most comprehensive version yet of their best-selling, critically-acclaimed baseball sim. PC Gamer said OOTP 11 was “a no-doubt, walk-off home run no-brainer to become a part of your game collection,” and OOTP Developments is once again swinging for the fences with OOTP 12, which runs on the PC, Mac, and Linux operating systems.

Leading off OOTP 12′s impressive lineup of features is a complete roster set, from the major leagues to the rookie level. Thousands of real players, from power hitter Albert Pujols to young pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg, are individually rated based on updated statistics and realistic contract data. All of 2010′s top draft picks are included too.

“OOTP 12 is the culmination of many years spent watching baseball games, poring over statistics, and figuring out how to capture the complex essence of the sport in a sim,” said lead developer and lifelong baseball fan Markus Heinsohn. “We’ve included so many cool new features in this version that we expect even long-time OOTP players to stop every so often and say ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could do that,’ even months from now.”

OOTP lets players run a major league team from top to bottom, setting lineups and pitching rotations, determining defensive and offensive strategies, and making dozens of game-time decisions, such as when to steal a base or employ a hit-and-run. A play-by-play text stream, combined with a visual representation of what’s happening on the field and such audio effects as the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd, make an OOTP game session feel like a radio broadcast.

Between games, players define scouting budgets, make trades, handle the amateur draft, scour the waiver wire, sign free agents, negotiate contract extensions, demote underperforming players to the minors and call up hot prospects, manage team finances, and more. Many tasks can be delegated to computer-controlled personnel, letting players focus on the aspects of baseball management that appeal to them most.

OOTP also features solo or online play, an historical mode featuring all seasons from 1871 through 2010, the ability to create custom leagues stocked with fictional players, a staggering set of league HTML reports, and a realistic statistical engine based on modern baseball theory such as DIPS (Defense Independent Pitching Statistics). Athletes perform in a consistent, realistic manner over ten, twenty, even fifty simulated years, letting players watch as their own Hall of Fame grows before their eyes. OOTP’s innovative FaceGen feature also allows fictional players’ photos to automatically change with age and when they switch teams.

What’s new in OOTP 12?

* Revamped Financial System – Contract negotiations are more realistic and fun with revamped artificial intelligence (AI) and the ability for players to now employ vesting options, buyouts, minor league split contracts, signing bonuses, and more performance bonus options.

* Improved trading AI includes the option for trades to include remaining contract payments, and a new Financial Settings tab in the fictional league setup screen lets players easily see if their custom financial settings will work. A new player development screen offers a snapshot look at the player development budget, the organization’s positional depth chart, and more.

* Online Leagues – With minimal clicks, players can apply to manage a team in an online league or set one up as a commissioner. Online leagues can be made public and advertised within the game, and several key improvements increase the upload and download time of data.

* Greater Immersion and Realism – Players have new ways to interact with the athletes on their teams, and expanded storylines add to OOTP’s “alternate history” feel, with a new league newspaper screen that puts the latest league news in one handy place.

* Historical leagues have also been improved with optional real-life transactions, as-played lineups, and automatic calculation of league total stat output modifiers, which keeps the simmed results in line with reality. In addition, all leagues now have a simulation module in which two clubs can be matched up for a certain number of games. That last option is perfect for seeing how teams from different eras would have fared against each other.

* Other Core Engine Improvements: recoded parts of the in-game AI, making it the most challenging ever in an OOTP game; improved in-game sound, adding better quality sound files and more variation; improved player evaluation AI, resulting in more realistic AI roster moves; recoded parts of the trading AI; recoded parts of the scouting engine; improved injury and recovery system; WAR (Wins Above Replacement) as an included statistic; a playoff roster for more realistic team transactions; a greatly enhanced world database structure, resulting in more realistic fictional league and player creation; and more.

OOTP 12 is available now for PC, Mac, and Linux with a $39.99 price tag. More information can be found at http://www.ootpdevelopments.com/out-of-the-park-baseball/

In addition, the iOS version of Out of the Park Baseball, dubbed iOOTP, continues to be well-received at the App Store since its release the first week of May. Version 1.0.3 was released recently, and version 1.1 is in development — it will include in-app purchases of historical seasons dating back to 1901, GameCenter support, and more. iOOTP sells for $4.99 and can be found at http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/iootp-baseball-2011/id428947551?mt=8

Gabe Newell at Games 4 Change

While Bill and Brandon are on vacation, sunning themselves and taking off in hot air balloons and such, I’ve been off gallivanting at the Games 4 Change festival. Picture E3. Then take away the noise, violence, 90% of the budget, and replace hoards of booth-babe photographing game journos with an array of feel-good types – educators, non-profit, government and NGO people and social/educational game developers, a former US vice president and an assortment of other big names, and voila! You have G4C.

The whole idea is that video games (and non digital games) can be harnessed for educational and social justice/social good causes. Games are (or can be) platforms by which charity organizations may raise awareness or funding for projects – like relief for Haiti or Japan after their respective recent natural disasters, for two particularly dramatic examples.

Today, I was lucky enough to attend Gabe Newell’s (yes, that Gabe Newell, Valve co-founder extraordinaire) keynote address to the Games for Learning Institute, where he basically gave a very entertaining – and interesting – whirlwind tour of all the ways games can be used for educational purposes.

He touched on everything from games as a supplement to curriculum (like Portal 2 and learning physics), to their inherent ability to teach concepts (i.e. the way all good games effectively teach you about the systems and mechanics of said game when you learn to play it), to machinima and other creative outlets that games can foster. He even touched on topics like virtual economies and the ways in which Valve, as a developer, learns directly about players through playtesting and iteration.

Ok, so he didn’t have time to delve terribly deeply into any one area, but as an exploration of what’s possible with gaming and virtual worlds, it was fantastic. Newell is simply a compelling, smart guy – and he took questions throughout from the audience on the fly.

In fact, two things that stood out the most to me were prompted by audience questions. The first came from a gentleman who relayed a story – his son was a huge WOW player, and his college application essay spoke about his experiences with the game, and his desire to “save the world” – oh, the idealism of youth, but read on – it gets more depressing.

Now a junior in college, this kid now says he’s far too afraid of screwing things up to go into any “world saving” field. Newell, a college dropout, claimed not to be sure what it is about our system that crushed this kid’s hopes, but I think I have the answer, and Jane McGonigal (now-famous ARG designer and author of Reality Is Broken) won’t like it. The twitter version of my thoughts? Games offer the ideal (the world can be saved through a “correct” path). Real life is infinitely complicated, and people need to feel empowered and engaged through real-life connection. Games can foster that, but they absolutely cannot replace it.

The second – and perhaps most impactful – stand-out moment came when someone asked about the state of current educational games. Not one to pull punches, Newell basically stated that they really aren’t very good – and game developers in this space need to try harder to make actually engaging gameplay, instead of using the “educational” qualification as a crutch to make boring games.

I damn near stood up and clapped for that. However, to really, really change this – developers and designers with AAA talent are going to have to get involved on some level, in the educational space. So how do we (as a culture) incentivize that?

As always, a great talk will prompt more questions than it answers, and this was no different. I came out of the room completely jazzed – and ready to tackle some of those questions on my own.

Game Critics Awards – The E3 Nominations. Huh?


No High Scores

We’ve talked a lot the past couple weeks, both on the site and on the podcast, about E3. We’ve always talked a lot about games criticism. Joining those two topics together, we’ve occasionally mentioned how completely useless E3 is as a venue to judge games. Yeah, we talk about what looked good, what didn’t look good, etc. and it’s all in good fun. But we know what we’re seeing are demos. We see at E3 exactly (and only) what the publisher or developer wants us to see. There is almost never room to step off the trail and because of that there is absolutely no judging whether or not a game at E3 will, in fact, be good. Every year we marvel at the ribbons that appear on game booths around E3 pronouncing which games earned the distinction of best of show. Woo! I’m not sure which is sillier, that sites make these banners to stick to various demo booths or that the companies put them up there to show off their inherent awesomeness.

That point established, guess who just announced a huge list of E3 award nominations – Game Critics! Yes, the folks that should all know better have linked up arm-in-arm, not just to list a few games that particularly stood out (which would be perfectly reasonable and harmless enthusiasm), oh no, but to hand out nominations spread across 17 categories, with each category getting five rock’n sock’n nominations. On the list of ideas that should be mothballed instead of being brought back for annual reprisals, critics nominating 85 games for awards based on E3 presentations ought to come out in the top 5. (I’m just bitter that nobody handed me a ballot with a #2 pencil. Do they use #2 pencils? It’s gotta be a ScanTron thing, right?)

Gamasutra has the full list, in all its ridiculousness, if you’re thinking of starting up an Oscars-style betting pool. I’m putting all my money down on Nyko’s Zoom for Kinect in the Best Hardware category. If they don’t win, then you’ll know it’s all politics.