Second Expansion for Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition Announced

Well, this came out of nowhere.

Today, Fantasy Flight Games announced a rather unexpected expansion for one of its flagship titles, the six-year-old Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition. It’s called “Shards of the Throne”, and according to the announcement page it’s bringing a lot of new material to the already content-packed game- perhaps as much as Shattered Empire, the previous game-changing expansion from 2007, did. Three new races, race-specific technologies, mech units, mercenary pilots, more planets and most intriguing of all, some advanced political/diplomatic elements including representatives, promissory notes, and assassins.

For those unaware, Twilight Imperium is about as close to a Master of Orion/Galactic Civilizations board game as you’ll find. It’s pure 4x gameplay. Yes, it is complex, long, and cumbersome. But it’s also unquestionably epic, massive, and for its biggest fans it’s practically a way of life. For some groups (like mine), it’s a notoriously difficult game to get to the table due to the sheer logistics involved with it, but it is a truly great experience and it’s definitely an event every time. FFG releases a lot of garbage expansions these days, but I’m definitely on board for this one- even if we only play it once or twice a year.

Hey, want to win a copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (360)?

There’s an easy giveaway going on at the Gameshark Facebook page. The winner takes home a copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow for the 360. All you’ve got to do is like the page, and for there to be at least 650 likes by Monday (there’s 577 now). The page is also a good way to keep with the NoHS crew’s paid(-ish) gigs.

I loved Lords of Shadow, so I can vouch for the game. I thought it was second only to Bayonetta as the best beat ‘em up of 2010 and if you’re an open-minded Castlevania fan that might favor a more Western approach to the franchise’s core values, then I think you’ll like it too. So have at it- free great game, there’s your mandate.

Dragon Age II in Review- Part 2


It’s 3:14 AM. I just finished Dragon Age II. I’m exhausted, exhilarated, and I still don’t know if I made the right decision in letting my former best friend and closest ally walk away from being responsible for committing a heinous act that has directly precipitated a bloody conflict. I had spent the better part of the game trying to circumvent a particularly nasty clash of ideologies, playing both sides but ultimately siding with family and friends despite the game’s repeated attempts through its plot to convince me otherwise. So begins the last part of my look at Bioware’s latest and most divisive title since Jade Empire, and for those of you who haven’t played I’m keeping this spoiler-free so that I can have a last shot at convincing you to play this outstanding game.

Prior to the end-of-game events that I can’t help but view as ultimately tragic and as a failure of compromise, I saw and did a lot over the course of my forty-odd hours with the game. My Hawke killed a High Dragon and at least fifty of her dragonlings in an epic battle that must have lasted thirty minutes. He had an ill-advised but irresistible one night stand with Isabela, the almost parodic piratess. He helped an angry, hateful elf get over himself and pissed off a prince-in-exile who was mighty handy with a bow. I owned a mine, smuggled, and investigated a haunted house. He fought against filthy slavers at every opportunity and tried to be a good man, even if sometimes that didn’t pan out. Hawke also had a strained, awkward romance with a Dalish blood mage that never seemed quite meant to be, and by the end of the game I deeply regretted not pursuing Aveline’s affections.

He killed lots and lots of men, dwarves, elves, and Qunari and I’m not quite sure that at least half of them had to die to achieve our goals. But it seems that, as in real life, some of our battles are predestined, not selected. The events of the last part of the game left me wondering how much I could have actually changed through different choices and paths through the game and how variable the outcomes actually are. I know many will complete game multiple times to see every possibility, but I find that wondering what might have been is more interesting- and possibly less disappointing.

The final act ended with a boss fight that would have made Ray Harryhausen proud. Although it was definitely a cool, over-the-top finale, I found myself all through the third act wishing that there wouldn’t be a boss fight of any kind at the end. I had hoped that it would all end in discussion and debate with Hawke making decisions that would cement the future of Kirkwall and its inhabitants. But it seems some video game traditions aren’t quite ready to be upturned. Likewise, the last act relied far too heavily on the old “fight through hordes of foes” endgame trope, just as the game’s predecessor had. In a game where politics, intrigue, characterization, and dialogue are more compelling than swordplay, it gets to the point where the fighting just becomes pointlessly grueling.

Despite rolling my eyes at having to slaughter another fifty or so bad guys, the last half of the game mostly did not disappoint despite uneven pacing. Some events felt rushed and strangely incomplete, while 11th-hour busywork quests bogged down the horse race to the end and I have to admit that I left three quests, including two collection ones, unfinished. Sorry kidnapped lady, the fate of the city is at hand and suddenly your plight isn’t a big deal. Regardless, I think the third act had some truly amazing sequences culminating in decisions that make the concept of “moralty choices” in other games look about as deep as Rebecca Black choosing where to sit in the car.

For me the defining moment of this entire game was at the end when it was time to make a critical choice that I wasn’t sure that my longtime friend Aveline would side with. A paragon of the Lawful Good archetype and staunch law-woman, she had been with me and disapproved many times of actions we took. But when it came down to the most important decision in the game, she unconditionally pledged her support. It felt like more than just a function of where her friendship/rivalry slider was at, which is certainly the mechanical man-behind-the-curtain. It was emotional, resonant, and meaningful in ways that few video games can achieve. I welled up, a little.

Some of the story beats in latter half of the game I thought were just devastating. One in particular found Hawke implicated in wrongdoing against his will (at least in my game), and the excellent voice acting conveyed this heart-wrenching sense of betrayal and emptiness. I found myself carefully considering each major decision- even when the game was literally throwing them at me in every other spoken sentence. There were only one or two times where my selected response resulted in Hawke doing or saying something I didn’t intend- a definite improvement over the Mass Effect games’ sometimes inaccurate precise.

There were some silly moments too, as that old specter of blood magic (the Thedas equivalent of WMDs, in a sense) reared its head one too many times. Worse, the worn-out trope of the surprise bodily transfiguration of the villain was deployed once too often. I’m no longer shocked or surprised when a character explodes into a mass of malevolent tentacles or turns into a demon. I don’t think anyone is at this point.

I was disappointed as well to find that Flemeth, who made such a grand entrance at the beginning of the game, never returned. Unless there was something that I missed in my playthrough, she’s never heard from again except in a couple of passing remarks. It could be that Bioware has larger plans for her in an overarching story, but for the purposes of Dragon Age II she really just sets events into motion. So if her made-over appearance bugged you, it shouldn’t affect the remainder of the game.

Fleeting Flemeth aside, I was pleased to see some old friends from the first game return, including a pair of characters that appear to be the series’ analog to C3PO and R2D2. There is one late game cameo in particular that I thought was just awesome and totally unexpected. I’d be willing to bet that we’ll see a DLC mini-chapter based on this character’s appearance in the game. It could be a good one.

There are plenty of loose threads aside beyond whatever happened to the Witch of the Wilds (or her grandchild, for that matter). The purpose behind the Chantry Seeker’s interrogation of Varric is never made clear, and the framing narrative is left anemically untended in the end. My ending, at least, was too much of one of those “and then the hero left” kind of things and there is a mention that one of the characters stayed on with Hawke but there wasn’t really a reason as far as I could tell. One of the returning Origins characters is hinted at moving on to big things in Orlais, but at the end it’s unclear what direction that might take. And then there’s the whole issue of what the events at Kirkwall mean for the rest of Thedas. There are two ways the story can go, and I can not imagine how the writers of the third game could possibly craft a game that incorporates both sweeping outcomes. I hope it’s not one of those situations that bedevils series television, where the writers have written themselves into a corner.

Reflecting on the game as it passes from currency, it’s hard to miss the things that are wrong with it but almost every negative point seems to go right back to the game being rushed and not nearly as labored-over as its predecessor or other past Bioware titles have felt. All the lore, all the atmosphere, and all the great writing is there no doubt but perfunctory elements like the canned dungeons, some lazily cliched resolutions, and some abbreviated story threads reflect a shorter development schedule. As for the streamlining and mechanical changes, I think it’s a near-total success although it cuts it all very close to “too much” in some functional areas.

Ultimately, my response to Dragon Age II is an emotional one. This game made me feel, and when I’m feeling I’m not so worried about the flurry of numbers that Hawke is beating out of a Shade, tactical views, who’s wearing what armor, and whether or not injuries have specific descriptions. Characters, story, and narrative rule the day, and to this end it is truly an epic of both events and relationships, although often on unexpected scales. The things that truly make a Bioware title great are absolutely present in this game and I think there is definitely an argument that could be made that this is the company’s most resonant, sophisticated, and best-written game to date.

Stop Piracy: Hire the Hackers?

The battle between pirates, publishers, developers and consumers continues to rage. Well, rage might be a bit strong but it’s certainly an ongoing thing. So often we hear PC developers ask “to DRM or not to DRM” and nearly all of the consumers yell “No!” and the publishers say, “Yeah, but how do we know you bought the game and didn’t download it from some pirate torrent site?” Then the consumer says, “But I bought it. You can totally trust me.” Then the developer asks the publisher, “Are we being fired?”

It never ends.

You COULD, however, do what Just Cause developer Avalanche Studios does — hire the bad guys. (the hackers are the bad guys.)

In this story from CVG, Christofer Sundberg, top dog at Avalanche had some interesting things to say about the topic.

“Piracy is always worrying,” he told CVG. “It’s never been a helpful thing. We’ll let our publishers fight that battle. But I mean, 50 percent of the people that work for me come from a hacker background – that’s true.”

“The DRM does not stop piracy,” he said, “it just punishes the people who have actually paid for the game. It’s completely useless. Forcing people to be online all the time and so on doesn’t show respect to the people who actually buy PC games.”

Yep, he’s so fired.

It’s worth a read as he also goes into PC game development and how porting console games to the PC is a bad idea.

Guitar Hero 3 Sold a Lot of Copies

A story from CNBC as seen on Gamasutra lists the top 10 U.S. videogames in terms of money earned. We aren’t talking units sold or any inflation adjustments but rather sheer cash and these figures also take into account bundles (like the pricey Rock Band and Guitar Hero bundles) but not downloads (like, songs, for instance.)

Still, Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock sold a ton of units. I guess the question, then, is what’s more surprising: That GH3 is #1 or that this list is full or the same franchises/models? Because no offense to anyone involved, and I loved Mario Kart with my daughter, and played Rock Band until my fingers bled (well actually it was more of a wrist pain) — but this list sucks.

1. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock* $830.9 million
2. Call of Duty: Black Ops $787.4 million
3. Wii Fit (w/ Balance Board) $736.6 million
4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 $713.6 million
5. Rock Band*$670.7 million
6. Wii Play (w/ Wii Remote)
7. Guitar Hero World Tour*
8. Wii Fit Plus*
9. Mario Kart Wii (w/ Wii Wheel)
10. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

BioWare Fails to Add No Homosexuality Button

Man, poor BioWare forum guy.

All he does is make an innocent post about how Dragon Age 2 fails to cater to the “Straight Male Gamer” and next thing you know he’s quoted all over the Internet — by Eurogamer, RPS, us, and more.

Before I get to the good part of this story, the part when Dragon Age 2 writer David Gaider responds, I loved this line:

“In every previous BioWare game, I always felt that almost every companion in the game was designed for the male gamer in mind. Every female love interest was always written as a male friend type support character. In Dragon Age 2, I felt like most of the companions were designed to appeal to other groups foremost, Anders and Fenris for gays and Aveline for women given the lack of strong women in games, and that for the straight male gamer, a secondary concern. It makes things very awkward when your male companions keep making passes at you. The fact that a “No Homosexuality” option, which could have been easily implemented, is omitted just proves my point.”

That’s gold. I wonder what the reaction would be to the “No Gay Stuff” option? Did they focus test that? Anyway.

You can read the entire post here: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/304/index/6661775&lf=8

Now onto Gaider’s reply…

Gaider’s response is posted below:

The romances in the game are not for “the straight male gamer”. They’re for everyone. We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention. We have good numbers, after all, on the number of people who actually used similar sorts of content in DAO and thus don’t need to resort to anecdotal evidence to support our idea that their numbers are not insignificant… and that’s ignoring the idea that they don’t have just as much right to play the kind of game they wish as anyone else. The “rights” of anyone with regards to a game are murky at best, but anyone who takes that stance must apply it equally to both the minority as well as the majority. The majority has no inherent “right” to get more options than anyone else.

More than that, I would question anyone deciding they speak for “the straight male gamer” just as much as someone claiming they speak for “all RPG fans”, “all female fans” or even “all gay fans”. You don’t. If you wish to express your personal desires, then do so. I have no doubt that any opinion expressed on these forums is shared by many others, but since none of them have elected a spokesperson you’re better off not trying to be one. If your attempt is to convince BioWare developers, I can tell you that you do in fact make your opinion less convincing by doing so.

And if there is any doubt why such an opinion might be met with hostility, it has to do with privilege. You can write it off as “political correctness” if you wish, but the truth is that privilege always lies with the majority. They’re so used to being catered to that they see the lack of catering as an imbalance. They don’t see anything wrong with having things set up to suit them, what’s everyone’s fuss all about? That’s the way it should be, any everyone else should be used to not getting what they want.

The truth is that making a romance available for both genders is far less costly than creating an entirely new one. Does it create some issues of implementation? Sure– but anything you try on this front is going to have its issues, and inevitably you’ll always leave someone out in the cold. In this case, are all straight males left out in the cold? Not at all. There are romances available for them just the same as anyone else. Not all straight males require that their content be exclusive, after all, and you can see that even on this thread.

Would I do it again? I don’t know. I doubt I would have Anders make the first move again– at the time, I thought that requiring all romances to have Hawke initiate everything was the unrealistic part. Even if someone decides that this makes everyone “unrealistically” bisexual, however, or they can’t handle the idea that the character might be bisexual if they were another PC… I don’t see that as a big concern, to be honest. Romances are never one-size-fits-all, and even for those who don’t mind the sexuality issue there’s no guarantee they’ll find a character they even want to romance. That’s why romances are optional content. It’s such a personal issue that we’ll never be able to please everyone. The very best we can do is give everyone a little bit of choice, and that’s what we tried here.

And the person who says that the only way to please them is to restrict options for others is, if you ask me, the one who deserves it least. And that’s my opinion, expressed as politely as possible.

**

That’s about as fair a response as one can expect. As for me, I don’t like any of the romance stuff in BioWare games so I’d vote for a “No digital breasts” button.

Pretty sure that wouldn’t focus test too well, though.

EA to Make Baseball Game; Likely on Facebook

Looks like EA Sports is about to get back in the baseball business. Of course, they can’t do that just yet because the exclusive license that 2K has with MLB doesn’t expire until 2012 so how does EA circumvent that? Why they develop a Facebook baseball game, of course.

If you believe the sources at ESPN, and thus former IGN sports writer Jon Robinson, then it’s going to be more of a fantasy team builder type of thing.

The true hope here is that in the coming year EA can get back into making core baseball games and bring back MVP Baseball for Xbox 360 owners who are left out on playing The Show on the PS3.

The Witcher on Your iPhone

We’re big fans of The Witcher and of iPhone apps. So you’d think by combining the two you’d get nothing but pure unadulterated awesomeness.

I can’t verify if this is awesome, but — Chillingo, which is a division of EA (I learn something new every day) has released The Witcher: Versus for the iPhone. This is not the RPG on your phone, but rather a battle game using The Witcher license.

Some PR Goodness:

This dark and fierce turn based battler will have you challenging warriors across the land as a character class of your choosing. Discover magical items, skills and abilities while taking on foes in an all-out epic melee! Fans of ‘The Witcher’ will love tak(e)ing on thousands of players worldwide in this authentic companion to the hit PC game.

**

They are offering a .99 launch day special so for a buck…might be worth a flier.

Don't Shoot the Food – Dinner Doesn't Have To Be A Crisis, Too Edition

No High Scores

(Special thanks to Clayton, who came up with that awesome, recipe specific graphic for today’s column. Clayton, you’re awesome.)

Welcome to Don’t Shoot the Food, a semi-regular series where I combine my love of gaming with my love of cooking and eating.

I was tremendously lucky to have a mom that not only encouraged me to cook but let me run hog wild in the kitchen so that I could become comfortable cooking. Cooking can be a scary thing, not from a safety perspective but from a failure perspective. I mean, what could be worse than making a meal for people and your meal ends up sucking out? Well, lots of things, but it certainly doesn’t feel like that when you see that your hour and a half of cooking has resulted in something inedible. So this week’s Don’t Shoot the Food is for all of you scared cooks out there. This is a meal that’s very hard to screw up, looks great and tastes awesome. Take my hand. Let’s do this.

Years ago my sister came to visit and she brought with her this recipe that she couldn’t stop raving about. She wanted me to make it for dinner one night because it was the best thing she’d ever had. I looked at it and it was a photocopy from where, I don’t know, of a recipe for Pumpkin Chorizo Ravioli in Roasted Red Pepper Cream Sauce. Now, my sister was a vegetarian and not a Barnes MacGyver, make a steak out of a squash vegetarian so chorizo was definitely off the menu. Second, no one in my house was going to eat anything with pumpkin in it, so that was off the menu and third, the ravioli was hand made, something neither I nor my sister knew how to do. So I asked her about all of this and she told me that she doesn’t make the pasta, she just makes the sauce. This, my friends, is why it’s important to communicate, because had I slaved over making hand made ravioli filled with stuff no one was going to eat, I’d a been pissed. Instead of the ravioli, she used cheese tortellini, which, as substitutions go, was pretty far off base, but tortellini was far more convenient and totally meat free. Armed with this knowledge, I made the dish and hot damn if it wasn’t just plain awesome. Since then, it has become a staple at my house and quickly became one of my wife’s favorite meals.

The joy of this meal is that it’s easy, so you can make it after a tough day at the office or school or whatever. It’s meat free, so it works for your mixed diet friends. It has a really nice presentation so you can look like you know your way around a kitchen and finally, it tastes great. As a dish to help usher in a new era of cooking confidence, it’s a winner. With that being said, let’s get to it.

Cheese Tortellini With Roasted Red Pepper Cream Sauce

Ingredients
Makes four generously large portions with plenty for leftovers

You will need a blender for this one, so clean out all of the margarita gunk before getting started.

1. One 9 oz and one 20 oz package fresh cheese tortellini – We use the Buitoni brand. It comes in a green package in the fresh pasta section, usually over by the cheeses and yogurts. It’s a little pricey but it tastes good and I’m not a fan of dried tortellini. I have made this before with just a 20 oz package but I find having more pasta helps the sauce coat more evenly and there’s more to eat later.
2. One 7 oz jar of roasted red peppers in brine – Do not get peppers that are in olive oil as they make the dish taste funky. I used to be able to buy 7oz jars, now all I can get is 12 oz or 16 oz jars. Very upsetting. What I do is get a 16 oz jar, use half of it and then freeze the other half in a Ziploc freezer bag. Waste not, want not.
3. 1/4 cup chopped onion – To make things even easier, use frozen onions and just thaw them under cold, running water. When I make this dish, if I’m using frozen onion, I double the amount due the fact that the frozen onions seem to be much smaller, in volume, than the fresh ones. So, if you go the frozen route, use a 1/2 cup, thaw it out and drain well.
4. 1 cup heavy cream
5. 1 tsp dried basil
6. 1/2 tsp black pepper
7. Chopped walnuts for garnish
8. Shredded Parmesan cheese for garnish

Cooking Steps

1. Get a very large stock pot, fill it with water and get it boiling. You need enough water for all of the pasta but don’t fill it up too much. When the pasta cooks, it will swell up and make kind of a barrier that hides the roiling, tumultuous water underneath. Sometimes that water busts through and spills all over the counter. Not pretty. You want to leave a good four or five inches of empty pot at the top.
2. While the water is coming to a boil, take the peppers with their liquid, and the onions and combine them in a small saucepan. Put the saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Simmer the pepper and onion mixture for five minutes.
3. By now your water should be boiling so add all of the pasta. When the aforementioned pasta barrier appears, periodically take a spoon and push the pasta at the top of the pan down so that it gets cooked in the water. Cook the pasta for as long as the directions say. Shouldn’t be long. Maybe nine or ten minutes.
4. Once your peppers and onions have simmered enough, remove it from the heat and pour all of it into a blender. I have a handheld blender I use for this and it does an awesome job. Blend the mixture until smooth, but not completely liquid. You don’t want any discernible chunks but it shouldn’t be like water either.
5. Pour the blended mixture back into the saucepan and add the heavy cream, basil and pepper. Stir well to combine.
6. If the pasta is still cooking, put the sauce on very low heat, as low as you can, just to keep it warm.
7. Once the pasta has cooked completely, pour it into a colander and drain it well. Once it is drained, pour it back into the stockpot.
8. Pour the sauce into the stockpot with the pasta and mix well. Make sure every glorious pasta nugget gets coated with sauce.
9. Now here comes the fancy part. Spoon some of the pasta on to a plate and garnish it with chopped walnuts and the shredded Parmesan. You can garnish it with some fresh basil of you like, but I usually don’t have any on hand so I don’t. Look how pretty that is!

Serve right away and enjoy. Now, wasn’t that easy? Crisis averted.

Still hungry? Check out the Don’t Shoot the Food Archive.

Little Big Class Volume 7: Playtest it loud


This Monday, we had our penultimate session in the class. Everything is coming all too quickly to a close, and my students spent almost the entire session building and playtesting their creations. It was a relaxed atmosphere, as our class usually is, and I was pleased to see massive progress from last week: all the playtesting we did last time around clearly left a mark, as all of the spots that left their classmates stuck or frustrated had been smoothed over, taken out, or otherwise modified.

In one instance, a jump that was nigh impossible in last week’s build had been tweaked so that it’s challenging (but no longer a 9-12 try situation) and goodies (in the form of score bubbles) now litter the path, rewarding players who choose this more challenging path through the stage. It’s a small, simple example, but it’s great to see that all my hammering on about playtesting and the iterative process was actually taken to heart.

This week, after about two solid hours of building, we held a slightly more “formal” playtesting session than last week’s more freeform “feedback” session. This time around, the team that’s game was being tested was tasked with silently writing down every single unexpected response, problem area, or note of frustration from their playtesters. The play testers – each member of the other team, playing in turn through both stages – were tasked with addressing the following four questions:

1. Strengths
2. Weaknesses
3. Will this be fun to play as is?
4. What will improve the design?

Again, there was a lot of verbal feedback, good ideas, and – I think this is a good sign – plenty of good-natured laughing. Sometimes I feel bad for whoever is in the next classroom, because we can be a loud bunch. Immediately, I’m reminded once again how much this job would be awful if I didn’t have students who are passionate about games, receptive to ideas, and generally very cool people.

In fact, there was even a moment where I took the controller, just to see if I could make a deliberately difficult jumping sequence. I nailed it in three tries – and thank goodness, because I need these folks to respect me (at least until next week).

I’m beginning to gather resources for my class – next steps, books, online tutorials, etc. that I think may be helpful for them as they move through the program. I’m personally a very big fan of tutorials and project-based books, and I’m in the process of teaching myself the Unity game engine (I come from the world of Flash, and trying to spread out). A book I’ve recommended to my students (which I’m currently working through) is Game Development with Unity, by Michelle Menard. It’s good, accessible stuff.

Next week, we’ll be finishing up! My students will present their final projects, and talk about what’s next – for their time in the program and their future game development careers.

Check out every installment of LittleBigClass here!