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Brakketology Goes Ball’n, Gets Soaked

NBA 2k14 - VC

If you’re a JtS listener (and you should be, because we’re still awesome), you know I finally unpacked my, uh, kids’ Xbox One over the holidays. For scientific purposes, I also picked up NBA 2k14. The things I do for science.

Can I just say, right out, that for all the flack we give to EA (wholly deserved) for how ostentatiously they over-monetize their middling products, and treat their customers like drones who should just shut up an pay already, there’s not nearly enough disgust thrown 2k’s way? They’re awful. And consistently so. It’s not just an NBA 2k thing, although 2k14 is by far the most blatant, irritating, and just plain icky swindle so far. But even quality games like Civilization 5 ($5 civilizations and map packs anyone?) and XCOM ($5 to choose armor color?) are not immune.

As a gamer, I’ve lived with it because who really caress about an extra civ here and there? And $30 may suck for an expansion, but the expansions for both Civ and XCOM were extremely good. NBA 2k14, though? Yeah, Brave New World, not so much.

One of the things that used to make sports games great is that, for the longest time, you could play them the way you wanted to. Play a single season? Go ahead. Play an exhibition game? Just set up the playoffs and crown a champ? Knock yourself out. Then we got franchise modes that let us be a virtual GM and that was awesome. And we got a “be a player” type mode and those were cool too, if not particularly deep or interesting to stick with over the long haul. And let’s not forget sliders that let you tweak a game 16,000 ways from Sunday to play how you want. This isn’t all gravy, and sports games of the last 10+ years have had plenty of other things to gripe about, but ultimately, if you paid, you could at least play how you wanted to play. NBA 2k14 wants you to play how it wants you to play and if you don’t, well you can just go get f***ed, I guess.

NBA 2k14 Menu

NBA 2k14 is not a basketball game so much as it is a Virtual Coins (VC) delivery system. Basketball is merely a sideline to get you buying coins. I couldn’t begin to tell you if there’s a single season or a playoff mode in the game because the main menu doesn’t want you to spend time looking for them. It wants you in your MyPlayer or your MyGM or your MyTeam. Not coincidentally, these are the three modes in which advancement and success is almost entirely dependent on the acquisition of 2k’s not-the-least-bit-equally-distributed virtual capital.

Sure, you can earn it for free by achieving success in the game, but in fairly limited quantity that is not in any way tied to the mode you’re in. You can take VC earned in the MyGM mode and put it into your MyPlayer, for example. And it all conveniently ignores the fact that achieving success in any of these modes ultimately depends on upgrading yourself by using… you guessed it, VC! They create the drug, they manufacture and distribute the drug, and they put in place the system that makes you need the drug in the first place. 2k is a cartel at this point.

You can, if you like, download a horribly designed iOS app and get daily access to a VC lottery system that’ll net you a decent amount. That’s annoying as hell, but at least it’s free. But, and what 2k really thinks you should do, is pay $60 for their game and then go into the game and spend even more to load up your GM or your player or your MyTeam with VC so you can advanced them further, faster. It’s a classic-style F2P system without actually being F2P.

It’s ugly, it’s cynical, and it diminishes 2k14 as a basketball game; something it just so happens, the game does as well as ever. (Which is to say, it’s the best option out there, but controlling your player and his momentum is still a giant pain in the ass. Also, you guys forgot to let me skip the cut scenes.)

Under no circumstances whatsoever should you by NBA 2k14. It doesn’t matter that the new MyPlayer system, which puts you in a poorly scripted, but ultimately very entertaining rookie year journey, is easily hooked on. (It’s also very flawed. You cannot sim any games in your rookie year, for example. Again, you must play the game their way or not at all.) It doesn’t matter that the on-court visuals are insane. It doesn’t matter how good the basketball actually feels when everything is clicking (which is at least as often as not).

This is a superb basketball game, sabotaged from the inside by greed, mismanagement, and outright incompetence. Don’t buy it. If you’ve already dropped your 60-bones, you may as well play it. You’ve already taken the hit and the basketball is, as noted, very, very good. Go take your MyPlayer up against Jackson Ellis, keep your agent around because he’s a good guy, and if you get drafted by the Kings, do whatever Derrick Cousins tells you because he’s like a genuine role model and stuff.

Unless he tells you to buy some VC. He hasn’t told me to do that yet, but I’m guessing it’s just a matter of time.

Right, so how was everyone’s holiday? Good? Great! Let’s dispense with some links and forget all about this travesty.

I’m like Charlie Brown with the football. Sega took the wraps off of their next Alien game, which is coming from Total War developer Creative Assembly. And, yeah, it actually looks rather decent:

YouTube video

This looks how you’d want an Alien game to look. But there are so many questions. Can this mechanic hold out and remain fresh for the anticipated 10 hours of gameplay? I believe it’s doable, but in that 15-minute video we see the same three or four sections of game a couple of times each. Or maybe this tense hide-and-run mechanic gets abandoned half-way through in favor of just another shooting gallery?

I absolutely don’t believe this will be the disaster that Colonial Marines was, but that doesn’t mean there’s not an object lesson there. CM was a fiasco, no doubt, but the original teaser hit every note you’d want it to hit. It was awesome. No there was no gameplay (and we now know why), but the teaser made you feel like, “Okay, they get it and that’s step one.” Turns out they didn’t get it. At all. Fortunately this Alien game footage is much more than a teaser and it still gives off a strong “okay, they get it vibe.” Fingers cautiously crossed.

Now with 78% less nausea. The Occulus Rift is making progress:

Low persistence is a trickier beast to tackle, but it basically means the Oculus Rift has erased motion blur, allowing the player to move his head and keep his eyes fixed on one point, as humans do in reality. The Crystal Cove prototype reduces latency to 30 milliseconds from 60 milliseconds in the HD dev kit, though Oculus VR’s goal for a consumer product is 16 to 20 milliseconds.

Being able to move your head but keep your eyes fixed on a point is huge. I have done zero research to back this statement up, but I’d wager this alleviates the motion sickness problems for a wide swath of players who’ve experienced them.

Getting punked by Steam. Steam Machines have come rolling in from CES. I’ve been excited about this for some time. I’m not anymore. This is not to say I’ve checked out, but it’s all too damn nebulous. There are already more than 13 of these things. The controller is receiving, at best, faint praise based solely on future potential. The price points vary from $500 to $6,000 with most in that $1k -$2k window.

We’ve known for awhile there would be a disparity like this and I didn’t think it a problem, but now that product is imminent I’m not so sure. A) I’m not spending top of the line PC money on a console for my basement home theater, which is basically what I’d want a Steam Machine for. Okay, fine. That’s why there’s a $500 product iteration, right? Except then my mind does a funny thing — when confronted with with so many price points it looks at the expensive ones and the mean and the cheapest and says, if the mean and the cheapest are this much more than the cheap-o models, how good can the cheap-o model possibly be? That’s where my brain says, surely it must suck because this is a world in which you get what you pay for.

Five-hundred smack-a-roos is too much to spend on a convenience item that sucks. $1000+ is too much to spend on a convenience item for games that I can already play on my PC. And suddenly I’m out. I suspect this is not the reaction Valve or its partners is hoping for. Law of Unintended Consequences.

Grimrock adventuring. You probably know that Almost Human games has a Grimrock sequel in the works. Did you know they also tapped Wayside Creations to Kickstart an expansion to the world of Grimrock with an adventure game series, Legends of Grimrock? There’s still 17 days to get in on this and they’re only about half-way to their goal, so success is not a given. Obligatory promo video is obligatory:

Truth. He speaks it. The truest thing ever said about Skyrim doesn’t come from a gaming site, but from my very favoritist sports blogger.

*[I finally broke down and played Skyrim. Do not do this. Skyrim is the kind of awful that only reveals itself after you’ve set 60 hours of your life on fire listening to boring conversations and dully hacking things in the face. Their open world is beautiful and soulless, shiny on the outside but hollow in the center. Bethesda’s mechanics are hopelessly broken in every single game they make, and while being able to jump across a continent in Morrowind was charmingly broken, Skyrim’s mechanics invite you to a dull, iron-dagger-laden trudge through one moronically designed UI after another.

Better said than I’ve ever managed. I am both irked and tipping my cap at the same time.

Who needs air, anyway? FTL is getting a new playable race, the Lanius, as part of its forthcoming Advanced Edition. They really suck the air out of the room. Like, literally.

Checking on the Inquisition. Mark Darrah posted a pre-holiday blog update on the status of Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s not, you know, super informative, but there’s some cool asset images and whatnot.

Soft landings. If you miss PAR Report (as I do), you’ll be glad to know that Ben Kuchera landed safely at Polygon, where he is already writing many very Ben Kuchera-y things. Which is to say, both things I agree with and things I think are ridiculous. (Note: What I think is ridiculous is the notion that EA not explaining why they lied about the need for SimCity to be online only is somehow worse than the fact that they lied about it in the first place. We all know why they lied about it.)

World-class trolling. It looks a lot like this:

YouTube video

It’s also why I won’t play multiplayer games with complete strangers. Also, who are the parents of the year that let their obviously too-young kids play CoD? I haven’t seen parenting that bad since watching Frozen. (Seriously, very good movie, but the parents of the sisters were idiots.)

Legend of Grimrock Review

Grimrock. A word I keep rolling around my tongue like an abjuration. Grimrock. Grim-rock. Rocks, of grimness. Say it enough and the solution of a puzzle may fall out of the repetition, might give me a few hours respite from agonising over the intricacies of the game.

I’m not normally one for puzzle games. They seem drab, lifeless things, a poor use of all the mighty power of modern microprocessors. But the puzzles in Grimrock are different. Some are logical, some time-based, some situational, others are riddles but all of them encourage experimentation and exploration as part of the solution, rewarding creative thinking as much if not more than logic. Built in an astonishing variety from a limited palette of switches, pressure plates and teleports, they’ll frustrate and delight in equal measure.

Grimrock, you see, was made in the image of 1987 classic Dungeon Master, even down to the walking mushrooms and a spell system that requires you to memorise and click on sequences of runes. It’s a montage of role-playing, real-time combat and puzzles as cold and hard and uncaring as the stone from which the dungeon is hewn. Fail to solve an essential problem and there’s nothing left for you but the ignominy of seeking a solution online, or your game is over. It cares nothing for such niceties of modern design as difficulty curves, or player involvement.

The closest it gets is making the crucial puzzles you need to progress easier than the inessential ones for items and experience. But this is a cruel illusion. To win, you must defeat the multitude of monsters dwelling in the darkness, and to do that you’ll want at least some of the items and experience offered by the tougher puzzles. Otherwise a torment of re-loading and clicking awaits.

And it’s a particular torment, because combat in Grimrock is the weakest area of the game. Most creatures are slow, and the four directional, grid-based layout requires them to move and turn to face you before they can attack. In open spaces you can circle them, maneuvering to avoid their blows and landing yours as they lumber across the granite. To thwart that ambition, enemies are deployed in labyrinthine passageways or thrown at you in hordes. But the drill remains the same: back off, find a room, start circling.

Alone, it’d be a dull way to spend the 20 hours it’ll take to complete Grimrock. But it’s not alone. Combat is married with those fiendish puzzles, creating a striking counterpoint between thinking and acting. These central elements are powered along by the Skinner Box of role-playing acquisition, pushing you to one more skill point, one more magic item, one last puzzle before you switch off. Forget the plot, which is contrived and uninteresting. But that’s fine, because those other elements, woven together with considerable skill, are easily enough to keep the game together.

Indeed it’s in that montage that the game truly shines. Solving puzzles is often the key to opening doors, and newly-open doors are a great excuse to let monsters into the room. You’ll be stolidly clicking and dragging away, trying different combinations and ideas to solve a puzzle and suddenly you’re knee-deep in ice lizards and other assorted vermin. And then, after what feels like an eternity of desperate button mashing, you’re dead. It’s frustrating and exhilarating in equal measure, and you’ll come to love the agony of reloading because of the rush of excitement that precedes it and sometimes allows you to escape it. If ever there’s a game for masochists, this is it.

There are few games capable of hurting both your trigger finger and your brain. Legend of Grimrock is one that does. Close your eyes after a session and you’ll see darkness, rent by flickering torchlight, smell the cold, stale air of deep beneath the earth, have your ears persecuted by the whisper of undead shuffling somewhere in the gloom. It’s a big, atmospheric, demanding game that works its tendrils into your head and refuses to let go. Perhaps now that I’ve written about it, that sweet weight will finally pass from me. You ready to take the load?

Getting Steamy – Part 1

Steam Games library for PC

So I’ve now entered the hot and moist world of Steam and caught a lucky break: just before I upgraded my hardware (with the help of NHS user Hobbes), the Steam sale was on and I got to grab myself some bargains. I then went on holiday and had to wait another week to play them. Now I’ve managed some screen time with some of my new purchases, so here’s the lowdown on what I’ve played so far.

First is Binding of Isaac with all DLC. This is a fun action game in the proud tradition of Rogue-like games featuring permadeath, and a randomly generated series of dungeon levels to explore. Unlike most games in the genre, Binding isn’t a turn based tactical affair but a frantic shooter. It’s fun, addictive and has a quirky sense of humour, as you might expect given its premise of being the adventures of a small boy locked in the basement while on the run from his fundamentalist mother who wants to sacrifice him to God. On the flip side without a save function I think it’s a little long for single play throughs – I’m guessing it takes 60-90 minutes to finish a game although I’ve not managed that yet. It also – and I never thought I’d say this of a rouge-like – seems to have too many items. Discovering what they do is half the fun of course, but given the relatively simple game mechanics, the vast array of stuff on offer seems a bit repetitive in terms of effects. Overall, a thumbs up though.

Next is Mount & Blade: Warband. I’ve wanted to play this game ever since I first heard it mentioned here. As an open-world game of medieval fighting and feudalism with acclaimed melee combat, it sounded like a dream come true for me. Unfortunately the first thing I discovered when I tried to play it is that you can’t play it with a laptop trackpad. Since I plan you be going most of my Steam gaming with the PC on my knees, I needed an alternative. So I borrowed a trackball from work, which is serviceable but not great. A gyroscopic mouse that you can wave in the air would probably be ideal but they’re pretty expensive. If anyone has a cheap solution for mouse-alternatives when gaming on a laptop, I’d be glad to hear it. A lesser but more surprising issue is that the game is damn ugly. I know it isn’t recent but, unless my memory is failing me, I’m sure there were games on the original Xbox that looked better than Mount & Blade which is pretty poor showing from a 2010 game. Also, I seem to be a real klutz on a horse, getting my camera in the wrong place all the time and, for some reason, trying to hit the wrong keys when I want to turn. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s the trackball. Yes, definitely the trackball.

Mount & Blade: Warband - so ugly that I dare not show you a character's face

I always swore I’d never play Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion because of it’s stupid, stupid monster scaling system where creatures get tougher as your character advances. So eventually you end up being ambushed by groups of bandits with Daedric Armour and magical swords. It seems near-universally unpopular on game forums, so whoever at Bethesda thought that was a good idea was, I hope, not let anywhere near Skyrim. Anyway, the continuing adventures of Olaf that I mentioned in my last piece, had left me with a hankering for some Elder Scrolls style gaming and when I saw Oblivion with all DLC in the sale for £5 it struck me there might be a mod that removes the scaling. Turns out there are several, the best of which have been combined and balanced in the FCOM Mod. so I bought it. Unfortunately for me I didn’t stop to consider how difficult it might be to install: as a software guy I thought I’d find it a piece of cake. But I’d reckoned without broken download links, diverse and contradictory guides and sources of documentation and frequently unstable user-built mod platforms like Wrye Bash. So I’m stuck just on FCOM without any of the graphics updates or combat mods that also interested me. And there’s no way I’m playing it without FCOM at the very least. Ultimately I’ll probably have to scale back my ambition and go with a single anti-scaling mod like Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul and perhaps a texture pack. So it’s likely to be a while before I actually play, if ever.

Finally we come to Legend of Grimrock. I knew this was an old school dungeon crawler but I was expecting it to be based on a generic flavour of 90’s dungeon exploration games as, indeed, it advertises itself as being. I wasn’t expecting a straight rip-off of the classic Dungeon Master, right down to little alcoves to keep items in, walking mushrooms and a rune-combo based spell system. I am, however, very glad they did draw from it so directly because it’s the best of the genre in that era and has been crying out for a modernised update for years. And boy, does Grimrock deliver! Atmospheric, exciting and full of tough combat, nerve-wracking exploration and brain-bending puzzles from the off. It’s been the most played of the games I’ve tried so far, and has wormed its way into my brain to the point where I find that my meals taste of snail slices, my tea feels like healing potions and my dreams are haunted by communications from a mysterious mechanical entity. I’m staying up late to play, ending up tired at work the next day and drifting off into reveries about frantically searching dungeon walls for concealed buttons. One critique is that although the combat is pleasingly tough, even early on (I’m still trying to live down the embarrassment of having my party massacred by a giant snail), it seems over-reliant on backing off or circling to get out of the way of critters while your weapons recover. It gets a bit repetitive after a while, but it’s a minor issue. The skills system also forces you to make early specialisations in weapons and types of magic that you may conceivably live to regret later in the game when you find super-powerful toys you can’t use. But that’s probably my anal-retentiveness kicking in: so far it’s been an absolute blast. I do wonder why the pregenerated party is a bit sub-par though. They always seem to be in games like this. But I’ve started with them, and I’m not going back and doing the first few levels all again, so there. Definitely not if it means facing down more of those spiders than is strictly necessary.

So that’s my first bunch of Steaming. For part 2 of this article I’ve still got Witcher 1 Enhanced Edition, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Dear Esther, Rome: Total War and Crusader Kings II to even try. I’m regretting the last one a little as it wasn’t all that cheap in the sale (even if massively discounted) and I can’t imagine I’ll ever have the time to devote to it properly. In total, I suspect that’s more than enough material to keep me going until next years’ Steam Sale. But I’m using my shiny new laptop to write this document on, and to be honest, I’m starting to wonder why I’m not playing Grimrock instead. Be seeing you after I’ve sent a few more skeletons back to their graves.