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Zaga33/Glitch Tank in Review

I somehow managed to happen on two unique IOS games by the same designer almost by accident while poking around looking for a way to get my kicks on the iPad for a dollar or two. Both are by a guy called Michael Brough, one is a starkly minimalist Roguelike and the other is what could best be described as the Atari 2600 game Combat crossed with the board game Roborally. They’re simple indie games with clear, clean concepts, uncomplicated gameplay, and a specific focus on a small handful of effective mechanics.

Zaga 33 looks like a Metroid Roguelike at first glance, and that’s actually a fairly apt way to describe it. There’s a similar sense of dark, forboding loneliness similar to the NES original, albeit in a much simpler game. You’re an ampersand armed with a single artifact with a special ability, and your goal is to make it through 25 levels of the planet Zaga 33. Along the way, various enemies with different behavior profiles will harass you while you try to collect artifacts with unknown uses. One could be a nuke, another could be a drone, yet another might heal your paltry nine hitpoints. They change every game, just like the potions and items in a more full-bodied Roguelike.

But there’s no grinding in Zaga 33- no pets, no gods, no shops, nothing but you and hostile aliens. It’s simply about moving across the screen while either avoiding or killing creatures, outsmarting them when you have no weapons or maybe using a quake artifact to change the map. It’s really tough. Probably not Nethack tough, but the game offers a substantial challenge and since it’s turn-based, a single bad move can put you at a disadvantage.

This was a problem until the game was updated. It had a wonky control scheme where you touched in the direction you wanted to move. The new version has a more precise swipe control. But I still haven’t seen past level 12. It’s a dollar app or you can play it for free on the PC.

Glitch Tank is a card-driven digital board game that also has low-tech graphics. Two tanks meet on an empty black battlefield. Each turn- or simultaneously if you play with the real-time option- players play a card that either moves, turns, or shoots with your tank. With the turn-based option, they’re revealed at the same time- it’s not IGOUGO at all. There are cards that lay mines and drone cards that create smaller tanks that also move with your main vehicle. The idea is that you get your tanks lined up with the enemy and drop a fire card and blow them up. It’s that simple.

But it gets complex when the screen is full of tanks that can push each other into mines or crash and you’re forced to bide time until you draw the card into your hand that you need. There is no pass option, you have to do something. It can be nerve-wracking when you’ve got one hitpoint left and you’ve really, seriously got to get out of the other player’s crosshairs. In real time, it can get pretty hectic but I prefer the more measured play of the turn-based game.

Glitch Tank is for two players. You can play with one person sitting on each side of the iPad or you can play with a decent AI controlling the opposition. Either way, it’s a fun little game that will appeal to fans of games like Wings of War…or Combat for that matter.

So there’s two good IOS games for you, neither of which have cute animals, IAPs, or “freemium” schemes. More like these, please. And more from Mr. Brough.

Lost Temple in Review

I really like Stronghold Games a lot- they’re doing a lot of great reprints (like freaking McMulti/Crude) and they’re also bringing out some interesting and not necessarily safe titles like Panic Station that are positioning them to be the next Z-Man Games, which is in my opinion a very, very good place to be. Last week I reviewed Revolver from them, and word is from the company that there are expansions planned for it that may very well alleviate my one big issue with the game- that it may not have legs over repeated plays.

But they can’t all be winners. Lost Temple, a re-implementation of the Citadels mechanic, is OK but I’d hardly recommend it to anyone apart from large groups that need a 7-8 player game that plays in a reasonable amount of time. It’s essentially a “role selection and move” race game, and the mechanic doesn’t really feel quite right for it. It’s not broken or anything like that, and it can be fun- but it’s just largely unremarkable.

Review is at Gameshark since they paid for it. This week, I’m reviewing Victory Point Games’ Destined Hero- an 8-bit board game.

Nexus Ops Review

Nexus Ops review - Fantasy Flight Games edition box cover

When Wizards of the Coast resurrected the Avalon Hill brand and used it to push out a variety of fast-playing, relatively simple dramatic, narrative-packed games that would have undoubtedly made the staffers at the original Avalon Hill very proud, there was considerable surprise. But what’s perhaps more surprising is that the title which was widely considered the best of those games, Nexus Ops, was allowed to go out of print and never got re-released. Trust Fantasy Flight Games to pick up the slack and make sure gamers got to have another bite at this particular cherry, and they were good enough to send me a copy so I could see for myself what they’ve done with the license.

At first glance there’s little that’s particularly ground-breaking about Nexus Ops. It’s a science fiction game where players use the income from mines they control to buy a variety of human and alien troops with different stats and abilities which then issue forth across a random geomorphic map to do battle and hopefully gain control of some more mines so that there’ll be more money for more troops on future turns. Its design lineage is thus vast and ancient, although it has a very clear relationship with venerable World War 2 dinosaur Axis & Allies in the form of sharing a combat system. But leaving it there would be doing Nexus Ops a vast disservice.

For starters games of this ilk have traditionally been long and complex affairs, frequently governed by an overarching diplomatic meta-game of unstable alliances and unconvincing pleas to attack other players which was as important, if not more so, than mastery of the mechanical strategies of the game. Nexus Ops is neither long nor complex: it takes ten minutes to teach and about thirty minutes per player to complete. And whilst you can certainly do a bit of negotiation to enrich the experience if you so desire, it’s certainly not allowed to dominate the strategy of the game. As a result the game also scales very well across two, three and four players, as it’s hard to meaningfully gang up against a single unfortunate player.

Nexus Ops review - Fantasy Flight games edition miniatures and tiles

The secret to this startling transformation is actually very simple. Instead of the fixed territorial or economic win conditions of most games of this ilk, Nexus Ops works on a victory point model driven by a very large and diverse stack of mission cards for the players to complete. Winning any old combat will net you a point, but depending on what cards you’re holding you might get bonus points depending on where the battle was fought, what units were involved, which special abilities they deployed and how many died in the course of the fight, sometimes even if you lose. This means that a clever player can continue to eke out occasional points from a relatively weak position, and the result is that traditional tactics like ganging up on the leader are still effective without significantly slowing the pace of victory points coming into the game, so keeping it to a manageable length and preventing diplomacy and alliances from dominating the play. In another clever move, players collect these mission cards in secret meaning that a canny gamer who has set up the board to his advantage can quite suddenly cash in a number of cards and come from nowhere to lead or even win the game. This system rewards smart play, aggression and careful planning whilst remaining deliciously exciting and tense. It’s an absolute gem, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been more widely copied elsewhere.

To add to the variety players also get a hand of power-ups called Energise Cards, which have a wide range of different, well-designed effects and which often require skill and foresight to use to maximum effect. In a nice simple mechanism to help keep weaker players from sinking completely, winning a battle nets you victory points but losing one nets you an energise card. But the easiest way to get these cards is simply to control the central space on the board, known as the Monolith, which gives you two each turn. This is a fantastic way of encouraging the players to fight rather than hang back and build up but rather awkwardly, two cards per turn seems to be a bit too powerful while one seems insufficient reward for the effort of defending this important space.

Aside from this slight imbalance, the only other black mark against the game is a certain feeling deja-vu and repetition that creeps in after a few plays, the sense that you’ve seen this before, done it in the past. And this is where the Fantasy Flight reprint comes into its own. It looks like they’ve tweaked a couple of cards here and there but the major difference between this and the previous version is an appendix in the rules containing a quite staggering number of variants for you to try in order to help keep things fresh. Two try to solve the Monolith balance problem, one by awarding a choice of victory points or cards, other by turning the Monolith into a chaotic vortex that sucks units up and spits them out elsewhere, which will be pleasing for those who want more randomness. This is completed by another which posits face-up missions that anyone can fulfil, and will be pleasing for those who want less randomness. There are variant board set-ups, unit powers and exploration rules and more besides. They are, for the most part, well-designed and hugely welcome.

Nexus Ops review - Avalon Hill edition under UV light

The other thing that Fantasy Flight did to Nexus Ops was to give it a fairly major visual overhaul. The original game had the peculiar innovation of featuring miniatures sculpted out of a transparent plastic that reeked of solvents and glowed under ultraviolet light. I’ve always wondered where on earth the people at Avalon Hill got that idea from, whether they think all board gamers are basement-dwelling troglodytes who would naturally have several UV lamps hanging around in order to enjoy this spectacular effect. In real life I don’t own a UV light, and I’ve never met another game who has ever seen the glow in action, although photographs exist that demonstrate how cool it is. But however pointless the addition might be, its mere presence endeared it to a lot of gamers, who complained that the Fantasy Flight reprint is muddy and ugly. And whilst this observation is entirely correct it seems to miss the fact that unless you play regularly under UV, the original is horribly garish and just as ugly. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I see no earthly reason to prefer the original over this reprint with its gameplay additions and (probably remote) possibility of expansions.

Nexus Ops is a wonderful game, which offers a rare and pleasing balance of strategic choice and escalating skill against randomness, variety and vibrant player interaction all wrapped up in a highly manageable package. It also represents, I think, a watershed moment in game design when suddenly a very large number of much longer, much more complex and much less interesting older games became obsolete because we suddenly saw how easily all the chaff could be stripped away, leaving us focussed on the core joys of planning extreme violence and rolling dice. One thing that length and complexity do bring to the table though is an epic, grandstanding feel and that’s the one thing that Nexus Ops lacks which its predecessors had. Otherwise, you’d be hard pressed to find a better way of fitting a nice slice of science fiction combat into your games evenings than this.

The Function of Criticism

Criticism - do we review games or do we critique them like art, and what's the purpose of doing either

It’s rare that I hear about a game and decide that it’s a must-buy. Rather, I prefer to take the softly-softly approach: wait, see what the community consensus is, read some reviews of the game and (if it’s a board game) the rules and then make a decision. Often, however many reams of text I end up digesting in the course of this process, it’ll be one paragraph, even one sentence that makes me choose one way or the other. Increasingly, I’m asking myself why I bother.

It’s also come to my attention that a lot, probably the majority, of people don’t choose stuff this way. There’s much more of a tendency to impulse buy stuff. And if you read a lot of the comments that people make on game reviews you’ll notice something else: it’s quite clear that a lot of the people who read reviews and comment on them have already played the game in question. They’ve come to the review seeking either validation of their own point of view, or the opportunity to disagree publicly with the opinions of the reviewer. And this begs the question: what’s the purpose of a review? Perhaps more importantly, is the perception of what most people want from a review the same as what reviewers believe they want?

I’ll tell you what I want from a review. I want to get a sense of what a game feels like to play, what the experience is like, what sort of emotions it engenders in the player(s). I like a bit of logistical information too and I want a clear reviewers slant telling me whether they think it’s a good game or not, and why. Personally I think you can do all that and still provide people who might not agree with you with enough information to help them decide whether they might think it’s a good game or not. That’s what I’d look for, and so obviously that’s what I’ve tried to provide in my reviews. I’m not sure I succeed all that well, too often getting sucked down into the mechanical detail needed as a foundation to explain why I think certain things about certain games, but I try. And frankly whether I’m happy with what I write or not, I do think it’s better than a lot of other stuff out there which seems to boil down to some mixture of verbatim instructional re-write, comedy value or “New! Shiny! Awesome!”

There’s a reason for this. I can’t claim the insight for myself, but our very own Michael Barnes has been pointing out for several years that professional criticism of all sorts of games is a relatively new phenomenon. In the video game sector, progress has been held back by a pathetically patronising long-time perception that games were for kids, and kids didn’t need proper reviews, although it’s finally starting to come of age. For tabletop games, a stubborn celebration of amateurism seems to have become entrenched, no doubt partially due to virtually zero professional coverage of the genre. And without a professional attitude, you can’t have the self-examination necessary to ask what the purpose of a review is, and thus how you might go about improving it.

But perhaps unsurprisingly if you turn to the more mature formats of books, films and plays, vast amounts of ink have been expended on the subject of the purpose of criticism. Equally unsurprisingly given the subjective nature of the material, little agreement has been reached. At the heart of the discussion seems to be the tug between wanting to help and inform readers whilst avoiding preaching to them. On the one hand, it’s likely that any given game reviewer probably knows a bit more about games than the audience in terms of insider industry information, the longer history of gaming and wider exposure to different current generation games, and therefore is in a better position to explore whether a game is not only any good but also genuinely innovative than the reader. On the other hand taste is of course entirely subjective, so how does a bit of education and eloquence give a few elite authors the right to dictate that something is good or otherwise, often in the face of popular opinion?

All opinions are equal. But some are more equal than others.

It seems that one of the common answers to this is to say that criticism is an art form in and of itself and so has no particular rights or wrongs outside the eye of the observer. I can see the attraction to this as a way of answering the dilemma of whether a critic should inform or preach, but it’s a get-out clause, an unsatisfactory answer for a number of reasons. For starters, in any form of criticism, it’s circular: it the work of an art critic is itself art, then that makes the criticism a valid target for other critics and so on. And whilst this is true, it turns a subject and its critics into a closed circle, which is liable to stagnate and is useless and impenetrable to outside readers. Which is pretty much what’s happened in the modern art world if you ask me, but I digress. It also comes no closer to answering our initial question. And when it comes to games there’s another problem, which is the question of whether a game is art in the first place.

This is a complex question that’s been tackled by others elsewhere and I can’t properly do it justice. In the past I would have argued that all game design is inherently mathematical, and that makes the status of games as art dubious. But more recently with advances in AI technology, emergent gameplay and multiplayer collusion it’s become far more of an open question. Nowadays I would say that they can be art. In video games the existence of titles like Journey bridges the gap between games created deliberately as art pieces and those created for playability. Board games have been skirting round this territory for longer, and in rather different ways, but arguably politicised games such as War on Terror or GMT’s Labyrinth and story-telling games like Once Upon A Time or Tales of the Arabian Nights fulfil a similar function.

But of course just because some games can be art, doesn’t mean they all can. I’m reminded of the chapters in American Psycho where the narrator offers in-depth analysis of rubbish pop bands such as Huey Lewis & The News. A lot of games, the majority, are just empty-headed shooters and platformers after all. But if some games have the potential to be art, even though many are not it strikes me that perhaps they have to be reviewed as though could be art. After all, one can write a clear and compelling review of mass-market rubbish while comparing and contrasting it with more rarefied examples because both, ultimately, spring from the same source. Film critics make much of their money doing exactly that. And if that’s the case perhaps a review can never be truly helpful in guiding people toward relevant purchases. In my years of reviewing I’ve struggled hugely with trying to address the question of how best to do this, continually being thwarted by the amorphous nature of my subject matter and the wide spectrum of taste in my audience. A lot of art critics don’t feel that advising readers is a key part of what they do and perhaps its part and parcel of game criticism maturing that authors and audience alike abandon the pretence that reviews are a realistic way of helping people decide what to buy.

Not all critics are good writers

So if we’re not in the business of giving commercial advice, why are we here? One of the things that I enjoy about writing reviews is that the process of organising the text helps to get my own thoughts into a coherent, sensible order and perhaps more importantly to explore them more deeply and see where they lead. That seems very insular as a stated purpose for something that is intended for a wider audience, but perhaps reading a review serves the same function, to offer clarity to the jumble of concepts we all carry around in our heads as we think about and play games. The existence of reviews has a further advantage of particular use in the internet age and that’s to engender discussion on the subject which hopefully leads to new avenues to explore and, in extreme cases, to new concepts being adopted by designers, developers and publishers. But you can achieve these same goals through editorial-style content such as this very piece: it may be that the thoughts they clarify and discussion they engender lack focus in comparison to the effects produced by a review of a specific product, but that seems a poor reason for reviews to exist as a stand-alone concept. You’d get the same effect sooner or later from a succession of opinion pieces.

So it seems that a good way to answer the question of why we write and read reviews would be to look at what – if anything – makes a review distinct from a less focussed opinion piece. And I suspect that the answer is actually in the question: focus. By forcing the writer to concentrate on a specific piece of work and comment from their, it means that what could be an opinion piece is actually an analysis piece. Instead of offering airy-fairy thoughts, they have to anchor what they’re saying in reality, provide evidence and reasons for their opinions. You could do the same in an opinion piece of course but you don’t have to, and I imagine most of us are familiar enough with the more extreme forms of fact-free journalism promulgated by the tabloid press, and the manner in which it is often swallowed wholesale, to understand the value of being rooted in reality. Furthermore because that analysis is focussed down on particular, individual products, the discussion that it engenders has a much higher chance of resulting in something equally concrete, feedback that a developer or publisher can take on board, react to, use to improve the quality of their output. Reviews and criticism entertain and inform readers certainly, but their final purpose may well be their ability to push the envelope of design, development and publishing. The ongoing furores over the re-sale of used games and the lack of creativity in AAA titles suggest that without people capable of articulating what’s right and wrong with existing games and starting meaningful discussions around those subjects, the industry has little hope of delivering improvements for their own sake. But sadly, it seems to me that the current poor state of reviews on far too many outlets has little chance of managing to making a lot of difference. At the moment, that’s still up to the fans, and the fuss over the ending to Mass Effect 3 demonstrates that it’s not always desirable that fan power should win over artistic integrity.

I suspect that the answer to my original question that we have arrived at is a lot less interesting than the journey we took to find it. And that highlights the final point I want to make, which is that although we may have found it reasonable to suggest that games reviews share a lot of common ground with the critique of high art there is a long, long way to go before we can meaningfully compare them on the same level. But there is hope that one day we might get there. And perhaps most importantly of all there is certainty that in the exciting, gruelling process of forging this new art, there is room for all of us to contribute and to help shape whatever it is that rises from the flames into something we can hold up and be proud of.

A big thank you to Jesse Dean of who started the ball rolling in my head on this subject. He’s posting his own series of pieces about it, starting by wondering why the flawed A Few Acres of Snow got a free ride from reviewers.

Sine Mora in Review- a Shmup Masterpiece

Sine Mora, new to XBLA this week via Hungarian studio Digital Reality in partnership with Suda 51’s Grasshopper Manufacture, is a stunning masterpiece of the “bullet hell” shoot ‘em up genre. It’s a devastatingly beautiful, crushingly difficult orchestration of creativity and challenge, a true East-meets-West shmup summit that deserves to stand alongside the best from such masters of the form as Treasure and Cave. It’s cleverly classical, paying homage and due deference to genre definition. But it also revises and surprises in a way that isn’t very common within a game style that doesn’t offer much wiggle room either in terms of innovation or in the pixel-width spaces between the millions of bullets that streak across the screen.

At eye level, the look is jaw-dropping with every element from the extremely detailed side-scrolling backgrounds to the tiniest of aircraft rendered in full 3D. Squadrons in the distance bank over lush, rolling hillscapes to attack. Environments are uniformly compelling, evocative and fascinating from undersea tunnels populated by worms that explode in an acid shower to automated robot factories that are visual tapestries of machines and mayhem. The art style is equal parts Porco Rosso-era Miyazaki , French comics such as Blacksad or Metal Hurlant, and Metal Slug.

Anthropomorphic animals tell the game’s vague, largely suggested science fiction story in subtitled Hungarian, speaking in interstitial narratives and through in-flight pilot chatter. It’s a tale of revenge, rebellion, loss, and time control. A chief concept in Sine Mora- which translates from the Latin to “without delay”- is time, and its function as a game element is absolutely brilliant.

Per the title, a sometimes brutal urgency informs every single second of this game. Unlike most shmups with one-hit kills or a shield bar, your proximity to death is measured by a timer. Being struck by anything that the game throws at you incurs a time penalty, and when it hits zero, your time is up. But time can be earned by destroying enemies, so there is constantly an impetus to shoot something, anything, to keep the timer flush with precious seconds.

It’s almost a racing game-inspired concept, but instead of hitting checkpoints to increase the timer you’re shooting at things. This creates some interesting and unusually tactical decision points during gameplay. where you might really need to destroy a particular weapon on a boss that has a difficult-to-avoid bullet spread but with just a few seconds left until death, the better target might be another component with a shorter damage bar.

There is also a time capsule mechanic, which slows everything down. It can make finding your path through the torrential hail of bullets easier or you can use it strategically to line up a shot. Power-ups increase the meter, and there are also pick-ups that impart a color-coded shield, secondary weapon replenishment, or primary weapon upgrades.

You’ll need to grab what you can because Sine Mora is tough. The Story mode offers two difficulty modes but even the “normal” one will test the mettle- and patience- of more casual shmuppers. The higher difficulty settings and the insanely difficult Arcade mode will be were the pros and masochists roost. There are also score attack and boss practice modes.

And oh, those bosses. They are, simply put, among the best if not the best shmup bosses I’ve ever seen, and there’s not a dud among them. I can’t say that I’ve ever had to battle an observatory before, let alone a towering robot construction worker called Papa Carlo. The boss fights are inspired, grueling, and truly epic. The showstopper is a battle against a rotating labyrinth, as much a test of endurance and fine control as it is about shooting its four cores. The mechanical design for the bosses is the work of Mahiro Maeda, a renowned anime illustrator with Neon Genesis Evangelion among his credits. The astonishing bosses in this game are some of his finest work.

Akira Yamaoka also turns in his best in audio support of this shmup masterpiece. The soundtrack is on par with this rest of this outstanding game, a sophisticated retro-electro collection of tracks influenced by Giorgio Moroder (particularly Midnight Express), Vangelis, and some of Jean-Michel Jarre’s darker work. From look to gameplay to score, this game fires on all cylinders without a single skip in its diesel(punk) engine. Even the stark, beautifully designed menus and logos are worth praise.

The nitpick fault most will cite is that it is short- at least if your idea of completing the game is a single pass through the seven-stage story mode on the normal difficulty. I’ve played through the story mode three times and have been enjoying some of the other more difficult modes using a variety of unlockable planes and pilots, logging well over four hours with the game in a week. And I still want to get back into it almost every time I turn on the 360. Sine Mora is a best-in-class game to be savored, loved, and played for years to come.