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Bolt Thrower: XCOM TBG, Steam Sale, Witcher 3

XCOM The Final Team

My Gamerati series is actually running a bit ahead of my columns here, so this week you get another one! This time it’s deconstructing XCOM: The Board Game.

In the sense of looking, sounding and playing like the original video game XCOM is an abysmal failure. And this is a good thing. There’s no way a tabletop game could try and replicate the bizarre blend of strategy, tactics, economics and role-playing that made the original such fun.

Instead it wisely goes for the strategic layer alone. And it does a very clever thing. By using a simple but tense and effective push your luck mechanic for resolving pretty much everything it captures the feel of the video game. That sense of always being one risk away from victory of failure is part of what made XCOM so compelling. The tabletop version has that same texture about it.

So it’s a great game which evokes the sense of XCOM while being nothing like it. That’s smart design. Smart enough that you’ll want to read the original in full for all the detail.

Anyway, on to the actual video games. I’ve spent most of the last fortnight gleefully generating and selling trading cards from the awful Steam sale mini-game. Not sure why the bothered with the effort of coding that, especially since you could get cards without playing.

I’ve spent more than I ought to on games I’ll probably never play because they sound fun and were less than the price of a sandwich. Looking at my vast collection of untouched Steam games compared with my tiny collection of expensive console games made me wonder. What does this glut of cheap games do to our perception of value?

My Steam collection contains a large number of excellent, deep and long-running games that I’ve only played for an hour or two. STALKER, Left 4 Dead 2 and TorchLight 2 are just a few examples. Because I bought them all on the cheap I had no sense of compulsion to plough on and make the most of them. These great games have become throwaway rubbish in my head, just because of the price I paid.

Contrast this with console games that I’ve paid a pretty penny to obtain. I’ve played almost all of those for multiple hours just to be sure I got full value for money out of them. They were all fun, although many were just averagely so. A few, however, like Gears of War, I kept on with in spite of an average start and eventually found to be amazing games. Had they been Steam sale titles, they’d have languished, forgotten.

It’s the same with the low, low prices on the app store. Because freemium exists, excellent games are often priced at a pittance. A hundred or so of them sit barely played on my iTunes account.

I’ve always been dismissive of the argument the music industry makes that making things cheap or free reduces their value in the eyes of the consumer. It seemed like a feeble excuse to try and keep profits up in the face of piracy instead of innovating. Now I’m not so sure. While music and games are quite different things, there do seem to be parallels here. I enjoy games more when I’ve paid good money for them. And I worry about what the value perception here means for game prices in the long term.

witcher1

One of those expensive titles, The Witcher 3, continues to occupy all my gaming time right now. It’s very good, a fantastic blend of action, role-playing and fantasy narrative that just makes you want to keep on playing and playing. While not truly open world, the areas you play in are vast, and reward exploration and creativity.

Yet there are aspects of the design that I find bizarre and baffling. The most ludicrous is the teleporting horse. In such big areas you need fast transport, and in this fantasy setting it’s provided in equine form. Because you might need it any time, you can whistle for it and it magically comes trotting in from the edge of the map, no matter how far away you left it.

The silliest example is when you’ve been on the water. The horse can’t swim, so to cross water you have to get off and swim or use a boat. Yet when you get to your destination, you whistle and the horse somehow finds its way across, even if you’re on an island. This is so patently idiotic it ruins my sense of immersion every time.

It’s an example of the way AAA games have arrived at a strange place where they’re forced to be realistic while making endless concessions to design. The horse can’t swim, yet it can cross the water when you need it to. So why not just have a damn magical swimming horse in the first place and save all this silly busy work, this clicking and waiting to no benefit?

Witcher 3 is full of this stuff. Equipment needs repairing so you’re forced to find a smith to do the job and wait until sunrise for him to open. Why? It adds nothing to the game. One smith in Velen highlights the issue starkly. He goes to bed when the sun goes down, yet his kids stay up all day and all night, playing in his yard. Where’s the sense of realism there?

Games are not real. That’s kind of the whole point of games. Even if they wish to strive for realism, the technology is so far away from it as to be laughable. We can’t even work out how to make pretend people who’ll react sensibly when you put a bucket on their head and steal their stuff. Trying to defend the inane “realism” in these games causes fanboys to tie themselves in knots, trying to defend the lack of black people in a land filled with ghouls and griffins. It’s about time we just dropped this stupid pretense, and played.

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.

A Batch of GOG and Witcher 2 Announcements

CD Projekt Red held their “Spring Conference” yesterday, which consisted of several Witcher 2 related announcements and a bunch of updates at GOG. (I was rather hoping we’d hear about a new CD Projekt initiative or two, but no such luck.) Here’s the highlights from CD Projekt:

– The Witcher: Enhanced Edition is now available for the Mac (through Steam)
– All Witcher 2 owners get a “complimentary backup copy” of the game on GOG.com (which, of course, means it’s DRM-free). More details here.
– Current Witcher 2 owners can pre-download the Enhanced Edition updates to their PCs on April 11th, six days ahead of the actual release date of April 17th. (You won’t be able to play the EE before the release date, however.)
– There will be a motion comic set in the Witcher universe released, for free, for iOS devices. The comic, “stars witcher Geralt in a perilous situation where the reknowned monster hunter may finally meet his match, fighting a cunning werecat in a battle to the death and where politics may force him to stay his hand.”
– 1,000 copies of Witcher 2 for Xbox will be made available to “enthusiast reviewers.” If you think you’d qualify and want to get in on this action you can find more information here.

On the GOG front, well, those folks have been rather busy:

– For about another 24 hours or so (as of this post), you can add Fallout to your account and download it for free. This offer expires at 23:59 GMT. I’ll let you do the time conversion.
– New “GOG.com Premium Editions” of the original Assassin’s Creed: Director’s Cut and Heroes of Might and Magic V Bundle are now available. You can get them both together until April 19th for 19.99. There’s also, according the to the PR, a full gigabyte of the usual extra GOG goodies included with these games, soundtracks, artbooks, etc. You have to marvel at the prospect of two Ubisoft games showing up on a DRM-free service.
– There’s a pre-order special for the upcoming release of Botanicula, an adventure game from the folks that brought you Machinarium. From now until the game’s release on April 19th, you’ll be able to get it for $8.99.

In light of some of the discontent we’ve been expressing towards the industry this week (well, mostly me), it’s important to point out where the good guys are in this business, and GOG and CD Projekt certainly fit that category. That said, I’m really most interested in a new game going up at GOG next week that went unmentioned: Legends of Grimlock. Party-based RPG for the win!

UPDATE: There’s also a terrific interview at RPS today with GOG’s managing director, Guillaume Rambourg. Well worth checking out.