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.
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.
Cue the fanfare and raise the curtain, it’s time to unveil The Review Corner @ Miniaturemarket.com! This is a project myself and a crack team of writers have been working on in secret since early February and we’re happy to finally roll it out to the public. It’s an idea that was cooked up by my man Charlie Theel- he pitched the concept of starting a regular reviews feature at Miniature Market’s site and they were totally on board. What’s more, they are committed to developing the feature into a leading source for high quality, authoritative games writing.
Yours truly has stepped up to take the Editor-in-Chief reins so I am, more or less, the boss. I wrangle the writers into some semblance of a schedule, harangue them for comma splices, shove style guides in their faces and where necessary offer kindly red-pen rewrites when they venture off into terrible pop culture references or if they wander too far afield from writing strictly about the games and the experiences they provide.
Charile Theel is my lieutenant, he’s our Lead Writer and I’m honored that I was the first person he wanted to bring on board after Miniature Market gave the high sign to move forward. Charlie and I have selected a crew of folks that range from seasoned vets to some new writers that we felt deserved a chance to reach a bigger audience. I do not agree with all of our writers. There are a couple of writers that have a style that I don’t personally care for. But the goal was to provide a wide range of interests, opinions and approaches so I think you’ll be impressed with the diversity on display.
But let’s be upfront about something. This is a paid gig for an online retailer so we are well aware that the first thought on many minds will be “shill reviews”. I’m going to bury that assumption right here. What you will not see at the Review Corner are reviews written to drive sales. We are not writing these reviews to steer buyers to a purchase. Miniature Market’s leadership is 100% behind our writers expressing themselves honestly. This was one of the key things I personally discussed with Miniature Market, that we would have absolutely no credibility if we could not give a total bomb of a game a one-star rating. They completely agreed, without exception.
We are rating on a star system, which I actually despise because I am a firm believer that a solid review does not need to have some kind of calculated score. But it’s a popular method and I decided to go with it under the stipulation that our writers use the FULL scale and understand that a game that is rated five stars isn’t just a game you think is really great- it’s a game that is a significant release. Likewise, a one star game isn’t one that “sucks”- it’s one that has fundamental, terminal problems in its rules, production or gameplay.
Also in the name of full disclosure- some of these games will be comped to our writers by Miniature Market, but not publishers or designers. Our writers (and myself) are paid, so this is a pro-level gig. And as the EIC, I expect pro-level work and pro-level integrity at all times.
I had a plan. It included skipping Brakketology last week. It’s a holiday and there wasn’t much happening that I was interested in writing about. I mean sure, I did land an Xbox One on launch day, but that’s all considerably less exciting when it’s a gift for the kids that will go unopened until December 25th. (I am trusting you with this secret. Mum is the word.) I’m rather proud of myself, actually, for not so much as opening the box, which I was sorely tempted to do. Not part of the plan was our esteemed Mr. Abner landing the flu Sunday night, forcing us to cancel the podcast. We’re definitely sorry not to have an episode go up yesterday, but Brandon and I will get something recorded this week and up for next Monday.
And so it goes.
In the meantime things are happening…
This was a lie to get you to click over. There is very little happening. Almost nothing remotely interesting at all. So instead of rounding up the Internet in search of boring things, let’s talk about actually playing stuff. Which I’ve been doing! Huzzah! (Fair warning, while I try to be vague in most places, there are spoilers herein.)
Running from the dead. Like, a lot. A couple weeks ago I played through Telltale’s Walking Dead adaptation. It’s every bit as good as you’ve heard about. You have to give Telltale some real credit here because all choice and consequence in a game is illusion and this is one of the most effective efforts I’ve seen at making said illusion feel authentic. The way they weaved characters in and out of the story made it possible for Telltale to keep the interesting choices coming every time conflict arrived (be that conflict be with zombies or between characters). And, yes, having a kid to protect, though easy to botch, always makes things more interesting. The fact that Clementine is not much younger than my own daughter (do they establish her age?) amplified my protective motions ten-fold. I didn’t see little Clementine in danger. I saw my own kids and I made decisions based on what I’d do if it were my own kids in mortal peril.
Now there are your obligatory pitfalls and they mirror the same pitfalls you get from the show. Encounters with walkers coming out of nowhere are all too predictable. Has the story gone for awhile without a zombie? Is this the worst possible time for a zombie to appear in the most unlikely of places? If the answer to those questions is yes, you’re going to find a zombie jump on top of someone, often when all common sense says this would be impossible. Also, because there is need for character drama, characters do bicker and argue and fight for reasons that strain credibility. Not in every instance, but it happens. No one is more emblematic of this than Kenny. There are times he’s a dick and it feels incredibly forced and other times… shudder. What that man endures.
Then there’s the end. You had to know your own fate was coming. There’s just no place else it could’ve gone, but The Bite is a classic example of one of said forced zombie gotcha moments. The fallout from it, however, prevents this contrived moment from derailing the story. How you handle your crew and how it leads into the variable paths in the final chapter is brilliant. (I’m proud to say I kept everyone together upon entering the final chapter.) What I’m less okay with is little Clem on the run. I had it play out such that two of the characters were supposed to be waiting for her at a specified place. She knew where she was to go. Why do I see her wandering in the middle of nowhere in the final shot? Perhaps the 400 Days DLC, which I’ve purchased but haven’t started yet, provides an adequate answer to this question?
The enemy. He is within. But not really. I finished the XCOM expansion, Enemy Within, last night. This really doesn’t prevent the game from being great, but the Enemy Within theme is a bit of a red herring. One, there’s the terrorist organization, Exalt. It’s rather insane to think a group like this would have these motivations –Aliens, yay! We say, let ’em win!– and still be anything more than a fringe group gathering in some in a basement or off in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. The notion that they’re a well-funded XCOM rival is ludicrous. Whatever. It does make the gameplay better by presenting you with a few more interesting encounters that force you to adjust your tactics. Exalt squads operate like XCOM squads and that makes them much different to face on the field than the aliens.
Then there’s the gene splicing and meching. You splice and dice your soldiers six ways from Sunday, which you’re supposed to believe creates a moral dilemma in which you wonder if adapting alien DNA and whatnot to human soldiers comes with undesirable consequences. Aside from Chief Engineer Killjoy hemming and hawing every five minutes, it does no such thing. No soldiers are compromised through having their abilities. In terms of gameplay gene splicing and meching out and adding psi abilities is pure win with zero pitfall. This is fine. It’s what best serves the game, but it also makes the Enemy Within framing look silly.
As Ray Stanz will tell you, don’t look at the trap and you’ll be fine, because the game itself is aces. There is no going back to pre-Enemy Within XCOM. Gene-spliced skills are gravy. Properly upgraded and used MECs are essential tools throughout. The only real problem is that XCOM is a game in which the beginning is hard, but if you survive to the middle it gets progressively easier. This is even more true with all these extra tools at your disposal. By the end, playing on Normal difficulty, it’s laughably easy. I had all nations satellite covered with no raised panic levels. I had researched everything I could find. (Either somewhere something didn’t pop or the achievement is wanked in Steam.) I had built everything in the Foundry. I could field two full squads of major/colonel-level troops, complete with maxed out psi abilities and a host of gene mods. I reached the final mission (unchanged after this expansion) and waxed the Ethereal Commander dude two turns after he appears. This is not the climactic battle you were hoping for. (And it would have been one turn had he not deflected my sniper’s epic headshot.)
I understand some of this is that the difficulty level in that Normal is really too easy. My next game will have to bump up to Classic difficulty, which I’ve read is punitively difficult. (There are still too many problems with errant clicking and the occasional crash to make playing on Ironman mode worthwhile.) That’s not the problem, though. The problem is that the difficulty curve actually starts out high and then, as long as you are successful through the midgame, drops precipitously. This doesn’t change with the difficulty. It’s backwards in that it’s all about surviving until you have satellite coverage (no small feat, that) and once you do, you’ll have enough extra resources coming out of your ears to dress up every aspect of your squad(s). It is disappointing that Firaxis didn’t do more to re-balance the curve (and possibly stick a difficulty level in between Normal and Classic, where aliens land ridiculous crits aplenty), but it does not stop this from being a must-play for XCOM fans. Hell, I’ve now played through twice on PC, with about two other half-plays, plus another 2/3 completed game on iOS. This is not something I do with other, non-Bioware, games.
Some other things worth noting:
– Medals are a cool addition, but the game went from dishing them out too often in the early going, to not at all from the mid-point forward. I don’t know if it’s coded this way (which would be odd) or if I hit a bug that prevented them from being awarded. It was a bummer either way.
– Meld, like many facets of the game, is both great and far too plastic. If a mission has Meld it will feature two cannisters of it. The first cannister is always nearby and almost always easy to get to. The second cannister lasts longer but is harder to suss out. You will not have to try hard to have enough Meld to field a couple of fully upgraded MECs and a handful of gene-enhanced squaddies. I think they would have made the decision to go after it or not more difficult if it didn’t act as full-height cover.
– The new maps for random missions were sorely needed and made a huge difference.
– Fire >>> Chrysallids.
– Sectopods == Death (still)
– The scripted missions are better than the ones in vanilla XCOM. The XCOM base invasion is just bananas (in a good way), but I think it was a bit crap to not let you equip your guys before it starts. I see what they’re going for, but equipping your squad is a pain in the butt that is only tolerable because the game establishes that you always get to equip your squad before the mission starts. (The new free up equipment button is a godsend.) Having it throw your guys into the fray based on whatever they had on last (including whether or not they ditched equipment because of injuries) is incredibly dumb and potentially game-killing because if you lose the mission you lose the game. (Ironman players, you are warned.) Then there’s the whale mission. LOL. Hat tip.
– Being able to use international voices for your international soldiers doesn’t change gameplay, but the little extra flavor is worth a lot.
Look upon the eyes of the dragon and despair. Merlin was, of course, talking to Morgana when he said that, but he could easily have been speaking of game designer and “monetization design consultant” Ethan Levy, who wrote a piece on F2P success at Games Industry Biz. It is insightful, based on sound data, and wholly abhorrent to anyone who actually cares about games. A snippet, cherry-picked to set you against him:
When I compare Arkham Origins to Gods Among Us [ed: the F2P releases, not the “real” games], my sense as a player and a game designer is that NetherRealms has made an undoubtedly better game, but a worse free-to-play product. They have made fundamental changes that will earn them brownie points with gamers wary of free-to-play, but have a negative impact on P&L. Even more damaging is the effect of diverting resources from a top grossing, live game to build a new product. I know from firsthand experience how difficult hiring talented team members can be in a competitive space like mobile game development. But by shifting resources instead of growing the overall mobile team to support multiple games (which I assume is the case solely based on the credits) Warner Bros. has not only delivered a lower performing product, they have missed months’ worth of opportunity to add new features to Injustice that would grow player base and profitability.
I bang my anti-F2P drum on, very nearly, a weekly basis. This kind of stuff is why. These games aren’t games. Games are creative expressions and therefor are art forms. They may often be very low art, but they are creative endeavors and while there is money to be made (nor can they be made without it), you are not making great games if your primary design axiom is built on how you get players to stop in the middle of what they’re doing and fork over more money, and then do so again a session or two later (and again, and again). And that, of course, is F2P’s problem. When games are designed and built to get you coming back to the feeder bar as much as possible without getting too pissed off to abandon the title outright then they are no longer games of any substance or worth. If you eat, sleep, and breathe that business, then you’re not Satan exactly, but you are the guy who goes into the corner store to buy Satan a pack of cigarettes. (Points for you if you know where I’ve stolen that line from.)
Make us a good game, rather than a nickel and dime delivery system, and we’ll pay you for it. Speaking of real games…
Captain’s log, long-range scanners reveal Teh Awesumz! For months after FTL’s release I dropped by the FTL site/forums to see if there’s news about what it’s creators are up to. I eventually stopped. So it figures that now they pop up with not only a new, free mega-update for the PC version, but also news that an iOS version is coming (both in January). The new additions include:
Mind Control System: Temporarily turn enemies into allies. Force a boarder to repair the damage they just did, or have the enemy pilot sabotage their own helm.
Hacking System: Lockdown and disrupt enemy systems. Unique effects for each system, ranging from forcing a teleporter remove boarders to making the medbay damage instead of heal.
New Sector and Events: Our writer Tom Jubert (http://tom-jubert.blogspot.co.uk/) has returned along with special guest writer Chris Avellone (of Planescape fame), who managed to find some time for us between his work onProject Eternity and Wasteland 2. They’ve been helping us add a new sector and scatter new events throughout the rest of the game.
New Weapons and Effects: Many new weapons that take advantage of new mechanics: overcharging to increase the number of volleys, stun effects to freeze crew, and area effect targeting, to name a few.
And more systems, drones, augments, enemy ships, enemy layouts, and hostile environments. All of which we’ll be sure to talk about more in the coming weeks!
Picture the free-to-play version of this game and think about how awful it would be. I can see it now; in the middle of a pitched battle, FTL sticks out its hand to ask you for real world money if you want to upgrade your ship’s armor or put out that fire in the med-bay. Sounds like a winner, doesn’t it?
Well crap. I have Enemy Within loaded up on my PC, but haven’t gotten into it yet. I’ve been concern-trolling for months, however, that the whole national panic level versus satellites versus adequate funds balance was at risk of tipping straight over because of all the extra stuff in the expansion; if, that is, Firaxis didn’t go through and thoroughly re-balance the thing. Based on Alec Meer’s review of the expansion it doesn’t sound like they did:
I’ve said this before, but I think the need for rapid, expensive and slow satellite coverage is the weakest part of XCOM. It requires too much, and obtaining those things is too convoluted
It’s deeply illogical, it involves dependency upon dependency upon dependency, and it means that not prioritising satellites over everything else early in the game can lead to an inescapable early game-over later on. This is due to the still-aggravating fact you’re not allowed to carry out all Terror missions when they come up, but instead must choose one of three, and thus have no choice but to increase panic in not just the nations whose missions you couldn’t do, but every nation in the same continent. Too much panic means a nation drops out of funding you, and as well as this limiting your teching up, if enough nations drop out it’s game over. A mess, and not a hot one at that.
So yes, the new upgrades do complicate that fudged system further, but not dramatically – just be mindful that your resources will be stretched more thinly, and try to concentrate on getting more satellites up before you succumb to the temptation of super-soldiers.
Now, to provide full context, Meer clearly doesn’t think it’s a deal-breaker for the expansion, which he’s largely positive on. (This is understatement, it’s a very positive review.) To me, this isn’t a killer, but it remains very worrisome. The satellite/terror level stuff is the weakest part of the game from a conception/implementation standpoint and if there’s nothing there to make it work better and smarter, that’s not a game-killer, necessarily, but it is disappointing.
New recipe, same ingredients. Also, as long as I’m pimping Mr. Meer’s work so slovenly, be sure to check out his review of Burial at Sea Part 1 (of 2), the Bioshock Ininite DLC. Well worth the read. I’ll get to that at some point, but I already wish it didn’t feature more of this:
But as with Columbia, the problem is the attempt to have the monsters co-exist with the men and women of a supposedly functioning city. Infinite’s approach was to simply clear the stage of non-violent life whenever weapons were wielded – a clean switch for sure, and some have defended it as an open admission that the place was consciously a theme park rather than a community, but for me it meant great dissonance. Where is everyone going to? How can the people in this part of the city be so content and unworried when two minutes away there are crazy bastards and open conflict everywhere?
Sadly, Burial At Sea’s long-awaited demonstration of Rapture at its opulent peak pulls the same trick; whether it’s one of technological necessity or deliberate design I of course do not know.
Banners raised. Banner Saga is coming out January 14th. Funded at 7x it’s target goal, it’s not like the game suffered for my having failed to back it, but I always meant to. It looks phenomenal. From the release date announcement:
What’s left to do? We’ll be spending an appropriate amount of time on playtesting, polish and balance. We’ve been getting help from a QA house to help us find and write bugs because the game has become both long and complex at this point. What we originally envisioned as a 6 hour game is probably closer to 15+ hours on the first playthrough, and all the branching variables and additional systems are time-consuming to test. We’ll also be playing through the game a lot to get combat balance in as good a state as we can. Lastly, you may have heard this before, but polish is the difference between a good game and a great game in our minds. Personal touches, transitions and making sure that everything is finely polished is really important to us. For example, we’ve added procedural snow, random events in travel, items in combat, an interactive world map, every godstone in the game and tons of new characters and classes.
Is this cool? It seems like it should be cool. There’s a fresh Kickstarter project, Eon Altar, that I bring up here precisely because I can’t decide if it’s the next neato idea for lovers of pen and paper RPGing or if it’s just kinda lame. Flying Helmet games is looking to sell you on the idea that in-person RPGing can be fun if we all gather ’round a tablet for a little vintagy RPG action and then use our phones to manage our characters.
Among the problems I see from watching this video: That’s not a tablet they’re on, well not in the traditional sense. That looks like a small TV/laptop screen. I could see this being cool with that and everyone else on their personal tablet sized screen. But my 10″ iPad surrounded by a bunch of dudes on their smartphones? That’s a tougher sell in my mind. Also, isn’t part of the boon of getting your buddies together around a table is that it doesn’t involve a screen? Call me a Luddite, but I don’t see my Pathfinder group going to this. Also, the DM is really, really central to this experience and that appears to be wholly missing here. Also, also, pre-generated characters, even if you can customize to your heart’s content, strikes me as counter to whole pen & paper experience.
Trust in Guido? I’ll forgive you for not knowing the name of Guido Henkel, but if you were ever a fan of the Realms of Arkania games, or if you thought Planescape: Torment was a jolly good piece of design, make a point of checking out his new project Deathfire: Ruins of Nethermore.
Looks like a bit like Legends of Grimrock, only more involved, which I’m not writing off, but doesn’t make me want to jump in line with my wallet open. (I liked Grimrock as a fun notalgia trip, but it wasn’t long-lived on my PC.) Like Shroud of the Avatar, it’s not something I’ll fund, but it’s a project worth watching.
RPS 1,372, Microsoft 0.This evisceration of Microsoft’s latest, “No, we love PC gamers, we really do,” is a thing of beauty.
XB1 launch apps. There are lists everywhere. Here’s the one from Joystiq, broken down by region. Wasn’t there supposed to be an Xfinity app? What gives?
Holy shit, you guys! Marvel is creating, and delivering via Netflix, four new live-action superhero series. Those series will feature Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage. Then they’ll all come together for a Defenders series. Among the many things out there in the universe that are awesome, this so totally ranks.
Speaking of Marvel, Thor 2 is a super-happy-fun-good-time. It’s not without its darker moments, and you can poke holes in it if you must, but it’s like Avengers in that it brings the joy of superheroes to the screen without resorting to god-awful, screen-winking camp. Also, Loki.
On a note only tangentially related to bullying, but wholly related to football, I’m finding it harder and harder to enjoy watching the sport. I’ve been a fan of football for over 35 years. My dad starting taking me to Michigan games at four years old (dear god is that Michigan offense awful), but the volume of data coming out about CTE and its potential to destroy the very identity of the players who participate is beyond alarming. I know these guys, at the pro level, are not forced to play and they are generally well paid, but just knowing what these guys are doing to each other out there makes enjoying the sport difficult and, in the end, that’s what will kill it.
My son doesn’t have the size or temperament for organized football, but even if he did, not in a million years would I allow him to play. With the NFL the undisputed king of American sports, it’s hard to envision a day when it’s as irrelevant to the sports landscape as boxing, but it will be. Eventually fewer and fewer parents will let their kids participate and the game’s feeder pipe will run dry, as the most gifted and talented athletes of their generations instead lend their abilities to other sports. The NFL knows this, which is why they are in tobacco-company levels of denial and cover-up.
This is from my buddy’s annual best of its breed Halloween party last weekend. Call it an unofficial and wholly fictional Big Lebowski reunion tour. On one hand, being asked to be Donny is both A) uninspiring – I mean how do you replicate Steve Buscemi’s look in that movie? Guy wears bowling shirts and Dockers. Done. And B) debilitating to one’s soul, because you know you’ll spend the entire evening being told, “Shut the fuck up, Donny.”
On the other hand, this collection is incomplete without Donny and these dear friends of mine did an unbelievable job replicating Jesus, Walter, and The Dude. Walter in particular is just an eerie likeness. Also, given A and B, there may be no one else in the world, and certainly not in my social circle, better-suited to manning the role. That may be a dubious distinction, but if you’ve got it, own it, right? Plus, as a collection this is completely awesome.
On to business. In this week’s Brakketology rock lives, Mythic’s free-to-play designers ruin beloved franchises, Enemy Within gets some hands-on time, there’s more Xbox One/PS4 comparing and contrasting, and Star Citizen is the game that refuses to take “no” for an answer.
Rock and Roll Will Never Die. I was as big a Guitar Hero (1/2)/Rock Band stalwart as anybody, but despite a recent resurgence at said Halloween party this past weekend, the fad has ebbed and now my collection of plastic instruments –instruments that in no way replicate the experience of playing music– sit in my basement awaiting the inevitable day that they’re moved out completely. There is something in me, though, something that yearns for the notion of game and actual guitar teaching to work well together. I never gave Rocksmith (or that other game I don’t recall) a serious look, but Rocksmith 2014 is now upon us and I’ll be damned if Sean Sands’ deep dive into it at GWJ doesn’t make me want to let slip a couple hundred bucks and dive in. Where is that pesky willpower when you need it?
Console War. FIGHT! If you’ve already taken up sides on the XBox One versus Playstation 4 tempest (in a teacup), this Edge Online article isn’t going to sway you, but it’s a nice even-handed look at the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two consoles (at the hardware level) with some cogent thought put into how messaging (and lack thereof) has played into the equation so far. Lots of good quotes from people at Microsoft and from developers.
“Of course [the company’s messaging problems] hurt in the short term,” says Ken Lobb, partner creative director at Microsoft Game Studios. ”We’re not blind, right? Did they hurt in the long run? We’re going to have to find out after we launch. We knew what we were going to do with indies. We knew what we were doing with Killer Instinct. But when someone comes in and asks a question about something we’ve decided we’re intentionally not going to talk about until a certain date, sometimes you get half answers. There’s no such thing as perfect PR.”
Well, unless you’re Sony. (I can’t believe I just typed that.) Speaking of the One, here’s a demo video of the dashboard. Although it is more frenetic than a coked-out squirrel, being the one guy who’s less interested in the games than the everything else it does, the responsiveness and multimedia capabilities are of interest to me.
It Is What We Thought it Was. Rich Stanton’s Eurogamer review of Ultima Forever went up back in September, but I’ve only just come across it. I spent roughly 10 minutes with this abomination of F2P horror and Ultima bastardization and never launched it again. I never wrote about it because, well, what can I authoritatively say about something after 10 minutes other than it clearly wasn’t for me. But Rich played more. He’s a braver man than me. And was likely paid to. I’m not sure there’s enough money in the world for an Ultima fan to have to endure this:
In the dungeons, and also in every town, are chests. Here’s where things really go south. Ultima Forever’s currency is keys. Bronze keys you get constantly, and 18 of these can be smooshed into six silver keys. Gold keys are the rarity. These get you the best loot from chests, open inventory slots, allow you to use a second ability at once, and pretty much everything else of any consequence. Did you get that? Basic things like a second spell slot are locked behind paywalls. And not only that – you have to pay to unlock these things separately for each character. Your key balance is shared across your account, but not what you buy. Another sneaky touch is that Ultima Forever sells silver key bundles starting at 69p, but the minimum purchase price for gold keys is ￡6.99.
How did this happen? The short version is, “who gives a damn.” I mean obviously Mythic is making games for other people. I’m not sure who those other people are, but there are surely two or three of them out there. The longer version is birthed in the attitude of EA and Mythic, given voice in a mid-October interview at Pocketgamer with Dungeon Keeper for iOS senior producer Jeff Skalski, who said this:
“If you want to play Dungeon Keeper or Dungeon Keeper 2, go to Good Old Games and download them,” the senior producer tells us. “I’m not trying to recreate those games. This is not Dungeon Keeper 3. This is not a PC game for mobile. We’re not trying to build the game like it’s 1999,” he says. “We want to make a Dungeon Keeper experience that’s right for this platform, so there were things that we just had to change”.
This is called violating Bill Harris’ first rule of public speaking: Don’t be a dick. I realize, Jeff, you probably weren’t trying to be a dick. You were probably overtired and maybe even having a bad day and the words probably sounded less offensive in your head than they do in an article. And yes, you’re very correct that you’re not just recreating those games. But you also have to understand that if you’re putting the name on it, you are supposed to be recreating the spirit of those experiences. Everyone and their brother knows stuff has to change when you start designing for mobile. But, see, that’s not what the problem is either. The problem is you’re designing for free-to-play and that is a model that ruins every decent gameplay concept it touches. So, you can act be as exasperated with Mythic’s critics as you like, it doesn’t change the fact that the F2P games almost universally suck and when you force that model on some very much-loved franchises it kills what people loved about them. That tends to piss people off. If you want the safety of obscurity that these types of games so richly deserve (to be obscure, that is), your bosses need to put a name on them that nobody cares about. Until that day, however, endure the criticism. It is earned.
Enemy Within Gets Buzzed. RPS posted a boatload of impressions based on hands-on time with XCOM: Enemy Within. Despite the section I’m about to quote, the tenor is very nearly universally positive (and it’s fantastic to see Mr. Meer’s voice back at RPS). But then there’s this here bit I’m about to quote:
The game does feel a little cluttered now, in terms of the amount of things that need researching and building slow things down enormously – which wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t for the matter of keeping the XCOM project’s funding nations happy. With all my cash and efforts going into Mechs and gene-splicing, it’s much more tricky to raise the capital and staff needed to build more satellites and Interceptor kit. I had four nations back out in my second in-game month, which wasn’t because I’d fouled up any missions but because I couldn’t erect enough satellite dishes – which as you may remember also entails building enough relays and power generators and lifts and excavations – in time to offest their rising panic from the terror missions I wasn’t able to do. Still, it is feasible enough to get by, but my point is that all the new stuff – colourful and varied and silly and strategic – both steals focus from and really shows up weaknesses in the base-management aspect of XCOM.
This is exactly the kind of thing I’m worried about. Balancing base funding and mission selection with the state of nations and their terror level was already a rather frustrating experience. It’s good in that it forces you to make difficult decisions, but it also feels rather plastic and punitive after awhile. Anything that makes resource allocation at this level of the game more difficult or punitive, without re-balancing the whole darned thing, strikes me as a particularly bad move.
Sidenote: The PA Report preview of the game notes that your soldiers can also earn medals based on unique combat actions. That, combined with the fact that you can rename them whatever you want, could be pretty cool.
Ever More Star Citizen Hype. They just passed an absurd $25 million in funding. There’s a new trailer. Despite the focus on online gameplay (which I keep having to remind myself I don’t give a fig about), this is getting harder and harder to resist. I don’t want to give them my money yet. I told myself I would wait for the final product. Resistance failing.
You’re Like a Child That Wanders into a Room. Finally, if you have no frame of reference for The Big Lebowski portion of this post, I give you this (NSFW: language):
One of the all-time great movies. And if you disagree, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.