Monday, September 26, 2016

Fractured Space, a giant starships MOBA with some serious flaws D+

Fractured Space
Grade: D+
Platform: Windows
Genre: MOBA
Steam: Free to Play
Website: Official
In App Purchases: Yes
Pay to Win: Maybe
Released: 2016

When you say "MOBA" most people don't think "giant starships", but that's what Fractured Space tries, and it sort of succeeds.

Like any MOBA the objective is simple, beat your way through defenses to the other team's home base and capture/destroy it.  The defenses aren't really all that much, in fact other than gun turrets on the actual home base itself there aren't any defenses which is a significant departure from the usual MOBA approach to things.  

Their twist is that since it's spaceships the battleground is divided into five sectors.  Each team has a home sector, containing their home base, there's the Alpha and Beta sectors to the left and right which are where most of the fighting takes place, and in the middle of Alpha and Beta is the Gamma sector which is mostly ignored except for when the Gamma Station goes active and can be captured for a temporary bonus.  You use your jump drive to switch between sectors anytime you like, with an 8 second cooldown between each jump (and being seriously vulnerable while you jump, don't jump under fire).  You can't jump into the enemy base until you capture special stations in the Alpha or Beta sector.

The concept isn't necessarily a bad one, and they get a lot of stuff right.  I'm iffy on their capital ships concept, it's not really a bad concept but I think it's poorly executed.  Thinking of your ship as being a kilometer (or more) long with a crew of 5,000 like it says in the opening movie just doesn't work given how fast the ships move, come around, and so on.  They feel more like destroyers at best, and really more like corvettes or even big fighters.  Maybe my time in EVE has spoiled me for how big capitol ships should feel.

Still, from a gameplay perspective there is only one really big problem: the controls are awful.  Space is 3D, and they do let you move in three dimensions.  Your ship can go up and down as well as forward and backward or sideways.  But you can't rotate in all three dimensions.

There are three axes of rotation: roll, pitch, and yaw (illustration from Wikipedia's article on the topic).  In this game, like any top down game, you can only rotate on the yaw axis.

For what is basically a flight sim, that's simply unacceptable.  Even the cheesy little starfighter game included as a free extra in Star Wars: The Old Republic allowed rotation on all three axes.

With Fractured Space I can understand the desire of the devs to avoid making things so complex it drives away potential new players, and I suppose some gamers might never have tried a flight sim that allowed for free rotation.

But, since Fractured Space takes place in a 3D environment, and since they include armor degrading on different facings of your ship as a game mechanic, the lack of rotation along the roll and pitch axes makes no sense.

I could see including a "simple control" setup where movement is limited to the WASD keys, with control and space put in as exotic extras to allow you to rise and fall, like they currently have things set up.  What I can't see is their failure to include a better control setup as an option for players who can handle it.

Right now when my crew shouts that the port armor is gone, it doesn't really mean anything because I can't do anything about it.  Sure, I could mash the A or D key and that'd do exactly nothing because it takes too much time to yaw around and get my starboard armor facing the enemy.  By the time I've done that I'm already dead.  If I could roll though, I could maybe get my topside armor, or belly armor, or even my starboard armor in position.  But I can't.

And that's annoying because they do include some things that would balance that ability out nicely.  Since the idea is that you're piloting a capitol ship your gun turrets take time to come around.  You can put your targeting reticle on the enemy really quick, but there's a "where your guns are actually facing" reticle that chases your targeting marker and that moves a bit slower (and has some limits on where it can face, you have gun turrets there's only so far they can rotate).  It can be a bit frustrating at times, but it works and it rewards clever movement, sudden accelerations, the microjumps that some ships can make, etc.  It's also the perfect mechanic to impose a minor penalty for rolling to expose fresh armor to the enemy.

I can understand their reluctance to take more risks, despite the extremely conservative way they've approached their twists on the genre, a lot of people I played with didn't seem to really get how to win (and this despite a well designed infographic titled "HOW TO WIN" being one of the loading screens).  In two different matches I solo capped the opposition's home base because apparently no one on the other team was aware that they'd need to jump back and defend it from me, they were all too busy fighting over mining stations with the rest of my team.

The UI also has some problems. You've got armor that degrades, and is slowly repaired, but there's nothing showing its state on your HUD.  Likewise your HUD lacks any indicators for enemies or objectives that you're facing away from.  Some arrows or tick marks, or something at the edge of the screen (like you get in virtually every other space combat sim out there) would go a long way to making the game better.  Being able to zoom out a bit more would also be nice.  Yes, my ship is pretty, no the very nice model of it it shouldn't take up 20% of my screen.

The grade for Fractured Space could easily be C- if they'd just improve the controls and upgrade the UI a bit.  For a game that is otherwise so polished, those problems seem odd.  I especially shouldn't have to be complaining about lousy controls in 2016.  We've been making games for over 30 years now people, these problems are solved. If you're failing to implement the existing solution it doesn't speak well of your competence.

Another significant problem is the lack of integrated voice, though that's hardly a problem unique to Fractured Space.  This is one place where Valve should really step up and implement a Steam Voice system, Microsoft included integrated voice in XBox Live back in 2003.  2003!  Us PC gamers are still stuck using third party chat software (and no one you play with ever has the same software so you always have to install something new) or hoping that the developers rolled their own.  Valve really needs to get on the ball here.

In a team game, like Fractured Space, the lack of voice chat is especially problematic.  Yes, you can type or ping the map, but voice makes everything so much simpler.

But, leaving the UI  problems aside, Fractured Space is a game with potential.  In the already crowded MOBA field it has something to make it stand out, and it might survive and thrive if it can fix its problems

Still, it needs fixing.  Especially if they want me to shell out real world money for ship upgrades or new ships.

TL;DR: Mildly interesting twist on the MOBA genre, UI and controls suck, needs fixing but is kind of fun.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Digfender, tower defense with a minor twist

Grade: C+
Platform: Android
Genre: tower defense
Play Store: Free
Apple Store: Free
In App Purchases: Yes
Pay to Win: No
Released: 2016

I am a tower defense addict.  There's just something intensely satisfying about laying down defenses and watching hapless enemies wander through them until they die.  Or until they overwhelm you, though that's a bit less satisfying.

The game mostly plays like the average TD game but does so well, and has a few somewhat unusual aspects.

Generally speaking in tower defense games enemies either follow a fixed path that you must place defenses around, or you define the path for the enemies by placing your defenses.  In Digfender the twist is that the enemies are underground so you dig the path to them, then place your defenses on the sides of that path.  You don't have complete freedom in setting the path, not only are there some blocks you can't dig through, but you can't steer the path up once you've gone down, so you can't make it the longest possible path and due to the way they've set up enemies that might not be ideal anyway.

The towers themselves are fairly standard, there's freeze towers to slow enemies, and Tesla towers to zap them, cannon to hit them with area damage, and fire to surprisingly not do DOT until after an expensive upgrade. You get money for killing enemies which is spent on upgrades. Each tower can be upgraded three times normally, then branches to one of two specialties for the final three upgrades.

Where it differs from other TD games is in it's take on the standard tower types, and a few mostly cosmetic but enjoyable things.  For example, your freeze towers are also your sniping towers, which is not normally the way freeze towers work in TD games.

Digfender takes the not entirely uncommon approach of limiting upgrades until towers have gotten a certain number of hits on the enemy, which sometimes puts you in the awkward position of having plenty of cash to upgrade towers, but the towers being far from able to take the upgrade.  And since in late game spending the money on a new tower would be completely wasting it you have little choice but to sit on a cash reserve from time to time. But those sorts of limits are part of the challenge.

In the cosmetic but enjoyable category, Digfender leaves enemy corpses, but since they're climbing up the walls of the tunnel to reach the castle, when they die they go ragdoll and fall until they hit a horizontal surface, leaving a growing pile of cartoon orc and troll bodies as a tribute to the prowess of your defenses, and that's kind of fun.  It also lets you see where the majority of the killing is taking place and helps you plan your defenses accordingly.

IAP is limited to removing the surprisingly unobtrusive ads and buying diamonds.  The diamonds are used to buy super attacks to help you laze your way thorough a level, but are not necessary to win.

You can respec all your upgrades at will but it turns out you mostly don't have to.  Very occasionally you'll encounter enemies immune to one type of tower, otherwise you can win stacking any tower you happen to like.

There's nothing really groundbreaking here, but it scratches the TD itch well enough.  It's a good game for those new to the genre and has enough amusing little variations on the theme to be worth trying for longtime TD fans.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Merchant, a mobile game

Grade: C
Platform: Android, IOS
Genre: bar filling, resource management, "rpg", idle game
Play Store: Free
Apple Store: Free
In App Purchases: Yes
Pay to Win: No
Released: 2016

I'm not really a fan of the bar filling and waiting idle games, but Merchant gets points for at least not insulting me by throwing anime tits in my face in a pathetic effort to get me to play  (looking at you Shop Heroes).  Not that I don't enjoy boobs, or even anime boobs, but when that's all a game has to offer you know it isn't going to be a very great game (still looking at you Shop Heroes).

Instead, Merchant goes for a sort of pixelated retro look, it pulls off well enough. These days that's pretty much the go to graphics style for a game where the designers didn't have a big budget, and it isn't inherently bad.  Merchant looks good with it, and has a wider variety of graphics than you might expect.

The game is fairly standard for the genre. Juggling limited inventory space is the main challenge. You use ingredients to make items and send out upgradable heroes to get more ingredients.  Everything takes time, because, well, I've never really been sure why they make everything take time in games like this, especially when unlike so many this one doesn't offer a way to exchange real world money for getting out of the time (though you can speed things up a bit for RL money).

For a game of this genre the in app purchases aren't bad at all. You can buy speed and inventory boosts, as well as extra inventory slots, and that's it. And the inventory slots you can buy with in game resources.  Pay to win this is not and that's refreshing.

There's a random element to building your items, they're ranked, I suppose in theory on the usual A through F scale but I've never seen a ranking below C, and like a lot of games it has the extra special S rank above A.  Higher ranked items sell for more, and have a better chance of coming out with extra attributes.

Likewise when you send your minions off on material gathering quests they are graded on their success, higher level minions tend to get higher grades and thus more and better stuff.  As they gather there are occasional special levels, boss fights, and so on.  As they get higher level you can move on to other regions with different, higher level, materials that cost more to craft but have higher selling prices.

For an idle tycoon style game, it ain't bad.  The quasi-RPG elements are enjoyable enough, complete with boss fights yet.

Like all games of this type it eventually becomes boring because really it isn't a game.  There's no failure condition, you just slowly progress ever upward until you hit the top.  Which isn't bad, it's an enjoyable enough way to spend a few minutes waiting in line, or on the toilet, or whatever.  But it does mean that eventually every player will get tired of it and quit.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Dwarf Fortress, not just a game a way of life

Dwarf Fortress
Grade: A+ and D-, yes both
Platform: Windows, Linux
Genre: Godsim
Website: Free (donations appreciated)
Wiki:  you'll need it
Released: 2006

Dwarf Fortress is one of those games where even if you haven't played it you've felt it's influence.  It has changed the face of modern gaming and even if you haven't played it odds are very good that the person who wrote the last game you loaded did play it.  There are the direct copies and knock offs like Gnomoria, Craft the World, and A Game of Dwarves, and games clearly inspired by it like Rimworld.  But the influence of DF spreads far beyond the games more obviously inspired by it.  No Man's Sky, Minecraft and many others were both influenced in more subtle ways by DF.

It is a game I both love and hate.

I have played Dwarf Fortress almost since it was first released, it came out in August of 2006, I started playing in October of 2006 and I've never stopped.

The reason for DF's popularity, cult following, and widespread influence in the gaming word is due to the fact that it is an amazingly, shockingly, complex and detailed game. Which surprises some people, because it's also an ASCII game.  There are graphics packs available, the Lazy Noob Pack bundles both graphics and a few very useful mods and upgrades.  But I started with the ASCII and I've gotten so used to it that the idea of playing with a graphics pack seems absurd.  I don't even see the ASCII anymore, it's just elf, dwarf, goblin.

Because the graphics are so simple, DF can turn all of your computer's processor towards running an absurdly complicated simulation.  Combat, for example, does not have abstract hit points, instead for every blow the damage to skin, muscle, nerves, and bones is computed based on a multitude of factors and as a result teeth are knocked out, fingers, toes, and limbs hacked off, survivors may be crippled for life or merely take time to heal, all shown in an explosion of red commas, semicolons, and grave quotes, and the ASCII smiley face of a dwarf turning dull as their life bleeds out turning the periods of the ground red.

Temperature is calculated for each object and changes per the laws of thermodynamics, magma flows melt ice, burn their way through flammable objects, and can be guided through pipes made of durable enough material.  Wind and weather are computed not merely for your locale, but establishing broad weather patterns across the entire virtual world.  Caravans travel from location to location, kingdoms war, all of which matters.

The world is built, a process that even on a relatively powerful computer takes ten minutes or so, and centuries of history are simulated, kingdoms rise and fall, necromancers learn the secrets of life and death from dark gods and write them in books that may, or may not, survive until your fortress is completed.  When you enter the game a history already exists, important figures have been born and died, wars have been fought and your dwarves will engrave significant historic events on the wall in the awkward and stilted prose of procedurally generated text.

Tarn Adams, Toady One on the internet, is the coder.  And yes, the definite article applies.  Over the past ten years he has created dwarf fortress single handedly [1].  And he has taken procedural generation much further than most games, even big AAA behemoths like Daggerfall, ever took it.

All the processing power that the average game devotes to graphics, Toady has directed to both a robust simulation, and a massive and complex procedural generation system.

Or.... Well, almost all the processing power.  Actually closer to around 1/4 of the processing power on most computers, and depending on how many cores you have on your CPU maybe less.

Here is where my love affair with DF runs into problems.  Because, before he was able to devote his life to Dwarf Fortress, Toady was Dr. Tarn Adams, a man with a Ph.D. in mathematics from Stanford, and he learned to program not by taking actual programming (much less game programming) classes, but by picking it up as he did his math work.  And, well, as a programmer he makes a great theoretical mathematician.  The fact is that the code for DF sucks mightily, beginning with the fact that it only uses a single processor.  Which means that you will have one processor running at around 100%, and the others will be idle.

Once you've learned how to survive and you aren't having Fun! [2] because everyone is starving or dying in goblin invasions, every game of Dwarf Fortress ends the same way: you quit because the game has slowed down so much you can't stand it.

Toady is very protective of his code, as DF gained popularity and fame a great many game programmers begged for permission to help him sort out some of the massive, huge, problems. He turned them all down. The code is his, no one else may look at it or contribute.

As a result, the game is a mess.  Not just the user interface (which is staggeringly awful, but eventually it gets burned into muscle memory), but the fact that it keeps getting slower, and slower, and slower, and there's still huge problems that have to be resolved with unofficial hacks (dfhack is all but mandatory if you don't want to go mad) because Toady keeps getting ideas for new features to add and won't take time off from adding them and bloating the code even more to even try to optimize things and make it run faster.

Yet, despite knowing that it will end with my fort becoming unplayable due to lag, on my computer another instant has dragged slowly past, a dwarf warrior has just hit a goblin invader with her silver warhammer, and he flies comically across the screen in an explosion of ASCII gore.

Dwarf Fortress is the best, and worst, game I have ever played and I cannot stop playing.  And you should try it too.

[1] Well, sort of.  He did actually, once, deign to permit some people to help with a graphics rendering issue.  And he claims the venture is a collaboration with his brother, Zach, who contributes ideas.

[2] The unofficial motto of Dwarf Fortress is "losing is fun", and thus massive death and destruction is often called "fun" by us players.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Balance, an android puzzler about electrical grids

Grade: C
Platform: Android, IOS
Genre: Resource flow puzzle
Play Store: Free
Apple Store: Free
In App Purchases: None at all!
Released: 2016

Developed by Statnett, the company responsible for managing Norway's electrical grid, as a sort of plug (heh) for their company, Balance is surprisingly fun.

The puzzles center around using the minimum number of components to link together an electrical grid which can withstand everything from damaged lines to irregular supply from rewnweables. 

The graphics are simplistic but pleasant enough to look at and do the necessary job of showing what each element can do.   The blue grid of the landscape is filled with angular mountains, power lines that can carry 2, 4, or 6 units of power each, and perfectly circular cities that need 2, 4, or 6 units of power in order to operate.

Unlike most games of this nature, where the main challenge is in establishing pathways for your resource to travel along, in Balance that's often the easiest part. Once you've built your grid and powered it so every city is happy, you must keep everybody happy as disasters begin to hit the grid. 

A line inches across the top of the screen, indicating how long you have to keep things going before victory, and at various points along the line little ? cards show an event that will throw things into chaos.  If you built your grid wrong, no amount of jiggling power supplies or on the fly changes can help you.  If you built your grid right in the early stages it might keep working without any intervention on your part, but in the later levels you will need to rebalance the output on your generators at the very least.

Like the best sort of puzzle games, the elements are simple, the way they interact is clearly defined, and it'll drive you mad because you're certain that there is simply no possible way to make it work in this damn level and surely they made a mistake and their playtesters missed it, right?

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Witcher

The Witcher
Grade: C
Platform: Windows
Genre: Quasi-Medieval RPG
Steam: $9.99
GOG: $9.99 
Released: 2008

The Witcher is a pretty good game with some interesting flaws.  Developed by a Polish game company, based on a series of novels.

From a gameplay standpoint my main objection is that the combat is boring. This is often the case in games unfortunately.  With the Witcher combat consists of clicking on an enemy, waiting until your mouse pointer turns orange, clicking again, and repeating.  While this is going on Geralt is doing all sorts of acrobatic and well animated moves, but all you're doing is clicking every now and then.  Which isn't bad, but just kind of middle of the road boring.  Combat could have been a lot worse, I've played games where combat was a lot worse, and if middle of the road boring combat is the biggest gameplay problem then the game is doing well.

Since the Witcher is an RPG, not a brawler, combat is sort of secondary anyway.

Leaving aside the mediocre combat system, the rest of the game mechanics are solid and familiar.  They've got a nice alchemy system, which integrates with the game and it's world well, you wander around, barging into people's houses and taking their stuff and no one cares.  On a modern PC loading time is fine, it may have been a bit laggy back in 2008.  And thanks to the Enhanced Edition the graphics are updated and don't look as jaggy as you'd expect from a 2008 title.

Overall the game plays well and is a solid C.

If that was all it had to offer, the Witcher would likely have passed unnoticed despite having solid if standard mechanics.

But in an RPG the setting and character are often a lot more important than the mechanics, they can make or break a game, and in the Witcher's case they make it, and also produce some flaws worth discussing.

There are two main ways to approach an RPG, the first is what might be called the Anything You Want School of RPG's: a giant sandbox of an open world and a total blank slate of a main character.  That approach is nice in that your character can be absolutely anything you want.  That approach has problems in that designing a story around a total blank slate of a character is neigh impossible, and sometimes you get story on rails in a way that feels really awkward and forced since the story (which is always really vague and bland when they take this approach) will often wind up going in a direction contrary to your idea of your character.  Bethesda clearly loves this school of RPG games.

The other approach, which might be called the Be Our Character School of RPG's takes the opposite direction.  There is no character customization, of if there is it's extremely limited, because the game is about you playing their character, not playing any character you want.  The advantage of this approach to RPG game design is that the developers can write a much tighter story, can include complexities and details that would not really be possible with a more generic character.  The disadvantage is that the plot is on rails by design and you may not like how the story develops.  The Witcher takes this approach.

You play Geralt of Rivia, one of an elite group of professional monster hunters called Witchers, and apparently one of the very few remaining Witchers since there were pogroms that wiped out most of the others.

They go for the main character has amnesia trick to explain why you're so totally unfamiliar with everything, which is a bit cheesy but they pull it off with less awkwardness than I've seen in other media trying the same thing.

At the core of the Witcher's plot and setting are issues of social justice.  Which is a bit of irony since the Witcher is often held up by gamergate as an example of a great game that infuriates the "SJW's" they imagine want to ruin their fun.

The TL;DR is that humanity was imported to the world the Witcher is set on, and promptly began exterminating and oppressing the native population of elves, dwarves, and gnomes.  While the game is lily white (more on that in a moment), the non-humans stand in for various oppressed groups, most clearly Jews.  That conflict is central to the plot of the game, and as a technical non-human (Witchers start off human and are modified to get extra combat power in a way that also makes them sterile) your part in the conflict is muddled.

The ethnic Polish population of Poland has a long and not at all happy history with the ethnic Jewish population of Poland.  There have been Jews living in Poland since long before Poland became a unified nation, and for a long time Jews got along well in the Kingdom of Poland.  Then Poland started engaging in the unfortunately very common European practice of oppressing the Jewish population, engaging in periodic pogroms, and ultimately in Poland this turned into widespread cooperation with the Nazis (at leas when it came to killing Jews) during WWII resulting in over 90% (around 3 million) of Polish Jews being killed, and after the war an en environment so hostile that almost all surviving Jews fled rather than continue living in Poland.  In the 1930's over 3.4 million Jews lived in Poland.  Per the 2011 census there were 7,353 Jews in Poland.  It was in Poland, not Germany, where Hitler's Final Solution was most thoroughly implemented.

That's the necessary history and background to see the Witcher and it's portrayal of non-human oppression against.

And the writers did a good job here.  Some of the bigotry expressed in game against non-humans is taken almost word for word from antisemitic myth, at one point in game you find a book describing non-humans swearing a pact to eradicate all humans and sealing it by drinking the blood of human babies, the parallel to the blood libel is unmistakable.

For all that humans are undoubtedly invaders and oppressors, the game doesn't present the situation entirely black and white.  The main non-human resistance group is unmistakably terrorists and there are legitimate reasons to oppose their methods, and legitimate reasons to think that their methods may be necessary, but their motive and goal is clearly shown in game as being valid.  There's quite a bit of Israel vs. Palestine in the game.

There are very few black and white moral choices in game, and most of the choices you make do have at least some impact later in the game.  I'm overall quite happy with that part.

That said, the Witcher does have problems.  As an American the ethnic homogeneity is striking and weird, especially given the centrality of ethnic and religious strife to the game itself. Everyone is white, even the non-humans are all white.  Given how very white Poland is it isn't entirely as odd as it might seem, but as an American it stands out in a bad way.  Especially since in theory there are non-white humans in game, just down in an empire to the south that had a recent war with the northern kingdoms.  You'd think there might at least be some traders, prisoners of war, and so on.

Some defenders of the game claim it's all a matter of historic accuracy, that since the game is based on historic Poland of course there wouldn't be anyone but white people.  This doesn't really hold up as a justification for several reasons.  To begin with, there were non-white people in medieval Europe.  They weren't common, but they did exist.  The idea that Europe existed as a perfectly white place until the modern era is simply false.  There's a blog devoted to examples of people of color in early European art.

There's also the fact that the game doesn't actually care about historic accuracy (and talking about hisoric accuracy in a game featuring elves and magic is more than a bit pointless anyway).  The game has a private investigator, a profession that didn't exist until very recently, a medic using modern crime scene autopsy jargon, people casually talking about mutations and genes, and flat-Earth atheist scientists sneering at the mere superstition of magic when people are literally teleporting across continents and throwing fire from their fingertips.

Given all that the idea that "historic accuracy" would have prevented the inclusion of people of color is clearly preposterous.

More important is the treatment of women, and how that mixes with some of the odd anachronisms in the game.

The Witcher is one of the few AAA titles to really include nudity, and it handles the sex and nudity with all the maturity of the average 12 year old kid snickering over some porn they found on their phone.  This, unfortunately, is about par for the course when it comes to sex in gaming.  Geralt can have sex with various women through the game, generally by giving them a particular gift though some women have various quests.  After having sex with a woman, the game presents you with a card showing what is claimed to be the woman in question partially nude.

I say "what is claimed to be the woman", because there was obviously no communication between the 3D modeling team and the artists who drew the sex cards.  For the most part the in game characters don't even slightly resemble the characters on their matching sex card.

Oddly, despite the models in game featuring full female nudity, the sex cards are more restrained and have bare nipples at the most.  There is no male nudity in game, because of course there isn't.

A least one of the sexual encounters is clearly exploitative, though you can choose not to have sex there I found it distasteful to include at all, especially since making the situation non-exploitative would have been simple.

There's also several costume choices that go against the established setting simply for a bit of titillation.  The Witcher is set in a quasi-medieval universe, typical human women wear floor length dresses, long sleeves, and sometimes headscarves, though several women (mostly lower class) also have a lot of cleavage.  

Yet, the two most significant named female characters wear miniskirts for their normal costumes, and Triss' party dress is even skimpier.  Which just jumps out and screams "hi male audience, get a load of these gams!" In a society where women are beaten, oppressed, and wear long dresses the sudden appearance of very short skirts on two women who are portrayed as being respected (or at least feared) by society is jarring and doesn't fit the universe as it is presented.  It comes across as pandering to the presumed heterosexual male audience in a way that breaks suspension of disbelief.

The Dyrad simply doesn't wear clothes at all, and that's fine.  But she's also described as being from a group of warrior archer types who are fighting a desperate last stand to defend their forest from human incursion.  So naturally she walks with super exaggerated hip sway and jello boob physics, which is also just pandering to the presumed straight male audience.

I've got no objection at all to sex in games, but the way sex was included in the Witcher is, at best, trying too hard to be cool and adult in a way that comes across as very juvenile.

The bigger problem, for me, is that the developers decided to include frequent references to domestic violence, presumably as a way of showing how gritty and realistic their game was.  Yes, there was a lot more domestic violence in the past, but in the Witcher it's hard to find a woman who isn't beaten by the men in her life.

None of that makes the Witcher a bad game from my privileged point of view, but it does make it a game with significant problematic elements.  Some people will doubtless chose not to play it based on the existence of those elements, others may find it enjoyable despite them.

Overall it's an interesting game set in an interesting universe. Despite the problems, I enjoyed playing it and will probably play the sequels.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Harbinger, or maybe Battlevoid: Harbinger, the Android version

Grade: C+
Platform: Android
Genre: Space roguelike
Play Store: $3.99
In App Purchases: None!
Released: 2015

There's also a Windows version on Steam, this is not a review of that game.  This is a review of the Android version.

BugByte released a game a long time back called Battlestation, which recently went through a forced name change when someone called trademark, and is now called Battlevoid.  Harbinger is sort of a sequel, or set in the same universe, or vaguely related in that it recycles a lot of assets, setting, and so on.  Including the imaginatively named characters like "Scientist", "Marine", and "Pilot".

It's a Finnish company, and there are a few bits of translation weirdness, or maybe they're just really bad at writing dialog and it sounds equally robotic and off in Finnish.

But you didn't get the game for the dialog, or the character names.  No, you got the game to fly boldly into space, meet strange aliens, and blow them to pieces with missiles, lasers, plasma, and death rays!

And Harbinger does a fine job of allowing that to happen in an enjoyable way.

You start each game with a single completely unarmed ship a tiny bit of cash (scrap), and charge into space to be destroyed instantly because you bought weapons for your ship instead of buying a hanger for fighters.

If you want to win, go fighters early.  It is possible to win by going with a different early weapon mix, and as you get access to more and better weapons swapping out fighters for support craft is a good plan, but your best chance of survival at the beginning is to buy a single energy cannon and as many hangers of the cheapest fighters you can afford.   Eventually, if you're lucky, you can buy extra ships to augment your fleet, buy or find better weapons, and cut through enemy fleets like a hot knife through butter until you either win (if you're playing a normal game) or until the enemy weapons get strong enough that you finally die in a heroic fireball (if you're playing on endless mode).

When you first begin playing your choice of starting ships is very limited, but as you play you unlock other ships by playing (not by in app purchases!) which allows you to start from a stronger position.  Until you've unlocked a few of the better ships playing on Hard is just a different way of saying suicide.

Gameplay is pretty simple, double tap to move, your ships will automatically attack anything in range but you can also tap enemy ships and target them with specific weapon types.  This would seem to be a bit boring for a game, but it works.  It's a clean, minimal, design that is nevertheless enjoyable and fun.  I've clocked over 40 hours of gameplay so far.

Part of the fun is mixing weapons, finding optimal weapon combos, and so on.  There's a few gratuitously OP weapons in game (hi Mega Plasma Cannons), but if you're playing a non-endless game you won't get access to many of those before the game ends, and if you're playing on endless the upscaling of weapons over time makes your old "overpowered" weapons scrap fodder as you find new versions that do more damage at longer range.

In addition to finding weapons from the wrecks of enemy ships, you can also buy them for scrap at battlestations.  I've seen a few people complain that the selection at battlestations leaves a lot to be desired, and that's true.  But that's also part of playing a roguelike game.  You're at the mercy of the Random Number Generator, and the RNG is a cruel and fickle god not swayed by your whining.  Some games you'll get a Celestial Death Ray in the first sector you clear, other games you'll be limping along (if you can survive) on Human Energy Guns and Projectile Guns through the third galaxy.

It isn't a game with a lot of real strategic depth, but it's an excellent game for killing a few minutes while waiting in line, or even spending thirty or forty minutes just for fun.  And it's well worth the $4 you'll pay for it.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Raising Steam, a review of the last (adult) Discworld novel

Raising Steam
Grade: D
Author: Terry Pratchett
Genre: Fantasy satire/parody
Published: 2013

As the last of the adult Discworld novels (the very last Discworld book was The Shepard's Crown, a YA book), this was often quite obviously the book Pratchett was using to, well, clean up the Discworld and make it a nicer place.

Much as I dislike the result, I can sympathize with the urge.  Pratchett obviously loved the Discworld, all of the readers loved it, and the urge to tidy up, make things less tense, end wars, improve the lives of the denizens, and so forth are understandable. But while the urge is understandable it makes for a bad book.

Despite signs of the embuggerment (Pratchett's term for the mental degradation he experienced as his early onset Alzheimer's) making the book less tightly written and snappy than the earlier Discworld books, it was the cleanup effort that truly caused Raising Steam to be, well, bad.

It is, in a word, twee.

Begin with the goblins. I'd hoped that they would vanish after Snuff, but regrettably not.  Like Pratchett's attempt to rehabilitate, or put a different twist on, orcs in Unseen Academicals, the goblins simply don't work.

In theory they might, the Discworld has always been a place for Pratchett to set up, take the mick out of, and generally twist around and play with fantasy tropes and it's hard to find a fantasy trope more ripe for improvement than goblins and orcs.  While there had never been any real inclusion of either orcs or goblins in any prior Discworld novel their sudden addition wasn't really completely out of character for the series.  Pratchett has never been hobbled by continuity, and I don't mean that in a bad way at all, so the fact that he'd never mentioned them before and yet was now having everyone talk about them as if they'd been involved from the beginning isn't as big a deal as it might have been with a different author or a different series.

What is a big deal is how awful they are as characters and the clumsy, ham handed, way Pratchett handled them.

Goblins are established in Snuff as basically the Mary Sues of the Discworld.  Abused and put upon by the cold and unfeeling humans, dwarves, and trolls, the poor goblins struggle on despite it all, and are better at absolutely everything they attempt than any of the other races.  This saccharine cute victimhood is made even worse by the colonial approach to civilizing them and saving them from themselves and their victimhood.  One goblin girl, trained up by a well intentioned human to dress in human styles and learn human arts, plays the harp so well that everyone suddenly realizes that goblins are wonderful and laws are passed making them people.

They're back, and in many ways worse, in Raising Steam.  Now the goblins, such wonderful Mary Sues, have been found to be perfect at running clacks towers, turn out to be amazingly hyper competent mechanics, and super humanly good warriors to boot.  Or, rather, when lead by a white man they are anyway.

At one point Moist von Lipwig finds a particularly pathetic group of goblins, goblins who have literally had their children hunted for food by bandits for long enough for huge bone piles to build up, but goblins who apparently never thought to fight back until Moist (of all people) appears to lead them to victory at which point they quite handily eradicate the bandits in a single battle.

W.T.F. Pratchett?

The very racist trope he so successfully mocked in Jingo he now plays painfully straight.  Goblins are as supremely good at fighting as they are at literally everything else, yet until a human leader appears to tell them it's ok, they won't even fight back to save their children from being EATEN by human bandits?

This could possibly work if the goblins had been portrayed as having some sort of built in racial slave mentality, or total inability to do much of anything without outside guidance, or inability to think of doing things for themselves, or something.  And that would have made for some interesting ethical conundrums.  But no, they're perfectly capable of being independent, resourceful, snarky, and generally all around fully competent people.  Just not until a designated heroic human comes along and tells them it's ok.

Raising Steam is a book about trains, and so trains appear and spread with the sudden and impossible success that all new things do in the Discworld.  But unlike in the other books where he sort of glosses over the impossibly fast way things get built (the Clacks suddenly appearing, for example), Raising Steam spends an inordinate amount of time discussing how it is built, and since the speed at which it is built is flat out impossible, the whole book feels fake in a way that even Snuff didn't.

The Patrician's mysterious demand for train service to be extended several hundreds of miles to Bonk, all in a month or two, is never actually explained, it is simply a clumsy motive for a preposterous and utterly unbelievable set of events.

The train is used as the explanation for how Pratchett fixes up the Discworld and makes it all nice and twee before he leaves.  Life just gets better wherever the train goes, and the book assures us that soon the trail will go everywhere.

The Low King of the Dwarfs travels back home, after leaving in the middle of a crisis for no good reason but to allow a palace coup by the evil religious fanatics, returns and by his mere presence makes everything ok again, and then to fix the dwarfs Rhys Rhysson (known to us readers to be female since Fifth Element), publicly comes out as a woman.

This sudden revelation in the middle of widespread political turmoil, rather than reigniting the just barely put out fires of religious fanaticism and traditionalism, instead makes the dwarfs realize that being a woman is ok.  Less than an hour later as the newly revealed Low Queen of the Dwarfs travels to the Scone of Stone, hundreds of prominent dwarf women have curled their beards, welded heels to their boots, and put on eye shadow in order to show the reader that now dwarf society has been fixed and we don't have to worry about that anymore.

Clumsy, preachy, poorly thought out and executed, Raising Steam is unfortunately both the last Discworld novel, and the worst Discworld noel.  Rather than wrapping everything up neatly and leaving the reader feeling satisfied, it simply feels trite and bland.  And that's coming from a person who is in full agreement with the politics, atheist worldview, and social justice beliefs Pratchett was arguing for.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Party of Trump

The most important thing to realize now is that the rise of Trump should not have been unexpected, and the ugliness he has unmasked is nothing new.

Since before I was born the Republican party has been fanning the flames of racism, white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, and all manner of bigotries, in hopes of getting enough white men to vote for them.  This started with a strong drive to capture the racist white vote in the Deep South following LBJ's unexpected decision to push the Civil Rights Act through and thus ending the former dominance of the Democratic Party among racists and beginning the shift of the Democratic party to its current position as the less racist of the parties.

Lee Atwater called the plan to win Republican dominance via revanchist rednecks the Southern Strategy, and the name has stuck despite it never really applying just to the South.

With the rise of hate radio the strategy continued, and the Republican Party became ever more dependent on ever more bombastic and vile propaganda.

For forty-eight years now the Republican Party has been advancing by telling mostly poor, white, men that their problems are caused by black people, Latinx people, immigrants, women, gay people, environmentalists, intellectuals, professors, college educated people, foreigners, Muslims, atheists.  The Other.  Anyone, basically, who wasn't a white American conservative.

Neshoba County Mississippi is famous only for one thing: the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964, and the well organized efforts of local law enforcement and local political figures to prevent their murder from being discovered.  Local Mississippi officials proclaimed that the civil rights workers had never been to Neshoba County, that their disappearance was a fraud, a hoax conjured up by the civil rights movement to try and make the racist Mississippi government look bad.  But President Johnson put the FBI onto the case rather than letting local law enforcement cover up the murders, and they found the bodies and proved that Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman not only had been murdered, but that they had been murdered by the Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and two Klansmen.  Moreover, that this took place with the knowledge of the Sheriff, and that the local government both knew it and had worked hard to cover up the murder.

The local courts treated the three murderers as heroes and none spent more than six years in prison.

On August 3, 1980, a bare sixteen years after the murders, Ronald Wilson Reagan traveled to tiny Neshoba County to deliver the first speech he would make after winning the Republican Party nomination, and there he declared:

I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to be given to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

 The meaning was clear if never directly stated. The state and local communities Reagan praised and promised to restore to power free of any interference from federal authorities were the ones that had murdered three civil rights workers and worked diligently to cover up that murder.

In newsletters, faxed documents, private conversation, and AM radio the message was never even masked as transparently as it was in Reagan's speech.  Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and bigotry of all sorts was the order of the day.  The message was always that the Republican Party was the only thing that could save white America from the onslaught of the slavering hordes of the Other who were responsible for everything bad that ever happened.

It has never ended, and in many ways the drumbeat of hate has grown stronger over the years. Tiny isolated AM radio stations evolved into the nationwide networks that first channeled Rush Limbaugh's words to anyone who cared to listen and now carry the words of the even more hateful crew who have replaced him.  Newsletters and faxed documents gave way first to email and now to social media.  With each iteration the calls for violence, the calls to eliminate the despised Other, have grown stronger.

What has also grown stronger is the resentment by the bigots against the Republican elites.

Lee Atwater, when describing the Southern Strategy in 1981 said:
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968, you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

But to the seething pool of hate that the Republican elites were stirring that restraint chaffed.  They didn't want to hear about tax rates and busing, they wanted to hear "nigger, nigger, nigger".  

The Party elites supported FOX and hate radio, they grew prosperous and content on the votes that grew from the ground they had fertilized with hate, and they fed ever more hate and ever more calls for violence to the masses in order to retain their support.  They did it deliberately and with malice aforethought.  And then, in public, they claimed that there was no hate, they used dogwhistles to try and pretend that the hate was merely a liberal myth used to smear their noble and principled politics.

They couldn't keep the balancing act up forever.  When you feed your voting base on a steady diet of hate for the Other, but continuously refuse to actually enact open policies to harm the Other, the base grows restless.  Eventually even the naked racism of the War on Drugs isn't enough to keep them quiet.

Donald Trump is saying nothing new.

Go back and read that again.  Understand this.  There is absolutely nothing new or novel in what Donald Trump is saying.  What he says is what the Republican Party has been saying for almost half a century.  The drumbeat of hate is old and powerful.

The difference, the only difference, is that Trump says it without the dogwhistles.  Where Reagan had to go and stand on the graves of civil rights workers murdered by local authorities and swear that he intended to let it happen again (all the while pretending that he wasn't advocating for racism and violence) Trump omits the bullshit.

The Republican Party is the party of Trump, Republicanism is Trumpism, there is no difference except in style and how openly the hate is expressed.

That sound you hear is the shrieking of Republicans who desperately want to think of themselves as good people, as people who don't support Trumpism, as people who want to pretend that they are shocked, shocked I tell you, to find hate festering in the Republican Party.

And it may be possible to be a good person and want lower taxes, or fewer regulations on business, or whatever other reason an otherwise good person may have for being Republican.  But it isn't possible to be a good person and seek to gain those things by the hate and violence the Republican party depends on.

Now, at long last, there is no more room for denial.  If nothing else the success of Donald Trump proves that the liberal critics of the Republican party were right all along, and I really wish we'd been wrong.  But facts are stubborn things, as Reagan once tried to say. The fact is that the hate, the violence, we liberals had long said was simmering just below the surface of Republicanism is real and is no longer content to stay under the surface.

Once the term "political correctness" was used by conservatives angry at liberals, but today it comes from conservatives angry at the Party elites who want them to keep the hate quiet.  They are tired of the pretense, tired of the strain of trying to pretend not to be violent bigots.

There is only one choice for Republicans who wish to be good people: leave the party.

Because it isn't just Trump.  Every single Republican up for election, without a single exception, is willing to use the hate that Trump embodies to achieve their ends.  Whether they agree with that hate themselves is irrelevant, anyone who would use the votes bought by the hate the Republicans so depend on is equally guilty.

And so is anyone who votes for such a person.

You can be a Republican, or you can be a good person.  You can no longer pretend that it is possible to be both.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Overwatch Open Beta, thoughts and first impressions: someone wants to replace Team Fortress 2. No grade for betas

First off, don't bother with my review, go grab the open beta and see for yourself.  If you've played any Blizzard game recently, you've got installed on your machine and trying the open beta is as simple as clicking the Overwatch section and hitting "Install".  It's about 6gb to download.

That said, here's my thoughts and impressions:

Someone at Blizzard wanted to replace Team Fortress 2, and they may have succeeded.

Not that Overwatch is a TF2 clone, far from it, but there's a lot of TF2 in the design of Overwatch, and a lot of things where it does what TF2 does but better.

Like TF2, Overwatch is a class based team shooter based around relatively short rounds.  A round that takes more than ten minutes is long.  Many games take less than five minutes from start to finish.

That sort of casual, drop in, drop out, sort of play is a delight in a world where many multiplayer games are designed around the idea of fierce competitive play for long periods and where dropping out after a short time is harshly criticized.

In addition to lightning fast games, the pace of the game itself is fast, a feeling helped by the fact that Overwatch is a much more vertical game than TF2 or most other FPS games.  Several heroes have abilities that allow them to get above the fray and rain death down from a superior vantage point. Snipers definitely have an opportunity to shine in Overwatch.

Overwatch also draws strongly from MOBA's.  The number of heroes and variety of powers far exceeds the usual found in an FPS and more are promised as development continues.  I find this to be a welcome addition to the team FPS idea.

Powers are all on timers, except for the ultimates which require dealing damage or healing to charge. No ammo pickups, guns need to be reloaded periodically but all that takes is a few moments for the reload animation to play.  The only truly limited resource in the game is health.

As in TF2, you can switch classes during a match, either after death or while in the spawn room. This allows for a more fluid play style than games that lock you into a class for the duration of play, and helps feed the feeling of Overwatch as a fast, flexible, game.

From a gameplay standpoint, Overwatch is excellent.  Like all Blizzard products, it is polished, runs smoothly on even slightly older hardware, and looks good.  The heroes aren't perfectly balanced yet, Bastion especially seems to be a bit OP when played right, but Blizz has a well deserved reputation for balance in multiplayer and while I'm sure that while they'll be more or less continuously tinkering with  balance in Overwatch I'm also sure that they'll get it mostly right fairly quickly.

It's fast, varied, vertical, and altogether fun.

Overwatch is also a welcome change from so many FPS games in that it has female characters at all, and moreover only Widowmaker the sort of hypersexualized female character you so often find in games. Even better, there's a bit of variety in body types.  Zarya is a beefy, muscular, woman and while she's the only one who isn't basically the thin waif type, it's unfortunately true that even a single non-waif woman in the gaming world is praiseworthy.  And she's fun to play.

The hero lineup is still a bit of a sausage fest, out of 21 heroes, 8 are women, a bit more than a third.  But that's at least a step in the right direction.

I'll admit, after less than three hours playing, I'm ready to buy it.  I don't know if Overwatch will actually replace TF2 as my go to game when I don't know what else to play, but it could happen.  And regardless, the time I spend playing Overwatch is time I'll be having fun, which is the whole point of gaming.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Homeworld, the best space RTS you (sort of) can't buy. And the sequel you can. And the mod that's free.

and Homeworld 2
Grade: B+ and C
Platform: PC, Mac
Genre: Space RTS
Steam: Remastered $34.99
Released: 1999

Homeworld Complex Mod

For fans of the genre Homeworld was a jaw dropping experience when it was first released in 1999.  This was the era of dial up internet, the Pentium III was the new big thing, and a good computer would have around 128MB of RAM.

And what Homeworld did with that was nothing short of amazing.  Fully 3D, free camera, free moving, space RTS.  It may not have been the first, but it did it better and more impressively than any of its predecessors.

It also featured a good story with good characters. Funny how that makes an otherwise merely good game better, isn't it?

Even for an era when games came in large boxes with manuals, and if you were a serious gamer you actually read the manual (usually while the game crawled through its agonizingly slow install), Homeworld came with a truly massive manual.  In addition to covering the controls for the game, the manual included a brief history of the Kharak (presented from an in universe POV), a discussion of the events leading up to the construction of the Mothership, a lecture on the social and political structure of society on Kharak, in depth tech specs of every Kharak ship in the game, and an explanation of why there's a woman named Karan S'jet floating in a tank of goo with all her nerves pulled out of her body and spliced into the computer core of the Mothership, and why she's always talking to you.

After a brief tutorial, for those who hadn't read the manual, the game explains that not all Mothership systems are fully online but that they're ready for the hyperspace test, and you get the truly nifty hyperspace effect taking you to the first real mission. Which ultimately results in the Taiidani fleet bombarding Kharak and killing everyone there before you can jump back.

As far as explanations for why your ship is isolated and doing all this stuff with no backup go it's a pretty good one.

The story takes you through a number of interesting environments, which takes some doing since the game takes place in space and space is mostly empty, while you discover why the Homeworld was attacked, build up you strength, enlist allies, and ultimately kick Taiidani ass and retake the titular Homeworld.

We'll skip the Yes! song at the end, it wan't very good.

But the little details that helped build the story and characters were excellent.  Heidi Ernest voiced Karan S'jet in her person as Fleet Command well (and never did any other voice work again), Michael Sunczyk put some real emotion into the voice of Fleet Intelligence, and the incidental chatter from fighters and larger ships as they went about their assigned tasks not only helped you stay aware of the situation but also added some personality there too.

The mechanics had their problems, but ultimately people overlooked those problems because the game was utterly amazing.

You can't buy Homeworld today.  Or, you can't buy it from any big name store.  Maybe if you hunt you can find a CD somewhere.  But just buying Homeworld is no longer possible.

You can buy Homeworld Remastered, and that will include the original Homeworld, as well as the remastered versions of Homeworld and Homeworld 2.  If you can get it running on a modern PC, I'd recommend playing the non-remastered version of Homeworld 1, though the remastered version of HW2 is just fine.

The reason for this is because the Homeworld Remastered release only actually updated the Homeworld 2 engine, and it tries to run the original Homeworld as an unfortunately rather poorly implemented mod.

In a way, this makes sense.  Homeworld 2 was indisputably a technologically superior game, so updating only the Homeworld 2 engine for modern PC's rather than wasting resources trying to update an inferior engine is a reasonable course of action.  Regrettably they didn't bother extending the engine to include the necessary physics for Homeworld 1, or even to accommodate the Homeworld 1 ships.  There were significant mechanical differences between the games, and things that were fairly important to success in Homeworld unfortunately often don't work so well in the remastered version.

But it's good enough to play if you can't get the original running.

And then there's Homeworld 2.

HW2 was a better game mechanically, no one will disagree.  Little annoyances from HW1 were eliminated, small craft were more logically handled, the controls were smoother, and the engine vastly better.

It's just a damn shame they didn't have a good story to go along with all the technological improvements.

First they made hyperspace into a weird mystic BS thing, retconned the hyperspace engine from HW1 into a mysterious macguffin, and basically made the whole thing a bit silly and blah.

It was still an ok game, but not great, merely average.  Which is a disappointment considering how amazing the original was.

But Homeworld 2 did spawn one of the better mods to have ever been created.

Homeworld 2 Complex changed virtually everything about HW2, from ship stats to adding new ship models to changing resourcing and it made the AI purely vicious. The result was a PvP game that was enjoyable, and above all difficult.  The mod developers continued work on the mod from 2003 until Remastered was announced, and then started work on making their mod work with Remastered. There is an active Complex playing community today, 13 years after HW2 was released, and it still remains a fresh, entertaining, way to be blown up by people with more skill than you can ever dream of having.

So buy Homeworld Remastered.  It's fun, the sequel isn't bad, and the mod is fantastic.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Portal 2, or how a sequel can be pretty darn good

Portal 2
Grade: C+
Platform: GNU/Linux, Mac, PC, 360, PS3
Genre: Physics puzzler
Steam: $19.99
Released: 2011

With the runaway success of Portal, an sequel was inevitable.  And unlike a lot of sequels, Portal 2 was a great game.  So why, you ask, have I given it only a C+?

C, of course, is average, and I consider Portal 2 to be a step above average.  But not, like Portal was, three steps above average.  Average, after all, is an entertaining and engaging game well worth playing.

In some ways Portal 2 is a significant improvement on its predecessor.  For all that Portal was groundbreaking, it was rather sharply limited.  There were only five elements available for the puzzles: the portals, buttons, boxes, turrets, and energy pellets.  The only reason Portal didn't become repetitive was that it was also extremely short.

Portal 2 kept the portals, the buttons, the boxes, and the turrets, and it added a slew of interesting elements that allow for more elaborate and varied puzzles.  Replacing the energy pellets with the thermal discouragement beam was an excellent idea because the thermal discouragement beam is such a more versatile game element, and also since it isn't a single activation element like the energy pellets it allows for more complex puzzles right off the bat.

They also added repulsion gel, propulsion gel, hard light bridges, excursion funnels, discouragement redirection cubes, and aerial faith plates.  The possibilities may not be limitless, but the success of the user designed levels shows that the new elements allow for many more possibilities than the designers had originally thought of.

From the standpoint of being a better physics puzzler, Portal 2 has Portal beaten hands down.

Where it doesn't do so well is in atmosphere.

Don't misunderstand, Portal 2 keeps the dark humor of Portal, it has snappy well written dialog performed by a stellar voice cast.  The Cave Johnson recordings alone justify the purchase price of Portal 2. 

For me though, it falls a bit flat when compared to Portal.  The creepy edge of Portal is gone, and perhaps it couldn't have really been kept. 

Unfortunately they also left out the solitude, and I think the game suffers as a result.  

In one way they'd never have been able to truly recapture the feeling of isolation and solitude from Portal, on your first playthrough it is possible to believe that Chell is the only thinking being in the entire facility.  GLaDOS initially comes across as a malfunctioning but non-sapient computer, and the slow realization that she is self aware, intelligent, and actively trying to kill you is a major factor in the tone and creepy value of the first game.  And of course that couldn't be maintained in the second game.

Perhaps it was because they realized that the sensation of true isolation from the original couldn't be recaptured that the designers decided to stick you with a companion for most of the game.  Stephen Merchant's Wheatley pops up almost immediately after the game begins, and when he isn't tagging along and telling you where to go, GLaDOS is.  As a result, for me at least, Chell feels more like a puppet used in a conflict between the two AI's rather than an independent agent.

Even the ending song reflects the shift from subtle menace to overtly stated intent.  

And perhaps that's for the best.  A game that tried, and failed, to maintain the atmosphere and creep factor of Portal wouldn't have been as good as one that went in its own direction.  Regrettably, that new direction just didn't grab me as much as the original did.

Which doesn't mean Portal 2 isn't a great game and well worth the price.  It is.  It's just that while it plays better, it doesn't feel as amazing, which is why it only gets a C+.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Portal, or how a minimalist game can be utterly amazing

Grade: B+
Platform: GNU/Linux, PC, 360, PS3
Genre: Physics puzzler
Steam: $9.99
Released: 2007

Portal was both an amazing game and the inspiration of far too many "the cake is a lie" jokes.

What makes Portal amazing is how such a minimalist, and very short, game could be such a huge hit, and have no imitators at all to speak of.

If you haven't played Portal, snag a copy and enjoy.  You'll be glad you did.

One thing that makes Portal so intriguing is that it is such a simplistic game.  You make portals, you bounce through them from point to point, and you try to get to the exit.  Admittedly the puzzles are often delightful and well thought out, but the game taken just as physics puzzler would at best merit a C.

What pushes Portal into the realm of greatness isn't just the fact that it had snappy gameplay and tightly designed levels.  What made Portal great was the setting, the story, and the characters.  And only one of the characters talks which makes it all the more amazing.

Portal is a deeply creepy game, one that manages to be menacing, almost frightening at times, all without gore, jump scares, or or any of the other things that are usually deployed in media to up the creep factor.  The first few seconds help establish how subtly, and not so subtly, wrong everything game is.

You waken from a "brief detention" in a "relaxation vault", to find yourself locked in a cell with no door, a radio playing a cheery tune, and everything tries to look like a shiny futuristic lab but actually looks a bit.... worn.  There's subtle stains on all the surfaces, the glass of your suspension pod is scuffed, there's cracks and discolorations on the tiles, and most disturbingly of all you can clearly see that there are no observers behind the frosted glass windows set high in the walls.

All that even before GLaDOS even has the "glitch" where she doesn't tell you the safety procedures.

There is a not so subtle menace in dialog and warnings pretending to be helpful.  "Perfect. Please move quickly to the chamberlock, as the effects of prolonged exposure to the Button are not part of this test."  The words meant to encourage the player are clearly designed to discourage, and the promised reward of cake at the end of testing seems calculated to be all but insulting to an adult.

Long before you encounter the first overt sign of anything wrong, the first of Rat Man's lairs where you see the phrase "the cake is a lie" scribbled over and over on the walls, you know that the testing is a fraud, that the computer (not yet named) is seeking to kill you.

The Rat Man lairs also provide you with your first glimpse behind the scenes.  The formerly pristine white tiles of the test chambers, now discolored and cracked, are merely a facade on ugly industrial particle board.  Behind the once gleaming lab is a grungy machine struggling to keep up a false appearance.

And then, when you reach the end of test chamber 19 and break out, into behind the scenes, you see it from the other side.

Other than the turrets, so creepily saying "I don't blame you" when you destroy them, GLaDOS is the only voiced character, but the other characters are not exactly empty or undeveloped.  Even Rat Man who appears only in the debris left in his lairs has a personality of sorts.

Like many games, Portal offers no character customization.  Unlike many games, the character you must play is a woman, and Chell is no tarted up sex object.  You catch a glimpse of Chell in the first chamber, hair pulled back into a functional ponytail, a prison orange jumpsuit, and a face with no makeup and no smile.  Chell is very far from a typical game protagonist.  She has no dialog and yet her appearnace and the setting convey some character.  She is clearly not a woman in a place she wants to be, and she will clearly let nothing stand in the way of her escape.  Chell does not fuck around, and every detail of her character is designed to say this.

GLaDOS you don't see until the end, and she is a cluster of spheres on a central apparatus of some sort.  Her voice is calm, mechanical, and menacing even before she begins directly threatening you. The dialog is cleverly designed to sound like bits and pieces of what might be actual testing dialog snipped apart and recombined for GLaDOS' own purposes.

All of which makes the shift in her tone to a less artificial, less distant, sort of voice into one with much more personality and direct interest in you seem so very much more threatening.

A physics puzzle game without an intriguing setting and characters, even one as mechanically sound and well designed as Portal, wouldn't be as memorable.  Portal, like all the best games, gives the impression that there is more to it, that if you tried hard enough you could find out more about the characters, that you could find more secrets, that you could open more doors and find more places.

The fact that the designers managed all this in a game that, even on the first playthrough only takes four hours or so, is nothing short of amazing.  Portal is pure poetry, every line and level polished to perfection.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Food Blogging: Japanese Style Curry Rice

Curry Rice

Type: Japanese
Difficulty: Easy
Non-Standard Ingredients: Japanese style curry roux
Grade: C+

It's easy to see why curry rice is one of the most popular foods in Japan.  It is one of the quintessential Japanese comfort foods, a dish eaten both in restaurants and made at home, it can be made with expensive ingredients turned into a gourmet treat, or bought pre-made in a pouch for a dollar and poured over some rice by broke college students, or it can be anything in between.  No matter how you eat it, where it comes from, or how much it costs, curry rice is always good.

This is one of the very few recipes where I'll advocate using something pre-prepared as the critical part of a main dish.  Normally I'm all about making things from scratch but trying to make your own Japanese style curry sauce that tastes right is an exercise in futility; so use a curry roux from the store.  I listed it as a non-standard ingredient, but I've found Japanese style curry roux for sale in Wal-Mart so it isn't exactly rare or hard to find.

There are two major brands in Japan, House is the most popular, followed by S&B.  I prefer S&B, but House is perfectly fine too.

As a comfort food, it's hard to beat.  Warm, filling, spicy, savory, filled with onions and carrots, it warms you on a cold night, and tastes just fine on a muggy summer night, it's great for nights alone or nights with the family.  There's never a bad time to eat a plate of curry rice.   Eat it with your family along with a conversation, or eat it watching Netflix by yourself.  It's also delicious put in the fridge and nuked for lunch the next day.  Hell, I've eaten it for breakfast from time to time.

Curry's introduction to Japan shows how secluded Japan had kept itself during the Edo Period.  India isn't exactly right next door to Japan, but it isn't that far away.  Yet curry didn't come to Japan until it was brought by British sailors in the 1870's.  

Which is why Japanese style curry has a distinctly British aspect and doesn't much resemble any any of the Indian curries, or Thai curries, or really any other curry.  Basically it's sort of like beef stew with some fancy spices served over rice.

Japanese recipes always call for potatoes, but I find that redundant since it's served over rice and so I usually leave potatoes out.  Also, if I leave the potatoes out all I have to wash is the pot I make the curry in and the rice pot.

Below is a "recipe", but really it's just my take on following the directions on the box of curry roux. This isn't just an easy recipe, it's the sort of thing a person can do if they've never cooked before in their lives.

1 Package curry roux
1.5 pounds thin sliced beef
1 pound crinkle cut frozen carrots (or fresh if you're super fancy)
1.5 pounds thin sliced onion
1 serving rice per person (short grain rice or sushi rice is best)

Following the instructions for your rice cooker, get the rice going.  It should be finished by about the time you're done with the curry.  If you don't have a rice cooker, I'm very sorry for you and highly recommend you get one, but in the meantime you can make your rice in a pot (don't stir it!).

Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a very large skillet or a pot.  Slice the onions into long thin strips, and saute them over high heat until slightly browned.  While that's happening cut the beef into bite sized chunks, slice the curry roux into small pieces for quicker integration, and nuke the carrots for a few minutes to get thawed.

Don't brown the meat, normally you'd want to but for thin sliced beef and this sort of dish it'll get tough if you do.

Reduce heat to medium, add carrots, beef, the amount of water called for by the curry roux, and the cut up curry roux.   Stir until it begins bubbling, then reduce heat to low and lid.  Allow to simmer until the rice is done.

I find that the normal S&B is a bit less currylike than I prefer, so I always add a bit of black pepper and some extra curry powder.  Taste it and decide for yourself if you want to add extra spices or not.

Dish up some rice, pour the curry on top, grab a fork, and dig in, life will be better with curry.

Monday, April 11, 2016


Grade: B+
Platform: These days literally everything including toasters, originally PC
Genre: FPS before there was FPS
GOG $5.99
Released: 1993

Doom was far from the first FPS game (there were FPS games going as far back as 1974 even though the acronym hadn't been invented yet), but in a lot of ways it is the origin of the modern FPS game.  And yet it differs in a great many critical aspects from virtually all modern FPS games, some good, some bad, and some just different.

Of course, Wolfenstein 3D came before Doom, but it was Doom, not Wolfenstein, that took the title of granddaddy of FPS games, and until the term FPS was invented people described FPS games as "Doomlikes" or "Doom clones".

A good place to start with Doom is what it doesn't have, or didn't require.

Doom is not, actually, 3D.  It pretends to be, but it isn't.  You aim only horizontally and there is no vertical control at all.  This is sometimes a bit jarring, such as when you meet the first imp and it is standing on a raised platform, but you can shoot it despite your gun clearly being aimed at the platform, not the imp.

Doom does not require a mouse (though it can use one and only the most masochistic modern gamer will try it without a mouse).  In the dark days of 1993 mice were still far from standard peripherals and a great many people, even gamers, didn't have them.  I didn't when I first got Doom, in fact playing it through again for this review is the first time I've ever played Doom with a mouse.

Doom has no shields.

Doom has no regenerating health.

Doom has no regenerating anything.

Doom, compared to modern FPS games, has a shockingly low rate of fire for most weapons.

Games evolve, and Doom is ancestral to the modern FPS, but still clearly shows its descent from other games and gaming styles.  Clearly one of the parents of Doom was the shooter game, a genre mostly extinct but with a closely related descendant genre in the bullet hell style of game.  In shooter games, the player moves quickly, usually much more quickly than the enemy bullets, and gameplay involves dodging enemy shots.  Doom is like that, with the player zipping across the battlefield at high speed and dodging enemy bullets as he goes.

In the modern FPS the idea of dodging most enemy attacks is simply absurd, but it is a critical component of Doom.  Enemies fire attacks that crawl towards the player not merely allowing, but demanding, that the player dodge them.

Because, as noted above, nothing in Doom regenerates.  There are no shields, and your health is limited, and enemy attacks take off a lot of that limited health pool if they hit.

The modern FPS turns the player into a meat shield, while seeking cover is both good and necessary, it is understood that the player will be shot, several times, during any encounter, and that in between encounters the player's health and shields will fill back up, or that the player will even hide behind cover at least long enough for their shields to recharge.

In Doom you dodge or you die, and a skilled player can dodge virtually every attack directed at them. This clearly shows a common ancestry with games like Galaga and Vanguard.

Also unlike your average modern FPS, Doom isn't much on story.  Sure, there's an instruction manual that talks about Mars and demons and so on, but the story isn't in the game.  You shoot demons, find keys, and shoot more demons until you can get the BFG and kill the big boss demons.  There's your story chum.

Doom came from an era when games were, mostly due to hardware limits, fairly sharply divided into story intense but graphically limited and mechanically limited games, and games with little story but detailed and snappy game mechanics.  Doom fits unapologetically  into the second category.  It is a game, first and foremost, about playing the game.  Story is crammed in as a far distant second priority, and the game doesn't really suffer for that.

Where Doom shines is in gameplay and level design.

Once you remap the controls (using a separate utility, no in game keymapping supported) to use WSAD, with A & D being strafing rather than turning, Doom is a game with tight controls, allowing you to dodge enemy attacks with ease, while positioning yourself to take down the enemies with a few well placed shots.  I have absolutely no idea how I managed to win the first time I played Doom with the default keybinds (and no mouse) way back in the day, but I managed it somehow.

As mentioned earlier, Doom has remarkably slow animations and firing on the first two weapons.  Your pistol fires only once every half second or so, and the shotgun takes at least a full second to ready before it can be fired again.  This requires you to play defensively, dodging around while you arrange matters so your slow firing weapons can take out enemies.  Later weapons sometimes have faster firing (the chaingun wouldn't be a chaingun without a high cyclic) but many still retain a much slower rate of fire than many modern gamers expect.  You mostly can't just spray and pray, you must aim, and that's a bit tricky sometimes due to the lack of a targeting reticle.

Doom is hard, and that's part of the point and joy of playing.  Back in the old days games tended to be harder than modern games, and Doom is no exception.  I can understand why game difficulty was decreased, but I often wish games had at least an option for greater difficulty (even BioShock Infinite's 1999 mode wasn't really that hard)

Doom also features level layouts that are, in my opinion, often vastly superior to the level design in many modern FPS games.  The image on the left (a meme floating around the net since 2010) is exaggerated for comic intent of course, your typical modern FPS isn't quite that simplistic in its maps, but it is true that compared to most modern FPS games, the maps in Doom are sprawling and complex.  It's easy to get lost, especially given how few textures they were able to cram in (again, hardware limits), but fortunately there's a built in map feature that helps you out.

Doom maps were also a first for FPS games because they were dynamic.  Platforms moved, doors opened and closed, pillars lowered to reveal prizes, and monsters burst from hidden doors to surprise you.

Doom both invited and rewarded exploration in a way that many modern games don't, and due to their mechanics often really can't; regenerating health and shields takes away the urgency of finding boosters in game.  Often Doom will give you a glimpse of a valuable prize, which can be seen easily but which can only be reached by hunting around for hidden doors or finding concealed elevators.  The player has to learn to look for out of place (or sometimes backwards) textures, and is rewarded for this by gaining access to better equipment.  Sometimes finding the secrets is the difference between life and death, no regenerating health means getting the healing packs is often absolutely essential.

The modern FPS could stand to take a lesson or two from Doom on level design, and how the level design lead the players to the secrets without the need for in game exposition or explanation.  Like the way first few seconds of Super Mario Bros is a perfectly designed tutorial on the basics of gameplay, the first few moments in Doom show you that there are areas in the game that require you to hunt for secret ways to access.  The very first thing you see as you begin play is a courtyard viable through a window, but not accessible through the window, with a giant glowing set of armor set on a pedestal surrounded by toxic waste.  The invitation to find a way to get to it couldn't be clearer.  When, at the end of a level, it shows you a percentage for secrets found, the urge to go back and play through the level again to bring it up to 100% is almost overwhelming for a certain type of gamer.

On the bad news side, it turned John Romero into a crazed ego monster who harmed the developer centered model of game design with the execrable Daikatana and the godawful hype built up around it that fed his ego.

But that to the side, Doom stands up well to the test of time.  It not only spawned a genre that continues to be massively popular, but at least in terms of level design it remains superior to many of its descendants, and remains playable and enjoyable to modern gamers, and a game that programmers have taken as a challenge to port to a truly ridiculous array of low powered devices.  That's an achievement not many 23 year old games can claim.