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?