The difference between clever and cunning.

Monday, December 27, 2010

I'm in a Mine. Crafting.

It's appropriate that I review Minecraft shortly after I covered the World of Warcraft expansion. Aside from both having the word “craft” in their name, the two games are polar opposites. Each encompasses a radically different philosophy in game design. WoW is (as has been stated before) a theme park. Theme parks can be a tremendous amount of fun, but people understand they’re in for a structured, controlled experience. Minecraft isn’t a theme park. Minecraft is a sandbox.

When you start a new game of Minecraft the player is plopped down, empty handed, in the middle of an infinitely vast, randomly generated world. You can pick a random direction and walk for hours and Minecraft will continue to procedurally generate more terrain, shifting from snowfields to forests to island chains as you pass through different biomes. Everything in this world is made of blocks. The trees, the mountains, the deserts, and the oceans, all made of blocks. Every block can, with some effort, be removed and replaced according to your whims.

The view from the mountain over my base. The world goes on forever.
(As always, click to enlarge the pictures)

The controls are quick and intuitive. If you’ve ever played Doom you can move comfortably and if you’ve ever played Diablo managing the inventory and crafting interface is a snap. Minecraft has proven relatively stable, only crashing once or twice, although the recent Beta updates caused some frame rate issues for a while. Music is sparse and moody, and the audio feedback of your tools and footsteps on different surfaces fills out the world nicely.

For a game with such primitive graphics… No, primitive is the wrong word. Basic. Modular. Anyhow, Minecraft’s world is full of life and atmosphere. Water runs, grass and trees grow, and harmless cows and pigs wander across the terrain, waiting to be converted into leather and ham. Fire, if carelessly unleashed, rips through forests and wooden structures. The sun moves slowly through the sky overhead. This is important, because once the sun goes down the formerly peaceful world floods with giant spiders, zombies, and exploding cactus monstrosities.

Sun's going down. Better hurry home...

Your first goal is obviously survival. I’d recommend watching some of the excellent YouTube tutorial videos on surviving your first night, because this is that kind of game. There is no instruction manual or tutorial. (To be fair the game is, as I mentioned previously, only just now entering Beta. More on that later.) Knowing some basic information, like how to build first tier tools and that light prevents monsters from spawning, is invaluable and helps prevent the otherwise likely death-by-spiders.

Minecraft can be an unforgiving, reminiscent of the earliest generation of MMO’s. The monsters do a lot of damage, especially before you are able to craft armor, and aren’t shy about ganging up on you. The game saves constantly, so there’s no going back and loading up a previous save if you make a terrible mistake. When you die you re-appear at the same spawn point you first started at, no matter how far away you were. Every single item you were carrying is dropped back where you died, and dropped items disappear forever in five minutes. Minecraft also lacks any sort of built in map function, and it’s quite easy to lose your bearings and become hopelessly lost.

The light of dawn makes the undead burst into flames.

The game’s environment is hostile, but that’s fine, because Minecraft is all about changing the environment to suit your needs. Every single brick can be manipulated. Carve a shelter out of a mountainside and set up a perimeter of torches to ensure safety at night. Leave behind a series of markers to let you find your way back to your camp.  If you keep falling down a hole, pave it over. If a river blocks your path, build a bridge over it.

There is no part of the world that is beyond your power to change, and this is a large part of what makes Minecraft such a unique experience. Don’t like a mountain? Remove it and build a better one in its place. Or a castle. Or an elaborate maze. Or whatever you please. Only a few block types (like sand) are even affected by gravity, so you can build that floating fortress you’ve always wanted.

It’s possible to play without ever leaving the open sky, but it’s also possible to dig down and never look back. Iron and diamond and other valuable ore can only be found past a certain depth, so it’s tempting to dig greedily and dig deep. It’s even possible to grow wood and food resources underground, with the right combination of light, water, and space, so there is nothing stopping a determined player from going “full dwarf” and becoming completely independent from the surface.

The underground is hazardous. It’s easy to accidentally dig into a sandfall, rushing underwater river, lethal fall or lava. The only light comes from your torches, and monsters can come from any area that’s dark. There are huge pitch black cave systems that stretch under every Minecraft world. You can break into them by accident, but you frequently hear monsters roaming the lightless depths nearby as you mine. It’s delightfully creepy, and showcases the game’s excellent sound design. The sound of running water and monster groans are the only hint of danger you get before you tunnel right into it. Exploring the world below is dangerous, rewarding and a lot of fun.

Lava and water beneath the earth.

Your nameless character is the first and only man in this brave new world. There is no plot to follow, no quests to undertake, and no missions to complete. There are no characters to talk too or otherwise interact with. The only NPC’s are harmless wildlife and the hordes of nocturnal monsters. There are no levels or stats. You can craft a variety of weapons, armor, and tools, of varying levels of effectiveness, but everything eventually wears out and must be replaced. Your abilities are solely defined by what you happen to be carrying at the moment, and the changes you have made to the world.

Minecraft is less a conventional game than a toy. This is gaming at its most freeform, the polar opposite of the linear, six-hour, First Person Shooter, graphics spectaculars that the industry has adopted as its figureheads. Your objective is whatever you wish, from construction to exploration, provided you can locate the resources and craft the equipment and construction material you need. No other game I’ve encountered before lets you change the environment to anything like the same degree.

Aside from exploring the surface and endless underworld, Minecraft’s great joy is building things. Every player will want to carve out a home base or fort, if only to have a safe place to weather the nights, and seeing your little speck of custom civilization spring up amid the endless wilderness is truly rewarding. You’re Robinson Crusoe in squarish pixels.

A modest but cozy home base.
It’s obviously quick and intuitive to grasp how to build something out of square blocks. Anyone who has ever seen a Lego instantly understands the concept. If you can imagine it, you can likely build it. Once you move beyond stacking blocks there are a lot of cool features to master, from doors and ladders to working mine-carts on tracks and even a sort of primitive circuitry to power buttons and levers. Players have done amazing things with the running water, lava, and the host of other, ever expanding tools and features built into the game.

The community is impressive, and simply seeing people showcase their projects and engineering feats on YouTube is a pleasure. The official forums and wiki are a great resource. I was able to find plans for a protected and efficient greenhouse design to aid my crop growing experiments. If you ever need help making one of your ideas work, or simply want to see cool stuff other people have built, the forums and wiki are highly recommended. 

The randomly generated worlds are cool, and it is always tempting to load up a new one just to see what it looks like, but they can contribute to Minecraft’s barrier to entry. For every ideal spawn point it’s equally possible to get one without access to important first tier resources, like coal. Watching a tutorial video is highly recommended, and an intro world or sequence would go a long way towards easing new players into the game before letting them take their chances with the random generator. It’s entirely possible something like this might be added in the future, because Minecraft literally isn’t complete yet.

It feels a little odd to be “reviewing” a game that just moved from Alpha to Beta as I wrote this entry. It is important to understand that the Minecraft available today is not a finished product, and may not be for some time.  It is constantly being tuned, updated, and gaining new features. What we end up with may be very different than what I’ve discussed today, for better or worse.
Can you spot the exploding cactus abomination lurking in the dark?

Minecraft’s strengths are also its weaknesses. It isn’t a monopoly board, but a giant bag of Legos, a blank page rather than a finished novel. If you want to enjoy a cinematic story or blast through a meticulously tuned action sequence you will not find them here. You drive the action and shape the world in Minecraft, not the other way around. If the types of exploration, crating, and building I’ve described don’t sound appealing, this is likely not a game you will enjoy. At least check out the explosives video I’ve included at the bottom of this entry though, because it is pure awesome.

While not perfect Minecraft is a triumph of indie gaming, and an amazing toy in its own right. I’m eager to see what features are added in the future as the game continues to evolve. The game continually surprised me. For example: returning from a long mining expedition, I found the decorative saplings I had planted in my indoor greenhouse had grown into towering trees that blocked out the sunlight and killed the smaller plants around them. While hardly crippling it was still very cool to see the world react to my changes in unexpected ways.

Reasons to play: Amazing freeform toy. Limitless options to explore, build, and experiment.

Reason’s to pass: Punishing death penalty. Some barrier to entry. Players who crave a focused, cinematic experience may find themselves bored.

Note: This is primarily a review of the single player Alpha and Beta on Normal difficulty. Minecraft does have a free “classic” version where you have unlimited blocks of every sort and no enemies.  It also features a multiplayer mode where people can co-operatively build together (or grief each other’s structures). Finally the game has a “Peaceful” difficulty setting where no monsters appear. If the experiences I’ve described seem a bit intense, know that there are more relaxed and more social ways to enjoy the game.

Minecraft Resources

Awesome Minecraft Explosives video (Showcases how dramatically you can change the world): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFZKtvHQSNY

Monday, December 13, 2010

It's the End Of The World

Ah Blizzard. One day you’ll stop messing around. One day you’ll hook electrodes directly into my brain’s pleasure centers and convert me into a hideous but docile cybernetic drone. Every time I complete some mundane and repetitive task, like breaking rocks or hunting down one of the surviving free humans, I’ll receive a jolt of pure sense-of-accomplishment directly to the cortex.

That's the stuff.

I can’t wait, but until that glorious day there is WoW, and today there is the Cataclysm expansion.

The last days before a new expansion hits an MMO have a decidedly apocalyptic feel. Madmen rave from every street corner, the economy lies in shambles, and the nervous masses grasp at every scrap of news and whispered rumor. Guild leaders and moderators struggle to ease the troubled minds of their charges, but can they hide their own quiet doubts? They cannot, and the people sense it, and they fear…

Everything that is known and loved and loathed is put to the question. All the power and treasure and glory we have labored to amass are held cheap and tawdry. Is the Great Nerfing upon us, like the mad-eyed prophets say? Will everything be ruined, ruined forever? Will the servers melt into molten slag and all ones returned to zeroes? My god, what will happen to my character, my class, my guild?! Will I be spared? Will anyone?

Wait. Is that it? Is that the expansion I see coming now? What is that light? So bright as it breaks through. Illuminating. Burning. Beautiful and terrible… I can see it! I can see forever! And it sees us… (Transmission lost)

Can't you see it? Hear it? Feel it? Coming for us...

There is nothing on this earth like being in the first wave as an expansion goes live. The servers go up. New zones come online for the first time. All is quiet, peaceful, and perfect. Then a solid mass of berserk players arrives, and nothing will ever be ok again.

Imagine Omaha beach. No, imagine the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Except there are five hundred Allies of every nation, rank, and uniform pouring off the boats and only twenty Axis soldiers evenly spaced across the beach, each blithely patrolling their own little sector. And your commanding officer won’t let you advance until you’ve killed ten Axis soldiers and blown up five sections of barbed wire.

Soon there are giant piles of hundreds of dead Axis soldiers all across the beach, the Russian and American soldiers have begun fighting one another, and someone keeps shouting over and over that they can’t find the Bangalore torpedoes while everyone else mocks him. So it’s actually not like Omaha beach at all. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review of the Cataclysm expansion. That is beyond our scope. One could argue that it isn’t really possible to review an MMO. One would be wrong, but one could argue it. This is just intended to be a combination of my personal experiences going in face first, and some thoughts on Blizzard’s design philosophy and how it’s evolved. Plus some cool screenshots. (As always, click to see them full sized)

The first thing I noticed about the new zones, aside from how awesome they looked, was how linear they are. Blizzard has refined it’s “theme park” design school to an art. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You’re stuck on rails yes, but the rails make up a roller coaster. The game shuttles you neatly and efficiently from one quest hub to another. Great use is made of the “phasing” technology that was introduced in Wrath of the Lich King to give the illusion of progress and a world that changes based off your actions.

A host of cutscenes help move the story along.

One series of early quests in has you rallying and equipping a group of stranded, shipwrecked survivors. Just as you’re finally getting them back on their feet, an enemy attack wipes out the tiny outpost and sweeps you along to the next area. The campaign in the Mt. Hyjal zone has you aiding the druids in slowly pushing the enemy down the mountain. Enemy forces are actually driven out of areas and whole sections of forest re-grown based as you succeed. Of course, everyone else sees the exact same story as you, with little variation, but that's the price we pay for this level of dynamism in a theme-park style MMO.

There are even a few encounters with Deathwing himself.

This is, beyond any doubt, really cool. One of the most annoying things about MMO’s is that, by their very nature, it is hard to feel like you’re making any impact on the world. The dragon you slew needs to be there for the next person to slay, which makes your own victory seem just a little hollow. Seeing zones change and the story move forwards from stuff you did is extremely rewarding.

This level of linearity is not without problems. In my personal experience a single NPC didn’t appear in one of the early Cataclysm zones, which meant you couldn’t complete the quest they were related too, and progress through the entire zone was held up. Because of a single missing character, dozens of quests were completely inaccessible. The problem was fixed in 24 hours, and to be fair this was an incredibly smooth launch considering the sheer scale involved, but the linear nature of the new zones means they bottleneck very easily. If even one quest is bugged or broken it can be very hard to keep moving forward.

Fix. The. Bugs.

On a side note Blizzard appears to have dispensed with the idea of group content anywhere outside an instance. It’s a good change. These quests could be fun, but finding a group could also be an aggravating roadblock. Their removal streamlines the leveling process nicely. You still take on some impressive and powerful opponents, but you usually have NPC backup or some other quest specific way of evening the odds.

Blizzard's sense of humor can be found everywhere.

The new zones are well worth the price of admission. They are huge, and full of cool features. The underwater Vashj’ir zone is so big it’s practically an expansion all on its own, and the sea life and underwater vistas look amazing. There’s always some cool to see, and while there are plenty of bread and butter kill-this-fetch-that quests, there are also plenty of memorable moments and fun new mechanics. Questing through these new areas never felt grindy or boring to me.

That's a Whale, to give you a sense of scale. You actually go inside the creature behind it.

Before I let you go, I realize this blog has been a little WoW heavy lately. For this you may, unsurprisingly, blame the expansion. While Wow coverage and commentary is certainly intended to be an element of this blog, with “Azeroth” right there in the name, please don’t come away with the impression that we’re only a WoW blog. As riveting as I find making my Internet Numbers bigger, in my experience there are few things less interesting than hearing someone talk about an MMO you do not play.

If you also play the same MMO, given what we’ve discussed today, I suspect our experiences in the new zones would be, by their very design, quite similar. So you probably wouldn’t find it very interesting either. In fact, you’re probably busy playing right now rather than reading this carefully crafted and insightful masterpiece. Ingrate.

To the pit with you!

But fear not, gentle reader. We have more of the same thoughtful reviews and fascinating industry commentary you’ve come to depend on coming down the pipe quite soon. A man has to do something besides play WoW. Until the brain electrodes get installed, I mean…

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

It's that time of year again

Hey out there. I hope you all had a good Thanksgiving. Or at least survived it. The holidays can be a hectic time for many people. Sometimes it feels like the world is coming apart at the seams.
(Click to enlarge the pictures. Many of them need to be seen at full size to appreciate.)

Travel can be stressful, and just doesn't feel safe these days.

Still less traumatic than flying commercial.
If you get along with your relatives that's fortunate, but avoid inviting people from work if you can. Some seem to get a little bit crazier every year. It's even worse if they've somehow been successful and moved up in spite of themselves.

All the other faction leaders at least wear a shirt or something. I'm just saying...
The food is usually good. That's what makes the whole mess worthwhile.

That's Steve on the table. Dear friend, and delicious to the end.
Leftovers can be a hassle once the meal is over. There is just no place to store them, and it feels like they'll never be finished.

The seafood side dish seemed like a good idea at the time.

With any luck we'll all survive till Christmas. Not likely though. Can you hear the thundering hooves of the riders of the holiday apocalypse drawing nigh?

Can you not see his fiery hoof-prints? Can you not hear his terrible gobbles?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dear Billy,

(If you play World of Warcraft this needs no explanation. If you do not, I have no excuse. Nowhere do people seem to fear change more, and take things more personally, than in online games.)

          Dear Billy,

          This is Flurry Entertainment, makers of the popular Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game: “Planet of the Battlemakers.”

          We note that, while a longtime veteran of our game, you don’t seem to be entirely happy.  You have started multiple threads in our official forums and engage in prolonged arguments in general chat, all to the effect that you don’t feel the game is balanced. That it is being ruined. You seem concerned that there might even be some… favoritism at work. We find these accusations distressing, and would like to take the opportunity to address your concerns.

          You’ve stated that we here at Flurry must love the opposing in-game faction, the Buddy Nations, more than we like yours, the Rampaging Mob. You state that they have more interesting zones, better designed capitol cities, and cooler quests and rewards. You’ve complained extensively that the battlefield maps give the Buddy Nations an unfair advantage, and that Player VS Player combat is hopelessly imbalanced in their favor.

          You also appear to feel your Race and Class combination, the Road Ogre Facepuncher, is at a severe disadvantage; especially compared to the Scantily Clad Pixy chosen by sixty percent of Buddy Nations players. You’ve raised repeated complaints about everything from the poorly fitting and unattractive graphics for the Road Ogre armor; to the severe “nerfs” you state have ruined the Facepuncher class. We were particularly impressed by the many, many charts and graphs you produced to support your arguments.

          These are valid concerns, and we here at Flurry Entertainment feel we owe you an explanation.

          Billy, these issues with your faction, race and class do not stem from the inherent complexity of the game. We have already carefully considered and taken into account each of the hundreds of possible factors that affect gameplay and balance for a dozen classes, dozens of character builds, a score of races, fifty zones, PvP and PvE combat between two opposing factions, hundreds of spells and abilities, and millions of players.

          Every single interaction has been finely tuned and should be considered as working exactly as intended. Every…single…one. After all, as you repeatedly pointed out, we make tens of millions of dollars every month from subscription fees. Our experienced and hard drinking technical and QA departments systematically eliminate any bugs and unintended issues long before they have a chance to affect our players.

          You see Billy; the reason for the issues you have encountered is hatred. Our searing, undying, tightly focused hatred for you, everything you stand for, and everything you have ever, ever loved. We go to bed ever night with our hatred burning inside like the heart of a new born star. We wake up every morning from dreams of a world that exists solely to make you miserable beyond description. We spend every day working to make those dreams a reality.

          We at Flurry Entertainment hate you Billy. We hate you more than words can ever tell.

          Now, to be fair, we despise pretty much every other element of Planet of the Battlemakers as well. We hate both the Buddy Nations and the Rampaging Mob. Next patch we plan to move player item storage for both factions out of the major cities and into an underwater minefield. There is no race and class combination that we can honestly say we like. We’ve systematically worked to try to render every race and class from Brain-Ape Stomper to Dirt-Gnome Appliance Repairman as painful as possible to play .

          But you Billy, our hate for you is something rare and special.

          We leave nothing to chance. We continually analyze your play style so we can make it less viable. We record what spells and powers you like to use so we can make them worthless. Every time you missed with an attack, didn’t get the item you wanted, or were ambushed by a monster? That wasn’t bad luck. That was us, and you were right to curse our name as it happened.

          Every time you enter a battlefield, the Buddy Nation players see a giant beacon over your head and receive a message that you are worth triple points. Our monster AI is programmed to seek you out from across the zone and attack when your health is low. Our server team spends their days crowding around a large red switch, pulling it to disconnect you from the game at the worse possible moment. They take a shot every time they do. It isn't a bad connection Billy. It is deliberate malice.

          Every single time.

          We appreciate you taking the time to contact us Billy. We hope we have been able to answer some of your questions. Best of luck on your adventures in Planet of the Battlemakers!

Flurry Entertainment.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Game On Follow Up


          As promised I was able to make the Game-On event. It was worth attending, and not just for the booze and free sandwiches.  Austin is home to a lot of talented game companies, and they took the opportunity to show off their latest releases.

          The focus of the event was on console games, as one might expect. Gaming consoles lend themselves to “party style” play, being easier to set up, pick up and start playing, and arrange a multiplayer match on. I’m all but exclusively a PC gamer. The last console I owned was an old N64.

          This is not out of any sort of misguided elitism or the weird factionalism that sometimes afflicts our hobby. Some time ago I came to the conclusion that I have a sadly finite pool of money, leisure time, and energy, and settled on the PC as my main gaming platform. My crippling WoW addiction may have also had something to do with it. Anyhow, it was cool to see some console games that wouldn’t normally cross my radar. These aren’t intended to be full reviews, just my thoughts on what I was able to see in the limited time I had with what was on display.

          The star of the show was definitely The Force Unleashed 2. They had the Wii version, from Red Fly Studio, available for play. Being a Stormtrooper continues to be one of the most hazardous jobs in existence, with a disturbingly high chance of being choked, electrocuted, crushed by telekinetically thrown objects, or sliced to pieces. Red Fly has captured much of the charm of the old Jedi Outcast series: the pure joy of using the power of the force to do very bad things to people in identical white armor.

          The level I was seeing demoed seemed to center around keeping one step ahead of Darth Vader, destroying bridges and elevator shafts and jamming doors to keep him from being able to pursue. This is a good use of the character rather than just tossing him into boss fight after boss fight. Vader is, after all, someone you run away from.

          I was able to join in the multiplayer tournament, and even survived past the first bracket by courageously hiding in the corner till my opponents had worn one other down. The multiplayer mode is a 2D brawler that draws a lot of inspiration from the Smash Bros series. Many of the levels feature hazards like giant monsters and rising lava that are at least as dangerous as the enemy players, and power ups spawn at random that let you unleash special attacks. The characters have a good spread of abilities and play styles. For example: Bobba Fett lacks a real melee attack but can actually fly with his jetpack and not just do that Force double-jump all Jedi come equipped with.

          My personal favorite was Comic Jumper, from Twisted Pixel. These are the same guys who brought us such quirky games as ‘Splosion Man. The game combines classic 2d brawling and shooting with a snarky and intensely self-aware sense of humor that I enjoyed. As the name would indicate Comic Jumper has you fighting through parodies of different comic book genres, each with a distinct art direction. Unfortunately it is for the 360 only. Here’s hoping they get around to making a PC port at some point.

          The best twist on an old idea present was what I can only describe as “some sort of inverse dueling mode Tetris” called Opposites. It’s easier to see than describe, and visually striking. Blocks alternate falling from right and left towards the center of the screen, rebuilding your opponent’s side. Go take a look at it here to see what I mean: http://dannobot.com/index.html.

          Finally there was a program called Gamesalad being demoed, which described itself as an “advanced game creation tool for non-programmers.” It used a drag-and-drop interface for putting together sets of conditions and commands. The program looked fascinating, but unfortunately for me it is a Mac exclusive. Steve Jobs! (Shakes Fist)

          Now that I’ve undermined my previous comment on factionalism, I can say I had a good time. If the event comes around again, and you find yourself in Austin , make sure to show up. I’m looking forward to SXSW Interactive event this March, and the accompanying Screenburn Arcade. I will be covering both, so keep checking back.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Game On

Despite the fact that our planet orbits a ball of radioactive fire I do periodically leave my house, and not just to buy more bottled water and 20 pound sacks of rice. As you may or may not already know I live in Austin, Texas. Austin is an unspeakably cool city. One of the many reasons for this is the SXSW music, film, and interactive festival that rolls around once a year, causing the already tenuous parking situation to dissolve into mass hysteria.

The best part about SXSW is the Screenburn free arcade. Austin is home to a host of game companies, (Bioware, return my calls! Or at least revoke that court order…) and Screenburn gives them and others a chance to show off. They’re getting started a few months early this year with an event called Game On, which is also free, and takes place tomorrow.

Local rag The Chronicle has a quick write up here: http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Market/GameOn

Yours truly will be in attendance. I’ll be letting you know what the event was like afterwards, and of course writing up the actual games demoed. Should be exciting.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Plants VS Zombies

          If gaming has taught me anything, it is that a Zombie Apocalypse is not just likely but inevitable. The dead are hungry, restless, and have no concept of person space. It is only a matter of time till we open our front doors one morning to see them lurching slowlybut determinedly across the lawn, arms extended for a welcoming hug.

          Like many people I like to imagine I would get in a certain amount of shotgun firing, black trench coat wearing, and katana wielding in the face of a zombie onslaught. Realistically I’d probably alternate between hysterical shrieking and frantically flailing with a shovel, and even that's optimistic. Perhaps I should have been working on my gardening skills to protect my thinking meats.

          In Plants VS Zombies the player dispenses with such crude weapons as guns and power tools in favor of fighting off the undead with horticulture. The game traces its lineage back to the tower defense genre, where you place down defensive structures and objects to fend off attackers. Here (as one would expect from the name) you place plants on the grid-like field of your lawn to destroy the waves of zombies shambling across it.

          The campaign doubles as the game’s tutorial. The pace starts off slow and deceptively simple, with slow, weak zombies being mowed down by your long range Peashooters. The basic mechanic is that you spend “Sun” to place a plant in an open square. Sun falls from the sky on most levels, and is also spit out periodically by certain resource generating plants. You need to actually click on the individual units of Sun to collect them, so your mouse hand is rarely idle. The seed packets you use to place plants take variable amounts of time to recharge, so you are constantly balancing available resources, space, and cool-down timers with the types and number of incoming zombies. You only have so long to establish a working defense grid before a massive wave of the undead arrives to end the level.

Never a good sign.
          Plants VS Zombies is easy to pick up and start playing, but has plenty of depth. You quickly gain access to a host of tactical options in the form of your different plants. Some generate resources, other fire different types and patters of projectiles across the lawn. You have plants that act as barriers and others that are expendable bombs. Cherry Bombs destroy every Zombie around them, and Potato Mines detonate the first unlucky undead to shamble over them. Venus flytrap like Chompers devour zombies whole, while Magnet-Shrooms yank metal armor and tools away from better equipped specimens.
          You build up a “deck” of seed packets as the game progresses. There are a lot more types of plants than you have seed slots for, so your selection for each level is a major strategic choice. There are never quite enough slots to bring all the plants you want, so you need to formulate a workable plan with the ones you have. There are over 40 types of plants, each with a different offensive, defensive, or specialized ability. They’re unlocked and introduced across the course of the campaign, and there is no shortage of clever combinations and strategies.
          New zombie types continually force you to adapt and make full use of every plant. Put down a Snow-Pea to freeze zombies and they start to carry screen-door shields to block the icy projectiles. Wallnuts form a sturdy defensive barrier that you come to depend on, until you see the first zombie pole vault over them or prop a ladder against them. A field of Spikeweed shreds zombies moving through it, but not those that can burrow under or float effortlessly over the hazard.  Whatever defense you set up, there is a type of zombie who will be able to overcome it, just as no matter what kind of zombies you find yourself facing there is a plant in your arsenal that can stop them. The system of counters is deep and addicting, and there is no such thing as an impenetrable defense.
          The game continually introduces new elements for you to learn that keep the campaign from ever growing repetitive. Just as you come to depend on the steady supply of Sun falling from the sky, night falls. When you finally master defending the front yard, you get a pool and must learn how to use aquatic plants. The normal levels are broken up with diversions like bowling for zombies, and frantic end-of-chapter battles where you must put together a working defense from random plants that arrive by conveyer belt.
          Plants VS Zombies is bursting with creative and entertaining mini games, some of which are even more fun than the main game mode. You do everything from deal with invisible zombies to deploying zombies yourself to overcome plant defenses. My only complaint is that you need to finish the main campaign to unlock a lot of the really fun stuff, but the campaign teaches you the skills you need for the tougher challenges.

          Indeed, one could argue that finishing the campaign just opens up the real game, with its endless survival mode. The alternate game modes and excellent music video are certainly worthwhile rewards for completing it. The money you earn can be spent on buying upgraded versions of many plants and other perks. Collecting and raising plants for your Zen-garden is surprisingly addictive.

          The game has a humorous and good natured tone. The bug eyed zombies shuffle into your defenses with an endearing combination of optimism, creative determination, and slack-jawed stupidity. Many of your plants have subtle but distinct personalities. Sunflowers bob back and forth to the beat of the background music, carnivorous plants lick their lips after gobbling a zombie, and Wallnut’s expressions become determined grimaces as ghouls chomp away at them. Each plant and zombie has a short but humorous entry in the “Suburban Almanac” that entertains as it teaches you their strengths and weaknesses, and your increasingly crazed neighbor explains new mechanics and mini-games.

Know your enemy.
          I enjoy standing atop a burning heap of my enemies shattered carcasses as much as the next gamer, but Plants VS Zombies is fun and worthwhile for both the “casual” and “hardcore” alike. I know casual is a dirty word for some people, but this really is a game that anyone can play, enjoy, and be challenged by without razor edge reflexes, an expensive machine, and huge blocks of time. Its lighthearted atmosphere and simple mechanics conceal a deeply satisfying level of tactical complexity. Oh, and it's cheap. $10 cheap. Get it.

Holding the line.

Reasons to play: Easy to learn, challenging to master. Charming aesthetic. Just plain fun.

Reasons to pass: If Bejeweled ate days of your life, you may not need another addictive “casual” game.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Links, updates, upcoming reviews

Good news!

Turns out the rash was just... no wait, that's not what I'm here to talk about.
No, what has me so pleased is that Teotl studios is featuring my review of their game "The Ball" on their front page; along with a host of other, lesser reviews. Go take a look.

In other news we're pulling together a list of entertaining and relevant gaming links, for your enjoyment and delectation. If it shows up here, you can be sure it is worth reading. If you disagree, it is because you are wrong. Unless I'm wrong, which would cast everything I hold dear into doubt, and I'm not sure I've had enough to drink today to pursue that line of thought. Yet.

Anyhow, look for links to some of the better comics, blogs, and other miscellanea that can be dredged out of the Internet to be showing up soon. Over there on the right.

Finally, we do have an actual game review nearing completion. It features zombies, a bold move as zombies have never before appeared in a game.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Ball Review

Before we begin a review of a game called “The Ball”, we are going to need to establish a basic level of trust. Let me give you my word we are going to avoid any sort of groin or gonad related jokes. For this review. It would be too easy. Although, I’d have gone with a name involving “sphere” or “orb” myself.

Anyhow, The Ball is a first person action/puzzler built on the Unreal 3 engine, the first release from the folks at Teotl studios. I imagine it owes its origin to a conversation something like this one:

Bob: Hey Steve, you remember the Weighted Companion Cube, from Portal?

Steve: Yes Bob. Everyone remembers the Companion Cube. It’s an Internet Meme. If you’re building up to a joke involving cake or lies I will be forced to hit you.

Bob: Hear me out. What if we did a whole game like that? Carrying around a giant physics prop as your tool and weapon?

Steve: Only if you can use it to crush monkeys.

Bob: Well of course. Why would you even need to ask?

And crush monkeys you will. The Ball owes much of its inspiration and heritage to Portal, while still being its own game. The designers learned the lessons about gameplay, level design, and communication with the player that Valve strives to teach. The controls are intuitive and quick to pick up. Very early on you find a “magnet-hammer” gun that allows you to manipulate the Ball artifact.  The right mouse button magnetically pulls the Ball to you, the left forcefully punts it away. There are a handful of other contextual commands, but that’s it really.

By the way, we’re going to call the actual in-game Ball the “Doomsphere” from now on, to distinguish it from the game’s title and minimize confusion. I also like the word “Doomsphere”. Chant it with me.

As you have probably guessed by now, the core of gameplay is maneuvering the titular indestructible Mesoamerican artifact through an assortment of environments, physics puzzles, and light combat encounters. The Doomsphere is, of course, your primary tool. The levels are laid out so you can never get too far away, and there are plenty of gates and checkpoints where you need it with you to progress. Most puzzles involve figuring out how to move it to where you need it to go. The game quickly teaches you the “visual shorthand” you need to understand what doors will open, what you need to do to activate different switches, and so on.

Tetol studios have anticipated and summarily dealt with most of the problems you would predict for a game that centers on moving an object bigger than you are. The Doomsphere automatically turns transparent when directly in front of you, and you can force it to become so at any distance with the touch of a button. Your HUD tells you where and how far away it is, and another button automatically spins you to face it. Keeping track is never a chore. The Doomsphere also never forces you to move or knocks you around; no matter how fast it is moving.

Much energy has clearly been spent on making sure the Doomsphere’s rumbling weight, momentum, and inertia feel just right. It’s a visceral joy to shove it down inclines and send it smashing through obstacles and enemies. And what better to smash than priceless archaeological artifacts?

The Ball’s premise is that you are an archeologist investigating a dig site at a giant volcano in Mexico. You fall down a hole in the opening cut scene, which does not seem to inspire much concern from the rest of the dig crew. Rather than asking if you maimed yourself in the fall they encourage you to “Go explore”. I guess you owe them too much (or not enough) money for them to consider throwing down a rope.

There is a lot of life under the volcano. Can you spot the giant birds?

But who needs those losers when there are the ruins of an entire advanced Mesoamerican civilization to explore? Much of The Ball’s setting is vividly realized and beautiful to behold, although it tends to fall back on a series of square rooms and connecting corridors between the cool set pieces. You make your way through temples and pyramids and lush subterranean cities with a rich Aztec art direction while traveling deeper into the volcano.

The game has a strong sense of place, and the world under the volcano drips with ambiance. Lava rumbles far below, cobwebs and creepy-crawlies cover the screen as you move through dusty crypts, and frighteningly large avians circle overhead in the largest caverns. It’s reminiscent of the atmosphere found in the early Unreal games. The low background music enhances the environment without becoming distracting. Good ambience is like pornography. It is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. This game has it.

Thematically The Ball draws from the best elements of the Indian Jones series, with vast underground chasms, primitive but lethal traps and mechanisms, and ancient secrets waiting to be uncovered. There are rushing subterranean rivers and searing lakes of magma to cross, and bits of the environment collapse or can be knocked down at the most dramatically appropriate moment. There is even a mine-cart ride, although it’s non-interactive. The late game vistas are especially impressive, and well worth playing through the slower earlier levels for.

Pacing is a little uneven. The first hour or two is dull, containing the most basic puzzles and the least visually interesting areas. A game with such an intuitive base mechanic really does not need a tutorial. Once you clear the extended training section things get more interesting, and the instant help button ensures you’re never stuck for longer than you have the patience for. The general balance between puzzles, exploration, combat, and the introduction of new elements is good, preventing fatigue at any one type of gameplay.

The pace picks up by the second half, as the more entertaining mechanics are introduced and the environments become larger. One of the game’s greatest strengths, especially past the slower introductory chapters, is that it is always showing you some cool new way to use the Doomsphere and manipulate the environment. Some puzzles force you to move it without being able to go near it; others have you infusing it with new properties like extreme heat or electricity. My very favorite parts turned the Doomsphere into a low-gravity field generator, allowing you to carry a bubble of moon gravity with you and effortlessly leap vast distances.

More ancient ruins need anti-gravity

While primarily a puzzle game, the Ball does have physics based combat. It is great fun to use the Doomsphere to squash the loping mummies and skittering bugs that guard the ruins. The survival levels that form an alternative to the main campaign let you bowl over waves of enemies and obliterate them with traps without any exploring or puzzle solving to get in the way. Back in the campaign you face off against a number of foes that are simply too big and tough to be crushed outright. Killing them by manipulating the Doomsphere and the environment makes for some of the highlights of the game. There’s nothing like luring a giant zombie ape into the path of a fiery exploding pinball.

You will get killed a lot. Enemy attacks do a lot of damage and instant-kill traps are common in the later levels. Checkpoints are frequent and well placed though, and everything you accomplished before you died stays accomplished when you re-spawn. This excuses the lack of a quick save, and makes death a minor penalty at most. A slowly regenerating health system would not have gone amiss, but the game keeps the action flowing and never becomes frustrating.

Mummies are a constant nuisance

The Ball is not a narrative heavy game, but there is a story to be had, told by the levels themselves. There are scores of abandoned weapons and reddish streaks on the ground, angry graffiti painted over the hieroglyphic symbols on the walls, and a creepy mummy priest/king patiently watching your progress from one step ahead. Something really bad happened to the civilization that built the world of “The Ball”, and secrets hidden across the levels contain scraps of well written text that flesh out the narrative.

I found the ending of the game an unfortunate letdown. I was looking forward to a cool and suitably epic puzzle boss like those battled earlier, but the ending is a bit of an anticlimax after all the awesome buildup of the final levels. I’m not going to spoil it, but the final puzzle doesn’t even make use of the Doomsphere.
             The game is technically sound and well polished. The program only locked up once, requiring a reboot. The actual Doomsphere itself also got stuck on the level geometry once, necessitating a restart from the last checkpoint. This only happened once each across an eight hour game though, and the game looks good and plays very smoothly. The Ball is only $20 on Steam, and provides a single player experience at least on the level of many full price commercial games.

Reasons to play: Excellent use of central mechanic, well realized and atmospheric setting, fun combat.

Reasons to pass: Slow start.
             If you enjoyed Portal, you will enjoy The Ball. Someone looking for a more traditional FPS or adventure game may not find it to their tastes, but there is a lot to like, especially for $20. The puzzles entertain, the combat is fun, and the world is worth the visit just to see.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Metro 2033

          Let’s get things rolling with a review of an atmospheric, Ukrainian made number that came out earlier this year.

          Metro 2033 is a first person shooter, descended from the Half-Life and Bioshock schools of design and world building. As the human race does periodically in book, film, and game, we have all but wiped ourselves out with a nuclear war. All that is left are a few thousand survivors hiding from a freezing and hostile surface, huddled deep underground in the Moscow subway system. Food, light, space, and ammo are all limited and precious commodities, travel is difficult and dangerous at best, and the hordes of ravenous mutants infesting the tunnels may be the least of our problems.

          “Sounds like Stalker and Fallout 3”, I hear you say. The game certainly has stylistic similarities, especially with Stalker, but let’s gets one thing clear. This is not an open world game. You are not free to pick a random direction and head for the horizon. Gameplay is a series of linear, tightly scripted encounters.

          That isn’t a bad thing, and is entirely appropriate for the setting. You are not in a giant open world. You are in an underground subway system. There is no escape.

Into the Tunnels

          The setting and atmosphere are very strong, but let’s discuss gameplay. Metro is a shooter and an action game, and the action is diverse and well paced. In one scene you’re holding the line against hordes of mutants, in the next you’re picking your way through dark abandoned tunnels. Then you’re sprinting across the surface, fighting for breath, before jumping on a rail cart for a shooter segment.

          You never do any one thing long enough to get bored with it or for gameplay to get predictable. The pacing is good. Just as soon as I was getting used to one segment, along came the next chapter with something new in its presentation.

          The surface sections deserve special mention, as they show what a hostile place the planet has become. The surface is a frozen, radioactive wasteland where the air is not safe to breath. You’re forced to wear a gas mask to stay alive, dependant on a limited supply of filters that act as a time limit. More can be scavenged from the ruins, but you need to keep moving. Between the lethal environment, and the powerful winged mutants that swoop down and attack without warning, it’s actually a relief to get back into the dark, cramped tunnels.

          The gas mask is well implemented. You need to pull it on when you hear yourself start to choke on poisonous air, but it limits your vision and hearing. Taking damage when wearing it makes it increasingly cracked and damaged, and it fogs up as the filter wears out and needs replacing. The gas mask serves as an effective way to increase tension and make sections more challenging without feeling cheap, and it reinforces what a dangerous place the world of Metro is.

          The environments, while still largely a series of underground tunnels, stay visually interesting and distinct. They’re full of little touches: from the moldering skull of some unlucky traveler in the corner to the odd little bio-luminescent plants clinging to the walls. The game looks good. The human characters manage to avoid the creepy “uncanny valley” look some modern games suffer from, and you can tell their weapons and equipment at a glance. The game is actually a bit of a system hog, though it still looked good and played nicely on medium settings on my machine. Slowdown only cropped up once or twice, and never during an action sequence.

World without Sun

          And really, it is the subterranean environment of Metro that is the star of the game. There is a vivid and immersive sense of place that runs through every part of the world; from the moment the prologue throws you into the story, to the rolling of the credits. The few friendly stations you visit are especially cool, little oases of humanity and light in an otherwise very hostile world. The inhabitants grow mushrooms and pigs, drink, trade, raise children, argue, and try to keep their machines running and defenses up just a little longer. There are plenty of conversations for you to eavesdrop on that flesh out some extra bit of story or setting.

          The minimalist interface goes a long way towards helping the immersion. You get an exact numeric count of your ammo and other necessary supplies, but this only pops up on screen when relevant. Everything else displays in a contextual “in universe” manner. When your screen is going red around the edges you’re injured. When your gas mask has numerous visible cracks, it’s time to replace it. You charge your flashlight by manually pulling out your charger, checking the meter, and pumping it by hand. You even track your objectives with a notepad and compass you physically pull out and look at, rather than it appearing on a HUD. Some sort of inventory or supply summary page would not have gone amiss, especially for comparing stats and add-on for your weapons, but the information you need is generally on screen when you need it, and in a way that keeps you in the game world.

          Metro’s gameplay is full of small tactical choices that keep things interesting. You can switch between high and low quality ammo, but the high quality bullets are the currency you use to buy everything. You spend wealth with every shot you take and every item you buy uses up valuable ammo. You can manually charge up your flash-light and night visions goggles at any time, but are vulnerable to attack when doing so. You regenerate health slowly, but can use your limited supply of healing items for quick boosts. It’s a good combination of regenerating and consumable based health systems.

          Combat, while varied, can feel clunky. This is not the best first person shooting you have ever seen, though it isn’t terrible. Human opponents tend not to be aggressive, preferring to stay behind cover and poke their heads out to take potshots. Between your scoped weapons and regenerating health this can turn them into sniper bait. To be fair, they are not brain dead. Human enemies try to escape grenades and move when they are taking hits, but hanging back and picking at them when they show themselves can usually clear them out without much trouble.

          Mutant enemies are much more aggressive, rushing you in a mass of teeth, claws, and leathery hide. Many chapters featuring mutant foes are desperate “hold the line” style battles, as you and AI allies fight to fend off a rush of monsters. These can be frantic struggles for survival, but they can also get comically chaotic and confusing. Your teammates' pistol whip the swarm of mutants clawing at them, while the ragdolls of creatures you shoot flip and flop awkwardly off surrounding characters.

          The mutants do display a nice range of species and behaviors across the game. Rat creatures leap to ambush from narrow burrows, flying gargoyles dive bomb you as you cross open spaces on the surface, and powerful apelike beasts stalk slowly forward until your turn away or open fire. Observing new creatures and understanding their unique behavior and weaknesses is always rewarded.

          You are frequently accompanied by AI teammates and allies, and they are ably handled. They do not get lost or stuck, and you never need to babysit them. Much of the time the “mission critical” characters are invulnerable, and when they are not they can still defend themselves in combat. NPC chatter and advice is a good source of information and atmosphere without becoming annoying.

          The game has a good sense of humor for such a grim setting. As one would expect with a game set in the Moscow subway system, made by Ukrainians, it’s a very Russian game. The translation and dialog is spot on, and a few of the comments and conversations from other characters made me laugh.

Alone in the Dark

          In many sections, particularly those featuring human enemies, you don’t need to fight if you don’t want too. The game has a workable stealth mechanic. You can turn off your flashlight, pull on your night vision goggles, and go skulking around Sam Fisher style with throwing knives and silenced weapons. You can put out lights in the environment and the watch on your wrist gives you an idea of how visible you are. You can frequently overhear interesting things you would miss when shooting your way through.

          The stealth is not poorly implemented, but it can be unforgiving if you want to remain undetected. The game does not have a quick save, though this usually isn’t a problem. Checkpoints are well paced and frequent. When attempting a stealth section this means one screw up leaves you with the choice to just shoot your way through, or restart from a checkpoint.

          To be fair it makes sense. Hardened post-apocalyptic bandits aren’t going to peacefully resume their business after hearing shots or finding their buddies dead, but one mistake and your cover is blown for good. It is also very easy to walk over broken glass or into one of the many noise-making traps, and one noise has the whole enemy force on high alert. Sneaking is always the player’s choice, but it requires patience and close observation. You CAN simply shoot your way through, but it’s frequently harder to sneak than fight and you’ll likely end up fighting a lot anyway.

          It is nice to have a choice of how to try to get through a challenge, especially in such an otherwise linear and scripted game. It bears repeating, but Metro is a very linear game. There is no back-tracking, and not a lot of optional areas or side quests, though there are plenty of ammo caches and other goodies tucked away in corners for the observant. This may disappoint open world game fans, but this decision let the designers pour tremendous care and energy into the areas the character does visit. You will never see another mutant nest/trading post/bandit camp with the same modular layout as the last three. Each area is unique, atmospheric, and often quite memorable. I certainly won’t be forgetting the section where you carry a child on your back out of a mutant overrun station.

          Metro is not a traditional survival horror game, but it does have some truly chilling sections. I’m not talking about the parts where you’re blasting swarms of skittering mutants. These aren’t “something toothy lunges at you” scares. They’re much creepier. Without giving too much away, know that there are tunnels that have been abandoned by human and mutant alike, where you want to keep your flashlight fully charged. There are forces at work in Metro that defy normal explanation, and aren’t bothered by bullets. You will know them when you see them, and won’t forget seeing them after you do.

          Metro has no multiplayer component, but it does not need one. Its focus is on the single-player story and the underground world where it takes place.

Reasons to Play: Immersive gameplay. Atmospheric world. High level of polish and quality.

Reasons to Pass: Very linear. Slightly awkward combat. No multiplayer.

          In conclusion, Metro 2033 is worth playing if you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic shooters or atmospheric, polished games. Multiplayer action junkies and open world sandbox  fans may not find as much to interest them. Metro is a tunnel crawl where the only way out is forward, but what you see and experience in those tunnels will stay with you long after you leave.