The difference between clever and cunning.

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.