Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Passage to India and Major Problems in African-American History

So, I figured out how to make Bioshock a very fun game instead of an overrated kinda fun game! Turn up the difficulty to hard. It basically turns it into an Underwater Survival Horror game. I never thought I would miss ammo hoarding this much. Also, reading sucks.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Exciting Links

So from time to time I'll put up links to cool stuff, that you may already have seen. In these cases, if you haven't seen this stuff, you should look at it, right now.

A kinda badass Assassin's Creed video showed up recently. Sam, you should check this out, it is amusing, but still, you know this will be awesome:
Assassin's Creed Video.

Also, Mass Effect is supposed to be very groundbreaking and serious, but when it comes down to it I just want to be a hardened space-pirate who does totally awesome (but morally ambiguous) stuff. Seriously, these videos look very cool (in a silly, sci-fi way):
Mass Effect Video 1.
Mass Effect Video 2.

Also, I am the Shadow Broker, I don't now what ugly guy there is talking about. Oh, and these are from Gametrailers, so they are awesome.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Galactic Civilizations II: The Dread Lords (or, how to build really, really pretty ships)

If you have always wanted to conquer the galaxy with large flotillas of spaceships (and had your hopes squashed by Rebellion), then Galactic Civilizations II: The Dread Lords is the game for you. This game has such a weighty name; you wouldn’t believe that it is such an interesting and epic strategy game. It sounds almost comically dark and dangerous. In actuality, Galactic Civilizations II (GC 2 from here on in, that’s just a huge name to write) is an extremely complicated 4X space strategy game, so-called because there are four main ways controlling the galaxy: expansion, exploitation, extermination and exploration. Sounds like fun, right? It is, and it’s a testament to how fun and deep this game is that I have played multiple campaigns, each of them lasting many hours (the longest one I finished after playing off and on for about two weeks), and the thought of starting up another game is still an exciting one.

When you start a game of GC 2, you have the option of picking from a number of preset races or of making up your own. The races run the gamut of societal values: warlike, trade-obsessed, robotic (and therefore logical), human, technologically advanced, etc. Despite this roster, I created my own race, and was delighted with the result. Not only could I pick how my race would be represented (slimy green guy or crystalline monster?), but I also chose the color scheme of my spaceships, the method of government I would start out with, and the various specializations my race would have (I chose to make them brilliant traders and economists). From here, you pick the number, type and skill of the various opposing space faring races. Then, you are dropped in on a galactic star map with a mother ship and a colony vessel, and the game is all yours.

From here, you will colonize planets, send out scout ships, research various technologies, manage each planets economy, and manage your entire civilizations spending and production in general. In fact, you can win by trading exclusively, researching the most technologies, making the most allies, culturally brainwashing enemies, or by simply blasting them to bits. There are a slew of options, from allocating various amounts of your surplus money to research as opposed to military production, to terraforming, to universal translators, to espionage spending, to trade and negotiation. And honestly, that is a miniscule fraction of what you could do. You can set up trade routes, you can build secret space stations behind enemy lines, and you can send invasion fleets to take over other planets.

Despite all of these options, not everything is perfect. Each tech tree (for each civilization) is exactly the same, so while you might research different stuff as opposed to what the Drengin Empire researches, you get the feeling you are all racing towards the same tech tress. Some variation in technology would have been nice (in the expansion, race-specific tech trees were added), as well as the condensation of some humongous tech trees

Speaking of fleets, GC 2 has what may be the most impressive ship designer ever created. Not only can you outfit each ship with the appropriate lasers, shields and the like, but you can customize the look and size of these ships to an absolutely ludicrous degree. I’m not joking when I say I spent as much time in the ship generator as I did actually playing the game itself. I made my own U.S.S. Enterprise, a Star Destroyer, and a Borg cube. The catalogue of ship parts and add-ons is immense. They might as well be limitless.

So, with all of these toys to play with, does GC 2 provide the player with an adequate set of opponents and interesting gameplay? First off, the enemy A.I. can be as easy as pie on the lowest settings. You’ll be pulling dodgy trade moves under their noses, and snapping up prime planet real estate without a problem. Turn up the difficulty, and you’ll be in for a rough ride. At higher difficulty levels, opposing races will expand at a lightning pace, drive cruelly hard trade bargains, invade your territory if you give them an opening, and in general make the easy setting look like a joke. This is perfect, because after a game or two on lower difficulties, you will want to face off against an almost human level of competency, and GC 2 gives you that option. Still the options for espionage are not too deep (you control how much you spend on spying, that’s it), and since mid to end game power is based almost entirely on how many planets you gobbled up early one, the first couple of hours of gameplay de-evolve into a mad rush for planets. If you don’t do this, you will lose.

Sound and graphics-wise, GC 2 is pretty enough with nebulae and strangely hued planets making the blackness of space slightly less black. Ships are pretty detailed (the game’s engine allows for an endless increase in polygon level, as long as you have the computer muscle), in fact the only complaint I have about the graphics brings up another problem: the ship battles are intensely boring. Basically, you watch your ships swerve around each other firing off unconvincing collies of lasers or missiles. I understand that victory is dependent on ship quality and fleet construction, but did the battles have to look so bad? There are only so many times I can watch ships explode in the exact same way.

There are problems with Galactic Civilizations II, but in the end it comes down to this: the game is huge, and most aspects have been developed to perfection, excluding a few shortcomings. The game is deep, involving, and fun, and the fact that I just won a game by creating a culture so powerful and influential that other planets simply up and joined me is a very cool and rewarding victory to experience. There is already a sequel out, and another in the works. If you want to throw away weeks of time with a truly epic space conquest, get this game.

I'll just go back to playing Bioshock now, I guess

So I actually need to read now, but before I do, a quick question for you all (err, that's like two people, maybe?). What happened to the players in the TF2 beta? For a week there it was bliss, the kind of dumbass heckling and trash talk that pervades CS servers (among others) had not made an appearance. Then recently, I'm guarding 2Fort with my Engineer, his sentry gun and his dispenser, and I kill this guy. He then precedes to tell me to "get the fuck out of there you porch monkey." I'm sorry, how did we get here? What the fuck. I mean, yeah, you died, that makes people angry, I get it. But... How incredibly racist and stupid. Does this mean all of my TF2 games will be full of hateful mouth-breathers, or was he an anomaly? Forgive me for assuming it was a guy, but if it had been a girl, chances are someone else in the game would have been asking her for sex in under a minute (and then using an ugly sexual epithet to punish her for not responding). Chances are, my newly-beloved TF2 is about to see its clientèle hit rock bottom (unless they have been keeping silent to trick me for a week). And I was just starting to get my hopes up. This kind of thing really makes me wonder why I play these types of games, where I'm subject to The Theory:

Then again, if a "normal" person thinks its Hi-larious to say that to a stranger, why would I ever want to meet that person in the first place?

Peggle: First Demo Review

Ok, so honestly, I got this game as part of the Orange Box deal, so I can’t claim to have known anything about it beforehand. Whatever, we’ll call this the first of my Demo Review Series. That makes it sound like it’s official in some way.

Ok, so right away I like the presentation, cutesy classical music mixed with a headcrab impaled upon a unicorn horn. Nice. Now time to review the actual game. Each level is a collection of “pegs,” all of them arranged on a drawn background that feature an amalgam of Team Fortress 2 characters and weird creatures (Pegglites?). Gameplay involves hitting as many of the pegs as you can, with some pegs giving you more points and others special powers (the full version has many other types of pegs). It’s a pretty basic game, but it can be a fun one too.

How does it stand out from other small games of this variety? The game is physics based, so after you launch your ball, it will arc around the screen, bouncing off pegs, until it falls off the screen. This means that every shot is a careful calculation of angles and rebounds, and if you are good, you can set up some amazing shots. Second, the challenges (get 300,000 points, don’t lose a single life, etc.) are fun to try and beat. Also, the different maps are cute and weird, and the way the pegs conform to each painting is clever.

The problems? Peggle's "physics" can make your ball bounce in some pretty weird ways, so you basically have to rely on the special "guided shot bonus pegs" to accurately predict the ball's progress. Also, some of the verbal cues (the "you lost" sound clip in particular) can get pretty annoying.

Peggle is extremely basic, and it is pretty up front about it. It’s fun, but I can see that fun wearing out in time (it has already started to wain a bit for me). So, try the demo, ten dollars is a lot to spend on a game like this, even if you love physics based ball bouncing games.

Titan Quest and Titan Quest Immortal Throne

Titan Quest and its expansion pack (Immortal Throne) owe so many things to Diablo II, it is almost pointless to list them. A point and click attack interface, little to no environmental interactivity, silly plot, gradations of magical items, potions of the blue and red variety, and fast paced action RPG gameplay all hearken back to when Diablo II first hit the gaming scene. Yet to be honest, I enjoyed this game much more that Blizzard’s very popular game. Titan Quest streamlines things Diablo didn’t, and in general creates a gaming experience that I really enjoyed. It adds a unique “Classical Greek” flavor I found oddly attractive, and is pretty to look at, an aspect that makes more of a difference than you would think. It also is free of the slavering Diablo II communities, who re-build characters at every ladder reset, and are generally so hardcore they make me want to stop playing. Despite this praise, in its original format, Titan Quest was practically unplayable for me. Why? One inane design decision was all it took.

The story is barely there to notice, but here it is: you are a Greek warrior, and Titans have escaped their prison and are wreaking havoc throughout Greece. You will chase the Titans from Greece to Egypt to Asia to the Underworld. You are tasked with stopping them, and along the way you will help or kill various denizens of the aforementioned areas. Still, the settings are adequately presented, and even if they don’t inspire, they do give you a sense of being wherever you are supposed to be. Plus, it allows for some cool and disparate character models. I especially liked the Raptors in Asia (because, obviously, there were lots of Raptors hanging around the Great Wall back then).

Let’s get the bad out of the way, so I can get back to telling you to go get this game. Originally, in Titan Quest, you would auto-pick up items, regardless of their worth or magical nature. This wouldn’t be a problem, but your character has a tiny inventory and organizing it is a pain, while there can literally be hundreds of items on the ground in any area: cue hours spent rearranging crummy items you didn’t mean to pick up in the first place.

What does Immortal Throne do to alleviate this problem? It allows you to choose what you pick up, it gives you more item space, and it allows you to use buttons to filter items on the ground, a godsend in the areas where 10s of monsters drop a batch of items each.

Now, to what Titan Quest and its expansion did right from the start. This is a classic action RPG, where combat consists of clicking on (re: killing) offending skeletons, satyrs, tiger-men and cat-women. There are 7 classes, counting the expansion pack Dreamer class, and every character can be duel-classed at a point. This results in a multitude of combinations, from Necro-Druid to Ranger-Elementalist. Needless to say, it would take a long time to explore all of the options. All of the classes are fun to play, with some focusing on melee and some on long range attacks. In a nice touch, the higher-level unique items come tailored to specific classes. It feels really cool to find items not just tailored to the Warrior half of your character, but to the mighty Warrior/Defender combo you have created. Luckily, using these skills is easy enough: most of the time a right click or a numeric key will either set off a power or prepare that power for use. Still, having to press "6" to ready lightning, and then use the mouse to unleash the spell can get you killed in the more hectic encounters.

Speaking of items, there are quite a lot of them and every item changes the appearance of your character. Another small thing about TQ that makes more of a difference than you would think is the inclusion of a DPS (damage per second) readout. This is a godsend; it lets you instantly discern which weapon to pick as opposed to using an item for 10 levels that secretly disappoints. Items change their appearance appreciably as one traverses the 4 (counting Immortal Throne) acts, and it’s always nice to change out of that boring Greek circlet to an exciting new Egyptian headdress.

The spells and abilities on display all pack differing amounts of punch, and a few of them are quite impressive, but Titan Quest is more about the item collecting, gameplay and cohesive art presentation than it is about one-upping Oblivion or the like in the graphics department. Most people will probably find the graphics pleasing, if not spellbinding. Unfortunately, the voice-acting is pretty poor, and the accents border on the ludicrous. I practically turned the sound off in Asia and parts of Greece, so I wouldn’t be embarrassed to play the game. Another problem appears in the form of an often confusing dialogue/quest system. Honestly, after I get a quest to find some ridiculously named Greek, it really annoys me that the game refuses to tell me which town he is in. There are a lot of towns in each act, and this problem worsens when you are ordered to return some bauble to a guy in the middle of nowhere.

This might not sound like a game that can topple Diablo II, but I haven’t mentioned what has sucked away hours of my life: multiplayer. Titan Quest isn’t as fully-featured as Diablo, but as a result it’s much calmer, more sedate community. It changes how you game, and while boss runs are still prevalent, this game never made me feel rushed or hounded like Diablo did. Blazing through Greece on a 6 hour gaming run with 3 friends is truly an experience to be savored, and its one that can be repeated, with different characters, and still retain its fun factor.

In the end, Titan Quest is just a whole lot of fun. I could say that if you like Diablo or Dungeon Siege, you will like this, and I would be right for the most part. To be honest, even if you didn’t like those games, give Titan Quest a try. It’s fun, really fun, and its overwrought atmosphere makes it fresh in a way you wouldn't expect. Plus playing it with friends really makes the experience one to remember. So, give it a try, and buy the expansion, for your own sanity’s sake.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Team Fortress 2, or how I just spent all day not reading about E. M. Forster

I guess I should start out this review by saying that I only played the original TF a bit; I didn’t have regular access to a computer back then. This means that I came to this game knowing only what everybody else said (the original was totally awesome!), and that I really liked the look of Valve’s character and gameplay design from what I could see in videos and previews. I trusted Valve when it came to Half Life 2 and Half Life 2: Episode one, and it looked like they were going to deliver again with this game. Every preview I’d seen showed a game that had so much style it really put all other games to shame. Something about the psychotic Heavy and the bizarrely jolly Austalian sniper (all wrapped up in a violent, Incredibles-inspired art style) just caught my imagination.

Team Fortress 2 (TF2 from hear on in) is a class based FPS multiplayer game, with 9 classes in all. They range from the brutally simple (the Heavy) to the subtle (the Spy). In between those two come the Scout, the Soldier, the Pyro, the Demoman, the Engineer, the Medic and the Sniper. Each class has a part to play in the 6 maps released so far, whether its sniping a helpless Heavy from long range or keeping back a horde of enemies with one upgraded sentry gun, a supply depot, and a carefully placed teleporter. The maps include capture point maps with a few variations. Some are large, single maps with 3-5 capture points, and others are segmented maps that require multiple victories over 5 different areas. Of course there is a capture the flag map to spice things up a bit, but each map is solidly designed and balanced. There isn’t that one awful map (think good old Dust from the original CS) that gives one team an almost instant win due to unfair bottlenecks and the like. There isn’t much downtime, as the longest wait for a respawn is about 15 seconds. As an added bonus, Valve added pseudo-achievements and character stats that are part of your new Steam community ID, so now I know how many Backstabs my Spy got, or how close I am to getting a certain amount of revenge kills (which are immensely satisfying, by the way).

The gameplay on display in this first beta is extremely fast: when 15 or so combatants from both sides converge on a chokepoint, the blood starts flying pretty quickly. Despite the chaotic nature of this combat, the game never feels rushed or sloppy. If you want, you can play it slow, building up defenses or offensive bases with an Engineer. On the other hand you can play as the blindingly fast scout, who can cross the largest map in a minute or two. This kind of flexibility is apparent throughout the game: all classes have a place, and all can be incredibly fun to play, once you get the hang of them. This is where the only tricky bit of TF2 comes in. If you don’t take the time to figure out how to play a Medic or a Spy, you will get nowhere. Every class works for a different situation, but each class can just as easily misused. But to be honest, the learning curve is an hour to three hours tops, so if you want to have fun with this game, it won’t be hard. This was actually my favorite part of TF2. The amount of pleasure delivered by actually doing really well at an FPS like this is surprising, and it is all due to the sometimes entirely unconventional character designs.

The visual design for TF2 cannot go unmentioned; each map is meticulously designed and rendered (all in a beautiful cel-shaded fashion) albeit in an industrial, dusty sort of way. Hopefully, there will be some maps coming out soon that don’t look like western junkyards. The characters really steal the show though. Each character moves, looks and fights differently, and each one has their own set of custom moves that can be triggered with the G key: a bow, a juggling act with rocket rounds, or a wild scream. It all fits in with the crazy, retro look and feel of the game. This attention to detail is everywhere, from the increasing size of a Heavy’s grin and maniacal laugh as he racks up more kills, to each class’s distinct accent and personality (my favorite is the Pyro’s muffled shouts, but the Sniper and the Demoman are equally amusing and alarming). There are a lot of single player “story driven” FPS’s that could use these little touches.

So, how great is this game? Pretty damn good. It runs smoothly, with hardly a hitch in the fps or connection speed. It’s infinitely more enjoyable than Counterstrike or Half Life 2 multiplayer and lacks those game’s racist, sexist, and generally stupid atmosphere and trash talking (although that won’t last for long, chances are). This game provides a ridiculous amount of fun, and it does so by creating diverse needs for every map. On every map, there is a character I can select who I know will allow me to do well and more importantly have fun. This is the only thing that matters, when all is said and done.