Thursday, May 31, 2012

Tripping DayZ

I got sick a couple weeks ago. It's not the sort of thing that happens to me very often but when it does, it's usually pretty brutal and lasts for several days. Thankfully, the bug ran its course and wasn't as bad as others I've had in the past but it was bad enough to completely throw off my development schedule since I wasn't able to work while infected and found it difficult to get back into the swing of things right away once it had passed.

On the bright side, it gave me the opportunity to do a little gaming once the worst of my symptoms had passed. It was during this time that I became aware of "DayZ," a mod being developed for the hyper-realistic military sim game "ARMA II" that uses assets from the original game and its stand-alone expansion "ARMA II - Operation Arrowhead."

I've thought about trying "ARMA II" in the past because I find the premise of a detailed simulation of military combat inherently intriguing, but with so many games coming out all the time, it never quite happened. "DayZ" has changed everything.

Back in 2007, when I first re-launched "Gaming's Edge" as a more blog-focused site, one of the first posts I did was on my initial experiences with the game "S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Shadow of Chernobyl," which I found to be an absolutely riveting gameplay experience. I really haven't played anything since then that evoked a similar response until I fired up "DayZ" and got completely sucked into it.

What follows are some of my initial experiences with the game:

I found myself on a beach. I'm not sure how I got there or what came before but something felt off almost immediately. I looked around at the sloping, green hillside before me and began to take in the details of my surroundings. Patches of tall grass and shrubs increased in number toward the hill's crest. Beyond that, I saw rugged, almost mountainous hills rising up in the distance. To the right, I spied the silhouette of a small building, perhaps a house, nestled amid some trees. With no other obvious signs of civilization in view, I decided to head toward the building. At that moment, I realized that I was holding a pistol as it swung up into view. Clearly, caution was warranted.

Upon closer inspection, the building, now easily identifiable as a house, had been boarded up, with no obvious point of entry; however, scaling the hill had provided a better view of the terrain further in that direction and it was now clear that this house lay on the outskirts of a small town. I even spotted a paved road and a parallel set of railroad tracks further inland running past the town proper.

I split the distance between the house and the road and headed toward town. The weather was clear, bright and warm and there was a certain tranquil calm to the whole affair as I strode purposely through the open field, taking in the scenery. Then I saw it.

As my gaze panned from the larger hills and roads at my left to the open field between me and the town beyond it, I spotted what I first thought to be a lone man. Indeed, it must be a man, dressed in the coveralls of a farmer or some such laborer, but even at a distance, something was clearly wrong with him. He stumbled and lurched along, his head and limbs askew in seemingly impossible ways. From a bit further out, I might have suspected him drunk, but his movements were too loose, too erratic. He was truly shambling as if completely out of conscious control.

A cold chill ran up my spine and I found myself instinctively gripping the gun a bit tighter than necessary. I became suddenly, acutely aware of just how exposed I was strolling through the open field and instantly cultivated an almost primal need to more thoroughly assess my surroundings and obfuscate myself. A detailed scan revealed no other movement in the area, but the need to crouch and move toward a nearby cluster of bushes was undeniable and I was soon in cover.

Plotting the man's trajectory, it appeared that he was generally moving in a straight line toward the sea that would take him within five-or-so yards of a thick cluster of bushes ahead and to my right. Amazingly, he had made no sign of seeing me despite his bobbing head casting his gaze in my general direction a few times since I'd first spotted him. He was a bit closer now and I started to hear something that almost sounded like gargling, punctuated by occasional sharp breaths as though he was struggling to breathe through some obstruction in his throat.

It's amazing how empowering a gun can be in situations like this. I paused for a moment, considering my options. Had I not been holding the gun, I almost certainly would have moved further inland at the first sight of a stranger behaving so suspiciously, but after quickly examining my inventory and realizing that I not only had several clips of ammunition for the gun but some basic medical supplies, food and water to boot, I felt confident in getting a bit closer if only to verify that my initial observations were in fact valid.

Still, I wasn't about to take any chances. I kept low and moved slowly and quietly, keeping as much of the denser foliage between me and the man as I could while aiming to reach the edge of the bushes at a point close to where he seemed likely to pass.

I got as close as I dared without making my presence obvious as he was still about 15 yards away and I found myself immediately grateful that I'd stayed concealed. At this distance, there was no doubt. The man was a zombie. His age-weathered face was missing gashes of flesh and he was now producing a variety of clearly audible, animal-like sounds that seemed to accompany his every twitching movement.

His eyes were dead and seemed to roll around aimlessly as his head pivoted atop his neck. His clothes were stained with dirt and blood and other less obvious substances that went well beyond what one might expect from several days of hard, dirty work.

As he approached, I was forced to acknowledge that this was more of an "it" than a "he." There was no humanity to any of its behaviors. It was a man in form only.

I readied the pistol, knowing that I would put a bullet in its head at the first sign of trouble. After all, that is what one does in these sorts of situations, isn't it? Still, I was admittedly curious to know more about what I was dealing with. Would it sense me, react to me? Would it attack me if I didn't provoke it? I knew where it was headed– almost precisely to the spot I'd vacated on the beach, and I knew that as of 10 minutes prior, that area had been totally vacant. It was time to get some answers.

To be continued...

Friday, May 11, 2012

My Thoughts on Super Monday Night Combat

I've been wanting to write about this game for a few weeks now, but it's been difficult to find the time. As such, I'm going to keep this short and sweet. "Super Monday Night Combat" (SMNC) is a game you should be playing.

To expand on that a bit, SMNC is a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) game in the spirit of similar titles like "League of Legends" and "Defense of the Ancients" (DotA). This genre of gaming is generally defined by a few key design motifs that boil down to two small teams of player-controlled "heroes" battling in arenas that are divided into sections (lanes) while being supported and opposed by computer-controlled creatures (creeps).

Most MOBAs are deeply rooted in the mechanics of classic Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games like "Warcraft" due to many of them starting life as mods for such games. The unique and arguably most compelling aspect of SMNC is that it applies the MOBA concept to the core mechanics of a 3rd-Person Shooter. This is a huge boon for folks like myself who are much bigger fans of first or third person shooters than RTS games as a general rule. What can I say? I like running around and shooting things in the face! :)

The tricky thing with MOBAs is that they tend to be fairly dense mechanically and strategically. There's just a ton of stuff happening all the time and it can be a little overwhelming for new players, even those experienced with traditional RTS and/or FPS games to immediately grasp exactly what's happening and how to effectively contribute to the overall success of their team.

SMNC makes some valiant efforts to assist new players by giving them an interactive tutorial area and access to a practice mode against bots. The game also features skill-based matchmaking that in theory should match up new or at least less experienced players with each other, but to me there's one really key feature missing in this regard.

If you look at a game like "League of Legends" and chart the path of its success, it's pretty easy to see how the inclusion of a co-op mode allowing friends to team up against computer-controlled teams went a long way to making that game more accessible and enjoyable for new players. To be clear, SMNC has a practice mode but there are no computer-controlled heroes (or "Pros" as the game calls them) to play against; just the standard creeps, which don't present much of a challenge without Pros assisting them. You also can't practice with friends, instead being grouped with random players, which doesn't allow for training with the people you intend to play with in a risk-free scenario.

Having said all that, SMNC is a game that is constantly evolving. Every week or so, there is a new patch with tweaks to rules, Pros, arenas, abilities, user interface and a host of other variables that quite literally change the game – more often than not for the better. Given the improvements I've seen over the past few weeks, I would not be at all surprised if SMNC eventually adopted a co-op system akin to that found in "League of Legends" or any number of other significant new features and enhancements.

The bottom line is that SMNC is already a great game and with a price tag of "free" and the ability to earn most if not all of the available content simply by playing the game, it's something that anyone with the slightest interest should definitely try.