Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My Thoughts on I Am Alive

I know. I'm a little late to the party on this one but I've never been a fan of the philosophy that a game can only be talked about before or just after its release that's so prevalent among most of the individuals and organizations that cover video games.

If a game is genuinely good or interesting in some way and consequently worth featuring, that should be just as true in the time after its release as ever.

Of course, the video game industry as a whole is predicated on hype. It's all about building anticipation for games to a fever pitch and then either delivering on that promise or crashing and burning in a spectacular fashion.

As regular readers will note, I typically aspire to something better than that here. I do my best to remove hype from the equation when writing about games and simply assess them based on my experiences with them.

As I see it, my purpose here is to tell you what I think and why– to convey my point of view so that you can easily determine whether or not you share it and whether or not these games, which I found interesting enough to write about are right for you.

The difference between these "My Thoughts on" posts and the "Shout Outs" I often do is a simple matter of advocacy. In a "Shout Out," I explicitly encourage the purchase and consumption of a game for a variety of reasons. Most often, this is motivated by a game not getting the attention I think it deserves. With games that are well known, I generally don't feel compelled to advocate on their behalf unless it's to correct what I consider to be commonly-held misconceptions about them.

"I Am Alive" is a tricky game to talk about in those terms because it is both not as bad as many seem to think yet also not as good as I'd like it to be.

It's a classic example of a game that has a lot of really great ideas and moments that struggle to fill an otherwise incomplete whole.

On one hand, there are compelling gameplay mechanics such as the stamina system used when traversing dangerous areas, and the combat scenarios that force players to engage enemies with limited resources in a puzzle-like fashion.

On the other, there are numerous aesthetic, narrative and gameplay elements– some of which tied directly to the otherwise positive aspects, that feel rushed, unfinished or otherwise absent.

The result is an uneven experience that is likely to only be appreciated by the most determined and patient of gaming enthusiasts.

When "I Am Alive" works and all the pieces of it come together fully, which occurs several times throughout the span of the game in my experience, it feels like a great game. Unfortunately, those moments of greatness often cause the less-than-ideal portions to stand out more than they otherwise would.

For example, the combat often feels tense, meaningful and evocative of a survival situation; however, the controls sometimes get in the way and make it more difficult than I suspect was intended to perform critical gameplay tasks. There is also a frustratingly-limited level of choice and interaction in most encounters. There are so many missed opportunities for situations to be resolved without bloodshed or for violence to have meaningful consequences beyond the expenditure of limited resources that it's hard to not lament their absence even as the game provides some genuine thrills and surprises.

If "I Am Alive" were a truly great game, I could recommend it to you unconditionally but that's not what it is. It is instead a mediocre game with some interesting, engaging and creative aspects that are often underdeveloped and underutilized.

I suspect that "I Am Alive" is one of those games that will be remembered fondly by "hardcore" gamers (myself included) as a catalyst for games that draw inspiration from it in the future. It's not quite good enough to stand on its own but it could well end up being important in the historical landscape of gaming.

If "I Am Alive" were a more even or average game, it would be completely forgettable but there is something to it. It has moments of brilliance, outstanding elements hinting at something just beyond its scope. These in my view make it worth experiencing for those interested in doing so despite its flaws.

Knowing a bit about the development history of "I Am Alive," I can't help but wonder what could have been had it spent more time in development and not been targeted as a small-scale, timed "XBOX Live Arcade" release. To me, it feels like a square peg crammed into a round hole and I can easily see how many of the issues with it could be a result of business decisions as opposed to a lack of vision or prowess on the part of its creators.

I Am Alive (via Steam)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Pro Tips from an XCOM Ironman

"XCOM: Enemy Unknown" (XCOM) was one of my favorite games of 2012 despite its lack of a co-operative gameplay component. Back when I shared my thoughts on it, I'd completed about half of the game on "Normal" difficulty and already knew that I would be re-playing it at least once to experience its "Ironman" mode, which I now view as the preferred way to play the game.

For those unfamiliar with it, "Ironman" mode (accessed through the advanced options when starting a new game) makes a single, critical change that redefines the way XCOM is played. In "Ironman" mode, you have one and only one saved game, which is automatically updated after each significant action takes place. This means that there is no re-loading from a save to fix any mistakes you might make or recover soldiers lost to unexpected or random events during missions.

This is in short a hardcore mode for the game that forces the player to live with the consequences of their actions and the cruel sting of "XCOM logic," which often places you in unfair and or unrealistic situations for the sake of drama.

The hardest part about playing with the "Ironman" option enabled is that it very clearly reveals and emphasizes some of the ways in which the game is occasionally flawed. From enemies that get free movement upon being seen, to enemies that spawn seemingly out of nowhere, to critical aspects of the strategy meta game being obfuscated, to hit percentages that are often laughable given the weapons being used and the supposed capabilities of the soldiers using them– there are plenty of nits to pick with XCOM that are easy to overlook when you can simply re-load to avoid or anticipate them.

Having played through the game successfully with "Ironman" enabled, I'd like to offer the following tips to help others avoid some of the frustration I experienced while doing so. As there is an inherent element of randomness to the game, it would be impossible to predict every possible bump along the way, which is part of the fun of playing in this manner but these tips should help illuminate some of the more consistent and potentially-annoying aspects of the process.

#1 - Satellites, Satellites, Satellites

Satellites are the most important thing in the early stages of the game. Building enough "Satellite Uplinks," "Power Generators" and "Workshops" to provide satellite coverage to all the countries participating in XCOM as quickly as possible is crucial to your success. This is a fact that the game does a terrible job of communicating to new players.

When choosing what to do with your base, you should always first and foremost concentrate on achieving total satellite coverage of the world map. Everything else is secondary and should only be done if it won't interfere with your ability to deploy additional satellites as quickly as possible.

You should launch all the satellites you have prior to each "Council Meeting" so that you reap the maximum possible benefit of having them in play each month. You should also ensure that at least one "Interceptor" aircraft is available in the areas where satellites are being added so that it can thwart any alien attempts to destroy them.

While it may sometimes be necessary to launch a satellite over a particular country to reduce panic, you should generally prioritize their use over countries that will provide more money to XCOM as a result, or to achieve total coverage of an area and gain the benefit of that coverage. The "We Have Ways" perk for example is conferred by full coverage of South America. This only requires two satellites and can be achieved almost immediately after the beginning of the game if your base is located there. This provides very useful "instant" results whenever alien autopsies and interrogations are necessary.

The decisions you make when building your base are just as important
as the decisions you make on the battlefield.

#2 - If You Don't Need It, Don't Buy It

This goes hand in hand with #1 as spending money before you need to can severely limit your ability to produce satellites and other essential items when the need for them is great.

Keep in mind that you always have time to buy essential items from "Engineering" before a mission starts, which is another option the game doesn't communicate well. In other words, you can always back out of the soldier select screen prior to launch, go to "Engineering" and buy whatever weapons, armor or accessories you need, then return to the soldier select screen from the "Hologlobe."

The game often makes it seem like you have to go straight into missions but that's not the case– so don't waste time and money trying to anticipate what your soldiers might need for future battles. Just buy gear as you need it.

#3 - Life is Precious– Except When it Isn't

If satellites are the key to the early game, high-level soldiers are the key to the late game. Keeping as mnay of your soldiers alive for as long as possible to benefit from the extra abilities, heartiness and accuracy they wield as a result is critical to your long-term success in the game.

Having said that, you should not always use the same soldiers in every mission. A good rule of thumb is to have one of each rank present so that you get a nice balance of power and upgrade potential across the squad. You should always take at least one "Rookie" or "Corporal" on every mission to give them the opportunity to rank up and give yourself access to a "disposable" unit that can be used to recon enemy positions or undertake more dangerous tasks such as bomb disposal while more experienced soldiers with better aim and abilities cover them.

Along those lines, I recommend having your lowest-ranking soldiers attempt live captures with the "Arc Thrower" when they are necessary as it can be downright brutal when a leveled-up soldier misses with one at point blank range only to be shredded by their would-be target when the alien turn hits.

You should also be sure to unlock perks from the "Officer Training" area of the "Barracks" as soon as they become available. Attaining these perks should be your next priority behind satellites so that you and your soldiers can benefit from them as soon as possible.

Dead soldiers can't fight aliens and new recruits will need to get a few
missions under their belt before their aim becomes reliable.

#4 - Use the Gray Market

As you complete missions, you will gain access to a variety of alien items that can be sold for money in the "Situation Room's" "Gray Market." While it's generally possible to make your way through the game only selling items that are "safe to sell," there may come a time when you need to sell a few items that can serve other purposes to get the money you need to build something critical. Do not hesitate to do this if it is your only option. "Excavation," the construction of new facilities and satellites, and other money-driven tasks take time. If for example, selling items on the "Gray Market" is the difference between launching satellites before a council meeting and losing countries to panic, you should absolutely do it.

Beyond such situations, be careful not to overuse the "Gray Market" as the items you sell via it are often difficult to replace and are usually critical to achieving research and production objectives at various points throughout the game. A good idea is to look at the research and production requirements for things you think are likely to become an issue, then try to sell items that aren't related to those projects or items that you have in surplus.

#5 - When in Doubt, Blow it Up

One of the trickiest balancing acts in the game is deciding when to use explosives. The good thing about explosives is that they do a lot of damage to enemies and can often go a long way toward tipping a battle in your soldiers' favor. The bad thing about them is that they destroy many of the items you might otherwise recover from the aliens– especially when used inside ships or bases.

The use of explosives is a very situational thing, so it's hard to generalize it down to a simple rule. In my experience with the game, if explosives will save the life of an experienced soldier, their use is worth the loss of additional alien materials.

Taken as a whole, XCOM is a great game and well worth experiencing– even if you never partake in "Ironman" mode. Its quirks and issues, while at times frustrating and perplexing, are for better or worse parts of it and are ultimately things that I've come to believe make more sense in the context of "Ironman."

Hopefully, the above tips will help those of you considering an "Ironman" playthrough to achieve a more ideal experience than the game would otherwise provide.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (via Steam)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Shout Out: Thomas Was Alone

It's been a while since I've played a game that I would consider charming. I have been stirred or moved by some recent games to be sure. "DayZ," "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" and "Jagged Alliance: Back in Action" sunk their hooks deep into me in 2012 to name a few but while those games are each quite compelling and evocative in their own right, they aren't what I'd consider charming.

For that, a game has to give me something I didn't expect in a way that feels universally positive and that's exactly what "Thomas Was Alone" does.

From its simple yet stylish visuals, to its sublime soundtrack and narration, to its clever and refreshing gameplay– this is a game that begs to be played and enjoyed.

As in any good platformer, obstacles and challenges abound for Thomas and his new-found friends but there is also exploration, discovery and a palpable sense of joy in using the abilities of each character to traverse the game's 100 levels.

Don't be fooled by its apparent simplicity. Visual artistry abounds throughout the game.
It speaks volumes about the magnitude of this game's charm that a collection of simple two-dimensional shapes could exude the level of personality and depth that come across loud and clear while playing through the three to five hours that make up the bulk of the experience.

I really struggle to think of another game since "Portal" that so thoroughly nails the art of merging component parts that are themselves brilliant into a cohesive and triumphant whole without stifling or otherwise ruining any of them.

In short, "Thomas Was Alone" is a must-play game.

One last thing: I wanted to toss a mini shout out to Ohmwrecker (The Masked Gamer)– the YouTuber who first brought this game to my attention.

Thomas Was Alone (via Steam)

Monday, January 14, 2013

When Killing is the Easiest Thing to Do

There's been a lot of talk lately about video game violence as there always is after tragedies like the one that occured in Newtown, Connecticut in December. It's a subject that I think about periodically both as a person who plays a lot of games and as a person who makes them. Consequently, I feel the urge to address it here.

I have always firmly believed that violence in video games does not inherently encourage real world violence and that belief has never waivered. I also don't believe the reverse to be true.

In my opinion, the vast majority of violence in video games can be attributed to laziness. Killing is simply the easiest thing to have a player do.

Create an environment, fill it with "enemies," drop the player in with a weapon, add a few basic elements like a scoring metric and you have a game.

Want a story? Make it a revenge tale. Want character progression? Give the player experience and or skill points for killing things. Want to add tension? Add more "enemies" or take them away for a while and being them back unexpectedly.

These concepts are all so simple and surefire that it's often difficult to look beyond them. As with other creative works, the low-hanging fruit is the most tempting. Turn something into a business and that only exacerbates the issue.

What possible motivation could a major video game developer and or publisher with millions of dollars invested in the development and marketing of a game have to deviate from a formula that's been proven to work time and time again?

There aren't hundreds, perhaps thousands, of violent video games released every year because game players are bloodthirsty psychopaths looking to feed some deep-seated desire to kill. It happens because those sorts of games take the least creative and technical effort to produce and lead to the highest level of profit.

As I said before, I don't believe that video games make a person violent. I have personally killed millions of people, aliens, animals, robots, monsters and barely-classifiable creatures in games over the years. I have killed them individually and en masse. I have killed them accidentally, purposefully, casually and callously but none of that has ever made me want to kill in real life.

For all their attempts at verisimilitude, video games are not real and a person who is incapable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality has bigger problems than whether or not they play video games.

To be sure, people are often impacted or inspired negatively and or positively by a video game in the same way they might be moved by a book, a piece of music, a film or dozens of other stimuli but as has been established regarding those mediums, that is not sufficient to drive the vast majority of people to any sort of real-world action.

There are those who argue that the interactive nature of video games makes them somehow different from other types of entertainment. To this I say look closer. "Choose Your Own Adventure" books and the ability to rewind, replay and edit audio and video have all been around for a long time now. People always find ways to interact with their preferred artistic forms. Interaction merely comes easier where video games are concerned.

Having said all that, I understand the temptation to look at something like "Call of Duty" multiplayer and say "Oh, obviously that must encourage violence. It's a bunch of people running around with guns killing each other over and over again." I get it. It's more of that low-hanging fruit and if video game makers are going to pick it to make and sell their games, they shouldn't be surprised when people do the same to decry them.

But video games are much, much more than "Call of Duty" multiplayer. There are plenty of games out there that have no violence in them to speak of (cough, Powergrids, cough) or where violence is appropriately contextualized such that it makes sense and doesn't feel lazy or cheap. "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" is a good, recent example.

My overall point is this: While I acknowledge and disapprove of the fact that video game makers often use violence as a crutch in their craft, I do not subscribe to the idea that violence in video games makes people violent in reality. My own personal experiences with games as well as those of the many people I've discussed the subject with leads me to conclude that they are no more or less influential than any other form of artistic expression.

One final note with regard to children: I personally don't believe that children should play violent video games as a general rule until their ability to distinguish and contextualize that violence has fully developed. I also respect a parent's right to choose what their child consumes, and have access to information regarding the content of a game prior to purchase as provided by the current ESRB rating system. "M" rated games should not be sold or marketed to children and there should be stiff monetary penalties for doing so.

Until next time, have a good one folks!

Monday, January 7, 2013

The 10 Best Co-Op Games of 2012

What a difference a year makes. Looking at last year's list, a few things spring to mind: Narrative has taken a back seat to gameplay, free-to-play has truly arrived, computer gaming is back in a big way and bigger doesn't always mean better– as many of the games on this year's list were created by very small development teams, with a few notable exceptions.

Of course, as always, this is simply my take on things based on the games I played this year with friends. Your mileage may vary. Speaking of mileage...

#10 - F1 Race Stars -  Kart Racing games aren't generally known for innovation and in a lot of ways, "F1 Race Stars" is just another kart racer; however, it does allow you to race co-operatively with up to five friends. That's right. You can do a 6v6 race against AI karts or another team of six players if you really want. For that functionality alone, it's worth a look. It's also a well made game with some interesting F1-inspired mechanics that shuns some of the tropes of the genre such as power-sliding in favor of boost and repair zones that are more true to the spirit of the F1 license. If you like kart racing games and have at least one friend who does as well, "F1 Race Starts" is worthy of your attention.

#9 - Guild Wars 2 - The traditional MMO as defined by "World of Warcraft" (WoW) is on the decline and has been for a few years now. As such, "Guild Wars 2" (GW2) is in many ways the swan song for an entire genre of gameplay. I seriously can't imagine another MMO of this type being released to anything but a collective yawn from even the most die hard fans of these sorts of games. Fortunately, GW2 is a really well done game with some very compelling facets and nuances that make it the clear choice for those who just can't get enough cooldown-oriented gameplay. The lack of a monthly fee and the release of GW2 for Mac also effectively put the last nail in WoW's coffin as far as I'm concerned. It will be interesting to see how Blizzard reacts long term to their cash cow being effectively skewered through the heart because "Mists of Panderia" certainly didn't cut it.

#8 - Chivalry: Medieval Warfare - If you're only going to buy one multiplayer, medieval combat game this year, you should read this whole list first; however, if you have room in your heart for two, "Chivalry" is worth a look. It's a bit more basic and rough around the edges than I'd prefer but there are some interesting game modes and features present in "Chivalry" that I wish were available in other such games.  If you're looking for narrative or anything beyond hack and slash antics, look elsewhere but if you want a fun, frantic game to play with friends, you could do a lot worse.

#7 - Orion: Dino Beatdown - Every so often, a game comes along that I end up loving despite its flaws. In a purely objective sense, "Orion: Dino Beatdown" is a terrible game that has languished in a half-finished state since its release over eight months ago. Despite that, there is a good game in there, struggling desperately to exist. I believe the development team when they say they are trying to make the game what it was intended to be via post-release support but the fact remains that they are not there yet. If they had been able to deliver on this game's promise at launch or even by the end of the year, it would have been near the top of this list. As it stands, it's merely a novel, buggy little game with a lot of heart. For more on the current state of "Orion: Dino Beatdown," check out this post.

#6 - Torchlight II - "Torchlight II" is the game "Diablo III" should have been. With the addition of controller support, it could have been one of the best games of the year. Despite that omission, it is still the pinnacle of point and click dungeon crawlers. There is no better game of this type out there and I suspect it will be a long time before that changes.

#5 - Borderlands 2 - About the only bad thing you could say about "Borderlands 2" is that it's more of the same. In every measurable way, it surpasses its predacessor but that's simply to be expected. If this were the first game in the series, it would be hailed as the greatest co-op FPS of all time but ultimately it's just a really good sequel to a really great game. No more. No less.

#4 - War of the Roses - Multiplayer, medieval combat has been done before ("Mount & Blade" for example) but it's yet to be done quite as well as in "War of the Roses." This game really nails the details in a way that others simply don't and it has seen a bevy of post-launch improvements and tweaks that have kept me coming back to it over and over again. It's not perfect but it's the best I've seen so far where this type of gameplay is concerned.

#3 - Frontline Tactics - A free-to-play, turn-based strategy game with co-op? Hell yes! If this game were a bit deeper mechanically and had a narrative and/or meta game a la "Jagged Alliance," it would be my game of the year. As it stands, it's simply a fun, little game to play alone or with a friend for a quick, tactical fix.

#2 - PlanetSide 2 - The idea of an MMOFPS set in a persistent, futuristic world where territory and resources change hands between three factions is just as good now as it was when the original PlanetSide was released years ago. The difference is that technology and business models have finally caught up with that premise. As a result, "PlanetSide 2" is the first truly "must play" free-to-play game despite its often-brutal learning curve. If you and your friends aren't playing this game, you really should be. Need help getting started? Check out my "PlanetSide 2 Boot Camp" post.

#1 - DayZ - How could it be anything else? Without a doubt, "DayZ" was the best thing to happen to gaming in 2012 (co-op or otherwise) and even as a broken, hacker-infested mod it was the most refreshing, important game released in years, maybe ever. "DayZ" the game will only show its true potential in 2013 but "DayZ" the mod was clearly the co-op experience of 2012.

FYI: Those of you interested in the status of DayZ standalone should check out the development team's tumblr, which was updated today.

Also, in case anyone missed them, here are some of my favorite DayZ-related posts from the past year:

My Short Story "Tripping DayZ"

My Guides

My 5 Favorite Videos

my favorite solo play video

group madness in Elektro

my favorite episode that nobody watched :)

our most action-packed adventure

my tribute to DayZ

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Returning to Form

Just a quick note to let everyone know that I will be restarting regular blog updates next week. After a restful and reinvigorating holiday season, I feel like the time is right to increase the frequency of my posts again.

I'll be shooting for an article per week at first and will also be assessing the viability of bringing the DayZ update back once it becomes clear exactly how far away from standalone we are. I'm still of the opinion that updates to the mod and its general state are too inconsistent to justify a weekly post but I have also been having some interesting experiences on private hives with custom maps that may be worth writing about or showing via video in the meantime.

Thanks to everyone who purchased Powergrids during the holiday season. I'm happy to report that it continues to function properly on iOS 6 and new devices like the iPad mini despite being developed before they existed. I'm considering doing a very small update to Powergrids sometime in the next few months as part of the promotional effort for my next game– so feel free to submit any bug reports or feature requests to support@powergrids.info and I'll see what I can do.

Finally, I wanted to mention that I am most-likely going to be dropping coverage of console games from the blog this year. GIven my lack of interest in the "Wii U" or the systems Microsoft and Sony are likely to release at the end of 2013, I've decided to focus on computer (PC) and mobile (iOS) gaming for the foreseeable future. When all three of the new consoles have been out for a while, I may pick up whichever one I think is best and start covering it but that's not going to happen until at least early 2014.

That's it for now. Look forward to a post on the top 10 co-op games of 2012 next week!