Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Their Picks, My Picks

What critics chose for their GotY awards:

Sure Undertale might squeeze in their somewhere because of its quirkiness, or something like Axiom Verge for the nostalgia, but the joke is none of the games I've mentioned thus far were the slightest bit engaging to me.  Instead I spent most of my time playing:

And right now I'm having fun with Galak-Z and Telltale's Game of Thrones.  You see...the problem I have with Triple-A gaming is that it's all real-time action/adventure titles with firefights and melee combat from the first person, or over the shoulder third person, perspective.  Greater amounts of variety aside, indie gaming is a lot cheaper too.  Add up the cost of all the games I was into this year (in the bottom list) and it comes out to less than half the total price of the six titles in the top list.  I hope this is a trend that changes in 2016, but I it doubt will.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Of Biographies and Video Games

Two years ago to the day a movie came out in theaters called American Sniper.  I have never watched it, but I have read the autobiographical book it was based on.  Honestly, I don't see what the big deal is.  The author, Chris Kyle, did some things the were good, some things that were bad, and some thing that were downright stupid(ly hilarious).  People who call him "hero" or "coward" either didn't actually read the book or are cherry-picking it for bits that support the way they already think. It's one man's life story told in economy-of-language style that is indicative to those who have served in the armed forces, concise descriptions of events with little-to-no extraneous detail.  Personally, I found it a refreshing change of pace after just finishing several books heavily steeped in academia...but hey...to each his own.  I don't want to turn this into a left-vs-right debate mostly because there's already plenty of those going on in the video game industry right now as is.  Instead I want to talk about autobiographies.

Normally they're told in a book or movie format.  The former makes a lot of sense, but the latter feels a bit constrained to me.  Trying to cram a person's life into two hours of video footage fells kind of constraining, especially if a lot of interesting stuff happened to said person.  A video game, on the other hand, has a lot more time to work within.  The problem is video games are by their nature interactive experiences.  Trying to impose rigid linearity doesn't go over very well unless you happen to be one of those rare few who really like QTEs...

I once heard a quote from the screenplay writer of Braveheart that went something like, "Don't let facts get in the way of the truth."  Sounds like a dumb thing to say, I know, but there is a tiny kernel of wisdom in there.  It's easy to get so hung up on minutia that we miss the big picture.  With that in mind, it becomes a lot easier to make a biographical video game.  Developers don't have to agonize over exact dates, names and numbers so long as they capture the spirit of events.  In truth, some autobiographical memoirs such as those dictated by Napoleon Bonaparte and Otto von Bismark don't exactly jive with historical facts so there's that point to consider as well.  Before moving on I'd like to state for the record that my first pick for a biography-themed video game would be Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, or if it had to be an American, George Washinton.  For the sake of continuity though I'm going to use Chris Kyle for my hypothetical example.

Your basic gameplay is going be somewhere between Sniper Elite and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (possibly with a bit of Papers Please sprinkled in).  The player will also have to avoid a number of different fail states in order to progress.  The most obvious one is becoming a casualty in places like Fallujah, Ramadi and Sadr City while on deployment.  On top of that they have to consider the ROEs (Rules of Engagement).  Shoot an innocent, or fail to fill out the paperwork properly after killing someone and it could lead to a court martial for war crimes.  Aside from those big two, there's the life of a Navy SEAL which ranges from BUD/S and hazing rituals to bar fights and trouble with the police.  On top of that the player has to keep their family life from becoming dysfunctional (via dialogue trees) and find ways to keep PTSD from driving them insane.

Sounds rough, I know, but such was the life of America's most prolific military sniper.  Walk a mile in his shoes, or in this case play a video game about him for a couple of hours, and you'll get a better understanding of the life he lived.  Would it be a 100 percent authentic experience?  Of course not.  In fact it might drift into "what if..." territory.  Since movies and TV don't shy away from using artistic licenses though I don't see why video games have to avoid them.  An "inspired by true events" label somewhere in the opening segment is all that's necessary, IMO.  

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Skyfox

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that a lot of folks who grew up playing video games probably don't remember the first game they ever owned.  I sure don't (to the best of my memory it was probably Combat for the Atari 2600), but I do remember my first computer game.  It was a little sci-fi flight-sim called Skyfox.

Probably the single most striking thing, at least initially, about Skyfox is the packaging.  A single 5.25 inch floppy disk tucked into a sleeve on the inside of a slender folder decorated with a short comic establishing some context for the game.  There was also a several page instruction manual.  Basically, you're a fighter pilot trying to stave off air and ground attacks on your home base by enemy planes and tanks respectively.  Some of the more challenging scenarios have floating motherships capable of deploying additional tanks and airplanes against the player as well.

Actual gamplay takes place in the  surprisingly detailed cockpit of the titular Skyfox fightercraft; complete with time, position, speed, altitude and radar displays along with a fuel gauge and shield strength indicator.  Other than that there's missile counters and a tactical computer.  Encounters happen in either one of two zones: low to the ground or high up in the air.  Transitioning between the two areas is intuitively done by simply climbing or diving.  The difficulty level can be adjusted by selecting one of three campaigns each with its own sequence of scenarios ranging from simple training missions to defending against all out assaults.

Supposedly, a sequel came out that let players take the fight into space, but I never played it.  For me Skyfox was a bit too repetitive for my tastes despite some intriguing gameplay mechanics and eye-catching box art.  About a month after I got Skyfox I picked up The Black Cauldron, an adventure game by Sierra that had a lot more to it in terms of content.  I might have dug Skyfox out a few more times after that and played it for a bit, but for the most part I forgot about it...that is...until now.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Semantic Games

Periodically discussions spring up around the internet regarding the term "video games."  For some the meaning is too broad.  Personally, I don't have a problem with it, and consider "video games" to be synonymous to "literature" with regards to scope.  More concerning to me is the shadow of tribalism showing up in the hobby.

As much as people love to toss statements like "PC master race" and "xbots" this kind of terminology is counterproductive.  It's petty labeling done in an attempt to turn opposing interests into an "us versus them" free-for-all.  The only place this kind of pigeonholing can be potentially useful is in marketing departments when they talk about "core" and "casual" audiences.  Even then it's a problematic practice in that Nintendo might be doing its own thing in relation to Sony and Microsoft, but saying their games are for children doesn't jive with the reality of the situation.  I know more than a few adults who play Nintendo games.  Does that mean they are immature?  Do real men only play violent murder simulators or interactive art experiences?  Absolutely not.  Interests vary and change constantly - one day I might want to play Doom, the next Flower.  Everyone is going to have their own gaming preferences at at any given time and that's fine.  The industry is big enough for all kinds.  New stuff comes out on a daily basis.  Although an important caveat to that statement is the big-budget scene.  Even then though, I tend to feel the fault lies in large part with the publishers who cling to an increasingly unsustainable "largest possible demographic" school-of-game-development rather than making tighter more focused experiences.

One other thing I want to address is the notion that some advocacy groups are causing censorship in the industry.  Maybe...but even if it were true the term "censorship" hardly applies.  To illustrate further let me swap out "censorship" temporarily with the word "injury" and make two statements:

  1. I suffered an injury at work - I got a paper cut while doing some filing.
  2. I suffered an injury at work - I got my arm ripped off by industrial machinery. 

The first statement is the degree to which censorship applies to some recent game releases, while the second is the kind of thing people have to deal with in real-life dictatorships these days.  On top of that fans can still get unfiltered versions of their favorite Japanese titles through importing.  It's not even all that hard considering that the USA and Japan share the same region encoding (Europe is a whole other can o'worms I don't want to get into right now).  Sure the game might not be properly localized, but stuff like fighting games and beach volleyball aren't exactly hard to navigate (heck, players might even learn a bit of Japanese too).

That said, I got agree with what Jeff Gerstmann said on a recent Bombcast, people should really expect better from their games.  The moment I see titillation in a video game it's a sure sign the developers are trying to distract me from some significant design flaws.  Case in point, Golden Axe: Beast Rider tried really hard to advertise how hot Tyris Flare is (pun intended) in an attempt to entice customers into buying the game before they'd notice the absence of a multiplayer component or even other playable characters iconic to the series (such as Gilius Thunderhead or Ax Battler).

Don't fall for that kind of thing, and don't let semantic games pull the wool over your eyes either.  Video games are for anyone and everyone.  Calling yourself, or someone else, a "gamer" is about as useful as terms like "music-listener," "book-reader," or "sandwich-eater."  Anyone trying to make a bigger deal out of their intense interest in the hobby is just trying to start a fight that nobody is going to win.  Game over!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

2015's Award Winners

Avant-garde Award:
Originally a side project of a five man indie development team based in Italy, this third person medieval combat dungeon crawler has an unconventional control scheme and physics-based combat system that accounts not just for armor and weapons, but also the height and weight of the combatants, along with things like distance, momentum, positioning and the angel of impact all to calculate the effectiveness of each attack.  In practice, fights tend to look like drunken brawls, but underneath all the clumsy swings, dodges and parries there is a rhythm that can be mastered with a little skill and a lot of perseverance.


Backlash Award:
A lot of the post-launch flak Bloodborne suffered was, in part, due to spillover from Bandai-Namco's clumsy handling of Dark Souls 2.  That said, being a single-platform exclusive didn't help either.  Because of these tangential issues, Hidetaka Miyazaki's latest effort (despite being well-made production) ended up the target of some rather intense criticism mostly pertaining to a lack of variety and overtaxing of the PS4's processing power.

Brutality Award:
From Software games have a reputation for being unforgiving and Dark Souls 2 is no exception.  That being the case, the definitive version (subtitled Scholar of the First Sin) received a significant boost to the overall difficulty.  Not only do more powerful enemies appear earlier in the game, but improvements to the AI mean that foes will pursue the player relentlessly, attacking in greater ferocity and numbers than before.

Canvas Award:
Ori and the Blind Forest is one of those rare gems that is made from painstakingly hand drawn sprites, meticulously rendered animation, and richly detailed backgrounds.  On top of all that the use of color to convey moods (ranging from sadness, mystery, fear, anger and joy) is also carefully arranged into a distinctly varied of pallets.  Virtually every location in this game is worthy of a screensaver or desktop wallpaper.

Ecology Award:
Hot off the heels of 2013's award winner, Space Hulk, comes Warhammer Quest.  Another adaptation of a Games Workshop board game that makes no attempt to streamline or improve on the original mechanics, nor does it add anything new in terms of character classes, enemies, spells or treasure.  The entire game is a cut-and-paste job right down to the exact same dungeon tile sets and text-based scenarios.  So basically, it's a slightly cheaper digital version of a two-decade-old board game except without actual dice, figurines or a way to play with friends.  


"Engrish" Award:
Using translation software is, generally speaking, not a good idea.  It goes without saying that video game localization efforts are no exception.  Case in point, Darkness Assault is the result of a direct word-for-word translation from Russian to English.  Iconic examples include patrolling guards who yell, "Here are you!" and a player character that comments, "Batteries in such a hole?  Well...I'll do find a use for them," while scavenging for supplies.

Esoteric Award:
At first glance Axiom Verge seems to bill itself as side-scroller with a pixel art style and retro-themed soundtrack.  This rather obvious nostalgia grab though is actually an illusion which quickly fades once you pick up the controller and start playing.  A number of refinements make the game inconceivable on an 8 or even 16-bit console.  Strangest of all is certain gameplay features which do not adhere to the to the Metroidvania formula, most noticeably the "glitch" gun.  In essence it allows the player to hack various entities in the game to his or her advantage in ways similar to a Game Genie or GameShark.


Lemon Award:
Mortal Kombat X for the PC was divided into no less that twenty separate pieces of DLC so players could enjoy the game without waiting for the entire entire roster of fighters and modes to download.  It pretty much didn't work at launch though, and in fact neither did the online store that handles micro-transactions.  You know a game is truly busted when even the software responsible for taking your money doesn't function properly.

Testosterone Award:
This might seem to be an odd choice given the plethora of violent games to come out this year, but unlike Hotline Miami 2 or The Witcher 3, Apotheon has you literally wading through rivers of blood.  Gory violence aside, the amount of full frontal nudity in this game is also impressive.  Mortals tend to be pretty modest (excluding that one bathhouse area...), but Nymphs and Satyrs let it all hang out.  The gods aren't shy either, especially Zeus - whose rivalry with the player culminates in a sword thrusting duel between hugely enlarged version of the both of them!

Underdog Award:
Grow Home is a Ubisoft production, but you wouldn't know it by playing it.  A Uplay-free side project done by a small research and development team, this quirky little sci-fi platformer takes a simple premise (get to the top of the level) and turns it into a surprisingly fun exploration/adventure title.  Some of the gameplay features feel mildly innovative to boot, such as the procedurally generated movements of the robot.  The climbing mechanic also feels a lot more tactile than anything found in the Assassin's Creed series.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Facsimile

In modern English the word "facsimile" is synonymous with "fax," or "copy," but the origin of the word comes from Latin.  "Fac," is the imperative of "facere" (to make), and "simile," means "similar" in English.  So, what does any of this have to do with video games?  Well...I can think of a couple of relevent examples.

Ever heard of a game called Orion: Prelude?  It's often referred to as "The Best Worst Game" on Steam.  Typically it can be found on sale for about $1.  Having played the game for around seven hours I recommend not paying more than that amount for it.  Rather than simply telling you about this FPS, let me ask a few questions:  Do you like Halo?  How does wave-based co-op multiplayer sound?  What would you think if the Covenant were replaced with dinosaurs?  If your answers are "Yes", "Yes", and "Great!" then this game might keep you entertained for around an hour or two.  Otherwise go buy a pack of gum with your hard-earned dollar.  Trust me, You'll get a lot better return on your investment.

Normally when I think of knock-offs I tend to imagine the label "made in China," or possibly Taiwan.  Not so with this title.  Apparently the job of copycat game development  more often than not ends up in the hands of someone living in Russia.  That's not to say I don't like Russian made games - far from it.  I've played more War Thunder and World of Warships than I care to admit (even though one sometimes feels like a doppelganger of the other).  That aside, Bloodbath Kavkaz feels...well, to put it nicely - unnecessary.  The first Hotline Miami had enough convoluted storytelling and gratuitous violence to satisfy a deranged psychopath.  Just in case that wasn't enough for you though, the same developer went on to make a sequel - Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.  It has more of everything to the point that a lot of what made the first game good ended up lost in transition.  More specifically, the expanded level layout and increased number of enemies led to a great deal more frustratingly random player deaths.  It undermined the intensely tactical puzzle solving that made the original game special.  If, for some reason you want more 2-D pixelated gore though there's always Bloodbath Kavkaz...I guess.

Last example, for this blog post is Prey for the Gods.  Get it?  "Prey", not "Pray".  Haha...they so clever.  Ahem.  Anyway...it's a Shadow of the Colossus rip-off, but I can't say much more than that because the game isn't out yet.  For all I know it might actually be good.  Keep in mind I'm not inherently against the idea of a derivative game provided it does something that the originator didn't.  Even if said changes were not wholly successful I'd still be willing to praise the game for attempting to innovate on its respective genre.  Much like a Xerox machine though, if all you're going to do is make a copy then (by definition) the duplicate is guaranteed to be of inferior quality.  So take some pride in your work, struggling game developers.  It's okay to borrow from the masters (after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery).  Just remember to make your own mark on those clones.  Otherwise it's a waste of time and effort.  Doubly so for people that go through all the toil of making something that boarders on copyright infringement.    

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Deep Sea Thoughts

It's my understanding that the word "soma" means "body" in Greek, and in Hinduism is a drink that grants immortality.  In a vague sense both meanings suit the themes of SOMA, the game, quite well.  Consciousness transfer via duplication has been explored in entertainment media numerous times before.  The video game The Swapper, the table-top RPG Eclipse Phase, a bunch of novels by Peter Watts, and movies like The Prestige or The 6th Day (staring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger) are the closest examples I can think of to SOMA in terms of how they approach the concept.  Unlike any of those works though SOMA really plays up the existential dread such that by the time I had finished the game I felt very troubled.

The ARK is suppose to symbolize hope,
but to me it felt like a gravestone
marking the final resting place of humanity
In an attempt to try and ease my mind I visited forums, read wiki entries, and watched a few LP videos, but I still wasn't able to internalize what Frictional was getting at with their newest game.  Eventually I stumbled upon Markiplier's "Lets Play" of SOMA and it was through his end-game commentary that I could contextualize things in a way I could wrap my head around.  I know...kind of surprising that this pink-haired Youtuber with an over-the-top personality would have any meaningful insight, but what can I say aside from don't let appearances deceive you.  He's actually quite observant and quick-witted when he wants to be.  In essence his take on SOMA, and the reason its story is so engaging is the central theme of altruism versus selfishness.  If you have children or work in education, medicine or a similar field then you probably realize that a lot of what you do has little to no personal consequence, but oftentimes is immensely impactful to others.  SOMA takes this aspect of life and amplifies it to the uttermost extreme.

*Spoilers*  
Launching the ARK will provide all those in it with a life of tranquil bliss among the stars for a millennium or more while all those who made it possible gain nothing for their efforts...yet it comes to pass anyway.  
*End Spoilers*  

It's poignant stuff, universal to the human condition, and rarely seen when it comes to video game writing.  For better or worse though SOMA is a video game which means there's more to it than just the story.

It took me awhile to realize that the CURIE
was a semi-submersible similar to the real
life oceanography research ship RP FLIP  
The actual gameplay is mostly light puzzle solving mixed with monster evasion.  Exploration isn't even a major component since the only reason to stray off the established path is to get little side snippets of the story.  As far as puzzles go some are more interesting than others, but basically they're fine.  Monster encounters, on the other hand, are a much more mixed bag.  The aquatic threats feel well implemented and are genuinely terrifying experiences, but the more humanoid dangers (particularly the "proxies") are far more annoying than scary.  I think, in part, this discrepancy in quality has to do with the game's lengthy development cycle (it took over five years to make SOMA).  As old gameplay footage show (here and here) early versions of the game were considerably different than what we got.  Unlike say Bioshock Infinite though the final product is considerably better than what the demo gameplay implied.  That said, it feels like some of the less well refined legacy assets seeped into the release version of game.  Still, I'm inclined to be an optimist in that it could have easily been far worse than what we got.

A paramedic's decisions might not have any
personal repercussions, but for others it
could be the difference between life and death
The developers at Frictional wisely avoided the it-was-all-just-a-dream ending plot twist (or similarly a final image of the Earth showing that it was fine all along).  I'm also glad there's no karma tracker decreeing whether or not the player's conduct throughout the game should grant them a place in the Nirvana/Heaven of the ARK or force them to remain in the Purgatory/Underworld of Pathos-II.  The fact that player decisions don't alter the game (aside from a few lines of dialogue) might bother some people, but I though it was appropriate given the underlying themes of SOMA.  It's also interesting to see the variety of (and in some cases extreme) opinions people have towards characters like Simon, Catherine and the WAU.  That there can be so many supportable viewpoints, is a testament to the quality of the storytelling.  Hands down, this is the best horror game of the year and probably deserves any "Best Story of 2015" awards it wins as well.  Whether or not it should be nominated for game of the year though depends on how much value you place on gameplay.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

It Could Have Been A Game

There's been a reoccurring series on the this blog called "It Should Have Been A Game."  Mostly, it's been about movies which would have been better served had they been presented in another medium, namely video games.  The "should" part of the title implies that the movies themselves were not very good.  However, this time I saw a movie that wasn't particularly bad as is, and as such I've changed the "should" to a "could" to reflect my opinion.  So, what is the movie?  Thor: The Dark World.

It might seem like an odd choice at first but, simply put, this is the best Final Fantasy film adaptation ever made.  Much better than Spirits Within, Asgard has all the science fantasy trappings of pretty much any of the settings found in Final Fantasy 6 onward.  What's more, the back story is all there in the now millennium old Norse texts, particularly "The Edda."  Along with all those ancient tomes, over a half century of Marvel comics have been published on the character.  In essence, The Thor films have their own extensive mythology, as well as recent history, making for fertile ground to tell an epic tale.  Final Fantasy settings, by contrast, tend to feel a bit shallow when it comes to in-fiction history because with each new iteration the world-building has to be done from scratch.

There's also no need for the overused amnesia trope.  Thor, instead relies on a stranger in a strange land (namely a visitor from Midgard) along with efficient narration and exposition on the part of the wise Allfather, Odin.  While only around half of the nine worlds have been explored in any detail in the films, it would be quite easy to spend more time visiting each in...say...a 40 hour RPG, rather than a two hour movie.  Thor's large cast of characters could also get more time to develop and interact, especially if they take the role of party members.  Off the top of my head playable characters could include Thor, Jane Foster, Loki, Sif (no, not Sid), Volstagg, Hogun, Fandral and (too-cool-for-the-group-to-stick-around-very-long) Heimdall.  Named supporting NPCs could include Odin, Frigga, Eir, Tyr, Erik Selvig and Darcy Lewis...plus her intern whose name escapes me at the moment.

When it comes to enemies, we've seen our share of Jotnar and Dark Elves in the film, but little in the way of Dwarfs, Light Elves or the Dead.  There are lots of potential foes that have yet to be debuted because of the limitations of the film medium.  Plus more time could be spent on fleshing out villains like Malekith.  According to actors and the director, a large portion of Thor: The Dark World was cut in post-production because of time constraints and a desire from the studio to change the pacing and tone of the the film.  Part of me wonders if the director's original vision was better suited to a video game.  

Perhaps best of all though is that fact that Thor doesn't feature any of the J-Pop garbage or Harajuku fashion trends that seem to have consumed the double digit sequels of Final Fantasy.  I'm not saying Thor doesn't have it's own brand of craziness, but at least the women of Asgard are wearing clothes that could be considered functional for leisure, battle or other day-to-day activities.  

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

31st Century Combat

Let me guess...from left to right:
Griffon, Atlas, Locust and a Catapult?
The video game Kickstarter for Battletech has ended with the developers getting about eleven times their minimum funding goal.  It's not hard to see why considering the universe of Battletech is (in 2015 terms) an interactive version of "Game of Thrones" meets "Pacific Rim."  To boot the chosen in-game era, 3025, has a lot of "Mad Max" style post-apocalyptic trappings.  At first glance space feudalism might seem silly, but the concept isn't really all that far fetched.  In the context of a series of long and devastating interstellar wars, that have left pretty much all infrastructure (including production, transportation and even communication) in utter ruin, it stands to reason that individual planets would regress back to local rulers that control what vital resources remain.  As far as I'm concerned the original setting of Battletech is fine, it's the mechanics of the game it's attached to that have me worried.

If you're not familiar with the history of the Battletech franchise, it's basically a collection of board games and paperback novels, as well as video games running the gambit from RPG and RTS to more recently mech piloting sims.  At the core of all of it though is a three decade old hex grid war game designed for mech on mech combat.  The system is quite detailed and requires a lot of bookkeeping for each mech in addition to a hefty amount of dice rolling.  Just to give you an example, firing off a rack of missiles at a target necessitates a to-hit roll, and assuming that is successful, another roll to determine the number of missiles that actually do damage.  After that individual hit location rolls for each missile have to be calculated by comparing roll results to the proper table depending on the target's facing (front, back, left side, etc.).  In total you're looking at anywhere from one to twenty-four dice rolls (on top of multiple charts and stat sheets for consultation) just to determine the effect of one weapon system.  Keep in mind a large mech might have a half-dozen of these or more.  Obviously, all this gets increasingly unwieldy the more and bigger the mechs are up to the point that the entire thing collapses under it's own weight when the numbers of units reach into the double digits.  Of course a video could streamline all this, moving most of the number crunching under the hood, so to speak.  However, there are some fundamental issues with the Battletech ruleset that really need to be addressed in order to make the game enjoyable in the 21st century.

The Whiff Factor is bound 
to lead to a lot of player
 frustration
To illustrate what I mean, let's take a look at your average mechwarrior, who has a gunnery skill of 4.  He's not a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, but he isn't a war-hardened veteran either.  Assume he's in a mech and he's up against someone else who's also in one.  Now suppose he charges at this onrushing opponent on flat open terrain and opens fire at close range (90 meters) with some medium lasers (a common weapon for mechs).  Short range adds four to the gunnery skill making the target number 8.  He also has to apply another +2 for running and another +2 because his target moved between five and six hexes toward him.  So, the actual to-hit number is 12.  Since all roles are made using two six-sided dice, there's only one chance in thirty-six of hitting (less than 3 percent!).  This is worse than World War 1 naval gunnery.  I'm not engaging in hyperbole here; notoriously inaccurate dreadnought fire control scored hits roughly 5 percent of the time at distances a hundred times greater.  Even under more ideal circumstances the majority of a mech's attacks still miss.  The problem is aggravated by the fact that battlemechs don't have much in the way of ammo reserves.  A real life M1A2 abrams tank can keep its main gun in continuous action for 7 minutes.  Most battlemechs armed with a similar weapon are lucky if they have enough to last 2.  Logistical concerns aside, autocannons have always been too heavy (averaging twice the weight of their energy equivalents) and too dangerous (ammunition explosions will ruin your day) to be worthwhile.

For better or worse, Battletech has kept
backward compatibility with all
 earlier versions of the game despite
 its long history
The setting of Battletech has always been about using what you got rather than what you want.  Understandable, but this leads me to wonder how salvage will be implemented.  Will it be the some kind of generic point system or will there actually be long inventory lists of spare parts taken from fallen mechs?  I've always though of mechs as being fairly universal in terms of components.  Otherwise how would anyone keep them working after centuries of use (and abuse)?  What about aerospace fighters and dropships though?  Will infantry or vehicles play an important role?  There are so many things that need to be rewritten, overhauled or scraped altogether.  I think ditching the tech-bloat of other eras along with the Clans (seriously, the setting already had a huge variety of factions to begin with) is step in the right direction, but there's a lot more that needs work.  The development team has already gone on record saying that their crowdfunded turn-based video game will have a system true to the spirit of Battletech, but not necessarily the same in terms of mechanics.  That sound vaguely encouraging although I wonder how the old guard will react.  The devil is in the details, as they say.    Still, I wish the developers all the best, and should their game turn out great I'll definitely pick up a copy sooner rather than later.  If not then I guess it's just more mecha blues.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Saturday, October 24, 2015

To Be Announced...

...more commonly abbreviated as "TBA," is a rare thing when it comes to triple-AAA game development.  Generally, once a big budget game makes its debut a release date shows up at the end of the video (or bottom of the banner).  Sometimes it's an exact date, other times a vague window like "spring of 2016," "Q4," or at the very least "coming soon" (as is the case with Paradox's science fiction themed grand strategy game Stellaris.  However, when it comes to indie developers, these kinds of target dates sometimes don't apply.  Simply put, for some indie devs the game will come out when it's done.  So, what are a few noteworthy examples?  Well...I'm glad you (I...?) asked because there are five titles in particular that have been percolating at the back of my mind, even though I have no idea when I'll actually (if ever) get to play them.

I mentioned this one about a year ago on this very blog.  Quick recap; it's a retro-future sci-fi horror game set on the moon.  Gameplay features a lot of rogue-like elements including procedural generated zones and perma-death.  For a while it seemed like the game had become vaporware, but an interview with the head of the studio last summer revealed that the game was still under active development.  One wonders if the team played Alien: Isolation or, more recently Soma, and decided to rework some of their ideas in order to avoid making something that would feel like nothing more than a cheap knock-off.  Whatever the reason, I hope I can try this game out sooner rather than later.

Aside from having some really cool promo artwork for sale, this space combat flight-sim has been quietly in the works for quite long time.  Supposedly, it will support virtual reality headsets with an in-cockpit view.  In addition to dogfights, players will be able to take command of fleets by going to a slow-mo tactical view and issuing order to supporting strike craft and even capital ships.  The sound effects are really good, and the graphics have been steadily improving with each new set of screen shots released.  I really want to purchase a copy of this game and take it for a spin, but I'm not sure I'll buy a flight stick or one of those 3-D helmets though...

Similar to the previously mentioned title, this is also a space combat flight-sim.  What makes it unique though is the graphics style.  It borrows the old rotating bitmapped sprites used in games like Wing Commander I and II, as well as Privateer.  On the other hand capital ships are fully rendered using more modern polygonal models and textures, which is probably a good thing since that was one of the weak points of those classics.  Also, unlike any of the other titles mentioned here, Wings of Saint Nazaire has an alpha build that anyone can download from the official website for free.  Like a lot of unfinished games (such as Besieged and Kerbal Space Program) development has become somewhat bogged down in the conversion to Unity 5.0, but once that hurtle is cleared development should continue.

Originally I was going to talk about a title called Slain, but it seems that game has gotten a release date (according to the Steam page, "Prepare to be slain December 9th").  So, I'm going to talk about Death's Gambit instead.  The development team is basically pitching it as a side scrolling Dark Souls.  It's not the first game to try this.  The upcoming PSN exclusive Salt and Sanctuary is pretty much being billed as the same thing.  That said, watching gameplay footage of Death's Gambit (or Slain for that matter...) remands me more of Ghosts and Goblins, Ghouls and Ghosts and even old 16-bit and PSX era Castlevania titles.  Regardless, this game is (according to the official website) coming first and foremost to the PC.

I've thrown up some gifs for this little pixle-art gem on my reoccurring end-of-the-month video game gallery posts already, but since that particular blog entry lacked any kind of explanation, I though it would be wise to elaborate on it here.  Once again, this could be thought of as an isometric Dark Souls, but to call it such might be a great disservice.  Eitr (as the old Norse word implies) is dominated by a strong Scandinavian-themed setting, but don't expect to play as a horned helmet wearing viking.  Instead players are in control of a rather capable looking shield-maiden.  That, plus the perspective makes it feel a bit like the original Diablo or the backer alpha build of Hyper Light Drifter.  There's also another game much like this called Perish, but since not much information is available for that game yet I've decided not to give it a separate spot here.

There was one more high profile game that I was going to mention on this list, but I can't quite seem to recall what it was exactly.  Something about skies...Oh well...it couldn't have been all that important or highly anticipated...


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Axios!

Back when 343 Industries was finishing up work on Halo 4 I got a chance to sit down and watch their live-action web mini-series, "Forward unto Dawn".  At the time I was mildly entertained, but put little thought into it beyond that.  However, I recently got around to watching the entire thing as a single hour-and-a-half film and found it still holds up surprisingly well.  I should stress this is coming from someone who has read their fair share of military sci-fi.  Names like Heinlein, Card, Weber, Scalzi, Haldeman and Forstchen are familiar to me and (while I've only played the first two Halo games) I've read the first four Halo novels from cover to cover.  So, what makes Forward unto Dawn special?  Well...it's difficult to point to anything in particular, rather, what makes it great is a culmination of spot-on casting, deftly applied cinematography, and a unconventional script.

Starting with the last one first, the normal way to approach a movie adaptation of Halo would be to cast Master Chief in the lead role with a Covenant Elite or Brute as the primary antagonist.  Some Precursor artifact would be the token McGuffin and the context of the war would be established via an opening montage.  Instead, we see events as a flashback through the eyes of military cadets being trained to fight a nebulous group of insurrectionists.  For the sake of brevity some of the cast fall into stereotypical roles such as the book-smart Asian, aggressive red-head, and stuck-up blonde.  On the other hand the characters with more screen time, such as Lasky and Silva, are much more three dimensional.  There's also a lot of buildup before the action really starts, and Master Chief himself doesn't show up until well past the halfway mark which (all things considered) is kind of a bold move.

The visuals are also surprisingly good.  Because of budget constraints the director couldn't rely on CGI special effects all that much.  Props are also authentic looking thanks to work done be WETA back when this was going to be a Peter Jackson production.  The Covenant are kept mostly hidden or shown only briefly which makes them far more threatening than their cartoony presentation in the games.  That said, there's still a lot interesting use of color pallets.  I especially liked the juxtaposition of the muted academic environments with vibrant battle scenes.  The image of a shimmering warthog racing down a densely forested road in the pitch-black night speaks to the quality of the lighting as well.

In order to emphasize the size difference between SPARTAN-IIs and ordinary people, actors of small and slender build were deliberately selected for Hastati squad to contrast with the actor portraying Master Chief - who stands over six feet eight inches tall (203cm).  Age, also a key theme, is well represented in the casting.  The cadets all look appropriately young which help setup the ending surprise that their rescuers aren't any older than them.  Performances are generally good, with the one noteworthy standout being Cadmon (Lasky's older brother).  Of course April Orenski's look of utter and complete mental exhaustion shortly before the credits role is priceless too.

When you consider all the different movie adaptations of video games that have been made over years (and how poorly most of them have been) Forward unto Dawn is refreshingly well done.  I would by no means call it a modern cinema classic, but when you consider the budget, original source material and the simple fact that it was released for free then this film is definitely worthy.