How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Rhapsodies on games, gaming, and why we play.

Category: Review

The deluge, in brief

by berv

This week has seen me cycle through a whole bunch of games in my Steam library, some sort of attempt to clear my mental gamespace so that I might be more productive in my own work. Ha. We’ll see about that. Regardless, I did pick up a number of experiences I thought were worth sharing (and even if they’re not, they were certainly worth having). So, in brief:

Serious Sam 2: For an FPS predicated on fast, mobile gunplay against hordes of baddies, getting across the game world sure is a trudge. The huge areas with all sorts of unpopulated crannies make secret-finding a chore (unlike in Serious Sam Double D, which I loved to bits).

realMyst: I’ve got lots to say about revisiting Myst after almost 20 years, but for now I just want to comment on this version’s shift to free first-person movement (as opposed to the static pre-rendered scenes of the original). Filling in all the gaps, letting you walk behind and around all the points of interest, and letting the player’s eye fall where it may (rather than artfully directing it) really steals a lot of the magic away from the setting. Suddenly there is nothing beyond the limits of your vision. It’s all there, and because there’s no new content jammed into these nooks, the world is suddenly bounded and less fantastic because of it.

World of Goo, Blocks That Matter: All I wanted was to outthink some clever puzzles. The core of these experiences is understanding the mechanics, which, on their own, are solid. But why do I have to grind through a tedious and repetitive process every time I want to try a new solution?

  • WoG: Why do I have to manually grab goo blobs? The fact that they don’t automatically jump to my cursor is irksome. And why, if the same sort of structural building pattern is the foundation of all constructions, do I have to manually make the building blocks one at a time?
  • BTM: Solving two thirds of a level, then making a mistake on the last bit sends you back to the start to repeat the whole thing. This is not an action game, where challenge is increased via setting obstacles in sequence. I solved those puzzles, please don’t make me grind through them again.

Dark Souls: Quite possibly one of my favourite games ever, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to recapture the experience of my first time through. It’s just not the same when you know what you’re up against. Until that point, though, it’s absolutely thrilling.

Darksiders: Boy, I haven’t played a game this console-tailored as this in a long time. It’s strange that that’s a type of game: heavy on action and cinematic elements, low on nuance and depth. There’s so much more that video games have to offer that’s completely overlooked here. This is closer in its content to a bad movie, really.

Red Faction: Armageddon: My second outing with the series made relevant through its core inclusion of destructible terrain. However, the reasons I quit RF: Guerrilla are the same reasons I stopped playing Armageddon. Though it’s satisfying to destroy a building piece by piece, there’s not much reason to do so. Wouldn’t it be cool if this game didn’t have guns at all, instead relying on clever use of structure collapse and environmental manipulation? Yes it would. I did, though, quite like the ability to quickly rebuild cover that had been destroyed. A neat addition to a firefight, but only fun defensively. Hmm. What if players only had environmental manipulation tools and had to try to off each other while avoiding AI gunners?

Cargo Commander: Procedurally-generated platformer roguelike a la Spelunky? Yes please! Minimal variation in level elements and very few ways to interact with the world? No thanks. I liked the setting (blue collar sci-fi; reminded me of the original Alien) and the some of the mechanics (zero-gravity space jumps & drilling panels off of floating cargo containers) but got bored pretty quickly with the gameplay. Also, the always-on DRM got in my way more often than any other game ever has. That is a shame.

The Walking Dead (Episode 5): Though the journey of this game was not without its faults, I felt really jazzed upon finishing this. It’s exhilarating to have a story with so many untidy resolutions. I want to play through it again for the alternate dialogue options, but can’t bring myself to slog through the non-dialogue gameplay a second time. Ah, alright, I did like the panicked zombie combat scenes, but the “puzzles” can take a hike.

Shattered Horizon: It is a great tragedy that multiplayer games live only as long as they have a community to support them. I thought there was interesting potential in the zero-gravity arena combat, and some wonderful vistas of planets far below the floating wreckage of the playfield. But alas, it’s gone derelict now, adrift with a fleet of empty servers.

Planetside 2: I was instantly overwhelmed by the mess that was the battlefield. Where am I supposed to go? Why? Who am I supposed to be shooting at? Why? People like this game? I couldn’t find any satisfaction here.

Analogue: A Hate Story: I was surprisingly drawn in by the sci-fi setting of this interactive fiction game and how it drew heavily upon Korean history. Sure, there weren’t a lot of consequential decisions to make, but the story was well worth reading, and tactfully revealed in tantalizing bits at a time. I do wish, though, that there were an easier way to further flesh things out than having to go through it all the same bits again with a different character.

Endless Space, Space Empires IV: I should like this sort of game (broad scale space empire management), but I just can’t invest as much as they ask of me upfront. Let’s go back to Dark Souls for a second. There’s enormous depth to the combat, character building, and lore, but you can play the game without understanding it all in its entirety. Can this be done in one of these space games? Maybe in having the gameplay complexity scale at the player’s pace? This is a difficult problem.

Auditorium: Lately, I’ve been developing a distaste for physics-based puzzlers. Finickiness seems inherent to them, and I find myself getting frustrated with them more often than not. Again, my ideal puzzle game makes it easy to execute a solution once it has been seen. Here, I got stuck too often trying to find pixel-perfect placement for my puzzle elements.

Legend of Grimrock: Despite the trailers and reviews I looked up, I hadn’t realized this old-school(ish) dungeon crawler played out in real-time. The necessity of stick-and-move combat got tedious fairly quickly, though I don’t know that I would have enjoyed the fighting any more were it turn based. I did, however, like how secrets were hidden, sometimes with easily-overlooked visual cues, sometimes within clever combinations of mechanics.

Looking back over this list, I am more than ever made aware of just how particular my gaming tolerances and intolerances are. I’m picky, for sure, and perhaps I’m a little too short with certain elements and genres, but I really believe that there are enjoyable experiences at the core of each of the above-listed games. With a little je ne sais quoi, those that are more deeply buried might be teased out and make for a better experience.

Did you make one of these games? I would be more than happy to give you my expanded thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. It’s only my opinion, but I like to think that I give these things an appropriate amount of consideration.

Are you anybody at all making a game? This is an open offer. If you provide me with a way to do so, I will play your game at least once and give you constructive feedback. You can dismiss it outright if you’d like, but I promise it will be lovingly considered.

The 2012 IGF Pirate Kart: 323 x 10 Words

by berv

Some months ago, I heard of the Pirate Kart: a collection of quick jams, abandoned projects, works-in-progress, and strange experiments deemed by their creators to be unworthy of entry into the annual Independent Games Festival. Fool that I am, I decided it would be a good idea to play through all 323 entries and attempt to review each of them in exactly ten words.

I’ve since found that expressing anything in ten words is, at its best, a damned challenge, and at its worst, not at all fair to the items under review. Attempting to balance description of the games with my reaction to them while at the same time trying to make the snippets enjoyable to read was quite a challenge that I definitely won’t claim to have overcome. I’d like to apologize in advance to those developers who I haven’t really done justice to and applaud everyone who participated for doing your thing, regardless of how much or how little I might personally have enjoyed it. I also appreciate that many of these games might never have been intended for review and so have tried to curb my snarkiness where possible.

I’d definitely recommend giving the Pirate Kart a try, if only to see sampling of the huge range of work contained within. The best way to appreciate it, I think, is to boot it up, take the random ordering it provides you, and start working down the list until you’ve had enough. Iif you’d prefer a little direction, though I’ve marked a few of the games below that I thought stood out. Games that are bolded and italicized are my top picks, notable in some way that made them clearly stand out from the pack. Games that are simply bolded had some sort of stand-out element and are certainly worth your time, if only to appreciate the idea or it’s potential.

But really, what I’d rather you do is throw yourself against the will of the Pirate Kart and see where you end up. Best of luck.

Reviews follow

Why Dota?

by anbrewk

Alright, I’ll write an article. You twisted my arm with the weight of my burdens of responsibility.

A Game of DOTA in progress (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I’ve been thinking about Dota (Defense of the Ancients) a fair amount lately. Mostly because I want to escape but also a little bit because of all the dota clones in the works that lead me to recall my past interest in the beast that is DOTA. Among the contenders for the throne are Blizzard and Valve among a bunch of  lamer gamers with their own shitty free versions.

If you are at all interested in why Dota is a big deal, read: Basshunter. O.K. now this is just a total aside but at one point in my life having babes watch me play Dota with a bunch of my dude friends would have been super great.  Or at least I would have perceived that as super great. That sort of ties into how I feel about the game in general. The appeal found within the idea of someone actually wanting to watch me play dota is the same illusory appeal that actually playing dota holds. Neither are actually appealing. They both just represent me and a bunch of other people wasting a lot of time.

As another aside, playing dota with an actual team of 5 players on a dedicated ventrilo (as suggested in the aforementioned basshunter music video) would be pretty awesome. Even if Dota sucks, which I’m vaguely suggesting it does, that again still appeals to me.

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Strategic Bluffing: A Review of ‘Lord of the Rings – The Confrontation’

by frangibility

I’ve recently been introduced to Reiner Knizia‘s Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation by one of my room-mates and I have to say that it is every bit as good as I hoped it would be. If I had any trepidation going it, it was simply due to the good doctor’s prolific output: over 350 games at last count. As such, even though he has designed some of my favourites (including Tigris and Euphrates, Modern Art, Samurai, and Battle Line), you will also see his imprimatur on far less noteworthy titles. Fortunately, I didn’t need to worry: LOTR – The Confrontationis a clever and engaging two-player game that packs a lot of strategy and enjoyment into 30 minutes or less.

So, what kind of game is LOTR – The Confrontation? If you imagine taking the fun part of Stratego (i.e., the initial stage of planning and set-up) and combining it with a system of semi-blind bids for combat resolution (think: Dungeon Twister), as well as asymmetric player powers and victory conditions, you basically have this game. To be more specific, it plays out as follows: each player selects one of the two sides (Fellowship or Sauron), retrieves their single-sided counters and freely positions them upon their side of the diamond-shaped board, following some fairly simply placement rules. The Fellowship player’s goal is to run the ring-bearer into Mordor – the region that represents the Sauron player’s “base;” conversely, the Sauron player’s goal is either to kill the ring-bearer (easier said than done) or to run any three of its units into The Shire (the Fellowship base). The movement rules are very simple: on each turn, a player *must* move a unit forward (or sideways if you are in the forest squares on the Sauron side). Since the board is diamond shaped, this means that each move on your side of the board allows you to choose between two different target squares, whereas moving onto enemy turf is always going to be unidirectional.
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Gaming, Shame and Self-Reflection: My Adventures with ‘The Binding of Isaac’

by frangibility

As with so many things, my opinions on The Binding of Isaac are a little… conflicted. On one hand, I can’t help but concur with the (near) universal chorus of adulation that this little downloadable title has received. Trying to describe exactly what Isaac does right brings up a (slightly cliched) image: it’s like a video game bouillabaisse, flinging together a morass of different ingredients and somehow ending up with a whole that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts. It features a darkly cartoonish aesthetic, well-designed boss encounters, the occasionally frenetic pace of a bullet-hell shooter, and, a robust set of [unlockable] items and character upgrades, many of which significantly alter the play experience. It’s also considerably indebted to the ROGUElike genre, incorporating many of its key features, such as procedurally generated maps, randomized items and boss encounters, and – the old-school standby – perma-death (i.e., the lack of any ability to save your progress). While the arcade-y, SmashTV-esque gameplay is compelling in its own right, the combination of those traits with the game’s unforgiving difficulty level and the promise of a consistently varied experience transforms Isaac into a particularly potent blend of gamer crack: knowing that those punishing, random levels hold a compelling challenge and a huge number of surprises (in terms of unlockable items, weapons, and hidden bosses) fuels the game’s seductive appeal. For one example, I’ve somehow spent a total of almost twenty-four hours playing it in the last two weeks, in spite of the fact that I’m nearing the busiest time of my academic semester.
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Sanctum: Clash of the interfaces

by berv

I picked up Sanctum as part of the most recent Indieroyale bundle, not because I was particularly interested in the game but because I thought the economic model was neat (the next bundle opens up this Thursday!). Regardless, I ended up with an independent game that not only looked pretty but promised a unique spin on the tower defense genre: the entirety of the game is played from the first-person perspective, allowing you to get in to the midst of the onrushing waves and add your own firepower to the line. A neat concept and perhaps a way around the monotony of simply watching your towers do their job or fail miserably in their attempt.

Once I cracked it open, I found it did exactly what it promised, putting the player onto the TD battlefield and requiring the player to run around during an assault, lending support where needed. All too often, though, I found myself acting as more of an auxiliary to the towers than as a separate and meaningful entity. Most frequently, my time on the ground was spent following particularly tenacious enemies, mindlessly exhausting one weapon after another into their backs in a futile final bid to keep them from reaching their goal. It reminded me less of the combat in an FPS and more of that in an MMO: toggle attack on, occasionally hit a special power button, repeat until victorious.
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