Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tales of an XCOM Commander: Part 1

He wasn't even supposed to be there. He really shouldn't have been there. But God rest his soul, Captain Ibriham "Boomer" Moosen is dead. Ironically I'm fairly certain "boom" is the sound his organs made when that Cyberdisc made him explode with its death ray or whatever that is. We're actually researching it now.

I should feel bad, shouldn't I? But honestly, I didn't know Boomer that well. I only knew him from when he'd arrived from Egypt. I think. He'd been gifted to us from some nation after we'd saved their city. One of the best of the best as they'd told us. He never got much combat experience.

Of course the only reason he was there was so that one of our strongest, a miss "Flash" Gorden, could under go psychic testing. So, without really thinking about it, I sent Boomer. The others didn't really know him that much either. He went in, equipped with the shotgun he'd used during his days in the actual military. With the basic armor we handed every soldier who walked in the door, and a frag grenade. We gave him the decency of not checking his pockets, to see if there were any pictures or anything. That would've only added to the pain.

If only I could say the mission had gone better because of him. In reality, though, we lost a good ten or so civies. A few folks will be sitting in the med bay for awhile, and to boot, when they got back to base, it was only to hear that Major Gorden's testing was all for naught.

Sadly, the mission had been necessary. For a week or two, we'd been running low on supplies with which to research, or to produce things with. Follow that up with the fact that Japan had just witnessed a massive UFO fly over, going God knows where, and we were unable to stop it, lacking birds in the area, it was looking like our ship had sailed without us on it.

Of course our saving grace was a good sized city's doom. The aliens decided it was time for a strike, and they terrorized the populace, taking out at least half the ones we were supposed to save.

Of course now, we'll be ready for the next swarm of cyberdiscs. We'll be prepared.

Of course, I have my doubts that's the worse they'll throw at us.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I bring great and dire news! First, the good news. XCOM is freaking awesome. Last, the bad news. The world's fate is in my hands, so you best all start fearing for your lives.

For those who don't know, XCOM is a reboot(that's what I'm calling it at least) of the old UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com:UFO Defense. And until recently, I had never really heard about this older series, which I've heard some say is the pinnical of PC gaming. My mind went into "caustiously optomistic" mode when I read a few reviews and saw gameplay videos of XCOM, with the niggling doubts consisting of "turn based strategy game".

Personally I've never been too big on turn based games. I see it as an odd way that people would fight, seeing as how if I were being mauled by rabid early RPG rats, there's no way I'm waiting in line to fight back. But I was gifted with it, so, might as well give it a go. Below is my playing experience.

8:00-ish AM

The sun is coming up, and I pop out of bed realizing my download must finally be finished. I boot up the game, and decide to start on normal, with the tutorial, and without Ironman mode turned on. Ironman mode apparently prevents you from ever loading a previous save for the game you are currently playing, committing you to every choice, move, and decision.

Now, the simple version of the game is this, you control a squad of people, sweeping through a small area, a city block or two, searching for the aliens you've been sent to defeat. You'll engage them in combat, where you can either move your people twice a piece, or move them once, and then have them attack. Once you've killed all the ETs, you'll head back to your base with whatever you've collected. You'll use these collected resources to research new items, train your soldiers, grow your base, launch satillites to keep an eye on other nations, and try to keep all the nations of the world happy.

Wait, what was that last part? Oh yes, what you're running is XCOM. XCOM is the collective forces of the nations of the world come together to prevent alien attacks. So you'll have to balance keeping all the world in check, else nations will begin to pull out of the Council of Nations, seeing as how you seem to care about them as much as you do the person with mildly annoying hiccups. This comes to a head during abduction missions, where you're given three different missions, in three different areas of the world of varying difficulty, and with different rewards. The thing is you can only do one of the three. So you'll be helping one nation, making them like you, while two others start to question you. Do this to a nation enough, and they'll pull out. I understand the reason for the choice, making you balance who you're assisting, but I feel it's very forced. Moving on.

11:00 AM

With my morning things done, I can now really get into the game. I tend to judge a game by how long I can play it before I realise I've lost a few hours. XCOM does this rather well. I start playing around 11, I look at a clock at about 2, thinking it can't be right, and by the time I look back at the clock again, it's 3:30. XCOM, if you can get into it, will keep you busy.

Part of it is the "one more mission" mentality. Missions for the most part take about ten to twenty minutes, some going for longer, if you do them right. You're constantly seeing new things, whether it be new aliens, new squad abilities, new strategies opening up, or a new squad member because the last one is either dead, or in the infirmary recovering from alien wounds. For some reason, I got really attached to my squad. You can customize them a tad, changing their names, nicknames, armor appearance and color, and so on. Name them after your closest friends and family members and we'll see just how good you feel when you send them to an Very Difficult mission. The members of your squad will slowly rank up as you go, gaining a class, which you don't seem to get to choose, and new abilities. You'll also be able to kit them out in better gear, and weapons.

What makes these characters so easy to care for, is the fact that if they die, you're going to know how big of a loss it is, especially later in the game. If you lose one of your heavy hitters, one of your better squads, you know who you get to replace them with? A new rookie. You've replaced your combat veteran with a rookie, who will likely make his pants very warm the first time he or she sees a sectoid.

This leads me into talking about the game's difficulty. I'm playing on normal, and it's honestly not too bad, so long as you think about what you're doing. If you lose a person, it's likely because you were caught by surprise, or you left them out in the open to die.

A few things that have bugged me while playing the game is the animations, and the voice acting. The combat animations do really spice things up, making each battle feel epic and such, but it just feels weird when my soldiers take aim at an enemy, and then shoot at a wall, or both the enemy and my soldiers shoot at each other while clipping through either each other, walls, or their cover.  The voice acting on the other hand is across the board fairly decent, which would be fine, except for one problem. Your squad will be made up of people from varying nations, meaning they should all probably speak different languages, right? I can understand them all speaking English, though, you'll want your squad to actually understand each other. But all men share the same set of voices, and all women share the same set of voices. And they all sound American. I had a soldier from Brazil, who was obviously Hispanic, and they sounded like someone I would meet on the street.

But that's really all there is for me to complain about. If you'll excuse me...There's more XCOM to be played.

Also for later on in the week, be watching for my thoughts on The Walking Dead, with the release of its final episode on Tuesday. Here's a preview: IT'S FREAKING GREAT!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Dwelling on the Digital Age

Last night, as my birthday is soon, a relative got me XCOM: Enemy Unknown as a gift. They went to a GameStop, bought it, and the people behind the counter handed them a code. I was given this, and since last night I've been waiting for it to download, which has certainly given me much time to think, as my internet is next to worthless while something is downloading. In the chance it's on your mind, my internet runs perfectly fine and fast, but for some reason that just eats bandwidth away like a child eats candy on Halloween.

As I idled around my home, pausing the recording of "Firefly" I'd DVRed on my TV, pulling out my iPod Touch to check something that someone had posted on Facebook, before shooting a few birds at pigs for a moment, putting it away, before pulling out my phone and sending someone a text, all the while letting my computer download something out of thin air, no cords or discs required, that it hit me that I am living in the future. And I'm not sure I'm okay with that.

I'm perfectly fine, happy, and amazed by all of those things, minus the latter. Not because I don't agree with the idea, oh no, I love the idea of it. I love wi-fi,and I love things like Steam, or iTunes. But I fear that when, whether we want it or not, the majority of our media is only found on the internet, or the cloud, or what have you, that some of us will be left behind. What about those of us who live in the countryside, our internet choices limited? I have three choices out where I live. Hughes Net, which isn't going to happen, a local company, which thankfully does have decent prices for their good service, or I would be stuck going back to dial-up, if that even still exists.

As we move forward, what is there to be said for the minority that will be left behind?

A different thought, is what effect is this having on things like the game industry?

Years ago, on the GameCube, or PS2 lets say. You went out, you bought a game, and that was it. These days, you go out, buy a game, most likely will need to download a patch for said game, while also being encouraged to put down even more money for the possible day 1 DLC. We've gone from buying full, finished games, with likely a few bugs here or there, to buying games that will be complete months from now, and to have the complete will require more than the initial payment. Of course it's changed more than that.

We see things such as Free to Play games. These would've never been possible in a market where disc was the main way of reaching the customer, outside of the PC at least. But now they're becoming more and more, perhaps even scarily, common. And that's fine except for a few things. Many companies see these as the future, the main one coming to mind being EA. If that were to happen, I predict a future full of microtransactions. The microtransaction in and of itself is a flawed idea to begin with. You can of course go on playing, usually, without even making a single one, but at what cost? Depends on the game. In League of Legends, you'll unlock Champions, the playable characters, much slower. In Team Fortress 2, you'll just be playing to luck to see if you get that item you want. In a game like SW:TOR? You can't even hide your characters' hat without paying the extra dough.

Is that what we want for the future? Half finished games, that are only full when you've spent even more money that you would've for a full one years ago?

That's not to say I don't agree with some of the changes the new age has wrought. Patches are an amazing thing, allowing developers to fix bugs that before, players would've just had to deal with. They allow multiplayer to remain balanced. And I'm not entirely against DLC, either. GTA IV's DLC was fairly well done, it gave people more of what the original game was. More story, more missions, more things to do in multiplayer, but to me, the pinnical of properly done DLC is Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead Redemption had many free weapons and such for DLC, while also being guilty of what I'm not a fan of, but have come to accept, the download of new maps, skins, etc. But take a look at its major DLC pack, Undead Nightmare, and you have something different.

Undead Nightmare included a new story, new characters, radically changed the game while keeping the fun in tact. Added new modes, characters, weapons, etc. to the multiplayer, and new challenges to both sides of the board. Take note here, Call of Duty, Battlefield, and most military shooters of today. They didn't just add in a few maps. They did add in a horde mode, though it was minor among the other additions, which I'm against, but again, it was minor.

This was a bit ranty, and crosses away from my original topic but there you go. Insert clever witty ending here, if you would be so kind.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Guild Wars 2: Final Thoughts

I'm going to admit something before we start today. I've yet to even hit 80 in Guild Wars 2. My highest character is a Guardian sitting at around 47 or 48. As of late I've been playing an entirely different class, the Engineer, and it's sitting around 40-ish. So, that's said, and out there. Perhaps I will someday hit 80. Who knows? Moving on.

The Good

I've complained a lot the past few times I've talked about Guild Wars 2, and that's partially to offset the praise it's been given thus far. That's a bit cruel, you might be thinking, but I always stood by the fact that it was a good game.

First off, it can be a very pretty game. The world feels large, and open, and there are many awesome looking views. The cities you'll be traversing feel huge, and varied, though honestly that can't be said too much about the areas outside their walls. Many of these places do feel interchangeable, at least to me. If you've seen one snow covered mountain, you've pretty much seen the entire zone. There're also a few small things tucked away, such as a playable piano in Ebonhawk. The best looking of these, in my opinion, are the "Branded" areas, where the game's world ending dragons have left their mark. These areas are simply stunning, and the enemies in them are very cool looking. Sadly these are used much, at least the 1-50 zones I played.

The combat also has some nice flow to it. You're skills are based on two things, the weapon or weapons you're using, and your class, which will make up your 1-5 slot. Your 6-0 are made up of skills you can swap in and out, that you unlock with skill points, earned throughout the game.

The game's Dynamic Events, a sort of quest that will pop up at random throughout the world, to be completed by many or few players, can also be fun, especially when they flow into each other. These for the most part are nice little distractions.

One thing I did like the idea of is traits, and skill points. Traits are sort of like putting points into a talent tree as you normally would in other games, except that these boost certain stats, such as your health, or your damage resitance. I think this is great, as it allows people to craft their character better. Skill points too feel this way. You'll accumulate these from leveling up and doing skill point challenges, of which there are about 3-7 per zone. With these you unlock new skills which will make up your 6-0 keys. There are generally a few fun sounding ones, such as the Mesmer's Blink, which lets them teleport somewhere else not too far away, or the Engineer's turrets, but after you've unlocked these, the others aren't really that interesting. They are broken up into tiers, sort of, once you unlock so many on one tier, the next opens up and so on. Once you've unlocked all these skills, as I'm told you use skill points as a currency at 80.

PvP can also be exciting. It tends to be a tad more skill based than other games, as everyone is decked out in full PvP gear before hand, and boosted to the same level. World vs World vs World is an interesting idea too, though I'm not sure it's used to its fullest.

The community is also a big plus to me on the game's record. There are still a few trolls here and there, but for the most part, many of the people you see in game are friendly and willing to help. The map discussions can't always be said the same of, but they're generally pretty good too.

The Bad

Yes we're getting back to this, though honestly some of this will be dwelling on the darker side of some of the things listed in the Good portion.

Guild War 2's world is very pretty, it's environments a decently varied, though on occasion it felt repetitive. This isn't much of a problem, in all honesty. The problem I have is that while the world is very pretty, it's not very interesting. The races you an play as fall into your usual RPG niches. Humans are humans. Norns are oversized heavy drinkers, similar to how dwarves are portrayed in Tolkein-esque universes. Sylvari seem to take the place of elves, literally being one with nature you know, being plants and all. The Asura are your genius inventors *cough*gnomes*cough*. Ahem. Sorry. Kidding of course, sort of. And Charr fall into the race of war-loving beings, that are pretty much as hostile while still being allies as you can find.

Also, the world ending threat that the game describes on the back of its box the "Elder Dragons" really aren't that important until later in the game. As an up and coming hero, I really don't start hearing about this until I've helped a few dozen farmers or soldiers with their bandit problems? The Branded areas discussed above were the most I ever saw of these Elder Dragons, and while they sounded fairly generic as far as threats come, these areas were stunning, I was sad they seemed to be rare.

As for the combat, I don't like how it doesn't have much evolution. You'll likely find a weapon you like, and stick with it, and by doing so you'll be stuck with the same five skills for your entire leveling experience. The same can be said with your other skills, you'll find what you like, and you'll use it. It was fairly rare that I found something new on my higher level characters that I thought was interesting enough to strive for.

On the dark side of Dynamic Events, even a few months after release, I still continue to see a few of these bugged, and uncompletable. There was one in a fairly early zone(if you consider 30-ish out of 80 early), that would've had you protecting a courier as they headed down a Seperatist(Humans fighting to prevent a treaty with the Charr from being signed) infested road, except for one small problem. The NPC literally did not move, had no speech option to make her move, etc. She just stood there, for my entire few hours in the zone. As far as I know, she's still standing there.

There's honestly not much I can complain about with traits. I really do like that idea, and I think it gives your character a more unique feel, as you assign points to help with your playstyle. What I can complain about is the price of doing so. Upon reaching level 11, you'll unlock your first trait. To actually assign said trait? You'll need to purchase a skill book, for about ten silver. This is about half the money I'd earned up to this point, as I've said earlier, and this just felt horrible. And don't think that's the last time you'll be buying a skill book. You'll only be able to put 10 points into each of your six categories for now, until you hit 40, in which you can pay a gold, again a bit less than I'd earned, and you'll be able to put another ten in each category, with it eventually maxing out at 30 points possible in a given category.

PvP for the most part seems alright for now, though there are times that it comes down to who has the most people on their side. My main problem with it is the fact that every area you'll fight over comes down to holding more points than your opponents, with a few twists thrown in here or there, like having a catapult, or each team having a strong "guild leader" that if killed boosts the other team's score. There's just not much variety here gameplay wise. Visual wise the maps are all nicely varied.

Lastly, the game's, as I would call it, premium options. For the most part it tends to be a boosts that will give you more experience points, or more currency pay out, etc., but there are a few things that just boggle my mind. For one, when you buy the game you'll get access to all four races, and all eight professions. You're only given five character slots. Want to be able to have a character of all eight classes? Dish out another $30. Yes, yes you can buy the premium currency with ingame money, but why should I have to? Yes, I do hear you, saying I don't have to. Say that to my bank. You'll probably be alright with the idea, on your first character. You're given a 27 slot bank, with which to keep your loose items. It's also shared by your characters. I do not have a problem with that. Not at all. What I have a problem with, is that if you want more room, which trust me you likely will, you'll need to dish out what comes out to be about $7.50 for more slots. Oh, but you can't buy just that much. You'll need to pay $10 and have a few extras hanging around. Forgive me, getting into a slight rant.

The Conclusion

Really, what matters of the end of the day isn't how much I can nitpick on Guild Wars 2. What matters is how fun it is. And 95% of the time, it's fun. It's fun when I'm just roaming an area and stumble upon a dynamic event, or group up with a few folks to get to a skill point. It's fun when I'm not restricted by what I can do. The other 5% is when I realise that something is far out of my price range, or that a zone has left me underleveled which does tend to happen more than I'd like. It stops being fun when the game pretty much puts up a sign saying "Want this? Give us a few more dollars. That or grind your eyes away for money." Money you'll want, mind you, so that you can afford the game's professions, which tend to be expensive.

But yes, at the end of the day, Guild Wars 2 is fun. I've played it nearly everyday for a few weeks now, and even if I get tired of it, I don't have to worry about paying or anything. I can just come back when I want. If you've never been into the whole MMO thing, this won't change your mind. There's a few solid ideas here, but it's honestly just a bit more of the same with some great polish to it. If you've been looking for a new MMO, this might be your game.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hotline Miami impressions

After playing new indie game Hotline Miami...I honestly don't know what to say. It's almost as if my brain literally shut down while I played it. There wasn't much thought going through my mind, more doing.

I didn't really think as I burst through a door, punching a man in the face, before proceeding to do the same thing to his friend, the slight thought of hope creeping in that I might not get killed myself. There wasn't much thought as I moved swiftly into the next room, killing a man, picking up his baseball bat and chucking it at his charging companion, just before leaping onto him to beat his face in.

I never had time to think. It was either do, or die. But there are other things that I almost wish I'd thought. Why am I here? Why am I doing this? Am I Miami's greatest hitman? Or am I just some psycho on the warpath? The game gives only the slightest hint of a story.

The basic gist of it, is that you view a small area from a top down view. You move with WASD (though I hear using a gamepad is in the works, if not already useable), and use your mouse for combat. You'll equip a mask, which will give you unique benefits, at the start of each level. From there, you'll move through the level, killing everyone in your path, picking up a variety of weapons and guns, once everyone is dead, you move on to do the same thing over. If you die, which you will often, you restart in the blink of an eye.

I'm not sure if this is common, but for me, thought while playing this game simply ceased. It almost stopped being a game. It became more of a dance. Constant motion, trying to learn the steps on the fly.

I've never touched the stuff, but I honestly have to guess that the game's visuals are what an acid trip has to feel like. The screen shifts around like a ship on the ocean, the pink fog surrounding the area you're plowing through changes colors dramatically with each kill. Music constantly shifts. But then, suddenly, once all the bodies have stopped breathing, the music just stops. All of the sudden. You then walk back to the front of the level, passing every death you've caused. For once you actually can stop and think about what you just did, but by that time, it's obviously too late to question it.

The game's visuals made me honestly start to feel ill after a playing for awhile, so if you get motion sickness, count this into the factors of "buy or not".

Surprisingly, there almost seems to be more. In my mind, I constantly wonder to myself, "Why don't I care about all this death?", and as far as I can tell, the answer is simply because the game doesn't teach you to care. It teaches you how to kill, and not much else.

And you know? Maybe that's all you need...