Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Print This Out and Put It Where A Loved One Might Find It - 2011 Edition

It's that time of year again... and yet I'm somehow no more prepared for it than any year in the past. In anticipation of Steam's end-of-year sale, I usually make a list of games I'd recommend buying or asking for. I've run into a bit of a problem this year though, as I've just recently discovered the joy of console gaming. (Two consoles, really... Black Friday was particularly good to me this year.) I do feel it's my duty to bring you a list of recommendations though (not that you haven't already bought half of these games). So, in no particular order, here are some things to look into:

The Binding of Isaac - Link
After the Thanksgiving Steam sale, I found myself with a handful of new games to try, but kept gravitating back to The Binding of Isaac. In this roguelike (a new word I learned through this game) from Edmund McMillen, creator of Super Meat Boy, you play as Isaac, a child who escapes his oppressive mother by traveling through an underground tunnel he discovers in his home. Of course, no underground tunnel would be complete without a ridiculous number of enemies waiting to kill you. That's why I'm writing this review from the roof. Man, it's cold outside.

As you travel from room to room looking for a way to escape the randomly-generated dungeons, you encounter a number of enemies to fight before you can move on, as well as tons of power-ups (or occasionally, power-downs!) It's this randomness that gives this game incredible replay value, as the maze you must traverse is never the same. Sometimes you get an easier run with all the right power-ups, sometimes you get 20 keys and no heart containers. If there's one drawback to this game, it's that the fantastic gameplay is surrounded by some potentially disturbing (well, slightly disgusting, thus offensive) aesthetics. Expect lots of blood, guts, urine, feces, etc. It's certainly not a family game, but there's still a lot to love about The Binding of Isaac.

Trauma - Link
Another item I picked up from that Thanksgiving sale was Trauma, an interesting escape-room-esque puzzler about a student who needs to recover her lost memories. Each of the four separate scenes in this game are made up of a series of photographs that overlap in a three-dimensional space, which really helps to suggest that you're trapped in this small space. Navigation and item manipulation are not just done by clicking, but also painting certain symbols with streaks of light.

Unfortunately, Trauma is rather short, with four worlds that can each be solved in under five minutes, but part of the fun in this game is really taking time to explore the different environments. Each world has nine tricky-to-find Polaroid photos scattered throughout the level. Some contain instructions for navigating and manipulating objects (unfortunately, they repeat through the levels), some contain more of the backstory of your character. While Trauma might not bring a tremendous amount of novelty to the escape genre, it does have a surprising amount of replayability as you piece together all of the parts of the story, one photograph at a time. This is a must-try game if you can get it on sale.

Fractal - Link
Fractal is a tile-sliding puzzle where your goal is to clear the board of tiles using an interesing pushing mechanic that's really hard to explain well. Basically, you can place a tile (or tiles) on the board by clicking in a space adjacent to a tile(s). In doing so, you don't put a tile there, but rather, you push the adjacent tile(s) outward from that point, and adding a new tile in place of the old location of any pushed tiles. When you make a bloom (a seven-hexagon honeycomb of one color), the outer six hexagons push outward before disappearing, potentially triggering chain reactions across the board.

Okay, fess up, who gave up reading that last paragraph? If you want a tl;dr version, here's the scoop: I previously reviewed Fractal for Jay is Games, and it's been rereleased for Steam, mostly only with some cosmetic changes. If you bought it before, you can go back to Cipher Prime's website and generate a Steam key. If you're new to the game, I'd strongly recommend giving it a go, as it's quite good mental gymnastics. And yes, the rules are much simpler than I can articulate them, you just have to try it for yourself.

The "Other Recommendations" Lighting Round
Sequence - Link
Definitely a favorite from this year, and one I still return to for the occasional button-mashing blitz. Previously reviewed here.
Portal 2 - Link
Dear Modern Warfare 3 and the VGA's: Piss off, this was my most anticipated game of the year, and it didn't suck as much as yours! Previously reviewed here.
Assassin's Creed 2 - Link
After playing through its prequel and its first sequel, I can confidently say this was my favorite of the series so far. Previously reviewed here.
B.U.T.T.O.N. - Link
Have I raved about this game on this blog yet? This hilarious physical party game has you wrestling your friends for button-mashing dominance. Quite good, but I'd recommend using a junker keyboard just in case.

That's all the recommendations I have for now. Feel free to peruse all of my posts from this year for more good games (and ones to avoid). Hopefully, I'll be posting again within a couple of days with more thoughts on the console world, but if I don't before then, have a very Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


As I begin typing this on one computer, I'm watching the eternally slow credits roll for Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood on the other. I have officially completed the main single-player campaign of the game, but not even close to all the side quests in the game. That was not my choice however, as it turns out the ending of the game is thrust upon you rather quickly.

Buried somewhere underneath the fullscreen credits roll on the other ocmputer, I had been keeping a journal of all of my experiences while playing Assassin's Creed: Grilled, making observations about certain events in the game and how they related to Original Recipe and Extra Crispy. It's chock full of SPOILERS, but it's the most complete summary of my thoughts on the game, so if you don't mind a leg-numbing read, here it is.

If you're not up for the spoilers, but still want my general impressions on the game, let me say this: It feels like it was way too short, and not necessarily in a way that left me wanting more. I don't have it perfectly divvied up, but I would imagine that I probably spent about as much time on the billions of sidequests as on the actual points relating to the plot. In fact, even some of the points to the plot felt like they were sidequest material that got tacked onto the main plotline just to make it longer. To be honest, I don't feel like I got my money's worth with the single-player campaign alone.

Oh, and I figured out why they call Rome "The Eternal City": It's because you never leave Rome the entire game. Am I the first to use that joke? I hope so. I've had that in the back of my mind for a while now.

Fortunately, the game's primary selling point was the new multiplayer mode, which I can pleasantly describe as absolutely fascinating chaos. I only squeezed about an hour or two of the multiplayer in so far, but I look forward to returning to play some more. In the multiplayer mode I played (Wanted), you're randomly assigned another player to kill. Meanwhile, other people might be searching for you to kill. Run around for ten minutes trying to rack up points (with bonuses for stealthy kills), high score wins. It's as simple as that, but the specially-made maps feel like you're playing a real-world game of Pac-Man. If there's one thing I don't fully appreciate, it's that veteran players are blessed with special weapons and tools that aren't ever even explained to the noob player, making it a bit frustrating at times, since it's hard to know exactly why your attacker killed you or why your target escaped you in the way they did. Still, it's an overall fun romp and I'd say that the multiplayer makes up for a large portion of the shortcomings in the single-player.

But I guess I still have to make some sort of verdict, don't I? Well, if the game allows it (pending these bloody credits ever finish), I would not be opposed to going back and clearing more of the side missions I missed out on, now that I know I can't endanger my chances of accidentally running into the end of the game anymore. I would happily spend more time playing multiplayer. But would I recommend buying this game at full price? Probably not. If anything, it feels like it's more of a bridge to the final game, Assassin's Creed... Popcorn Chicken? Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is only really good as a sum of its three parts (the single-player campaign, the single-player sidequests, and the multiplayer mode), but it's hard for the former two to stand on their own without the multiplayer holding them up.

Will I play Assassin's Creed: Revelations? At this point, I guess I have no choice but to finish up the series. I don't know if it'll be again on Steam or perhaps a legitimate console... Let's just say we'll wait and see what Black Friday brings.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Oh, So It's a Racist Rap Battle

Hm, where to start this post... Well, I've finally started playing through Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. But this post isn't about that. The problem was, for whatever reason (most likely having to do with the fact that I've been using a crappy $9 controller to play games on my PC to this point), Brotherhood didn't work with my old controller. So I ended up splurging on a shiny new $40 XBox controller, which pretty much negated any savings I made while buying the game on sale. But as a side bonus, it works rather well with other games too, so I guess I can't complain too much.

SequenceToday (or yesterday by this point, I guess), I downloaded Sequence, a combination rhythm/RPG game. To sum up the game really quickly, you accumulate XP and gather items by defeating enemies in rhythm-based combat, where you face three simultaneous screens of Dance Dance Revolution-style arrow-tapping. Obviously, you can't play all three at once, so part of the strategy of the game comes in when you play each specific screen. Do you take a few points of damage (on your Defense screen) to build up Mana on another screen, so you can charge up to cast a Spell on yet another? You've got to keep an eye on all three screens at once, switching back and forth at the right moment to defeat your opponent quickly.

Keeping in the tradition of RPG games (which, I'll admit, I know nothing about), items dropped by defeated enemies can be equipped to increase your health or strength, or combined in recipes to create new items and spells. Crafting these items takes a bit of luck, as you must always wager a portion of your experience points to make the crafting work. You can risk more of your points for a greater success rate, but it's still capped at 95% odds, so there's always some shot of losing those points for nothing. Spells must also be mastered before they can be used in battle by completing a solo round with a matching task (over X% accuracy, X-hit streak, etc.).

Let me start out my analysis of this game by saying that it's pretty fantastic overall. The combination of multitasking and rhythm makes for a good challenge, and the four levels of difficulty (I chose medium, for the record) mean you can dive right in at any level of experience with rhythm games (or general rhythmic competency). The attached storyline, while so far mostly bare-bones, is still intriguing and hilariously well-written, taking the mickey out of itself and other similar games without ever begging for you to like it. The music you play with isn't exactly gripping, but that non-intrusiveness is perfect for a game like this where you've just got to keep tapping your feet and smashing the right buttons. And as for the art, more than the fairly simple graphics, I'm impressed that there exists an RPG character that wears NORMAL CLOTHING. Seriously, cargo pants and a sweatshirt? I wear those things! (Though green was never really my color.) But I say that to say that the main character is so instantly relatable that you'll have no trouble getting into this game.

(Note: The following struck text is referring to bugs present at the time the review was written, but were fixed quickly afterwards. I've kept the text here, but feel free to skip it.) ...But staying in this game might be a different matter. My biggest drawback from giving Sequence a wholehearted recommendation right off the top is the fact that it's still oddly buggy, in one way or another. The first minor quirk was that this game seems to be highly susceptible to fluctuations in CPU usage (I had my browser window open in the background while using this), meaning the scrolling arrows might slow down and speed up for a bit mid-game, or my controller buttons didn't seem to register all the time. I will gladly admit that this might simply be an issue with my computer being old and crappy, but there are further issues to be discussed.

In addition to this, it seemed like after the game initially finished downloading, it immediately started to download another update. Initial release date blues, I thought, no problem at all. However, it seemed that it kept downloading more and more updates, all large and cumbersome for my connection to handle (Dear Steam, when are you finishing the interface update that lets users throttle download speeds? XOXO, --steve), even after verifying the game cache a few times. Despite this, there seems to now be an issue (which started just this evening) where when I attempt to master a spell to add it to my arsenal, the game instantly crashes every time (and it still charges me the 50 XP I pay to do so!). That definitely wasn't an issue earlier today when I mastered my first spell, so I don't know what's going on. (Edit: It appears I can't access the Spellset options now. Fix plz?) (Edit again: It's the morning after, and it looks like both of these issues have been fixed. Link)

If you can get over the annoying buggyness (which I'm sure someone is constantly working on fixing),
Sequence is definitely a strong title and well worth buying even at its non-sale price of $5. The trailer videos (worth a watch, if only to hear one of the most brutally honest PR speeches I've heard in a while) boast 10+ hours of gameplay, but even though I'm only two hours in, I can already tell it will be worth the time.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Wheel! Of! Ridiculous.

I downloaded Puzzler World 2 yesterday. The fact that I'm writing a blog post about it now means that either I've found so many things to love about it that I have to share it with you so can jump on the sale price, or it's so terrible that I've already gathered a list of complaints long enough that I have to get it off my chest before I suffocate. Puzzler World 2 falls into the latter category. Mostly.

Puzzler World 2, much like the original Puzzler World, is a collection of 560 puzzles of ten different types, each with a bonus puzzle attached to help you "win big", if the entire thing is to be interpreted as a game show. Which is probably what the developers were shooting for, really, although it's hard to imagine crosswords, sudoku, and hidden picture puzzles as game shows. (Never mind the fact that all three happened.) The puzzles range from fairly challenging, like the three I already mentioned, to the inane, like the Silhouette puzzles which are essentially monochromatic coloring book pages, or Word Searches, which, to quote my high school chemistry teacher, "are for stupid people." (Which is to say, they're algorithmic and don't require tremendous skill.)

I enjoy the Backwords and Patchwords puzzles new to this second edition, although they become somewhat banal after a bit. The game showy atmosphere is still present, though it seems to oscillate between light, daytime game show and deadpan, serious-face million-dollar game show too quickly. Altogether, it's a decent collection of puzzles, and it's large enough to hold one over for quite a while.

But it also sucks somewhat grandly. Like its predecessor, Puzzler World 2 seems to have been ported from another platform to the PC. (The first one came from the DS, this one seems very iPaddy.) The transition from device to PC isn't nearly as smooth here, and there are some bizarre interface quirks that show this. Plus, there are a lot more instances in this game where you have to sit and endure animations, rather than being able to skip them like before.

It feels like a lot of things that weren't broken before were "fixed" in this edition, but the "fixing" just made them worse. While you now have access to larger Link-a-Pix puzzles (courteously supplied by the often-cited folks at Conceptis Puzzles), the interface is also much clunkier and frustrating to work with (including not solving the basic problem of not allowing multiple active lines). The Fitword puzzles got a helpful drag-and-drop makeover (rather than typing in every word), but the controls can still be finicky and dropping one pixel away from your target can set you back several steps. There are a lot of things that make Puzzler World 2 gradually more frustrating than the original.

I'm not saying you shouldn't buy this game though. As far as puzzle collections go, it still has a larger batch of puzzles and a wider variety than what you'll find most other places. It's just those annoying quirks everywhere that give Puzzler World 2 a major downside. If you're considering buying this, I'd say the current sale price on Steam ($7.99) is fair, especially considering you get Puzzler World 1 for free along with it. But if you're easily turned off by these sorts of issues, you'd only be putting your money in Jeopardy! (See that? I did a game shows thing!)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Funny, Chrakovsky Isn't On iTunes

On another unrelated whim, I bought Vertigo Games' greenTech+ the other day. There's no long convoluted backstory to go into with regards to this game, aside from I really enjoyed the AcidBomb and Shellblast games and I've played the pre-commerical greenTech, so I can jump into reviewing the game without a long history lesson.

greenTech+Instead, let's talk ecology. Just kidding! Sort of. greenTech+ is a game about global warming and pollution management, though in a definitely (and surprisingly) non-preachy way. Over the course of a level, factories release pollution into the air at regular intervals. Your goal is to guide the pollution to the waiting cleaning centers. How? By controlling a hurricane that sucks the pollution toward itself. Naturally. To make matters worse, the cleaning centers have limited uses, meaning you've got to guide the pollution all around the map. Also, if the pollution hits an area of high air pressure, the pollution disperses into the atmosphere, raising global warming by 10%. If any pollution hits the hurricane itself, it shoots up 20%. If you reach 100%, it's game over.

greenTech+ is an easy game to get the hang of, but very hard to master. Most of the levels can be passed even if only barely (sneaking by with 90%), and each completed level unlocks a new monitor for you to upgrade to (more on the aesthetics later). But, to unlock new levels, you have to achieve a certain number of perfect levels, finishing with 0%. This is way easier said than done, as a split second of lost concentration can tack an unwanted 10% on your score. As you play, you pick up certain strategies like rounding up a ton of pollution into a tiny cluster before making the rounds to the cleaning centers, or speeding up and slowing down the hurricane's attraction speed, but figuring out when to use each is extremely difficult.

Despite being a game that tackles a serious problem (though in a wholly fictional way), greenTech+ carries a very light-hearted tone. It's been trimmed down in this commercial re-release, but in the original greenTech the opening titles gave the impression that the game simulated the daily job of one lonely office worker who would find his favorite classical music station on the radio while booting up his computer to work his magic, Fantasia-style. That quirky attitude toward a life-or-death situation carries over here in perfect form. (One of my favorite examples of this is when you lose a level, destroying the world, then you're asked press X to "accept".) Tie in the fake classical music and the retro graphics on upgradable (though still crappy) monitors, and this game bleeds personality despite its harsh gameplay.

greenTech+ is definitely challenging, but still fun to tackle. If you don't want to dive into the full version of the game, you can always try the original greenTech (the only major difference is free mouse control vs. grid-based keyboard control). Once you fight your way through that, it'll be hard not to give into the allure of the newer version. The greenTech series is frustrating but fun, and makes an excellent diversion for when you don't have the time to get into larger puzzle games.

Oh, and there are also apparently 3-D settings for greenTech+ to play with, but I don't have the glasses and it'd probably give me a headache pretty quickly anyway.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

It's Like Doing Pull-Ups With a Box

On a whim, I went ahead and bought myself Edge today, as they've released some extra levels and gone on sale and whatnot. It'll be really hard for me to review this game, since I've had such a long history with this game, going back years before it became available on a platform I owned. See, way back in the days of iTunes being "popular" and "non-irritating", Mobigame released a game app called Edge where you control a cube moving around a three-dimensional playing field like an obese Q*bert who gets himself wedged in between things too often. Then, the app disappeared, due to legal conflicts with one Tim Langdall, on the grounds that the game clearly mimicked one of his own (eh, sorta, but not significantly enough) and the fact that he trademarked the word "Edge" (wait, what?). I can't remember the rest of this story, but three things have definitely happened since then:
  1. Edge shaving cream is still available in grocery stores,
  2. Mirror's Edge was still allowed to be made into one of the first games I ever outright panned on this blog, and
  3. The aforementioned Edge game is now on Steam.
So I guess the lawsuits didn't work out for Langdall. And for the longest time, that was my only connection to Edge, and I had mostly forgotten about it, aside from the fact that the hoopla surrounding it was probably one of the first things that got me interested in copyright law.

EdgeEdge is a three-dimensional platformer where you move a cube through a series of obstacles, picking up smaller cubes along the way, and trying not to fall in a myriad of ways. (Well, walking off the edge of the platform, getting pushed off, staying on one of the disappearing blocks too long... A myriad is pretty much three, apparently. It just feels like more because it happens a lot.) Get to the exit, and you get an arbitrary rating based on how many things you picked up and how quickly you did it. That's the game, really.

I guess the main selling point to this game, aside from the rebel-against-the-tyrant background it boasts, is that there's more to it than just walking around and picking daisies. Since you're a cube, you move like a cube (rolling from one face to another), but you're also somehow a cube with sticky edges, meaning you can stick to moving objects by hoisting yourself on one edge and holding that position for as long as necessary. It's known as "Edge Time", and any Edge Time you accumulate is subtracted from your time at the end of the level. Shame it doesn't really make that much of a dent when you're sucking one second off of a 90-second level.

I don't know which angle to tackle this game from first, so let me start by saying that the level design in Edge is quite good, but it doesn't make up for the game itself. There's no shortage of interesting puzzles that can be made from what few mechanics are introduced in the game, but there's really a limit to how much you can play before you start to get bored. I could easily see myself playing through all the levels, but I don't think I'd want to go back and 100% everything right away. I already know it takes some fierce tedium to go back and conquer the highest ranking for each level, so I'll gladly settle for second-best. Or lowest. Frankly, that doesn't much matter to me. I guess what I'm saying is that it feels like there's not enough of a reward for doing well in a level. Top marks or last place, you still unlock the next level, and that's it.

Mind you, there are plenty of levels to go through, between the 40-or-so in the main game, the 40-or-so in the first DLC pack, plus more in the bonus levels obtained by becoming a member of the Edge Steam Group. This is a Two Tribes thing (the company who ported the game to Steam). Between Toki Tori, Rush, and now Edge, they seem to enjoy making you join their group before they give you toys to play with. On the upside, they don't spam you once you're in, but I hope they realize that people don't really want to follow their exploits on Steam, they just want more content for free.

The chiptune music and fairly basic graphics go well with this game, and really help set the mood for a good time. The controls, on the other hand, do not. I understand that the game was originally designed for a touch-screen device, where you play by swiping the cube in one direction or another, and that's fine, but I don't think it really translated well to my keyboard. There are times when I have too much momentum and seem to go right off the edge of a cliff even after I've taken my finger off the key, or that the cube wants to balance on its edge way longer than I would have intended, which is especially annoying when trying to move through a section quickly. The controls aren't a definite turn-off, but they don't help much.

Ultimately, I would recommend buying Edge if it's on sale, and if you can swing it, a better sale than the 20%-off deal going on right now. It's definitely a game that's worth tackling at least once, but I can't see there being much replay value to it. Alternatively, you can be gung-ho about supporting a game that "fought the man" and got away with it, but that battle is long over and shouldn't be relevant when judging this game.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

My Nanoblogging Is Your Microblogging - Episode 4

It's the end of the month, and you know what that means... It's time for me to throw up an emergency blog post so it at least looks like I've done something for every month. Hey, at least I'm honest about my filler material.

14. Edge and Limbo Make Steam Debut; Blogger Fails to Create Humorous Title
Hey you, do you like games that were released years ago on other platforms that finally make their way to PC via Steam? You know I do! It seems like we got a double-dose of this at least with the help of popular app Edge and popular console download Limbo, both shuffling into the Steam store within a couple weeks of each other. I hear both games are quite good, and I'll gladly look into reviewing them here... after they go on sale. That's the other thing you can always count on. Me being a miserly old grump.

15. Hey Guys, Guess What? I READ A BOOK!
If you know me and my terrible reading habits, this is a huge deal. I finally finished reading Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture the other day. I first heard about the book thanks to the occasional nod from xkcd. On a whim, I decided to try the book out, and it ended up being the first pleasure book I've taken notes on. I got halfway through the book last summer, and took a Communications Law class in the fall semester. We only spent a couple days talking about copyright law, but I wrote a term paper on copyright terms and cited what I had already read in the book. What I found weird was that during the research for the paper, I noticed the author's name coming up in some of the court transcripts I found. As I found out (when I resumed reading the book over winter break), the author of the book was one of the lawyers in a Supreme Court case regarding the issue. So I continued reading like a madman, and I got up to about seven pages from the end of the book before I returned to school in the spring. I just finished reading those seven pages now.

I know copyright law isn't the most thrilling discussion topic in the world, but he makes some interesting points about how our culture and entertainment economy works. The book's a bit dated now (I think it was written in 2005?), but I'd still recommend it to anyone who's looking for an interesting read on a part of law not discussed much in public, or for anyone who's looking for a good conspiracy theory over how much control big businesses have over us. (I say that not to be cynical but to summarize what I took from the book in an exaggerated, humorous way.)

16. Goodbye, Pinky
I don't know how many readers I get who visit from Jay is Games (although I guess I have that little stats toolbar... Well, apparently that's 21 of you in the last month... and three people searching for "people riding kangaroos"), but I have a bit of a complaint to get off my chest. I've been continuing my mostly weekly Letters In Boxes column for a few months now (we've just wrapped up the 12th edition, containing the 50th individual puzzle). But in the most recent edition of the series, I squandered away a puzzle I've been harboring away for quite some time now. This puzzle set was based on the concept of base mathematics, where you had to convert a bunch of numbers from binary and ternary and other bases into decimal form. The third puzzle in the series takes a severe deviation from the normal puzzle style and instead uses a screenshot taken from MSPaint's color selection palette. The answer, if you sit down and convert the red, green, and blue values to hexadecimal, is FACADE.

I've had an oddly long attachment to this puzzle, and I'm sad to announce that what was used in the series was nowhere near what I had originally hoped to do. The puzzle idea first came about back when we ran a SpaceChem Giveaway on the site. John, my fellow puzzle inventor, and I came up with a series of puzzles based on the periodic table. I came up with one puzzle idea, where a greenish-colored box was supposed to be translated in the same hexadecimal way to get BA for barium. Ultimately, the puzzle was shot down because it would be "too colorblind-unfriendly", but I was determined to make it work somehow. It was only last week that I thought up the idea for the base-themed puzzles and decided to give the idea another go. The entire puzzle consisted of only a box with a pinkish hue in it. Sadly, in my test run, I found that the #FACADE-colored box I wanted to use would turn into different colors depending on which file format it was saved in, or even which program opened it, so the idea was scrapped and turned into the straightforward "here are the numbers, figure out what to do with them" format linked to above.

In the end, the puzzle seemed to get rather positive remarks, as people enjoyed the shock of seeing something unusual in the middle of the normally dichromatic puzzle series (one person compared it to playing an ARG... wholly not what I intended, but thanks!). But still, in the back of my mind, I have this nagging feeling that I threw away that puzzle unnecessarily, and I can't ever get it back. Perhaps someday there might be a browser or a file format or a painting program that will allow colors to show up exactly as intended no matter what, but by that time, this little nugget of an idea might have spread too far to be novel anymore. Perhaps it's already been done, and I just haven't heard of it yet. It's like I let a little part of myself go into the world, never to return again. I can't help but wonder if that's something normal to be feeling, but yet I also wonder why I don't feel that with so many other puzzles I've made. Perhaps it's time to step back and reflect on what I've done.

17. Vusy as a VVVVVV
You all have gone out and bought VVVVVV by now, right? And you've played through it multiple times as well, right? And you've put the soundtrack music into your jogging playlist, right? Suddenly, that's not enough love for the 22nd letter of the alphabet. The most recent version of the game, released as part of the Humble Indie Bundle, includes a level editor, preloaded with a bunch of user-made levels. In addition, it's incredibly easy to download other players' homemade maps, and the developer has featured a number of levels on his website. For the past couple of weeks, I've been playing through user levels like mad, and I'm actually running out of levels to tackle! I guess that means it's time I finish up the level I've been working on, except I'm terrible with scripting. Hurry that tutorial up, Terry, eh?

18. One Final Note, Brought to You By the Letter Z
In my last post, I mentioned how I wish I bought Atom Zombie Smasher when it was on sale. Well, thanks to the Humble Indie Bundle mentioned above, I now own AZS. As it turns out, it was just as fun as I was imagining it to be, but it also bizarrely lacks replay value. After a certain point, it feels like once you've beaten the game enough times, it loses its novelty. There are plenty of user-made mods available to tweak certain aspects of the game (sadly, you have to wade through the hordes of people who just re-uploaded the sample mod just to get an achievement), but it still feels like the same game too many times over. Still, I've put a handsome chunk of time into the game, so maybe there's still just enough of a cling factor to keep me coming back.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Surveying the Wreckage of a Summer Sale

It's been a week or two since the annual Steam Summer Sale. Surprisingly, I probably didn't buy as many games for myself as I did for others, but I'm okay with that. I think I'm hitting that plateau where unless some fantastic new game comes out, I'm pretty comfortable with the games I do own. Still, I did take the time to try a few new games, and I have the following report to present to you.

One of my earlier purchases of the sale was BIT.TRIP RUNNER, which claims to be "the fastest, most exhilarating music/rhythm-platformer to hit Steam!" Erm, well, I suppose it's a valid claim, but I can't think of other music/rhythm-platformers on Steam, so make of that what you will. While BEAT was a legitimately rhythm-based Pong-esque game, RUNNER takes the form of a constant-motion platformer, where you must time Commander Video's actions to dodge obstacles, break through barriers, and collect gold bars. It just happens to have a backing soundtrack.

Note that that's very much not to say that the music corresponds to the actions you're performing on screen. For one, in order to, say, jump over a hole in the ground, you've got to hit the "jump" button before you get to the hole. As you pass over the hole, you hear the associated note/sound for completing the jump. This is supposed to make you feel like you've passed the obstacle, but instead I couldn't help feeling that the awkward disconnect between the action and the consequence/confirmation made it uncomfortably arhythmic. Add to that the fact that there's even a tiny delay between when you push the button and the action appears on screen, and it's just frustrating to play. I can't help but feel that if I were to play the game with the sound turned off, I'd do better because I wouldn't be tempted to follow the rhythm of the music.

In thinking about how to describe this game, I keep coming back to Mevo and the Grooveriders, a similar music platformer from a few years back. Mevo is played with only two keys (left-shift, right-shift, and a combo of both), but it uses a scoring system similar to a Dance Dance Revolution game, where you're graded on how close you are on hitting the designated beats, gaining or losing health as you go. In RUNNER, if you slip up, you're instantly sent back to the beginning of the level. You're either perfect or you're doing it again. And again. Factor in the arhythm I described above, and this game is just not fun to play. You don't feel encouraged to keep playing, you feel hindered by the difficulty. In all the time I've spent with this game so far, I've yet to beat two levels in a row. I just can't stomach it. On the whole, I just can't recommend BIT.TRIP RUNNER.

I can, however, put up a geeky nod for Vertex Dispenser (demo available), a puzzle... shooter? Puzzle shooter, I guess. The general goal of the game is to conquer the board, a three-dimensional shape composed of a bunch of triangles and squares, with colored vertices. The vertices change colors, depending on what "activated" vertices surround it; a vertex will always be blue, unless there's already another blue vertex next to it, at which point it will become red; a vertex will be red unless there's already a red and blue next to it, at which point it's green, and so on. The rarer the color, the stronger the power-ups you can charge up. You move along the edges of the shapes, trying to break through defenses set up by opponents, trying to dominate the board and eliminate your opponents. It's not just a brainy strategy game, but it's also a fast-paced action game.

There are two complaints I have to file against this game though. At any point in time, you can have upwards of 14 power-ups available to you, each of which are activated by a key on your keyboard. That's way too many to juggle at once, especially when there are also four power-ups per slot to choose from. You need to use a diverse range of power-ups to win a game, but I find myself having to check the laundry list of options every time I want to use one, and by the time I figure out what I want, it's too late. As a result, I usually stick to only two or three power-ups for most of the game, which is a bit of a waste. The other complaint is that I can't seem to find anyone playing multiplayer matches. Or is it only multiplayer with Steam friends, and I happen to lack other friends who play this game? Despite both of these, I'd still give Vertex Dispenser a solid thumbs up.

Lume is a very beautiful point-and-click puzzler, with an artistic style of cardboard characters and settings that make the entire experience feel like an amazing children's TV show (so it must've been a European show). On the downside, some of the puzzles in it are a bit too obscure to solve without any hints (I ended up either brute-forcing or checking a walkthrough for a couple of puzzles). Plus, it's really short. Granted, it's part one of a series, but still, I'd definitely not recommend this at its regular $7 price, but I'd say give it a go if it comes up on sale again. If nothing else, add it to your list of games with good loop music for playing in the background while working on a late-night paper.

Critical Mass (demo available) looked like it should have been an equally geeky puzzle game, considering the game looks like you're attacking a neon Rubik's Cube. Unfortunately, it's just a three-dimensional match-4 game. Your goal is to clear the blocks before the mass reaches "critical mass", AKA an arbitrary time limit irrelevant to the actual size of the mass. I've only gotten the demo, but it seems like there's very little else to this game. I'll pass, thanks.

I've played all of about five minutes of Terraria and I've yet to touch Magicka, though I hear both are quite good. I also picked up Assassin's Creed: Grilled and Greed Corp, but I don't know much about either of those yet.

I also downloaded the demo for But do you want to know where my biggest regret is? I didn't buy Atom Zombie Smasher. With about an hour left in its day for an extra discount in the store, I tried out the demo. I decided not to buy it, because I'm not a huge fan of real-time strategy games. However, in the last couple of days I've found myself coming back to the demo to play its limited four levels over and over again. There's something about the chipper, surf guitar-y theme that makes this game much more lively than other RTS titles, much less zombie titles. Plus, the action is easy to get into, meaning a strategy thicko like me could get sucked in. I've not got that drum and guitar riff looping in my mind, and I tremendously crave this game. I'm seriously regretting not buying this game.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Armor, Artwork, Medicine... What, No Stromboli Stand?

I finished Assassin's Creed 2 this morning with a considerable chunk of sadness. Knowing from what I experienced in playing the first Assassin's Creed, my thoughts for this game started to dwindle as I approached the final stages of the plotline. Nonetheless, I'd still probably throw in a nod for AC2 as a pretty good game, if you're willing to get past a few shortcomings, some of which carry over from the first game. In this post, I'll try to stay light on significant plot spoilers for as long as possible, though I'll definitely have to rant about the ending later.

Assassin's Creed Extra Crispy starts off where Original Recipe leaves off, although assuming the first one "leaves off" anywhere is quite generous considering that the ending was as abrupt as a squirrel catapult. You begin by escaping Abstergo and high-tailing it with Lucy to a warehouse, where you meet the tech-obsessed geek, the English snob, and the Animus 2.0, which doesn't mean much except the game is going to suck a bit less than last time (fewer loading screens, better in-game interface, etc.). Setting up this bit of plot feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, since you'll spend about 98% of your time inside the Animus, only to pop out for one cutscene sequence mid-game and at the very end, with your new partners dropping bits of information to you via audio link probably ten times at most.

Inside the Animus, which, let's face it, is pretty much the game, you take on the role of Ezio Auditore, who is somehow another one of Desmond's ancestors. You begin, perhaps surprisingly, at birth, with a cutscene with quicktime events that somehow teaches you the basics for just about all the commands you need for the rest of the game (top button corresponds to head-type actions, bottom to feet-type actions, left and right to hands). Fast forward to some point in the future (I knew I should've taken notes) where through more instances in late-teen-early-20s Ezio's daily life you learn how to fight, climb buildings, and have sex. (Just kidding! That's only a cutscene, and I think it only happens... twice?) Eventually you discover that your father has been imprisoned, and killed before your eyes, at the hands of some corrupt government officials. So it's up to Ezio to take over his father's role and get revenge on those baddies! Naturally.

I know I mentioned before that my first exposure to Extra Crispy was on a friend's PS3, where I got maybe three to four hours into the game. One of my initial big gripes was how right after getting his first vengeance kill, Ezio launches into this speech about how he's going to avenge his father's (oh, and brother's) death(s). Not at all stealthy, but thankfully, this is one of the rare instances where the veil of stealth is shattered for the sake of the plot. In fact, as I continued through the game, there's quite a lot of semi-legitimate stealth to be had, such as timing your movements to not attract guards' attention, or making kills from a hiding spot. The stealth is also sometimes unbelievable, such as the numerous times I've found myself hanging onto the ledge of a building with a guard inches from my fingertips but still not seeing me. Still, the pleasant flexibility of the "notoriety" system makes this game quite a bit less frustrating than the last game.

The combat in this game still sucks. Just as in Original Recipe, I found myself repeatedly mashing the same two buttons to beat baddies until they were dead. I suppose there was a slight improvement in the combat thanks to the ability to select weapons and armor, which are purchasable from stores, but the general strategy for that always seemed to be "pick the best one, there's no difference in how you wield them". And at that, after a certain point in the game, you discover what's clearly the best armor and weapons in the game, so there's no sense in attempting to upgrade anymore. Actually, more than the combat itself, I should focus more on the wider range of items that can be used in and out of combat, such as smoke bombs, medicines and poisons, and the pistol, which feels like a bit of a cop-out of a weapon, but it comes in handy in certain moments. I kid you not, there's also an option to throw money to cause a distraction. I don't know why I found this ability both hilarious and pleasing.

Speaking of money, the whole economic system is a huge difference between this game and Original Recipe. Once you visit your uncle Mario in Monteriggioni (and yes, he spouts the obligatory "It's a-me, Mario!), you get a treasure chest that collects a portion of the town's income. A large side quest involves purchasing upgrades and buying items in shops to increase Monteriggioni's value (and income). As the town's value grows, the income (delivered to the chest every 20 minutes of play time grows as well. The money system is an interesting addition to the franchise, but it also feels wasted, just like life outside the Animus 2.0. Once you unlock all of the buildings in town, your income increases ridiculously. Once you use that money to buy all the weapons, armor, and paintings you can find, your income increases some more. By the end of the game, I had close to 400,000 Florins (units of currency), but couldn't spend it fast enough, with trips to the doctor costing 50 florins and repairs at the armory costing 400. If you invest the money early in the game, you earn it back too quickly, which unfortunately negates the dilemma of ever having to manage the money in the first place.

Worth mentioning: I really appreciate the amount of detail in the various locations, and how true to life certain parts of the scenery are within the game. When I finally arrived in Venice, I couldn't wait to check out their rendition of the district of San Marco. Unfortunately, that portion wouldn't be unlocked for another two or three chapters of the game, but when I got there, it was serious deja vu. I took so many snapshots of St. Mark's Square, where I actually stood almost three years ago to the day. I went looking for the general location of a geocache I found in Venice three years ago. I found myself on a side mission inside St. Mark's Cathedral, and found my virtual self standing in the exact same spot I sang in three years ago. Of course, not everything's the same, as everything in the game was probably scaled down to maybe 1/8th or 1/10th of the actual size of all these places to make getting from one end of town to the other relatively quicker, but I was so happy to see these details come through here, and to relive those brief but happy memories on that island.

But look at me, picking apart things like the cost of a leather pouch or how to punch people repeatedly. What really needs picked apart is the storyline! I can confidently say that Extra Crispy's storyline is way more varied and interesting than that of Original Recipe's. AC1's "plot" revolved around going to a random district of a city, completing two or three mini-tasks to "gather information" on the assassination target, then doing the assassination. Lather, rinse, and repeat about eight times. In AC2, there's definitely a set chain of events that eventually lead you to each assassination, but you've got way more freedom to take up side missions as you go. Not knowing what's coming next or in what order makes this game way more tolerable... Until the next-to-last chapter of the game, where you have to do nine relatively easy assassinations in a row. That was the first point in the game where I started to feel fatigued from the whole ordeal, but to at least make it to that far in the game (chapter 13 of 14) before I felt this demonstrates that they've done something better with how the plot is handled this time around.

The characters in Extra Crispy also help the general atmosphere of the game. Early on, you befriend Leonardo da Vinci, who helps you out by decoding pages you collect, upgrading your weapons, and providing you with the occasional flying machine adventure. Even if the other names dropped in this game aren't all familiar (Machiavelli and Medici come to mind), they all stick with you, thanks to some well-designed personalities. The cutscenes that illustrate the interactions between Ezio and his allies show you some hilarious and quirky sides of just about everyone, whether based on a real historical figure or not. These characters stick with you way more than the cast of about four people in Original Recipe, who have about as much personality put together as a cinderblock with lipstick. I genuinely want to see Ezio and Leonardo in a sitcom together. One's a blood-thirsty murderer bent on revenge, the other's the wacky inventor guy next door. Ezio and Leo! Ba-da-da-da-da da-na-da-da!

I think I've covered everything non-spoilery I wanted to get to, so now let's discuss some reactions to parts of the game. SPOILERS from here on in, though once again, this game's two years old now, so there's probably not much to spoil.

One of the big reasons I wanted to see more action outside of the Animus was the lone scene in the middle of the game where Desmond gets out, does a bit of an experiment involving the "bleeding effect" in the warehouse, then has that crazy hallucination. You know, the one where he's Altair and chasing that woman through Acre to get to the game's other sex scene? To be quite honest, I was playing through this scene late at night, so to see everything go crazy horror story dark made me freak out a bit. And I loved it. That scene left me wanting to experience more of the Animus's effects on Desmond, because they really hit a strong nerve of both curiosity and fear. I loved that scene, until I wrapped up for the night and realized I had to go to bed with those ghostly horses still running through my head.

Remember how I said I was fine with how the story played out up until chapter 13? Well, that bit of nervousness about how things were going to end up was justified when I hit chapter 14, the final portion of the game. You arrive at the outer walls of the Vatican, and you have to get to the end of a long, narrow corridor to assassinate the pope (as one does). My jaw dropped in horror... This was exactly how the "final" battle in AC1 went. Long corridor, bound to be filled with lots of baddies dropping in, leading to the first of a series of "final" fights. It was irritating then, and to see it coming made it more irritating now. Luckily, this time around it wasn't as frustrating, considering there were way more checkpoints (I don't think the first one had any?) and more ways to kill the enemies along the way than just swordfights. Still, in the end, it was a series of at least three attempts to kill the ultimate baddie (in this case, the pope, natch). It's annoying how predictable this has become.

Which leads me up to the final cutscene, in which Ezio discovers... the truth? That was probably one of the more bizarre bits of footage I've seen in a while, and it once again left the game in a very un-closured state. As the screen goes black, Desmond utters, "What the fuck?" Then roll the credits. Indeed, my brother... What the fuck, indeed. At the very least, there was a small fight sequence outside of the Animus as the credits ran that at least provided an end to this chapter of the Assassin's Creed series, but very much not the series as a whole. It's still an incredibly unsatisfying ending, though it's far better than how you're left off at the end of AC1. Back then, the ending felt like a giant middle finger. Here, it's a fist shaken with great vigor. It's still not entirely pleasant, but at least it's not as insulting as it once was.

Would I go back and finish this game to 100% completion? Probably not, and here's why: At the end of AC1, I claimed I would do so, not realizing that going back and reclaiming all the extra missions actually required you to play through sequences in order, regardless of the fact that you'd already cleared everything. In fact, you'd even drop back in experience and health, meaning any skills you had gained after that point would be gone so you could relive that portion of the game exactly as you had before. This is an incredible turn-off. Here, on the other hand, there's really not much more to go back and claim. Yes, there are the mini-assassination missions, races, and beat-up events, all of which I skipped, plus hundreds of treasure chests and dozens of missing feathers to collect, and they're all readily available for claiming at any point in time without "rewinding". But after the ending I just finished, I'm going to admit that I need some time away from Assassin's Creed. Note that I'm far from giving up on it, I'm downloading Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood as we speak. (So... Assassin's Creed... Grilled?) It'll probably sit idly on my computer while I check out some of the other swag I grabbed from the recent Steam Summer Camp Sale. In the meantime, I'm going to bed (review writing time: almost exactly two hours!). Maybe I'll throw some screencaps up in the next couple of days to illustrate some points. Until then, requiescat in pace.

Oh, one more thing... Because it was on sale for something like a buck, I decided to pick up the digital AC2 Prima Official Strategy Guide on Steam as well. I figured it'd be nice to check one out just for the fun of it, plus it came through on some tricky little spots. But the format was absolutely crap. You can tell that this guide was written as a book, then transcribed to a website, when it really should have been transcribed as a PDF. If it requires trial and error to find the help you're looking for, something's seriously not right. When you get to the bottom of a webpage and you see it refer to "the map on the page on the right", but with no map nor any link to any map, you know they put about two seconds of work into the thing. And to think, they'd charge $10 for this piece of crap. So there.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Nanoblogging Is Your Microblogging - Episode 3

No single blog post could chronicle the myriad of things going on in my head right now, so here's a cheatingly fast way to get them all out.

9. It's Not a Ripoff of Blocks With Letters On, Though I Admit It Feels Like It
Do you like words? Do you like puzzles? Do you like word puzzles that may or may not have anything to do with words? Golly, you've got some screwy tastes. But I've got just the thing for you! I've started writing Letters In Boxes, a word puzzle contesty thing over at Jay is Games. Each week we give away a few prizes for the fastest solvers and a handful of other random correct entries, so there's always a chance you could win something. For me, this now-regular Thursday column has been both a blessing and a curse, as it's given me the ability to flex my freelance puzzle-writing skills. Not that companies are looking for in-house crossword puzzle producers, but it's at least getting my name out there with another talent attached. On the other hand, it's my name attached to these puzzles. Every week, I've got to come up with about four of them, and triple-check everything, or else it's egg on my face (like one particular week that was so marred by typos that completely slipped by my radar, despite me double-checking everything right before it went live). I've got beta testers now, but it's still a lot of stress just coming up with puzzles that people would want to solve, and keeping them fresh every week. Still, it's fun, and I hope to keep this up for a while.

10. Or Perhaps I'm Bothered By the Fact It's Only One Letter Away from Trine
As part of one of Steam's Daily Deals, I had an impulse-buying moment with Trino. In Trino, you play a wriggling bean-like creature (well, let's face it, it looks like a sperm) that lays down the corners of triangles to trap enemies inside the boundaries. These enemies vary from very Portal turret-looking creatures that float up the screen to crab-like creatures that destroy your corners and spider-like creatures that scamper away from your triangles. It's an interesting concept, but I can't help but feel like this particular port (of what I'm assuming was originally an XBLA game) is broken. At the very least, it's more frustrating than fun, and that's a damper on what could/should be a pretty good game. Between the questionable hit detection that seems to favor the enemies, the abilities those enemies have that way overpower a lot of things you can do, and some occasional random controller non-responsiveness, the sensation of being challenged just falls before the desire to play something else.

11. Someone's Got to Make the Victory Speech
How about some current video game news? Today (well, yesterday, by the time I get this thing posted), the Supreme Court voted 7-2 in favor of video games basically getting the same First Amendment rights as other forms of media. Actually, that's a bit too broad of a generalization, but they voted that a California law prohibiting the sales of violent games to minors is unconstitutional. Justice Scalia's argument included the fact that children are exposed to violent material in other accepted forms, from the Grimms' fairy tales to Lord of the Flies. I agree with this decision, and I agree with the argument that the responsibility of keeping violent or offensive games out of kids' hands comes down to the parents, not the government. I'll be the first to admit that this decision won't immediately effect me, since not only am I not a minor, but I tend not to be drawn to the violent, sexual games this case was about. It is very good news for the entire industry though, in the sense that developers still have the right to explore the possibilities of video games, rather than being boxed in by regulations.

It's a bit weird hearing the reaction from both sides though. The Video Game Voters Network, who I mentioned back in a post comparing 3-D game vision concerns and the current SCOTUS decision celebrated the victory with a post with highlights from Scalia's argument, while Common Sense Media, who I think I had heard (don't quote me on this) were the ones to initialize the case, expressed their sorrows about the decision, then used it as a platform for advocating more parental controls. CSM CEO James Steyer even took credit for numerous changes in how the industry markets its games, which I'd be willing to call out as bollocks (I'm pretty certain self-imposed regulations were in effect long before he came along), but to each his own.

12. Assassino! Assassino!
I finally managed to snag Assassin's Creed 2 on Steam on sale a few weeks ago. I've been playing through it a good amount since then, and while I'm (hopefully) nowhere near the end yet, I've come to feel it's made a ton of improvements over Assassin's Creed Original Recipe. To start, the storyline is much more intriguing, and generally presented better than its predecessor. The missions feel more varied, and there are a ton of side quests to keep you busy as you play. As usual, my video game wanderlust take full advantage of this and I spend a ton of time outside of the game's real objectives just to fool around. 'Tis great fun. The combat is still sorta sucky; I can still get by just about everytime with my standard "mash these two buttons until they're dead" strategy, but at least it's more possible to avoid combat in this game. I still have issues with the camera and controls, but the latter may be due (at least in part) to the fact that I'm starting to realize that the controller I have only registers 8 directions of movement, rather than the whole circle of freedom the joystick seems to imply. I don't know whether or not a full blog post will come once I finish, but know for now that I'm definitely enjoying it.

13. So... It's Wii... Without the Wii?
One more bit of video game news that caught my attention was Razer's new Hydra Motion Controller, which going by the videos given, seems to work just like your standard Wiimote and Nunchuk. However, it comes bundled with a copy of Portal 2, plus a handful of bonus levels that take full advantage of the controller's capabilities, including the ability to rotate objects with absolute precision, place and move portals with absolute precision, and stretch boxes for an extra puzzle element. With absolute precision. I can't say I'm excited for the last bit, but I think it'd be interesting to play with a spatial game like Portal 2 with a spatial controller. That won't happen anytime soon though, as I tend to get scared away by anything with a three-digit price tag.

Friday, May 27, 2011

I Think It's About Time We Had A Haxxor Showdown

I picked up Uplink the other day as one of Steam's new Daily Deals. (There's a fairly decent chance I might go broke as a result of these Daily Deals. Just throwing that out there.) Similar to the previously-reviewed Hacker Evolution (hereafter referred to as HE), Uplink is a game about hacking your way into computers, gathering data, and generally causing havoc in cyberspace. As I play through this game and compare it to my experiences with HE, I notice some similarities, such as recurring missions and terminology in both games (such as "bouncing," "cracking," and "computer"), which suggests to me that these games are based on real-life hacking, or at least an incredibly similar imagining of such a concept. (To make it seem as though I'm not a real-life hacker, I'm intentionally playing dumb here. That's a lie, I'm actually genuinely dumb when it comes to hacking. I freak out when my computer boots improperly and I have to work my way through the BIOS screens. What is BIOS anyway? And how long can I stretch this parenthetical aside out?)

Uplink's plotline is different in that you work as a freelance hacker, taking jobs that pay money for successful completion. This money is used to buy software, hardware upgrades, and to add to the security of your "Gateway", the physical representation of your hacking account. Protecting your Gateway is important, because if you get caught in the act, the authorities will come to collect your Gateway as evidence to use against you in court. Presumably the game continues after this happens, you just get knocked down a few pegs on the totem pole and have to start from scratch. I wouldn't actually know though, as I've not screwed up that badly yet.

That right there is one tremendous difference in how the game is played out. While HE focused on detectivework and managing your resources carefully to try to find the optimal solution to each level, Uplink revolves around fast movements to get the job done. You get in, you screw around with stuff, you erase your tracks, and you get out. If you know what you're doing, a mission could be as short as two or three minutes, compared to HE's half-hour time commitment. This speedy in-and-out sequence creates an atmosphere that is, quite frankly, absolutely terrifying. You know you've got to do so much in so little time, and not being fully prepared (or even knowing if you're fully prepared) makes every new mission really exciting.

Note that I said "every new mission" though. One definite downside to this game (at least, in the three hours or so that I've played of it so far) is that especially in the early stages, you'll find yourself grinding a lot. To raise enough funds to get better equipment and to increase your rating level in the Uplink community, you'll find yourself repeating a lot of similar missions over and over again. Granted, they're quick, and they really reinforce the concepts you're learning, but you start to get a bit tired of these quickly.

As I'm writing this, I'm realizing that I should have written this entire post backward. Did I mention Uplink is much easier to get a hold of than HE? You'll recall that when I wrote about HE, I noted that it tended to throw all the concepts for the entire game upfront in a tutorial level, which isn't easily revisited later on. Uplink avoids that problem with these short, simple missions that let you get familiar with your tiny toolbox. New concepts are slowly worked into the game through very subtle trial-and-error. For example, one mission I just started requires you to alter some information in a database, which I've done before. However, entering into the level, you have no idea that the information is guarded by a proxy (whatever that is). You're able to escape without any consequence, then get a proxy-bypassing tool and try again. It's not exactly "teaching" you the concepts, but you "learn" them through roundabout methods.

I can only think of one other major remark to make about Uplink, and it regards the game's interface. Almost all of the game is controlled by the mouse, except for when you need to edit text directly (file tampering, etc.). This is way more convenient than trying to remember HE's cavalcade of DOS commands, but still a bit of a hassle in certain places. To input text into a box, you can't just click on it, you have to keep your mouse hovered over the box. Moving the mouse away "deselects" the box and you have to move the mouse back to regain focus. In an interface that's otherwise fairly workable (well, it's also a pain having eight different information sources pop into the same spot, meaning you can't have two open at once), it seems weird that such an annoying problem would be considered passable.

If you're looking for a final verdict between HE and Uplink, I can only say that my decision is split, but I'd lean more toward Uplink. Uplink is a way more easily-digestible game than HE, giving you smaller tasks to accomplish (which you can leave in the middle of, by the way). On the other hand, it moves a bit too quickly to be really involved in the game beyond quick commands, so it's missing a certain puzzle element HE has, but that quickfire presentation gives you a more thrilling experience. I'd say it's worth a go, if it goes up on sale again (we'll see what sales the upcoming summer holidays will bring).

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Very SPOILERS! Oh. Review of Portal 2

Right, so a year of anticipation has finally paid off, and I've played through Portal 2 TWICE already. (Once straight through, once for developer commentary and achievement nabbing). I've been wanting to spout off my opinions on things since then, but I've also wanted to avoid posting spoilers for those who don't want them. As such, I've written up a separate page that can (or at least, should) only be accessed through the link at the end of this post. Be aware that the link contains SPOILERS for the gameplay and story of Portal 2. Also be aware that since there's no way to activate comments on the link, any comments posted below might contain spoilers as well.

If you want to avoid spoilers but are still interested in my thoughts, I'll say this much: Portal 2 is quite good and definitely worth playing. I've not yet touched the co-op mode yet, but I trust it's just as fantastic as the rest of the game. I come away from this game again wanting more. Valve certainly didn't drop the ball here.

Right then, ready for some spoilers?
Click here.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

This Post Makes No Sense, But Will Shortz Has a Cameo

Alternative title: "Hare Today, Blogged Tomorrow"

I don't know if I've ever mentioned it on here before, but I've always been amazed and frightened by the fact that there exists an an entire industry based on the premise of the consumer paying to be bombarded with problems and asked to solve them. Normally, you'd pay a therapist to help you get rid of your problems, but here you're paying to take on challenges that often times will get you nothing more than a chirpy sound effect or a piece of paper with a bunch of numbers on it. I'll be totally honest with you; logic puzzles are my cocaine. I've come to equate grid-based usually-Japanese logic puzzles with pleasure and stress relief.

This is a bit ironic when you consider the financial strain I put myself in when I'm on a logic puzzle bender. Recently, the fine folks (read: sadistic jerks) at Conceptis Puzzles released Nurikabe, a logic puzzle where you have to create a continuous chain of black squares that divide the white squares into "islands" that have the given area. I've been a member of Conceptis for probably two-and-a-half years now, and since they introduced their pay-to-play system, I've been pretty good at limiting how much I indulge in their puzzles. As soon as I played through all the sample Nurikabe puzzles when they first came out, I immediately bought another load of credits and started spending them like mad on Nurikabe puzzles. It's now about a month later, and I've already gone through half of the credits I bought due to this addiction, which is sad considering I usually make a credits package last 6-9 months.

But I couldn't stop there. Since it's a Japanese logic puzzle, and one created by Nikoli, a major logic puzzle manufacturer, SURELY there must exist a book of these puzzles somewhere out there. After doing a search on Amazon, I found that there were some Nurikabe books, but most were either not-in-stock, too expensive, or couldn't ship to my dorm before I graduate (holy crap, I'm graduating). I settled on a Will Shortz book of a small variety of puzzles (I say small because there are only 100 puzzles spanning five types, I think), though I've realized in retrospect that they'll probably be very low-difficulty puzzles, since the book is meant to be an introduction to new puzzle types.

Not satisfied with this, I ended up going to the Lycoming Mall yesterday to check out their Borders for more puzzle books (and elsewhere for pants). When I got there, I was heavily disappointed in their Games and Puzzles section. Of what I saw on those shelves, maybe 55% were sudoku, 40% were crossword puzzles, and the rest other random puzzle types. And of all that, maybe 70% of those books were Will Shortz books. Don't get me wrong, Will Shortz is a swell guy, and I love his Weekend Edition puzzles and I keep a New York Times Crossword calendar next to my bed, but the utter lack of variety that they had there absolutely disappointed me. There were no Nikoli books, which is a tremendous shame considering they're one of the major developers and distributors of new puzzle types that seem to pick up everywhere. So I left the Borders, angry and empty-handed.

In the center of the mall, though, I couldn't help but watch a rather bizarre spectacle taking place. You know how malls usually have Santa Clauses (Clausii?) on hand around Christmastime to have kids sit on their laps and have their picture taken? Here, there was one with the Easter Bunny. There was a small line with kids and their parents leading to a guy in a bunny costume (think "Harvey"), and one by one the kids would sit on the bunny's lap, talk for a short bit, and have their picture taken by the photographer on hand.

I started to wonder, what would you talk about as you were sitting on the Easter Bunny's lap? I don't think you'd ask for presents, like you would with a Santa. Maybe you'd ask for a certain kind of candy, or specify something like, "No coconut, please." I'd imagine a lot of kids would ask for hints to where he's planning on hiding eggs this year. And I'd imagine that any well-trained mall Bunny would respond with a vague non-answer such as "I can't tell you, that'd spoil the fun!" And then the photographer would take your picture, and you'd send it out to all your relatives in the annual Easter card, along with a list of boring details about what the fam has been up to.

Not that I would expect anything different from a mall Bunny, but I'm surprised to admit that this Easter Bunny looked exactly as I've always pictured the Easter Bunny. As in, I've always imagined the Easter Bunny to be a guy dressed in a bunny suit, not an oddly anthropomorphic cartoon bunny. I think this belief stemmed from a dream I had when I was maybe seven or eight years old when the Easter Bunny asked me to help him hide eggs. He did not speak, he just mimed everything. That image of the Easter Bunny has stuck with me ever since then.

I've not confessed that to many people, as it seems like this is a very unorthodox view of the Easter Bunny. I don't understand why though. Think about it: Unlike the concept of Santa Claus, which tends to have very specific characteristics tied to him (fat and jolly, red suit and hat, white beard), there are no defining characteristics to the Easter Bunny. Probably every interpretation of the Easter Bunny you've seen has been in some cartoon form, and even then there's no definite template for him (except maybe that he has white fur). If I am to be raised to believe that a rabbit comes to my house every year to hide eggs in the lawn, then I'd be more comfortable imagining a guy in a rabbit costume doing it, rather than a small woodland creature dragging a basket everywhere. So there.

Then I went to Auntie Anne's for some pretzel sticks and left.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Because the Internet Needs More Men Eating Ramen in Their Boxers

Just a quick post to let you know of a new feature I've enabled for this site. Since I got a webcam a month or two ago, I've been having a lot of fun with terrible homemade YouTube videos for friends and Skype chats. But then I got to wondering, what other fun things can I do with my webcam?

The result, in case you missed it, is now on the toolbar on the right. I've added a live webcam to my site! The camera is set up just to the left of my computer monitor, facing my chair so you can always see when I'm at the computer by checking the webcam. Now you can see in an instant if I'll be right there to answer a message from you. Hopefully we can start a trend of people opening up their availability on the Internet. After all, how popular are things like FourSquare and other mobile apps that do much the same thing? Check back later to see if I'm around and maybe we'll chat!

[Edit: On the incredibly off chance that you didn't figure it out, this was an April Fool's joke.]

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Assassin's Dilemma

WARNING: This review contains spoilers for a game that came out three and a half years ago. If you're still concerned about reading something you don't want to find out yet, please heed my warning mid-review to stop reading. Or just don't read this at all. That's what most people do anyway.


Well, I finished playing Assassin's Creed tonight. I promised myself I would write about my experiences with the game one way or another, as it's sort of a huge milestone in terms of gaming for me. AC was my first full modern console game that I've ever played through, albeit on Steam. Yeah, sad, inn'it? However, I had been tempted to write about my experiences with the game at several stages in the game, and I wish I did, because my mood would have very noticeably changed throughout the game, as you might see here, if I write this properly.

First off, I have to start off this review by thanking Derek, who gifted this game to me way back when, following my annual Christmas gift suggestion post. After downloading the game, I rather comedically couldn't play it for a couple of weeks. After consulting Steam Support (have I mentioned how fantastic they are?), it turned out that I just needed to update my video card drivers. After that, I was quickly into the game.

At this point, I should pause and explain a bit of the backstory behind this game for those not familiar with Assassin's Creed. The game takes place switching between two worlds, one moderny/futuristic, one virtual and ancient. In the former world, you're Desmond, a young twenty-something guy who's been taken in by the Abstergo Corporation. They want to tap into Desmond's genetic memory by using the Animus to discover the location of an ancient hidden artifact. You spend most of the game inside the Animus, playing as Altair, one of Desmond's ancestors, And you run around doing assassin-y stuff. (This is the spot where I can't remember the specifics of the plot and start broadly generalizing.)

As I mentioned back in December, I had played a couple hours of Assassin's Creed 2 at a friend's house, so I was roughly familiar with the general premise of the game. That might have been a bit of a handicap at the start, as the "notoriety" system used in AC2 is different from the "visibility" system used here. As a result, I found myself walking around at a slow crawl around people I didn't need to be avoiding until I realized the difference between the two systems. Oh, how silly I once was.

Once I got past the tutorial-esque stages, I found myself with a bit of a dilemma. In order to progress with the game, you have to do "investigations" to find out enough information on your assassination target. Along the way, there are other tasks that can help you along the way, such as climbing viewpoints (where you get a little bit of architectural eye candy) and saving citizens from bullying guards. These I did with great liberty, but I avoided doing any extra investigations beyond the required two or three. Apparently, there existed (or perhaps, still exists) a bug where if you complete all of the investigations for an area, you won't be able to find new investigations when you return to that city in the future. So, I skimped on that aspect of the game, with the intention of returning to those bits of the game later to complete everything. Yes, I was enjoying the side mission-y things tremendously.

I can't say I was ever a fan of the fighting, which is a shame, because combat is surprisingly easy for how complex it is. With every level up, you gain a new method for combat, and even get a bit of practice time to reinforce the concept. Sadly, I found myself sticking to a primitive "mash the attack button" method, occasionally pressing the right shoulder button to defend. Still, this only came up when saving citizens and during final assassinations, so there wasn't much to really gripe about. For a while.

Please note: At this point in time, I'm going to start getting into spoilers about the ending of the game. If by some chance Assassin's Creed hasn't already been spoiled for you yet, you might want to stop reading now, although suffice it to say I wasn't pleased with the ending. Ironically, this is a spoiler for anyone who plans on reading the rest of my review! We all win today.

As I progressed through the missions in the game, I started to wonder why I kept hearing about how bad of a game Assassin's Creed is, even when not comparing it to Assassin's Creed 2. I loved all of the wandering tasks in each town, and the plotline seemed coherent enough as I was playing through. This changed when I hit the "final" mission, which I knew would inevitably not be the real final mission. Because hey, it's a video game. (Sorry, is that overgeneralizing?)

After the "final" mission, there was another mission, which turned out to be the downfall of the game for me. The final mission involved moving through a passage with a bunch of attackers in succession. At the end of the corridor, you again face another relentless battle against many attackers (but with better armor, so they're harder). This is where my entire opinion of the game started to change. You face about twelve or fourteen attackers, eight at a time (the extras politely wait along the side for their chance to attack you). Once you take them down, the "final bad guy" steps out from the shadows and you face him with whatever semblance of a health bar you have left. Do that, and you've completed your mission. Sort of. As it turns out, that wasn't the final battle! Still! Golly.

But why the rub? This final fight sequence took about ten attempts for me to beat. It was in this time that I started to realize that this game rather sucked in several ways.
  • It sucks technically: The game blocks off areas you shouldn't be in by putting a black cloudy curtain in your way if you get close enough. If you try to go through it, sometimes it will just stop you, sometimes it returns you to the last save point. In the final battle, it just stops you, but your attackers are free to move into these forbidden areas, and even attack you from there.

  • It sucks logically. I kept thinking about the dialogue right before this battle. King Richard (I think?) says that he can't decide whether to believe your character or your assassin target, so he leaves it to combat, saying God would side with the better man. Funny that bit of dialogue, how come I had to face a baker's dozen-odd minions before I could even touch the guy the original dispute was with? Somehow this realization set up a chain reaction of disappointments looking at the behaviors of so many characters in the game up to this point.

  • It sucks action-ally. I already confessed to my button-mashing habits, but this sequence made me realize that any action sequence is just that. You beat ridiculously homogenous baddies over and over again until they're gone. I will very generously give points to any sort of parkuor-ish chase sequences, but that's about the height of exciting action in this game.

In perhaps a somewhat predictable turn, your mentor who had been sending you out on all of these missions turns out to be the real baddie and you fight him (over the course of, surprise, three more homogenous fight sequences), and the game's pretty much over right there. There's a bit of an interactive cinematic that takes place back at Abstergo, which I rather enjoyed, because I got to flex my cryptography muscles a tiny bit. But then when you go to check out one more bit of mysterious "writing on the wall" back in your bedroom, Desmond utters a bit to himself, ending with, "I wonder what it could mean?"

Cut immediately to credits.

It goes without saying at this point that there's a sequel or two that pick up from here, and I consider myself fortunate enough to have seen the start of the second game and know this. However, I could only imagine that when this game was still relatively new, this would have been a tremendous middle finger to the players. It's one thing to make someone want to buy the second game, and a whole 'nother thing to just make them buy the second game. I think this game falls in the latter category.


That all said and done... I'm still interested in Assassin's Creed 2, and perhaps Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood if ever I could get the time. I hear they're tremendous improvements over the original game, and I already enjoyed what little I saw in those two hours I already played. As for Assassin's Creed: Original Recipe, I think I can finally agree with the naysayers that it's not a great game. I enjoyed bits and pieces, but ultimately it's one that I found frustrating. My dilemma, if you would, is that I might work to try to finish off the bits I skipped earlier, but I'll do it with great resentment now that I've seen the downsides of this game. On a lighter note, we're less than a month away from another game debut NO YOU SAID YOU WOULDN'T TALK ABOUT PORTAL 2 ANYMORE UNTIL THE PREMIERE SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP

Saturday, March 5, 2011

At the Moment - Comic Relief's 24 Hour Panel People

In an effort to make my blog seem more topical than it actually is, I've invented a new category for things going on right now (or in the immediate future or past). I'm currently watching Comic Relief's 24 Hour Panel People. In a nutshell, Comic Relief is a charitable organization that hosts telethons for raising money for charities in the UK. Unlike US telethons where entertainers come to a studio to encourage viewers to call in their support, entire shows will devote their plotlines to the event which air in a giant marathon.

In a bit of a change-up from the normal format, 24-Hour Panel People is a day-long event in which a series of panel shows are being taped consecutively, with one bloke (David Walliams) appearing in all of them. The shows are being taped today, and will be edited down and shown on TV at a later date.

What makes the event today very interesting is that if you watch the live feed, you can see all of the shows being produced live, including all of the slipped lines and production bloopers. It's quite fascinating to see how these shows start out before they're cut down to the tidy packages that finally air.

Click here for a complete schedule of shows. The times are approximate (they seem to be twenty minutes behind at the moment), since they're working off of a crazy live schedule with one person serving as the constant thread between them all. My personal picks to watch out for (times listed are EST):
  • 1:50pm - Blankety Blank - The UK version of Match Game, with possibly the most annoying theme song ever written.

  • 3:10pm - Mock the Week - News quiz with some great improv comedy bits thrown in.

  • 7:20pm - QI - Probably the highlight of my night. Hilariously impossible quiz that was the basis of one of my earliest blog posts. But wait... no Alan Davies?

  • 4:25am (tomorrow morning) - Whose Line Is It Anyway? - Yes, that Whose Line. This may well be worth it just to see what sort of humor Walliams is capable of on little sleep.

On the whole, I'm excited to see the behind-the-scenes aspect of all these shows, so I'll be watching this for a good portion of today. And of course, if you can donate, please do.

(Edit: Times updated, as it turns out I'm crap at figuring out times across the pond.)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Nanoblogging Is Your Microblogging - Episode 2

5. I Was Going to Write a Review on the New "You Don't Know Jack" Game But Then I Was Asked to Do a Review for JIG So I'll Just Link to It...

6. More Jack, No Coke
On a related note, I managed to win a copy of the You Don't Know Jack electronic tabletop game in an eBay auction. I thought it'd be all sorts of fun to write up a review of that, to pair with the above new release. You know, comparing the new 2011 computer game with the fantastic game technology of 1998. But then I realized, why do I need to wait to review it? I already played this thing way back when at my piano teacher's house. In a nutshell, it's that same Jack humor (just, you know, from 13 years ago), but in a stack of colorful question cards. Two to four players play (no solo mode, I don't believe), and the screw option is still in play. After you enter in the five-digit question code (so the computer knows which answer is correct), read the question, open the trapdoor to reveal the answers, and buzz away. It's a ten-question game. Aaand review done. But hey, another toy for random get-togethers.

7. Everything You Loved About Chemistry Class with Half the Calories
If you haven't played it yet, you really need to give Zachtronics' SpaceChem a go. Like most of Zachtronics' other releases, SpaceChem is a "game for engineers", meaning most of the puzzles revolve around developing a system to complete a task that works on its own after you set it into motion. In this case, most of the action is bonding (or unbonding or rebonding) chemical compounds by laying down pathways and commands for your little transporter doohickeys to follow (I'd call them by their proper name, "waldos", but that'd make less sense). To be honest, the entire system is crazy hard to understand, but some good effort is put into a tutorial and levels with gradually increasing difficulty, two things notably missing from most Zachtronics titles. But when you experience that moment when all the weird symbols and flashing colors make sense in one earth-shaking moment, you'll be hooked. Then you'll come to another dead end and struggle for a while. It's a fairly simple cycle. Anyway, I tell you all this (1) because it's a good game, (2) because JIG is giving away a few copies. You just need to solve a few puzzles. I helped make them. Yay! Contest ends March 5.

8. Finally, A Few Quick Words on Portal 2
The preorder's up. And I swear, in the last bit I'll blab about Portal until the game comes out, I'd like to repost a photo of something I found to be quite useful lately:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Easy Money" - Or, A Game of "Spot the Continuity Errors"

Last semester I took TV Production 2, a class whose final project is to come up with a short film presentation. This is what I came up with. There's not much more to say aside from the following:
  • Yes, the audio is crap in a lot of places, and is pretty much absent in one scene. I tried to fix it in the editing software, but it was beyond salvaging. Sorry.
  • Yes, the dialogue is crap. Half of that is my inability to write comfortable dialogue that doesn't sound like two surfers on heavy tranquilizers, half of that comes from the editing which makes people repeat lines in awkward places. Sorry.
  • Yes, the whole thing was done on a shoestring budget. I offer no apologies.
Enjoy! Or not, if that's what you prefer.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Video Games, Eye Strains, and BRAAAAAAAAINS

You'll have to forgive me, I don't write about politically-based issues much, so I have no idea how coherently the point I'm going to make will come across. For that matter, I'm not entirely sure I have a solid point to make, but I would at least draw attention to an interesting parallel I noticed yesterday. (Oh yeah, Happy New Year and all that.)

I was listening to NPR's All Things Considered yesterday and happened to tune in to an interesting piece about Nintendo's 3DS, yet another new-fangled toy I will likely never own. (I'm actually not bitter about this, for the record.) The article (read and hear it here) talked about the potential health concerns that could come from the 3-D effects generated by the system, and in particular how it could cause vision problems for younger children.

The story itself is pretty straight-forward. 3-D causes the eyes to focus in a different way, prolonged use could cause eye strain, et cetera. I'm not terribly psyched about everything with an extra D, because I know my eyes get incredibly tired quickly. (I have a hard time being in a room with an air conditioner running a bit too high. How's that for sad?) What really caught my eye was how both the audible and written story ended. Loosely quoted: Game manufacturers, for lack of solid evidence for or against the possibility of eye strain in younger viewers, have decided to recommend that children play with the 3-D mode off. However, enforcing that recommendation falls to parents.

Sound a bit familiar? The parallel that I immediately thought of was the debate over violence and sexual content in video games. Game manufacturers mark the packaging with a recommended age bracket for games. However, enforcing that recommendation falls to parents. Or at least, that's my view. I know that there are people out there who feel that such dirty games shouldn't be in existence, but I would have to side with the folks that stifling these games is violating First Amendment rights. I'm not saying that I endorse violence and sexual content in video games, and I'm not saying that there aren't developers that go overboard with what they do, but the ability to create a game and share it shouldn't be eliminated.

If I understand it correctly, there's currently a case in (or on its way to) the Supreme Court regarding video game regulations, based on a California-based bill that would place restrictions on content in video games. I'm not sure such a bill is necessary, or even a good idea. According to the Video Game Voters Network (disclaimer, the content is obviously heavily slanted toward an anti-regulatory stance), the video game rating system set in place by the Entertainment Softward Rating Board (familiarly the ESRB) is already used by parents when making decision on what games to buy (80% of parents say they are aware of the system, 70% say they use it). For that matter, retailers say they have denied 80% of all M-rated game sales thanks to the ESRB rating system.

Ultimately though, I want to bring this discussion back around to the parallel between violent video games and eye-straining video games. There is perhaps more evidence (although again, nothing final yet) that a 3-D video game will cause damage to a six-year-old's eyes than a violent video game will cause them to live a violent life. Yet oddly enough, despite the tremendous similarities in the implied consequences, I don't see many people debating about 3-D games and the horrific impact it will have on our society. In a sick and twisted way, I want to see SCOTUS debate whether 3-D games should be allowed on the market.

I honestly don't know where else to take this discussion without simply repeating what I've already said above. (Like I said, there's a reason I don't write much about politics.) I just found the parallel between these two issues somewhat interesting, if not ironic, and I thought I'd share my thoughts with you, my humble blog's eight readers. Please, fire your thoughts back at me. Am I completely off in my reasoning or is there some credibility floating around in there? Was linking the eye strain to the violent video games too much of a stretch? What's your take on the violent video games debate? Let me know what you think.