Thursday, January 28, 2016

Games with Crazy Titles

"Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress"

"Leisure Suit Larry 3: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals"

"Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness"

"Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People"
"Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - First Assault Online"

Sunday, January 24, 2016


It's no secret that the fictional desert planet of Kharak is heavily inspired by the classic novel "Dune" by Frank Herbert.  Homeworld is hardly the first to do this when it comes to science fiction media, but in the realm of video games there are surprisingly few examples.  Kerona from Space Quest is really all that stands out in my mind.
Regardless of what your definitive desert world is though, Kharak does manage to distinguish itself in a few interesting ways.  For one thing the temperature at the equator reaches the boiling point during the daytime.  Hence, the reason why people tend to stick to the air conditioned safety of enclosed dune buggies and their larger brethren, referred to as "baserunners" in the game.  Additionally, Kharak is home to a number of wrecked spacecraft.  Normally it's difficult (if not downright impossible) to find them in the vastness of the deep desert.  However, satellites recently deployed in orbit have made it possible to pinpoint the location of these ancient treasure troves of technology and resources.

The notion of scarcity is integral to the setting, and while I can't speak definitively on the topic - I find myself wondering how an industrialized civilization would develop without the presence of fossil fuels (coal and oil) or certain heavy metals (plutonium and uranium).  To ask a more specific question, where do they get their electricity?  Kharak obviously doesn't have any waterways so hydro power is out.  The lack of volcanic activity also makes geothermal energy impractical.  That leaves them with wind and solar, both of which suffer from intermittent productivity and lower energy yields.  The only other option that could possibly exist within the realm of scientific possibility is fusion, which I think is safe to say the source of power for all the spacecraft featured in the Homeworld series.  There's also some visual evidence to support my hypothesis, namely when vehicles explode they vanish into clouds of ionized vapor rather than balls of orange flame.  It would seem that at least some craft run on batteries or perhaps hydrogen fuel cells.  Only the largest unit in the game (the land carrier) seems to emit engine exhaust.  Maybe it runs on ethanol or a similar bio-organic fuel source.

Organic material doesn't seem to be readily available in substantial quantities though.  No flora or fauna appear anywhere in the game, and only a few species are mentioned by name in the lore.  Supposedly most life, outside the polar regions, dwells well below the surface in order to escape the heat of the sun.  Harsher still, a global wide conflict has destabilized the fragile ecosystem; the land is becoming ever more barren and massive dust storms ravage the globe.  It all sounds interesting from a setting standpoint, but ultimately Deserts of Kharak is an RTS.  How much fun it is to play depends largely on what Black Bird Interactive does to make it standout compared to other recent entries in the genre (such as Grey Goo or Planetary Annihilation).  Having a highly mobile base of operations is cool, although the three dimensional battlefields of the previous games are obviously gone.

Speaking as someone who used to ride dirt bikes and three-wheelers, the track marks and dust trails feel far too subdued.  Realistically speaking each vehicle should cut a line (and every convoy a ribbon) across the terrain.  Another immersion breaker for me is the glowing light cones used by units engaged in salvage or repair operations.  Considering that Homeworld 2 had proper docking animations for these kinds of things, makes me feel like the franchise is taking a slight step backward from a graphics perspective.  Oh well...maybe the modding community can address some of these issues.  A total conversion to Arrakis or a Mad Max setting would be pretty neat too...    

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Grand Old LPs

When it comes to video uploads a lot of people play a lot of video games.  One could, hypothetically speaking, spend every hour of every day watching gameplay footage on websites like Twitch and Youtube, but barely scratch the surface of what's made available for viewing on a daily basis.  So, assuming you have an interest in LPs, how does one separate the wheat from the chaff?  Thumbs up rankings and view counts can help, but the fact of the matter is LPers have good runs and bad ones.  It's unavoidable, they are just people behind those mics.  Family troubles, illness, and deadliest of all - burnout, can negatively influence the quality of an LPer's videos.  Therefore, I've been growing more and more wary of recommendations when it comes to a particular individual or even specific channels.  Instead, I think it's a much better approach to go by series.  As sad as it makes me to say this, cream doesn't always rise to the top.  So to help spotlight some memorable stuff I've seen over the years here's a short list of five recommendations:

Nanosuit Ninja hasn't been very active on Youtube for awhile now, but he does have a tour-de-force series of the original Crysis.  Played from beginning to end on iron-man mode with the difficulty and graphics cranked up to the max, it's a beautiful thing to behold.  Elegant suit management, ammunition conservation, and combat skill are just some of the highlights of this LP.

Manga Minx is one of those uncommon female LPers.  The fact that she's generally pretty good makes her a rare gem indeed.  Her most popular LP is probably Amnesia: The Dark Decent, and while screaming into a mic is a bit overplayed as of late, I recommend giving the series a look-see all the same.  It's horror, which is what she does best, and unlike most shriek inducing Youtube fodder Amnesia: The Dark Decent is interesting in it's own right.  The commentary is just icing on the cake.

Giantbomb is mostly known for Quick Looks and the Bombcast, but not so many years ago they were also known for doing a thing called "Endurance Runs."  Basically, begin-to-end playthroughs of games wherein the best of the bunch is the JRPG classic Crono Trigger by the late, great Ryan Davis.  Simply put an awesome game played by an awesome person.

Marshall Dyer is definitely small time by Youtube standards, and while most of his stuff isn't especially remarkable, his Teleglitch run is a real diamond in the rough.  It serves as a quintessential example of someone who struggles, learns, and eventually overcomes what is a very unforgiving rogue-like.  The last boss battle is also a real nail-bitter that demonstrates the power of perseverance (not to mention a hefty chunk of luck).

Last up is the Accursed Farms series "Freeman's Mind."  Less of a proper LP and more of an extended joke, it took six years to complete and almost got cancelled at one point because the ownership rights got tangled up with Machinima Studios.  Production hardships aside, it's the definitive Half-Life LP in my opinion.  The post credits stinger is also one for the history books.

Anyway, those are just a few LPs that I think are worthy of remembrance.  Feel free to share any you might have in the comments section of this blog post.  I'm sure there's a lot of quality work out there that I've never seen or heard of solely because it's all far too much to be discovered by one person alone.  If we share though, then perhaps the best can seen by everyone who enjoys a good LP series.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Back to the Well

The outpour of video game remakes continues unabated.  For the most part these re-releases of older games feature minor improvements to graphics and (unfortunately only sometimes) the frame rate.  While that's all fine and dandy, the big opportunity with remakes is a chance to polish up some of those weaker gameplay elements and tweaks to niggling details in such a way that they improve the overall experience.  Regrettably, remake developers sometimes take things in a different direction let's look at a few examples shall we?

Homeworld Remastered Collection is missing the middle entry in the series due to the original source code ending up lost to the mists of time.  It sucks, but I get that there's nothing that can be done about it.  What is less forgivable though is the lack of proper formations and tactics that were in the original game, but not the remake.  An even worse underling problem is how ballistics are calculated.  You the original Homeworld the trajectory of each shot fired was tracked individually.  The way small and nimble strikecraft evaded was to quickly change course or juke.  Doing so though would sometimes prevent them from shooting back depending on their orientation, hence the importance of formations and tactics.  This also led to some interesting gameplay.  For example, a large number of bulky assault frigates (while ill suited to combating strikecraft individually) could assemble into a wall formation and proceed to shred oncoming enemy fighters and corvettes by producing massive amounts of flak.  Put enough projectiles flying through a compact enough enemy occupied area and something is bound to get hit eventually, even if it wasn't the originally intended target.  This doesn't work in the remake though because calculations are handled purely via RNG; "hits" always hit, "misses" always miss.  Supposedly, Gear Box is working on a solution, but let's face it, Randy Pitchford isn't the most trustworthy guy in the industry.

It's not all doom and gloom though.  Banner Saga had issues with its caravan system and story pacing which the developers claim will be cleaned up retroactively with the release of the sequels.  Essentially, Stoic Studios plans to integrate gameplay improvements made to Banner Saga 2 and 3 back into the original and eventually combine the intended three part narrative into a single saga.  It sounds great since I kind of want to go back to the first entry in the series again.  However, I'm going to withhold enthusiasm until we get to see what said improvements actually are.  It's possible that the changes may not add to what made the game fun to begin with.  To paraphrase what Jeff Gerstmann (of Giant Bomb fame) said with regards to the Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, the original Xbox360 version of Gears of War has dated poorly, in large part due to it's massive influence on the industry, especially when it comes to cover-based shooting.  Had they tried to bring the gameplay up to current standards though it would have no longer been anything like the original Gears of War.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Man in the Irony Mask

If Demon's Souls or Dark Souls were novels the closest fit would probably be The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Why?  Well...they are not part of the same franchise, but they are similar in terms of thematic elements: a cursed mark, memory-robbing mists, a bone-filled tomb, chivalrous knights, a powerful warrior from a distant land; plus demonic dogs, ogres and a dragon.  One way to look at Miyazaki Hidetaka's games and The Buried Giant is in the allegoric form of two different remix tapes of medieval fables.  The fundemental distinction being the games chooses to emphasize action while the book is focused on characters.  In the case of The Buried Giant,  it's a tradition stemming from lic-fic (literary fiction), which is in turn the style taught in creative writing classes at most universities.  The thing that makes The Buried Giant special is the author's conscious decision to dip his carefully crafted prose into the realm of genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance, etc.), a type of storytelling that tends to sideline character development in lieu of plot and ideas.  As I'm sure many people reading this blog post are well aware, a divide exists between lit-fic and genre fiction in that fans of one tend to look down on fans of the other.  Generally speaking, genre fiction readers often see lit-fic as boring and pretentious, while lit-fic enthusiasts view genre fiction as kind of ghetto devoid of artistic merit.  The sad truth is this kind of snobbery also exists when it comes to video games, and more specifically the people who play them.

It's telling to browse through reviews of Dear Esther on Metacritic and see comments like "The prose is florid and purple, and thinks it's a lot more meaningful than it actually is," which could have just as easily been a criticism of a lit-fic novel.  Another quote about the same video game, "This is THE first indie game I actually loved, in fact maybe the first game, in general, I have loved!" sounds like something a lit-fic advocate would say.  Perhaps this quote from a  review of Gone Home is the most revealing, "It's true that it's not a story you often see depicted in video games, but it's been done to in Hollywood and literature for decades."  It's no secret that walking simulators are purposefully designed to favor mood and characters over gameplay.  Much like Kazuo Ishiguro's novel though there are attempts in the video game industry to meet the critics on both extremes halfway.  Take the Vanishing of Ethan Carter for example.  It's still a character focused walking simulator, but it does include some light puzzle solving.  More importantly to the point I'm trying to make here, it includes some supernatural elements (albeit in the guise of an unreliable narrator).  Then there's Soma which tosses in a truckload of sci-fi concepts along with the largest amount of gameplay for a walking simulator to date.  While I'm not much of an RPG fan To The Moon received considerable acclaim for it's emotional storytelling.  Perhaps the most unusual occupier of this new middle ground though is Undertale.  Using traditional elements from RPGs and bullet-hell shooters, it both breaks with convention and embraces it.  Because it's trying to appeal to conservatives and progressives alike, it could have been rejected by everyone for not pandering to their exclusive interests.  Instead, it has turned into a bridge which will hopefully inspire other developers to think outside this highly segregated box we've made for ourselves.  After all who doesn't want an engaging story with interesting characters and innovative gameplay all in one title?  I certainly like it when novels have intriguing plots and ideas to go with their three dimensional characters and evocative language.

So, while a rift definitely still exists it's nice to see trend-breakers like The Road, Cloud Atlas, and The Time Traveler's Wife making waves in the literary scene while in the video game industry folks are flipping their lids over Undertale winning the title of "Best Game Ever" on Gamefaqs.  Granted these kind of voting contests are silly, but the concerted effort made to stick it to the arrogant snobs of the industry fills me with mirth nonetheless.