...or as the French say, "je ne sais quoi." Why French? No other reason than the speed-run record holder for the game Kingdom (before it was updated to Kingdom: Classic) is a Frenchman. Quite suitable considering this 2D strategy game has a very northern European look and feel to it. Although aesthetically it reminds me of the old SNES game King Arthur's World, the simple pixel art has a lot of depth, both in terms of style and UI. There's all sorts of nice scenery whether it be the reflection of torchlight on the water or rays of sunlight through the trees. I especially like the little touches such as the way coins fall into the players purse, or how the forest vagrants hold out their hand begging for gold. Gameplay-wise, Kingdom is also an interesting take on the Tower-Defense/RTS genre in that you as the ruler do not directly engage in...well...anything. Instead the player primarily collects and redistributes money to develop his or her lands as they see fit. It's even possible to pay-off an attacking force by dumping coins on the ground in front of them. Don't let them take your crown though because that's how you lose the game.
At first glance Zombie Night Terror might seem like yet another zombie-themed video game, but it actually has more in common with that old puzzle game series Lemmings. The most noteworthy difference here being you wrangle a horde of undead rather than a bunch of mindless rodents. Visually, Zombie Night Terror draws a lot of inspiration from classics of the horror film-genre. "Night of the Living Dead" being the obvious example since, like the movie, the game is in black and white. That might sound like a strange choice given that it's done entirely in a pixelated art style, but things like blood, power-ups and electrified metal are highlighted red, green and blue respectively. There's also a few well placed homages such as "Return of the Living Dead," "Re-animator" and even "Army of Darkness." What really stands out to me though is the quality of the animation. It's cartoony and exaggerated, but it gives the characters life - and not just the undead ones!
Underwater games are in vogue at the moment with titles ranging from SOMA to Abzu and even large sections of Inside. One you might not have heard of though is a little indie gem on Steam called Reveal the Deep. It's a fairly simple platformer that involves exploring the sunken wreckage of a cargo ship in an old fashion diving suit. Their is a story, mostly delivered via mysterious notes scattered throughout each level, but it's nothing special unless you are really starving for more plots along the lines of Amnesia: The Dark Decent. Like the other two titles mentioned previously, this game utilizes pixel art. Unlike both of the above though Reveal the Deep has a very minimalistic presentation. In a way it lends itself to the uncomfortable feeling of being in the stark crushing blackness of the abyss. There are also some traversal puzzles that depend on using the diving helmet lamp to alter the interior layout of the ship's hold which, in turn, plays with transitions to cold blues and warm oranges in eerie ways. Overall it's not all that impressive look at, but the price tag is practically free so I certainly feel like I got my money's worth from this particular journey beneath the waves.
I’m a big fan of the board game Axis and Allies. Despite having fairly simple rules (by
war gaming standards), it does an excellent job of capturing the essence of that
historical conflict. In particular, I
really enjoy the tactile experience of moving small plastic figurines around
the board rather than the more traditional cardboard chits that most war games
use. Surprisingly, I never took much
interest in the Hearts of Iron franchise despite it being thematically closely
related. However, I heard that the
latest iteration of the series is the most approachable yet, so I’ve finally
decided to try out Hearts of Iron 4.
Having played the game for awhile now, I can certainly say my overall
impressions are pretty mixed.
On the plus side, I really like the world map, research
system, national foci, battle planner and ability to play pretty much any
country. Construction is also
interesting in many ways, but it’s also a bit strange in that you can’t
stockpile resources, nor does it consume fuel when you let loose your machines of
war. In fact the entire logistics model
is a bit odd. It get that the game
designers (Paradox Studios) were trying to keep things simple since, let’s face
it, micro-managing supply lines isn’t much fun.
The problem is it can be weirdly easy to deploy military units all over
the planet, even in places that would demand a herculean effort to keep
supplied. Oddly enough Axis and Allies
addresses this issue by movement limitations.
Speaking purely in terms of troopship speeds, Imperial Japan probably
could have landed a couple divisions of men on the west coast of Africa in a
matter of months, but in the board game it takes a year or more of in-game time
to do so. This might sound ridiculous at
first, but when you look at it as an abstraction of the time needed to plan,
prepare and set up the necessary infrastructure to keep tens of thousands of
fighting men fed and properly outfitted on the opposite side of the globe then a year starts to sound pretty
optimistic. In fact Japan didn’t have
the merchant marine fleet or fuel oil resources need to maintain an occupational
force on the Hawaiian Islands, let alone the interior of Australia. I’m pretty sure they lacked the necessary
manpower to dominate the vast regions and populations of mainland China or
India too, but you can conquer all those places and more in Hearts of Iron 4.
Air combat also feels a bit wonky in that over a period of
several days against France (I was playing as Italy) my fighter craft lost 400
of their number in exchange for 1,600 enemy bombers shot down. I was happy with the ratio, but I have a hard
time believing that aircrews would blast each other out of the sky so vigorously. I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic,
but I think Paradox Interactive needs to dial back whatever numbers their using
with regards to air warfare. The UI for assigning
air wings and warships to areas and mission is also pretty clunky. Rather than having to manage each-and-every
ship or plane it would probably be a lot easier to group them into preset squadrons. After all, each battleship figurine in the
Axis and Allies board game doesn’t correspond to a single warship, but rather a
squadron of (by my estimates) 4 or more such vessels, possibly including
escorts and support craft.
The last big problem with Hearts of Iron 4, as I see it, is
the AI with regards to the division designer. This problem might be fixed by the time I get
around to posting this, as it stands right now most computer controlled
divisions consist of little more than a small number of infantry battalions
with little in the way of support companies or mechanized units.
“Paradox games are like fine wine,” is a quote I’ve heard
more than once, so I’m sure the problems I’ve mentioned here will get addressed
in due time. For now though I think I’ll
stick to Axis and Allies when I feel the urge to play as a World War 2 armchair
While not used much these days, a common catch phrase used by children of the 20th century was "Olly-Olly Oxenfree!" Basically it's a call for all kinds of kid's games including Hide-and-Seek, Kick-the-Can, and Capture-the-Flag. It makes sense that the indie adventure game Oxenfree uses part of this phrase for a title considering the kind of tasks the player has to perform over their short, but memorable trip to an overnight party on an abandoned island. Having played through the game four times though, I feel like the formula that Oxenfree uses could be applied to a variety of other setting as well. Teenagers confronting a supernatural horror that weaves the narrative into the personal lives of each character and their relationships to each other isn't exactly an original concept. However, it's done so well here that it kind of reminds me the novel "Ordinary People," by Judith Guest (except with a supernatural element). In this case it's ghosts, but what if it were a different kind of horror in a different place? The one possibility that stands out to me the most is Miskatonic U.
If you're not familiar with the school, it's a fictional ivy league university north of Boston in Essex count, Massachusetts. Created by horror novelist H.P. Lovecraft, it outwardly looks like a pretty typical college with all the usual academic departments including Medicine, Psychology, Biology, Zoology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, Engineering, Geology, Archaeology and History. However, there are a few major oddities as well. According to the short story "The Dunwich Horror," the only full intact English translation of the Necronomicon is kept in the school library, along with other occult books. Another short story, "Pickman's Model," suggests that ghouls (humans degenerated into monsters through the practice of eating dead people) live in tunnels somewhere beneath the campus grounds. Derivative works by authors other than H.P. Lovecraft have attempted to expand on the lore of Miskatonic University resulting in conflicting information. For example the school motto might be "Ex Ignorantia Ad Sapientiam" (From Ignorance into Wisdom), or maybe "Ex Luce Ad Tenebras" (A Small Sacrifice for Knowledge). The school mascot might be a badger or it might be an octopus. Personally, I prefer the latter simply because it allows the school sport stadium to be referred to as "The Home of the Fighting Cephalopods," complete with the team chant, "Go 'Pods!" Anyway...getting back to my idea.
Oxenfree is about a bunch of high school seniors, so it isn't much of a jump to bump it up a year to college freshmen. Instead of ghosts the supernatural horror can come in the form of the Cthulhu Mythos. What exactly that entails depends on the angel the story is going to take. The table-top RPG company Chaosium published a scenario involving a Miskatonic U chemistry student re-discovering Herbert West's Reanimator Formula, but there's a bunch of other possibilities ranging from not-so-safe artifacts brought back from the ill-fated Dyer Antarctic expedition to one of the college professors being an avatar of Nyarlotep. Perhaps the exact nature of the eldritch horror could depend on decisions made during the course of the game?
One last thing I should mention is the time period. All of H.P. Lovecraft's stories are set in the 1920s and 30s, but that was the modern era for him so there's no reason the game could't take place in the 21st century. Sure some of the characters mentioned in the original stories might be reduced to notes in a journal or a commemorative bust, but on the plus side the dialogue wouldn't have to sound authentic to the interwar period. After all, one of the big appeals of Oxenfree is how the characters remind us of people we used to know in our teens, so why not keep the best of the new...and the old...?
I've never been much of a gun enthusiast, but I have been friends with, and neighbors to, a number of collectors. They were mostly into pre-WW2 stuff, six-shooters, bolt-action rifles, double-barreled shotguns, and even a British breech-loading single-shot lever-actuated rifle from the Zulu Wars that fired brass black-powder cartridges! As a kid I would sometimes go out target shooting, and as such was thoroughly instructed on proper usage of firearms. Guns aren't all-powerful killing devices, nor are they toys. They are tools that can be very dangerous and need to be treated with the utmost respect. Something else I learned very quickly was that anything larger than a .22 round was painful for little 12-year-old me to fire. I'm not just talking about recoil here, discharging a .30-06 will rattle your teeth, reverberate in your chest and make your ears ring even with proper hearing protectors on. In movies and (by extension) video games, they love to load guns with slow burning reduced powder charges. The result is a huge flame out of the barrel and very little kickback. Obviously it's not all that similar to the real thing. Another thing I learned very quickly was (unlike Hollywood movie stars or the protagonists of point-and-click shooters) hitting anything with a pistol is really hard, even when the target is close, doesn't move, and you have all the time in the world to aim. I have a relative that claims I would have eventually gotten the hang of handguns provided I burned through a few thousand rounds worth of ammunition practicing at the shooting range, but for better or worse, budget limitations forced me to limit myself to a BB gun most of the time.
Regardless, my experiences with real-life firearms has always made it difficult for me to enjoy the FPS genre. Not so much when it comes to the likes of DOOM since, let's face it, that game has more in common with an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon than anything else. No, the games that bug me are "realistic" shooters made by the likes of Activision, EA, and Ubisoft. You know...the kind of games that replace the tedium and fear of real warfare with a lot of glamour and balls-to-the-wall action. I'm not actually against the concept. After all, video games about escapism in one form or another, and unlike a vocal sub-set of people out there, I understand the difference between correlation and cause. Especially when it comes to violent media and society. That said, it still annoys me when naive youths get the idea that these kind of games reflect the reality of things in any way, shape or form. I'm just going to come out and say this right now: assault rifles aren't good home defense weapons. The best firearm for such a purpose is (and has been for over a century now) the pump-action shotgun. It's reliable, doesn't travel overly far (so you don't risk harming innocent bystandards as much), has excellent stopping power, and best of all is easy to hit targets with. Alternatively, more muscular types might want to go with cold steel instead. The Roman gladius has killed more people than any other type of weapon in human history. You can buy high quality replicas for relatively affordable prices and it's well suited to close quarters fighting (plus you don't have to reload or worry about it going off accidentally). In fact, the only time I can see an assault rifle coming in handy is if your dwelling is under siege by a squad of Waffen SS troopers (possibly led by zombie Hitler himself).
Just to absolutely clear here, I'm not against violence in video games. By their nature video games are conflict driven, and what kind of conflict is more universal than survival? All the same, it's a little bit weird that there's never been a piece of media that accurately depicts gunshot wounds...probably because audiences would find it revolting. You see...the horrifying truth is bullets rarely kill outright. Real life humans don't have HP bars. They have blood vessels, nerve centers, muscle, tendon and bone, as well as vital (and non-vital) organs. Not to mention psychological factors like shock and adrenaline. All of the above can (in the short term) cause the effects of gunshot wounds to vary wildly, from painless to agonizing, with little regard to the severity of the actual injury. Games don't acknowledge this, nor do they ever admit to being way off the mark. They could, but they won't because it might affect their bottom line. When it comes to the risk-adverse triple-AAA scene, the only acceptable way of thinking is bigger explosions and higher body counts.