Saturday, December 23, 2017

Paris + Milan: Mario Strategy

I've been chipping away at my small library of Nintendo Switch games over the last couple months.  Legend of Zelda and Mario Kart are won and done, but I've only just completed MARIO+RabbiDs: Kingdom Battle (rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?).  It's an interesting game that just missed out on winning the "Avant-Garde" category for my 2017 list of awards.  The writing is pretty clever in places and the basic small-squad, turn-based firefights are great.  Players might be reminded of XCOM.  What's on offer here though is both a distillation and refinement of the mechanics found in that game.  Sadly, it's not all sunshine and stars in the Mushroom Kingdom.

One of the less stellar aspects of MARIO+RabbiDs (it's not a typo!) is the difficulty curve.  Of the four worlds found in the game, the first and second are extremely easy.  Meanwhile, the fourth and final world gets brutally hard toward the end.  I'm not even talking about the last boss so much as the four back-to-back battles featuring cameos by RabbiD Wario and RabbiD Waluigi.  The healing abilities of Princess Peach (or her RabbiD counterpart) are pretty much required to endure the waves of enemy units.  It's not a dealbreaker, but the viable team selection does feel awfully limited in the late game areas.  Outside of combat there's a decided lack of compelling things to do.  Exploration is fun, but requires a lot of backtracking and the rewards for solving puzzles and claiming a prizes are more often than not lackluster collectables like concept art.

So, there you have it, Mario+RabbiDs has a strong core gameplay element surrounded by some weak peripheral components.  That said, getting to battle a ghost/rabbit/gramophone hybrid world boss, who delivers operatically sung  hints as to how he can be defeated, is one for the books.  I also think the anti-discriminatory rule built into the team selection system is amusing.  Requiring players to choose at least one RabbiD team member might piss some Nintendo purists off, but for me it's schadenfreude.  As far as third-party treatment of iconic Nintendo characters go, it could have been better...but then again, it could have been a lot worse.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 Winners

Well...this year started out strong and continued to build in quality to the point that it was looking to be one of the best years in video gaming history.  Unfortunately, a string of holiday-window releases killed the momentum somewhat with loot crates out the wazoo.  Still, there were plenty of candidates for my custom award categories.  Here are the winners for 2017.

Avantgarde Award:
The term used in this category is a French phrase that means "leading edge" and is typically applied to art (whether it be movies, photography or paintings).  So what could be a more appropriate fit here than Passpartout: The Starving Artist?  It is a game where you are a parisian painter trying to make a living by selling to a variety of connoisseurs (whose tastes can get pretty bizarre).  I never thought doodling in MS paint could be such a lucrative enterprise.

Backlash Award:
Twice voted worst company in the world, EA is determined to maintain it's reputation by burying one of the most beloved franchises in media history in fee-to-pay garbage.  The AMA hosted by the dev team, an attempt to justify the mechanics, was a disaster.  The real clincher for this award category though comes from a reddit post by the PR team which has since gone on to achieve the most downvoted post in reddit history.

Canvas Award:
There have been quite a few colorful games this year; Pyre and Drifting Lands being to excellent examples.  That said, I have to give this award to Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild simply because it nails the sweet spot between bland and garish.  Each of the major locations have their own distinct pallet, but the shades used are carefully balanced mixture of bright and subdued.  The lighting engine is also great.

Ecology Award:
I really enjoyed Horizon: Zero Dawn.  In particular, the story and presentation were topnotch.  That said, the gameplay felt a little bit like an amalgamation of open-world games that have came before; bits of Tomb Raider, Enslaved, Far Cry, Assassin's Creed, Mad Max, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, Red Dead Redemption, MGV, The Witcher, Skyrim, and Watch Dogs are in the DNA here.

"Engrish" Award: 
MINOSMAZE...where to begin?  How about this quote from the narrator while transitioning from one gameplay segment to another:
"However Theseus knows that has no combat skills enough to duel with veteran warrior Minos."  
Lack of punctuation aside, "Minos" is not even the name of a person, but a place.

Esoteric Award:
In Rainworld, playing a slugcat is the least bizarre thing you'll do.  After all this weirdly adorable creature's goals are to eat, sleep and survive.  Other life forms you'll encounter in the game are less easily understood.  Odd symbols mark the UI, but unless you hunt around on a wiki no explanation will be forthcoming.  The environments are equally incomprehensible.  Where is this?  What's with all the abandoned industrial centers everywhere? Why does it rain so hard it can kill?  Don't expect the ending the make much sense either...    

Lemon Award:
Stubby limbs, sliding T-Poses, weird facial expressions, lifeless eyes, lipsyncing issues, mission and inventory management problems, poor checkpoint placement, environmental geometry traps, loading and pop-in textures...these are just some of the things that plagued Mass Effect: Andromeda at launch.  Supposedly, the majority of the game's five year development time was spent tossing around ideas without deciding on anything concrete (like what facial animation software they were going to use or the actual story script) while the last 18 months were basically a mad dash to get the game out.    

Testosterone Award:
Arena: an Age of Barbarian story is (depending on who you ask) a spin-off, sequel or stand-alone-expansion to the original.  In truth though I think calling it a remake of the 1987 game Death Sword (Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior outside the USA) would be the most accurate way of going about it.  Regardless, there's no shortage of nudity and gore (including one rather graphic death scene involving a spear to the crotch).

Underdog Award:
A very sad, but heartfelt story about life and loss, RiME is gameplay-wise a puzzle platformer that places the focus on feelings.  It's hard to talk about the game without giving all the best parts I'll simply say that if you've ever played Ico, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, or seen the movie "Pan's Labyrinth" then you'll have a pretty good idea of what you're getting into here.  It's not the best game from a mechanics point of view; the controls are a bit awkward at times and the graphics engine seems to be poorly optimised, but in terms of art direction, music and environmental design RiME is a tour de force.  I highly recommend anyone who is interested in the game give it a try...just make sure you have a tissue box handy.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Detectives of Tomorrow

Like most folks, I enjoy the process of solving a good mystery.  In literature and television I'm talking about characters like Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe and (my personal favorite) Lieutenant Columbo.  In video games there's also some noteworthies such as Professor Layton, Phoenix Wright, Laura Bow, Gillian Seed and Cole Phelps.  For me though, the backdrop in which these police procedurals (and what have you) unfold is just as important to good storytelling as the unraveling of the mystery itself.

As fun as shows like Dexter and CSI are to watch, having everything take place in modern day USA has always felt like a missed opportunity to me.  I'm sure it saves them a small fortune on their production budget, but there's something to be said for taking the classic detective formula and changing it simply by transporting the setting to an unusual time and place.  One great example is the long running Sano Ichiro series set in Edo-period Japan.  Eighteen books in total, I must confess that I've only read the first fourteen.  Another example is "In the Name of the Rose."  Set in a 14th-century european abbey, the novel/film were adapted into an unofficial 8-bit computer game entitled La abadía del crimen.  There's also a whole slew of authors who have written crime fiction set during classical antiquity, but I have yet to hear of any such stories that take place during the Viking Age.

That might sound like a strange era to consider, but believe it or not norse culture has more than a few law-speakers.  In fact one of the longest and, consequently, most famous sagas prominently features a character called Njáll the Beardless.  Essentially a 10th century Icelandic lawyer, I think it would be fun to play a Phoenix Wright-style video game with him as the protagonist.  Of course going the opposite direction could also be quite interesting.  Instead of looking to the past for inspiration how about the future?

Subsurface Circular is neat little indie game that was released on Steam August 18th, 2017 (with deliberate lack of preceding hype or fanfare).  It has players take on the role of a detective robot assigned the subway system beneath a major city.  From this rather confined place the player has to solve a mysterious disappearance by interviewing other robots that happen to be riding the train at various times over the course of the game.  Part of what makes it a compelling experience is learning about the world above and what it's like having AI controlled machines doing all of humanity's dirty work.  It's all very minimalist by necessity, but I kind of wish a larger developer would try tackling a similarly themed game concept.

While I like LA Noire, I can't help thinking it would have been so much more awesome had the game been set in the Blade Runner universe.  Rather than using the clumsy "good cop," "bad cop," and "accuse" options during interviews, I think it would have been a lot more well suited to the medium of video games to perform Voight-Kampff tests on suspects.  Something that the 1997 video game adaptation of Blade Runner did rather well was at the start of a new game a random algorithm would secretly decide which characters are replicants and which weren't.  That, combined with multiple endings gave the game replayability as well as a degree of personal investment in the story.  A recreation of 1950s Los Angeles is cool and all...just not as cool as it would have been in the far flung future of 2019...errr...maybe the sequel's 2049 would be a better timeframe...

Saturday, December 2, 2017

2018 Hopefuls

There's still a little ways to go before 2017 is over.  That said, I already find myself looking forward to the coming year and what it will bring.  A bunch of  interesting games have been announced so I thought I'd share a list of a half-dozen titles that have my attention.  Here they are in no particular order...

Frostpunk, as the name suggest, is set in Victorian England during the sudden onset of a global ice age.  The player is tasked with trying to keep a starting group of about a hundred men, women, and children, alive by settling them around the base of a towering coal-fired furnace.  Securing supplies of of wood, metal, and food are obviously important to survival, but not as critically as coal which is need to ward off the -40 degree daytime temperatures.  Sounds like a good game to play in winter.  Hopefully it will make its first quarter release window.

Not much is known about FAR: Lone Sails aside from a short video clip that has been making the rounds.  From what I can gather it's a side-scrolling adventure game that puts the player in the role of a lone post-apocalyptic explorer who travels a dried seabed in a massive wind-powered scrap wagon.  Salvaging and discovery are probably two of the key gameplay mechanics.  The developers also boast that their game is zombie-free.

Ashen is a cooperative adventure RPG in the vein of the Soulsborne series.  Visually, it distinguishes itself with a somewhat simplified presentation that gives it an impressionistic look akin to RiME or Absolver.  The setting appears to be a generic fantasy world, although some screenshots imply that things might be less conventional than they first appear.  Regardless, the teamwork aspects is what makes this game a potentially unique experience.

Tank Mechanic Simulator is a curious variation on the multi-iteration Car Mechanic Simulator franchise.  Obviously, the novelty of restoring World War 2 era armored fighting vehicles instead of automobiles is the main draw, but I hope that's not all there is to it.  Whether it be managing museum exhibits, coordinating with private collectors, or planning tricky salvage operations, there really needs to be more things to do with these steel relics than simply replacing the rusty old bits with shiny new bits.

Overland has been in quasi early access for a long time now.  In a nutshell it feels like an answer to the question, "what would you get if you turned Jalopy into a post-apocalyptic turn-based strategy game with burrowing monsters?"  A bit reductive, I know, especially since the game has a distinct vibe to it; reminiscent of Kentucky Route Zero or even Oregon Trail.  Much like those two games, the simplistic graphics convey a surprising amount.

I mentioned this last one before in another blogpost, but I'll bring it up here again since UBOOT represents the most recent attempt to simulate the history of underwater warfare.  Like many other entries in the subgenre, it chooses to focus on the North Atlantic area during the second World War.  Given the nature of the conflict in that region at that time, players will have to take the role of the Kriegsmarine.  Playing as the unambiguous bad guys in a historical context is always a tricky business.  Most games get around it by focusing on the simulation aspect, but I'm curious to see if this game will bring anything new to the table narratively speaking.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Friday, November 24, 2017

Mouse Guard

It's a commonly held belief that mice like cheese.  In truth it isn't their preferred food source.  They can eat cheese to be sure, mice are omnivores, but ideally higher calorie meals are desirable.  Mice and cheese, expectations versus reality, they encapsulate Mouse Guard in a nutshell.

In case it's unfamiliar, Mouse Guard is a series of comics by David Petersen.  Described by the author himself as "mice with swords," the setting is very medieval and european in flavor.  Akin to novels like A Secret of NIMH, Watership Down and the Redwall series, the world is grounded in our own except that some of the animals exhibit characteristics and a level of intelligence typically associated with humans.  Normally, I'm not a big fan of stories about anthropomorphized animals, but Mouse Guard is an exception in that it takes the ordinary and turns it into the fantastical simply by changing the perspective from from a human one to that of a society of fully sentient mice.  The backdrop is essentially a bunch of independently governed mouse settlements that have entered into a compact by forming an chivalric order known as the "Guard" that is charged with protecting the "Territories" (as they are collectively called) from potential threats.  Keep in mind that mice are at the bottom rung of the animal hierarchy.  Pretty much any creature in nature that isn't a herbivore sees mice as a potential repast.

The stories told in the comics use this as a jumping-off point, but subverts expectations to varying degrees.  In the initial six issue run, for example, an internal mouse rebellion turns out to be a much greater danger to the Territories than incursions by hungry predators.  Unusual in these sorts of tales, carnivores are not depicted as being unequivocally evil.  A ferret-king appearing in the third volume is depicted as honorable, only eating mice out of necessity rather than cruel desire.  There's also a Mouse Guard table-top RPG, but this being a blog about video games, I really want to talk about the potential for a video game adaptation of the IP.

When I look at a map of the Mouse Guard world, I can't help but feel reminded of Strategy RPGs such as Tactics Ogre, Vandal Hearts, and Final Fantasy: Tactics.  Because of this, it's my instinct to consider Mouse Guard best suited to some kind of turn-based, story driven, single-player experience.  I'm not sure it's the best fit though considering most foes of mice are considerably larger in terms of physical dimensions.  We're talking about Shadow of the Colossus sized threats here...or at the very least Dragon's Dogma.  Either way, most SRPGs prefer to operate on a chessboard-like grid which isn't a very good framework for such wildly differently sized opponents.  However, therein lies the potential for innovating the subgenre.  If you were to combine the freedom of movement in Arc the Lad or Valkyria Chronicles with the mobility of Mario+Rabbits: Kingdom Battle then it might be possible to depict these kinds of large-scale skirmishes in a way never seen before.

The increased size and breadth of the battlefield could be a problem, but one of the nice things about Mouse Guard is the fact that each Guard member wears a distinctly dyed cloak that, when combined with variations in fur color, gives each mouse a distinctive look even from a zoomed-out perspective.  Animation is another tricky point, considering motion capture isn't really an option.  That said, it's amazing to see what one small team of indie developers has accomplished with Ghost of a TaleDark Maus also serves as an excellent example of how a strong visual style can make up for a lack of fidelity.  Something that people tend to forget is how much more steeped in shadow pre-industrial societies were.  Natural light was the main source of illumination and artificial sources were either expensive (candles), didn't last long (torches), or were serious fire hazards (lamps).  Ask anyone who has worked as a director of photography and they'll tell you that atmospheric lighting can make a huge difference.  I imagine the above also holds true for the kind of dwellings anthropomorphic mice would inhabit.   

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Wash Up and Eat Properly

There's been a recent uptake in discussions regarding the cost of game development.  In particular single-player story-driven experiences are, according to certain triple AAA  publishers, no longer financially viable as a one-time 60 dollar charge; hence the reason we see companies like EA abandoning the market space, while other publishers (such as WB) try to cram as much DLC, loot boxes and other microtransaction driven schemes into their games as possible.  Personally, I have doubts about these claims of's not like any of these companies are allowing us inspect their accounting records.  Sure making video games has become a much more resource intensive process than it was during the 8 and 16-bit eras, but to offset that there's a wealth of third-party development tools available, in addition to a much larger potential customer base.  However, for the sake of argument let's presume that they really are in the red.  I can think of three easy ways these poor publishers could get back in the black.

Rumor has it that some of EA's past games were marked on budgets equal to the amount actually spent making the game.  In other words, they could have reduced the development costs of certain games by nearly 50 percent simply by dumping all the thirty second advertisements in lieu of sending some free copies out to Youtubers and Twitch streamers.  It seems silly to do otherwise considering word of mouth has, for a long time, carried more weight than simple product placement.  Visceral Studio, the now defunct makers of the Dead Space series, was based out of San of the most expensive cities in the world.  When you look at companies like IBM, they have all but deserted their corporate offices in large part because it's no longer necessary to have everyone under the same roof.  A variety of video games, including Kerbal Space Program as well as Ori and the Blind Forest, were made by a team scattered across the globe that coordinated their development efforts via the internet.  This sort of dispersed workforce brings up the question of executive supervision.  Former EA employees have gone on record saying that the company has a nontrivial number of people who get paid a lot to do very little.  Reducing wasteful administrative spending though is only one part of the problem when it comes to leadership.

Asset creation is a time consuming process that needs to be channelled by a strong directorial vision.  Too many games waste time and money on stuff the player doesn't notice, doesn't care about, or is thoroughly unimpressed by.  When you look at games such as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, or more recently Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, it's amazing what a relatively small team can accomplish.  Could they have added more provided they had the time/money/people?  Sure.  Would it have improved the experience significantly.  Not really.  Some developers have a bad habit of stretching the scope of their game in the vain hope that bigger equals better.  This often leads to over budget hot garbage, or titles that are trapped in an early access limbo for, seemingly, an eternity.  In other words, it's better to come up with a tight concept and execute on it rather than faffing about half conceived notions of open-world games with crafting and rogue-like elements.  Fun isn't going to materialize from the ether just because you keep attach more bells and whistles.

This brings me to my final point which is trend chasing.  As far as I know nobody has gotten rich making Minecraft clones or Clash of Clans copycats.  Worse still are flash-in-the-pan hits like Angry Birds and Farmville.  Real success comes from franchises like the Soulsborne series...which, I should stress, wasn't an instant hit; Before Demon's Souls there was King's Field and before Command and Conquer there was Dune II: Battle for Arrakis.  It takes time, money, effort and a few iterations on an idea to cultivate something that is both innovative and entertaining.  Hitting paydirt straight out of the gate is exceedingly rare and in most cases fleeting.

Of course most businesses only see the future in terms of next quarter profits, and as such often screw themselves when it comes to sustainable profits.  They can scoop whales and dolphins out of the water for awhile, but how long until that well runs dry?  More importantly, where's the respect for the craft?  I'm not going to climb on my high horse and claim video games are art, but at the very least they are supposed to be for the express purposes of entertaining the people who buy them...not to abuse and exploit.  This is rapidly degrading into a rant so I'll wrap it up by simply saying developer harassment and death threats are not acceptable, but publishers and shareholders that push this kind of garbage need to engage in some serious introspection rather than dumping their problems on enthusiasts of the hobby. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Indefinite Act Structure

How about an action-adventure game instead
of a multiplayer FPS with CCG mechanics?
Sometimes no story is better than a bad story.  When it comes to video games like the Middle-earth duology or Evil Within franchise, I'm inclined to agree.  On the other hand, I can't say EA's decision to abandon single-player narrative-driven games has me excited either.  My guess is they want to use their Star Wars IP rights to make a Destiny clone.  Technically, the Destiny series has a story, but it's an obfuscated mess.  Bungie Studios has never been particularly good at spinning a compelling yarn.  However, it hasn't mattered all that much because they nail the thing that makes or breaks a video game, the quality of the gameplay.

One of the nice things about Resident Evil 4 that doesn't get mentioned often is its fast paced, unobtrusive (albeit cheesy) story.  The narrative isn't needlessly complicated either, Leon Kennedy is on a mission to rescue the president's daughter...and that's ultimately what he does.  Unfortunately Shinji Mikami didn't continue this "economy of storytelling" when he moved on away from the Resident Evil franchise to work on Evil Within.  I have to admit that I rather liked the visuals and non-linear elements found in the IP, particularly the sequel, but the overly long cutscenes rub me the wrong way.  Not being much of a Twin Peaks or Stephen King fan, it's possible that I might not appreciate the inspiration for Evil Within.  Then again when it comes to Shadow of War, I can't say my interest in J.R.R. Tolkien has made me enjoy the journey of Talion the Ranger all that much.

I think the most accurate assessment of the Middle-earth games is they're fan fiction roughly on par with Kirill Eskov's novel The Last Ringbearer.  It's apparent that both works tried to subvert some of the tropes that Tolkien invoked, but in doing so they created a tale that doesn't mesh with the original material.  In the case of Kirill Eskov's book, I'm not exactly sure what could have been done to improve it, but for Shadow of Mordor they could have simply trimmed or edited out the whole Minas-Ithil-Palantir-Spider-Lady plotline in favor of focusing on what makes the games fun - namely the Nemesis System.

I've often heard tell that multiplayer games and/or purely sandbox games have longer lifespans than single-player experiences.  The reason being there's no hard endpoint on how much time you can invest in them.  For me though that's actually the main turn-off.  I guess you could say that eventually the servers will get shut down or the player base will move on to other titles...either way though there really isn't any sense of closure.  Sure, a lot of times video game developers will drop the ball when it comes time to wrap things up, but at the bare minimum I'm glad when the course has a set finish line instead of a nebulous treadmill with a carrot dangling off the front.

Would have been a better game without the 
Assassin's Creed storyline baggage

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Mismatch Making

Activision recently filed a patent having to do with online matchmaking.  It's got a bunch of legal gobbledygook in it, but the essence of of the submission is an attempt to acquire exclusive rights to a system in which players who have made microtransaction purchases are deliberately matched up online with players who haven't (at nebulously specified opportune times).  Activision claims that they have yet to implement such a system in any of their games.  It's possible they are being honest here.  Then again, big-budget game publishers such as EA, Ubisoft, Warner Bros Interactive and (of course) Activision themselves have a pretty poor track record when it comes to telling the truth.  Regardless, I'm fairly confident that this sort of matchmaking in online games has been going on for a while now.

War Thunder and World of Warships are two examples I can attest to regarding the implementation of this sort of microtransactions sales strategy.  Supposedly, both games (made by different developers) are designed to set the player up with teammates and opponents of roughly equal skill.  At first this definitely felt the case to me.  However, after advance several tiers into the progression system found in each game things started to change.  Instead of going up against players of roughly equal ability, I ran into long strings of unbalanced matches, resulting in defeat after defeat (often six times in a row or more) before eventually eeking out a single victory.  Normally, I don't mind if my team loses an online game so long as I felt like I did my part.  Unfortunately, both War Thunder and World of Warships like to offer a daily first victory bonus which are essential for progression, hence the grind became more and more pronounced for me.  Other cheapskates like myself reported having similar experiences.  On the other hand players who shelled out a bit of real cash tended to have much better win/loss ratios.  I should stress this wasn't directly because of in-game purchases.  Far from it...a long running joke with both games is the fact that most real money upgrades are basically just flashy cosmetics, like pusher planes in War Thunder, or famous historical vessels in World of Warships.  That makes good sense if you want to maintain the outward appearance of fairness.  It might be an illusion though in that these games actually reward players who spent real money on microtransactions through some underhanded coding in the matchmaking system.

Granted, this is all anecdotal evidence on my part.  I could be wrong and may have simply had the mother of all bad luck streaks...twice.  Frankly, it doesn't matter all that much to me one way or the other though because War Thunder and World of Warships are free-to-play games that I invested zero dollars in.  Maybe I wasted a bit of my time, but I got a lot of enjoyment out of each game before deleting it from my harddrive after things got a bit to grindy for my tastes.  Still, if word got out that the programmers for either (or both) of these games were guilty of fixing matches in subtle ways to benefit paying customers I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Sigh...Where to Begin?

Poké-orcs...gotta catch'em all!

Anger leads to hate
Hate leads to suffering
Suffering leads to LOOT CRATES

A "collectable card game" minus the letter "d"

You know that thing every game provides for free?
Now you got to pay real money for it...

We gave them an inch and they took a mile

"Lute Crates"

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Of Orcs and Men

In Peter Jackson's film "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," Gothmog (the commander of Sauron's army) declares, "The age of Men is over. The time of the Orc has come!"  Flush from his victory at Osgiliath, the statement would prove to be demonstrably false.  It does beg the question though, "what are orcs exactly and how do they differ from men?"  J.R.R. Tolkien spilt a lot of ink developing races of men, elves and dwarves, but despite being major antagonists orcs only get a vague backstory lacking in details.  According to the Silmarillion, Morgoth (the original big bad) brought orcs into being by capturing elves and through torture/mutilation infused them with malice for all living things including themselves.  It's important to note that Morgoth could not create life so orcs are a purely malignant form of that which they previously were.  It was a great way to create hero fodder, but as he elaborated on them further through a glimpse in a story here or a fragment of a letter there it became less and less clear as to what orcs were really supposed to be.

One of the more confusing aspects of orcs is the numerous ways they can be referred to.  "Goblin" is a synonymous term, as are "urco" and "orch" in their respective eleven dialects.  The dwarves use the word "rukhs," while the wild men call them "gorgûns."  In the Black Speech they are "uruk-hai," literally "orc-folk."  Physically, orcs are described by Tolkien as sallow-skinned, flat-nosed humanoids with slanted/squinty eyes.  Their stature varies from a hobbit to a full-grown human, but with short, thick, crooked legs and bent backs.  This, combined with descriptions of long arms and large hands give the impression that orcs are vaguely simian looking from a distance.  Unlike apes though they fashion their own crude arms/armor and even possess some equally crude healing arts...oh, and they sing.  As for languages, orcs speak a kind of cockney English in addition to a smattering of the Black Speech (which isn't actually their native tongue).

Tolkien suggested in correspondence a number of ideas about orcs; they were made out of slime and heat found in the earth, the were mindless beasts without the influence of a powerful master (such as Melkor, Sauron or Saruman), some were actually half-breeds that basically looked like ugly humans.  The problem with all these "theories" is none of them jive with facts already established in published works.  Couple that with the wording used (which bears more than a passing resemblance to the ways ethnic groups are ostracized or demonized) and things start smelling a bit fishy.  Was Tolkien racist?  It wouldn't surprise if that were true to some degree given how hard it is to find someone who is completely free of bigotry these days, let alone a century ago when Tolkien was in his formative years.  However, even if the answer is a resounding "yes" it only serves to muddle the mystery of orcs even more.

A big problem with much of the fantasy literature that came after Lord of the Rings is copycat authors not thinking very deeply about their influences and source material.  Monolith's Middle-earth video games are no exception.  By attempting to expand on what Tolkien created the pitfalls, plot holes, and problems not only carried over, but in some cases were amplified.  Of course, the well-worn fantasy trope of black versus white, light versus dark or unambiguously good versus irredeemably evil, is worth considering as well.  Remember that Tolkien saw Middle-earth as a precursor to our actual history, a time of myth and legend.  The concept being that divine influence faded over time, followed by magic and finally binary shades morality until things became the world we live in now (with it's various hues of grey); no more good elves, but no more bad orcs either...except that's not how it actually went down.  Again, in the Silmarillion, there are instances of elves doing awful things.  Some of the lesser entities in the pantheon who had a hand in bringing about Middle-earth were also flawed in the way Greco-Roman or Norse gods are.  This serves to only raise further doubts.  If the light did bad things, doesn't that mean the dark could have done some good?

Further adding to feelings of skepticism is the simple fact that we, the audience, don't get to witness (or even hear first-hand accounts of) the lives of orcs.  That said, they are clearly horrible, especially the way they treat each other, but then again how old are most orcs?  If they are derived from elves then they should be immortal, but the oldest one ever mentioned was Azog, who died at the age of 140.  Perhaps the vast majority of orcs are basically deranged children who rarely live long enough to grasp at the reins of maturity.  It appears that orcs, when left to their own devices can form self-sustaining collectives such as those found in the Misty Mountains, Moria, Mount Gundabad and Mount Gram.

Can orcs be redeemed?  Probably not, but since nobody has ever tried it's impossible to say one way or the other.  Maybe Monolith will explore this matter further in DLC for Shadow of War.  Until then though, I don't blame people for casting a critical eye on something that has never really added up.     

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Great War

In the immortal words of Jedi Master Yoda, "Wars not make one great."  It is an adage that has never been more true than during the First World War.  As far as military conflicts go, it was only surpassed in terms of death and destruction by World War 2.  Compared to WW1, the losses incurred in the Korean War or Vietnam War, at best equate to a single battle on the Eastern Front.  The Gulf War death toll probably would end up being an unnamed "skirmish," "raid," or simply chalked up to unavoidable attrition...and yet despite the sheer amount of bloodshed The Great War is often passed over by game developers in lieu of other armed conflicts.  The reason for this is, I think, very simple.  The opportunity for badass heroics were few and far between.  Casualties were so high that British Expeditionary Force in France burned through its initial strength of 120,000 highly trained soldiers after just three months of deployment.  As bad as that is it got worse with 57,470 killed or wounded in the opening day of the Battle of the Somme roughly two years later.  Many miles away from the front, Generals could hardly be called heroic either...even the few that tried to use innovative tactics still wracked up horrific losses with little to show for it.  Still, despite the demoralizing carnage there are some examples of video game developers that tried to make a game about the war to end all wars.

My first exposure to a World War 1 themed video game was the somewhat oddly sounding The Ancient Art of War in the Skies.  The third and final entry in the Ancient Art of War strategy game series by the now defunct MicroProse.  Essentially, the player took control of the air war while ground battles were handled automatically by the AI.  It was possible for the player to influence what was happening down below through bombing runs, but the aerial viewpoint provided to the player depicted trench warfare as two squiggly parallel lines that would flash and rumble with distant explosions and gunfire.  The trench lines shifted slowly this way leaving blasted, cratered terrain in their wake.  It wasn't a particularly good game, but it did come with a thick instruction manual that also included a lot of history about the actual conflict.  Ever since then I've taken a great deal of personal interest in the time period.

Over the years there have been many other attempts to adapt the air combat aspect of the First World War.  Aside from the one I just mentioned, they have been without exception flight-sims of varying quality.  Then, there are a couple of RTS games which conceptually sound like a deliberate exercise in frustration and futility.  Perhaps it's true to the spirit of The Great War, but it's not exactly fun to play (especially when numerous bugs and bad AI are factored in).  A couple of FPS titles have also come out over the years, the most recent of which - Battlefield 1 - deserves praise simply for showing that WW1 was truly a global conflict rather than focusing exclusively on the Western Front (which already tends to get the lion's share of attention).  One other title that happens to be my personal favorite is a little flash game called 1917.  It plays a bit like a tower defense game, but has enough polish and style to separate it from the pack.  On a side note there's also a rather odd indie horror game called 1916: Der Unbekannte Krieg that puts the player in the shoes of a German soldier who is being stalked by velociraptors in trenches too deep to climb out of.  In fact the whole objective of the game is to find a ladder so that the player can go over the top...with depressingly predictable results.  On the opposite end of the spectrum there is the light-hearted Toy Soldiers, which allows the player to take control of a variety of units that must repulse wave after wave of windup infantry, cavalry, vehicles, aircraft and even a Tsar Tank in all its impractical glory.

One final take on The Great War, I want to mention is a mod for Hearts of Iron 4 that begins with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or four years prior depending on the player's choice.  I opted for the latter and decided to give the Ottoman Empire a try.  As fate would have it, I got caught up in the First Balkan War between myself and an alliance four lesser powers consisting of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro.  After about an in-game year of fighting, I emerged the victor with Serbia and Bulgaria conquered while Greece and Montenegro sued for peace.  Imagine my surprise when 1914 rolled around, but The Great War didn't begin.  I guess it's hard for Russia to declare war on Serbia when it no longer exists.  A happy ending?...not likely given what a powder keg European politics were at the time, but as far as alternative history goes it's a more plausible turn of events than trenches becoming overrun with carnivorous dinosaurs.   

I feel like I forgot about something...

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Even Homer Nods

Some references in gaming are obvious and other times they're hard to spot.  A lot depends on being in the know, and what might seem obvious to one person may fly completely over the head of another.  Here's three things that took me a long time to notice.

The assorted shrine puzzles found in the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild come in a variety of forms.  One type that stands out though involves manipulating oversized glowing ball bearings.  Specifically, the challenge is to get them in shallow bowl-shaped depressions in order to trigger a particular mechanism.  Some require the use of pistons to knock them around, while others utilize motion controls to tilt the terrain (which causes the balls to roll a particular way).  The thing is these "marble mazes" are surprisingly similar to some of the toys Nintendo used to make before they got into the video game business.  I've heard a lot of people claim that Breath of the Wild is an example of Nintendo returning to its roots.  I think they're right even more so than they might realize.

It's no secret that the Wing Commander series is basically World War II in space.  Instead of the Empire of Japan though we have an alien race of anthropomorphic felines called the "Kilrathi."  I'm not sure why they went with cats...maybe because asian sometimes have a more slanted shape to their eyes than people of european descent?  Personality-wise I think the Vichy French in North Africa are a better fit, but I digress.  Slightly racist undertones aside, the space fighter craft found throughout the Wing Commander series look vaguely similar to modern jet fighters, but oftentimes use real WW2 combat airplanes as a template.  Missile systems aside, most medium fighters seem to be based on the Bf 109 or Mitsubishi Zero.  Meanwhile, heavy fighters (particularly the "Jalthi") feel like copies of the Bf 110 "Zerstörer."  Additionally, the Dralthi IV resembles the Heinkel He 100 prototype fighter.  Not to mention in one of the novelizations the Asjaka torpedo-bomber is a rather obvious stand-in for the B6N "Jill."  Granted, WW2 didn't feature neutron guns or tachyon cannons so the analogy isn't perfect, but then again, if we're talking accurate depictions of space warfare then Children of a Dead Earth has pretty much everything else beat.

There's a long running gag in Paradox Interactive games involving comet sightings.  It usually happens toward the start of a new game and has no real significance beyond what appears to be an auspicious beginning.  More recently though platypus sightings have become the à la mode.  Stellaris featured free DLC in the form of a mammalian race that looks suspiciously like a platypus.  Hearts of Iron IV also features an easter egg of sorts in that converting Australia into a fascist regime earns them the name "Empire of the Platypus."  Some players on the official forums bemoaned this for making the game seem silly, while simultaneously failing to realize that the whole idea of Australia adopting such a system of government is completely ludicrous to begin with.  When you think about it, the platypus is a weird animal; it lays eggs like a reptile, but has the feet and mouth of a duck attached to the body of a beaver.  Also, for some reason it has poisonous barbs in its appendages.  Because the platypus is such a bizarre and contradictory creature, it's not hard to imagine why a company called Paradox Interactive adopted this particular animal for their corporate logo. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Combat VR

I don't have a VR headset, nor do I plan on getting one anytime soon.  They're not cheap and I'm not rich.  Plus, the kind of hardware need to make an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive run to its fullest potential is on the pricy side.  Another major hangup is my lifestyle, which doesn't often allow for long uninterrupted sessions of gaming.  Perhaps the biggest reason of all though is the lack of killer apps.

Of course, what makes for a must-play game varies from person to person.  In my case it certainly isn't gallery shooters.  If anything I'd like to see more combat sims that take advantage of all the immersiveness VR has to offer.  Track IR (a somewhat similar technology) is currently supported by combat flight sims such as IL-2 Sturmovik, Rise of Flight, and War Thunder.  However, out of the three only War Thunder fully supports VR headsets.  IL-2 Sturmovik has partial support in that Battle of Stalingrad does, but Cliffs of Dover doesn't, while Rise of Flight completely lacks support for VR.  I suppose the choice is obvious then...go with Track IR, right?  Well...first off Track IR isn't cheap either, and second, it doesn't fully solve the tunnel vision problem that plagues pretty much any game that utilizes a cockpit POV.  Don't get me wrong, Track IR is a vast improvement over nothing at all, just not enough of a solution to this particular issue I have with a lot of hyper realistic combat simulators.

The problem isn't just VR related either.  A lot of games trying to emulate a particular historical theater of war are often lacking in crucial little details.  To clarify a bit, in all the aforementioned examples the aircraft are meticulously detailed.  The experience is also highly customizable in terms of control schemes, allowing for everything from flight sticks, throttles, and rudder pedals  to a mouse and keyboard setup.  It's all great stuff that sadly feels like it came at the expense of the environment outside the machine the player is in.  To illustrate my point, take a look at the trenches in Rise of Flight.  They're nothing more than flat textures.  The decks of ships traveling across the English Channel in Cliffs of Dover are bare even when they're returning from the evacuation of Dunkirk...and War Thunder...well...let's just say that the developer is determined to keep their game rate 'G' not matter the cost to realism.

I know this sort of layering of detail is resource intensive, both in terms of development and rendering, but the hardware and tools exist to make it possible.  I've been playing flight-sims since the 1985 DOS game Jet; and while VR seems to have a lot of potential in enhance the subgenre, I hope there's going to be more to these sort of games than vehicles with greater polygon counts and higher-res textures.