Day Z: The First Days

Surviving in the world of Day Z alone is no easy task. Starting off without any sort of weapon except for your wits and perception demands a player to be cautious of their surroundings at all times. Zombies roam the countryside and towns, littering the streets, moaning and growling, looking for their next meal. But, while always a lingering threat, zombies can be avoided with patience or through sheer agility. The real danger lies within fellow man.

While Day Z is a multiplayer mod for ARMA II, playing with others is merely a question of trust. Players can either be only in it for themselves, choosing to shoot you on sight, or they can team up to survive. The most dangerous entities comes from those who do both, luring unsuspecting players in with goodwill, only to callously murder them after a decent loot run. It becomes unsettling knowing that the person who was betrayed learned a harsh lesson, no longer trusting anyone else. They soon become the betrayer.

This was my experience through the first several hours of Day Z. The first was when I was trying to outrun some zombies chasing me through the forest, when I heard a voice over my speakers. He tells me to run to him, and that he will help. I foolishly believed him. He gets rid of the chasers then proclaims a half-hearted “Sorry,” before taking one shot to my head. He presumably loots what little supplies I had left. I was never quite the same after that.

Until, the next spawn.

After an hour of finding a few weapons, some food and supplies, I was feeling good about my chances. Though, while running from a pack of zombies, I ran into a small shed. The monsters were able to open the door and give me a few good lashings, resulting in a broken limb. I was down. I popped a few shots into them with my Makarov, but there were too many. I began crawling through the back door. Crawling for my life. There was a hospital somewhere nearby, and maybe if I could reach it, it would be okay.

Then another player appeared, and took out the rest of the zeds with his 1911. We exchanged a few words and he gave me a shot of morphine. I was able to stand again, but what was his game? I came to find, that this was a decent person. For another hour, we explored the city, and the countryside on the outskirts. We hunted for some food, and killed a few other players trying to pick us off.

On top of a building, a few zombies had followed us up. My only ammo was for a Lee Enfield rifle. I shot one round into the gut of one of our pursuers. My new friend turned to me and said, “Alright, don’t fire that gun in the city anymore.” I asked him why, and he told me to look down. A crowd of zombies were parading towards the building.

But it couldn’t have lasted. Some bandit sniped me while I was getting meat from a lamb, and we never saw each other again. But now was the time for me to go lone wolf. Explore the island and find the treasured loot.

It was about this time where the mod really started to shine. I was cautious and hardened from previous experiences. I knew how to avoid zombies. I figured the best places to find supplies. I took shots carefully, thinking about how much sound they would make, and what kind of impact it would be. I found a map, and routed where I was going to go next, using a compass to find my way. I was a man on a mission and I had survived for a long, long time. But I knew that it could end at any moment.

A sniper could be lurking in every town. Zombies could corner me. I could run out of food or water. Unsavory characters could hunt me down for my precious loot. Distant gunshots induce fear rather than comfort or hope. Every step could be my last. It was unsettling.
Needless to say, that I eventually died, though extremely far into the island in the town of Gorshino. I won’t say how I died, but I will say that it was due to a glitch, which is the most upsetting part. All of the time, just wiped away because of the game’s bugginess.

The mod is buggy, in some part because ARMA II is inherently buggy as well. It is still in alpha and being updated quite a bit, but it is janky. Zombies hit you through walls or hit you from dumb distances, they walk through closed doors, and they rubber-band to you when you’re running away allowing them to be on your ass most of the time. Then, players also take advantage of some of the quirks. Because your location on the map and your personal equipment is consistent from server to server, it makes sense that if a player is getting messed up on one server, they can disconnect before death grips them, switch to different server, load up and they will be perfectly fine. It’s a little cheap, but as long as players can do it, it will happen. So expect that if you don’t kill someone with one shot, they could very likely just log out before you finish the job.

Still, the mod is beautiful in its simplicity. Scatter randomly generated zombies and loot in places on a giant map. Have various unique locations, like a helicopter crash in the middle of a field. Then let sixty players roam around and see what happens. It’s almost a crazy social experiment.

Players needlessly killing others is not inherent to the mod though. It just becomes necessary when you never know the intentions of these people, and with little consequence for doing murder (in fact it’s one of the major stats being tracked), it’s bound to happen. It seems that if players come into the world wanting to be friendly, they quickly learn; that isn’t the name of the game. Unless you have friends that you trust, it’s killed or be killed in Day Z.

 

*Screenshots from: http://deadendthrills.com/

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat Mod Thought: Misery

How does one survive in this misery?

There is something to be said about taking a difficult game and taking the challenge as far as it can without becoming cheap, unfair or hard enough to just be a bully. The Misery mod for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat comes close, and even crosses the line on some aspects. But barring a few minor tweaks, it can become one of the most immersive and daunting mods for any game that I have ever played.

My journey into the Zone started differently from the start. I first had to choose between three different classes when I installed the mod, choices being Sniper, Recon or Assaulter. I decided to go with the sniper class, as I was accustomed to sniper style tactics of taking enemies out from long range. When it loaded I was met with a completely different game than I was ready for. Unlike normal Call of Pripyat fare, where I spawn into the Zone on a clear, bright day, this time I was faced with a dark, impenetrable wall of misty fog. In my backpack, I had only a rifle, which included no scope and a mere five bullets, a pistol with only fifteen bullets, and tawdry amount of supplies. I was painfully unequipped for the Zone ahead of me, so my first objective was to find the land-locked ship where many Stalkers had called home.


Immediately apparent is that Misery incorporates the stunning AtmosFear mod, which makes significant changes to Call of Pripyat’s weather and skies. Rainstorms can range from mild showers that give the world an almost calm and serene feeling, to violent thunderstorms and pitch-black nights, upping the intense dread already in the game. On clear mornings, the sun shines light through thick mist and casts a warm glow on the new high resolution buildings. New ambient noises have been introduced as well and the sounds of far off gunshots or creatures can be heard in the distance, wrapping a player with an auditory blanket of immersion. Call of Pripyat is suddenly a beautiful game, if only in a dreary sort of way. Travelling across the landscape is no longer a chore, but a journey.

Still, it is an extremely dangerous journey. Misery tweaks gameplay heavily, including much more meticulous inventory and resource management to force a player to make some pretty tricky decisions. You can really only carry the barebone essentials, lest your energy drain at a nauseating speed. Generally it’s best to carry only one or two guns along with food rations, ammo, and medical supplies. Any extraneous equipment is best left in your personal locker. However, your energy is bound to drain no matter how hard you fight it, sooner or later. I had to sleep regularly, keep my hunger down, and heal any wounds that I had been afflicted with, or it made the game quickly go from difficult to impossible.

The mod is called Misery for a good reason. There are times playing where the game just beats you down with some incredibly misguided balance issues that all sort of feed into each other. Firstly, the fatigue happens too quickly, too unexpectedly and affects far too much. There are three movement speeds in Call of Pripyat; normal speed, sprinting and walking. At normal speed, if you’ve had enough sleep, food and you’re inventory is not too heavy, energy drains very minimally. While sprinting it drains a little faster, obviously. If you are hungry or tired, energy drain so rapidly that a few steps could force you to stop and wait for the gauge to refill. Take another few steps and wait again. This happens a lot.

The immediate response would be to just eat more food. Sounds easy enough if food was not so scarce, or if eating it actually took hunger away. Forget paying rubles for food because the economy is a farce. One loaf of bread costs 300 rubles, which is not much especially in the beginning of the game, and barely satiates hunger. If you wanted to get enough to fill you up, you wouldn’t have any money left. I’m all for realism, and I believe there are some great ideas here, but they seem so disproportional to any sort of common sense. The beginning of the game states that you play as a military agent, and I find it hard to believe that someone trained in the military succumbs so easily to these trivial mechanics.

With the unfortunate items accounted for, Misery still takes a step in the right direction. The above complaints are easily fixable with a couple number changes in a game file, which I happily tweaked. This is a mod after all, so fixing minor issues like these seems par for the course. After that was settled, I was able to enjoy a breath of fresh, radiated air and lose myself into the Zone once again. There are enough positive changes here, that it is worth the effort to fix the negative ones.

Enemies in Misery are of no laughing matter. They are tougher, smarter and don’t hold back. The world is still a living thing in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. The world has no immediate interest in your life, but will lash out if you mess with it. Hazards are everywhere and with Misery they can become much deadlier. Zombies can only be killed with a headshot or two, though, they are unfortunately crack shots as well, able to snipe you from across a field with only a few shots. Anomalies are not as obvious and will pick you up and kill without a moment’s hesitation, as you search deep for their valuable artifacts. Creatures roam the countryside and will attack if they feel threatened. Mutants hide out in strange radiated caverns and buildings waiting for unsuspecting Stalkers to waltz into their territory.

The most frightening powerful force in the game are the random blow-outs and emissions that occur. They can suddenly light up the night sky while sirens blow in the distance. A player has to find good cover quickly or be blasted away into oblivion by a twisted, apocalyptic thunderstorm of doom. Misery has given these events a face-lift as well, making them look as eerie and intimidating as ever.

There are plenty of more fantastic features that culminate into what makes Misery such an immersive mod, it would be foolish to list them here. Suffice it to say, Misery is one of those experiences that you remember if you allow yourself be taken in by S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s Zone. While it is at once beautiful and frightening, while forcing a player to think about their actions, Misery holds a special place in my heart for bringing me even deeper into such a fascinating world. Turn down the lights. Turn up the sound. Get that bottle of vodka ready. It’s time to enter the Zone, stalker.

Here is a link to the mod, to read more about it, or download it if you have Call of Pripyat, which you should anyway.

Sequelitis Can Be A Good Disease Sometimes…

2012 is looking to be a good year in video games. There are going to be some new games coming out, there are some reboots of great games from the past, and there are going to be a lot of sequels. Though, the idea of sequels may conjure up a respectable groan, this year could be different, says my optimistic gumption. Below is a list of upcoming sequels, tie-ins, and reboots that make this year look like a refreshing proverbial blow of dust off franchises of past.

Max Payne 3

Complain about the bald head, wife-beater shirt and seemingly random tropical location all you want, this still looks like a Max Payne game. A damn good looking one to boot. Rockstar is bringing some very interesting mechanics to the plate like the stunning movement and animations of Payne himself. The way he rolls around on the ground, or interacts with anything in the environment is just fluid as hell. Bullet time and dreary grit are making their return, and it’s just great to see operatic and stylistic gunplay coming to gaming again. Also, this game looks violent. Not in the amount of blood or gore, but just the presentation. Like in Red Dead Redemption, when you shot someone in the head, there was a plume of flesh and skull. Or how a body disturbingly reacts to a gunshot. Disgusting stuff like that.

Here is a trailer for your squinty eyes.

Hitman: Absolution

There has a bit of talk on the interwebs about if IO Interactive is making this game too linear, too easy or just not what Hitman is all about. I personally chalk it up to marketing. I still hold that Hitman Absolution will still be the game the fans want it to be. There might be a machanic that allows you to see where enemies are going. All of the voice actors may be different. The developers may have been showing an emphasis on shootouts. Though, I feel like there will be enough choice, and enough openness for people to experiment and play around in a killing toybox. We’ll have to find out.

This is some pretty cool gameplay.

Bioshock Infinite

This is the game I’ve been waiting for. Before it was even announced, I’ve been waiting for it. It hits on so many of my sensibilities. I love the world, the look, the style of action, the speed, the finesse, and the general, genuine absurdity of it all. Bioshock in a new, just-as-intriguing setting is all you need to say to get me on board.

The erection-inducing 15 minute gameplay trailer.

Prey 2

This looks like a huge departure from the first Prey, that much is obvious. But the fact that this looks like an open world, Blade Runner-esque alien bounty hunter simulator with a swath of unique weapons and gadgets is something that I was not expecting. Sometimes I love surprises. Just looking at the art design in this game has got me hooked, and the gameplay look like Deus Ex in space which is nothing to scoff at. Hopefully it will be open enough for a wide variety of approaches. I want to be a suave, stealthy bounty hunter who doesn’t take no guff from alien scum.

Last years E3 trailer.

Far Cry 3

Far Cry 2 was a awkward left turn from its predecessor, but Far Cry 3 looks to be like more Far Cry 2, which is okay by me. Despite the flak the game gets, I’m a pretty big fan of Far Cry 2. I loved being able to post up on a cliff with a sniper rifle and pop dudes from across a field, then run in with an uzi and clear out the rest as a wall of fire blazes across the grass behind me. It was just fantastic immersion. If the third game can keep up the open world, interesting character relationships and sometimes unique gameplay gimmicks, but fix all of the other busted stuff, I will be more than happy. Just make Far Cry 3 a more focused game than 2 and you’re golden.

The found footage, wub-wub trailer.

Borderlands 2

I think I sank more hours than I would like to admit into Borderlands, but I will admit that I had a ton of fun doing it. Here’s hoping for a wider array of weapon possibilities, more outrageous settings, and cooler abilities, all things Borderlands 2 is shaping up to deliver. I just can’t wait to sink more hours into some solid first person RPG shootin’.

The 96.5% more wub-wub trailer.

Diablo 3

Diablo 3 looks good. That’s all I really say about the game at this point. While not remembering a whole lot about Diablo I & II, I can be certain that either way Diablo 3 looks like a solid dungeon crawler full of loots, magics, demons, monsters, swords, and maybe…just maybe a skeleton or two. But we can’t be greedy.

The “holy shit, is that fucking CGI?!” trailer.

Guild Wars 2

Another game I sank a lot of hours into was Guild Wars. I haven’t really gotten back into it in the last few years but I assume it still has a pretty thriving community. Guild Wars 2 is promising to destroy what people think MMOs are. They already proved that you can have a successful one that doesn’t require a monthly fee and for many people, that in itself is a huge selling point. Not only that, but they hope to do away with normal MMO holy trinity of damage dealers, healers, and tanks, allowing characters to be much more versatile. Well…I’m excited.

10 reasons to be excited for Guild Wars 2.

Metro: Last Light

Metro 2033 was an interesting game. It was gorgeous in a squalid, bleak way. It was an immersive and daunting game that did not hold your hand. It was a game that you could play in a multitude of ways without the player even realizing that the options were there. If Last Light can bring just as much atmosphere and unique content while fixing some of the issues from the first game (like “stealth” portions), they would have themselves something really special.

Tomb Raider

Triangle titties are things of the past. A more down-to-earth Lara Croft is making her way to the hearts and minds of young boys all over the world this year. Not only that, but the game doesn’t look half bad either. Most likely taking some cues from the Uncharted series, the game just titled ‘Tomb Raider’ (surprisingly not The Tomb Raider) is an interesting looking complete reboot of a game from a whole other era. It will be fascinating to see what Crystal Dynamics will bring with this newly updated gaming icon.

The E3 gameplay trailer full of tombs and such.

Silent Hill Downpour

Silent Hill is easily one of my favorite video game series. The atmosphere still gets to me. They’re like classic David Lynch films in video game form (except entertaining). Downpour looks like it will bring tighter 3D controls and more fluid combat, as well as crisper graphics to a series that definitely needed it. I can only hope they keep the abject horror aesthetics and intense atmosphere that Silent Hill is famous for.

The “prison must really really bad if he prefers Silent Hill” trailer.

SSX

I was a bit skeptical of this game at first, thinking that it might not be up to snuff with previous iterations like Tricky. I watched a few gameplay videos though, and I must say, SSX is still going to be crazy and fun as hell. It looks great and EA is bringing in the neat online components they tried out in Need For Speed Hot Pursuit. It should be pretty good.

GiantBomb’s awesome quick look of this game.

Torchlight 2

Alright, Torchlight is fantastic. So, take that, make four new player classes, new dungeons and loot, and add…be still my heart…online co-op. SOLD!

DOTA 2

MOBAs (Massively Online Battle Arenas) are huge right now. From Heroes of Newerth, to League of Legends to even the DOTA 2 beta, people are playing, watching and ingesting MOBA games like it’s all candy. You can’t really blame them either. They’re deep with strategy, action and teamwork. Each have their respective fan base, and I doubt many will stray away from what they know. However, with Valve making DOTA 2, I feel like they are going to make it the easiest barrier of entry for any of them. To survive though, I think they have to make the game free-to-play, like all of the others. Who knows what they will do though?

Grand Theft Auto 5

What is there to say about this other than I’m excited as hell for a new Grand Theft Auto. I don’t know if it will in fact come out this year, but either way I can’t wait.

Here’s hoping:

Mass Effect 3

Bioware and/or EA is doing something wrong, because the more I learn about this game, the more turned off by it I am. The inclusion of even more random characters who I already dislike immensely, and the heavy push for more and more Gears of War style action just flat-out worries me. I don’t hate Gears of War or anything, but I feel like Mass Effect is drifting further from what made the previous games so good. However, the online mode looks entertaining and somewhat deep, and they have brought back some more customizable skill trees, so it is all not lost yet.

Thi4f

There isn’t much information about the regrettably named Thi4f, but what is known is that Eidos-Montreal, the developers of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, is creating the game. So there is some good news. Other than that, maybe we will find out something at E3.

Counter Strike: Global Offensive

It’s like a prettied up Counter Strike that is going to cater to console players. It adds a few more weapons and equipment, but I can’t help but think this is just going to be another Condition Zero.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2

Please! Please happen! Don’t die on me! Please!

Sequels don’t have to be all bad, really. There is nothing wrong with taking something that has worked, that has proven to be of worth and to freshen it up a little bit. Most of the games on this list haven’t seen a real sequel for years, even a decade. Technology and game design have improved and it’s great to see beloved franchises seemingly take a step into the right direction, and embrace change, because it could ultimately lead to improvement. So let us not despair for lack of originality, or lack of change in the industry. While some games toil in their own success and change little, others see the future and incorporate what needs to be done to move on. So go out there and play some damn games.

Cart Strife: A Look at Cart Life

The immediate idea of Cart Life by Richard Hofmeier appears simple enough. At first glance, the game looks like a simple management simulation, complete with setting prices, buying supplies and dealing with customers, and the majority of the game is just that. Take some elements from a game like Fast Food Panic, where the player must accomplish trivial tasks to get an order out, but combine that with a personal, and somewhat darker version of the Sims, wrap it up in retro aesthetics and you have a small taste of what Cart Life is about.

The free version of Cart Life includes the almost-complete game with two of the main characters. The first character arc I embarked on was that on Melanie’s. Her story is that she is a mother in the middle of a divorce. She has some cash and a little bit of time to start a small coffee stand to make revenue allowing her to hopefully get custody of her daughter, or at least get equal time with her. Already, this is some pretty heavy stuff for a foot stand simulator, and already, the player knows they are in for something totally different from normal fare.

The game works quasi-open world, allowing a player to travel to various parts the city, where they can visit shops for supplies, grab a bite to eat, or acquire new equipment. On my first playthrough with Melanie, I didn’t even set up the coffee stand for two in-game days. It was frustrating and somewhat arresting; the things I had to go through to get it up and running. I first had to go to the municipal building where I had to actually take a number and wait. Finally, I was allowed to pay the $300.00 just for the permit to sell coffee just outside. Next, I needed to purchase the physical stand from a machinery shop, which would take another day to deliver. Finally, I had to go to the store and buy supplies. All of this, while I had to juggle Melanie’s personal life with her daughter. I could see their relationship slowly growing detached as the days went on, admittedly from my complete lack of time and effort to spend time with her. Melanie had odd dreams wherein she could not even walk close to her daughter to speak to her. But then she wakes up, ready to sell coffee.

This is where Cart Life got into the actual game bits. Selling coffee is easy, once you get the routine down. You have to go through the motions very precisely, as not to cause impatience to the customer. The actions are done via the arrow keys, having a player hold one direction for a set amount of time, tap back and forth for another, then finally do a bit of easy math to calculate change. That’s it. It’s really quite simple. But then, you have to do the same process over, and over…and over some more.

I can’t say to how deliberate the monotony in Cart Life is, but it is definitely there. Unless you have other ingredients to make other items on the menu, you are doing the same thing again and again. Even when the customer wants a Mocha instead of an Americano, the only difference you have account for is in one of the steps, pour milk and cocoa into the cup, instead of water. A player’s opinion of this part of the game has to stem from how they see the game at all. If a player sees the game as purely a food cart sim, that’s no problem, and there is plenty in the game to accommodate that. However, it is easy to view this game as a story-telling medium, with simulation elements there to merely represent the grind of daily life. I haven’t tried it yet, but I am curious what would happen if I never bought a cart, or a permit, or anything. If I had just used the initial money to just buy a snack every once in a while and go to sleep at the end of the day while having done nothing the entire day, how would the game react. It’s tough to really know because [SPOILER WARNING] Melanie’s story ends exactly where I thought it was just beginning to excel or at least change dramatically. The divorce hearing was about to commence, but then the credits rolled. It suddenly made me wonder what the game was really about. What was the point of the coffee stand simulation when it all ends so suddenly? I never had the time or cash to buy upgrades, or paint the stand, or sell better items.

Maybe that’s the message though, however much of a downer it may look. In this deceptively grim version of the world, it doesn’t always work out the way you hoped. Maybe you got the cart up and running and had it make some profits for a little while, but in the end, was it enough? Will it ever be enough? I could imagine some players trying to perfect a Melanie playthrough, trying to have her come out on top, to keep her going and always getting to the same end.

But lo! There is another character in the free version of the game, and he is the rhetorical flip-side of Melanie. His name his Andrus Poder. He is a cigarette addicted immigrant, and he has come to America to sell newspapers. Andrus is also the more interesting character of the two, and his story doesn’t seem to need to force feed emotion like Melanie’s. He is a simple man with simple needs, and craves a simple life.

Andrus’s game is also a lot easier to get started. In the opening scene, he arrives on a train, immediately visits his newspaper stand, then purchases it complete with permit and contract from the local paper. Easy peazy, right? A place to live is just as conveniant at a nearby motel. The grumpy owner only requires $119.00 a week, every Monday. Simple. Well, I also have to renew the newspaper contract every Friday for $35.00. Alright, but I also can’t forget to buy cigarettes for Andrus, or else he gets a wicked cough. Then I also need to buy his cat vittles. Oh, and I can’t forget to stop by the municipal building to speak to some lady about the permit or something. I guess one can never really have a truly simple life.

Andrus not only has a better story, but his gameplay seems to fall in line with the simulation of the game a lot more. You start of with twenty newspapers everyday, that you must fold and stack through a typing mini-game. Then you just wait, talk to customers, learn names, quirks and other nonsense, and sell papers. I soon find that some people would also like coffee as well. That’s an interesting notion. I head down to the super market and see that a coffee pot is about $40. That’s disappointing as I only have maybe $80 dollars left, and I am not making a huge profit from the papers. I am going to need money for rent and the contract to even sell the papers. Coffee seems out of my reach for a while.

It goes on like this for a while. Andrus goes to sleep every night after feeding his cat, and has strange and vivid dreams about obscure things. He goes to the stand every day, after eating a meager breakfast, sells all of his newspapers, which are obscenely overpriced just to make enough money for the weekly dues. Slowly, he gets enough money for a coffee pot, and begins to sell coffee along with the papers, and the cycle continues.

Again, there is a message. The cart vendors won’t give up just because they seem down. They keep selling.

The cart life grinds on.

There is a third character in the paid, five-dollar version of the game. The bagel vendor Vinny is perhaps the oddest of the trio. His main objective is to pay the rent for an apartment he’s using for the month. I’m not sure what the rest of his story is, except that he seems to know a few townsfolk quite personally. Vinny is also addicted to coffee, even allowing him to move faster when he drinks it, and I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t actually sleep in the game, but I could be wrong. The biggest difference to the other characters his is recipe mechanic. He has a small book in his inventory full of scribbled down recipes for various bagels and spreads. The player needs supplies from the store, and in the apartment kitchen they have to combine the exact amount of ingredients, then mix or bake or boil the concoction. I haven’t played as Vinny, but I do know that he can move his cart just about anywhere and set up shop. While this is neat, I can only assume he doesn’t have a permit and will probably be immediately fined by the one cop that patrols around. Vinny seemingly is the most gameplay oriented of the three characters, and is probably best suited for a player looking for a real food cart sim.

It’s hard to say exactly what this game is though, or whether it’s trying to achieve simple, effective storytelling or is trying to be a legitimate management simulation. Why can’t it be both? The look and sounds are evocative of old school Atari or Commodore games, and while those seem upbeat and cartoony, the world is drab and devoid of color or much of a personality aside from various character quirks. The game will get inside your head one way or another, because it throws your expectations at every turn. Players looking for one thing will probably come out with a totally different experience. It plays on the dichotomy exceedingly, and does so with out remorse. Like most good games, Cart Life gives you an experience more than anything.

Also, here’s a trailer.

The Alpha Protocol Dialogues

I’m going to get the obvious out of the way. Alpha Protocol is not a great game. The combat is clunky and unintuitive. The story is far-fetched and overly complicated for a resolution that feels like it was not really worth the effort. And there is little to encourage actually using stealth. This is all easy to surmise from a short time with the game, and this isn’t a review. But there is something about Alpha Protocol that developers Obsidian did astoundingly well and kept me completely engrossed in what was happening. So much so, I would like to see the level of quality for this aspect of the game done in other games with important character interaction. The conversation mechanic and the effects of player’s decisions in this game are the absolute most fun I had with Alpha Protocol.

The main conceit is something you can see in games like Heavy Rain, or earlier seen in Indigo Prophecy. Conversations need answers, and the game is not going to wait while the player sits idly, thinking too hard about each consequence. A little progress bar quickly grows smaller, forcing split-second choices. These can range from getting another character to like you, or dislike you, to just flat-out executing a character if the player deems it fit. In other role-playing games like Mass Effect or Fallout: New Vegas, you can wait around for a while in a conversation; Alpha Protocol waits for no man.

In the setting, this mechanic is perfect. As a role-playing game about a super secret government agent gone rogue, quick thinking and smooth talking are all part of the job. The game was great at making me feel like I had to think on my feet when faced with difficult social situations. Should I shoot this guy right now? Is what he is saying the truth? How much information should I give away about myself? A lot of information can be thrown in your direction at once, and it becomes a huge part of the experience to have to piece it all together, fast.

At first, the conversations seem arbitrary and inconsequential. The player’s first taste is to just try and decipher some obvious character traits and either pander to or oppose them. Darcy likes a player who appeals to his joking and somewhat confident side. Parker admires a straightforward man who doesn’t play around. After a few missions, however, these conversations become something a bit more. Where you were just answering petty questions before, now you have to decide whether to believe a known terrorist faction leader about possible double crossings in your government. Will letting him live help you later in the game? Will killing him hurt you? Is it the other way around? You have two seconds to decide what to do, and what you decide can easily effect the rest of the game.

Most of the decisions are located in the grey of morality as well. There is usually never a good choice or bad choice, making the time limit all the more intimidating. You have to choose your allegiances and the best way to keep them. The choices the player is given is more of an emotional. The type of response you want to give. Some characters I purposefully tried to piss off and gave snarky or obtuse answers to everything they said. Others, I gave honest answers to and had nothing but respect for. It showed where my true allegiances lied and who had my back through the latter parts of the story.

Because there is a reputation with each character, they can come to your aid in various ways, from giving you extra intel in missions, to selling you black market items, to even coming in and fighting along side you, providing distractions while you sneak in for the objective. All of this because you knew how to talk and made quick decisions about your standing with them. There are some missions that are purely conversations, and depending on the outcome, change the face of what is to come. I met with a Triad gang leader and because I was cautious and polite, his gang eventually showed up in some warehouse to take on whoever was trying to stop me. Then he gave me valuable intel on a shady corporation and even sold me some weapons. I could have just shot him, and not bothered with any of that.

For a game to hook me in with its dialogue mechanic is a great feat. Especially for an action game. If other developers incorporated similar mechanics in their role-playing action games, they would be better for it.

Here is a bit more on the game’s conversation mechanic straight from the developers. http://blogs.sega.com/2008/09/04/alpha-protocol-round-table-discussion-part-1/

Skyrim Woes: A World of Difference

I could write a piece evangelize how great Skyrim is, and I could go on and on about the wonderful nuances of the design or the character of the world, and how refreshingly open it is. But that’s boring, and I’m sure that it gets tiring to hear nothing but praise. Skyrim is a wonderful game, but it has its flaws.It’s definitely gotten to that point where the newness and initial excitement of Skyrim has tapered off a bit, and we can finally start talking about what the problems with the game are. They may be few and far between, but they can be substantial. Whether it may be the observation that only a mere illusion of choice exists, making most quests boil down to a “do it this way, or don’t do it at all” structure, or whether the world feels severely disconnected, to the point where NPCs don’t seem to be paying attention to any actions the player has been doing. Those are fine things to talk about, but one thing that I could have done with more of, was the main storyline.

Before the game was released, it was reported that the main quest line could be beaten in just over two hours. I have to assume that is with no exploits, but just a very expedient, knowledgeable run. Either way, that is a pretty quick main story. Even when I played it after exploring for thirty hours first, the main quests came and went like any other quest lines. At the end, I just thought to myself, “Oh, is that it?” and continued on my merry way. And it isn’t just the number of quests, which is only a few more than something like the Dark Brotherhood quest line, it’s the content. I never feels like something special is happening.

I love the opening of the game. The dragon attack was sensational and exhilarating, while completely preparing me for an intense battle against vile beasts. Unfortunately, the rest of the quests never gave me a feeling like that. Yes, it was cool to actual find a titular Elder Scroll, though getting it was like going through many of the dungeons I’ve gone through before. Yes, it was cool to fight side by side with ancient heroes of lore, though it made the final battle a bit easier.

Maybe that is it. I expected one thing and got another. I felt that within the framework, the main story would have a little more pull towards my emotions. I guess that has been the case for most Bethesda developed games. Fallout 3’s main story line was quite lackluster, especially in comparison to the quality writing in other aspects the game. Oblivion’s main quest was barely touched upon by most people, given that it was never really that interesting to begin with.

But Skyrim has dragons, and dragons are really cool. I wanted to continue the story. I actually wanted to go on an insane adventure, ridding the world of dragons one wyrm at a time. I got some of that, but just not enough. Not enough to feel like I did anything of substantial value to the land of Skyrim. Even the NPC’s around the game did not notice a difference when I had finished vanquishing the evil that nearly wiped them out. I saved the world from ending…apparently.

The end of the world! Maybe that could have had some urgency to the storyline, or some directing of the player. Dragons are coming back to life by a devious monster bend on destroy humanity. Hold on. The thieves guild wants me to sabotage a brewery. Oh, well, that’s cool. I guess you’ve got some time, or whatever. Because the game didn’t treat this stuff with importance, I think neither did I. In reality, I could have never done the main story and it would not have made much of a difference. That’s the kicker, I feel like I didn’t make a difference. Like I stopped destruction for a fling.

For something that pertains to your entire existence in the game to some extent, the main story just feels incomplete. It contains all of the ideas for something much bigger, including being the goddamn “chosen one”. But it all gets condensed into a few fetch quests and dungeon crawls. Then, has a couple of quests that consist of having conversations with people. I don’t want to come off as someone who just wants pure Modern Warfare style action in all of my games, but with material this dense, and a situation this dire to the world, I expected something a little more grandiose.

The best example I can give to sum up my experience with the main story line is the encounter with Odahviing, a dragon you capture in Whiterun. You eventually convince him to help you, and he says he will fly you to where Alduin, the main antagonist is holding up. I start thinking, “Oh man! I’m going to fly on a dragon and it’s going to be so cool!” Then the screen fades out, fades back in and shows the dragon flying away, with my character sitting on top. Needless to say, it was disappointing.

Most of what happened felt like a tease towards something much cooler nearly every step of the way. Fighting Alduin at the end felt like fighting just another dragon. It just didn’t feel special. It is a bit disappointing when the main quests become:

  • Go through dungeon, but it’s just longer
  • Fight dragon, he’s just tougher
  • Find this artifact, it’s just more important sounding

There were chances for much more memorable events to take place in this potential beast of a story, and overall it feels like more hammed up versions of other quests instead of unique instances. It felt shorter than it should have been, it didn’t feel as pressing and it didn’t feel as extravagant as it needed to be.

Exciting.

Eufloria: A Simple Challenge

Alright, now this isn’t a review really. What would be the point? I recently got this game in the Indie Royale bundle, started it up and found it pretty enjoyable. And it got me thinking about games that I catch myself planning and strategizing when I went in with no notion I had to do any of that. It was a pleasant surprise. These are some thoughts on that sort of stuff, I suppose.

Sometimes, simplicity is a game’s greatest asset. With just some basic colors, sounds and mechanics a game can shine through even the beefiest of graphics heavy, number crunching competitors. But just because a game plays and looks simple, never means that it can’t kick your ass, repeatedly. You can see this in early Nintendo games, or some newer indie games today. One such game from this year is Eufloria. Eufloria is an incredibly simplified real time strategy game. The objective is to take over every single asteroid on the map with your little seedlings without becoming extinct yourself. You can plant two types of trees on each asteroid. Ones that grow new seedlings and ones that pretty much act as turrets to defend the asteroid. Some asteroids can hold five trees, and sometimes they can hold only one. The player must defend against onslaughts from other factions of seedlings while expanding their own empire. But, Eufloria is a game that basically comes down to dot wars around differing sizes of circles. Sure there are fast dots, tough dots and lethal dots, but sometimes it just comes down to numbers.

It’s a neat concept executed in a completely minimalist form. It starts off deceptively easy, where you can basically hang out until you have an inordinate amount of seedlings to just brute force your way through all of the asteroids. I went through the first several acts this way, and never had to play a level twice. It was actually disappointingly easy. I sat playing the first scenarios wondering what the point was.

Unfortunately, this is the game at its worst. When you sit around, twiddling your thumbs waiting for your giant army to come into being (there is surprisingly no fast-forwarding time). Then you just send everything to each planet, and you’re done. It becomes easy to think that the game takes no real strategy, and that the level design (randomly generated) is lazy. I almost stopped playing out of boredom, and thinking, “Yep, I get it.”

However, when I got the later acts, I started getting my ass handed to me. What was happening? I started getting sort of mad at the game for throwing such a curve-ball of difficulty. Suddenly, it was time for actual strategy. Now, I had to figure out how many seedlings I could sacrifice to leave and try to start a new colony, or the ratio between growing trees and defensive trees on each asteroid. I had to actually decide if an asteroid was worth taking. I had to be careful that if I left one asteroid with too few seedlings, that it would not be bombarded by the other factions immediately.

Honestly, the jarring shift in difficulty really threw me for a loop. Where my hubris in obliterating other asteroids helped me in the earlier levels, I became frustrated that it simply would not work anymore. Enemies became relentless and outnumbered my forces constantly. Starting asteroids started sucking if I wanted expansion. It came as a sort of reality check that I needed to actually think carefully through the next level and it got me excited to keep playing it, really. And with each new level came new challenges. Eufloria’s hidden cleverness comes not from new mechanics or new gimmicks as the game progresses, but rather progressively daunting scenario design. It got to a point where I really had to play many later levels a few times to get the rhythm just right, or my tactics flawless.

In a way, Eufloria is sort of beginner’s training for more robust and mechanically dense real time strategy games. The stats between the three types of seedlings only occasionally come into play. There isn’t a wide range of forces at your disposal, and you are not upgrading buildings or maxing out tech trees, but there is a joy to the simplicity of it. It is strange to get excitement when seeing hundreds of blue dots leave one asteroid and swarm a busy rival faction’s. It becomes an entrancing mess of swirling colored dots, a feeling slightly trumped when you zoom in and see all of the individual seedlings dogfighting.

It is always infuriating when a game goes from stupid easy to unbearably difficult without the slightest warning. I remember the last portions of Brutal Legend got into controller-chucking territory out of nowhere. It sucks, but at the same time, it hopefully forces the player to take a look at their tactics and figure something out, as long as they haven’t been turned off by the entire notion already. Steep learning curves are like having a jog, then being told to continue up a mountain. Though, once you jump that hurdle, the rest is coasting. Maybe it was the piss-easy “tutorial” levels, or maybe it was just that the entire aesthetic of the game threw me off, but it was a frustrating yet satisfying experience.

All through school, my teachers have told to always keep it simple. Get across what you need to in as little as possible. It’s good advice. But in games, complexity can be incredibly intriguing for people who love to explore and pick apart games. To master them by know intricate details about every mechanic. Those are rewarding and fun, but there is a case to be made about games that have little, but give much more. Eufloria could be considered a “casual” game, and to some extent it is, but, cunningly, I think there is enough challenge and thought for any gamer that is looking for it.

The Elder Scrolls: What is CHIM?

So after playing an absurd amount of Skyrim and getting pretty deep into the lore of the Elder Scrolls, I came across an interesting theory of a sort of meta-narrative throughout the games. I started reading more and more about the metaphysical concept of CHIM, which is detailed through some of the in-game books and expanded upon by fans on forums. From what I gathered through the dense language of the discussions taking place on the subject, CHIM is basically a character realizing that he is in fictional world but somehow still keeps his identity, and therefore becomes able to control the world around him…I think. In terms of the Elder Scrolls lore, it is like gaining complete enlightenment, and having the world become much like a lucid dream, where you can change what you see in whatever way.

The cool part comes in where it seems like the fans, though it could be inferred that the designers wanted the idea out there, have come up with idea that CHIM sort of breaks the fourth wall of the game, where characters that have achieved CHIM, reference the Elder Scrolls modding tools and other crazy notions. Even main characters, the ones you play as in the games, reach CHIM, allowing you to do all the stuff you do. Yeah, it gets a little crazy. Who knows, everything I just said could be incorrect. It is all a pretty neat idea though, and I would not be the best person to convey the meaning of it because I don’t really understand it all myself, but if you want to know more about the cool meta-narrative that might be happening you can read more about it here:

http://fallingawkwardly.wordpress.com/2010/10/25/the-metaphysics-of-morrowind-part-3/

The Binding of Isaac: Mastering Your Luck

Isaac is a young kid with a wild imagination. The opening animation to Binding of Isaac presents the dark story of a religious, crazed mother out to sacrifice her child, shown through crude drawings by Isaac himself. It catapults the player into a fantasy world that can be disturbing yet funny, full of grotesque monsters and a multitude of strange hidden treasures. Story and style aside, the Binding of Isaac becomes more of an engrossing exercise in resource management than twitch shooter. While playing the game, it first comes down to luck, and secondly is how the player deals with that luck. The choices could doom them or save his pathetic, little life.

The Binding of Issac is an unlikely shooter from the minds of Edmund McMillen, of Gish and Super Meat Boy fame, and Florian Himsl. It incorporates the concept of the roguelike, or dungeon crawler, for its structure. Some of the main conceits of a roguelike is that when the player dies, they die for good. No saves, forcing them to start the game over. Another is the random, procedurally generated dungeons. The replayablility comes from never knowing exactly what you’re going to be handed next. This is where some of the joy and, sometimes, frustration of The Binding of Isaac comes in.

Now, I have very limited experience with roguelikes myself. They are an oddity to me. Games on the outskirts of my gaming knowledge. I have tried to play a few, but usually get stuck on the basic ACII interfaces or basic tiled graphics and sometimes high learning curves. The extent of my expertise with roguelikes is that I know of them, and I know a little of how their design functions. There is perma-death, but with each death comes new opportunities with randomly generated levels. The Binding of Isaac does this with a gameplay design that feels a little more accessible. To be able to move freely through each room and line up active shooting gives the game a sense of motion and excitement.

There is considerable skill involved in the game with the real-time shooting and moving. However, the player’s victory can merely come down to pure luck of the draw. The different permutations of dungeons and room and loot drops can either severely hurt a player, or make the game so much easier. From the treasure rooms that can hold any selection of the hundred items, to the pills, whose effects are never consistent from one playthrough to the next and hold no significant markings to help identify what they will do. It’s always a gamble on if you will be lucky enough to get a item drop to actually help you along your path. There is even a special room containing a slot machine and shuffling cup (or skull) game. You could come out of there with great items, or absolutely nothing.

Ah! The choices...

This is where the crazed genius really shines through, however. At first, the Binding of Isaac seems like a tricky Zelda-esque shooter with a Metroid style maze of dungeons, but the real strategy comes from managing your luck. You start to think, is it worth your hearts, or your items, or bombs or keys to go on through the next room? Do I need to see what items are in the shop, or can I push forward? Should I use this bomb to get those hearts, or should I try and find the secret room? Will I get more bombs later? What in God’s name will this pill do to me?!

It’s a deeper strategy than you even think you are employing. The quick use items need to be used at precisely the corrects moments, or they are wasted.  You should how many rooms it takes to recharge a off-hand item, and if the one you just found will work better for you, and if it will work well with the upgrades you currently have equipped. Some of the items you pick up can be detrimental to how you like to play. Take the chocolate milk “upgrade” for example. Instead of holding down the shoot buttons so tears automatically plop out one at a time out, the chocolate milk lets you charge tears. So for someone like myself, who prefers to hold down the buttons, that item sort of sucks. I have to be either tapping away or running around holding the button for just the right amount of time.

The one and only time I refuse chocolate milk.

Experimentation and trying your luck is just another part of the game. Whenever I get a pill that has the “???” as the description, I just instinctually gulp it down, hoping for the best. Any new item I haven’t seen before, I take, and haphazardly use it to see its effects. Experimentation with the, admittedly, unique and clever items is half the fun. A run could go a completely different direction because you sacrificed two hearts for something, like the powerful Brimstone upgrade, even though you had no idea what it was just from looking at the vague icon. When you try your luck and it works out, the run can become incredibly satisfying.

The layout of the dungeons are equally as harrowing. With each new game the placement of rooms is shuffled and rearranged into a completely new maze. Then, with each new placement, the rooms themselves become a mystery. You could easily walk into a room with nothing but a coin, then march into a room that completely obliterates your health. The choice of trying to find the shop or the secret room soon becomes affected by your courage in tempting fate with the rooms on the way. Even if you do happen to find the shop, it could be occupied by one of the mini-bosses, Greed, who is just out to take your coins. Finding an item like the compass is extremely helpful in meandering your way through danger and deciding whether to throw caution to the wind.

No matter what items you pick up, or which rooms you stumble across, this is a game that can take risk vs. reward and shove it in your face. The Binding of Isaac has the ability to leave you distraught with how cruel the random drops can be, or jovial with streaks of good fortune. But even with all the luck in the world, or the Lucky Foot, it still comes down to a player choice on how far they wish to push that luck.

Other Top Stuff of the Year

So I did my top 5 games of the year, so now it’s time for other categories. So I didn’t play every game that came out this year, but I wanted to, and that’s what counts, right? Well, I’ve made a bunch of lists for those games and others that pretty much sum up 2010 in games for me. Let’s do this.

Top 5 Honorable Mentions

Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood

AC: Brotherhood was a surprise for me. Ubisoft didn’t really push their single-player for this game at announcement and leaned more towards talking about multiplayer. Well, fortunately the game is solid on both accounts. The singleplayer is very substantial, even if it does only take place in Rome, but there is so much to do, you’ll be spending hours in just one area of the game. Late in the game, just looking at my map was crazy. There were an inordinate amount of icons littering the screen. You have to scroll through the legend, just to see what everything is. The multiplayer is just as fun and super intense. Well worth the price of admission

Bayonetta

This shit is crazy and fun as hell…that is all.

Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit

Just playing this online is really really really fun. The guys at Criterion have perfected arcade style drifting to the point that just seeing a large turn on the mini-map gets you excited. The cars look great, especially when they are getting beat up, and the tracks look pretty. There is an alarming lack of slip-screen multiplayer and custom races, but somehow that is okay, because I’m still having fun.

Just Cause 2

It looks great. It plays well. It’s incredibly open. It’s fucking bananas. The voice acting sucks. The story sucks. It’s fucking bananas.

Fallout: New Vegas

I love Fallout 3 very dearly, so when Fallout: New Vegas was announced, I was overjoyed. Then I got the game and immediately loved it as well. By the end of the game, I still loved it. The story lines and choices staggered me, but my chosen path was clear and I kept a level head. I managed to do exactly what I set out to by the end and it gave me a great feeling inside. Actually feeling like I molded what happened instead of the game. It was awesome. I really felt that way through the whole game. I felt like I was pretty much in control of everything I encountered. I had choices. It’s a shame how busted that game engine is…

Honorable Honorable Mentions:

Heavy Rain

Bioshock 2

Pokemon: HeartGold/SoulSilver

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Mafia II

Metro 2033

Call of Duty: Black Ops

Halo: Reach

Top 5 Games I Really Wanted to Play This Year But Didn’t

Mostly because I’m a poor college student…

StarCraft II

The seemingly definitive real-time strategy game got a sequel this year, and I was nowhere to be found. Part of it was the daunting skill level required for high level play. Part of it was that I didn’t have the cash…mostly it was because I’m a nincompoop.

Vanquish

This looked really fun, but I never got around to playing it. No real excuse here.

Limbo

I really wanted to play this. The atmosphere looked fantastic and the gameplay seemed tight and intriguing. But the $15 price mark for what is said to be a three hour game turned me off a little. Someday…

Civilization 5

My computer is poopy…

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

My video card is also poopy…

Top 3 Games of Earlier Years of 2010

The older games that I played a whole lot of.

Minecraft

Technically this game isn’t out yet if you want to talk specifics. I played far too much of this over the summer. I was that weird guy that would hang out with friends, then tell them about what great times I had with virtual building blocks. Sometimes I still do. But I still love it. I would sit in class, bored to tears, then whip out a notebook to begin basic blueprints for buildings. I would try and build weird structures with odd contraptions for no real reason. Traps for people that didn’t exist. Fake libraries. Fake city halls. Fake shops. Why?! It’s a great little game that has brought me hours of creative and time-wasting entertainment.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

I finally gave this game a chance, and I am so glad I did. Install a mod that fixes all the busted stuff in the game and it becomes an incredibly immersive first-person shooter. This had some of the most intense gameplay I had played in years. The monsters and the bandits all had me on edge the entire time. The scarcity of ammo and food left me searching every nook and cranny for supplies. I was in survival-horror heaven. It was fantastic and eerie and moody and violent. Sneaking around never felt so good and so intense.

Borderlands

I put hours into this game. Hours! I was collecting new weapons and armor, doing fetch quests for some measly experience points and maybe a decent pistol. I was shooting hundreds of skags and hundreds of psychos. It was fun as hell and I played as much as I could. The last few hours of the story were awesome, even if the last boss is one of the worst final bosses ever created. You could just about stand still and spray at him until he’s dead. But that is all beside the point. The game was good. Really good. I played too much of it, but I still want more.

Top 3 Huge Dissappointments

Final Fantasy XIII

This game is a grind. It’s the same battles, with the same animations you have to sit through, with the same enemies, walking down the same straight line. And that’s for the first 15 hours at least. The battles becomes a chore and a bore. I found no incentive to keep playing past where I did, even if the game does “open up”. I didn’t care at that point. The characters are fine actually. They were pretty memorable in the cutscenes, but all of their flavor got thrown out of the window anywhere else. The battle system was kind of cool, but it boiled down to constantly switching paradigms over and over. The leveling system…oh, I’m sorry, the system where you just hold a button to watch a little light go to the next gem, was boring. I tried to like it, but it was boring.

Dead Rising 2

Why did I do this to myself. I knew I didn’t like the first Dead Rising, but I had hopes for 2. Hopes they would fix the problems with the first. Did they? Kinda. Dead Rising 2 is fun, only if you just fuck about. The whole time limit aspect becomes a nuisance and can royally fuck the player over if they aren’t quick enough. The survivors can usually hold their own, but having to take them all the way back to the safehouse is the worst. Not only that, get them there, loading screen into the safehouse, then loading screen out of the safehouse. It’s a needless and annoying step. Then there are the psychos who seem impossible to beat most of the time. Sometimes you will happen upon them accidentally, then you hate to beat them, except you won’t. You will die because they take far too much damage, and they usually run around. The combat system is design for lumbering zombies, not fat chefs that run around a kitchen faster than you do.

Crackdown 2

It’s more of the same, which is okay, but they fixed very little from the first, and even added a few more issues. What a letdown.

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