Tuesday, April 24, 2012

List Maintenance, Part 1

I'm going to start doing these in batches of ten or so every couple of days until I'm happy with my current list.

Brigade E5: New Jagged Union: I acquired this game as part of the 1C complete pack. Apparently it was originally supposed to be Jagged Alliance 3, but it didn't meet with the approval of the owners of the IP (Strategy First, I believe) and they pulled the name. I've hear that it's actually somewhat fun, though. I'd like to see how this plays, but the scaling doesn't work properly with my monitor resolution. Maybe someday, but it's not going on the pile now. With the glut of stuff I have, my motivation to screw around with video card scaling just so I can play something I might like is pretty minimal. Verdict: Not making the cut.

Unstoppable Gorg: This one is a tower defense game with a twist, literally. You place your defense towers on rings that you can then rotate to move your defenses around as the incoming enemies take different routes. It's also got a hilarious retro sci-fi theme to it that should make playing it very enjoyable. Verdict: Added to the backlog

Botanicula: Botanicula is a brand-new point and click adventure game that released straight into the humble bundle. I have no idea why the creators did that, but I'm not complaining. The game is hilarious and charming - it reminds me of a Pixar movie. The trailer is entertaining enough to function as an animated short whether you even want to play the game or not. Verdict: Added to the backlog.

Darksiders: I lost my save games in a system rebuild. I'm NOT playing through all the ridiculously difficult boss battles I completed just so I can get back to where I was. The game's fun, but not THAT much fun. It's been sitting on the list for over a year now and I still haven't finished it. Verdict: Pulled from the backlog, will get a "the unfinished" entry later.

The Binding of Isaac: I lack the patience to get through this unforgiving real-time roguelike/zelda game, but I will definitely have some things to say about its deliberately-controversial content later. Verdict: Pulled from the backlog, will get a "the unfinished" entry later.

El Matador: I also got this in the 1C complete pack. It's a single-player cover shooter from the looks of it. It looked interesting enough to try, but it has a crash on launch bug. With all the other stuff waiting to be sifted through, I'm not going to bother right now.  Verdict: Not making the cut.

Toki Tori: Toki Tori is the Windows version of an android game of the same name. It's a casual puzzle game/platformer about collecting eggs. Though the mechanics are very different, it reminds me a lot of Angry Birds. While the game is fun and entertaining, it's not deep enough for any sort of real thoughtful review from me on completion. Verdict: Not making the cut.

Zeno Clash: I have some much better first-person melee games in my collection (Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and Dead Island) and this game is just too weird. I'm not going to spend the time it takes to finish a really difficult game about punching weird animal people and shooting them with fish guns. Verdict: Pulled from the backlog.

Dead Island: Dead Island is a first person shooter/melee game with some heavy RPG elements about surviving the initial stages of a zombie outbreak on a tropical island resort. I got this on sale with a gift card. It's really well-done, but it's getting nasty difficult. I'm putting it on the backlog, but it may sit there for a while, and/or it may become an eventual The Unfinished entry. Verdict: Added to the backlog.

Borderzone: Yet another thing from the 1C complete pack, Borderzone is an RPG about, as far as I can tell, a medieval fantasy setting colliding with a sci-fi one somehow. That sounds fun and interesting.Not enough for the list, though, until I get the low-res scaling issues cleared up. Verdict: Not making the cut.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cleared: Orcs Must Die!

W00t! I knocked something that wasn't Mass Effect off the list! I realized tonight that I only had two more levels left in Orcs Must Die, and while I was having some difficulty with them on the normal difficulty level, I had no trouble once I knocked them down to easy.

SPOILER WARNING: As is normal with these posts, I'm going to "spoil" the game a bit. However, I will say this: there's not a huge amount of plot in Orcs Must Die!; this is one of those games you play for the actual gameplay rather than the storyline.

Orcs Must Die! (and yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title) is an interesting hybrid of tower defense and straight-up action game. You take on the role of a lone Warmage defending magical rifts from an onslaught of orcs, ogres, kobolds, gnolls, and other assorted fantasy cannon fodder.  You accomplish this with a combination of traps, spells, and weapons, and once you start building up to higher levels, the game gets complicated quickly. Initial maps just have one entry point to cover, but later ones have several, and the last map has four arranged around a central rift. In the early parts of the game, it's mostly strategic. You set up a network of traps and pick off anything that gets through with your crossbow. However, that only gets yo so far, especially in the later levels. By the final level, you learn to set enough traps to slow the enemy down long enough to make running around and engaging groups individually feasible.

It's a fairly simple formula, but it's executed really well. The game's graphics, sound, and level design are all top notch, especially for a small indie title, and even the frat boy character you play grew on me after a while. The traps are devilishly fun, too. My favorite, I think, was a huge, ceiling-mounted swinging mace that could cover three adjacent tiles and tore through lines of advancing orcs with great efficiency, but I was also a fan of the barriers and tar traps that held my foes in place for more efficient extermination.

The story is fairly simple and certainly won't win any awards, but there are a few great moments in there, especially when you realize just what humble beginnings your PC rose from. The ending also seems very solid and conclusive, so much so that I'm interested to see what they do with the upcoming sequel.

All of this adds up to a game that's very much worth playing. It's challenging, but not maddening, fast, but not out-of-control, and the levels all seem to be just long enough to really get a strategy going, but not so long they start to drag. In addition, you can take newly-unlocked traps back to prior levels and experiment with them there, so there's a lot of potential replay value. This is one of those shining examples of just how great an indie game can be. I'll be very interested to see both what the sequel and anything else Robot Studios (the developer) dreams up looks like. Definitely one I'd recommend.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pile Paring

Okay, so I've been doing two things lately that have to be addressed in this blog. The first is, uh, slacking. The second one is accumulating way too many new games. I picked up the 1C complete pack a couple weeks back, and I've also been hitting the Humble Bundles, Indie Royale, Groupees, and Indie Gala. I am well and truly buried. In an effort to pare things down to size, I'm going to do some quick impressions of various things, probably several to a post, and give impressions of them and whether they make any sort of lasting cut, because this is just plain ridiculous.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Archive: What Cops Know

I first read What Cops Know back in the late 90s when I was originally pondering the now-abandoned idea of a career in law enforcement. It informed a lot of my impressions of what police work was like at the time.

For those that haven't read it, it's a hard book to spoil, so I'd feel fine reading from here. The reason why it's hard to spoil, by the way, is that it's not one story, but a collection of lots and lots and lots of stories. Connie Fletcher (the author) basically took a bunch of Chicago PD guys out to dinner, threw a tape recorder on the table and said "tell me stories."

The stories the various officers tell range from the hilarious to the grim and bleak, and paint an interesting picture of what life is, or at least can be, like as a police officer in a large city. It also gives you an idea of what the officers are like themselves, as people. It's a fascinating character study in both police and the difficult members of society that they interact with on a daily basis.

Fletcher has laid out the book by topic and the stories are rarely more than a page or two, so it's the sort of book you can literally open to a random page and find something entertaining to read. Because of that, I've probably read it two or three times in chunks but never cover-to cover. It's also the sort of book that I've hauled around with me to read when I'm waiting on various things, a role in which it excels. If you read the book yourself and like it, she did two more in the same "Series" one called "Pure Cop" about specialized officers and one called "Breaking and Entering" about female officers.

It was a formative book for me in many ways. It presented an unromantic but not unappealing picture of law enforcement during a specific era (the 80s and little of the 90s) when I was thinking about getting into it and helped push me into getting my AAS in criminal justice. In retrospect, that was a huge waste of time, but in this case, the old saw about 20/20 hindsight applies, I think.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Path of Exile's Stress Test Weekend

This past weekend the upcoming free-to-play action RPG (Diablo clone, if you will) Path of Exile had its first stress test. The game's currently in closed beta, but they opened it up for two days and I pounced on the chance to try it out. I was glad I did, because I liked just about everything there is to like about the game and its developer, Grinding Gear Games. Allow me to elaborate.

First of all is the game itself. It bears mentioning up front that Path of Exile does not reinvent the wheel. It puts some better tires on the wheel, for sure, but at its core, PoE is a relatively standard Diablo-sytle action RPG. There's hacking, slashing, and loot. The game is pre-rendered in 3D, but the camera is locked and there's no rag doll effects. It feels very much like a high-res version of Diablo II, graphically-speaking. That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. The art direction is very solid and the nostalgia factor is palpable. The monsters in particular are very nicely done, and there's a noticeable lack of ridiculous or comical enemies. This gives the game a very dark, serious tone.

Even though a lot of the gameplay is familiar, there are a number of interesting refinements and tweaks to the popular Diablo/Torchlight/Titan Quest/Silverfall formula. The first one that I noticed while playing is that potions aren't consumable items in the same way they are in a lot of games of this type - that is to say that they aren't "use and lose" items. Instead you get five belt slots to fill with potions flasks and these automatically refill themselves as you kill monsters. This has two effects that I noticed and enjoyed. First, it cuts down on the clutter in your inventory, which is always a welcome thing in games like this. Second, and more interestingly, it allows potion bottles that have additional effects beyond just restoring hit points or mana points, and it also allows the restoration of points in interesting ways. For example, I had a health potion bottle that healed less health per use than other bottle of the same size, but healed it instantly. (That bottle was particularly helpful in boss fights.)

Another noticeable departure from the norm is the skill tree. Again, there are two really noticeable differences from the usual formula. First, all 6 classes share one enormous skill tree. And when I say enormous, I do mean it. The skill tree looks like a coll retro star chart with branches and forks everywhere. Here's the thing though; the entire skill tree is passive. Active skills are acquired in the form of skill gems which are socketted into your equipment. This means that, among other things, any character can theoretically use any skill, though some skills are better suited to a particular class than others. More importantly, however, this combination of a vast, complex passive skill tree and instantly-interchangeable class-agnostic active skills (that also level up automatically along with you so long as they're equipped) means that you can play exactly the type of character you want to play and it's very likely that even two characters of the same class and level will be significantly different from one another. Active skills can be further enhanced with augment gems which add useful additional effects to the active skill(s) they're linked to.

Pretty cool, isn't it?
All of this customizability feeds directly into my love of complexity in my games. (And if you doubt the seriousness of that statement, consider this: I play Jagged Alliance 2 with the 1.13 patch and the AIMNAS mod on top of it because "vanilla" JA2 isn't complex enough.) However, at the same time it's not particularly opaque, intimidating, or possessed of a steep learning curve.

This brings me to the business model. The game is going to be free to play and the pay elements will all be cosmetic things. I'm very interested to see what form those cosmetic pay elements take, because what I've seen and played of Path of Exile is a remarkably polished and enjoyable package all on its own. In addition, the weapons and armor pieces all look pretty nice on the characters in their existing form. Put simply, the free parts of the game are so good I'm not quite sure what's left to charge for, but I'm sure anxious to find out!

And that brings me to the developer, Grinding Gear Games. Every indication that I've seen (and some small amount of direct contact) points to them being an exceptionally talented, friendly, and ethical game studio. In that respect, they remind me a bit of Mojang. They are deeply committed to doing the game in an ethical way, which to them means not allowing people to buy power in their game with real money (the "pay to win" model) and instead seem focused on making the game itself as appealing as possible. Furthermore, after the stress test weekend, a lot of people (myself included) have been clamoring for a way to buy their way into the closed beta. It appears that they're going to do this by allowing pre-purchases of their paid content, which will come with a beta key attached for free. Think about that for a second. People have been clamoring for a way to donate money to them, and instead of just gleefully (and gratefully) taking the funds and handing out keys, they're still trying to figure out ways to get value into their customers' hands, even though the game's not even released or even in open beta yet! I just hope whatever they do lock behind a paywall brings in sufficient revenue for them to keep the game running, because from what I've seen so far, I'm going to want to play a lot of it.

 If any of this sounds interesting to you, I hope to see you in the beta when it opens up, either to payments or entirely. As a final treat, check out the Templar trailer for the game: