Friday, October 31, 2014

FEZ - 14/20 hours

It turns out FEZ is not the game I thought it was. The impression I got from the store page, and the first few hours of gameplay, was that it was primarily a platformer. And it was under this impression that I approached the game. My focus was entirely on navigating the world. Occasionally, I would have to push switches or throw bombs, and my thought was that those little challenges were the bulk of the game's puzzles. I saw the mysterious runes in the background, but I assumed they were simply decorative (or, perhaps, one of those inconsequential easter eggs that rewards people who are super into a game's lore). I did not realize that I was playing a cryptography game, and that those runes were, in fact, most of the game's content.

The QR code should have tipped me off. It was a weird puzzle that required me to rotate the room arbitrarily, and the reward came out of nowhere, after a series of actions that had no in-setting causal explanation. That should have primed me to think about rotation codes as a general game mechanic, but I thought of it as a one-off thing - a weird, overly clever, chamber that tossed an extra cube my way for being willing to look stuff up on the internet. I was wrong.

In my defense, though, it's not as if FEZ goes out of its way to teach you how to play. There's no particular indication that deciphering the code will yield tangible rewards, and thus the only way to know that the language is worth decoding is to decode the language.

So, there came a point when my progress was completely stalled. There was literally nowhere else I could go. And there was no chance I would break through, because my thoughts were not even in the same universe as the game's. So, of course, I looked up a guide.

The revelation was not a pleasant one. Cryptography is not my favorite activity in the world, but I like to think that if I'd known I was supposed to be doing it, I'd have had the patience to see it through. That's belied by the fact that I repeatedly went back to the guide whenever I ran into a minor speedbump, but my self-flattering theory about this is that I felt blindsided by the game itself, like it somehow violated the unspoken social contract between player and game, and that since I completely missed the bulk of the information necessary to solve the puzzles, it was no great sin to lean on a pre-assembled cipher.

Or maybe I just felt like I didn't want to put that much effort into what I was still stubbornly thinking of as a charming little platformer, and my building resentment manifested as a deliberate disregard for FEZ's intended methods of solution.

It's funny how patience works. There was a level, late in the game, where I had to climb up a tower, outracing some steadily rising lava, and halfway up were these rotating platforms that I had to jump through with precision timing. If I missed a jump, that was basically it, I'd have to start the whole level over again. I must have died at least a dozen times, but it never occurred to me to give up. I just had to keep trying until I got the rhythm perfect. Yet the slightest bit of frustration with code was enough to send me running for a guide.

I wonder why that is. Is it because I feel like I'm pretty good at platforming and pretty bad at codebreaking? Or perhaps it's because a platforming challenge inherently includes an element of feedback, whereas with the codes, if I made a mistake, I'd only know about it when the whole sequence failed to work, and thus every error forced me to start back at square one. It could be that I'm simply not very intellectual . . . which is an interesting thought considering I'm also a huge nerd.

I've still got six hours to go with FEZ. I managed, using the guide, to get 100% completion (and it doesn't feel super like cheating to me, because even with the guide, I had to play for 6 hours to get to that point). So, obviously, I have to start over again, but what is my agenda here? I think I've got to solve the code "honestly." Pure honesty is, of course, impossible, because I've been spoiled on a couple of things someone coming in "raw" would have to find out the hard way, but I can still attempt to make amends to the game by trying to experience as much of it as possible.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

FEZ - 5/20 hours

I'm of two minds about this game. As long as I'm making progress and discovering new areas, I'm pretty happy, but it feels at times like that FEZ is gleefully opaque. Like, what the hell is this:

Obviously, it's a QR code - I'm not completely out of the loop. However, if you're like me, you do not have easy access to a QR reader (because, why would you), and thus this is just a big roadblock from straight out of nowhere. It was easy enough to look up online, so it's not a huge deal (it kind of stings my pride to look up hints this early, but then again, it's not the sort of thing that can actually be solved by the human brain, so I'd have had to use an outside computer program either way), but as a game mechanic, it is thoroughly unappealing. I kind of wonder what they were thinking.

Overall, I'm finding the game to be mostly fun, but mentally fatiguing. I like navigating the levels, but backtracking to find missing secrets is a pain in the ass. I also don't understand the treasure maps at all, and I have a feeling there are certain game mechanics I am not yet aware of, because the map is showing exits that are not all apparent.

That's the paradox of exploration games. Am I not finding anything because there is nothing to find, or because it is simply well-hidden? I've never really enjoyed that sort of uncertainty, but I do enjoy jumping around and rotating the levels, so there's more good than bad.

I don't know how much more of the game I have left, though I have 23 cubes and 4 anticubes, so I'm pretty close to getting through a big 32-cube door. I think that means I'm pretty close to the end of the game. After that, I'll go back and find all the secrets.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

FEZ - 2/20 hours

FEZ is a game where you control a cute little white-blob creature called Gomez. Gomez lives in a 2-D world where no one believes in cubes, which they call "devil squares." Why and how they have a superstitious name for cubes, when, as two-dimensional creatures, they have no frame of reference for such things, is not explained.

Anyway, the common beliefs are wrong. Cubes do exist, and are, in fact, essential to the functioning of the world. When the big cube breaks, the leader of the community, Geezer (who looks suspiciously like a future version of Gomez), tasks Gomez with saving the world, and gives him a magic Fez that lets him travel through the mysterious third dimension by rotating the world. Using this ability, he can overcome obstacles that are ordinarily impassible and find secrets that are hidden in the incomprehensible corners of the world.

The goal of the game is to collect cube shards, to assemble into cubes, to open doors, to find more cube shards. You know, typical platformer stuff. Overall, I really like the game. Navigating the levels, flaunting the rules of space by rotating the map, and figuring out tricky jumps are a blast. My one complaint, thus far, is that backtracking is a pain in the ass, so if you miss something in a level, replaying the level to do extra exploring is not especially viable. I think this is caused by things like one-way portals, non-obvious connections between levels, and jumps that are easier to make forward than backwards. Plus, the world map is basically useless.

It's not enough to discourage me from playing the game, but I anticipate that if I ever get to a point where my forward progress is stymied, I mind find the structure of the game to be incredibly frustrating.

Though, it's probably a bit premature to be so pessimistic. Thus far, the game is a brain-bending delight.

Monday, October 27, 2014

FEZ - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Gomez is a 2D creature living in a 2D world. Or is he? When the existence of a mysterious 3rd dimension is revealed to him, Gomez is sent out on a journey that will take him to the very end of time and space. Use your ability to navigate 3D structures from 4 distinct classic 2D perspectives. Explore a serene and beautiful open-ended world full of secrets, puzzles and hidden treasures. Unearth the mysteries of the past and discover the truth about reality and perception. Change your perspective and look at the world in a different way.

Previous Play Time

O hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

This game is on my challenge list because it was bought for me by my friend, Daniel, but it was actually on my Steam wishlist. I cut my gaming teeth on 2-D platformers, and so seeing a new, highly regarded, one come out for the PC immediately piqued my interest. The whole "2-D character in a 3-D world" gimmick also appealed to the lingering vestiges of my mathematical training.

I have nothing but high expectations for this game. I love the genre, I'm completely sold on the twist, and I'm curious to see the unique levels and puzzles that its premise makes possible.

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth - 20/20 hours

At twenty hours, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of this game. I played two games to completion, fully explored the tech-tree, and maxed out two of the three affinities. But I have not yet finished a game on normal difficulty, and I still have half the factions to try out, and I've barely paid attention to the reams and reams of flavor text that accompany technological advances, affinity levels, and completed quests.

That last one, especially, feels like a mistake. Part of the draw of the game is its sci-fi trappings, the work that went into creating and fleshing out a plausible future world, and the inhabitants, ideologies, and machinery therein. Yet, thus far, I've only really engaged the game on a mechanical level. I've tried to figure out how it works, but I haven't been paying attention to what it's trying to say.

I'm not sure how much I'm actually missing. Some games, like Bastion, have great storytelling. They use the virtues of the medium to create a form of presentation that sticks with you, even when the actual details of the story are not especially strong. Civilization: Beyond Earth seems like the opposite.

It is clear to me that a lot of thought went into the game's world-building, there are hundreds of voiced quotes from various hypothetical futuristic books and lectures, and a whole in-game encyclopedia that details the origins and implications of the stuff you build and research. Yet, despite all this effort, it almost feels like the game is apologetic about the very fact that it's telling a story. To discover all the background work, you have to dig for it. The vast majority of the flavor is hidden inside menus. The encyclopedia takes you out of the game-screen entirely, and even the stuff available from the main interface (such as the quest menu) is completely skippable.

I understand that the reason for this is to allow the player maximum autonomy. Those who are really interested in the story can search it out, whereas those who don't care are not bothered by intrusive pop-ups or narration. And I can respect that decision, but it made the story and the world feel a little bloodless to me, as if it didn't really matter, and that I was simply enjoying a sci-fi skin on a strategy game that could have taken place anywhere.

I think, in the future, I will resolve to actually do the work and deliberately seek out the story elements, but that is a goal for another time. For now, I'm ready to move on to a new game. While I'm generally positive about Civilization: Beyond Earth, I think it still needs a bit more polish before it can stand aside the classics of the genre.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth - 17/20 hours

Well, I did it again. I stayed up way too late playing Civilization: Beyond Earth. I expect that if I didn't have to occasionally take breaks to write this blog, I'd probably be at least 25 hours in by now. If the game had dropped on one of my days off, I probably would have gotten to 20 hours after the first day of playing.

So, that must mean that the game is pretty good, right?

Not really. Though it's a little hard to explain why.

Civilization is like the world's most complicated board game. You have a map that is divided into tiles (the first four games used a square grid, civ5 and BE use a hexagonal grid). Each of these tiles is worth a certain amount of resources. Traditionally, the three resources are food, production, and commerce, though civ5 changed "commerce" to "gold" and the sci-fi games use "energy" which is more or less the same same thing (there is a bit of nuance to this, that I don't want to go into just now).

In order to access these resources, you have to build cities. A city will allow you to work one tile per point of population, out to a certain maximum radius. To claim more territory and get more resources, you have to found more cities. Cities use food to build up their population (each point of population requires 2 food to sustain it, if your tiles produce more than that, your population grows, if they produce less, it shrinks), production to build units and buildings, and gold to pay maintenance costs and (in emergencies, because it's generally inefficient) to buy things instead of building them (the advantage of buying is that it's instant). In all the civ games prior to 5, you used commerce for science as well, but in civ5 and BE, science is tracked separately.

In addition to cities, you also control units. Mostly these are your military - anything from armored knights to fighter jets, but there are a couple of special use units that range from the handy (civ2's caravans) to the absolutely essential (colonists units to found new cities and worker units to improve tiles and increase their yields).

Cities can also build various buildings, which can have a wide variety of effects. Usually, they improve your cities' output, but some building will improve your units, or make your tiles more valuable, or make your cities more resilient in combat. There is a special class of buildings, called "wonders" that can only be built once, anywhere (so if your opponent builds them, you are SOL). Wonders most often have an effect on your whole society, often granting blanked bonuses to all of your cities and/or units, though sometimes they just have a powerful effect in a single city, or provide a useful one-time bonus (like a free technology).

What you can build in Civilization is determined by your technology level. As the game goes on, you research new technologies to unlock buildings and units (and sometimes, learning new technologies will just give you direct bonuses, like increasing the movement of your ships or making your tile improvements more powerful). Learning new technologies is not a straight line, however. Rather, you progress along a "tech tree," where learning technology in one area unlocks the potential to learn more sophisticated versions of that tech later on (so, for example you might progress from bronze working to iron working to steel, but someone else could learn writing then literature then education).

The game is divided into turns, and the whole strategy of it revolves around using those turns well. Units can move only a certain number of tiles per turn. Cities take multiple turns to build things. Every turn you earn a certain amount of science points which will help advance your technology (this is important because earlier technologies in the tree cost less than later ones, so it's often better to go back and branch out and learn different areas than to just always chase the most advanced thing available - so, for example learning bronze working then writing then iron working then literature, etc, instead of specializing in one field).

To win the game, you have to pursue one of several victory conditions. The most obvious is to simply wipe out the other players' civilizations. Obviously, if they have no cities they can't build anything, and thus they can't threaten you. So, once you've taken over all their cities, you win (civ 5 changed this so you only had to take over their original capitols, which is not quite as satisfying, but is considerably faster). But you don't have to be violent if you don't want to. There's always at least one peaceful way to win. Usually this is by launching a spaceship (and thus proving your ultimate mastery of the tech tree), but the later civ games have introduced more elaborate ways to leverage your civilization's diplomatic relationships and cultural achievements into victory.

And that, in a nutshell, is the core of the Civilization experience. Every game in the series has those elements in common. And because the core is so strong (seriously, it is impossible to play this game for any length of time without falling into a hypnotic trance), it's really difficult to make a bad Civilization game.

That said, the games in the series are not all created equal. You can judge them based on the nuances of the execution. How long does it take to process each turn (and how does that vary in the different stages of the game)? How long does it take to build things in the cities and how does that compare to the research times on the tech tree? How powerful are the units compared to one another, and how long do they stay useful? How does a peaceful playthrough compare to a military one? How fun and engaging are the victory conditions?

You have to view a 4X game as a harmonious whole, where the various elements combine to make you feel like you're in control, your choices matter, and your success and failure depend more on your tactical and strategic acumen then they do on simply knowing the ins-and-outs of the system and exploiting oversights in the game design.

So far, Civilization: Beyond Earth feels a little half-baked. Its big innovation is a change in the shape of the tech-tree, so that instead of having to learn a particular series of prerequisites, each new basic tech has two possible root techs, and you only have to learn one or the other to advance. This is an intriguing idea, but I'm finding it makes the game very unbalanced (though, to be fair, I have been playing in on the easiest difficulty just so I could go through the tech tree and see what everything did). I'm also less than impressed with the game's victory conditions (they mostly seem to be of the "build this useless thing and guard it" variety). And I'm finding the differences in the affinities to be less compelling than advertised.

Further complaints:

Wonders are too bland and don't have enough of an effect to justify seeking them out.
High level building and units cost so many resources that you only get a limited number of the game's coolest toys (though, perhaps, this is just me whining)
The unit upgrade system locks you into choices that you may wind up regretting, and in any event reduce your military flexibility for no good reason.
Buildings are generally pretty boring and require you to shape your development strategy around chasing many small bonuses.

Yet, I wouldn't be too hard on the game. It's bound to get balance patches as people discover its flaws, and the inevitable expansion will shake things up and add cool new wonders, units, and gameplay mechanics. It's practically a truism of the series at this point. The initial release version is a fun tech demo, but it's not until the second expansion that it becomes a classic. And if that sound a bit cynical and defeatist, well, that's only because it downplays the fact that Beyond the Sword and Brave New World were both really, really good expansions.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth - 10/20 hours

Ten hours in less than one day, spent on a game that is, technically, broken. That was not unexpected. I think, fundamentally, I simply can't say "no" to a 4X game. Of the turn-based 4X games in my library, only Fallen Enchantress and Space Empires IV have less than 30 sunk into them, and even then, the reason for that is that I own strictly superior sequels to both. Discounting those two and Beyond Earth, the average for the rest of my games is 100 hours (there are a couple of outliers - Space Empires V, at 37 hours, and Civilization V, at 345 hours).

Obviously, I love the genre, but why?

If I had a mutant ability, it would probably my resistance to boredom. If I had a superhero weakness, it would be my inability to multitask (my comic-book adventures would . . . not be popular). These types of games require the player to sort through a lot of information and to make a myriad of small decisions, but the turn-based structure divides time into easily manageable units. It's an abstraction that means you can have the sensation of having to do a hundred things at once, but the reality is that "at once" can actually mean "over the course of several minutes."

I find it a bottomless well that I can fill with my attention. Over the course of hours, my colony will grow, from a humble group of Franco-Iberian artists, put on a spaceship for some reason, into a world-conquering force of fanatical human purity, driving levitating tanks and artillery over the world's oceans to bring the peace of the sword to those who would condemn the ambition of my regime.

And it's the foreknowledge of the epic sweep of history, along with the memory of the care and planning that went to build it up, combined with the low investment of playing just one more turn, that makes these sort of games addictive. I've never tried drugs, but I can't imagine there is any chemical substance more enthralling than a really compelling 4X game. When I'm playing, nothing else matters. I've skipped meals, skirted dangerously close to neglecting my job duties (I've got about 20 minutes worth of paperwork I have to do each night, and there are times when I've finished it during the last half hour of my shift), and stayed up way too late to play these games.

So, I'm really the last person to say whether a particular 4X game is good or bad. I can say that I wound up getting 6 hours of sleep today, due to overplaying Civilization: Beyond Earth and that is a game where the individual terrain tiles are smeared due to my underpowered graphics card. At a certain point, you just stop noticing . . . well, anything. Sub-par graphics, fatigue, the world itself. None of it compares to the feeling of striding an alien world like a living god, knowing that you command unstoppable armies of high-tech hovertanks, and that it was all due to your planning and design. And, of course, if you just play for a little while longer, your victory will be complete.

I may have a problem here.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth - 3/20 hours

It was bound to happen sooner or later. My laptop is starting to fall unacceptably behind the curve. The PC graphics treadmill has claimed another victim.

I knew I was close. Dark Souls just barely worked, but when I searched online for a fix, everyone said the PC port was notoriously finicky and taxed even powerful computers, so I convinced myself that I wasn't that far behind. I wasn't quite current, but I was close enough.

And then, unaccountably, Civilization: Beyond Earth looked worse than Civilization 5:

And I couldn't deny the truth any more - I am now officially out of the loop. Sigh.

 It shouldn't affect the blog too much, because most of my games are old enough or simple enough for my machine to play, but it does mean that newer games are all going to be suspect from this point on. I suppose I ought to buy a new computer eventually, but as you might guess from the fact that I have a job that lets me play video games for several hours a night, I don't make a lot of money. I got my current computer by going to a shady flea market and getting impossibly lucky (I later learned they were selling "refurbished" computers that were fixed just enough to turn on, and that several people around town were totally burned by them - the only problem with mine was the power supply), so I don't anticipate finding something in my price range any time soon.

Still, I've never been particularly picky, and I actually wound up playing this game for three hours tonight, crazy graphical glitches and all. My verdict - it's pretty good.

I can't really go into more detail than that, because I'm still totally at sea when it comes to the gameplay. It's just similar enough to Civ 5 that I managed to get myself in serious trouble. When I left off, I was last in score, and probably only two or three turns away from having war declared upon me by an aggressive neighbor. Seeing as how I was in no position to fight them off, due to floundering through the tech tree, I don't think I will continue that particular save.

Of course, three hours with a 4X game is practically nothing. I expect I'll get better in time. The key is to play through a few games in order to get a feel for the techs and the units, and to find ways to leverage early advantages into long-term strengths. The way I usually do this is by playing a few games at quick speed and easy difficulty. I didn't do that this time because I thought "I can beat Civ 5's Prince difficulty in my sleep, so there's no reason to start at square one here."  It's becoming clear that my mind does not work that way.

So, for my next post, I shall retreat, with head hung low, back to the warm embrace of the minimum difficulty level, so that I may discover for myself what exactly is going on.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth is a new science-fiction-themed entry into the award-winning Civilization series. Set in the future, global events have destabilized the world leading to a collapse of modern society, a new world order and an uncertain future for humanity. As the human race struggles to recover, the re-developed nations focus their resources on deep space travel to chart a new beginning for mankind. 

As part of an expedition sent to find a home beyond Earth, you will write the next chapter for humanity as you lead your people into a new frontier and create a new civilization in space. Explore and colonize an alien planet, research new technologies, amass mighty armies, build incredible Wonders and shape the face of your new world. As you embark on your journey you must make critical decisions. From your choice of sponsor and the make-up of your colony, to the ultimate path you choose for your civilization, every decision opens up new possibilities.

Previous Play Time

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

4-X games are my favorite genre, and I've extensively played every version of the Civilization series thus far, so getting this game was kind of a no-brainer.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Obviously, since the game won't unlock for another 12 hours, I can't have any real experience with it. However, I've followed the previews very closely, including watching some hour-long let's plays. So, I don't think it'll surprise me much. It looks like Civilization in Space, which is a pretty awesome thing to be.

My biggest fear would be that it will turn out to be a simple reskin of Civilization 5, though even then, that would not make me hate the game (Civ 5 is currently my most played game on Steam). It would just make me feel a little foolish for buying it at full price.

It is perhaps a paradox that, while I got myself into this huge game backlog by reflexively chasing bargains, I am, at heart, a sentimentalist when it comes to games, and I love playing my favorite series on day one (my absence from this blog for the last 10 days is entirely due to the console version of Borderlands: The Presequel). So far, this has rarely gotten me into trouble (Fable 3 is my closest call, and I still loved that game more than it probably deserved), and I don 't think Civilization: Beyond Earth is going to be the game that breaks my streak. I expect the hardest part will be putting it down to play the next game in line.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Borderlands - Claptrap's New Robot Revolution Wrap-up (28 hours)

This DLC requires me to undergo a bit of a mental adjustment. I'd gotten used to seeing Claptrap as Claptrap, an annoying little robot who tagged along on my adventures and somehow got the idea that we were friends. I'd forgotten that Claptrap was actually a claptrap, part of an entire line of annoying robots of unspecified function (the claptraps I'd helped in the main appear to be able to dance, open doors, and upgrade my storage capacity, so your guess is as good as mine).

According to the story Marcus tells when you first arrive at Tartarus Station (to a perceptive and critical kid who I think would be funny to meet in a future installment of the game), the Hyperion Corporation comes to see the vault hunters as a drain on the economy, so they reprogram a claptrap unit to become Interplanetary Ninja Assassin Claptrap and dispatch the characters in various subtle ways (such as spreading catty rumors). But then the INAC gains self-awareness and turns on its masters, so I'm called in to clean up the mess (the fact that I was originally marked for death by these people never comes up).

Mostly it's a fun excuse to kill claptraps, but it makes me wonder - where was the Claptrap during all this? He wasn't killed, but was that because he simply didn't get in my way? Was he actually the Interplanetary Ninja Assassin, who, in the end, was reprogrammed rather than killed? There was no hint of that in Borderlands 2, but it would be weird not to see at least some mention of it in the Pre-sequel (or maybe it wouldn't because it's a four year old optional add on to a game that has since had a sequel and four additional add-ons).

Whoever he turns out to be, the villainous claptrap is probably the best part of the DLC. He has the same mixture of juvenile humor and unmerited confidence that make's BL2's Claptrap such a hoot, and his popping in to comment on you deeds is always fun.

The worst part of the DLC has got to be the bosses. All of the enemies (after a brief opening mission) are mind controlled by INAC's technology (indicated by them sporting a weird dome on their heads and having their names changed so as to end in "-trap" e.g. "skagg-trap"), and as you proceed through the game, you will encounter -trapped versions of certain bosses - General Knoxx, Dr Ned, and Commandant Steele (who is really just a reskinned Atlas assassin). It's a little annoying having to replay all these fights, but what elevates this to a true complaint is the fact that, before you can get to INAC himself, you have to do a boss rush where you face them all again.

Recycling boss characters for the DLC is a little lazy. Doing it twice is just unforgivable padding.

It's not that big a deal, though, because, other than that, the story is pretty fun. You see Tannis again (though she's played more like a generic mad scientist than is entirely merited by her backstory as an insane archeologist), and Marcus is there (meaning you see him, in person, at New Haven, T-bone Junction, and Tartarus station, as well as driving the bus at the beginning of the game - does the dude ever sleep?), plus the new character, Mr Blake, is somewhat amusing. He's a bit drier than most of the post-DLC Borderlands characters, but he gets some good lines (like when INAC takes over a factory to build an army of claptraps and he complains about "the clear violation of Hyperion's patents and copyrights.").

Overall, I'm glad I played this DLC (though I had to fudge a bit and start it up on playthrough 2, because the recommended level on PT1 was only 37, luckily you can travel to the DLC areas right from the start of the game), and I feel well prepared to start playing the Pre-sequel tomorrow. I don't think I'll bother with the Island of Dr Ned or the Underdome, because I think I can probably go at least 18 hours without playing a video game.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Borderlands - Secret Armory of General Knoxx Wrap-up (23 hours)

Obviously, I loved the original Borderlands. If I didn't, I wouldn't have bought it three times (granted, only one of those - the disc version of the Game of the Year Edition - was at full retail, but still). Yet, Borderlands 2 has so completely eclipsed it in my affections that my main thought while playing the DLC was "at last, this feels like Borderlands."

It's a subtle change, but there are significant differences in the plot and presentation that make the Secret Armory of General Knoxx feel like an entirely different game.

Obviously, there's the silly stuff, like Athena hijacking the ENGORGE broadcasts in order to communicate, or the Crimson Lance's admiral being a five-year-old promoted by nepotism, but I think it goes deeper than that.

Your enemies are more fleshed out characters. At one point, you obtain critical information from a recording of two Crimson Lance soldiers talking about mundane personal matters like Ice Cream Day (it's in the Lance rulebook, code 3.5.31) and visiting the World's Largest Bullet (a great Pandora location if ever there was one). The big villains, Mr Shank and General Knoxx, pop in on your ECHO recorder to taunt you (Mr Shank even gets a line that deserves to be a classic: "is this what stealth looks like to you?"). The Atlas drones spout propaganda while they're trying to kill you.

The other subtle change is that the cast of NPCs was pruned down to just the weirdos and oddballs. Unlike the main campaign, at no point do you have to deal with a "normal" person. The result is a world that is colored by the strange obsessions of the people around you - Marcus' shameless greed, Scooter's dumb-as-fuck sexism, or Moxxi's . . . um, general Moxxiness.

The story itself revolves around an assassin named Athena. I'm not quite clear on her motivation, but I think she wants revenge on the Atlas corporation because they tried to eliminate her for vaguely defined reasons. You talk to her a lot, and while she is not as amusing as the series' tentpole characters, I think there's potential there. She is dour and terse, and those traits, sufficiently exaggerated, could form the basis of a fun comedic character. Or at least, I'm hoping. She's been promoted to a player character for the pre-sequel, and it would be a shame if she turns out to be dull.

Unless Athena turns out to be a breakout character, I think the biggest legacy of The Secret Armory of General Knoxx is the expanded role for Mad Moxxi. She was introduced in Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot, but plays a much larger part in this DLC.

Moxxi is a tricky character. She is a saucy, indiscriminately promiscuous bisexual with the body of a porn star who dresses in revealing fetish gear. That's not something I intrinsically have a problem with, but it comes across as just the teensiest bit exploitative, like someone on the team learned the definition of "the male gaze," and said, "you know what, let's make a character based on that." And I'm not sure I really get her.

Is she a sincere attempt at fan service or is her over-the-top "sexiness" actually a commentary on us, the gamers? Are we supposed to laugh at ourselves, seeing this exaggerated, hyper feminine, gratuitously sexual character as a gentle parody of the general tendency of games to objectify anything female? I don't think so. Though she is ridiculous enough to qualify as a parody, I think what really happened was that some artist somewhere liked drawing half naked women with big boobs and someone higher up in the chain of command picked one of the drawings that they thought looked cool.

Yet, despite the pandering, I kind of like Moxxi. Maybe my affection for the series is causing me to cut it more slack than it deserves, but I feel like, rather than being a shallow sexpot, she's actually a pretty strong character. This opinion is primarily based on stuff from Borderlands 2, but the fleshing out begins here. We learn that Moxxi is Scooter's mother, which puts her in an age bracket that is not commonly represented in video games. It's an interesting choice to make the game's "sexy" character a woman with adult children, especially since (as far as I know) the word "milf" is not uttered once.

Plus, Moxxi is a huge dork. She flirts constantly, but not effectively. At one point, she says the words "tiger roar" in a smarmy voice. She makes a crude "that's what she said" joke. It makes her feel like a more real, specific character.

But if I can accept Moxxi's lame sex jokes, Mr Shank's running gag is over the line. It's just an unfortunate intersection between prison rape humor and a really tone-deaf representation of gay men. The gay stuff is not super offensive, but there's an element of "tee-hee, it's funny because they want to have sex with each other."

Luckily that was only a small element of the story. General Knoxx is a fun villain. When you face him, he in the middle of committing suicide (while wearing power armor, for some reason), and he has an admirably realistic view of his chances against you (i.e. it's basically the same as committing suicide). When you beat him, you get a pretty cool reward - the ability to raid the armory and open a couple dozen treasure chests.

You only have a couple of minutes to grab as much loot as possible. It's kind of a blast, running from chest to chest, and loading yourself down with blue and purple weapons (sadly, I didn't find any oranges, probably because of my low level), though it doesn't actually make a lot of sense that you would set the bomb timer before you thoroughly search the armory.

Finally, the level scaling in this DLC may be even worse than the base game. I started it at level 36 and wound up at 41, and did only the main quests (plus the unavoidable assassin squad side quest), but the quest levels only ranged up to 37. It's a little inexplicable that you could so outpace the content without any grinding.

Still, I had fun, and I'm looking forward to Claptrap's Robot Revolution (if it isn't too low a level).

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Borderlands - 19/20 hours

Borderlands' main storyline is as simple as it gets. There's an ancient vault that only opens every 200 years. The key to that vault is in three pieces. The pieces are held by bandits. Kill the bandits, get the key, open the vault. The real appeal of the game lies in its texture. There's a sense that the world of Pandora is gleefully psychopathic, and that your character is not so much a mass murderer who slaughters bandits and Crimson Lance soldiers by the hundreds as they are a simple contractor who is doing honest work in a dangerous environment. The tension between and humorous juxtaposition of these two ideas will be much more explicit in the sequel and the DLC, but there are already hints of it if accept the right sidequests and religiously read their descriptions.

It's interesting to me that of the game's major quest-givers - Dr Zed, Shep Sanders, Scooter, Lucky, Helena Pierce, and Patricia Tannis, half of them don't survive to the sequel. And the ones that do are the less serious characters, who all have a quirk that acts as a hook for jokes - Dr Zed's medical incompetence, Scooter's general redneckedness, and Tannis' horrifying psychological trauma. In a way, it feels like a mission statement for Borderlands 2 - the series is going to become more jokey and less serious.

Which, honestly, is probably for the best, because the "serious" parts of the game don't really work. Specifically, I'm thinking of the ending. By having the Destroyer come out of the vault, the game is trying to retroactively make the story about a hero chosen by destiny, someone who started off as an amoral mercenary, but who was thrust into events of cosmic importance. The problem is that this is sprung on you at the very last minute, with no sort of foreshadowing. Up until the Destroyer actually emerges, you are in fact an amoral mercenary, and the excitement of opening the vault is due entirely to the promise of alien technology, wealth, power, and women (I was really looking forward to meeting those vault women, too). To find out that the vault was really a not very interesting boss with no significant treasure just felt like a low blow.

But I'm not really saying anything that followers of the series don't already know (they even make a joke about it in the opening of Borderlands 2). Plus, they more than make up for it with the awesome treasure troves in the DLC.

Speaking of which, I'm on the fence about whether to play them. I definitely have to at least do the General Knoxx DLC, because it introduces Athena, who will be a playable character in the Pre-sequel. And all of them are fun enough to be intrinsically worth playing. However, level scaling is going to be even more of an issue than it was with the main game. I wound up being level 35 when the suggested mission level was 31. I think the bigger DLCs start at level 35, but I'm pretty sure that doing one will make the others unplayable. Ordinarily, what I'd do now is try to beeline through new game+, because the game automatically scales to your current level when you beat the Destroyer a second time, but I'm not sure I want to play this game for another 30 hours (especially since I have Borderlands 2 and all its incredible DLC waiting for me).

I think, what I'm going to do is try and rush through the General Knoxx storyline, while avoiding sidequests, in order to be as low a level as possible for Claptrap's Robot Revolution, and then, if I'm not too overpowered, try and squeeze in the Island of Dr Ned. I might play around a bit with Moxxi's Underdome, but honestly, that doesn't have much story interest, and since it scales with your character, I can save that for last (though I might pop in to use the storage for some of my cooler weapons).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Borderlands - 10/20 hours

Borderlands is a game I've played for literally hundreds of hours. For me, there is no mystery to it. There is nothing left to discover (I could, of course, be wrong - that's the tricky part of mystery). Everything I see, I've seen before, often as much as a dozen times.

And yet, it's been years since I last played Borderlands, so many of my memories do not instantaneously leap to mind, and some of the ones that do are less than accurate. So, it's kind of like I'm playing the game through the mental equivalent of a pair of heavy gloves. There is a noticeable disconnect between my immediate sensory awareness of the game and my deeper intellectual perception of it.

It feels like my hands are playing the game, and my brain is watching it. That's an odd sensation, but not an unpleasant one. As I work my way through the Caustic Caverns or Earl's Junkyard, my mind wanders, and I'm free to think deep thoughts about the important issues of the day or (more realistically) shallow thoughts about what I'm planning on eating for breakfast (frozen enchiladas, in case you're curious). And I never, ever get lost, which if you've been paying attention to these ramblings of mine, you'd know is the video game scenario that above all others demoralizes and disinterests me.

I guess that might make playing Borderlands sound kind of boring. And while I will admit to fantasizing about the more engaging stories of the DLC and  Borderlands 2 (not to mention the completely unknown story of the forthcoming Pre-Sequel), I would call my current experience "comfortable." Playing Borderlands is like sitting around with an old friend. We may have nothing new left to say to each other, but our routine works so well, there's really not a need.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Borderlands - 6/20 hours

I'd forgotten how much I enjoy this game. I didn't want to stop playing and write a post. Before I started, I worried that I might unwittingly compare it to Borderlands 2 and find it wanting, and while it's true that there are gameplay features I miss (such as the ability to scroll the map, or see the adjusted values of my skills after equipping a class mod), the game is such mindless, gun-blasting fun that in the moment, it doesn't really matter. There's a reason Borderlands got a sequel.

The plot of the last four hours is basically not worth mentioning. There's a bandit called Sledge, and I killed him. I think the people of Fyrestone regard me as a kind of vigilante hero. I'm more inclined to see the vault hunters as amoral mercenaries, though I suppose, on average, they are more on the side of right. I suppose that is one thing Pandora has going for it - the good guys pay better.

Level scaling continues to be a problem. I went out of my way to head for areas at or above my level, but doing so earned me enough xp and equipment to render the other areas trivial. It's always such a delicate dance, and one I never quite get right. I know I should avoid too many side-quests, to keep the main quest interesting, but leaving them behind makes me feel itchy, like I'm ignoring something important. It's kind of ridiculous.

Luckily, I somewhat enjoy being overpowered. As long as I'm not too far ahead, there is something satisfying about being able to wade into a horde of enemies, hose them down with bullets, and be the last thing standing.

The best part of the game, even in areas where the enemies are pitifully low level, is the loot. I think, taken as a group, the guns in Borderlands 2 are better, but Borderlands has a few neat ones that got cut. Borderlands' gun manufacturers are distinguished more by tendencies than absolute boundaries - VJakobs does more damage, Vladof has a high rate of fire, S&S has huge magazines, Maliwan is elemental, Atlas is all around good, and Tediore sucks (I'm not sure what exactly Dahl or Torgue do, but they tend to be pretty good). Compared to their counterparts in the sequel, only S&S is better, but that's primarily because it does not suffer the "balancing" penalties that Bandit weapons do (I think they may have overestimated how much of a disadvantage reloading is). The main thing I miss is weird and unbalanced combinations of gun type and manufacturer, like Vladof shotguns that have the rate of fire of a combat rifle, or S&S sniper rifles, which can give you a dozen chances to hit a far off enemy.

My build thus far is a straight controller Lilith. Diva gives me a significant boost to shields, Inner glow lets me heal while phasewalking, and Hard to Get reduces my phasewalk cooldown. Overall, this makes me pretty tough, though I'm still probably about 15 levels away from being an unstoppable death goddess. I'm looking forward to it. Even though I do not need that kind of power, on account of being 3 levels ahead of my current content, there will be sudden spikes in the level requirements, and it'll be nice to be able to tackle the more rewarding areas as quickly as possible.

(It's best not to think about how this will further mess up my main quest and dlc level scaling).

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Borderlands - 2/20 hours

The opening of Borderlands does a pretty good job selling the game. Marcus narrating the legend of the the Vault is just plain fun, though his list of things people hope to find is a bit whimsical. Money and power make sense, but then he includes fame and . . . women. I guess the implication is that people will be super impressed by whoever finds the Vault, but I always wind up imagining that there are women just hanging out in the Vault for hundreds of years. Who are they? How did they get there? Why would aliens bother putting human women in their Vault? Who knows. I don't imagine them as unhappy, because that would be depressing. Nor do I imagine that they will reward the Vault hunters with sex, because that would be gross. What I picture is opening the Vault and some random, unremarkable woman saying, "hey, hello," in surprised, but otherwise perfectly ordinary tone of voice. It always makes me laugh.

After Marcus' narration, there's a cool opening song, and then the character select screen. The vault hunters are introduced by each one inexplicably striking a badass pose on an apparently uneventful bus ride. Also, Angel starts talking to you, but nothing she says is particularly interesting or important (to clarify - Angel is a pretty cool character in Borderlands 2, but her appearance here is total snoozeville).

Once off the bus, Claptrap guides you through a brief tutorial level (minor gripe - the pop-up tutorial messages don't register the presence of a controller, and thus instruct you on which keyboard keys to press, even when that advise is useless - luckily, I've played this game so much the controls are now pure muscle memory).

Claptrap is a lot like Angel in that the second game gives him a lot of characterization that isn't present in the first. His voice is still moderately annoying, and he still dances when he has nothing better to do, but his instructions to you are direct and straightforward, with none of the delusion self-importance or slightly fey incompetence that makes him such a funny character in Borderlands 2 (he may get fleshed out more in the DLC - I'll keep my eyes open).

I think the issue here is that Borderlands has not yet found its voice. You have a semi-serious storyline of helping Fyrestone deal with bandit gangs, but then Skooter talking about his mama's busted girl parts. Many characters have their defining quirks (or at least hints of them), but it's not yet clear who's going to capture the imagination of the fandom (I have a suspicion that TK Baha was originally conceived as being more important than he eventually winds up being).

So, the story and presentation have not yet reached their maximum potential. And the gameplay is pretty rough too. It's a fun, casual shooter, but so far the rpg elements are kind of a hindrance. Specifically, the level scaling and map layout makes much of the early game a little tedious. I'm level 10, but in order to turn in quests and advance the story, I had to pass through long stretches with level 2-4 enemies, which can do me no serious harm, don't offer enough experience to be worth fighting, and yet are too annoying to ignore. This will clear up a bit later in the game, when enemies are more of a threat, but for now, I'm just going through the motions.

Collecting loot is still a blast, though. I found a blue double anarchy in TK's wife's grave. (For those of you who aren't familiar with the game, that makes the already easy opening levels completely trivial). The gambling-like rush of lucky finds like that never gets old, and for all its lack of polish, Borderlands is built on an incredibly fun and addictive formula.

Truthfully, it seems churlish to complain. Borderlands 2 also had a slow opening section. It's just something that I have to deal with. Luckily, I'm almost through the worst of it, and soon the game will open up enough that I should be able to stick to more rewarding areas (provided I don't do what I always do and accept every damned quest that comes my way, and thus wind up 3-5 levels ahead of the curve).

It's been awhile since I've played, but Borderlands is already sucking me in. It is truly a time waster par excellence.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Borderlands - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Lock, Load, & Face the Madness

Get ready for the mind blowing insanity! Play as one of four trigger-happy mercenaries and take out everything that stands in your way! 

With its addictive action, frantic first-person shooter combat, massive arsenal of weaponry, RPG elements and four-player co-op*, Borderlands is a breakthrough experience that challenges all the conventions of modern shooters. Borderlands places you in the role of a mercenary on the lawless and desolate planet of Pandora, hell-bent on finding a legendary stockpile of powerful alien technology known as The Vault. 

Previous Play Time

1 minute

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Sometimes, I shop for less than noble reasons. As I recall, the day I bought Borderlands for the PC, I was feeling a little depressed, so I decided to browse the Steam Store in the hopes of finding a cheap game to buy as a pick-me-up. It just happened that the Borderlands game of the year edition was on deep discount that day, and I figured that since I already owned Borderlands 2, it would be nice to play the entire saga when I eventually got around to it.

Such dubious, emotional and completionist driven purchases are a significant factor in why I have so many unplayed games. (I'm trying to be better, I swear).

Expectations and Prior Experience

I played the hell out of this game on the console. I got all four characters up to level 69 and had an incredible stockpile of orange weapons that I never used. I even played online to take out Crawmerax, though I got kind of disillusioned with that whole scene when people kept giving me modded weapons.

In a way, I think my prior experience gives me some extremely realistic expectations of what I'm about to experience. There is literally no part of Borderlands that I have not already played 4-8 times (I'm pretty sure that I skipped some of the DLC on the first playthrough and only tackled it in new game+). However, I haven't actually touched this game at all (on either PC or console) since Borderlands 2 came out, and I'm a little worried that the later game has completely eclipsed the earlier in my affections. Perhaps going back to the original will expose me to flaws in the game that I did not notice the first time through, and have grown unable to accept.

Then again, Borderlands was strong enough to occupy me for literally hundreds of hours, so it's kind of doubtful that it's lost all of its charm just because a sequel did certain things better. Only time will tell, though. 

Half Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax Ultimate Boy - 20/20 hours

My last five hours were not spent doing anything particularly interesting, just picking up equipment I missed on the first pass through, and trying for the odd title that caught my fancy. Some of these were pretty straightforward - I'd just neglected to buy from a shop on my first run. Others were frustrating - trying to get the Barely title by beating level 2 without using the goddess statue was an exercise in futility. And a small number were actually interesting - beating the Sage required gaming the experience system, and getting the hero sword took me into a side story I completely missed the first time through (because when Sasha said, "stay away from the monument in the north," my finely-honed rpg instincts told me that monument was the place to be).

There's still more to do, and normally I'd have no problem spending a few hours tidying up loose ends, but lately I've kind of been feeling a little like the Hero. Time is pressing down on me, and if I don't keep moving, everything will fall apart. . .

Although, now that I say it, it seems like an excessively grim takeaway for what is, in essence, a light and casual time-waster of a video game. So, let's say instead that I have a lot I want to do, and only 24 hours a day in which to do it. And if those 24 hours can sometimes seem as restrictive as the Hero's 30 seconds, well at least I have the advantage of being able to accumulate experience from day to day.

Overall, I liked it. Half Minute Hero may not be the deep meditation on the nature of time that I made it out to be, but it had some fun puzzles and amusing jokes and a solid enough core of gameplay that the last 20 hours practically flew by.

Wait . . . maybe it is a deep meditation on the meaning of time . . .

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Half Minute Hero - Super Mega Neo Climax Ultimate Boy - 15/20 hours

For the last five hours, I've been working my way through the alternate game modes and I have a minor complaint. Evil Lord 30, Princess 30, and Knight 30 are different games, depending on which graphic mode you use. The game does nothing to warn you about this. So, I initially made it through all three and into Hero 300 in just a few minutes. It was pretty disappointing.

However, once I got things straightened out and realized that there was more game to be had by going into retro mode, I was fairly happy. Each of the three extra modes features a unique character and a fun little mini game. Granted, these characters are super-thin and the games are a bit simple and repetitive, but since they're also really short, none of them outstay their welcome.

The Evil Lord is a vain anti-hero seeking a cure for his bat-ified girlfriend, Millenia, and he gets through levels by summoning three different types of monsters. The trick is to match the monster type to the enemy type in order to proceed as quickly as possible.

The Princess is a meek and retiring damsel who turns into a gung-ho badass whenever she holds her (seemingly ordinary) crossbow. Her game is a side-scrolling shooter.

The Knight, I don't quite have a handle on. He seems a little dim, but his persistence and loyalty get him through many dangerous situations. His game is a series of escort missions, where you have to protect a Sage (who has a bit of a snarky streak) while he casts a magic spell. The monsters in this mode cannot be killed, which makes it more of a puzzle than an action game.

When you beat all these modes, you unlock Hero 300, which is more or less like an especially long level of the normal game, except that you can't rewind time.

Then, when you beat that, you unlock Hero 3, which is clearly the product of a deranged mind. It is exactly like the normal game, except you don't have 30 seconds, you have 3. I can't imagine that I'll ever get past it, and I'm not entirely sure I even want to try.

My plan for the last five hours is to go back into Hero 30 mode and collect all the various items I missed on my first run. After that, I may try Hero 3 a few times, but I'm really hoping it doesn't come to that.