Friday, July 31, 2015

Sid Meier's Civilization V: 15/20 hours

My attempts to play on Empire (very hard) difficulty have so far not gotten off to an auspicious start. Mostly it's a case of me not feeling comfortable with my game setup choices. I initially played the Ottomans, but I couldn't figure out how to  parlay their naval advantages into victory. Then I started a new game as Venice, and while I was fortunate enough to get a coastal start, the random map I chose turned out to be a Pangaea, so I'm not sure I'll be able to win.

I have a confession - I was pretty sure I'd be able to win on Emperor. It's a little embarrassing to discover the limitations of your own abilities, especially when you thought they were greater than they actually are.

I guess I don't actually have to win to enjoy Civilization V. I didn't win at first, and yet I stuck with the game for hundreds of hours. So, really, this is just like starting over. Maybe I should look at this as an opportunity to rediscover the game and see it through new eyes. On the other hand, my early view of the game was from a perspective of constantly being upstaged by the AI and uncertainty about things like build order or the proper direction for expansion.

I expect a few more "practice games" will sort things out. All I have to do is learn to manage my expectations and lose with dignity and grace. . .

It should only take another hundred years or so.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Sid Meier's Civilization V: 8/20 hours

I may be better at this game than I thought, because even with Venice landlocked, and me cut off from the majority of my trade routes for the first half of the game, by the time the nineteenth century rolled around, I was easily coasting towards victory. It's probably a weakness of the 4X genre that I subjectively perceive as a strength - once you start to pull ahead, you can use that advantage to pull farther ahead, until you're just an unstoppable juggernaut of rapidly-escalating power. It's probably for the best that I don't often play against other humans, because my favorite part of the game is likely the mathematically minimal amount of fun, when averaged over all the players as a group.

Which is to say - I won a game on King! I don't know what I was so afraid of. It was a little sketchier in the beginning, but once I got over the hump, it was just like Prince. I suspect the fact that I usually play to win a late-game victory probably factors into it. On hard mode, the AI gets an advantage starting out, but it is no more skilled at capitalizing upon that advantage than it is in easy mode, so if you know how to build your civilization, once you tip past the equilibrium point and pull ahead, it's literally the exact same game.

It gets me thinking that I should, perhaps, try an even harder difficulty level. I mean, a bigger starting advantage really just means the balance point gets pushed farther back, so it really shouldn't be too much harder, once you know the basics. However, even as I type those words, I can't help but see the hubris in them. I should probably go for it, just for the drama of my inevitable tragic downfall.

Sid Meier's Civilization V - 3/20 hours

Brave New World is a brilliant expansion pack. It totally shakes up the mid to late game of Civilization V and makes for the most satisfying peaceful victories of the entire series. One of my favorite aspects of the expansion is the addition of the Venice civilization. The Civ series has never been huge on asymmetrical factions with different gameplay mechanics, (probably the most enjoyable aspect of Endless Legend), so the opportunity to play as a civilization with only a single city, but enhanced trade routes, struck me as a wonderful change of pace. And because I strongly prefer developing infrastructure and building wonders to aggressive expansion and conquest, Venice is not just a novelty, but rather something that exactly fits my particular play style.

Which makes it a real shame that I happened to spawn inland. It didn't even occur to me that it would be a problem until about 50 turns into the game, when I was ready to build some trade routes and realized I could not send out cargo ships, which meant that my bonus trade routes were basically useless. Not an auspicious way to start King difficulty.

Yes, I decided to try my luck with hard mode, and so far it's like a slower and more frustrating version of normal mode. My landlocked start may have had something to do with that though. My gold income is about half what it could be if I were a coastal city, and Venice thrives on gold. I'm not ready to write off the difficulty level just yet, but I may have to accept that my current map is a lost cause.

Still, increased-difficulty growing pains aside, it's nice playing Civ5 again. It turns out I'm a little rusty when it comes to the tech tree, but otherwise it's just like coming home. Everything about the game is so familiar, I was able to effortlessly slip back into it even after a months-long hiatus. Usually when I play a game after an extended absence, I have to start from scratch. Delete my save files, crank the difficulty down, and treat it as a brand new game. Otherwise, I can't quite synch myself with the peculiar logic of the game, and I find myself making a lot of avoidable mistakes.

I guess with Civ5, I've progressed beyond the point where that's necessary. Objectively speaking, I'm not a good player, by any means (else I would not be stressing about King difficulty), but I'm not sure that matters too much. Civilization V feels like my game, and apparently that's not something that goes away with time.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sid Meier's Civilization V: Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 The Flagship Turn-Based Strategy Game Returns

Become Ruler of the World by establishing and leading a civilization from the dawn of man into the space age: Wage war, conduct diplomacy, discover new technologies, go head-to-head with some of history’s greatest leaders and build the most powerful empire the world has ever known.

Previous Playtime

350 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I was thinking "This is a new Civilization Game. I should buy it." When it comes to this series, my reasoning really is that simple. However Civ5 does hold a special place in my personal gaming history as it is, technically, the first game I ever bought on Steam. I didn't know that, at the time, because my initial purchase was a retail box, but when I brought it home and tried to put it on my new computer, it told me I had to install this thing called Steam. At the time, it really annoyed me, though I guess you could say that as the years have passed, I've made my peace with it.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Three hundred and fifty hours. For a long time, I was planning on saving this for when I really needed a break from the blog as a whole. It was to be the "freebie" space on my metaphorical bingo card. Then I started playing Civ3 and Civ4, and my innate sense of order won't let me just skip it. Gotta clear out the whole series in one go.

Twenty hours of this game is nothing to me. I expect it will go by in a barely conscious blur, with me clearing 12 hours, easy, in one marathon sitting.

The most sensible use of this time would be for me to practice moving up to a higher difficulty. I've been coasting on Prince (normal) for awhile now, and only dabbled a bit with King (hard) when I was playing the scenarios. I think I could probably handle it. However, I was really counting on this game to be a kind of pseudo-vacation for me, so maybe I won't bother. It all comes down to whether I feel like stretching myself with a new experience or decompressing with something comfortable and familiar. The former seems for virtuous, certainly, but the latter has its charms.

For now, the question will have to serve as what passes for suspense around here, because I honestly can't decide.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Goat Simulator - 20/20 hours

How to summarize a game like Goat Simulator? It's a novelty. And there's not a lot left to it once the novelty runs out. At around hour 17, I got all the achievements I was ever likely to get (most of the rest were for the GoatZ DLC, and of those that weren't, two were for the nearly impossible video games inside the game), and my last three hours involved me spaced out in front of the TV, watching a show while doing flip after flip. Not what I'd call a captivating game experience.

But you know what, I think the problem lied with myself rather than any intrinsic fault in the game. I stubbornly cleaved to the idea that I was going to play Goat Simulator for 20 hours, and yet the game never promised that I'd be able to do so. It was only ever a cheap and silly thing, clearly meant for a few quick laughs and then a long residence on a back shelf.

And maybe it's okay to have limited ambitions. To want to do just one thing well instead of a hundred in a half-assed way. Maybe I should judge Goat Simulator by the standards it sets for itself, instead of the expectations I project upon it.

So, under that rubric, does Goat Simulator succeed? Is it funny enough to justify its existence? I can't say that it is. The first couple of hours were amusing, but honestly, the best thing about this game was its store page. The worlds are too small. Their borders too confining. Your character has no personality. It's a game that gives you the freedom to make your own goals and do what you want, but it doesn't feel liberating, it feels like you're being drafted to finish half the game.

I wouldn't call it a total waste of money, though. It's not worth the ten dollars they charge for it, but if you can find it on deep discount, I would not shy away from giving it a qualified recommendation. It'll make you smile. And I imagine that if you played it with friends, there's plenty of scope for competitive wackiness (in fact there were at least two multiplayer-only activities I never got to try).

I guess the worst thing you could say about Goat Simulator is that it lives up to its name. You will not be surprised by playing it, for good or for ill.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Goat Simulator - 13/20 hours

One advantage of Goat Simulator over a pure physics sandbox is that it gives you some direction in the form of "quests" tasks of varying complexity and obscurity that you can do if you're so inclined. The primary reward of completing quests is that they are crossed off your list of uncompleted quests (which is, admittedly, not nothing). Certain weirder or more difficult quests will give you new skins and (largely counterproductive) special abilities, but there's no way to tell which ones will do so beforehand.

Following a guide, I've completed all but one of the quests. The only one I have left is from the "MMO Simulator" - I have to lick 10,000 items. Clearly a joke quest, and though it bugs me that it remains uncompleted, I'm not inclined to just sit obsessively mashing the tongue button thousands of times for no particular reward (or even a really cool reward).  There's not much left to do after this, but luckily I still have a bunch of Achievements to purse.

I think playing Goat Simulator for 20 hour straight is not the optimal way to do things. I think the game works better in small bursts. You do one or two crazy things and then move on to something else. Trying to find new ways to waste time taxes my creativity after about an hour. Once I run out of easily attainable Achievements, I'll probably just wind up running around in circles until the clock runs out. Hopefully that won't happen too soon.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Goat Simulator - 5/20 hours

I think I finally have a handle on exactly what Goat Simulator is trying to be. You know how, in your typical open-world game, you'll have times when you're between missions, and for whatever reason, you're playing the game, but you don't actually want to advance the story at all, so you pick something at random in the environment and decide "I'm going to climb that" or "I'm going to explode that?"

Goat Simulator is a game made entirely of those moments. I can't exactly fault it for being that way. On paper, it seems like a good idea. People like messing around in open-worlds, so why not make a game that makes messing around the centerpiece activity?

I'm not sure why this idea doesn't work for me. I like sandbox games. I loved StarMade, even though it wasn't finished and there wasn't much of a goal, so I had to make my own objectives. So why am I so indifferent towards Goat Simulator?

I think it's because I don't have any particular investment Goat Simulator's world. I can't make permanent changes to it, and there are no interesting characters or stories. Even my player avatar, the Goat herself (you can become Queen of the Goats, so I'm assuming that makes you female) is really just an abstract player stand-in, so obviously absurd that any identification is smothered before it can develop.

All of this adds up to a faintly sterile experience, something that can be appreciated with a critical distance, but which never quite sets fire to the imagination. And if that seems like an awfully subjective assessment, I can't disagree. It's likely that I'm only speaking for myself, and that other people will have no problem getting into the game, having a ball with trying for ever more insane acrobatic feats or elaborate physics-modelling catastrophes. Hell, I've played this exact same game before, after beating Saints' Row IV and having nothing left to do but finish the "challenges." It's just that after 20+ hours with the Boss (not counting the previous games in the series), I'd felt a bond, thanks to all the funny dialogue and zany set-pieces of the main plot. With the Goat, all I can muster so far is a shrug.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Goat Simulator - 2/20 hours

This game is stupid. I'm not sure this counts as a flaw. The stupidity is at the core of its identity. It is aggressively stupid. There's nothing I could say about it that it would not say about itself. Case in point - you get an achievement when the game crashes for the first time. Absolutely shameless.

It's an attitude that armors Goat Simulator from the more obvious types of criticism, but it doesn't make it entirely immune. Yes, getting the achievement was funny, but I'd have rather the game not crashed. Yes, it's arbitrary and absurd for you to wander around as a goat when really the point of the game is that it's a sandbox physics simulator and your avatar could look like anything, but is there enough goat-based humor out there to sustain interest for the long haul?

All things considered, probably not. Gameplay appears to involve running up to the very cusp of catastrophe and then unleashing a series of glitches that results in mayhem and confusion. There are a great many independently modeled items that you can jump on top of, headbutt into a messy pile, or drag around with your tongue. When you get a good combo chain going, this can make the screen incredibly chaotic.

As of right now, I'm inclined to give Goat Simulator the benefit of the doubt. Exploring the maps, there are a number of easter-eggs, goat and video game jokes, and funny set pieces. This makes them fun to just wander around as virtual goat tourist. The only problem I foresee is that there are just three maps, and they're all relatively small. Trying to grind up my score by causing destruction and doing crazy stunts will help fill the time, but I get a feeling I'm going to see everything there is to see pretty quickly.

The question is whether the game rewards mastery enough that I can pursue ever-escalating stunts even after 20 hours. That's something only time will tell.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Goat Simulator - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Goat Simulator is the latest in goat simulation technology, bringing next-gen goat simulation to YOU. You no longer have to fantasize about being a goat, your dreams have finally come true! WASD to write history.

Gameplay-wise, Goat Simulator is all about causing as much destruction as you possibly can as a goat. It has been compared to an old-school skating game, except instead of being a skater, you're a goat, and instead of doing tricks, you wreck stuff. Destroy things with style, such as doing a backflip while headbutting a bucket through a window, and you'll earn even more points! Or you could just give Steam Workshop a spin and create your own goats, levels, missions, and more! When it comes to goats, not even the sky is the limit, as you can probably just bug through it and crash the game.

Goat Simulator is a completely stupid game and, to be honest, you should probably spend your money on something else, such as a hula hoop, a pile of bricks, or maybe pool your money together with your friends and buy a real goat.

Key Features
You can be a goat
Get points for wrecking stuff - brag to your friends that you're the alpha goat
Steam Workshop support - make your own goats, levels, missions, game modes, and more!
MILLIONS OF BUGS! We're only eliminating the crash-bugs, everything else is hilarious and we're keeping it
In-game physics that bug out all the time
Seriously look at that goat's neck
You can be a goat

Previous Playtime

 0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

Awhile back I put this game on my wishlist because I thought it sounded like silly fun. The description in the store page was bracing in its absurdity and charming in its brazen carelessness. On the other hand, maybe a warning saying "stay away, this is stupid" is not ironic, but something a wise person heeds.

It's a little more complicated because this particular game was bought for me by Jarod, who, if you've been paying attention, has been the source of some of my more painful games. Did he get me something on my wishlist to make up for the past, or to teach me to be more prudent about what I wish for?

I'm optimistic, though. Every report I've heard about Goat Simulator paints it as hopelessly goofy, but otherwise harmless. It's obviously a joke game, but it's a joke game with extensive Steam Workshop support, and I suspect that people don't go through that sort of trouble for something they only like ironically.

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization - 20/20 hours

I hit a bit of a roadblock when it came to settling a new world in the late 21st century (I just now realized how absurdly optimistic that mod's timeline was). Once my colony reached a certain degree of size and complexity, the game would crash. Repeatedly. I thought I isolated the particular building responsible for the problem, but it was my primary factory, so not using it wasn't an option. The choice was either painful turn-by-turn micromanaging or giving up the save entirely.

So, for the last three hours, it was back to the real world for me. This was not entirely easy for me, but I decided that if I was going to do this, I was going to do it all the way. I found and downloaded a mod that purported to add a whole bunch more realism and detail to the game, including the original's most glaring and unforgivable omission from the history of the time period - African slavery.

It really was an incredible mod. I played on the gigantic map of the Americas, and the attention to detail was amazing. Geography that matched the scope of the continents', Native villages in more or less the same location as their namesake tribes, a whole slew of new resources and products that add depth and texture to the Columbian exchange, and complex mechanics for forced labor - you don't just have African slaves, you can enslave the natives (or buy their captives when they raid each other), or import indentured servants and petty convicts from Europe, and the mechanics and what you can do with them depends on their race and the circumstances of their capture. Your slaves can even escape, and then you have to redirect one of your military units to slavecatching duty in order to bring them back.

If you don't mind the feeling of having to shower afterwards, it's a great simulation. It makes me wonder about the nature of evil, and the way video games can transform humanity's terrible deeds into grist for entertainment.

It's not uncommon in video games for you to play an antihero, or even an outright villain. This is not something I'm ordinarily squeamish about. I've played the Saints' Row series. I love the Saints' Row series. And a big part of the reason I can stomach (and even laugh at) the Boss' depraved violence is that it's just a video game. It doesn't matter.

The process should be the same for Colonization, right? And I think that's why the game is so troubling. Slavery doesn't matter? Colonialism doesn't matter? Sure, it's not real slavery or colonialism, and those weren't real Africans and Native Americans I was victimizing - they were, in fact, pixels and code, a wisp of logic and a picture to tell me what's going on . . .

But I think they're more than just that. I think they're icons for the idea of slavery and the idea of colonialism (this may be helped along by the highly abstract and bloodless nature of the strategy genre), and those ideas do matter. The Boss from Saints' Row may well be as depraved as any historical slave trader, but the difference is we know that, on a visceral and instinctual level. The problem with Colonization is that you're playing the villains, but the game, our society, and even the player themselves (and I'm including myself in this) don't think of it that way.

As much as we say slavery is bad, slave owners don't get the kind of media treatment we reserve for other antisocial types like gangsters or drug dealers. Yes, sometimes they'll show up as villains and be hilariously, heavy-handedly vile - they'll either be leering sadists or literal inhuman monsters like Republic Commando's Trandoshans or Mass Effect's Batarians, but the actual act of keeping and holding slaves is rarely directly interrogated. "Slaver" isn't an identity, it's a profession, one that can only be performed if a person is deeply broken.

Yet when slavers aren't monsters, they're barely acknowledged at all. It's treated instead like a quaint historical blindspot, something that people just did, you know, way back then. Yoda was just as bad as those Trandoshans, but he's still Yoda. Thomas Jefferson was not a boss fight in Assassins' Creed III.

You can base a compelling work around a terrible person. You can even take advantage of the way people identify with protagonists to make the reprehensible seem sympathetic (or at least understandable), but slavery and colonialism don't get that sort of treatment.  We want Walter White to triumph over impossible odds. We want Tony Soprano to get his shit together for once. We can enjoy watching them, root for them, and even, in some weird way, love them, precisely because we know that they commit evil deeds for profit and pride. That's what makes their shows such compelling drama - we can recognize the humanity in those who should repulse us.

Which is why saying that Colonization is an "antihero" type game doesn't really work. We have no trouble recognizing the humanity of the settlers and the slave owners. In fact, many of them are our greatest heroes. What we have trouble with is being repulsed by them (even if we disavow what they do in the abstract).

Thomas Jefferson is not depicted like Tony Soprano, despite the fact that his slaves were kidnapped from their homes, tortured, beaten, humiliated. The women were raped. Children were torn from their mothers. Husbands were separated from their wives. They'd each and every one been uprooted, had their humanity torn apart, and wrung through a system designed to degrade and disenfranchise them, all so the they could live a life of toil without end, so the "master" might have leisure time to pursue his gentlemanly hobbies and intellectual pretensions. They bled so the guy holding the whip could live in a magnificent palace. Yet Monticello is not treated like a den of iniquity, nor a torture pit, nor even a complex distopia. Instead, it's on the fucking nickel.

That's why Colonization doesn't work. The story of slavery is not a European story. The story of the conquest of the Americas is not a European story. It is the story of an alien invasion. Of an unstoppable imperial power that came out of nowhere and took what it wanted, hurt who it wanted, and lived where it wanted. It was relentless and rapacious, and those who could fight against it could still only manage a losing rearguard action or bloody insurrection. Those who could not fight fell completely under its power, and could only hope for a far-off deliverance.

Who's the hero in that sort of story? Who do you want to win? You write a story like that, and it's natural that you'd want to hear about the plucky underdogs, the guys who fought the system against impossible odds and managed to win, if not complete victory (the centuries-long European colonial advance sadly did not have an exposed thermal exhaust port), then some measure of moral victory, to affirm the power of human dignity.

You only tell the story of the villains when the heroic tales become trite. When people start congratulating themselves for rooting for the white hats, as if that weren't the easiest thing in the world. When it becomes necessary to remind people that humans are not monsters, but they can act monstrously when they forget other people are humans.

You can play Thomas Jefferson when it becomes time to rehabilitate Thomas Jefferson. When the obscenity of his wealth has become so dominant a feature of his biography that you forget his good points. When "he also said 'all men are created equal,'" is not a defense, but a surprise. That's when the paradox of the man becomes interesting.

We aren't there yet as a society. And though I've focused strongly on slavery, because that was the most striking feature of the mod I played (and it really was an incredible mod - it delivered just about everything I could ask for in a historical simulation), the same thoughts go double for colonialism. The virtuousness of the settler ethos is so ingrained in our culture that I couldn't even think of a single, specific person to embody its contradictions (or it could be that Thomas Jefferson is really just the perfect didactic subject).

Taken as a game, Colonization is great, and Colonization with the Religion and Revolution mod is even better, but I think I'd need to live in a different world to truly enjoy it. It would only really feel like playing the villains in a world where we remembered the heroes' names.

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization - 15/20 hours

The sci-fi mod got off to a slow start. It introduced a research and technology system, and then gated certain critical pieces of infrastructure behind undiscovered techs. As a result, I did not have access to internal trade routes for the first two hours of the game (this was especially frustrating because the resources necessary to create a convoy were spread out amongst my interior cities). However, once that pacing issue was out of the way, it was pretty fun. Ironically, despite the fact that I don't have the same moral qualms about conflict with aliens as I do with Native Americans, I've not had any problem coexisting with them. I may go back to standard Colonization and apply what I've learned.

I'm not sure I have much of a handle on the backstory of this sci-fi universe. Earth is short on resources and are settling a new planet (or planets, if I weren't playing a tiny map - the standard-sized map was super slow, even on my new computer) in order to ship back valuable minerals and exotic alien goods. It's likely that I'll rebel against them, eventually, due to their ever-escalating taxes and imperious demands, but I'm finding that I'm not really a rebel at heart. I just want to build something stable, and I think that if the government back home just picked a tax rate and stuck to it, even if it were onerous, I'd be able to tolerate it indefinitely. As it is, it's the arbitrary and unpredictable raises I object to, more than any particular loss of revenue.

It's a weird quirk of the game that it forces you to play out this one particular narrative. Strategy games aren't usually so linear. I can't say I object, per se. The mean old aristocrats who oppress the plucky and adventurous settlers beyond the point of tolerance until they rebel and throw off the shackles of the old world is a pretty compelling story, so it's entertaining. I just wonder if having the option to tell other stories - such as the colony that is so efficient, innovative, and prosperous that it becomes the nation's new center of culture and politics - might make the game even better.

Still, divorced of its troubling historical context, Colonization is a really solid game. I've reached the point in the game where my economy has reached the tipping point and my growth is faster than my ability to utilize that growth, which is always my favorite part of a 4X. My investments are paying off and I'll soon be an industrial and technological powerhouse. It's a shame to know that those Earth bastards are gearing up to try and take it all away. Hopefully the inevitable war will be a quick and decisive victory.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization - 7/20 hours

I don't think I can play the unmodded game any more. It was going fairly well. After a couple of brief wars, I was left as the sole European power on the continent. I was completely satisfied with my territory (in fact, it was on the verge of too much). I'd set up a really effective trade network, with my incredible capital city of New Amerstdam as the hub. I was actually producing goods for export faster than I could ship them away, and was starting to get stupid rich. Then the Apaches declared war.

Within the space of a couple of turns, my territory was flooded with enemy units. Tile improvements were being pillaged left and right, citizens had to be removed from economically productive activities to become soldiers, and my trade caravans' automation ground to a halt as they refused to go near active war zones. New Amsterdam itself was under threat.

And I was like, "How dare they come out of nowhere and wreck my shit! I won't stop until every last one of them is wiped off the map . . ."

So, yeah. . .

It's funny. This is a sentiment I've experienced with the civ series in the past. I'd be ticking along, developing my infrastructure nicely, and some warmonger civ would come along and get ideas about taking my stuff, and I'd be filled with a righteous anger, and feel compelled to demonstrate why attacking a country with a robust economy and near-limitless resources is a bad idea, even if their military is weak on paper. But it's one thing if you're Huyana Capac or Mansa Musa retaliating against Alexander the great, and an entirely different thing if you're George Washington in a simulacrum of the American west. Especially since this is my history.

My family has been in this country since practically the beginning. I, personally, am distantly related to George Washington (a statistical inevitability, given my race and geographical origins). I can easily imagine my ancestors gathered around the hearth fire, talking in stunned, racist bafflement about the "savages" who were attacking settlers for "no reason," and this hypothetical dialogue sounds a lot like my grumbling when I suffer a setback in the game.

This is not the first time a historically themed video game has provoked a politically-incorrect mindset on my part. There were times when I was playing Crusader Kings 2 and I'd think "oh no, not another girl, why can't this wife of mine bear me a son," but that's different. Medieval nobles might as well be Martians, for all the connection they have to my life, but this stuff, here. . .

 I grew up celebrating Columbus Day. George Washington is on my currency. Colonization is dredging up a historical darkness that still has ramifications to this very day. Maybe things would be different if we'd ever reached a rapprochement with our own past, and Native peoples had full social, political, and economic equality, but as it stands, there is something grotesque about a white American sitting around cursing at simulated Indians. It is unbearably masturbatory at best, and at worst . . . it doesn't bear thinking about.

If I was a sharper social critic, I could probably catalog the ways in which Colonization subtly encourages racist thought. I noticed two - Native villages don't have visible borders, making the land around them appear "up for grabs;" and Native cultures get a "I don't like your lifestyle" opinion malus which can drive them into war with no specific inciting incident, which makes their attacks appear unprovoked.

That last is what happened with me and the Apache. I'd long lived peacefully beside the natives, but due to my expansion through French territory, I'd wound up controlling an empire that took up half the continent. If I'm being perfectly honest, I can see how I would come off looking like an aggressive imperial power, and there's no way at all the game's AI could possibly know that I was avoiding expanding into Native territory as a matter of political principle. That I felt betrayed by that turn of events is entirely on me. However, given the sensitive nature of the game's subject matter, I feel like even one genocidal crusade is one too many.

Next update, I'll be playing the Colonization 2070 mod. It's probably still problematic, given that it will inevitably borrow heavily from the basic structure of the imperialist narrative, but at least when I start thinking that the aliens are irrationally aggressive enemies of human civilization, I won't be echoing the rhetoric of real-world white supremacists.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization - 4/20 hours

I'm of two minds about this game. My first and strongest thought was "Colonization? Really?" I love the Civilization games, but they have a subtle, yet troubling subtext - the expected and optimal way of playing is highly imperialist. There's basically no downside to rolling into a place uninvited and taking over other people's stuff. Colonization seems to make that subtext explicit. It's like, if I successfully displace the native Americans . . . I win? It's a really uncomfortable premise for a game.

Which is a shame, because the actual mechanics of the game are really good. You have to cultivate land and gather resources to set up supply chains in order make finished goods that you can trade to both the old country and the natives, while recruiting colonists with a variety of specialized skill that can improve your production, economy, and culture. The complexity and detail of this game is incredibly engaging.

So, I don't know, does the latter point make the former worth it? This is a tough one. It's easy to forget about the real history of European colonization of the Americas and just buy into the game's simplified and whitewashed version of history. It's really not that different than the mythological story of America's origins that you learn in grade school.

But maybe that's exactly what's wrong. There's nothing at all challenging about Colonization's story. It does nothing to discomfit the self-congratulatory Eurocentric narrative of colonization, and consequently feels like it enables, if not passively endorses, America's system of white supremacy. Which, you know, is not a great feeling to get from a video game. It's enough to make me resent the fact that the logistical setup is probably my favorite in the series.

I think what I'll do is try and download a sci-fi mod, to remove the disgraceful historical context from the equation. It's likely that aliens and spaceships will be less fantastic than the standard game.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Star Wars: Republic Commando - 20/20 hours

I spent the last four hours of my time with Republic Commando goofing around. The first thing I tried to do was play a multiplayer game, a quixotic task at best, seeing as how the official servers were all shut down years ago. I downloaded some third-party software and found an active server, but I couldn't connect. I decided, as a consolation prize, to set up a LAN game and play against some bots - only to discover that Republic Commando's multiplayer doesn't actually have a bot option, which seems odd, considering that the teammate AI in single-player is as good as it is. I'm guessing that, whatever it's motivation, that decision is probably related to why the unofficial multiplayer was not as successful as Star Wars Battlefront II's.

What I wound up doing was wandering around the deserted multiplayer maps for about an hour or so, just checking them out, seeing their dimensions, firing off the various guns at nothing in particular. As far as I could tell, the maps were nice, but nothing special, but that's an assessment you should take with a grain of salt, because my experience with competitive multiplayer shooters is minimal. I've mostly gotten annihilated in split-screen Halo games and thus given the genre a pass.

After futzing around to no purpose for longer than was entirely reasonable, I went back to play the main campaign again, this time in GOD MODE! Which really sounds a lot more epic than it actually is. The only godlike power I had was total immunity to damage.

You'd think that would be dreadfully dull, and I suppose if I had to play it more than once, it would be, but there was something oddly relaxing about being able to go through levels that had previously been complex tactical challenges and just run up and blast the enemies point-blank in the face. This was especially the case with the solo sections of the game, where, in the normal game, the lack of your squad to back you up caused some uncomfortable difficulty spikes (I came to suspect those section were put in specifically so you would appreciate everything your squad does for you).

Overall, I'd say that Republic Commando is one of the more interesting Star Wars games I've played over the years. It lacks some of the series' most iconic trappings. You never have to fly a starfighter, and the only Jedi is Yoda, who makes a brief cameo appearance via hologram, but doesn't contribute much to the plot (aside from providing a brutal twist of the knife to the whole slavery subplot, which, as I said before, I'm sure is accidental), and there is no sign at all of comic-relief droids or aliens (you fight lots of them, but they're never funny - I don't recall even a single "Roger. Roger.")

Yet, in an odd way, it still feels like Star Wars. I'd attribute that mostly to the strong visual design, which is so effortlessly functional that it wasn't until I tried playing multiplayer that I realized this game was made in 2005 (though to be fair, that might also just be a sign that I'm getting old). The weapons, the environments, and the characters all look like they come from the movies. It is a plausible extension of the Star Wars universe into a genre and theme that I'd not previously associated with the series.

That's quite an accomplishment, and the fact that the game itself is fundamentally solid in its own right means that Republic Commando should probably have a higher place in the pantheon of Star Wars games than it currently occupies. I'd still say that it's more conservatively well-executed than particularly brilliant, but it's that very quality that gives it an evergreen appeal that will make it playable for years to come.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Star Wars: Republic Commando - 14/20 hours

I just finished Republic Commando's campaign mode. Like everything else about this game, it is comfortably competent, without quite rising to the level of the memorably excellent. The game successfully communicates that you and your team are an elite group of commandos, fighting a grim and endless war to preserve the Republic, even if it never quite does anything unexpected or challenging with the concept.

I think the most curious part of the plot is the fact that the main enemies for the whole middle section of the game are Trandoshan slavers. Slavers generally make for good video game villains because the very concept of slavery is thoroughly vilified in our culture, and thus killing them doesn't quite seem so wrong . . . except in this case the main characters of the story are themselves slaves. It's oddly dissonant to hear them badmouthing the Trandoshans for being the scum of the galaxy while not at all connecting those anti-slavery opinions to their own situation of being bred as soldiers and brainwashed since birth into serving their creators with unquestioned loyalty.

If Republic Commando were a cleverer game, I'd say that this irony was purposeful, and the way in which Delta squad is relentlessly pushed into one battle after another, even over the wishes of its constituent members is meant to highlight the brutality and senselessness of war, and the hypocrisy of an ostensibly enlightened and democratic government that nonetheless embraces it as a pragmatic political tool. However, I think it's much more likely that we're simply not supposed to think about it.

It actually makes me a little uncomfortable, now that I have some time to think about it. By making the "slavers" into these ugly, primitive lizard-men, while completely overlooking the protagonist faction's own use of forced labor, it's like they're externalizing the slave-owning impulse by putting it onto characters we aren't meant to empathize with, and thus whitewashing the real history of the practice. If we're being brutally honest, slavers should be charismatic white people who can easily charm you with their genteel aristocratic manners and who, as long as you are the right color, can afford to be effortlessly generous and hospitable, thanks to the wealth amassed by the violent extraction of value from the blood of the innocent.

Of course, bringing this back to Republic Commando, it's actually the Republic, rather than the Trandoshan mercenaries, who more accurately reflect slavery as it was actually practiced. The slavers are, in fact, ordinary folks. You may like them, and even consider them admirably heroic, because they have so internalized the economic and social realities of their particular hierarchy that it never occurs to them to show shame (or even a moment's diffidence, for that matter). I think it's actually Yoda who gets the most quintessentially American line I've ever seen in a work of fiction - "The freedom of the Wookies must not be sacrificed," he said to the clones of Delta squad. He's a regular Thomas Jefferson, that one.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Star Wars: Republic Commando - 7/20 hours

I've been dragging my feet playing Republic Commando, and I can't really say why. There's nothing wrong with it. Literally. There is no aspect of this game that I'd characterize as a flaw. It's a very well put together game. There's also nothing about it that excites or interests me.

Which sounds excessively harsh, I know, but I don't really mean that in a critical way. Everybody has their particular quirks and habits. I'm not sure how I would characterize my game preferences, but if I were to try and distill the quality I most enjoy, to come up with the purest essence of what makes a game worthwhile to me, I'd say that I like building things. And by that I don't just mean direct construction like Minecraft or, more recently, Starmade. I like games where you can watch things grow, even if they are just character stats.

Of course, it's possible to take an abstraction too far. I can think of games I really love that don't have that "building" quality, unless I stretch the definition of "building" into unrecognizability, but that feeling of being able to change the state of the game into something personal and cumulative is one that I relish. Republic Commando does not give you that feeling. It's a fine shooting challenge, but it's completely linear, and your character's equipment and abilities are entirely dependent on where you are in the story. Your only control is in how you use them.

Which is perfectly all right. Not everything has to have rpg-progression, and to expect a game about clones to feature character customization is completely unreasonable. It just doesn't do anything for me, personally. Because it's a good game, I'm not exactly miserable or annoyed while playing it, but because of its lack of "John Frazer appeal," I'm also not delighted or intrigued by it either. For me, it is the very definition of a time-wasting game - and I'm not sure that my time is so abundant that it could, absent the blog, successfully compete with any of the hundred other things I could be doing instead.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Star Wars: Republic Commando - 2/20 hours

Okay, so this is a good game. It's competently made. You are a soldier in the Republic's clone army, and along with your three teammates, you advance through the worlds of the the Star Wars universe, fighting the Separatist forces in a straightforward squad-shooter.

I'm only on the first world,  but so far it seems to have a nice difficulty balance. There are frequent healing stations, but they are difficult to use while your team is under fire, so there is a possibility of getting overwhelmed if your shooting and tactics are not good enough, but there is little resource management between battles to worry about. I've died a few times, and haven't had any super frustrating back-tracking to do, so the checkpoint system is probably pretty good as well.

The members of your squad have unique personalities and specialties (so I'm guessing they're old enough clones that they've had time to diverge significantly) and they work well together as a team. I've not yet had a situation where the AI has done something outrageously stupid. They've made some mistakes, but I can't honestly say that I wouldn't have done as bad or worse, were I playing their roles on a four human team. 

The command system is simple, but it appears to do exactly what it promises, so it really does feel like you're leading the squad. The AIs feel like other players you're directing, rather than activatable power-ups or extra limbs you have to personally control. The only real complaint I have about it is that things like ordering your sniper to take up a position or having your demolitions expert throw grenades are limited to certain specific points on the map, so sometimes it feels like the game is telegraphing the tactics it expects you to use.

But I think my biggest problem with this game is that it's not StarMade. I know it's a ridiculously unfair thing to lay on Republic Commando, which is a competently executed if not particularly ground-breaking shooter, but it's unfortunately the victim of bad timing. I'm plugging away at the game, blasting robots and insects, and all the while I'm thinking "it would look pretty cool if I mounted a gun under my spaceship . . ." and I have to shake myself into awareness of the present and remind myself that I'm holding off on playing StarMade until after the blog is complete (I figure, by then, it'll be pretty close to feature-complete itself and a much more in-depth experience).

Still, I wish this game were more complicated. That it gave me some kind of customization or character development that I could really sink my teeth into. There are times when "walk through a tube and kill everything you see" is exactly the sort of gameplay experience I want, but now is not one of those times.

Woops! I Accidentally Played StarMade

For my birthday, a friend of mine gave me the game Starmade. Because I love voxel-based crafting games almost as much as I love 4X games, and because it was a very generous and thoughtful gift, I decided I would try it out. Because it was still in early access, I decided I would not write about it for the blog just yet. I figured it would be a shame to commit myself to playing this game when, if I but waited, a superior version would become available, especially since I have more than enough to occupy me in the meantime.

That was three days ago, and in the time since, I've played StarMade almost every waking hour. I've sailed past the twenty-hour mark, and I could easily do twenty more. Even when I'm not playing it, I'm thinking about it. In the grand scheme of things, it's probably not (yet) a great game, but it's gotten under my skin.

StarMade is a little like Minecraft with a science-fiction flair. You mine minerals to build parts, and then use those parts to build other parts, and as time goes on your production chains and available resources increase, and with your greater wealth comes greater ambition, and your goals and achievements are limited only by your imagination.

Except in this game, you can build spaceships! And mine asteroids! And have bases on the surface of planets! It's a science fiction universe where you have a real sense of ownership and control over the technology. Your ship designs have meaning, and the things you build have purpose and function. When I last stopped playing, I was trying to work out the logistics of manufacturing the second- and third-tier components necessary to build a really powerful warship. Can you believe it? LOGISTICS!

Which, I know, doesn't sound like a huge draw, but I was thinking about how my all-in-one, general-purpose factory wasn't set up to handle the massive influx of resources I got from the mining ship that factory helped me to build, and that it would really be more efficient to make the power plant a separate building, and then make individual factories for hulls, engines, weapons, and (especially) paint, and I realized that this sci-fi Minecraft clone was also a stealth city sim.  For me, at least, it's just about the most addictive thing imaginable.

Anyway, that's how I accidentally wound up crossing a game off my list that I only meant to play for a few minutes (and even now, just thinking about it, I'm finding it difficult to resist popping back in "for just one more thing"). I'd fully intended to get to Star Wars: Republic Commando, and it wasn't until sometime last night that I realized I was going to wind up bumping it down a slot.

I'm still interested in playing it, however. The delay has nothing to do with my feelings about Republic Commando and everything to do with the fact that I have terrible self-control. I'll probably get started on it later today, if I can resist making one little adjustment to my spaceship . . .

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Star Wars: Republic Commando - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Chaos has erupted throughout the galaxy. As leader of an elite squad of Republic Commandos, your mission is to infiltrate, dominate, and ultimately, annihilate the enemy. Your squad will follow your orders and your lead, working together as a team - instinctively, intelligently, instantly. You are their leader. They are your weapon.

  • Innovative Squad Control System - With intuitive and smart squad commands, the simple touch of one button easily controls your squad to perform complex commands and strategic maneuvers.
  • Multiple Gaming Mode - Choose the single-player option and command a squad of four that you can dispatch at will. Or, choose the multiplayer option and play with up to sixteen players online in different multi-player modes.
  • Prelude to Episode III - Encounter new vehicles, locations and enemies from the upcoming film.  
Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This game is part of the huge Star Wars bundle I  bought awhile back. My main thought was "wow, look at all these games for 23$ - that's less than 2$ per game." The real games of interest were the Knights of the Old Republic and Force Unleashed series, and possibly Battlefront II (I loved the console version, but I'm wary of how it will feel without a controller), but I thought that the others would be a nice bonus. Once I actually counted my to-play list and saw that it was longer than it's ever been, I reconsidered that opinion, but at the time, it definitely seemed like a happy circumstance.

Expectations and Prior Experience

This is a tough one because there are so many variables that can go either way. I like the idea of seeing the Star Wars universe from a new perspective, but the EU stuff is super hit-or-miss. Shooters aren't really my favorite genre, but certain select shooters rank among my all-time favorite games. So, if Republic Commando is as fast-paced and casual as Borderlands with the sprightly, adventurous storytelling of the original trilogy, then I could really love it. On the other hand, if it is a highly technical sim-focused shooter with the grim self-seriousness of the franchise at its worst, than I'm in for a miserable 20 hours.

The store page isn't really a lot of help in this regard. I suppose I could search online for reviews, but I'll find out soon enough. For now, I'm going to keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword - 20/20 hours

For my last four hours, I dabbled with a number of mods, playing Fall From Heaven 2 for about two hours, and then four ones for somewhere between 15-45 minutes each. I'm not normally so noncommittal when it comes to Civ4, in that I could have easily played any single mod for six hours straight and not considered the time wasted, it's just the combination of factors from my particular circumstances had me in a very indecisive mood (basically I'm drop dead tired from birthday-related disruptions to my normal sleep schedule).

The first mod I played was the Fairy Tales mod which was promising, but unfinished. I'm not marking this as a complaint or anything. It was obvious that an incredible amount of work went into it, but there were things like incomplete and misleading civopedia entries that gave it an unpolished feel. Also, through no fault of its own, it suffered the fact that it was in the same genre as Fall From Heaven 2 and thus invited comparisons it could not possibly live up to.

Because Fall from Heaven 2 is amazing. Quite possibly the best mod of any game, ever. Because it's not just a fantasy reskin of Civilization 4, it's a complete reimagining of the game's formula wrapped in an incredibly rich and detailed fantasy world. It introduces things like asymmetrical factions that have dramatically different gameplay mechanics (like the Kuriotes, who can only have 3 cities, but compensate by being able to work a larger area, or the Grigori, who spawn "adventurer" units instead of the normal great people). Its spellcasting system is a complex strategic and tactical challenge in its own right, with different spells being available at different levels of mastery and depending on what mana you have available. And the world around you is both more dangerous and more rewarding to explore, filled as it is with monsters and treasure-filled ruins.

The list of things I could compliment this mod on goes on and on. It's got a full compliment of lore-based scenarios with unique victory conditions (one of them has you hunting through the wilderness, attempting to collect a menagerie of captured animals), a level of presentation that is slick and appealing,  There's even a fun little card game you can play to boost your relationship with the AI. It's just incredible.

Unfortunately, I couldn't get too deeply into it because I was keenly aware of the fact that the last time I got sucked into a mod, it ate up 10 hours of my life. Also, FfH2 doesn't work too well at quick speed. The enhanced, dangerous map is calibrated for epic speed, and if you play on quick mode, your technology and building falls out of sync with your adventuring and exploration, and it's not quite as satisfying. On day, when I have the time, I'll want to go back and do a properly epic Fall from Heaven game, but today is not that day.

Anyway, Gods of Old I noped out of when the AI hit my city with an earthquake for no reason and I realized I didn't want to try and navigate its weird religion system. Charlemagne, I played for about 3 turns before I realized that I really don't care for the advanced start mechanics (I didn't spend my points effectively, and wound up with a bunch of really weak cities). Heroes of the Three Kingdoms, I played for a little longer, and from what I saw of it, it looked really good, with a lot of custom assets and some unique army management mechanics that makes legendary commanders like Cao Cao both valuable and tactically interesting, but then I ran out of time, and I was like "if I wasn't so tired, I'd play this all night, but since I am, it would be pointless of me to stop and restart after the 20 hours is up."

Because while I love this game, and probably do have near-unlimted endurance for it, I've been playing it in one form or another for 60 hours already, and still have 20 hours to go, and I'm running out of things to say about it. Still, if you have the Beyond the Sword expansion, you should definitely check out Fall from Heaven 2. That alone will justify the price of the game.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword - 16/20 hours

I did something boneheaded. My idea was that I'd divide my mod posts up based on the mods' themes. First post would be "realistic" mods that aimed to flesh out the world of Civilization and make it more like a sim. Second post would be fantastic mods that attempted to bring Civilization into a world of magic. Third post would be science fiction mods that extended Civilization into the future. And it was a plan that was working well . . . at first. I'd dabbled with Realism Invictus and Quot Capita for a couple of hours each, and I was working out what I was going to say about the granularity of their tech trees and the slow pace of advancement even on "quick mode," when I decided to check out another mod whose main thrust I didn't quite understand, Orion's Grand Inquisition.

The name of the mod didn't really illuminate what it did, but the description seemed to indicate it was another "realism" mod, so I thought I'd take a quick peek at its civopedia and see what made it tick . . . ten hours later, I'm trying to write a post explaining how I did half my gaming time in one marathon session whose details are quickly fading to an undifferentiated blur.

The thing about this mod is that it completely changes the dynamic of the game. It basically takes all the brakes off the standard game, and gives you a super high-powered version of the game. By the end, my cities were in the 80-100 population range, I was making 3000+ gold per turn and cranking out ~20,000 research per turn, all while my culture rate was set at 100%. And I was in second place right up to the point where I pulled off an upset cultural victory. I have a feeling that if I weren't playing on easy difficulty, I'd have been effortlessly crushed by the massive AI civilizations.

So I can't really say for sure that OGI is unbalanced, it's possible that it's meant for multiple human players and/or high difficulty, and that the inflated numbers are actually just indicative of a higher resolution of conflict, where each individual population or unit is worth less, but the overall mass means about the same thing. All I know is that this mod let you plant food resources like wheat and rice (which normally you just have to find by luck), and prospect in the hills and mountains for valuable minerals, and cultivate your sea tiles by farming fish. And the net result is that it triggered my map-painting instincts something fierce, and put me in a trance from which I'm only now starting to awaken.

Which is to say, I liked it a lot. For most of those ten hours, I wasn't even concerned about winning the game. All I wanted to do was maximize my tile yields, squeeze as much out of my territory as possible, and craft a perfect little civilization. It was heaven.

I feel kind of bad for Realism Invictus and Quot Capita, though. They've been completely overshadowed in my memory, but if I'm remembering them correctly, they were both pretty strong in their own right. They too offered lots of fiddly little options to ensure that the build-obsessed never quite run out of things to do, but they were slower, more sedate experiences. The recommended game speed for both of them was extra-slow, and even on quick mode, I'd barely gotten to the common era after three hours of gaming (by contrast, three hours is more than enough time to win a space victory on vanilla Civ4 quick mode). I suspect that the adjusted unit and tech costs are such that they stretched out even the fastest game speeds. By contrast, I really don't think OGIs creators took quick mode seriously at all. At one point, I was spawning a great person every turn (they're normally pretty rare).

Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be, but I doubt it. I suspect that I wound up inadvertently breaking the mod. But you know what, I don't really care. That constant reward treadmill is like a drug to me, and to get such a potent dose is incredibly thrilling. I'll definitely be coming back to this mod again.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword - 3/20 hours

The Beyond the Sword expansion has a diverse array of incredibly intricate and fantastic mods, but before I dug into them, I wanted to give the base game a chance, to refresh my memory about the specific changes made with the expansion. It was my intent to build my civilization around the new mechanics - espionage and corporations. Unfortunately, my starting position rendered that plan moot. I wound up uniting most of my continent under a single religious banner, with multiple defensive pacts ensuring that any major power in a position to threaten me was actually obligated to defend me instead. Spying on them would be hugely counterproductive.

What's more, due to the particulars of my geography, I am simply not generating the great people points necessary to found a corporation, nor do I have the surplus resources necessary to profit from it. (I have huge amounts of dye, but that doesn't trigger any of the corps).

Sigh. Maybe some other time. As it stands, I can't afford to waste any more time on the base game. I've still got nine mods I still want to sample, and though I can, of course, go past my 20 hour deadline, I'd rather not go too far past it. Civilization IV may be a great game, but it's only one of a hundred I have left to play.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Rogue Legacy - 20/20 hours

I never did beat the third boss. It was a fast-moving, flaming skull that trailed behind it fireballs, which would linger for a significant amount of time, making the area a dangerous obstacle course to try and dodge through. I think I probably could have handled that, but there were also spiky metal balls bouncing around, and it was just too much. I wound up going through the easier levels in search of enough gold to level up until I was stronger than the enemy.

I never quite got it. I was only skilled enough with a few of the classes. If I weren't playing a Barbarian, a Paladin, or a Hokane, I'd consistently die before gathering enough gold for an upgrade. In the end, I died about 300 times without beating the game.

So what's the verdict? I enjoyed grinding for gold with an amenable class. I hated fighting the bosses. I'd rather not have bothered playing the classes in which I lacked skill. I don't think I can simply average my reactions. I guess I liked it, overall, seeing as how the gold grinding took up the largest amount of time. Although the reason it took such a large percentage of my time is because all the other activities killed me very quickly.

If I'm being honest, though, I'd have to admit that I never really bought into the central ethos behind Rogue Legacy. It's a game that pushes you to your limits, and beyond, where if you succeed at a challenge, that is a cue for the game to throw you a harder one. And it is that constant process of self-overcoming that is the reward for playing the game. As Nietzsche said, happiness is the sensation that power is growing. And for those who are willing to endure it, Rogue Legacy offers pure, distilled happiness. Unfortunately, I am somewhat less than a gaming ubermensch.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Rogue Legacy - 13/20 hours

This game is testing me. I can feel it worming its way into my brain. When I'm not playing it, I'm thinking about playing it, running scenarios in my head, planning my future expeditions and the purchases they'll enable. Yet, when I'm playing it, I'm not happy. When I die for the tenth time against a boss, or drop onto some spikes while just shy of having enough gold for an upgrade, I'm filled with a very precise and directed rage. And then it's quick reloads and bitter hate-runs one after another until I meet with some success and manage to calm down. It's less that I'm enjoying myself and more that Rogue Legacy has become a dark compulsion.

As of hour 13, I've beaten two of the four bosses, and fought unsuccessfully against the third. My current theory about beating the bosses is that it is largely a memory challenge, where you try to discern the pattern of their projectile spam and then practice dodging into the gaps of that pattern until you get just good enough to squeak out a victory. It really shouldn't upset me as much as it does, because it's basically just a typical platforming challenge, but for some reason, it does. I think it's because so much of Rogue Legacy's deck is stacked against you that this extra bit of challenge feels unnecessary, like I'm being punished for daring to play the game.

Not to sound all super dramatic or anything. Generally speaking, only games that have some inherent virtue are able to make me angry. And for what it is, Rogue Legacy is about as good as it could be. The controls are near flawless. I've not had a single death occur because my character did something I did not intend for them to do. Even though the graphics are really simple, after 13 hours, I'm not yet bored of them. And when things are going right, and my character is making progress, and I get enough gold that the run doesn't feel like a waste, it really is engrossing.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that you should ignore my grumbling. I'm sure that after this is all over, I'll have fond memories of this game, as the rough edges are worn down by the fuzziness of memory, and the only thing that will remain is the pride of success. But in the meantime . . . grrr!

Rogue Legacy - 8/20 hours

There was a period, lasting for about two hours, where I genuinely hated this game. Like with a fiery, irrational passion. It was when I was trying to defeat the first boss, a giant eyeball that shoots fireballs at you in a kind of low-rent bullet hell, an beating it was a matter of very precise dodging combined with careful risk management. Given the relatively low health values of most of the game's character classes, there was very little margin for error, and I must have died somewhere between two and three dozen times.

It was the sort of challenge that seemed just fair enough that victory was conceivable, and there's nothing better for getting under my skin. I'd stare at the screen, grinding my teeth in grim determination, to play just one more life, not really convinced that the next attempt would bring success, but also unwilling to give up on the hope that it might. Each failure got me madder and madder, and when I get angry, I get industrious.

Which is a shame, because an accomplishment born of hate is never quite as satisfying as one brought forth in joy. When I did, eventually, beat the boss, I was more like "about damned time" than "woo! celebrate!"

If I could change one thing about the game, I'd get rid of Charon, the guy at the start of the castle who confiscates all your gold before allowing you to play another life. I know this would completely defang the game's difficulty, but I'm kind of okay with that. It would change the dynamic of the game from one where you're constantly trying to exceed yourself with ever lengthier and more lucrative performances to one where you can explore the game at a leisurely pace, gradually accumulating upgrades over time, regardless of whether you succeed or fail. The latter may not be as "tough" or "cool" as the former, but it is right in my personal wheelhouse.

Still, there's something about Rogue Legacy that draws you in. I've died about 150 times, and I still feel the draw to do just a little bit more. That's probably the sign of a good game, even if I can't help but resent it a little.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Rogue Legacy - 2/20 hours

Judging from the first two hours or so, Rogue Legacy is a sprightly, fast-paced game that is easily playable in 5-10 minute chunks, and addictive enough that there is a real motivation to string those chunks together for extended periods of time. It's got a cartoony visual design that is simple, yet appealing. And it is punishingly difficult.

As near as I can see, whether, long-term, this game proves to be a cherished memory or grueling test of endurance depends a lot on exactly how the balance shakes out. The inheritance mechanic does, indeed mitigate some of the frustration that comes with playing a roguelike, but there's a fly in the ointment that threatens to sink the whole game for me. When you die, you keep your gold, but if you don't spend it before you respawn, and remainder is wasted.

What that means is that there are many runs where I die with absolutely no benefit. As the cost of upgrades and equipment rises, it takes ever more profitable runs to advance my character. In theory, it might be possible to get stuck, with a character not quite powerful enough to make progress to the next tier of power. I suppose that increasing player skill should make up for those situations, but that's a fickle and frustrating thing to rely on.

On the other hand, maybe I'm worry too much. I've only been playing two hours, and thus it's no surprise that I've not yet set the game on fire with my incomparable skill. Surely, by the time I get to hour 20, I'll be a veritable pro, and these early enemies will be like a joke to me. Or maybe not - I've yet to meet a boss that didn't tear me up in seconds.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Rogue Legacy - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 Rogue Legacy is a genealogical rogue-"LITE" where anyone can be a hero.

Each time you die, your child will succeed you. Every child is unique. One child might be colorblind, another might have vertigo-- they could even be a dwarf.

That's OK, because no one is perfect, and you don't have to be perfect to win this game. But you do have to be pretty darn good because this game is HARD. Fortunately, every time you die all the gold you've collected can be used to upgrade you manor, giving your next child a step up in life and another chance at vanquishing evil.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

The pictures on the store page looked a lot like the side-scrolling action-platformers I played when I was younger, and I thought the generational mechanic looked interesting. And if you've been following this blog for any length of time, you'll not be surprised to learn that it was on deep discount. There was a period where if I saw anything vaguely interesting and the price was not too high, I picked it up out of reflex. I was much more optimistic about my chances of finishing the blog back then.

Expectations and Prior Experience

My feelings about the last roguelike I played are mixed. I still, on an intellectual level, really like the concept, but I need to come to grips with the fact that, emotionally, I hate to lose. I hope the inheritance mechanic will mitigate this somewhat by allowing me to make incremental progress even from a bad run, but if this game turns out to be a treadmill of failure, I'm probably going to be pretty unhappy for the next couple of days.

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Warlords - 20/20 hours

I was bad. I didn't play scenarios for the whole ten hours. I played and beat the Mongol scenario, but when it came time to start with the Rise of Rome, I was like . . . meh. There's something about the way it sets you on a path to conquest, but fails to give you clear guidance, that I just found offputting. The victory condition requires you to control various "victory resources," but it doesn't actually tell you what they are. I think the idea is that you more or less try to conquer everything quickly enough that it doesn't matter.

I spent most of the rest of my time trying to play England on an Earth map. That did not go well. It's my fault, really. Having the English Channel between me and my rivals lulled me into a false sense of security. I didn't build enough defensive units. Both times I tried it, I wound up getting invaded by some punk upstart who wanted to pad their score at my expense. The first time, it was France, which was kind of a no-brainer, and the second time it was Japan, which totally came out of nowhere. They had to move an invasion fleet all the way around the world just to attack Ireland. It's a war I could have won, having had a huge army on Great Britain (to fend off France, because it's true what they say about military preparedness - you always gear up to win the previous war), but even in victory, the price of the war would have been too high, too late in the game. Just drawing aggression in the first place completely killed my chances of winning a cultural victory (Civ4 is not kind to small empires).

Overall, I'd say Warlords was kind of a waste. All its best features came free with Beyond the Sword, and the scenarios really weren't my sort of thing. If I'd bought it when it first came out, I'd have liked the way it expanded warfare and diplomacy, but given my ass-backward approach to the expansions, it couldn't help but feel like a step backwards.

That's totally not it's fault though, and I'll always have a soft spot for the way it laid the groundwork for what may be the most fertile and imaginative mod community I've ever seen. Beyond the Sword is going to be a blast.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Warlords - 10/20 hours

I've now played all the scenarios, for at least a half-hour each, and I have to say, there is just so . . . much. . . war. I don't know what I was expecting in an expansion called Warlords, but I can't help feeling irrationally disappointed. I like building, and cooperation, and discovery, and it always comes as something of a shock to me when others don't find those things as interesting as conflict.

I think that's also why I'm so bad at the diplomatic game. Civilization 4's diplomacy seems to center around a hierarchy of power. You don't make friends by being a generally good neighbor, contributing to mutual prosperity through trade, and providing assistance to those in need. Yes, those things will get you positive diplomatic modifiers, but for every one of those you get, you'll get a penalty for not acceding to imperious demands, refusing to get involved in pointless and unprofitable wars, refusing to ostracize civs that have done you no harm, or simply having the wrong religion. What Civ4's diplomatic system does is force you to choose sides, to divide the world into competing power blocs, and recapitulate the basic civ vs civ conflict on a multinational scale. It's actually depressingly realistic.

No, that's just me being cynical. I do believe that in the real world, it is possible for nations to work together for the common good of their citizens and the general advancement of humanity, and that in the long run, those sorts of alliances are going to be more attractive than the military pacts of old. I just wish late game civ did more to acknowledge this. It would be nice if the diplomatic victory, instead of being some sort of opaque one-off popularity contest was actually a matter of solving the world's social ills, like eliminating hunger and poverty and ensuring equal access to modern technology and human rights to all the civilizations of the world. And if that sounds needlessly political, well I just have to point out that "nations are competitive atomic units who scramble with each other for imperialistic dominance" is not exactly a politically neutral thesis either.

Although this is a sidetrack. It's not like I can get very far disagreeing with the very premise of the game. The Civilization series is not a world-simulator, it is a history-themed board game, and its political assumptions are going to be those which simplify history in ways that make it more board-game-like. I'm mostly okay with that, even if, for the majority of the scenarios, the particular board game is one I'm not especially interested in winning.

The scenarios are:

Chinese Unification: This one's probably my favorite. It does allow you to pursue multiple approaches and pick your battles, though its diplomatic victory tends to heighten the things that are wrong with the diplomacy system. Its most notable feature is that you can spread the influence of your noble house using a modified version of the religion system, but I couldn't figure out how to do that in a way that didn't make the rest of the houses hate me (it's the basic diplomatic problem of the base game, but there's one religious bloc per civilization). I almost wound up winning, thanks to being able, for once, to use my usual strategy of maximizing my infrastructure to outbuild enemy armies, but I ran out of time. Still, I enjoyed it.

Genghis Khan: Another pure military scenario, I like this one more than the others because it has some unique mechanics - you learn more technologies by conquering enemies and you have "camp units" that will spawn more armies. I also generally prefer the way the Mongols make war - their horse archer units hit hard and have a great deal of mobility, mostly making siegecraft redundant. The main problem with this scenario is the comparisons it draws to the superior Civilization V version. Ironically, I made the exact same strategic mistake I made in Civ5. Instead of razing everything in my path and keeping up my initiative, I futilely tried to hold on to my conquests and wound up having to divert time and material to defending unproductive cities.

Peloponnesian War: This is a perma-war scenario where the goal is to take the opposing civilization's capital. It's not really my sort of thing, though it does have the advantage of having a 100 turn time-limit, so at least i forestalls some of the endless back-and-forth that can sometimes plague Civ4's warfare.

The Rise of Rome: This one I barely played. I was suckered in by the description which led me to believe (thanks to prominently mentioning "trade routes" and "peace") that it would have mercantile or diplomatic elements, but it turned out that in order to win, you have to control certain "victory points" which requires aggressive expansion and conquest. It's not that big a deal, but I was feeling a certain war weariness by then, so I quit before I could get into it. I'll probably try it again later in order to give it a fair shot.

Age of the Vikings: Like most of the other scenarios, it's combat-heavy, but it has an interesting twist - your strategic aim is not territory, but wealth. You win the scenario by accumulating gold, which comes from a combination of normal wealth acquisition, capturing cities, ransoming them back to their owners for substantial lump sums, and hunting down treasure. It's definitely a change of pace, but didn't really catch my attention.

Omens - Ugh. The basic skeleton of this scenario is pretty good. It's set in pre-revolution America, during a conflict between France and England. Caught in the middle are the natives, whom each side is attempting to peacefully influence and win as an ally. It's a situation rife with possibility that has a different dynamic than base Civilization and an interesting historical context. Unfortunately, they also add a bizarre religious angle (maybe I'm remembering my history wrong, but I never thought of either the French or English colonials, in particular George Washington, as especially zealous missionaries), and a repeated supernatural invasion by an impossibly powerful "divine" faction. To be humming along nicely and then suddenly have an angel drop in from nowhere to slam one of your cities into oblivion is not a fun way to play the game.

Barbarians - This is a pretty cool scenario. You play as the barbarians, spawning units from your camp unit by buying them with gold you earn by razing cities, killing units, and plundering tile improvements. It's a great deal of fun to turn the civ formula around and play the antagonists, though making actual progress is kind of a pain. I wound up wiping out one civilization only to find myself on an island with ten units and one galley. Just as I'd ferried about half my units, a new settler landed, and I was like "no way in hell am I going to sit around playing whack-a-mole with these damned cities" maybe on a smaller map.

Having played all the scenarios, I'm thinking that, going into the last half of my 20 hours that I'm going to focus on winning the Genghis Khan scenario, then maybe give the Rome scenario another chance, and, if there's time, I'll try and win the Unification of China.