Monday, August 31, 2015

Magic 2014 - 6/20 hours

I made a big mistake when buying this game.  Because it was on sale, and because I'm the sort of person who gets irritated if I feel like I'm playing an incomplete game, I bought all the DLC in a bundle. I thought I was buying extra decks above and beyond those available in the base game, so as to have a broader MtG experience. It turns out that I bought some extra decks, but the bulk of my purchase went to unlocking decks and cards that I could well have unlocked on my own, just by playing the game.

It's not so much the waste of money that bothers me. If wasting money on Magic: The Gathering was any kind of deterrent to me, I'd have stopped playing years ago. No, what bugs me is the lost opportunity to pursue these rewards in-game. I like the sensation of advancement. I like the way video games give you the illusion of progression by doling out rewards in exchange for completing challenges. That clear connection between effort and achievement is all too rare in our modern, post-industrial economy.

So, you know, I'm peeved that I managed to deny myself the fun of unlocking new cards. Especially since I have a feeling that the deck manipulation I've done with those cards (basic stuff like trimming useless life-gain cards or adding extra lands to speed up a slow deck) may have given me the edge necessary to defeat some of the toughest CPU opponents.

It's not that big a deal, though. I'm really enjoying this solitaire version of Magic. I like the sheer mechanics of playing a hand and overcoming a challenge. I don't have the foggiest clue what the hell is going on in the campaign's plot, but so long as it's an excuse for gratuitous card duels, I'm finding that I don't really care.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Magic 2014 - 2/20 hours

I was lucky enough to get a change to play a couple of hands against a friend yesterday, and it felt really good to be playing Magic again. It's probably been about two years since I played against another human being.

It's weird how being away from something for so long, then coming back, can give you a whole new perspective. I'd never really noticed, until just recently, how luck-based Magic: the Gathering is. I mean, like everyone, I'd experienced the frustration of being "mana-screwed" (for the uninitiated: you have to draw and play "land" cards in order to cast spells, but sometimes, after a shuffle, those land cards will clump at the bottom of the deck, rendering you unable to do anything while your opponent kills you unabated), but I'm not talking about an amateurish "I lost because I didn't draw the right cards" mindset.

No, I realize that except for certain extreme circumstances, when I lose, it's almost certainly because I played poorly. It's one of those getting older things, where you realize that despite how much you love a particular hobby, you've plateaued at "mediocre," and will likely never get to be world class, or even especially good. However, I've come to realize that while my failures are largely attributable to poor decisions, my successes owe a lot to the luck of the draw.

For example, of the three games I played against Andorxor yesterday, I lost two, primarily because I took too many risks with my blocking. The game I won went down something like this "oh look, a card that makes a creature indestructible" . . . Next turn: "oh look, a card that redirects all damage dealt to me to an enchanted creature." Yes, there is a certain species of skill that comes in realizing the potential of those two effects to stack, but when you literally can never take damage from anything, the rest of the game basically wins itself.

The big mystery here is why I am so okay with this luck-based gameplay when similar mechanics in other games drive me absolutely batty. As far as I can tell, the answer boils down to essential human irrationality. I'm okay with the chance element in the table-top game because there's a lot you can do to mitigate chance in the course of deck-building. You play the odds, adding creatures and spells of a wide variety of mana costs, so that you are likely to have at least a few playable cards, regardless of how many lands you draw, and you build in more than one way to win, so that if your big combo doesn't come up, you can lean on your backup plan to save the day (although I may be a little weird this way, because I hate winning with my back-up plan almost as much as I hate losing). So, though chance may rule when it comes to the actual duel, if you've done the legwork beforehand, you can nudge chance into your corner.

Of course, in the video game, all the decks are preconstructed, so you can't do any of that preparation. Chance cannot be influenced. So, I shouldn't really like it in the same way that I like the table-top version. However, the video game reminds me of the card game, and that is enough to give me a good feeling, even if my favorite part of the card game is absent by deliberate design. Like I said, basic human irrationality. This thing looks like a thing I enjoy, thus I enjoy it, because things that look like things I like, I like.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Magic 2014 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Ignite your spark with Magic 2014 — Duels of the Planeswalkers!

With over 12 million fans, discover what makes Magic: The Gathering the world’s premier trading card game.

Become a Planeswalker and travel the planes of existence unleashing a torrent of spells and creatures to devastate your opponents. Prove yourself in combat against Chandra Nalaar—a fiercely independent Planeswalker with an affinity for fire and quick temper—then battle your way through the planes to face the mysterious villain trying to pull Chandra’s strings. 

Previous Playtime

4 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I'm a long time player of Magic: The Gathering. I started with the Unlimited set way back in '93 or '94 (or maybe my first set was Revised, and I just traded for some Unlimited cards, he said, realizing that no one would care about the distinction). Point is, I've played this game for a long time. Love it. Sometimes it's hard to organize an in-person game, though. There's the scheduling, obviously, but even when you can get it right, there's all sorts of ancillary issues - do they have decks built, do you have decks built, do you bring extra cards to trade, is schlepping all that stuff around really worth it.

What I wanted, more than anything, was an updated version of the old Microprose game, where I could just play around with all the cards, build decks, and duel the PC whenever I felt like it, but I'm given to understand that such a thing will never happen again, because Wizards of the Coast hates joy. Magic the Gathering Online was out, because everything I hear about it makes it sound like a microtransaction hell. That pretty much left the Duel of the Planeswalker series, which intrigued me, but also got mixed reviews from Magic veterans.

Anyway, like so many other things on this blog, I wound up waiting until a sale brought it down to deep discount, and then snatched it up because surely, even a shallow and limited Magic: The Gathering game would have a lot to offer an inveterate M:tG addict like myself, especially if I'm only risking 3 dollars to get it. (Any longtime player of Magic should know that three dollars is pretty much the bare minimum you can waste on this hobby at any given time).

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've already played a bit of this game, because even though I bought it mid-blog, I could not resist trying a couple of hands in my spare moments. I liked the campaign mode, but I was leery of getting too far into it, because I wanted to save something for when I had to play it for the blog. The sealed play mode was great, pretty much everything I want from a M:tG game, but I was deeply disappointed when I found out you only had so many deck slots, a finite number of booster packs per deck, and you could not reset deck slots after you exhausted the format. Exploration is the best part of the game, and to put an arbitrary cap on that is incredibly frustrating (I know, they don't want to cannibalize MGO's business, but frankly that just convinces me that my knee-jerk "MGO is evil" reaction was, in fact, justified).

Still, it was definitely magic. Even if the decks are limited to preconstructs, it's still pretty fun to test your wits and tactical acumen against the machine. And from what I saw, the preconstruct decks were pretty entertaining in their own right, so really, the only thing that's missing is the creativity and resource management of real Magic. Granted, that's my favorite part of the game, but I'm not so down on the rest that I won't enjoy myself.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Skyborn - 20/20 hours

Most of my last few hours playing Skyborn was spent on hard mode. It was definitely tougher. I died a couple of times, instead of never. However, it wasn't really tougher in an interesting way. The biggest thing I noticed was that my status-effect spells became extremely unreliable. One of the best parts of normal mode was that, unlike some of its inspirations, you'd actually have cause to use things like "slow," "defense down," and "poison" because they provided genuine utility without always being overpowering (granted, if you managed to stack a half dozen of them on the same boss, that did drop the difficulty considerably, but even so, getting to that point was a challenge in itself). You did get some collectible boss trophies by beating bosses in hard mode, but I'm not really vain enough for that to act as a draw,

Final summary of Skyborn - good, but slight. I like the characters, even if they are shallow. The world-building is thin, but it gets the job done. It looks nice, and I don't really hold the fact that it uses a lot of rpgmaker assets against it (that just shows me that it's possible to make a nice-looking game with rpgmaker). So much of this game rests on the charisma of its writing and art and on the residual goodwill from a bunch of classic games that fit a similar mold, but I don't really see that as a problem, per se. If I'd played a half-dozen games from the same company that were similarly charming, yet shallow, I'd start to take issue with their lack of innovation, but for my short time with the game, it was nice to have something comfortable and familiar that I could just chill out with and not think about too hard.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Skyborn - 13/20 hours

I finished Skyborn, and the finale went down exactly as I expected - you had a mission in the palace, and then after you defeat the villain you've been opposing for the whole game, it turns out there is there is some random alternate dimension of evil that you have to shut down to save the world. Pretty standard jrpg stuff.

Now that I've played through the whole thing, I have to say that Skyborn is pretty much the paradigmatic rpg. And while you could interpret that to mean that it's unoriginal and cliched, I actually find something admirable in its craft. Like, when you build a ship in a bottle, you're not really trying to come up with an innovative new ship design because the whole point is that at the end of this painstaking and delicate process, you wind up with something that looks like a ship.

If you view rpgmaker as a hobby kit, than Skyborn is kind of the ideal game. Someone used the hobby kit to make a thing that looks exactly like the sort of thing that was popular enough to inspire the creation of a hobby kit. Understand that it is without a trace of irony that I say I admire the creator's restraint in not attempting to reinvent the wheel.

I know from bitter personal experience that it is all to easy for a moderately clever person to get one good idea and then crawl so far up their own ass that they don't realize, until too late, that they don't know how to get the fundamentals right. Skyborn doesn't have that problem. It's pretty much all fundamentals, but within those constraints, it is rock solid.

I suppose, if I had paid money for this game, I might be upset that it didn't have anything particularly challenging or surprising about it (and I wouldn't recommend buying it at full price), but as a pure experience, divorced from any sort of financial interest, I found its familiarity comforting.

From here, I'll probably go back and beat the optional bosses (I think I have a save from before the point of no return, but I'll have to double check). That should take a couple of hours. Then, if I still have time left, I'll start over on hard mode, and see if the game is fair on the increased difficulty level.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Skyborn - 9/20 hours

I may be in the minority here, but I like grinding. I like watching my numbers go up. And I like the idea that with enough patience, I can obviate a lack of skill. I even like to grind in games that are relatively easy, because then I can feel like I have incredible super-powers, that I somehow managed to earn.

Skyborn is a game where grinding is neither possible nor necessary. There are a finite number of enemies, and they don't respawn. This is a little vexing because it means you can make bad purchases in the shops and wind up with not enough money for the equipment you really want. This hasn't been an issue yet, because, aside from the arena, this game is super easy, but you know, maybe it will be someday, and that stresses me out a little.

I will say, though, that after nine hours with this game, I am confident that my enjoyment of it is about 75% nostalgia. It plays exactly like the sort of games I enjoyed as a young man, and while it doesn't quite have the complexity of something like Final Fantasy VI or the charm of Chrono Trigger, it is a solid second-tier offering. There's something comfortable and calming about its menu-driven gameplay and bare-bones plot (seriously, I can describe the last four hours as "I went to a place and got a thing" and be only slightly short on the actual details - the place I went was Nordenwald Forest and the thing I got was Ether Fuel, also I dicked around in the Arena and recruited a new party member who is all backstory and no personality).

I have a feeling I'm pretty close to the end, however. I've just built my secret weapon, and we're about to infiltrate the Skyborn headquarters to free the half-breed captives, which means that, if this game is at all what I think it is, there should be one more late-game plot twist, and then a final dungeon after that. I'd be pleasantly surprised if the end game did something different, but structurally, Skyborn has been extremely conservative so far (the one wrinkle came when Claret made a deal with the villain to let her brother out of jail - it was obvious that she would change her mind and not betray the rebels, but he would count on that and just follow her to the rebel base - which is exactly what happened, but then afterwards there was a gratifying absence of the expected "we trusted you, how could you do this" scene).

Fingers crossed that the last few hours of Skyborn blow me away, but even if they don't, I expect I'll have a mildly pleasant time.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Skyborn - 6/20 hours

My internet went out yesterday, and I was forced to play Skyborn in offline mode. This led to Steam's counter falling out of sync with my actual playtime. That annoyed me greatly. The in-game counter doesn't track things like reloads, new games, and time spent in the menu trying to get my controller to work (it turns out that when rpgmaker says it's going to map a controller button to "c," that doesn't mean the "c" button on your keyboard, but rather the third function of the particular game you're playing). So, six hours is really my best guess.

But that's just fussy bookkeeping stuff. How is the game itself? Well, first, it's an rpgmaker game. No value judgement there, but there's no mistaking it for anything else. If you've used rpgmaker before, it's pretty obvious how the game was made, and it does nothing particularly surprising with the engine.

That being said, it's probably as good a game as you could possibly expect, given how it started. It doesn't do anything to transcend or reinvent the rpgmaker formula, but it uses the toolkit provided in more or less the ideal way. The level designs are diverse and interesting to look at, filled with various geegaws and set-dressing that nicely toes the line between "barren" and "cluttered," the characters are not terribly deep, but they are appealing types and snappily written, the plot is easy to follow, but entertaining, and the combat, while not exactly groundbreaking and a little on the easy side, does manage to pull out one good trick with the "threat" system. If this game was released on the Playstation back in 1998, we might well be talking about its place in the pantheon of classic rpgs.

But it's not 1998, so Skyborn is merely good. The titular Skyborn are a winged race of fanatical racial purists who are oppressing the humans of this steampunk world. You control a party of adventurers who form the core of the rebellion, as you search for the components of an invention that will turn the tide of the war. Naturally, you fight a bunch of monsters along the way, but like most of the best 2-d rpgs of years past, the enemies are visible on the main map, and you can choose when you want to fight. Because the main character, Clarice, is an inventor, there's also a mining and weapon customization system, so you can tailor the strengths of your party to your particular play style (I'm all attack, all the time).

Like the old-school rpgs it's emulating, it's shallow, but charming. I'm not sure how much longer I have to go to the end, but I expect I won't mind playing through again on hard.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Skyborn - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Life under the rule of the winged Skyborn race isn't so bad for Claret Spencer, the star mechanic of an independent repair shop. She can patch up just about anything...but when a certain cravat-wearing customer turns her life upside-down, she finds herself pulled into an epic, city-wide conflict that's going to take a lot more than elbow grease to fix! Join Claret on her journey through a tale of magic, metal and mystery as she unravels the secrets of the Skyborn!

This game features:
Lovable, addicting characters
Trendy and exciting Steampunk setting
Classic look, modern feel
Unique story-driven adventure
Multiple character classes
Breathtaking orchestral soundtrack

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

This is an rpgmaker game. I've had rpgmaker for awhile, because I really enjoy games (as you might have gathered from this blog) and I've long fantasized about making one. What I've found is that it's a lot of hard work, where you can labor for hours to get mere seconds of gameplay. And while I still hold out hope that one day I'll be able to forge a masterpiece, for now, my experience with rpgmaker games is that they're really short and don't have much going on . . .

Which is, of course, entirely unfair, because I'm certain that if you polish your game enough to be confident selling it in the Steam store, and the game subsequently gets positive reviews, then it probably has something going for it (then again, Sakura Spirit . . .).

I expect that Skyborn will be a lot like the SNES-era rpgs that were a staple of my early gaming experience, and that if I enjoy it, it will be hard to separate my genuine appreciation for the game-in-itself from my nostalgic appreciation of the genre. That's not such big problem for me, though. I think I may be getting to that age where I'm vulnerable to naked appeals to the culture of my youth.

We'll see. And in any event, I'm looking forward to seeing what rpgmaker can do in the hands of someone who's serious about using it. That way, when I begin my own projects, I'll get a better sense of the engine's potential (not that I'm imagining I'll be able to push the limits or anything, but a guy can dream).

Monday, August 17, 2015

FTL: Faster Than Light - 20/20 hours

What did I learn from playing Faster Than Light? I guess the biggest lesson is that commanding a spaceship on a desperate mission through hostile territory is a lot harder than it sounds. I never came closer to beating the flagship than the first first time I fought it. I did unlock a new spaceship, and it was pretty cool, but despite what felt like superior firepower, it also set me back on the learning curve.

Faster Than Light is a great game. Everything about it serves its premise, and though it does not have a great deal of lore (I never did figure out what those damned rebels were rebelling against), it does a fine job at worldbuilding. You really feel like this is a real spaceship, flying through real space, for real stakes. That this makes you inevitable defeat all the more heartbreaking is probably just an individual hang-up on my part.

This is probably another one of those games that could be a lifelong obsession. I searched online for some strategy advice and found a forum post that claimed a good player in a top-tier ship could win about 80 percent of the time. Presumably that's on normal mode, and hard mode will lower that percentage even more. (I know a casual player on easy mode in the starting ship can expect to win roughly 0% of the time, based on my personal observations).

I'm guessing that this give and take, where even a skilled player faces uncertainty and risk, could lay the groundwork for endless replayability. It's hard to get jaded about a game where careless play will definitely get you dead and even flawless play still has an element of risk.

That said, FTL is definitely not for me. Oh, I sometimes catch myself thinking about it, wondering "what if I did this instead of that," but I have to accept that I am a dilettante. My head is too easily turned by the newest shiny thing to come along (if it weren't, I'd have mastered Civilization V long ago). I simply don't have what it takes to master the intricacies of this game.

But that's kind of a bum note to end my time with FTL on. Really, except for those times when I was absolutely, soul-crushingly miserable, I enjoyed this game quite a lot. And the latter really did outnumber the former by quite a bit. Looking at my stats, I only actually died 24 times, which doesn't seem like all that much in the grand scheme of things. I'm sure that if I'd just kept at it, my first win would not have been too far away.

I guess this is just one of those games where the first 20 hours is practice. There's something admirable about the sort of craft that plans for the long-haul. It means FTL is a lot of value for the money, provided you can cope emotionally with seeing your plucky, multi-racial coalition of Federation explorers get obliterated by the inexplicably powerful Rebels again and again (seriously, given how much better equipped the opposition is, wouldn't it make more sense to call us the Rebels, because clearly they've got this galactic government thing sewn up pretty tight).

Sunday, August 16, 2015

FTL: Faster Than Light - 18/20 hours

I've been putting off posting because I really have nothing new to report. I'm still playing on Easy difficulty, and while I can get to the eighth level more often than not, I've yet to beat the Rebel Flagship. Regardless of how powerful I think my ship may be, taking on a massive foe three times in a row is beyond my power.

Mostly, I think it comes down to luck. In level 8, there are a couple of places you can go to repair your ship between battles, but it's entirely up to chance whether the layout of the jump points will let you retreat without encountering powerful enemies. That's what happened to me. I had a strong ship that did some damage - even to the point of beating the flagship twice in a row - but after the second battle, the only route to the repair station just so happened to run right into the third stage of the flagship. Another time, I got caught between a rock and a hard place, where my heavily damaged ship could only retreat to a rebel-occupied sector.

I feel like I'm getting better, but I also feel like skill is not enough. As I learn more about the game, I've come to realize that parts of it are heavily deterministic, and without a stroke of luck, your optimal path through the encounters will still lead you to ruin.

I think I can say with confidence that I don't like this style of game. As much as I tell myself "yes, but it's fair," it turns out that I don't value fairness nearly as much as I think I should. I don't necessarily want a game that just hands me victory, but the continual sense of growth and progress is very important to me (yet, strangely, I love Tetris, which just goes to show that a gamer's heart is an ocean of secrets).

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

FTL: Faster Than Light - 10/20 hours

It was a long, frustrating journey, but after many deaths, I finally did it. I finally managed to take down the Rebel flagship. And as I watched its lifebar dwindle down to nothing, I thought, "this was tough, but it wasn't too bad. . ."

And then it warped away, and I learned that it actually had three stages, and the only way to beat it was to win three consecutive battles of increasing difficulty. I managed two.

I think I may be in a bad mood generally, because that defeat hit me hard. I really thought I was going to win there for a moment, and then to have it snatched away . . .

I think I can say conclusively that the roguelike genre is not for me. Every time I've played one thus far, the experience has been the same - I start off all "ooh, I like the premise of this game, it'll be keen to (play an action-rpg card game/platform through the generations of a heroic family/command a spaceship)."  Then I do it for awhile, and suddenly it's "oh, for fuck's sake not again, just as I'm getting the hang of things some bullshit randomly generated encounter comes out of nowhere and knocks me back to square one."

And it really shouldn't bother me as much as it does. Everything that lives must one day die, but that lingering doom does not negate the joys of living. To focus so exclusively on the end means missing out on all the good stuff that comes before. So, if the moment-to-moment gameplay is fun (and in every roguelike I've played so far, it has been), why single out those thin slices of time when I must transition between an old game and a new?

It's not like it takes long. Starting over is simply a matter of clicking a few buttons and waiting a few seconds. It's less of a hassle than getting up for a bathroom break. Is not the essence of the game the physical act of manipulating the controls and the sensual and intellectual pleasure that comes from seeing the images on the screen respond to your actions and decisions? And isn't that something that you can do more or less constantly?

So why should it matter if one image, out of all the countless images you will see over the life of the game, happens to be that of a spaceship exploding? Exploding spaceships are cool. I've watched plenty of movies where the part where the spaceship explodes is the highlight of the film. Why is a game different?

I suppose it has to do with the undeniable fact that the images are signs and the illusion that the signs have meaning. Faster Than Light is not simply a collection of colored pixels that I gaze upon for aesthetic value. It is a synthetic world, one which I can enter by means of sufficient focus. And though my presence is distant and dreamlike, limited only to eyes on a screen and a hand on a mouse, while I am inside it, its constructions are effectively real.

And just as you should not judge the pleasures of life by their inherent finitude, so must you not let the inevitability of death stop you from struggling to live. If you give in to that futility, then it becomes impossible to conceive of having any life at all. That's the absurdity of the human condition. Do we live because we think that we are going to be the exception? Obviously we won't, and so obviously we don't. Instead, I think life is a gamble. To live is to make a bet with eternity, that today, as tiny and fragile as it is when weighted against all the countless eons of oblivion, is not the day we return to death. Today is worthy precisely because it is so rare and improbable. And life's greatest blessing is the fact that you can only die once.

Which brings us to my problem with the roguelike genre. The ease of starting a new game may seem like a species of immortality, but to the degree that you see meaning in the signs of the game, to the degree that an exploding spaceship is not just an image to be witness but a story about the death of your crew, then these limitless, repeated playthroughs create the experience of serial mortality. You don't die just once. Through the process of reincarnation, you are chained to the wheel of suffering.

And if there's anything that Buddhism teaches us, it's that as long as you buy into the illusions of the wheel. as long as collecting scrap, hiring crew, upgrading your ship, and defeating the rebels matters to you, then the cycle of life and death has the power to hurt you.

Yet that's the only way I know how to play the game. Enlightenment, letting go of the wheel, seems to me synonymous with just walking away from the computer and doing something else. And I have to admit, that would probably make me happier, but ultimately, that's not the type of happiness I want.

I want the happiness that comes from setting a goal and sticking to it. The happiness that comes from using reason and knowledge to overcome obstacles. And though games like FTL exist to make a mockery of that sort of happiness ("man plans and the RNG laughs" and all that), I have a greater target in mind - I want the happiness that comes from finishing my damned blog.

And to do that, I'll need to endure Faster Than Light for ten hours still.

At least it will feel good when I finally win.

Friday, August 7, 2015

FTL: Faster Than Light - 5/20 hours

Faster Than Light has a pretty bare-bones plot. You work for an organization called the Federation, which has recently been having some trouble with a rebellion of ill-defined intent. You've acquired some information the Federation can use to fight the Rebels, and all you have to do is pilot your ship through eight sectors of ridiculously dangerous space while the Rebel Fleet dogs your steps.

Maybe I'm just being churlish, but I don't like the chase plot. To me, the joy of commanding a spaceship is in exploration and discovery, going to a new star system, meeting the natives, and doing menial chores for them for no particular reason.

I'm also finding this game difficult because I keep getting attached to my ship. As you complete missions for people and survive deadly encounters, you gather a resource called "scrap" which you can use to upgrade your ship, improving your systems and occasionally giving it all new powers. You can also recruit crew members from a number of distinct alien species.

As I've said before, one of the things I love most about video games is when they give you stewardship over some object in the setting and the power to improve it and the opportunity to watch it grow. It's a tendency that is making Faster Than Light my most heart-breaking roguelike experience to date.

That being said, I like almost everything else about this game. The ship and character designs are appealing, combat is simple, but deep - you're constantly having to make decisions about your resources and priorities that feel every bit as frantic and pragmatic as I'd expect real spaceship combat to be (or should I say, it's how I expect real fantastic spaceship combat to be - I'd imagine that real spaceship combat will take place at extreme ranges and be handled by computers at such high speeds that if you lost, you'd never even know it).

However, it feels like I'm at the low end of the learning curve. I'm playing on Easy mode and still getting my ass handed to me every time I go out. I expect the key is resource and risk management - you want to get involved in encounters in order to accumulate scrap, but you don't want to push it too far, or you'll have too much damage to survive the tougher, later encounters. It's the sort of balance that you have to feel your way through, and the only way to develop the right instincts is to see all th ways of doing it wrong.

But my ships are so pretty . . . why must I watch them be destroyed?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

FTL: Faster Than Light - 2/20 hours

With the exception of those games that incorporate real-world historical atrocities, Faster Than Light has to be the grimmest game I've played to date.  The thing that makes it different from just about every other game out there is that when you die in FTL, your death is almost sure to be slow.

One time, I barely managed to win a space battle. The enemy was long since vaporized. But in the course of the fighting, my oxygen generators were damaged. The atmosphere on my ship had drained away into space. But my medbay was still functional. My surviving crew huddled in there, healing damage as quickly as suffocation damaged them. The situation was stable, but I was stuck. In order to get anything else done, I'd have to repair my oxygen, but the room was too far away and the job took too long to do. Anyone going out to attempt it would die before they could finish. And so I could see the inevitability long before it came to pass, and I had a good long moment to contemplate it, and to empathize with those poor, brave, imaginary astronauts - trapped in a tiny chamber, with only a thin piece of bulkhead to separate them from the depths of the endless void, gasping for air, while being kept on the cusp of consciousness by the silent, yet implacable industry of their machines, knowing that rescue was impossible and their mission had failed, that their only hope was suicide mission that was sure to fail, but praying for the slim chance that the sacrifice of one life would somehow be enough to save the rest.

But I was privileged to witness the terrible truth they could not - their hope was a false one, and the ultimate sacrifice would not be enough . . .

And, with this game, that sort of revelation happens all the time. There is a noticeable and regular gap between the time you lose the game and when the program officially calls a game over. Usually, there's nothing you can do but wait it out. But not always.

Sometimes, you are actually able to squeeze out a miracle. You'll cut things close, but you resources will prove sufficient. You'll squeak out a victory, and your ship will live to fly another day. And the only way to get those miracles is to try, even when common sense tells you that you've lost. You have to keep going, because you can't be saved at the last second if you didn't fight in the last minute. Sometimes, it is enough.

But usually it isn't. The rules that govern the universe tick on, and to them you're not important. Some things that are broken simply can't be fixed. All the frantic scrambling in the world won't conjure air out of nothing, or stop an enemy laser when your shields are on fire. That's the grimness of the game. You are doomed with the knowledge of your inevitable death, but the only way to live is to pretend it doesn't matter.

Monday, August 3, 2015

FTL: Faster Than Light - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 In FTL you experience the atmosphere of running a spaceship trying to save the galaxy. It's a dangerous mission, with every encounter presenting a unique challenge with multiple solutions. What will you do if a heavy missile barrage shuts down your shields? Reroute all power to the engines in an attempt to escape, power up additional weapons to blow your enemy out of the sky, or take the fight to them with a boarding party? This "spaceship simulation roguelike-like" allows you to take your ship and crew on an adventure through a randomly generated galaxy filled with glory and bitter defeat.

Previous Playtime

5 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

If memory serves, this particular game predated the big splurge of Summer 2014 which started me down the path to unsustainable Steam Library growth, but in retrospect, it was a clear foreshadowing of what was to come. It was on sale for cheap, and all my friends were playing it, so I was like "what was the harm." No one ever attributes the avalanche to a single snowflake (except, perhaps, the last).

Expectations and Prior Experience

 I have actually played this game before, though not since the big update that took place awhile back. I remember at the time I found it fun, but frustrating. I liked controlling the spaceship and directing the crew, and the exploration aspects of the game really appealed to me, but I recall finding the time limit confining.

I was still pretty naive about PC games at the time. I did not quite understand the implications of the term "rogue-like." I realize now that the "you will die repeatedly, often through no real fault of your own" gameplay that dampened my enthusiasm the first time is actually a feature of the genre. I'm not sure that this knowledge will make me appreciate the game more, but it may help me approach it in a more constructive manner.

I'm not really worried about this game, though. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think I really liked the sci-fi world of FTL, and being able to customize a cool ship, recruit a variety of alien allies, and fly around the galaxy just generally Captain-Kirk-ing it up is a strong incentive to put up with the inevitable cavalcade of unending grimness that is the roguelike genre.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sid Meier's Civilization V - 20/20 hours

I was unable to beat Emperor difficulty. Sigh. I got overconfident. I thought because I had such an easy time on King, I was ready to move up. Maybe I was, seeing as how I had the technological lead in my last game, but considering the cultural punishment I was taking, I still have a lotto learn.

It occurs to me, though, that while I've talked a lot about difficulty levels and stretching the limits of my own abilities, I've neglected to say what it is I like about Civilization V in the first place.

The Civilization series has always had this split identity, where it's one half sim, where you build and manage a society, and the other half board-game, where you move your pieces around a grid in order to achieve victory. I've said before that Civilization IV is the series at it's most intricately sim-ish. Civilization V is the other side of the coin. It is the most well designed board game of the series.

It's hard to point to one particular aspect of the game that makes it so good. It's more the accumulated weight of a number of different choices. Having only one unit per tile is a big part of it - it makes unit positioning and tactical movement more important, but the elimination of the commerce slider and the invention of great people tile improvements also play a part, by making the layout of your empire more important as well. The balance of the tech tree also plays into it - the connection between each technology and what it unlocks is due more to gameplay necessities than any sort of rigorous simulation logic.

Which, believe it or not, is a compliment. Civilization V is the smoothest playing game of the series, the one it's easiest to slip into. I may have totally whiffed Emperor mode, but I think it's telling that this is the one Civ game that made confident enough to try.