Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Shadowrun: Dragonfall Director's Cut - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 Shadowrun: Dragonfall - Director’s Cut is a standalone release of Harebrained Schemes' critically-acclaimed Dragonfall campaign, which first premiered as a major expansion for Shadowrun Returns. The Director's Cut adds a host of new content and enhancements to the original game: 5 all-new missions, alternate endings, new music, a redesigned interface, team customization options, a revamped combat system, and more - making it the definitive version of this one-of-a-kind cyberpunk RPG experience.

NOTE: The Director’s Cut is free to existing owners of the Dragonfall expansion for Shadowrun Returns. It will be automatically added to your Steam Library when the game is released.
Man Meets Magic & Machine
In 2012, magic returned to our world, awakening powerful creatures of myth and legend. Among them was the Great Dragon Feuerschwinge, who emerged without warning from the mountains of Germany, unleashing fire, death, and untold destruction across the countryside. It took German forces nearly four months to finally shoot her down - and when they did, their victory became known as The Dragonfall.

It’s 42 years later - 2054 - and the world has changed. Unchecked advances in technology have blurred the line between man and machine. Elves and trolls walk among us, ruthless corporations bleed the world dry, and Feuerschwinge’s reign of terror is just a distant memory. Germany is splintered - a stable anarchy known as the “Flux State” controls the city of Berlin. It’s a place where power is ephemeral, almost anything goes, and the right connections can be the difference between success and starvation. For you and your team of battle-scarred shadowrunners, there’s no better place to earn a quick payday.

Now, a new threat is rising, one that could mean untold chaos and devastation. One that soon has you and your team caught on the wrong side of a deadly conspiracy. The only clue: whispers of the Dragonfall. Rumors that the Great Dragon Feuerschwinge may still be alive, waiting for the right moment to return…

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Technically, I got it for free, because I owned the Dragonfall DLC for Shadowrun Returns, but I'm not going to nitpick here. I bought Dragonfall because I enjoyed "Dead Man's Switch," but felt like it was missing something. I wanted a more freeform encounter with the Shadowrun universe, one where I could explore and make choices. So, when I heard that Dragonfall would be more of an open world experience, I jumped on it.

Then I forgot about it for, like, a year and a half, because I probably have a serious problem with compulsive shopping.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I just got done playing Shadowrun Returns and I liked it, so I have no worries about the basic, physical experience of playing the game. In all likelihood, I will enjoy this one just as much. My main concern here is the changes between the two games. The Steam Store page is a little vague in this regard, promising a new combat system and a redesigned interface (I cut off about 2/3rds of the description because, damn, it was long), but what intrigues me most is the new spells, cyberware, and character customization options. I don't know exactly what they are yet, but I know myself. I love excess, especially when it comes to my fictional worlds, so more is always better . . .

. . . he said, right before getting his ironic comeuppance. Seriously, though, I'm optimistic. What could possibly go wrong . . .

Okay, I've got to stop saying stuff like that.

Shadowrun Returns - 20/20 hours

My last two hours were spent with the "Shadowrun Unlimited" module, but I barely scratched the surface of what it had to offer. It was an attempt to create a more "open world" feel in the Shadowrun Returns engine. I liked that it borrowed a lot from the old Sega Genesis Shadowrun game, which had always been one of my favorites. However, along with the names of various people and places, "Shadowrun Unlimited" also borrowed one of the earlier game's greatest weaknesses - it gets off to an incredibly slow start, as you have to grind a bunch of randomly generated missions just to get enough karma to survive the main plot.

These missions are incredibly dull at the low end, consisting of "go to a place, and then go to a second place, and maybe you'll be attacked en route," but I didn't really mind. The only real flaw is that Shadowrun Returns has some inexplicably long loading screens, which wasn't such a problem in the base game, but could get kind of annoying when you had to transition between three or four areas in the space of a minute.

Overall, I'd say that the user-generated content of Shadowrun Returns was a nice bonus, and if I ever play this game again, it will probably be "Shadowrun Unlimited" which brings me back, however, it was not really essential. Shadowrun Returns was a nice little game, and in some ways it was less frustrating than certain other tabletop-based crpgs like Baldur's Gate, but for all that it lacks the drawbacks of a more faithful adaptation, it also lacks that indescribable spark of brilliance that makes you come back to a game again and again.

Maybe Dragonfall: Director's Cut will change my mind.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Shadowrun Returns - 18/20 hours

So, here's a thing you might not know about me - I hate being threatened. I mean, obviously, that's not too unusual a personality trait, because who actually likes being threatened? But for me, it's a huge character flaw, akin to Marty McFly being called a "chicken." If you want to manipulate me into doing something, threaten me unless I do the opposite. I like to think I'd be wise and level-headed enough to see through such a ruse, but who am I kidding.

I only bring it up, because "Nightmare Harvest" is a very well done fan creation, but EVERYBODY KEPT THREATENING ME.  I'd go to a place, a thing would happen, and then some snotty NPC would come up to me and say, "do what I tell you to, or I'll kill you." My reaction was pretty much "fuck you, I'll ATTACK." Which, you know, would be fine, except that the scenario enforces these threats by instantly killing me if I go against them.  The very least they could do was give me an unwinnable fight that demonstrated that I was in over my head. Especially since some of those fights looked extremely winnable. I imported my character from "Dead Man's Switch" so I had a maxed out Dodge score and Wired Reflexes, and thus I was more than willing to test myself against those arrogant gangsters. But the most aggravating part was that, towards the end of the plot, I was expected to work with these people as allies, and never really got a chance for revenge-killing them. Grr.

Aside from that complaint, though, "Nightmare Harvest" was pretty good. It had an interesting plot, it did some weird, but tenable things with Shadowrun canon (at one point, the Comanche Mafia demonstrates some technology that would be much more profitable taken to the legitimate market, rather than used to facilitate their drug business, but I'm just going to take that as a genre conceit), and there were memorable characters and environments. Its only real flaw (my personal hang-ups notwithstanding) is that it's a bit on the sexist side. The only important female character is a stripper, and you have the option of killing her when she refuses to return to her controlling husband (though this mission is not quite as outrageously offensive as it could have been, because you also have the option of covering for her, still yuck). I'm inclined to cut them a little slack, though, because this module was clearly a labor of love that had a lot of effort invested in it, and this is something even the pros struggle with, but it was a notable oversight.

I've now got about 2 hours left with this game, which bugs me a little, because that is not really enough to dig deeply into another mod, but I'm not too stressed about it because I hear that the Dragonfall: Director's Cut is not just a new story, but also has improved graphics and combat mechanics, so I've been looking forward to it.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Shadowrun Returns - 12/20 hours

I've finished the "Dead Man's Switch" campaign, and it ends on a very noir-ish "everything you just did will be covered up by the powers that be" anticlimax. Which is just as it should be, given the genre influences of the story. Plus, there were giant bug-monsters who threatened to overwhelm the world, just so you don't forget that it's Shadowrun.

I think the thing that I noticed most was that I'm no longer quite so on board with the cynicism of the cyberpunk genre. It's like, sure, the people at the top of our society are more or less unaccountable, and beyond the censure of ordinary working class folks. But I don't think they are as powerful or as competently corrupt as they're often portrayed as being. Hell, I think even the ones who appear to be the most nakedly self-serving are often sincerely trying to help. They're just so insulated from the world of those beneath them that they don't really understand what the problems are. And they are so well-adapted to their particular niche that their proposed solutions aren't really practical for people without their advantages. And because all their friends and family, and most of their coworkers are in the same situation, they never have to confront the fact that their selective blindness is actually a kind of armor against the world, and that their ineffectual attempts to fix the world are also, simultaneously (and, I believe, mostly subconscious) actions that will reinforce the bubble of unreality that supports their power.

You don't have to be a bad person to be an oppressor. You just have to have a limited amount of energy and a limited amount of imagination, and enough pride to defend yourself when you feel like you're being attacked. Life would be a lot simpler if the evils of the world were the deliberate work of evil men, but too often, the people who benefit most from injustice have committed no crime but ignorance, and thus our problems often seem intractable.

Which is to say, Tellestrian, the arrogant elf who covers up the plot at the end is not a very good character. A real conspiracy is a comedy of errors, not an elite puppet-master pulling the strings. Case in point: leveling a threat at a dangerous criminal, a person so deadly that he's on your short-list for a daring commando raid against a hive of mutant super-bugs - not a move that would work in real life. But upper class villains always seem to think that antagonizing people who literally sneak into well-guarded buildings and kill their inhabitants for a living is a smart use of their time and resources. It's probably why there are so few elite assassins in real life. Smart people realize that if a person is so good at murder that they're worth the money, then that means exposing oneself to such a person is a good way to live in fear for the rest of your life. And, of course, dumb patrons don't last long enough to support a robust killer-for-hire market.

But, you know what, if I'd been unable to get past the implausibility of elite criminals for hire as a setting conceit, I'd have given up on Shadowrun years ago. It's just one of those genre conventions that you have to give a pass to. And with that pass in mind, "Dead Man's Switch" is a fine example of a noir caper story. Even playing it a second time, I was still entertained.

I still have eight hours to go, though. I can't wait to see what the fans have created.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Shadowrun Returns - 8/20 hours

This game is really starting to heat up. It's still disappointing that you can't diverge from the main story, but now that I've started hiring shadowrunners and getting cyberware involved, it's starting to feel more like the fantasy-cyberpunk mashup I know it to be.

I guess I like the story. You're pursuing the threads of your friend's murder, and it turns out to tie in with this serial killer who is going around stealing people's organs, but once you find the killer, you learn that he was actually acting under orders, and then things get weird. I won't spoil it, because it's kind of neat, but unlike, say, Transistor, it doesn't provoke the sort of powerful emotional reaction that compels me to say something about it. Suffice to say, it's the sort of thing that is only really possible in a strange fantasy universe.

Nonetheless, as interesting as Shadowrun Returns story is turning out to be, I really can't wait to get it over with so I can experiment with the user-created content. The turn-based tactical combat is fun, and assembling a team of disparate metahumans with a variety of technological and magical superpowers is a compelling premise, but I can't help feeling that the game is missing something. You have a lot of options for how you build your team, and for what you can order them to do, but those options are constrained by the fact that you're forced to take on a particular set of missions, and thus have no special incentive to develop a specialized build.

For example, my current character specializes in using assault rifles, but has been investing in a secondary decking (think "hacking") specialty, and the main problem I've been having is that if you need a decker, the game gives you one (who, thanks to their monofocus, is better than me), but if you don't need one, there's nothing for your decker to do. If I could pick and choose my runs, then maybe you'd get a little more out of the character customization, but as it is, it kind of feels like window dressing at the moment.

I don't want to be too hard on the game, though. If the user-generated content can give me enough interesting stories to round out my twenty hours, then it will probably feel a lot like actually playing the tabletop game - you move from one railroad to another, but it's no big deal because you like the game and you like your character (I don't actually know how the user-generated content works, or whether you're allowed to keep the same character for different missions, but I'm hoping you do).

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shadowrun Returns - 2/20 hours

The world of Shadowrun is really weird.  It's the future. Everything's all chrome and neon and high-tech computers and such. But also there are elves and trolls and magic. It's a crazy combination that probably shouldn't work, but somehow, it does. I think it's because the different fantasy races stand in well as "cool outsiders" and magic is both a chaotic force, unable to be fully controlled by conventional power structures, and a sign of unique, elite insight, and taken together, these two factors dovetail nicely with cyberpunk's world of unaccountable power enforcing a bland conformity among "valuable" people and being opposed only by "freaks" who nonetheless use the mechanisms made possible by power in a sufficiently expert way. You are simultaneously shunned by society, and yet in some ways superior to the individual cogs that make up society. If that doesn't describe an elf, I don't know what does.

Of it could just be that the original Shadowrun was a well-put-together product that inspired and attracted talented people to build up a complex and compelling world, and that if it had actually been a game about rogue accountants in modern day corporate culture with no special superpowers, it might still have been popular, had it been made with the same care and attention to detail. . .  On the other hand, in the Shadowrun universe the richest and most powerful person on the planet is the dragon who took over BMW, so it is much cooler than the real world.

However, when it comes to Shadowrun Returns, the fantastic elements of the source material are so far just window-dressing. With so much of the world-building done in extra-textual sources, I sometimes feel as if it takes the audience's familiarity with the setting for granted. Don't get me wrong, I love seeing one of my favorite tabletop games come to life. Aside from fiddling in menus, my favorite aspect of playing games is being able to enter worlds that had previously existed only in my imagination. The top-down viewpoint isn't quite as immersive as something like Skyrim, but it is nonetheless packed with detail. It's fun to recognize something you've previously seen on the page rendered in full-color.

It's just that so far, the story has been one that could have taken place in any setting that allowed for detectives with noir-ish undertones. Your old buddy, Sam Watts, has been killed, and he's offering to give you some life insurance money if you can find his killer. You take the job because you feel like you owe him for saving your life, and because you really need the money, and because if you don't care, no one else will (Sam was kind of a huge dirtbag).

Okay, fair enough, that's a pretty interesting story, but it doesn't really use the Shadowrun universe in any particular way. You talk to the kooky night coroner, and he's a dwarf. A gang leader you have to shake down turns out to be a troll. Some of the mooks shoot fireballs at you instead of using guns. It's interesting and distinctive, but for someone who knows the tabletop game, it feels like it's barely scratching the surface of the setting's potential.

However, don't take that as any sort of final condemnation or anything. I've played through this game before, so I know for a fact that it gets weirder as it goes along, delving deeper into the less conventional corners of the Shadowrun canon. It's just that I only recently played the Fallout games, and I can't help but be aware of the contrast. In Shadowrun Returns, there's not really much scope for exploring, and you absolutely cannot go off the tracks and ignore the story, and so I get frustrated knowing that it's possible for an isometric crpg to create a whole virtual world that allows players to goof around in a compelling sci-fi-fantasy setting, but that this isn't actually one of those types of games.

I understand that the Dragonfall DLC corrects this fault to a certain extent, but I haven't played it yet, and since it was released separately in a "director's cut" version, I won't be able to until I've finished 20 hours with this one. I don't mind, really. I like Shadowrun Return's turn-based tactical combat gameplay, and I have no objections to experiencing a story set in the Shadowrun universe, even if it's not exactly my story of how I explored the Shadowrun universe.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Shadowrun Returns - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

MAN MEETS MAGIC & MACHINE. The year is 2054. Magic has returned to the world, awakening powerful creatures of myth and legend. Technology merges with flesh and consciousness. Elves, trolls, orks and dwarves walk among us, while ruthless corporations bleed the world dry. You are a shadowrunner - a mercenary living on the fringes of society, in the shadows of massive corporate arcologies, surviving day-by-day on skill and instinct alone. When the powerful or the desperate need a job done, you get it done... by any means necessary.

In the urban sprawl of the Seattle metroplex, the search for a mysterious killer sets you on a trail that leads from the darkest slums to the city’s most powerful megacorps. You will need to tread carefully, enlist the aid of other runners, and master powerful forces of technology and magic in order to emerge from the shadows of Seattle unscathed.

The unique cyberpunk-meets-fantasy world of Shadowrun has gained a huge cult following since its creation nearly 25 years ago. Now, creator Jordan Weisman returns to the world of Shadowrun, modernizing this classic game setting as a single player, turn-based tactical RPG.

Previous Playtime

14 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This is one of those games I bought at full price, back before I started the blog. It was not something I thought long and hard about. I like crpgs and I like the Shadowrun tabletop game, so when I saw it, I thought "wow, this is something that I'd like to own."

Hey, not every game in my collection has a story attached to it.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've already played through the main campaign. I enjoyed it, though in retrospect, my choice of a physical adept character might not have been the right one - Shadowrun has mages and cybernetics and all sorts of guns, so a character who hits things with a sword may have wound up closing off too much of the game's content. Luckily, I now have the ability to rectify that.

I remember the general outline of the plot from my previous playthrough, so I doubt anything will greatly surprise me, but on the other hand, that also means that I'm not expecting any unpleasant surprises.

Getting through the whole thing only took me 14 hours last time, and it'll probably be even less this time. I have the Dragonfall DLC, but seeing as how that got changed into a separate "Director's Cut" program, I'll probably try and play some of the Steam Workshop missions.  It'll be interesting to see what people have done with the level editor.

All-in-all, I anticipate having a pretty easy time with this game.

Transistor - 20/20 hours

Having completed Transistor three times now, my feelings about the ending have . . . not softened exactly, but they've become more complicated. I've come to view this game more as a song or a poem or a painting, and less as a story. Which is to say that rather than a collection of events connected by a plot, Transistor is more of a series of emotional impressions. There is a tenuous thread of melancholy that runs through them, and as you shift from situation to situation the emotional logic is clear, even if the backstory is obscure.

It's clever the way the second-to-last level is really just the first level, ruined and backwards. You first feel a connection to a place, and then later, the loss of a place. And the way the color and detail have drained from the previously gorgeous environment mirrors your growing despair. The world isn't going to get better, and the Process is out of control, thanks to the hubris of a few.

Seen in that light, Red's suicide is a sort of inevitable punctuation. A period at the end of a short declaration - what was unmade can never be restored. And maybe the reunion of Red and her lover at the very end of the credits is meant to extend that period into an ellipsis, and we are meant to find hope in the fact of this unspoken continuation.

But, of course, I don't. It just makes me sad. I suppose that this could be taken as to the game's credit. It is clearly trying to make me sad, and it succeeds. I feel the loneliness of the empty city, and the bleak hopelessness of the ruined city . . . it's undeniably affecting. Yet at times like this, I can't help thinking maybe I don't want to be affected.

It's a sentiment that makes me feel guilty, because of course I should like Big, Important Art that Dramatizes the Human Condition. It's the sort of thing smart people enjoy. But I don't enjoy it. I like things that make me smile. I liked fighting the Process, unlocking new powers, and solving the planning challenges.

Oh, I guess I also loved the beauty of the game, and that beauty is undeniably tied up with its sadness. It's something that will stick with me for a long time. When the game would stop for a moment of reflection, and cut to a dramatic and richly detailed painting, and the music would swell, I could not help but feel a shiver of wonder. And that is valuable. It's something maybe only one game in a dozen can do. So, as much as wish it ended differently, it's not a situation like Ride to Hell, where the writing is just stupid. It's more that I wish it ended differently like I wish life ended differently. That's not something that can properly be called a fault of the game. . .

But it is a fault in me, damnit. So, thank you Transistor, for providing me such a beautiful, enriching, and memorable experience. We shan't be seeing each other again.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Transistor - 12/20 hours

I've been playing through the new game+ mode and so far I haven't learned much new about the plot, but I have been enjoying the opportunity to cut loose with my full suite of powers. Transistor, like Bastion has the option to selectively increase difficulty by equipping "limiters" that give the enemies various buffs, but I haven't done so yet. I'll probably wait until I get through the end of the game one more time.

My favorite part has been the trials. Some of the later ones got pretty hairy, but there's something very satisfying about being backed into a corner and having to fight your way out.

The game is still impossibly gorgeous. I love looking at it. Because I'm not quite so worried about keeping up with the plot this time, I've been able to pay more attention to the backgrounds, and they are so lush and richly detailed that I just want to move into Cloudbank and live there forever.

Which is a shame, then that it gets blown up and all of its inhabitants killed. The parts of the city destroyed by the Process look kind of neat, in a creepy sort of way, I guess, but it's not the same. . .

Man, I hate that ending. I am not looking forward to seeing it again.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Transistor - 8/20 hours

Well, that ending was bullshit.

I don't know, maybe if I understood the plot more (I can't help but feel that I have a real comprehension problem with all these video games that I can barely follow), but from what I gather, the game is set in a kind of virtual world where people live their whole lives, it's slowly being destroyed by an aggressive reformatting program, and your sword, the titular "transistor" is an important memory stick/programming dongle that can store the personalities of dead people (who may be real people connected to the city or perhaps they are programs who exist inside the city itself), and you have to track down the conspiracy of wealthy citizens who triggered the apocalypse out of a misguided attempt to "improve" their world.

But if that's the plot, then the ending is impossibly bleak. The main character, Red, gains the power to restore the city of Cloudbank to its former state, but she finds that she is unable to bring her loved one, the voice from inside the transistor, back from the dead. Presumably, this means that all the other people who died during "the Process" are gone forever as well, and thus rather than live alone in an empty world, she commits suicide. Dark.

I'm not an especially spiritual person, so the argument that this is a happy ending because they're together in heaven (as shown by a beautiful picture shown behind the credits) doesn't find much purchase with me. I suppose it could be digital heaven, and that by stabbing herself with the transistor, Red was merely uploading her consciousness into it, so that her and her boyfriend could persist as mind-states in another level of the simulation. But if so, that's the sort of thing I'd prefer to have spelled out.

Or maybe I'm being too hard on the game. The story is really only the barest wisp of a thing. Most of the game's power is in it's atmosphere and mood. Everything about it, from the soundtrack to the voice acting to the color palette is dripping with melancholy. Transistor is a game about loneliness. You are in an empty city without a voice of your own, because it was stolen by the villains, people of immense power who nonetheless don't know what they want, just that they can't find peace in an ever-changing world shaped by the fleeting desires of the teeming multitudes. The world is doomed because the elite don't have it in them to find authenticity inside themselves. It's probably telling that heaven/the simulated world inside the transistor is a pastoral countryside whose bright colors contrast the decaying city.

It's probably still bullshit, though. The villains don't trust democracy and the hero is happier in the country, but you have to view both in the context of a dead world, where none of that really matters all that much. I liked Cloudbank, and though I only knew its citizens through snippets of news reports and brief unlockable biographies, they seemed like neat people. It bums me out that they're all dead, and no amount of frolicking in the sunshine is going to cheer me up about it.

Still, I liked playing the game. I especially enjoyed the challenge levels, where they give you a predetermined weapon loadout and a goal, and let you have at it. I'm not sure what the conditions are for opening up new challenges, but I still have about a half-dozen to go, so I'll likely enjoy my new game+ immensely. And who knows, maybe I'll see something on my second playthrough that will change how I feel about the story.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Transistor - 2/20 hours

I didn't really want to compare this game to Bastion, because I felt that might be unfair, but at least where the first two hours are concerned, it's hard not to. Both are games of beautiful desolation, where you find your self in a mysteriously abandoned world, shortly after a hinted-towards apocalypse, that is nonetheless gorgeously colorful. Both games tell their story indirectly, through narrators who can only guess at the motives of their silent protagonists (though Red is more "speechless" than "silent," per se). Both have great voice acting and amazing soundtracks. Thus, if you view Transistor as a follow-up to Bastion then it does not disappoint (at least, not in the first two hours).

Taken as its own game, I'm still not sure. I'm enjoying myself a lot, and the mysterious setting and gloomy ambiance have me intrigued, but the narrative is playing its cards close to its chest here, and so a lot is riding on getting a satisfying resolution to all the dangling plot threads that have been laid out for me so far.

Transistor's gameplay is pretty interesting too. In many ways, it's a normal action-rpg, but you can also stop time and plan out your moves in advance, setting up complex combos and avoiding enemy fire. So far, this puzzle element hasn't drastically changed the way I play the game, but it does give the battles a unique rhythm (your time-stop ability has a cooldown period, in which most of your other attacks won't work either), and I expect that as the fights become more difficult, I will be relying on the planning mode more and more.

We'll see how things go, but I am optimistic about this game. The system is simple at its base, but when you get to the point where you can combine your powers and change out your passive slots, there comes to be a lot of room for optimizing your character and exploring different playstyles. I expect that even if the main campaign proves to be short, replaying it will not prove to be excessively onerous.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Transistor: Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

From the creators of Bastion, Transistor is a sci-fi themed action RPG that invites you to wield an extraordinary weapon of unknown origin as you fight through a stunning futuristic city. Transistor seamlessly integrates thoughtful strategic planning into a fast-paced action experience, melding responsive gameplay and rich atmospheric storytelling. During the course of the adventure, you will piece together the Transistor's mysteries as you pursue its former owners. 

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

 "From the creators of Bastion" is pretty much all I needed to hear. Bastion may not have been my favorite game of all time, but it was well made and had charm to spare, so I remember it with incredible fondness. Even if Transistor turns out to be more of the same, I'll enjoy it greatly.

Judging by the trailer on the store page, it looks to share some basic gameplay ideas and aesthetic sensibilities with the earlier game (no surprise since it's in the same genre, from the same company), but perhaps with more complex mechanics and a darker storyline. However, I actually know nothing concrete about this game. It's a cyberpunk-looking action-rpg. Don't get me wrong, that's enough. It just means that I'm going in more or less blind.

Mount & Blade: Warband: 20/20 hours

Life as a trader is pretty satisfying, though it's obvious to me that the game doesn't actually want me to play it that way. The reason I think this is because the game doesn't give you certain vital tools to coordinate your trade empire. There isn't a ledger to track your transactions, nor are there graphs or charts to allow you to compare commodity prices over time. It's just a mess.

It strikes me that this might be somewhat realistic. When you think of medieval-style merchants, you don't really imagine that they did much data-driven market analysis. But then, it also occurs to me that maybe this is just lazy thinking on my part. The ancients may not have had a lot of our advantages, but they were just as smart as we are. It's likely they had very clever ways of tracking profit and loss.

So I looked it up. It turns out the bar, line, and pie graphs were all invented by a guy named William Playfair, in the late 18th - early 19th centuries. I'll admit, this came as something of a shock, because I never heard of the guy. I was expecting, when I typed my query into the search bar, that this would be one of those things that people turned out to be using for quite some time, and then only centuries after the fact would scholars be interested in tracking its origin, and by then they could only make a guess based on the earliest known samples. But it turns out that it can all be traced back to this one guy, who signed and dated his work.

Which I guess means that Mount & Blade is at least semi-realistic when it comes to its data presentation. It turns out that a virtually modern system of double-entry bookkeeping dates back to at least 13th century Italy, but then, that raises the question of what Caldaria's level of technology is supposed to be. I would have thought that the presence of crossbows meant it was relatively advanced, but apparently those have existed since around the fifth century BCE. I guess I'm just learning things left and right here - complex mechanical weapons have existed for thousands of years, but simple graphs are younger than the United States of America.

If I were the cynical sort, I'd say this perfectly encapsulates mankind's priorities, but I'll just limit myself to observing that Mount & Blade: Warband's priorities fall more or less in line with these relative technological developments.

Oh, and my experience with running a virtual trade empire - it was a lot of risk for relatively small profit margins, and you probably spent five minutes on the road for every 1 minute trading, which I guess means it's a good medieval merchant simulator, if not a great economic one.

Mount & Blade: Warband - 16/20 hours

I don't think I'm cut out to be a warlord. Emotionally, I mean. I think, taken on balance, the story of Honoria the dispossessed noblewoman seeking to restore her family is a happy one. She wins more than she loses, and even when she's faced with complete disaster, she gradually ratchets up her skills and resources so that her next disaster is even bigger than the ones that came before.

But there's just so much blood. I win a glorious victory, defeating 182 enemies with just 75 troops, but it costs me 30 men. Then, shortly after the battle, the village is reinforced by another 200 soldiers, so I flee the field, and a dozen of my men give their lives to cover our escape. As I head back to safer territory, I recruit more peasants to my banner, but before I can train them, an enemy corners me. Our numbers are about even, but my soldiers are green. I decide to risk it, and it's a complete rout. I'm taken prisoner, which costs me some gold, but I've still got a substantial warchest, and my fancy weapons and armor are still in my possession. I can rebuild.

But damn, this cycle of feast and famine is starting to get me down. I don't blame the game. The rules are more than fair (it seems like the sensible thing to do after all this time is cut off my fool head so I don't rise again). Rather, it's the political assumptions that undergird the setting. There will always be war. The nobility have a sort of gentelmen's agreement that they will treat each other in such a way that war bears little cost for them. You always take the enemy commander prisoner, but you never hold him in such a way that escape becomes impossible. And if you wait long enough, his family will offer a ransom. And then you can use that money to finance your next campaign.

It's just a never-ending slaughter. The peasants and the towns exist purely as resources to be plundered. Peace is a fevered dream. And if you want to join the nobility, there's nothing you can do about it. You have to fight to get your slice of the pie, because any other path just leaves you a victim to those who are willing to do what it takes.

It's grim, and the thought of building back up my forces for another round exhausts me. It doesn't help that the kindom of Swadia, to which I had hitched my star, is under attack from two sides. It's lost two of its biggest cities, and there are scarcely any villages left unplundered. The adjoining nations will both attack me on sight, which means that recruiting a new force, let alone training them to be a credible threat on the battlefield, is a going to be a nightmarish game of hide and seek.

I don't want to do it, but I'm thinking of starting over and playing a simple merchant whose goal is to build a commercial empire. Leave the game of thrones to the experts and just concentrate on having a big enough force to scare off bandits. Buying and selling goods for simple, honest profit, while exploring the land and making friends may not have the epic sweep of a tale of valiant warriors fighting for passion and honor, but at least I won't have to crawl to success over a mountain of skulls.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mount & Blade: Warband - 11/20 hours

The name of the game may be "Mount & Blade," but I'm discovering that I am skilled with neither. In theory, the way the game's combat system works is that when you move the mouse in a certain direction and click the right button, you swing in that direction. Similarly, if you click the left mouse button, you block in the direction the mouse is moving. A skilled player, therefor, is able to read the AI opponent's movements and parry its strikes while exploit holes in its defense. A less skilled player might, hypothetically, flail about like an idiot, striking and blocking purely by accident.

And, of course, in real life, horses were an immense boon on the field of battle, giving a skilled rider both the advantage of height and improved mobility, while often being fearsome weapons in their own right. It might just be that someone who was not so good at the video game would find that being up high makes it harder to hit with both sword and bow, and trying to connect with a blow at speed is basically a crapshoot. He might also bitterly regret that the Champion Courser he won from a band of deserter is a prestigious and powerful mount that he has no ability to exploit effectively.

I'm just saying.

It's a shame though, because I feel like my lack of skill is the primary obstacle in the rise of the dispossessed noblewoman, Honoria, back to her rightful place as a member of the gentry. She is currently working as a mercenary for the king of Swadia, and that has more or less solved her money problems, but while her rag-tag group of outcasts (seriously, I'm averaging about 60 troops, with about 10-11 different troop types) wins more battles than it loses, her prestige and reputation rises slowly, and she is still a long ways away from claiming a castle of her own. I'm guessing that if I could actually slay more than three enemies per battle (my personal record), I would be able to speed things up a bit.

I'm hoping this is a problem I can solve with grinding. Maybe if I get to be a high enough level, I'll be able to compensate for my lack of skill with outrageous stats. Or perhaps, with enough practice, I'll actually become a warrior worthy of being the main character in a game (I never thought I'd miss the ridiculous balancing of Dynasty Warriors as much as I do now - if I'd been playing Lu Bu this whole time, I'd probably have all of Caldaria in the palm of my hand).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mount & Blade: Warband - 7/20 hours

I told myself that I wasn't going to do my usual rpg thing, where I start a character, play it for a few hours, and decide that my initial build choices were all wrong, and thus scrap the character and start from scratch. I've got a ticking clock here, and if I want to see the late-game content, I've got to tough my way through the early game.

That being said, the Floris mod was a little tougher than the base game, and I wound up getting myself into a hopeless situation. It's actually an interesting demonstration of the emergent storytelling that can come from these open world style games.

Rose was the daughter of a merchant, raised her whole life to be a shopkeeper, but she always yearned for adventure, so when she came of age she became a bravo, a hired sword who guarded caravans instead of running them, until finally, she made her way to the kingdom of Swadi, ostensibly to find her fortune, but really because the call of the road pulled her into this exotic foreign land.

Almost as soon as she arrived, she was attacked by thugs in a dingy back alley. Using her hard-won skill with the sword, she dispatched the mugger, only to discover that he was part of a larger organization. A fellow merchant offered her shelter while he explained his plight. This gang of outlaws had kidnapped his brother, and he has need of a dauntless band of mercenaries to recover him.

Drawn by the justice of the merchant's cause, and the promise of coin, Rose went on a tour of nearby villages, to recruit likely-seeming lads to a life of heroism and adventure. But before she had a chance to return to the merchant disaster struck. Her nascent band was attacked by a much larger force of bandits. They fought valiantly, but Rose was taken prisoner.

Once she made her escape, she limped into a nearby town. She needed to rebuild her fortune, so she decided to go back to what she knew best - commerce. Buying a selection of trade goods, she was able to make some modest profits while gathering a new bodyguard from the interlying villages. Unfortunately, the ruinous "tolls" demanded by the outlaw gangs ate into her already thin margins.

Eventually, she became fed up, and when a band scarcely larger than her own demanded a fee for safe passage, she refused. Sadly, they were a band of deserters. Desperate men, poor and starving, but well-equipped and veteran fighters. They made short work of her undertrained conscripts, and Rose once more became a prisoner.

When she finally escaped, she had only her sword, a few coins, and her merchant's ledger. The countryside was still thick with bandits, so she took refuge in a nearby castle. The lord was kindly, and gave her shelter, and in the course of their conversation, Rose learned that he had troubles of his own. His son was being held prisoner by a rival lord, who was refusing to even consider ransom. If Rose could secure his release, the reward would be 5000 denars.

That would be enough to rebuild her fortune, and then some. More importantly, there was a certain romance to being the dashing young swordswoman who stormed a castle to rescue the handsome prince. There would be only a few guards, and she was not entirely unbloodied, She felt like she could do it.

So she made her way overland, alone, dashing from village to village to avoid the roving gangs that had plagued her as a merchant, until she arrived in the town of Yalen. Forgoing subtlety, she opted to attack the guard and seize the keys directly. The man was no match for her skill, but his armor was thick, and though Rose could land many blows, none were telling. Eventually, another guard arrived, and Rose was taken prisoner once more.

She languished in the dungeons for quite some time, and eventually gave up all hope. Even if she was free, she would have no money, no reputation, and no place to go. Her girlish dreams of adventure had broken against the cruel rock of reality. Calradia had no place for heroes.

Or at least, that's how I'm going to frame my clumsy misadventures to date. I was warned against playing a female commoner, and I was going to start the mod as a noble, but it didn't give me an opportunity to choose a banner during character creation, so I had the strange notion that I would win a banner in-game, in order to be able to select one myself (I really liked the orchid banner I got in the vanilla game). I later learned that the mod had an option to change your banner while in your camp, and that this detour was unnecessary. You live, you learn.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Mount & Blade: Warband - 3/20 hours

I am loving this game so far, though I might have to start over with a new character. As you start Mount & Blade: Warband, you are thrust into a virtual medieval world, filled with peril and intrigue, where you slay bandits to win the favor of a noble lord, compete in jousting tournaments to gain prestige among the court, and buy and sell olives in order to earn a modest return on the money invested in a mercantile endeavor.

It's exactly the sort of thing that appeals to me, because I adore games where the character's motivations map to the player's motivations. Mount & Blade creates a world, and the gives you the keys to that world. I really do feel like I'm the dispossessed scion of an ancient noble house, out to make her way in a hostile foreign land where her only assets are her name and her skill with the blade.

Which is why I have to start over. Jondera on pointed me towards a mod which adds over 1800 new items.  And that's the thing about immersion in games, it's addictive. If you give me a world with a certain depth, I am going to crave more. I want to burrow farther in, have more things to worry about, more options when confronted with a problem, and more things to do.

Unfortunately, the new mod is not compatible with my old save, so if it's a choice between continuity and gratuitous excess, well, the url for the blog isn't "fastidiousgamer," is it?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Mount & Blade: Warband - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

In a land torn asunder by incessant warfare, it is time to assemble your own band of hardened warriors and enter the fray. Lead your men into battle, expand your realm, and claim the ultimate prize: the throne of Calradia!

Mount & Blade: Warband is the eagerly anticipated stand alone expansion pack for the game that brought medieval battlefields to life with its realistic mounted combat and detailed fighting system.

Previous Playtime

12 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I'd just read a Let's Play of the game, and the detail and immersion suggested by the descriptions therein intrigued me. Since this was back when I didn't have quite so many games, I bought it without a second thought. I was also naive enough to get the bundle, because bundles on steam are scarcely more expensive than single games. I've since learned that two of the three games are basically redundant, but luckily this is the good one.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I must have started and abandoned a half dozen characters so far. I really like the game's complexity, but I never quite pinned down the most enjoyable character build. That's pretty standard for your more intricate rpgs, though. Despite my fecklessness, I was interested in learning more about the game and fully exploring its various mechanics. Then life intervened, I got distracted, and in the years since I last played it, I've bought dozens more games, most of which I haven't played.

I expect I'll have a couple of false starts getting back into it, but that once I get the hang of things, I'll get carried away and want to master its virtual world. That's usually how I feel about games with deep exploration and immersion mechanics.

Endless Space - 20/20 hours

I don't have a big, deep takeaway from my time playing this game. I like terraforming planets. I don't like getting attacked for no reason. Endless Space has much more of the former than the latter. Therefor I enjoy it.

Having played it so close to some other great 4X games, I can see some flaws I never really noticed before - the diplomacy is an unfun slog of the computer conspiring against you, your power as a faction is more or less linearly correlated with the number of systems you control, the AI doesn't really understand the combat system.

However, even with those flaws, it's a great time waster. I get a jolt of pleasure from pressing the buttons to turn numbers into other numbers, attempting to prioritize the order in which I pursue all the possible objectives even while I'm cognizant of the fact that in the long run I'm going to want them all.

In other words, Endless Space was a nice break from more stressful and challenging games. I didn't actually need it because I've had a pretty good run of fun ones for the last couple of months, but I did learn a valuable lesson - I'll want to try and spread out my 4X games in the future, so as to have these palate-cleansers available right up until the end.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Endless Space - 17/20 hours

I don't understand diplomacy. I'm referring, of course, to the game, but I suspect it's a statement that's true in my real life as well. Like, if someone offers me a peace treaty, I'm going to take it. I basically see no downside. I don't attack you and you don't attack me. It's the essence of human relationships, the bare minimum standard behavior, without which any sort of society would be impossible.

Which is why I don't understand why the AI in my last game wanted most of my strategic resources in exchange for a treaty. What possible advantage could they have gained from not having the treaty? Without one, you can't even have trade routes, which deprives your culture of a huge amount of money and research. It's baffling.

From the sources I could find online, the reason appears to be that the AI hates it when you pull ahead, and will do anything to stop you from gaining an advantage, even if it means shooting itself in the foot. Many fans of the game justify this as the AI "playing to win," except that this approach seemed to hurt the AI more than help it.

For example, I'd expanded to the edges of my natural frontier (you travel between star systems through either relatively fast star-lanes or relatively slow wormholes, and thus wormholes act as a good defensive chokepoint between empires). Because, even in a video game, I have a hard time just aggressively taking things that don't belong to me, that is where I stopped. When my neighbors reached the limits of their expansion, they declared war on me (luckily this did not happen at the same time). It didn't matter that I never made any aggressive move towards their lands or that our empires were exactly the same size (on, in the case of my second war, almost exactly twice their size), they needed to expand, and thus all previous relations ceased to matter.

But far from being a canny move on the AI's part, this was a huge disaster for them. Because I am not a naturally warlike person, when I am forced to fight a war, I try to fight it in a way that means I won't have to fight a second. Since there's no vassalage option, that means total conquest. Against my first foe, I was merciful, and left them one system, but bizarrely, when I was in the middle of my second war, and consequently in possession of roughly two and a half constellations worth of worlds, they decided to go ahead and try for round two. Leaving them alive did nothing but buy me a late-game annoyance.

I have to conclude from this that the AI doesn't know how to count. If our star systems are separated by wormholes that give you only one entrance into my territory, then I only need one fleet. And if I have one fleet, and you have dozens, but none of your dozens of fleets is capable of individually overcoming mine, then you're never getting past that chokepoint. And if you've built fleets all over your empire, and I've only built one at a chokepoint, then that means I've got an entire hinterland of highly developed infrastructure, and the cumulative riches of a hundred turns of not paying outrageous fleet maintenance, which means that when it comes time for me to counterattack, building wave after wave of ships is trivial.

Which means attacking me is FUCKING SUICIDAL and you should have just signed the damned peace treaty a hundred turns ago, but no, you couldn't give a human player any sort of leg up, and now I'm forced to stand astride the galaxy on a mountain of skulls when all I wanted to do was play a nice peaceful game. I can only assume there is some sort of simplistic military power counter that the AIs use to weight who they want to try and bully, and that it is incapable of taking into account economic power and geographical limitations. Which is kind of annoying.

But what's more annoying to me is the deep cynicism this sort of system evinces. Coexisting peacefully is not worthwhile for its own sake. You have to expand and consume and when that is no longer possible, you must attack those weaker than yourself or thwart those stronger, because there's never enough. You can't simply have a beautiful society with incredible accomplishments, you have to win.

Maybe the problem is that I want a simulation, and not a game.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Endless Space - 8/20 hours

I am wracking my brain trying to think of something interesting to say about playing Endless Space, and I've got nothing. I enjoy it. There's a lot of fiddling about in menus, deciding whether or not to build things based on the careful comparisons of different types of production. Yet it's streamlined enough that a 4X veteran such as myself can direct the empire's operations practically on autopilot. I played on novice mode to reacquaint myself with the tech tree and snag a really stupid achievement (win the game without building a single weapon-bearing ship, which led to my most productive star system being sieged by pirates for about a hundred years).

It all adds up to exactly the same experience I've had with every other 4X game I've ever played. Oh, there are nuances. I could talk about the way the basic unit of production is the star system, which contrasts with the way many other space 4X games focus on individual planets, but well, I basically just said all of it. It's a mechanic that makes settling slightly more interesting, because the potential of an individual system is a very complex thing to judge, but it also tends to make construction less satisfying, because it's rare to get a system that's worth specializing. Different planets have different production bonuses, but most systems are mixed, so they all wind up being somewhat average.

Compelling stuff, no?

But the thing is, I don't really need it to be that compelling. The minute differences between Endless Space and a dozen other similar games really do interest me. I like that it is mostly the same as other things I enjoy, while having just enough of a difference that it doesn't feel like I'm reliving the same game over and over again.

The metacritic score for this game is 77, and if I'm being honest, that feels like a fair assessment to me. It's a good game, but not an immortal one. Civilization V is better. Hell, Colonization (intensely uncomfortable political issues aside) is better. Endless Legend, the follow-up by the same company, is improved in almost every respect.

But I like it. Playing eight hours was no problem at all. Playing the other hundred-plus hours was almost uniformly comfortable and engaging. If it hasn't set my imagination on fire, maybe that's all right. Maybe there's a place for "exactly what you expect, delivered with competence and polish."

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Endless Space - 2/20 hours

I'm embarrassed. My plan was to do the thing I always do when I start up a 4X game - play it on the easiest difficulty to get a feel for the shape of the tech tree and basic gameplay mechanics. But I decided to do it with a twist and play a faction I'd never played before, in the hopes of snagging an easy achievement. My plan was to get a supremacy (military) victory with the Cravers - a ravenous insect/machine hybrid race that devours resources for a quick short-term boost to production at the expense of a long-term prosperity.

Which, you know, is the exact opposite of how I usually play. Needless to say, it did not go well. I haven't lost the game or anything, but I underestimated my enemy's fleet strength, had a major offensive wiped out, and am now in the position of having to replace it with a bunch of depleted planets suffering from major production penalties. I could probably still pull out a victory, but it stings to be in such a bad spot on such a low difficulty after such a long time playing the game.

I shouldn't be so hard on myself, though. I may have a hundred hours of experience with the game, but it's a hundred hours of learning to optimize the late game victories. There's no logical reason why that skill would necessarily translate over to an early game knife fight victory. It's quite a different thing to manage a highly infrastructure-dependent economy than it is to command a fast attack fleet of planet-consuming raiders. You have to take a whole different philosophical stance to handle it.

I'm not really sure the achievement is worth it. It's good to learn new things and expand your skills, but I tried that with Civilization V, my other big 4X game, so I feel like I've earned the right to take it easy here (he said, knowing it sounds like an excuse).

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Endless Space - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

This galaxy is ancient, and its first intelligent life was the civilization we call the Endless. Long before our eyes gazed upon the stars they flew between them, though all that remains of this people is what we call Dust. A substance found scattered or in forgotten temples, it once gave powers to admirals and galactic governors. The galaxy will belong to the faction that can take control of the Dust and uncover its secrets…

A Born Leader: Guide one of eight civilizations as you strive for galactic dominion. Will you control the entire galaxy through subtle trade and diplomacy, explore every corner of the universe to find powerful artifacts and resources, overwhelm other civilizations with your advanced technologies, or destroy your enemies with massive armadas?

Endless Discoveries: With hundreds of star systems to explore, different planet types, luxuries and strategic resources to exploit, the mysteries within the Dust to master and a host of strange scientific phenomena to deal with, the player will have no lack of challenges. Hire heroes to become fleet admirals or system governors and discover five hero classes and their unique ability trees and specializations.

Space Opera: Experience Endless Space with state-of-the-art graphics and interface, switch between strategic battle decisions and long-term planning. Optimize each fleet for epic battles around contested stars. Create the perfect combinations from dozens of unique ships per civilization. Customize your ship with modules, armament, engines and special mods. The player has a plethora of choices of how to best destroy or dissuade his enemy.

Take on the Universe: Play against up to seven opponents and build up – or break – alliances at will. Discover an innovative and dynamic simultaneous turn-based gameplay. Permit instant jump-in for your ongoing online games. Define your own custom civilizations and confront the ones created by your friends.

Endless Replayability: Control every new game’s scope, from a quick match-up to an endless war. Generate an infinity of random galaxies where every start begins a new adventure. Modify the size, shape, density, age and a lot more to create your ideal galaxy. Choose from different victory conditions and adapt your strategy on the fly.

Previous Playtime

105 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This game predates my first big Summer Sale splurge. It was one I specifically sought out because it was a nice-looking space 4X that would run on my old computer. I don't know what else to say about it that isn't just a reiteration of things I've said in the past - I love sci-fi and I have an irresistible weakness for 4X games.  It was a simpler time for me, when it never occurred to me that I might regret buying a game.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've already played this game for a hundred hours, so I've got a pretty good idea about what to expect. It's a different 4X experience than something like Civilization. You don't cultivate territory. The smallest administrative unit is the whole planet, and it only improves by building new facilities and increasing your population. There's a nonlinear tech tree, which is neat because in theory it allows your civilization to specialize, but in practice you'll need to take a balanced approach to all four branches just to stay competitive. I like it because there's a lot of potential for technological and infrastructural feedback loops that let you gain a runaway advantage, but then I'm weird and my favorite part of a 4X game is the late stage where you're constantly sorting through information and chasing the elusive goal of perfection.

Hell, I haven't even started playing and I'm already writing a post about it. I expect that will be the pattern for much of this game. I'll find playing it trivially easy, but everything I've ever been inclined to say or think about this game, I've already said or thought. Posts will probably be written more from my deep well of memories than from any new experience I might have in the next twenty hours. Perhaps I'll think of a challenge to make the writing more entertaining.

Magic 2014 - 20/20 hours

Well, I really enjoyed myself with this game. I love playing Magic: the Gathering. I love looking at the cards. I love sorting through them looking for synergies. I love laying down overpowered combos that reverse the course of the game at the drop of a hat. If this game had a more thorough deck-building system, it would be perfect.

I think the part of the game I enjoyed the most was examining the preconstruct decks in the deck manager. A lot of the cards I'd never seen before, and it was fun to see how the professionals design a competitive deck, outside the constraints of having to release something to the mass market. I think, if I were trying to get some of these decks in card form, they'd cost something like hundreds of dollars, so for real Magic nerd like myself, it's a little like being able to test drive a swanky automobile.

But aside from sheer card-nerdery, the part of the actual gameplay that most appealed to me was the challenges. Bascially, you're given a board position and you have to try and win in one turn. It was a neat way to see some tricky combos. I finished all but one. I figured it out in principle, but when I tried it, I managed to fall 2 life short of victory (the opponent started with 65, and a normal magic game has you starting with 20). Formally finishing it would have meant going back and mapping it out with a flow chart to get the absolute most from my mana and card pool, and it simply wasn't worth it just for an achievement.

Here's the solution, so you can see what I mean:

It's fun, but you have to disappear into the rabbit hole of MtG mechanics minutiae to reach the solution. I decided I'd rather look at cards.

Overall, I went into this expecting a weak-tea substitute for "real" Magic: the Gathering. What I got was . . . well, a weak-tea substitute for real Magic: the Gathering, but it turns out that even absent the ability to look through my 20 year collection or the social interaction of a face-to-face game, the fundamentals of Magic so strongly appeal to me that this was one of my better video game experiences.

I'm not sure how much of this I can attribute to nostalgia. There's no denying that part of the fun for me was judging virtual cards in the context of my experience with the physical game. I could look at a combo and say "whoa, that's neat," and not just be referring to a particular game mechanic, but to a nuance of a broader real-world hobby. I feel like if I were a total Magic novice, a lot of this game would have been wasted on me (plus, it's been so long since I learned the game that I can't say anything about how good an introduction it might be to the rules).

However, I'm not sure whether I should count this as a negative. I can't be anything but what I am, so it would be absurd to judge a game by the hypothetical experience of an alternate me. So let me just say, despite the fact that I am overburdened by games due to a series of impulsive and foolish purchases, I do not count Magic 2014 among them. I would have wanted to buy this game even if I were forced to play it for a hundred hours or more.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Magic 2014 - 11/20 hours

Looking back at the last five hours, the main impression I'm getting is more of an emotional reaction - I think I hate control decks. Both playing as them and playing against them.

Alright, let me back up and explain Magic: the Gathering theory for those not in the know. Give the thousands of different Magic cards out there, you can design a virtually limitless number of different decks, but unless you're just putting cards in at random, your deck probably fits into one of three categories - Aggro, Combo, and Control. The categories each represent a different philosophy about how you try and win the game. Aggro decks try to do as much damage as quickly as possible, and usually rely on small, cheap creatures. Combo decks rely on an interaction between cards to try and create a massive, unanswerable advantage. Control decks try and play defensively and shut down other decks until they can bring out a decisive late game victory.

It should come as no surprise that Combo decks are my favorite. I like setting up complicated card interactions, carefully building up an invincible fortress, infinite mana engine, or impossibly massive creature and then unleashing it in one glorious moment of triumph. Which is to say, I lose, a lot. It's just a thing. I'm used to it.

But Control decks are definitely my kryptonite. Because they specialize in removing cards from play, or countering cards as they are cast, they tend to take a wrecking ball to my decks, punching holes in my beautifully intricate multi-card mechanisms, and forcing me to scramble against time to salvage some alternate means of victory once my main combo becomes impossible. Strangely, even when I win against a Control deck, I find it a less satisfying gameplay experience than when I lose to virtually any other type of deck.

I think it's because when I'm being assaulted by creatures or beaten to the punch by a superior combo, I can blame the luck of the draw. I was defeated while my deck was in the process of powering-up, and if I never got to see the payoff, it's only because certain necessary cards came later rather than sooner. Maybe next time. Whereas, if key pieces of my infrastructure get blown up prematurely, then order is replaced by chaos. What was destroyed can never be rebuilt, and instead of having a concrete plan rendered untenable by circumstances, I'm thrust into a situation where I have no plan at all. It's very unnerving.

I also discovered that my unlocked cards may have been doing me more harm than good. It turns out that for some reason, some of my extra cards have been added directly to my decks, instead of going into the reserve supply like the rest of them. That means that practically since the beginning, I've been trying to win with 70 card decks. That's kind of a huge problem.

It may not sound like much, but 10 extra cards, even if they are good cards (and some of the unlocked ones aren't) reduce your odds of drawing what you need by about 15%. In an environment where all the decks were presumably balanced against each other by professional designers, that 15% can translate to a huge win/loss deficit.

What I should do is go into the deck manager and tune all the preconstructs to remove the extra cards and swap in the best of the unlocked alternates. This will be a long, tedious process in which I have to carefully examine cards one at a time, to determine whether their effects are worth the mana and opportunity costs that come with including them in a deck.

I'm seriously looking forward to it.