Sunday, February 28, 2016

Awesomenauts - 12/20 hours

Why do I play games? What is it that I hope to get out of them?

I like to think that my love of games is bound up in the pursuit of excellence. That through diligent practice I will improve myself and develop a skill I had hitherto not possessed.

That theory appeals to me because it seems noble. Life should be about climbing the ladder of self-improvement, of never being satisfied with "good enough." To strive is to open oneself up to new possibilities, and to hope for a transformation of the self that brings about a transformation in one's understanding of the world.

However, every time I play a difficult video game (and presumably this would apply to other challenging tasks, though it's been months since I've sat down and read a book and years since I've tried to learn a new language or solve a difficult math problem . . . I should probably address that imbalance at some point), my hopeful philosophy is put to the test.

When I bumped the bots from level one to level two difficulty, my kill-death ratio plummeted, going from something like 10 kills for every death to two deaths for every kill. My team won about half the time, but I'm certain these wins are only incidentally attributable to my actions on the battlefield.

If I were totally consistent about my personal philosophy, this would be an invigorating opportunity. There's so much I can learn in fighting these bots. If I apply myself and stick to it, I can push past my current skill plateau and start playing the game at an entirely new level.

But . . . but . . . I miss winning. It's silly, I know. If I kept playing at easy difficulty, I'd never learn anything. I'd stagnate as a player and never be able to face human competition on an even footing. Any victory made against such hobbled opponents as the Easy bots would be a hollow one at best.

Yet even knowing that, being on the giving end of a righteous ass-whooping is an intoxicating sensation. Compared to the frustration of trying your best and still not being quite good enough, it's like being on top of the world. It may be a vacuous pursuit, but it feels so good.

And it's at times like this that I wonder if perhaps "pursue self-improvement" isn't my true life philosophy. Perhaps, instead, I am merely looking for a series of diversions to fill time until I inevitably succumb to the icy embrace of death. Perhaps I play games out of a sybaritic dissolution, and rather than trying to understand the world, I am in fact trying to shut it out.

I mean, that's a lot to pin on a bunch of cute little sprites jumping on platforms and shooting each other with lasers, but everything's a piece of the puzzle, you know.

I think what I have to do is stick with my training regimen. Keep tackling the tougher bots in the hopes of eventually reaching a breakthrough. Maybe focus on one or two characters to play instead of just hitting "random" every time the character-select screen pops up. It's likely that if I don't lose hope and get in enough practice, the tides will turn and I'll start beating the bots consistently. And when that happens, the wining sensation will return, but it will be even better, because this time it was earned through hardship.

With any luck, I can satisfy both my sensual cravings and my intellectual curiosity . . . to the extent that a simple platformer MOBA can, anyway.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Awesomenauts - 8/20 hours

I don't know why the world insists on humbling me. Do I give off an aura of hubris? Am I the sort of self-regarding narcissist who deserves to be taken down a peg? Have I, all this time, been laboring under the delusion that I'm better than I really am?

Which is to say, my multiplayer Awesomenauts career did not get off to an auspicious start. I've played 10 matches so far and I've only won 2. Which is not too bad, I guess, for a beginner, but I have to credit that to the luck of the draw with regards to matchmaking, because when you look at my kill-to-death ratio it's 7-42,  and it becomes clear that I am . . . not skilled.

Which wouldn't be such a problem, if it weren't for the fact that the game mechanics make a team's weak link into a double liability. Not only was I failing to provide useful ground control for my team, but every time I died, I provided xp to our enemies, allowing them to pull farther and farther ahead. Basically, my teams would have been better off if I'd just hung out in the base and not done much of anything.

Of course, it's possible that all new players are as raw as I am, and this is just a phase everyone has to go through, but it's hard to tell. Before I started playing multiplayer, I thought it would be one of those things where everyone wore headsets and talked with each other over the internet to coordinate their tactics and make good use of their resources, but as far as I could tell, that never happened (though I'd be super-embarrassed if I were wrong about this and I just had voice-chat turned off). I never really learned what I was doing wrong, and my inexperience more or less had to speak for itself.

I found it an awkward and unpleasant experience. I have to figure that anyone who has been playing Awesomenauts online has learned to cope with useless dipshits such as myself, but everytime I wind up hanging out in my little launch capsule, waiting to join back in after an ignominious death, I imagine the players on the other end of the internet, cursing impotently, their fully-justified rage fading into the silence of the absent voice-chat.

I'm probably being over-sensitive about it, but discovering my suckitude was kind of a jarring experience. I always fancied myself an "average" gamer, no match for many, of course, but better than some. I figured if the computer is matching me fairly, I should have a win percentage of about 50% and close to  a 1-1 kill-death ratio. I mean, I don't have a lot of specific experience with Awesomenauts, but the sheer number of Mario, Sonic, and Mega Man games I've played over the years, I figured some of those skills would have transferred over. To have my illusions shattered so abruptly has not been great for my self-image.

I guess what I ought to do is go back to practice mode for a few hours and polish my technique. I had a 100% win rate against the easy bots, but it is now apparent that I wasn't ready for real human foes. I should try out the harder bot difficulties and only go for multiplayer once I've managed to get credibly proficient against the hardest ones.

Hmm . . . If I'm acknowledging now that I need more practice, that means that when I started, I was under the impression that I didn't need practice and could just jump right in.

Maybe I needed to be humbled after all.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Awesomenauts - 5/20 hours

I've not yet played multiplayer. It is simply not convenient for me to do at work. I will often need to pause during the night, and there has yet to be invented a multiplayer pause function that works in a fair and unobtrusive way. Luckily, it pauses in single-player, which is a consideration that not all games grant (I'm looking at you, Dark Souls).

What I've been doing so far is unlocking characters and trying them out on easy bot battles. I've managed to get all of the characters from the base game (though there are still five more I could get if I purchased the expansion . . . which I'm tempted to do because this is a pretty fun game and having blank spaces in my menus bugs me) and I've played through at least one match with all of them.

They're a pretty well-designed bunch of characters. No two felt exactly alike to play. I'm not actually good enough at the game to appreciate the deep differences between them, and the easy-bots are indeed easy enough that clever combos and min-maxed builds were never really necessary, but there were a couple I liked - Derpl Zork, the cute little alien in the roly-poly power armor that can enter siege mode and lay down an astonishing amount of firepower at the expense of mobility (and for some reason shoots cats out of his gun) and Voltar the Omniscient, a weird psychic squid creature who can heal your allies and destroy enemies with floating defense drones that can double as grenades.

I think I could easily play bot-battle mode indefinitely. The levels aren't really complex enough to make it a great platformer, but it's fun to go toe-to-toe with the AI in an all-out brawl, and since repetitiveness doesn't really bother me as such, simply grinding profile levels in pursuit of all the unlockables is more than enough to keep me occupied.

That being said, I will indeed try multiplayer mode at my earliest convenience. I'm sure that some of this is simply due to the fact that I've been playing on easy, but I saw the AI make some pretty silly choices (such as being too willing to retreat when I'm at the inner base, and thus no use at all in final, end-of-match defense), and I imagine that if I'm to see any decent tactics at all, there will need to be a human intelligence behind it.

I think I'll play my first multiplayer match today, before bed, then get some more practice tonight at work (bumping up the bot difficulty to level 2, at least), and then dig in to multiplayer in earnest tomorrow, on my day off. Hopefully the more experienced players don't eat me alive.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Awesomenauts - 2/20 hours

Awesomenauts looks great. The bright and colorful graphics look like they were based off a really amazing Saturday morning cartoon. The characters have a bunch of cute little details with their costumes and animation that make them interesting to watch. The intro movie and the tutorial cut-scene are fun in a nonsensical over-the-top way.

It would have been really cool if Awesomenauts had a story mode. As it is, as a MOBA, it's basically the same 20 minutes over and over again. I'm not super-worried about it, because those 20 minutes are pretty entertaining. You take one of the adorably-designed characters and get into a huge 3 vs 3 brawl. The goal of each match is to fight your way through the enemy characters to get to their base  and then smash the hell out of it. Along the way you buy upgrades to improve your character's abilities.

I think the idea is that this is one of those "easy to learn, impossible to master" situations, where you can play repeatedly with the exact same setup because the nuances of each match, the particular circumstances that you find yourself in and the choices made by your enemies, will require different responses in order to maximize your chance of victory. That's where the multiplayer comes in. As you get better, so does your opposition, so there's never a time when the game becomes trivial. It will always be as devious as the human mind.

I guess that means I should give multiplayer a try sooner or later. I'll admit, I kind of  dread it. What if everyone I play with is better than me, and not just by a little, but by a lot? Losing bums me out, but that's not really what worries me. Awesomenauts is both a competitive game and a team game, so if it turns out that I'm no good, then I'll not only be failing, I'll be letting the team down. I mean, sure, the stakes are low, but I'd nonetheless feel guilty about ruining someone's spare 20 minutes.

I know that's being neurotic, and that there are probably so many fellow newbs out there that we could form a whole league and never even see an advanced player, and even if there weren't, I'm sure that I'd be much more likely to run into a patient and welcoming group of players than a bunch of assholes who take the game way too seriously. But it's not like playing bot battles is some sort of video game equivalent to being banished to the cornfield. I enjoyed my six or seven matches thus far and could probably easily play 20 or 30 more.

In summary - I should make the effort to be more social, and thus I've penciled in a multiplayer session for after I get off work tomorrow, but since multiplayer doesn't let you pause, I will stick with bot battles for when I play at work tonight, and I probably won't have any problems with that.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Awesomenauts - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The year is 3587. Conflict spans the stars as huge robot armies are locked in an enduring stalemate. In their bid for galactic supremacy, they call upon the most powerful group of mercenaries in the universe: the Awesomenauts!

Awesomenauts is a MOBA fitted into the form of an accessible 3-on-3 action platformer. Head out to the online battlefields together with your friends as an online party or in local splitscreen, and never worry about having to wait for an online match because of drop-in matchmaking!

Devise strategies as you upgrade and customize each character's skills to suit your playing style. Expect new items, features, DLC and Awesomenauts to be added regularly!

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've just heard the name. I can't even remember the original context or anything that went on in the discussion, but I've heard this game talked about before. I have a vague impression that the opinion of those talking about it was favorable, and that appears to be born out by the Steam reviews (although a lot of the more recent ones are negative, apparently due to a change in the game's rules).

I like the looks of the screenshots. It reminds me of one of my favorite console games Viewtiful Joe, and while I'm sure it's not a great match, a side-scrolling action game with colorful, cartoony graphics doesn't have to do a lot to win my affection.

My biggest concern is that it's a MOBA. I've only played one game of the genre with any persistence (Demigod), and while I enjoyed it well enough, it struck me as the sort of game that really only comes alive with multiple players. I enjoy playing games with other people, but I get a little uncomfortable meeting random strangers, and playing with friends is made difficult by my crazy, upside-down schedule (plus the wifi at the hotel is . . . unreliable).

I'm hoping that Awesomenauts has an entertaining single-player mode (and, more importantly, a pausable single-player mode) so I can get some mileage out of it while I'm at work. Otherwise, this one is going to take an unexpectedly long time to finish.

Age of Wonders 2 - 20/20 hours

There's a long gap between my Age of Wonders 2 posts. It's because my last 12 hours or so were almost entirely uneventful. And that is because I decided to play the game in the silliest way possible.

I had just beaten a simple 1v1 scenario and it was kind of a slog. Balancing the gold-economy with the time-economy was a chore, and units' movement rate, given their vision radius, and compared to the size of the map meant that reinforcement took forever and deployment was always a calculated risk. I won, but I didn't really enjoy the victory.

So what I did was fire up an eight-player scenario and set every player to "human," in the hopes of being able to explore the various tech trees without any pressure to "win." And then I continued to play that scenario for twelve hours.

Of course, most of that time was taken up with just the sheer mechanical repetitiveness of controlling the movement and production of eight fantasy civilizations. My total number of turns was about 60, so that works out to five turns per hour, which translates into one civilization-turn every 90 seconds or so.

Obviously, this time wasn't uniformly distributed. Sometimes I had a long, complex turn with a lot of movement and production and sometimes all I had to do was press the "next turn" button. I imagine it all averaged out in the end.

What didn't average out was my interest in the various factions. The draconians had a great ultimate unit (red dragons!), but disappointing intermediate units. The archons had great ordinary units, but I felt like their ultimate (some kind of giant) was thematically out of place. And the halflings were just all-around disappointing. I liked the dwarves, because they had berserkers on the low end and steam-powered tanks on the high. And the elves were all right, but I got a little bored of the fact that all their high-level units had the same teleport ability.

What I wound up doing was trying to "win" with one of eight factions. Just out of curiosity, to see some of the units face off against each other head to head. It took freaking forever. Even accounting for the fact that I was playing eight turns, there was just so much back and forth, with promising units getting torn apart by damage, but in the process severely weakening the enemy, cities trading hands repeatedly, and economic resources in the countryside falling prey to any unit that just happened to pass by.

In the end, only one of the eight races fell (halflings, because why the hell are halflings a major faction in a war game) and while another one (humans) was close, as of the 20-hour mark, I was still hours away from finding a decisive victor.

I guess I learned three things from this experience. One: I really like dragons and steam-powered tanks (though this is not that shocking a revelation, all things considered). Two: It takes a really long time to complete an Age of Wonders 2 match. Three: I don't really care for this game all that much.

After finishing the first Age of Wonders, I was inclined to give the series a bit of a break, because it was clear that it was being held back by its age, but this more recent version doesn't have that same excuse. Maybe I'm making too big a deal about it, and Age of Wonders fans didn't really have problems with the game's user interface, but I don't understand why it wasn't improved in the sequel.

But really, I just didn't buy into the game's central premise. It's actually kind of odd, because I've played war games before, and while they always tend to stress me out, I could swear I've enjoyed them more than this (though no particular example leaps to mind at this time). I think the problem might be that Age of Wonders 2 is too similar to other games I enjoy a lot more. All through my time playing it, I couldn't help but wish that it was more like Endless Legend, or even Fallen Enchantress, fantasy turn-based strategy games with more of an emphasis on empire-building and exploration and which put me under a lot less defensive pressure. I wasn't able to appreciate it as its own thing because I was constantly being reminded of my thwarted expectations.

I know that's not a fair expectation to lay on the game. I mean, what do I want, that every game I ever play be a cogent commentary on every other game I've other played? Obviously any even remotely ambitious game is going to try and be its own thing, with its own priorities and merits. The real failure is here is a failure of objectivity.

However, I don't think the issue is whether or not I should be objective, but rather whether or not I can be objective. Is it even possible to separate oneself from the context of your past history? Like, I must have some faculty, derived from the knowledge gained through experience, to discern meaning inside a game. That's part of being an adult. Presumably, if you showed Age of Wonders 2 to a baby, they would not enjoy it, and that would almost certainly be because the baby wouldn't understand the game at all.

But understanding isn't a process ex nihilo. It is something built up over time. My red dragon unit is just a collection of pixels, and relies for a lot of its power on cultural touchstones like Smaug from The Hobbit and the rainbow of chromatic dragons from Dungeons and Dragons - it's stories like these that let me know that dragons are cool. And my understanding of the red dragon as a unit comes from experiences with other games that provided me with units. Every other top-tier unit I've ever used goes into the general subconscious stewpot that allows me to judge things like the dragon's place in the tech tree, its resource and opportunity cost, and its power relative to low-tier units. It becomes a powerful unit by being compared to other powerful units and emerging favorably from the comparison.

Perhaps it is the role of the critic to take individual works and put them in their context, to illuminate the connection between the present and the past, between a game and its influences. And thus it is not unjust of me to place Age of Wonders 2 into an unwinnable comparison with other games in its genre, but rather the heart of what the whole enterprise is about.

Or perhaps I'm just coming up with an elaborate justification that I hope will be more interesting than simply saying "I didn't like it."

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Age of Wonders 2 - 6/20 hours

Seeing as how I did a lot of complaining in my last post, I promised myself that I would maintain a positive focus in this update, because I really don't hate Age of Wonders 2, and I'm worried that my negativity might have led to that impression.

So what do I like about this game?

I like the exploration. I like moving my units into the fog of war and uncovering new terrain, expanding my map of this densely populated fantasy world. I like seeing the different special units possessed by the various fantasy races, the dragons and Pegasuses and nymphs and whatnot that populate the warring kingdoms. I like researching spells and building up my cities. I like fielding powerful units of high-tier soldiers. I like the tactical combat when I'm the one who starts the fight (primarily because the playing field is even or stacked in my favor). I like the early game, before the AI assembles enough of a fighting force to come after my shit.

The biggest hurdle for me is accepting the game's premise of eternal war. It's like a mental block. I can't quite wrap my head around the idea that I should be taking the gold I'm earning from all these windmills and mines and then subsequently spending in a whimsical attempt to recruit dragons, and put it to use killing people and taking their stuff.

But I'm going to try and stay positive here. Taking endless war as a given, Age of Wonders 2 is probably as good a way as any to go about it. Territory changes hands pretty easily, making true stalemates difficult, and it's possible to build up enough momentum to win decisively without becoming entirely invincible in the process. It's a paradigm that favors offense and mobility, and requires a great deal of active attention. I expect that if I were better at the game, I'd also be a better general in real life.

I expect what I'll do for the next 14 hours is start a series of new games, rage-quitting each one in succession until I develop the instincts to keep the AI under control, and then maybe I'll prefer to focus on a single map to systematically dominate. If I can get to that point, I'll probably find Age of Wonders 2 pretty satisfying.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Age of Wonders - 2/20 hours

Most of my first two hours were spent playing the tutorial. I didn't notice any startling new features, but it didn't hurt to get a refresher on the rules of the game. Unfortunately, it looks like all the worst parts of the original Age of Wonders survived into the sequel.

The thing you have to do, where in order to select a unit, you right-click on it, and in order to move the unit, you right-click on its destination - that is physically unpleasant. I've played the Age of Wonders series now for more than 20 hours, and it still trips me up from time to time. And having to press a button to select your next available unit is both tedious and confusing.

But the thing I'm most disappointed to see return in the sequel isn't so much a "thing" as a "strategic consideration." Thanks to the way the game's AI is set up, your opponent often decides to send nuisance squads of fast but easily defeatable units behind your huge, indefensible front lines to take over your economic buildings. The calculus of unit-upkeep to vulnerable targets does not allow you to post a defensive garrison in everything that you might want to protect, so you have to play with an active defense, dispatching a mobile attack force to take down these interlopers before they can do too much damage.

It's a style of gameplay that is barely tolerable on my best day, and actively infuriating on my worst. Because the AI isn't getting any sort of advantage from these attacks. It can't hold a half-dozen watchtowers and mines with a single cavalry unit. Which means the only conceivable aim for this strategy is to annoy the human player. Maybe I should be more sanguine about this, and look upon it as an opportunity to practice my active-defense (a skill I also lack when it comes to RTS games, despite it being vital to the genre), but it's the very nature of geometry that my amount of units will scale linearly with the number of cities I control, but the amount of area I have to defend will increase with the square of the number of cities I control. A map layout with sufficient bottlenecks will mitigate this, to a certain degree, but it's still not an activity I enjoy.

I think my biggest regret in purchasing the Age of Wonders series is that I didn't realize it was a more-or-less pure wargame. Usually, in empire-management games I try and play as peacefully as possible and develop my internal infrastructure in hopes of a diplomatic or economic victory, but here that's not an option.

A large part of my annoyance with Age of Wonders 2's active-defense-centered strategy probably comes from that intellectual blind spot. These quick AI raids are pointless from a perspective of strengthening the enemy economy. They get, what, maybe one or two turns of gold as I sigh and dispatch a unit to chase the raiders down, but if I take the stance that the AI is my enemy, then anything that thwarts me, slows me down, or distracts me is a net advantage, even if the advantage is small. Presumably their aim is to make me over-spend on defense and draw as much of my army as possible away from the front lines.

Seen from that perspective, complaining about the shifting tides of fortune is churlish. I might as well complain about taking hits in a fighting game, or spending gold pieces in an rpg. . .

Okay, so I'm a little churlish at times. I think this is a flaw I can work around. All I have to do is resolve myself to a course of personal improvement - I WILL muster my focus and put in an effort to play the game the right way, instead of just complaining about it all the time.

And who knows, maybe I'll actually get good.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Age of Wonders 2 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 Age of Wonders II is the wildly anticipated sequel to the award-winning strategy phenomenon.

Delivering an invigorating mix of Empire Building, Role-playing, and Warfare, Age of Wonders II brings turn-based strategy to new heights.

Awakened to join an immortal group of Wizards in the Circle of Evermore, you must restore balance to a world on the brink of collapse.

Key features:
Explore a world full of mythical creatures and mysterious lands. Build an impressive force as an all-powerful Wizard through dangerous perils and exhilarating challenges.

Dictate the fate of the world from within your Wizard's Tower, a transmitter of power used to channel your ground-shaking spells.

Immerse yourself in a legendary story during a single-player campaign with 20 scenarios full of intrigue, action, and suspense.

Reign supreme over one of 12 distinct and races such as Elves, Frostlings, Draconians, Dwarves, Halflings, Humans, and even the Undead.

Conquer your enemies with over 130 unique units such as steam cannons, airships and mammoth riders.

Specialize in 7 spheres of magic including Air, Fire, Life and Death.

Enlist the aid of more than 30 loyal champion heroes who possess the unique ability to wield over 100 mighty artifacts.

Research and cast powerful enchantments, fierce combat magic, and world altering spells.

Confront rivals in Multiplayer via a LAN or over the Internet for up to 8 players - options include Play by Email, Hot Seat, and the exciting Simultaneous-Turn System allowing all players to move at the same time!

Previous Playtime

12 minutes

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've already played the first game of the series and it felt promising but primitive, so I'm hoping that a sequel will add polish that the original lacked. That being said, my twelve minutes with this game were expressly for the purpose of checking to see whether the most annoying part of the original's user interface (the fact that it didn't automatically jump to units with unused moves before ending the turn) was fixed and I discovered that it wasn't.

In all likelihood, I'm going to have the same basic problem I had with the original game - however interesting the strategic challenge proves to be, it will be at least partially overshadowed by the physical and mental strain of navigating the game engine. I'm not looking forward to keeping a mental list of all my active units in order to ensure that I don't waste their turns by skipping ahead prematurely, and it is likely that if this basic quality-of-life feature is not present (seriously, Civilization II came out 6 years earlier and managed to get that right) than there are other user-interface bombs waiting for me as well.

That said, I'm a soft touch for turn-based strategy, so if I manage to get into the game early, I expect time will fly by.

Craft The World - 20/20 hours

I managed to squeak in just under the wire with my upgraded fortress. I discovered, too late, that you don't need to tear down walls to upgrade them. You can just build a new brick over the old one and the dwarves will automatically do the removal and replacement in one movement. So it turns out that I never had to move my furniture at all. . .

That's something that would have been nice to know a lot earlier. I'm penalizing Craft The World a point or two for its inadequate tutorial.

Mostly, though, I enjoyed the game. I only really have two complaints about it. First, I don't care for the tech system. It does have the advantage of forcing me to craft things I would otherwise overlook, but the balance of costs is not quite right. I shouldn't have had to build a dozen superfluous gargoyles just to get to advanced fortifications.

The other thing that annoys me about Craft The World is the periodic monster attacks. Which, I know, puts me at odds with the central conceit of the game, But the attacks only occur once every 40 minutes, so I'm having a good time with 90% of the game, and it's only the last 10% that bugs me.

It probably shouldn't. When I celebrated the fact that all of my dwarves were outfitted in powerful (and sharp-looking) steel armor, what, exactly, was I happy about? Is it not the case that monster-fighting makes up a large degree of my crafting's utility? A large part of the satisfaction of making something comes from its subsequent usefulness, and a thing cannot be useful if there is not a situation in which the lack of that thing causes problems. If the monsters didn't attack, the armor which I worked so hard to create would be purely cosmetic.

I can accept this on an intellectual level, but when it comes time to drop everything I'm doing and have an epic brawl with a horde of zombies, I can't help wishing that I could just get it over with. I suspect that part of the problem is the design of my fortress. It turned out to be more of a "bunker" than anything else, too close to the surface to offer much of a refuge and yet too buried to command much of the surface (I decided to put my farms right above my main base).

It generally worked all right, because my dwarves were well-equipped and the only vulnerable part of the structure is that hatch at the top, so I was able to channel the enemies down the center shaft and pick them off a few at a time, but I had to replace the hatch so many times.

I'm thinking that I should have worked from a different design philosophy. I probably should have shaped my fortress to be more of a deathtrap, where even approaching it is dangerous for the monsters. Instead, I went for spatial efficiency, trying to ensure that my dwarves had a minimal travel time between gathering surface resources, getting food and sleep, and using the crafting stations. Most of the time, my approach was useful. Most of the time.

I think that qualification really characterizes the game. It's mostly good. I mostly enjoyed myself. Even my complaints are mostly irrelevant. However, there are other games that are better at the parts I like (digging, hoarding, and building), so Craft The World is unlikely to earn a place in my permanent rotation (supposing that I ever actually finish the blog and once again have a "permanent rotation").

That being said, less a few moments of frustration, my time with Craft The World was pleasant. There's just something about the systematic deconstruction of landscape and the obsessive gathering of materials that appeals to me on a visceral level. I'm glad I got the opportunity to play it.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Craft the World - 16/20 hours

After another seven hours, I am a little farther along than I was before, on my previous, disastrous save file. My headquarters is properly symmetrical, though my slower, more measured attempt to upgrade my walls means that it's still mostly dirt. Basically, the problem is that unlike some other crafting games, Craft the World makes you do everything through the intermediary of your dwarves, and thus your options for advancement are subject to their limitations. When you place a block, you can only do it within a two-block distance of the floor, and you have to wait while the dwarves go back to your main stockpile and fetch the necessary materials.

It really limits the ambition of your architecture, though, of course, that's part of the challenge of the game. I've actually got it mostly figured out, but I'm a little nervous because the last time I moved my furniture, it proved to be a huge mistake. The trick, I think, is to do it a little at a time so that at any particular moment I'm operating at 90% capacity. 

You can mitigate these limitations a little by selecting an individual dwarf and taking direct control over it, but I don't like doing that, because you can't control your other dwarves while you're doing so, which means that once they reach the last of your previously issued orders, all resource gathering, crafting, and monster hunting immediately grinds to a halt. It may be even more inefficient than moving your furniture.

I think I'm going to have to be content, at least for a little while, with a patchwork fortress. I've already managed to upgrade the exterior walls, so intrusions through the walls are no longer a big concern. Now, the biggest weakness in my fortifications is the doors, and unfortunately I still have a long way to go before I unlock a better option.

It may seem silly to say this sixteen hours into the game, but I think I'm just now starting to get a handle on Craft The World's underlying philosophy. It bills itself as a cross between several different games, and it definitely delivers on that promise. The game's hybrid nature is never far from the surface, and I've not yet decided whether that's a weakness or a strength,

You've got to have the time and labor management skills of an RTS, the spatial awareness and design-centered focus of a more dedicated crafting game, and the agility and exploration abilities of a platformer, all in greater or lesser degrees depending on your current objectives. In theory, this presents a set of diverse challenges that keep the game from getting stale as you explore different axes of optimization. On the other hand, it's possible that Craft the World's divided focus keeps it from excelling in any one area.

I don't have a final verdict yet. For now, I'm enjoying myself, and that's probably good enough.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Craft the World - 9/20 hours

I screwed up big time. I finally got access to stone walls and, so, of course, I made the obvious interior decorating choice - hollow out my entire fortress, tearing out all the walls, floors, and furniture to completely rebuild it from the bottom up. It seemed like a good plan at the time. I've played a lot of building games, and one thing I've learned is that the most efficient way to make a new creation is to start from a blank slate.

And in my zeal for a new sleek and symmetrical headquarters, I forgot that Craft the World is not, strictly speaking, a crafting game. It is actually a survival crafting game. The reason you have beds everywhere is not purely cosmetic, but because your dwarves need them to heal. And if they don't have that opportunity to heal, it's possible, nay likely, that while you're in the middle of rebuilding their home, monsters will attack en masse and slaughter them in their weakened state.


Technically, it's not a pure party wipe just yet. Because dwarves with low hp flee enemies, and because my system of mines is quite extensive, I still have about half of my original team. Granted, they're useless, and zombies are rampaging all over my stuff, and since they only have a few hp each they're easy prey for any random encounter, but technically I could turn things around.

Nevertheless, I think I'm going to have to chalk this save file up as a loss. Rebuilding will just be too painful, despite my snazzy (if half-finished) interior walls.

So, what have I learned? I suppose it's a bad idea to discount path dependence. It rankles sometimes, sure, but it's simply a fact of life that where you've been can put constraints on where you're able to go next. I should have realized that I needed to maintain a functional defense while improving my internal infrastructure.

It was just so sloppy, you know. Nothing was symmetrical. My hallways took unexpected and unnecessary turns. I put a forge right next to a bedroom. My new fortress would have looked so nice when it was completed, with rooms of uniform size and dedicated purpose, a left half that resembled the right, and a compact layout that would have minimized superfluous back-tracking. And it would also have been more secure. I wouldn't have needed to replace my roof every time the monsters attacked.

Oh well. Thanks to my ill-considered ambition, the dwarf mine turned into a slaughterhouse. There's nothing to do now but dust myself off and start over again.

Honestly, I'm looking forward to it. The shame of failure notwithstanding, I'm confident that this time, I'll be able to expand with an eye to the future. Since I now know the general shape of the tech tree and have a vague idea of what to expect, I can set up my fortress so that when the changeover from dirt to stone occurs, I'll be able to do it one room at a time, and without have to tamper too extensively with my overall layout.

Starting over with the tech tree will be a pain, but I have some ideas about how I can speed that along. It would probably make more sense, strategically, to try and ride out the monster attack and pick up the pieces afterwards, seeing as how if I have even one survivor, he'll still be in a better place than a brand new character, having at least a full set of equipment a few hours worth of skill xp. But there's something emotionally devastating about seeing a thing you've built torn down. It's not worth the extra boost.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Craft The World - 6/20 hours

As expected, my skill at the game has increased over the past few hours. Under my leadership, the dwarven outpost is building wide-ranging new tunnels, hauling back significant amounts of valuable materials (including, recently, mithril - I hope I'm not digging too greedily or too deep), and just generally ticking over nicely . . .

Except that it's still a mud hole. The culprit here is the tech tree. The way it works is that all the game's hundreds of available recipes are divided up into "techs," such as Basic Armor or Advanced Furnishing. Each tech gives you between 3 and 6 recipes, allowing you to build a few new items. It seems fine in theory, but the way you discover new techs is by building items from their immediate prerequisites, and the various techs aren't really balanced against each other.

When trying to get past Basic Illumination, you have a really easy time, because of course you're going to be able to use dozens of torches. But then Basic Weaponry comes along, and you reach a point where all your dwarves are as well-armed as they need to be with this tier of equipment, and you're left with the dilemma of having to build a whole bunch of superfluous maces just to grind out the xp, using up valuable minerals in the process.

It wouldn't be so bad, but certain useful items are found pretty deep in the tree, so I've largely been running far below capacity so far. That's why my headquarters is so shabby. I've not yet unlocked the tech that will allow me to build stone walls, and while I could theoretically replace my dirt walls with wood paneling, that would be a massive waste of wood that would be better spent on furniture, tools, and (especially) ladders.

Luckily, the first mission of the campaign is pretty easy (though it doesn't exactly tell you what you need to do to beat it), and the monster attacks have so far proven to be mostly a nuisance. This has given me plenty of time to stretch out and explore the chthonic depths of the underworld, which is nice, though I wish I could advance my tech in a more responsible and uniform way.

Overall, though, I'm enjoying myself. I like sending my dwarves out to mine, and though sending an expedition out into the uncharted reaches is a little nerve-wracking, I do enjoy the challenge of planning my digs in order to access the really hard-to-reach minerals. The crisp and cartoony graphics are pleasing to look at, and, of course, hoarding and building are two of my favorite things. I'm still pretty ambivalent about the monster-attack/survival portion of the game, however. I'm glad that it gives meaning to my equipment, but I'm getting tired of replacing my doors.

My hope is that in the next few hours, I'll have a breakthrough, and my rate of expansion will increase to the point where I'm easily able to wrap up the whole tech tree and become some sort of dwarven force of nature, complete with powerful weapons of semi-magical craft and elegant subterranean architecture. It's a thing that happens. I've seen it happen in similar games. The trick is to hold on and ride the chaos until it wears itself out.

I think I'm going to make it. I'll just have a lot of extra pickaxes and wall treatments by the time it happens.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Craft The World - 2/20 hours

I've not yet succumbed to the inescapable force of entropy. So, you know, I've got that going for me. On the other hand, Craft The World's early-game learning curve is kicking my ass.

It's something I expected, going in, so I'm not really upset about it. It's the same thing that happens with every survival-crafting game that is even marginally complex - because you don't understand the nuances of advancement, you craft whatever you need to address the needs of the moment, and as time goes on and your production gradually gets more sophisticated, you find that you squandered key resources and everything you've built has this lopsided and ad hoc quality that has the aesthetic appeal of week-old pizza.

It's just something you have to power through. What I want is elegant dwarf palaces, deep structures with efficient layouts that allow my dwarves to rest in comfort and be dispatched quickly to their various tasks. If I play for long enough, this is sure to be an easily attainable goal, but I'll definitely need to acquire a whole new set of skills to make it happen.

For now, my dwarves will have to be content with living in their cramped and muddy hole with the hastily strewn roof of leaves on top. That this situation offends my pride is just part of the learning process.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Craft The World - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Craft The World is a unique sandbox strategy game, the mix of Dungeon Keeper, Terraria and Dwarf Fortress.

Explore a random generated world populated by dangerous creatures, build a dwarf fortress, gather resources, and craft all the items, weapons, and armor you need.

You control a tribe of dwarves by giving them commands to dig in certain places, attack enemy creatures, and build houses and other structures. You'll need to provide your dwarves food and clothing, as well as help them with magic when fighting against other inhabitants of the world. You start the game with one dwarf and gain additional dwarves as your experience level increases.

Each game level has many layers of earth to explore, from the sky down to boiling subterranean lava. The level is randomly generated as an island, restricted by natural boundaries: oceans on the edges, lava beneath it, and the sky above. Other features include day and night and changing weather conditions. The worlds differ in size, humidity, temperature, terrain, and flora and fauna. Abandoned halls and rooms with treasure are hidden somewhere deep within the islands.

One feature of the game is a user-friendly system of recipes for crafting. The recipes are organized and easily accessible. You can craft dozens of different items: building blocks for houses, furniture, decorations, weapons, armor, ammunition, and food for your dwarves.

At the outset you find the recipes for basic tools and items, and build a small house with places to sleep and eat. Then, the size of the tribe increases and catches the attention of other inhabitants of the world. Most of them are night creatures and dwell underground. The worlds are full of fantasy creatures like zombies, skeletons, goblins, beholders, ghosts, giant spiders, and others. Some of them pay little attention to the dwarves, as long as the dwarves do not come into their field of vision. Others gather into quite large groups and try to break into the dwarves’ residence.

Especially dangerous are the waves of monsters that appear from time to time from portals. So, do not neglect to build a safe haven with strong walls and numerous trapdoors, cells, firing towers, and secret passageways.

As a divine being, you possess various spells. You can speed up the movement of the dwarves, open small portals, illuminate dark caves to scare away monsters, evoke natural magic in the form of rain or tree growth, hurl fireballs at the monsters’ heads, and find useful resources and hidden rooms underground, thereby helping to speed up resource extraction, exploration of the world, and the population growth of your assistants.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

Just judging by the store page, this game looks like it has a lot of ambition, which is always something I like to see in a game. It is, of course, a thing that can easily blow up in a creator's face, but when a game's advertising is all like "FOOLS! Tremble before us, for we shall include ALL THE FEATURES! Mwa ha ha!" there's something about it that warms my heart (you might think that would make me a soft touch for almost every Early Access game out there, and you'd be right, but luckily my awareness of these sorts of games came after my resolution to not buy quite so many games, period).

But focusing on Craft The World, specifically, the part that looks good to me is where you get to build a dwarf community. On the other hand, I'm a little wary of the part where monsters will come and try and wreck your shit. That's one of those things that, on paper, I can agree with, and which I feel like I should approve of, but in practice tends to bug the hell out of me. Realistically, anything you build should be subject to the implacable forces of entropy and most of the utility of construction comes from the fact that everything falls apart, but stone less so than skin. And if we're talking about making that a part of the game, then representing entropy as a horde of monsters is certainly more appealing than modeling it as a generalized automatic decay, but . . .

Maybe I'm overthinking it. Yes, it's possible that I will have to experience the heartache of seeing everything I worked so hard to build overrun and destroyed while I flail helplessly with the mouse in a futile effort to stem the tide of carnage, but it's also possible that I will get so good at defense that the monster attacks will become nothing more than a glorified loot delivery service.

Only time will tell.

Distant Star: Revenant Fleet - 20/20 hours

Overall, I think I'm going to have to give this game a thumbs down. And the reason for this is a relatively simple one - the enemy waves scale to your fleet size. To me, that defies the central tenet of the roguelike social contract - the world will not give you any consideration.

Like, that's why I accept the permadeath and the stacked odds, because the game is relentlessly, terrifyingly fair. When I get to the last sector and find myself overwhelmed because the shops spawned shit-tier equipment and I got that one event that completely wiped my bank, I could, at least, console myself with the idea that had the RNG favored me, and I was running a fleet of powerful ships in the same situation, I would be able to crush it.

That is not the case, and Distant Star: Revenant Fleet isn't even subtle about it. My last runthrough was unusual, because I was able to field two capital ships for the first time, and when I did, hoo-boy. There was a whole new class of enemy that I'd never even seen before. These enemy capital ships had AoE bombs and huge shield and hull bars. Even focus-firing all my fleet weapons on them, I couldn't take one down before its shields regenerated.

I kind of felt betrayed. I'd been scrabbling along all this time thinking that if I ever got a run of good luck I'd be able to waltz over these exact same challenges that had been giving me trouble, but then the good luck comes and the game is all, "nah, we'll just make it harder." There's not caring if I win and then there's actively working to make me lose. And that's where I draw the line.

Anyway, I was eventually able to prevail, even despite the game's attempt at sabotage. And my reward for sticking it out was an ending video . . . which I couldn't understand because I turned off the game sound and apparently the cutscenes use the same volume control as the music or sound effects. I guess there's an "arc" or something, that is probably a valuable piece of extraterrestrial technology and the enemy faction was so afraid of the player faction opening it that they decided to use a planet-killing weapon on the player homeworld. But when you defeat the weapon, the A'kari go ahead and open it anyway, and . . . something happens. It's probably cool.

I actually kind of grew to hate the A'kari over the course of the game. In the various encounters, you're given a choice of how to respond, via these dialogue trees, and I've noticed that the available answers paint the A'kari as this honor-obsessed warrior culture with a well-deserved reputation for ruthlessness.

Maybe this is just a cultural disconnect between me and the science fiction/fantasy community at large, but I always find these sorts of "warrior cultures" to be hugely obnoxious. I'm just thoroughly unimpressed by "honor," especially when it's favored at the expense of empathy and compassion, and when characters brag about how good they are at killing, I actually just find it pathetic (which, ironically, makes me a big fan of those hyper-violent works where this is acknowledged - as much as the A'kari annoy me, I find Travis Touchdown hilarious).

I wonder if I did the right thing by winning the game. Sure, I save millions of lives by stopping the enemy planet-killer, but then the A'kari opened the arc, and I'm not convinced they can be trusted with whatever it turned out to be.

Oh well. It's not that big a deal. Darkness may have overcome the Distant Star: Revenant Fleet galaxy, but it's not like I'm going to be coming back any time soon. I mean, maybe I was a little hard on the game for its flagrant cheating, and I can see how it might appeal to some people, but its particular combination of challenges really isn't my cup of tea, so I don't see myself ever playing it again.

Still, it's nice to have closure for once.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Distant Star: Revenant Fleet - 12/20 hours

My path towards rescuing the A'kari homeworld from a devastating super-weapon took a bit of detour today. I was playing one of the randomly generated missions where you have to defend some space stations from an enemy fleet, and overall, I was doing pretty well. I destroyed the first wave of attackers, and then . . .

Nothing happened. The mission did not complete, nor did the second wave ever spawn. I sent my ships to every corner of the map, to see if there maybe was an enemy straggler I'd failed to eliminate, and I couldn't find one. So I decided to wait.

My controls were not frozen out. I could still give orders to my ships. But as the minutes passed, there was no change in the mission's status. Curious, I became determined to wait a really long time. I started up a TV show (House, if you're wondering) and let the game run. Every once in awhile, I would take a look at my laptop screen and check to see if anything had changed.

I figured this technically counted as playing the game, because it was not as if I'd just chosen to pause it and leave it running. This was, in fact, the game presenting me with a situation where nothing was happening. Where I could control my units while having no goal to control them towards.

For roughly two hours I waited, until it became obvious to me that there would never be any change. Then I quit and restarted.

What did I learn from this? Honestly? Not a damned thing. I guess there's a bug in Distant Star: Revenant Fleet that will sometimes cause a mission not to complete, and were you so inclined, you could spend the rest of your days in a limbo, neither progressing nor losing resources. So, you know, there's that.

The larger portion of my last seven hours was spent actually playing the game. There wasn't much different about these run-throughs. I have yet to defeat the boss and I have yet to fail to get to the boss. I suspect that means that Rookie mode is improperly balanced. Either the random missions are too easy or the final mission is too hard.

I don't think there's anything to unlock in this game, so I'm pretty sure that beating the final boss doesn't do anything for you but give you the satisfaction of a job well done.  Which means that for all practical purposes, dying on the last level is almost exactly like winning the last level.

Of course, that's not really an argument that's going to get much traction ("I got all the way up to level 8-4 on the original SMB and then Bowser roasted me with a fireball on the bridge" "Oh, cool, so you only missed like 30 seconds of content"). I mean, a loss doesn't really feel like a virtual win, and the closer you get to the end, the more disappointing it is.

I was going to say that I subsequently wished the ending was easier, but it occurs to me that maybe I should move to a higher difficulty instead. If I can't reach the last level, then I won't be frustrated about dying in the last level.

Does that make sense? It sounded logical in my head, when I came up with it, but the upshot is that my plan is to make the game less frustrating by ensuring that I'll be frustrated more often. It's like an inoculation, maybe.

Or not. I don't know. What I really wish for is a save function. I know it goes against the roguelike ethos, but I guess that's where the roguelike genre and me part ways. I don't like the fact that in order for me to practice the parts of the game that are giving me trouble, I have to first work my way through two hours of prelude. It's like an entire genre of putting the last savepoint before an unskippable cutscene.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Distant Star: Revenant Fleet - 5/20 hours

Imagine you're on the beach, and you walk up to the water's edge, to the area where the sand is still damp, and you know that it's below the line of the high tide, but you decide to make a sand castle.  Is it worth it?

Because that's what playing Distant Star: Revenant Fleet is like. I pick out my starting fleet and I know that I'm at the shore during low tide. And then I go through missions and earn credits to upgrade my ships, and to buy more ships, and I'm building up the ramparts of my sand castle, and then I get to the last level, and the tide turns, and everything I've built is washed away.

And I guess I shouldn't have a problem with that, right? Is life not just a series of experiences? A continuous procession of sensory impressions that is only given meaning by the narrative imposition of the consciousness? Thus, a wrecked sand-castle is really just the prelude to a new sand-castle. It is a thing that happens before another thing can happen.

But, I don't know. There's just something about roguelikes that makes me really existentialist. Maybe because it's a genre that deliberately models mortality, and thus the question of how one is able to live in the face of oblivion is one that immediately leaps to mind.

Distant Star: Revenant Fleet had the advantage that's it's not actually a very good game. I mean, it's not terrible, but at the same time, I'm not really super invested in the story or my fleet or the few named characters. Thus, while my inevitable death is always disappointing, it never manages to make me truly angry. I just have this numb weariness. I've got these dumb ships that I have to push around and it's only a matter of time before they blow up. Then I get to do it all again.

Maybe the winter is getting to me. It's always difficult to separate my feelings about a game from my general mood. However, I think there are basically two types of games. There's games you "fall into" and games you "get ready for." And the main difference between the types is their perceived energy investment. When your energy is low, you can play a "fall into" game for hours without ever having to rouse yourself out of your stupor. On the other hand, when your energy level is high, a "get ready for" game can be immensely rewarding.

Note, that those two categories are at best orthogonal to game quality, and where a particular game falls probably varies a lot from person to person. Like, for me, 4-X games are almost universally "fall into" games, but then, so is solitaire, and as much as I love Civilization, I actually hate solitaire, but there were definitely days when it was just so easy to play hand after hand of solitaire that I wound up doing it for hours at a time. Similarly, action games, rpgs, city-builders, and RTS games are all "get ready for" games for me, and some of them I absolutely adore (Mass Effect, anyone) and some are a real chore . . . like Distant Star: Revenant Fleet.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Distant Star: Revenant Fleet - 2/20 hours

This game owes a lot to FTL. I mean, I don't know how video games are generally made, so maybe some of it is parallel development or descent from a common source, but I can't help but think that the similarities between the games are too strong to be a coincidence.

The plot of the two games is nearly identical - there's a big war and the enemy has just got ahold of a new superweapon that will allow them to decisively win. You are an inexplicably small, but elite force on a desperate race against time to destroy the weapon before it can be deployed.

You do this by navigating through a series of sectors arrayed in a progressive map that is almost exactly the same in both games. The main difference in navigation is that in Distant Star: Revenant Fleet, you don't have an enemy fleet chasing after you, preventing you from moving backwards. Instead, you have a "danger meter" that makes encounters more difficult the more stars you visit in a particular sector.

The overall structure is thus almost entirely identical. You jump to a particular star, resolve a random encounter, then go to another star, then another sector, then another until you get to the final battle, where you have to face a single powerful foe.

The biggest difference between the games is that instead of controlling a single ship and its intrepid crew of misfit aliens, you are commanding a small fleet of ships in a large map, zooming around and shooting and dodging as you try to take down the enemy fleet.

I have a feeling this game is going to be difficult for me. The easy missions were fine, but later on when the enemy fleets got larger, it was a bit overwhelming to have to constantly issue commands. And even on the easiest difficulty, the final mission completely kicked my ass.

So it's going to be one of those games.

It's my hope that with enough practice I'll settle into a comfortable groove and be able to just coast through missions. That's not something that's happened with a roguelike before, but there's a first time for everything.