Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Crusader Kings II, Replay 15 hours

What does it mean to like a game? Most of my time spent playing Crusader Kings II had been completely miserable.Dodging assassination attempts, scrambling for every scrap of power, manipulating elections. It's so stressful. I said it before and I'll say it again, there's no other game where I've dreaded to start back up again (which might explain why it's taken me so long to post this update).

And yet, gong purely by the metrics, Crusader Kings II has to be one of my favorite games. Only Civilization V has more playtime and when it comes to amount of money spent on DLC, there's not even a competition.

It baffles me how I can devote so much time, energy, and money to something that makes me so frequently unhappy. And yet I'm drawn to it, inexorably. I find the details of the politics fascinating, and I have a morbid curiosity about what I'll find if I keep playing. How high can I rise? Will I eventually fall? How will it happen?

I don't want to see, but I can't look away. I've already determined that if I don't get to 1453 by hour 20, then I'm going to stick it out. I'm at year 1225 already, which means that I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's likely another 15-20 hours, at least before I'm done, but this is probably the closest I'm ever going to get to the end.

I can feel myself starting to get obsessed. If I just keep going, it will, eventually all be over and I can breath a sigh of relief that I was able to shepherd a single family through twenty-plus generations. And I think it's the anticipation of that relief that drives me.

I mean, I'm interested in what's going on. And if I were reading an account of the game, second-hand, I'd find its twists and turns fascinating. But being in the thick of it, I can't help but take it personally. Whenever one of my relatives tries to usurp my throne, I feel betrayed. It's like, don't these people realize that it was my human intellect which elevated their ancestors to the nobility in the first place, and that thanks to my ingenuity and foresight, the kingdom of France has nowhere to go but up . . . provided they don't keep stabbing me in the back every chance they get. It's infuriating.

So, I don't know, I can never stay away from Crusader Kings II for long, but I'm beginning to suspect it's not good for me.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Crusader Kings II, Replay 10 hours

I think I'm reaching a point where my primary relationship with the game is a battle of wills. Crusader Kings II does everything in its power to discomfit you, undermining your victories and ensuring that you never feel comfortable with your power. There's always a risk.

At least, ideally. In practice, you can outflank the computer by thinking long-term and picking your battles carefully. I've instituted elective monarchy in my kingdom and then spent centuries ensuring that all of the electors and candidates were members of my house, so that as long as I vote for the most popular candidate, I'm guaranteed to remain in control through the generations. . .

Most of the time. It worked for more than a hundred years, and then suddenly one of my lower-tier vassals usurped a title from a top-tier vassal and then one of my ungrateful relatives decided to vote for the bastard! Needless to say, my democratic principles were immediately tossed out the window as I schemed to strip the usurper of his title and ensure that my house had no serious rivals for the throne.

In retrospect, it was pretty easy to secure my holdings, but I remember the moment of panic I felt when I saw that my kingdom would be ripped away from me by this newcomer. I'd been playing the game for nearly 40 hours now, and I still didn't feel safe.

Which is kind of a weird thing for me to even want from a video game, now that I think about it.
Isn't the idea that I'm entering a fabulous world of danger, where my daring carries the day and my victory is all the sweeter for facing down incredible risks? Wouldn't "safety" defeat the point?

Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that I'm not in any actual danger. So feeling "unsafe" inside a video game is only a relative thing. But I do think this is orthogonal to difficulty. There are games where you can die a lot, but which don't put me quite so on edge. Super Meat Boy, for instance, will kill you nine times out of ten, but it doesn't feel quite so nerve racking (except for those times when your focus is ramped up to maximum) because when you die, you just start over, a few seconds behind.

So it might just be a matter of investment. The scenario, the kingdom, is virtual, but your time is real. And it is impossible to spend time with something, nurturing it, growing it, watching it, without feeling some attachment to it (Sakura Spirit may be the exception, though even then, there was a period, after I hated it, but before I hated it again, where I was starting to grow fond of my modded version of the game). I think there are certain games which take advantage of this to attack your attachment.

And that feels like a threat. Do your memories and emotions count as part of your physical body? Our culture tends to dismiss hurt feelings as a lesser kind of injury, but if a feeling can be understood to be a configuration of chemicals in the brain, then what is the difference between an unkind word and a punch to the face? It's all just the reconfiguring of atoms. I wouldn't play a game that punched me in the face, so why should I play one that makes me jealous and afraid?

Does that mean I never want to lose? Obviously. Yes. Yes.

Does that mean I think games should never try and defeat the player? No. If people never played a game that punched them in the face, boxing wouldn't exist. The risk of being defeated, of losing a thing to which you've formed an attachment, adds a thrill to the experience that can't be easily replicated. I understand that.

It's just that some people are built for thrills and some people aren't. I could never ride a roller-coaster either.

The result is that I wind up having to pit my will against the game. Grit my teeth and just focus on the passage of time. It's a strategy that's taken me through 184 hours of this game. In the end, I like it more than I don't, probably because I win more than I lose. That does take a bit of the sting out of things. It's just a shame I'm committed to this game until the year 1453. So many bad things could happen before then.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Crusader Kings II - Replay, 6 hours

Six hours into my reunion with Crusader Kings II and I'm finding that my biggest obstacle is ideology. Not simulated ideology inside the game, like you might encounter in Stellaris, but my actual, real-world ideology.

Since the installation of Conclave, my vassals have been demanding greater and greater say in the governance of my realm, which puts me in an awkward position, because I can't really justify denying them. However, the problem this poses is that the AI is stupid. Not just tactically, but on a fundamental level it simply can't understand the nature of the game.

For example, there's no reason you'd ever want the "status of women" law to ever be at less than maximum. It's literally nothing more than a tax on "historical accuracy" and there is no game advantage to disenfranchising your female subjects. Yet every damned time I try to raise the status of women, I have to bribe my council into it. Similarly with things like realm centralization. There's no advantage to anyone on the Council to vote against it, but they do, because they must like thwarting me.

I find myself yearning for the iron fist of dictatorship just so I can order my realm in a reasonable way.

How much should I credit this feeling? It probably doesn't matter if I impose upon my video game subjects a harsh virtual autocracy. It's not like they have free will. It's not like they know what they are missing.

But then, what exactly are my goals with this game? I want to survive to the year 1453, but I can't just keep my head down and fast-forward through the ages. If you're not moving forward, you're falling behind. Yet the more I push the boundaries of my realm, the slower my progress becomes. What I really want is a stable equilibrium.

And, in theory, I'd like that equilibrium to be such that the game labels it peaceful, free, and egalitarian, at least to the degree that such is possible in a game about medieval nobility. So that means putting up with my vassals' stupidity. I'll just have to figure out a way to advance their interests in spite of themselves.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Crusader Kings II - Replay, 2 hours

Playing Crusader Kings II again, I'm left wondering what the point is of replaying one of my previously played games. I thought I had a clear idea when I came up with this plan, but for the life of me, it's escaping me right now.

I think my intent was to try and see if the passage of time had brought a new perspective on an old game, in a form that would not be reliant on my vague memories of gaming past, but which would have a documented record of how I felt the first time and how I felt the second time. That way, I could easily contrast the two and not have to worry about the fog of memory causing me to see what I wanted to see.

But if that's the case, then I probably should not have let it be possible for me to replay a game I'd finished so recently. I'm not sure I have enough emotional distance to the game to reevaluate my previous opinion. It feels like I've barely been away at all.

That being said, the addition of the Conclave DLC has really shaken things up. I have to pay attention to my underlings in a way that's never been necessary before (at least, not since I learned the virtues of keeping my vassals small and divided). The result has been two hours of pure chaos . . . that covered 10 of my remaining 350 years.

That's the thing that strikes me the most about Crusader Kings II, after firing up my save file once more. I'm intimidated by its bigness. I know it covers an incredible span of time and it's inconceivable that I might get through it all.

But that's exactly how I felt at the end of my last go-round with Crusader Kings II. Will that change? If I keep going, will I reach a point where time seems to be on my side again? I'm tangled up in a history of my own making, but if I wander for long enough, might it not resolve into clarity?

I like to think that it will. That I am a the low point in the trough, but i will soon crest another peak and see the game from a new light. I've never finished one before, but if I keep going, I might have a shot.

And then I'll have something new to say about it.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Special Anniversary Replay - Crusader Kings II

The votes in my poll are tallied and the clear winner is Crusader Kings II. It's easy to see why. The game is a seemingly endless morass of drama. The rise and fall of kingdoms. Betrayal. Romance. The whole medieval politics thing.

Plus, my previous save file was in a very precarious position. You see, between the last time I played the game and now, a new DLC was released which dramatically changes the relationship between liege and vassal, giving your council of advisors an incredible amount of power within the kingdom. And because it changed the rules so dramatically, it also had other unanticipated side effects - such as changing the succession laws of my kingdom so that my titles would be split even among my heirs.

Since my dynasty is very old and very wide-spread, this would be a complete disaster. It wouldn't quite be a game-over, but it would put me back at square one.

If I didn't know better, I might think that the voters might be interested in seeing me fail.

Friday, May 20, 2016


Balloon drop time, people. I've reached 100 games played (counting my two bundle experiments as one each, of course)!

It's kind of a huge deal for me. This is the longest I've stuck with any single project in my entire life. And there's still two more years to go . . . It's a shame I can't earn some honorary Bachelor's degree in videogameology, but the intrinsic value of the task is reward enough for me.

The blog will be taking a brief hiatus until Monday morning, whereupon I will revisit one of my first 100 games, to tie up some loose ends and take care of some unfinished business.

The particular game I play will be decided by this rpg.net poll. Whichever of the five nominees is ahead in votes by the time I'm ready to come back will be the game I play. I'm under the impression this will be interesting because having played so many games in so short a timespan can't help but change a person. We'll see if I'm proven right.

Anyway. I'm doing my little happy dance, because this feels like a real accomplishment, even if it is only outstanding excellence in the field of wasting time.

Psychonauts - 20/20 hours

I spent my last five hours just wandering around the map, gathering various collectibles. It's a relaxing activity, combing through the wilderness, peeking in corners, (occasionally) consulting a guide to see where to go next. It's bringing order to a chaotic system. Like sorting through my magic cards or organizing the pieces of a board game (two activities that I really enjoy that my wife simply does not understand).

In addition, Psychonauts does something interesting with some of its collectibles. Whenever you recover one of your fellow campers' brains (there's a really weird story there, involving kidnapping and brain extraction), it shows you a little scene where Raz and the rescued kid reconnect. And in the process you learn a little something about everyone at the camp. It's a great way to get some more mileage out of some thinly-sketched characters.

I also really enjoyed going around camp and using my clairvoyance power to see Raz through the eyes of the other children. He alternately appeared as an insect to the girls that ignored him, a giant ear to kid who talked all the time, and most mysteriously, nothing but a hat to Doogan, the kid who could blow stuff up with his mind. It reminded me a lot of the Broken Age post-game, where I discovered a lot of new jokes buried behind actions that you'd normally have no cause to take. Maybe that's just something that Double Fine does. If so, I like it.

I actually got all of my broader opinions about this game out in my 15 hour post, so I have nothing new and profound to wrap up with. I liked the game a lot. I will probably play the sequel if it doesn't evaporate into vaporware. And I see no need to ever revisit it after this.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Psychonauts - 15/20 hours

Well, that Meat Circus was ten kinds of bullshit. I mean, an escort mission? Really? And the choice to make the person you're protecting a whiny little kid with a shrill voice that yells out in pain every five seconds? Rage isn't a word I use often, but I was definitely wishing for some friendly fire.

Even so, I survived. I made it to the end of Psychonauts.There's a part of me that wants to call it one of the all-time classic games. And there's another part of me who wants to call it an okay game wrapped in spectacular presentation.

I once compared it to a children's cartoon and it never entirely lost that feeling, but towards the end it got weirder, darker, and more adult than I'd be comfortable showing a child. Maybe if the kid was mature for their age or something. It's actually in a weird limbo where its themes and imagery are more appropriate for young adults, but its pre-teen characters and superficially candy-coated aesthetic make it look like its intended for a much younger audience. I can only conclude that the game was really intended for nostalgic adults.

I'm certain that the patness of the ending was a clever genre homage. You can't go from a "giant circus tent made up of dismembered carcasses where you toss a psychic projection of your father into a meat grinder as a form of Oedipal rebellion" to an "entirely conflict-free wish-fulfillment sequel hook (where the main villain isn't even punished for his crimes)" as a result of laziness. That shit had to be planned.

I think, on balance, the story of Psychonauts just isn't for me. That's not a complaint, or even a criticism, it's just an observation. I love the specificity of its influences. I love how easy it is to imagine these characters and this setup as the backbone of a tv series or long-running comic. I love that it can build this whole implied world and nowhere do you see the seams. Yet the game itself is a love-letter to a type of media I haven't thought about in years and have no particular desire to revisit.

Don't get me wrong, though. Playing this game was a genuinely great experience. It was breathtakingly inventive. Especially when it came to the visual design of the levels.

There are games that look good. And then there are games which stop you dead in your tracks with the awe-inspiring sensation of seeing something genuinely and impossibly fantastic. Every time I got ready to enter a new person's consciousness, I felt this thrill of anticipation. I couldn't wait to discover what the game would do next.

So is that experience worth the frustration of yelling at the screen for 20 minutes to shut the hell up because as soon as I get the sequence of jumps exactly right, I will arrive and clear out the easily dispatched monsters that you apparently don't have the self-preservation instinct to get rid of yourself, because I know you're psychic, you little shit, you're a manifestation of the childhood anxiety of one of the Psychonauts instructors, and by the way, how the hell do you keep losing your grip on that fucking rabbit?

It's a blemish, no doubt, but is that one flaw enough to deny it greatness? I wish Psychonauts was as well-polished mechanically as it was artistically. Then it would be easy.

What I keep coming back to is that every time I start to write "Psychonauts is not an all time video game classic," it feels like a falsehood. It may not be the sort of game I'd want to play again and again until the end of time, but it feels essential. Like, if I were to assemble a list of the grand video game canon to demonstrate all the things the medium could accomplisht, that list would feel incomplete without Psychonauts on it.

Psychonuats - 10/20 hours

Ten hours in and I'm still on the fence about this game. On the one hand, its visual inventiveness and snappy writing are a joy to behold. On the other hand, it's started doing the one thing I absolutely cannot stand - put me in a position where I don't know what to do next.

It's not really a matter of puzzles. I get that they're supposed to make you stop and think for awhile, but rather it's little things. Like getting an item you need to climb a telephone pole and then wandering around lost for a quarter of an hour because there are actually two special telephone poles in the level and the one that's in the main part of the map leads to a dead end (whereas the one you need to advance is tucked in the corner of an offshoot of the map). Or getting stuck behind a locked door because the game, for the first and only time, decides to have a locked door be keypad-activated. Or having a gate unlock by stealing the feather from a crow and then using your clairvoyance power on it to see from the crow's perspective as it flies overhead (how I would have figured that out without a guide, I can't even begin to speculate).

Which is to say, I really hated the "Milkman's Conspiracy" level. It's a shame because the level after it was pretty good (if slightly too obscure) and all the levels prior were their own kind of delightful (I especially loved Lungfishopolis, which cast you in the role of a kaiju terrorizing a city of lungfish).

In the grand scheme of things, though, one dud level doesn't mean anything. Psychonauts is bursting with creativity and its storytelling is pitch-perfect. I really just want to delve deeper and deeper into its world. If that means enduring the occasional overly-frustrating puzzle or poorly-explained one-off mechanic, then so be it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Psychonauts - 2/20 hours

It's astonishing how quickly Psychonauts sketches out its world. Two hours in and I completely buy into it. Not because it is particularly plausible or detailed, but because it so clearly has its own voice that it can't possibly be mistaken for anything else. I believe I said something similar about Broken Age, but it feels like one of the higher-quality offbeat children's cartoons (but, like, a different offbeat cartoon than the one in the other game).

I think it's a useful contrast to have played this game back to back with Two Worlds. Not to knock Two Worlds (which has probably already suffered enough), but the difference between the games makes abundantly clear the difference between great video game writing and not-so-great video game writing. The script efficiently communicates the stakes of the conflict and roots those stakes in well-thought-out character motivations. Even if you couldn't see the screen, it would be obvious who's talking, both from the great voice-work and because the dialogue manages to convey more than just factual exposition. The way characters express themselves is part of their overall design. And if they are little more than shallow types (as keeping with the game's overall "kids' cartoon" aesthetic), then at least they are well drawn shallow types, who can pack a surprising amount of information into something as simple as a hairstyle or a turn of phrase.

The most illustrative example is the difference between Two Worlds' Gandohar and Psychonauts' Sasha Nein. Both are mysterious ciphers who are nominally on the hero's side, but possibly possess a sinister hidden agenda, but in Two Worlds this is built up by the protagonist and his sister Kira repeatedly asking each other variations on "Should we trust Gandohar, he seems to want to help us, but what is his real agenda?" Whereas in Psychonauts, Sasha Nein establishes his mysterious antihero cred merely by hanging around in the background of more positive scenes, baiting the hero with obvious half-truths, and living in the basement of a cluster of spiky geodesic domes that are the psychic equivalent of a prison hotbox.

It is this clarity of vision, combined with the occasional laugh-out-loud quip or gag, that makes Psychonauts such a joy to play. It's self-consciously weird, but not overly precious, and I can't wait to see what happens next, nor to learn more about this quirky cast of misfits.

Oh, and the platforming is pretty good, I guess.

Psychonauts - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

A Psychic Odyssey Through the Minds of Misfits, Monsters, and Madmen.

This classic action/adventure platformer from acclaimed developers Double Fine Productions follows the story of a young psychic named Razputin. In his quest to join the Psychonauts--an elite group of international psychic secret agents--he breaks into their secret training facility: Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. But this is no average psychic summer camp! A mysterious villain has kidnapped Raz’s fellow campers and stolen their brains. Now he must use his psychic powers of Telekinesis, Levitation, and most of all his ability to project himself into the minds of others--to find the loose noodles and keep them from falling into the wrong hands. Fight mental demons! Uncover hidden memories! Sort emotional baggage! Explore the fantastic realm of the inner mind! Join the Psychonauts!

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

When you follow video game reporting for a long enough time, certain names keep popping up. They get cited as particularly fun or innovative or influential, and the sheer repetition gives them a kind of mystique, particularly if they didn't do too well commercially. It makes them seem like a secret known only to the savvy. A hidden treasure, unearthed by a kind of cultural inheritance among your fellow devotees.

One of those names was "Psychonauts." So I waited until it went on sale and I bought it.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I don't know what to expect. Can it possibly live up to the hype? Probably not, but then I played other Double Fine games and really enjoyed them. Brutal Legend was a wondrous concoction of hilarious humor, deftly executed with yet-to-be-surpassed world design and an unforgettable cast of characters. And Broken Age was a delightful storybook world brought to life with such stellar voice work and art design that it made the whole "humorous yet bittersweet coming of age sci-fi/fantasy story" look effortless.

However, if I put aside my emotional reactions to the games' stories, I have to admit that they both had some slight issues as games. In particular, their back halves just kind of fell apart and even at their best, the gameplay itself felt a little thin (and at their worst, it felt like a chore you had to sit through in order to get to more story).

I guess my expectation is that Psychonauts will burrow itself directly into the "adorable whimsy" part of my brain and I will subsequently overlook a lot of substandard platforming in the name of enjoying its wonderful writing.

Two World: Epic Edition - 20/20 hours

Towards the end, I got strangely addicted to this game. Thanks to stacking items, I got my stats up to a ridiculous level and was chewing through enemies at a prodigious rate. It was both a nice change of pace from the early game and an incitement to grind even more, in the hopes of becoming truly invincible.

I think the main thing I'm going to take away from Two Worlds is that video-game genre is very powerful. In many ways, Two Worlds was extremely flawed, perhaps even fatally so. Yet I found myself enjoying the game more often than not. And that was almost entirely on the strength of its genre. Exploring a large open-world, fighting monsters, raising my stats with experience points, and selling loot are such intrinsically compelling activities that the makers of a game would have to actively screw things up to make their game unenjoyable.

And there were times when Two Worlds came close. I really did not care for kiting a whole horde of enemies, being forced to dance around a health or mana shrine while I whittled them down. It looked ridiculous and it felt unfair (astonishingly, this held both when I lost and when I won). It sometimes got annoying to have to teleport back to town several times per battle just because the enemies dropped more loot than my inventory limit.

On the other hand, maybe I'm being too dismissive of Two Worlds' accomplishments. I've often wondered why people made "bad" video games. I'm not talking about things like voice acting or art design or anything artistic like that, I mean games that flubbed their fundamental mechanics. Like a platformer where the jump button was unreliable or a racing game where your car doesn't follow the normal laws of physics. Are these not solved problems? Can you not just build on the work done before and use a reliable, proven formula as the basis of your game?

There's a lot of talk about "games as art," but what about "games as technology?" Is it wrong to talk about game mechanics in terms of "progress?" When I say that Two Worlds doesn't screw up the basics, am I just taking for granted its place on a technological curve? Does the stuff that works about the game work because it was built from the ground up by a dedicated team or is it simply the legacy of decades of advancements in the rpg genre?

I don't know. I know that game engines exist, but my understanding of the concept is nebulous at best. Once you start with the engine, how much more do you have to do after that? A lot, I'm guessing, but I don't really have a good grasp on how it works. How much margin for error is there?

Which is to say, it's almost certain that the parts of Two Worlds that I liked were the result of a talented and passionate team working their asses off to make the best game possible. But then, so were the parts I didn't like.

So, I don't know what sort of conclusion I'm reaching for here. Making video games is hard? It's kind of sad when people try to create something great and it doesn't quite work?

It's clear that Two Worlds had a lot of ambition, but landed far short of the genre-defining classic they were obviously shooting for. Is that such a bad thing, though? Can I not admire the industry and creativity that went into making it while never actually wanting to play it again?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Two Worlds: Epic Edition - 15/20 hours

Out in the wilderness, Two Worlds' skewed population demographics don't matter. The packs of wolves which periodically attack you are probably all male, but really, who can tell?

I seem to have cleared the initial difficulty hump and now my battles are fairly straightforward. No more retreating to the nearest shrine every time I draw aggro. That's making travel a lot more efficient. I'm not sure whether there's anywhere I particularly want to travel to, but that's an entirely different matter.

I mean, the game looks good, in that early-last-gen way. You know, where they don't quite have the graphical power for convincing realism, but they're confident enough at being state-of-the-art that they don't attempt to cover their flaws with stylization. I'm certain that in 2009, I would have found it breathtaking (I know I swooned over its contemporary and most obvious point of comparison - Oblivion), but looking at it with the benefit of hindsight, I can see the graphical compromises it made in order to look as good as it does.

Which isn't meant as a point of critique, of course. I'm not one of those people who admires a magic trick any less just because I know how it's done, and it would be ridiculous of me to expect an old game to not use old technology. Once I start down the road of knocking Two Worlds just because I can see the foliage pop in, it's only a matter of time before I yell at Chrono Trigger for being 2D, and that's just nonsense.

What it does mean, though, is that when you choose "temperate western-European pastoral" as your base setting, you really do have to bring something special to the table. It takes a lot of guts to try and put your own mark on something that has been done often before. Doing it better than anyone ever has is one way to distinguish yourself, but that's a tough racket and the crown never lasts as long as you think. Not that I think Two Worlds ever had a chance, but even if they did think they had a shot, it's long since past when that meant anything at all.

 What I'm left with, then, seven years after the fact, is a setting that doesn't really feel like it holds any surprises. I can go over the next hill and what I'll see is something I've already seen before.

Long time readers of this blog will know that this isn't something that bothers me, per se, as evinced by the fact that I have 15 hours into the game in 4 days - on the weekend following the release of a 4X strategy game (which is sitting at a 32 hour playtime, by the way). I do enjoy fighting my way through random encounters and pawning the loot, even if it's all part of a meaningless xp treadmill. It really is enough to get me to forget the game's other flaws.

I guess I should probably talk about the game's loot system, seeing as how it's the thing I enjoy the most. Two Worlds actually has a clever and elegant solution to a problem that plagues virtually every loot-driven rpg ever made - the proliferation of useless trash items that are too weak to ever actually use, but which can be sold for gold in order to gain access to the truly valuable equipment you need to survive. If, upon looting a body or searching a treasure chest, you find a duplicate of an item you already possess, you can combine the two, improving the base item's stats.

I'm not sure if it's a system that Two Worlds innovated, or whether some other rpg had done it before, but it's absolutely brilliant. With enough leveling up, you can keep items relevant for a lot longer, allowing players to choose their equipment based on personal aesthetics and fighting style without having to toss their favorite equipment just because it's obsoleted by the level grind. And it makes inventory management a lot easier, requiring much less weight juggling and far fewer shop detours. A great idea all around . . .

Which the game then promptly screws up by giving you dozens of different item sets. What's the damned point of having a system to level your items if they're just going to be divided into tiers anyway. The shops are level-scaled, so you're going to lose out on the opportunity to grind your weapon with gold, and unless you go back to previous areas to farm enemies, you're not going to be getting new drops of old weapons. So really, the system is almost entirely pointless. I'm thinking that maybe one I hit the level cap, it will be nice to have the option to further improve my equipment, but realistically, that's not going to happen within my time-frame.

In the end, Two Worlds proves to be more conventional than it could be, which means that, because I enjoy the convention, I will have no problems finishing the 20 hours, but because I've seen the convention done much better in games with a much more engaging presentation and setting, that it's a primary candidate for my "remove from hard drive" list.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Two Worlds: Epic Edition - 8/20 hours

Playing Two Worlds has got me thinking - what makes a game "good?" It should go without saying that there is a certain subjectivity to art. One of my all-time favorite movies, Six String Samurai has only a 60% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And while I can see why some people might not like it, to me the audacity and passion that obviously went into getting it made trump any petty concerns like "plot coherence" or "deep characterization." So, if I were to get into a discussion about the films merits with one of its critics, there would be a deep disconnect between our essential values. With that in mind, assigning a simple label like "good" or "bad" seems pointless.

This is not my roundabout way of saying that I like Two Worlds, despite its flaws. However, if I'm being perfectly honest, most of the things I don't like about it are its surface details. The fundamental structure of the game is sound (barring the poor balance for early combat). It's a genre that I generally enjoy and it doesn't screw up the basics. You're in a large open world, you go around with a dangling main plot, poking your nose into caves and doing random favors for strangers. It's a form I've praised effusively in the past.

And yet . . . those irritating surface details are still present. For example, it's staggeringly sexist. Ride to Hell: Redemption was worse, but just barely. Last week, I joked about some kind of plague that struck the land and wiped out all the women, but of course there are female characters. The main guy is on a quest to recover his kidnapped sister after all.

And about four hours in, I finally got in contact with her (thanks to magical shenanigans), the first woman to appear on screen in this lushly detailed fantasy world. I don't know what I was expecting.

All right, that's not exactly true. I do know what I was expecting. I just didn't think that they'd actually do it. Here's Kira:

Far be it from me to criticize a woman's appearance. So keep in mind that when I say this, I'm criticizing the artists who designed her - but why, exactly does the only female character of note in your entire game look like the goth-themed henchwoman that James Bond sleeps with halfway through the movie?

Granted, I've given a pass to even more ridiculously designed characters in the past. Borderlands had Mad Moxxie and I love both her and the game as a whole. But then, Borderlands also had Helena Pierce, Angel, and Athena, so it wasn't quite as jarring. Here, Kira is the main character's sister, so why is she sexualized to hell and back? Was she kidnapped on her way home from a cocktail party?

But look, this isn't really about my video game avatar's sexy, sexy sister. I'm jaded enough that it would take more than that to earn a condemnation of "sexist" from me. No, the reason I call Two Worlds sexist is that it took me another couple of hours after encountering Kira to finally see a female villager. So far, out of four towns I've visited, only one has had any and even in that one the percentage of the population was something like 15-20%. I would be more precise, but doing an exact census is problematic due to the fact that they all use the same exact character model.

And while the men may not be the most diverse lot ever conceived, at least they have several outfits to choose from.

From a worldbuilding standpoint, this is an unforgivable blunder. Granted, it's a persistent problem with media as a whole that women are underepresented (I went back and did a similar survey of Skyrim and of the first 25 people I saw 17 were men and 8 were women), but Two Worlds' use of the convention was particularly notable because in many of the smaller areas, there were no women at all.

Don't get the impression that I'm not wagging my finger at Skyrim's dismal 33%-66% gender balance (and I'm embarrassed that it took Two Worlds taking this to the extreme for me to even notice), but it could more plausibly get away with it because it went through the trouble of making its women a part of the world. You walk into Riverwood, the first town in the game, and you're greeted by an old-woman shouting about (the very definitely real) dragon she saw flying overhead. If you sided with the Stormcloaks, you're taken to Girdur's sawmill, where you learn that she's a bit of a local leader and she asks you to deliver the news to her liege. The sister of the shopkeeper is involved in a love triangle and completely unrelated to that, she gives you a quest to track down some thieves. The owner of the local inn is a lady (and it later turns out, a secret agent working with the Blades), etc.

There's none of that in Two Worlds. None of the rare, interchangeable women even give you a tedious fetch quest to do. It's practically unprecedented.

And I just don't get what's so hard about this. It's a basic biological observation - out of any population of mammals, 50% are going to be male and 50% are going to be female. It is literally a coinflip. And unless there some great selection pressure going on that's killing off one gender or another (and given the game's backstory of a huge war that's draining the kingdom's coffers so much that the people of the local province are rebelling against unsustainable taxes, if any gender is going to be underpopulated, it's going to be men), there is absolutely no logical or artistic reason not to have half of your random npcs be female. It is simply inexcusable.

However, because I tend to be in the habit of finding excuses, I have a theory about what must have happened. I think the game was programmed by a bunch of oblivious guys who never even gave a thought about the demographic balance of their cities, and then, close to the last moment, someone must have pointed out that Kira was the only woman in their entire open world, so they hastily developed their first female villager, but then they ran out of money so they had to stop and ship as is.

My primary evidence for this is the voice acting. I recognize some of the voice actors, not by name, but by the fact that they've done work on other games in the past, good work, even. But here, they're clearly off their form. And my reaction to this was "why the hell is the director using that take, surely they can do better than that?" And because I'm playing with the subtitles on, I can clearly see where the actors flub the script (a particularly notable example is an npc who asks you to retrieve an heirloom, but pronounces it "hair-loom," which as far as I know is not standard in any English dialect). So why not let them take a second swing at it and really do things right?

And then I realized that I have no idea how much it costs to run a recording session. I get the impression that they did not have the budget to do it right and thus they probably did it last, because most of the rest of the game is functional, if not inspiring.

Which brings me back to the subjectivity of art. What is the purpose of a game? If you look at a game as just an engine for bashing monsters over the head with swords, then all of this stuff with narrative and population demographics doesn't matter. It's just decorative. If I were test-driving a car, I wouldn't mark it down just because I didn't like the color.

Except that I don't think that these surface details are quite as alienable from the work as a whole as a car's coat of paint. I don't agree that games are or should be a great narrative art form, but at the same time, narrative is inextricably bound with what video games are, and if it should not be the entire point of the form, neither should or can it be banished to obsolescence. Video games need narrative the way music needs lyrics. Which is to say that there are many towering classics that dispense with it entirely, but the form as a whole would be poorer if it was gone.

It's this necessity for narrative that makes dwelling on the surface details of a mechanically sound game important. It's not like criticizing a car for being painted the wrong color. It's more like disliking a catchy pop-song because its lyrics are creepy, inane, or offensive (I was going to pick on Taylor Swift here, but I realized "Every Breath You Take" is actually the iconic example).

To sum up - I dislike Two Worlds for entirely superficial reasons, but those reasons cannot easily be dismissed as "subjective." I'm not the one who took 1 divided by 2 and came up with an answer of 15%.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Two Worlds: Epic Edition - 2/20 hours

I don't want to be mean, so don't take the following sentence too seriously - Two Worlds is kind of dumb. There's just something about it. The way people talk is really stilted and they use old-timey words like "verily" and "forsooth." (But inconsistently, so you never know when the random NPC is going to sound like they came from the Renaissance Fair).

Also combat is balanced oddly. There are shrines around that restore your health or mana, and if you can kite the enemies to the areas near these shrines, they are nearly trivial, but if you can't, then they are nearly impossible unless you down a ton of potions. From the perspective of a heroic-fantasy narrative, it looks ridiculous. You run around in circles, leading a huge trail of creatures behind you, picking them off one by one. I'll probably level out of this nonsense, much as I did with similar mechanics in Oblivion, but for now it's incredibly silly.

The other weird thing I've noticed about this game is that, two hours in, I've yet to see a single female character. And I've been to a village already. Yet everyone, even the random background people who exist only to spout exposition, has been male. If this goes on much longer, it will probably stop being offensive and start being hilarious. Maybe I'm in some post-apocalyptic disaster area, where the human race is dying off due to lack of women and nobody wants to acknowledge that fact. It also makes the inadvertent homoeroticism (I was warned away from a village because there were mercenaries out to get me, and they looked like "hard men," which cracked me up to no end) more tragic than funny, so I guess it would be a tradeoff.

With those caveats in mind, I don't hate Two Worlds. I suspect that it had greater ambition than it had the budget to realize, but that gives it a kind of low-key charm. It really feels like the video-game version of one of those cheesy B-movies, where nothing is quite right, but gosh-darn it, everyone is trying so hard that it feels cruel to be too hard on it.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Two Worlds: Epic Edition - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

... 300 years after Aziraal has been banished, a brother and sister are drawn into the conflict which has flared up between the Orcs and the free world. Kyra, the hero's younger sister, suddenly disappears in mysterious circumstances.

«...If my family really belongs to the chosen ones, why then have we always been as poor as church mice? I have never given much credence to all the old stories about a relict in our family's possession - one which supposedly bannedAziraal, the god of the Orcs - they say that only those ofmy bloodwere chosen to safeguard the secret.
'Tis nothing but nonsense methinks – however, my sister Kyra always listened eagerly to the stories of the old ones... but she vanished several months ago... »

To all intents and purposes you're an unscrupulous bounty hunter and mercenary - but the search for your sister takes you back to your roots.

At the beginning of your epic adventure, a mercenary task takes you to the far north - but you're also following up a mysterious lead at the same time - the first clue you've been given since Kyra's disappearance. You get a shock during a meeting with the delegates of a dark Brotherhood - your sister's kidnappers are indeed after your family's relict. Whether there's any truth in your family being chosen ones or not, the others obviously believe it - and if you ever want to see Kyra alive again, you'll have to act swiftly...

 Previous Playtime

9 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I remembered getting this on sale, but I couldn't remember how good a sale it was, so I went back and looked at my transaction history - 99 cents. That's how much I paid for this game. That should be fairly self-explanatory. When I see a 90% discount, I have to be actively talked out of jumping at it, regardless of what it is. Against a fairly-slick looking open-world rpg, I never had a chance.

Expectations and Prior Experience

The nine minutes I've spent with the game so far have almost all been devoted to getting the thing to start. I recall it had some pretty annoying 3rd-party DRM. That being said, that was a long time ago, and when I test-started it today, it worked just fine.

I don't really have much of an impression of Two Worlds. I remember seeing it on shelves when it came out for console and every time I did, I thought, "this looks like a game for people who want more Oblivion . . . except that Oblivion is already a game for people who want more Oblivion, so it just looks kind of pointless."

Which is not a very kind thought, to be sure. But it can't be denied, as much as I love open-world rpgs, this game never made a a very compelling pitch to me. It's possible that it's an underrated classic, but what I'm expecting is an aggressively average game, with no great highs or lows. I'm not basing that on anything other than my gut reaction to the screenshots and store description, though. What I'm seeing is a game that doesn't take any risks with the genre and relies on familiarity as a draw. I am, however, prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Stellaris - 20/20 hours

Okay, so that's 20 hours in two days. Yikes. (Especially when you consider that my "20 hours" are more like 22). I lost a lot of sleep playing Stellaris today. I just got to a point where I kept telling myself I'd quit after doing "just one more thing," but of course it's never just one.

I discovered that the end game is pretty slow, both in its pace and in the sense that it brought my computer to a crawl. As a result, I didn't really get to enjoy the inevitable point where you're a godlike advanced civilization, capable of striding the stars and reshaping the very stars themselves.

Or maybe I was just really tired and cranky when I go to that point. I mean, having to run the simulation at a slower speed than the absolute fastest isn't the end of the world. It may get a little uneventful when you're in a position of safety, at the center of an alliance that spans half the galaxy and so utterly unassailable that no one dares make a move against you, but even then things are only uneventful until they aren't (my imperialist ally ran out of targets to bully, but it seems like my democratic ally simply can't stop meddling with a particular region of space that's home to about four nations of the same species, all of which tend to drift away from democracy enough to make periodic interventions necessary).

I'm having trouble pinning down my overall opinion of Stellaris. I think a big part of it is that my perception of the game is colored b my knowledge of how other Paradox games evolve over time. They tend to get a lot of very influential DLC, some of which can change the entire complexion of the game (my most recent Crusader Kings II save file, the one where I tried to play the whole 800 years, fell victim to one of these DLCs). And that makes me wonder how future DLC will change Stellaris, and perhaps, more pertinently, how I want it to.

For example, the whole system of alliances and Federations could use a serious overhaul. As it stands now, being in a Federation has two main effects - it makes you a military powerhouse and it drags you into an endless series of wars. I can't help feeling that this betrays something about Stellaris' priorities that I don't really like - it is at heart a wargame, and though it gives you more room to roleplay than your typical strategy game, it still strongly favors the path of violent conquest.

I guess the game I really want to play is Stellaris after it has gotten a half-dozen expansions that make Federations more interesting, internal divisions more deadly, and uplifting aliens more complex and satisfying. Right now, it's like a butterfly in a cocoon. The early game was genuinely amazing, the mid-game was busy, if occasionally frustrating, and the late game simply didn't work. But there are a dozen obvious places to bolt on new mechanics that might help Stellaris deliver the promise of its epic scope.

Which means, unusually for a strategy game, I'm ready to move on. Oh, I could easily play it for another 60 hours, but since I know that expansions are inevitable, I can also afford to wait awhile. Besides, Stellaris was my 98th game and I'm really eager to get to the triple digits.

Stellaris - 16/20 hours

Having moved into the mid-game, I find myself in an existential and moral crisis. I joined a federation, and I had high hopes that it would be like the Federation - an enlightened group of peaceful planets that seeks out contact with new civilization in order to advance the condition of sapient life throughout the galaxy.  But it turns out that my new Federation isn't like that at all.

It started out fine. Our first two members were committed pacifists. And our third believed in democracy so much that they would only go to war to liberate the oppressed. But you need four civilizations to form a Federation and our fourth was a real snake in the grass.

Fanatic xenophiles, I assumed they would want to make friends with everyone they meet and thus were unlikely to start a war. However, they apparently love aliens so much that they want them all under their rule, because every time they get to be Federation president they start a new war of conquest. And because my fate is tied in with the rest of the federation's, if they lose a war, I may potentially lose a planet, so I have to do my best to win the wars they start. It's a far cry from what I intended when I set out to play a pacifist.

That being said, I love that Stellaris is the sort of game that has that kind of complexity and conflict. I haven't yet been bored by the mid-game, and there's still plenty of peaceful stuff for me to do, even amidst all this war, so I'm looking forward to moving on to the end-game, which I understand has a few surprises in store for me.

I'm definitely getting the feeling that this is a game that I'm going to play for more than 20 hours. I want to become one of the great elder civilizations of the galaxy and see the end of the tech tree, but that's probably still a long ways away. Normally, I'd probably start getting daunted by the scope of the future in front of me (see - the anticlimactic end to my Crusader Kings 2 game), but with space it feels different. It feels less like I'm running towards a goal and more like I'm just trying to see what happens next.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Stellaris - 7/20 hours

It was difficult to sit down and write this blog post. Every time I thought of something I wanted to say about Stellaris, I was reminded of something I wanted to do in my save file.

I think I'm nearing that subtle turning-point that most large-scale strategy games have where you stop thinking about the moment-to-moment tactics and start thinking about long-term strategy. It's the point where your economy shifts from "how will I get enough to survive" to "how do I use my surplus to win?"

It's a bittersweet moment. I'm becoming a major player in my corner of the galaxy, sitting at the center of an alliance between three wealthy pacifist states, technologically advanced, and beginning to experiment with the use of robotics to automate most of my civilization's most menial jobs (such as municipal government or the operation of tourist attractions). Yet the frontier is rapidly closing in front of me.  I'm almost entirely hemmed in by my opponents and it's only a matter of time before my science ships have nowhere else to go.

I think I'll miss that part of the game, but as compensation, I really do enjoy micromanaging my colonies and I've still got a couple more habitable planets that I need to grab before the aliens do. I'm not sure what I'll do after that. And I mean that literally. Up until now, I've been playing the game a certain way, but what happens when that becomes impossible?

One of the things that excited me about this game enough to make it a day 1 purchase was the sheer breadth of its ambition. I'm looking forward to seeing if it can successfully change gears into a different kind of game. I'm hoping that it will intrigue me in a different, but equally compelling way as the early part of the game. I'm afraid that I'll wind up missing the heroic space-explorer phase so much that it sours me on the mid-game strategy.

I guess we'll see.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Stellaris - 2/20 hours

Stellaris gets off to a slow start. That's not a complaint, by the way. When I say "slow" I mean gloriously slow. You are a tiny speck in a gigantic galaxy. You send your science ship out to an adjacent star and it is so tentative, like dipping your toe in a pool to test its temperature. But you survive, and your ships gradually go farther and farther afield, finding a universe that is mostly empty, but with life in unexpected places.

I think I could play an entire game that was nothing but the early hours of Stellaris. I love finding and researching anomalies. They're nothing too spectacular, from a visual or gameplay perspective, but they are all interesting little glimpses into a wider, weirder world. I'm honestly considering running a huge map with minimal npcs just so I can explore as many stars as possible without having all these empires in the way.

As far as the strategic component of the game is concerned, these things are always tough to judge from the early game. Scientific research is based on resources you find around various planets and I kind of got hosed on my start for having the right resources nearby (I managed to ally with a nearby alien civilization and they are something like 12-15 technologies ahead of me), but I expect that as I get used to the game's mechanics, I'll be able to turn things around. I'm optimistic, though. There's a lot of complexity here, so much so that it would probably take dozens of hours just to work out a theory about the proper build order.

It's a little weird, playing a Paradox strategy game where you're not immediately thrust into a life-and-death power struggle with a dozen neighbors of varying degrees of hostility, but I kind of like it. In any other 4X game, if I met a rival empire less than an hour into the game which had a 300% tech lead on me, I would immediately restart, because it would only be a matter of time before they came after me. In Stellaris, these advanced aliens are Peaceful Traders whose ideology maps closely to my own, so they've become my best friends and protectors. Despite the symmetrical start, this is not a game that cares for balance, which is a breathtaking change of pace.

I don't know what will happen as I continue to expand and explore. I've only encountered one alien species so far, but there are dozens more out there. Eventually, the galaxy will become filled up and the nature of the game will shift to a more familiar cutthroat military and diplomacy rhythm. Will I be able to handle it? I don't know, but for now I'm enjoying the ride.

Stellaris - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Explore a vast galaxy full of wonder! Paradox Development Studio, makers of the Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis series presents Stellaris, an evolution of the grand strategy genre with space exploration at its core.

Featuring deep strategic gameplay, a rich and enormously diverse selection of alien races and emergent storytelling, Stellaris has engaging challenging gameplay that rewards interstellar exploration as you traverse, discover, interact and learn more about the multitude of species you will encounter during your travels.

Etch your name across the cosmos by forging a galactic empire; colonizing remote planets and integrating alien civilizations. Will you expand through war alone or walk the path of diplomacy to achieve your goals? 

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This should, in theory, be an easy one because I bought it less than an hour ago. But I guess it really is difficult to truly know oneself because now that it comes down to it, words escape me. I was hyped. A space strategy game from the people behind Crusader Kings II. Would this bring their characteristic attention to detail to a whole new frontier? The very thought is exciting.

But that doesn't explain why I bothered to buy it today. I have more than 80 games left to play. Stellaris will still be there in a couple of months. Hell, it will probably be better in a couple of months. Its launch bugs will be patched, there won't be competition from the other prepurchasers to slow down the download speed. There may even be an expansion pack and a sale.

It doesn't actually make sense to buy a game so early. So why did I do it?

I think it's because the release of an anticipated new game feels like an event. I like knowing that thousands of strangers are having the exact same experience at the exact same time. I like going on to message boards and talking knowledgeably about the latest thing and understanding what people mean when they do the same.

This is either extremely petty or profoundly meaningful. I can't decide which.

Expectations and Prior Experience

The closest thing I have to prior experience is watching the developers' stream on Twitch. I don't think I'm too spoiled for the bulk of the game because I missed a couple of the later ones and from what I could tell, this game looks almost as glacially paced as Crusader Kings II.

What I expect is a steep learning curve over a deep game and while the novelty of the whole thing will carry me a long way, I'm sure, I can foresee one potential speedbump. It may be that there will be a long period where I don't understand the game well enough to enjoy it. That happened to me with the other Paradox games I played. I didn't really get into Crusader Kings II until I'd played around a dozen short games where I barely knew what was going on. I still have a bit of ambivalence towards Europa Universallis IV.

I'm confident that once I clear the hump, I'm going to find that I love expanding and exploring and engaging in complex diplomatic maneuvers, but how big is the hump? How many frustrating newbie traps will I fall into before I figure things out?

That's just the price of complexity I suppose. To make a rich experience for experts, novices will have to deal with being in over their heads. I think I can accept that bargain.

The Last Federation - 20/20 hours

Given my strong desire to play a different game on the day of its release (today!), I wound up rushing through my last eight hours with The Last Federation. It was in the course of playing several games back-to-back that I discovered something quite disconcerting - this game is really easy.

I mean, if your aim is simply to wind up with all eight planets controlled by your Federation, winning is trivial. I discovered a fairly fool-proof way of winning (as far as I can tell) every time. I say "as far as I can tell," because the last game I tried this strategy on was my attempt at hard mode and I barely broke a sweat. I figure that, given the ease with which I won, I could probably get close to 100% victory on normal.

What you do is research technology for one of the three "good guy" races in order to earn money. Use this money to improve the relationship among them, then when it gets high enough, form the three-way "Alliance for Safety." At this point, they should have three planets and a significant tech advantage. So you improve the relationship between the Skylaxians and a fourth species (doesn't matter which) enough for them to be able to invite them into the Federation. Around this time, an anti-federation alliance will form, but since you have such a huge lead in tech, all your really have to do is bribe your guys to dogpile the ringleader. After that, it's just mop-up.

Once I figured out there was a winning formula, the game lost a significant amount of its appeal. However, just because I feel like I "solved" the standard game doesn't mean that it is completely out of ways to thwart me. I decided for my last game, I was going to get all eight species in a coalition no matter if I had to save-scum to within an inch of my life, and I have to tell you, even on easy, this particular goal is a huge pain in the ass.

What it comes down to is that there is a very fine line you have to walk between making a species (especially one of the aggressive ones) strong enough to survive, but not so strong that they don't casually take out a planet before you can assimilate them into the Federation. I'm not sure this is a challenge I particularly enjoy, but it did succeed in wiping the smug look of self-satisfaction from my face.

I also experimented with Observer mode for about an hour. I didn't really learn anything of note during that time, however. As far as I can tell, the inevitable result of the initial setup is that, minus the last Hydral's intervention, one of the aggressive species (either the bug-like Thoraxians or the brutal Burlust warlords) will swarm out from their home planet and take over the solar system. It really depends on whoever gets the momentum first. The "good" species are pretty much doomed due to their habit of rarely taking over planets and while the others can occasionally win some ground, they don't have the inherent combat buffs to make it to the top of the heap.

I guess that makes me feel less guilty about wiping out the aggressive species. It's either them or us.

All in all, I really like The Last Federation. It could probably use some more balance tuning - certain options are so powerful that they obviate the need to explore the game's nuances, but it offers an experience available in no other game. Playing a schemer and a peacemaker felt fundamentally different than your typical empire-building space strategy games and so if I happened to find an easy path to victory, it is nonetheless a path that I could only take while playing The Last Federation.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Last Federation - 12/20 hours

I'm going to try and keep this short and sweet because Stellaris is coming out tomorrow and so I want to try and get eight more hours in before it drops (which, if video games were people, I'd feel really bad about saying - luckily they don't have the capacity to understand being snubbed.)

So, the Betrayed Hope expansion. It's fine, I guess. It's main feature is that it introduces two new game modes.

"Betrayal" has you taking over one of the solar system's planets with the intent of taking over the other seven through military force. It plays a lot like a thinly-sketched 4X (although there's no exploration to speak of, so maybe it's a 3X). In theory, this could work because The Last Federation simulates an 8-player strategy free-for-all between the alien species while you are attempting to do your thing, but I never really got the feeling that I was being allowed into the previously background simulation. My interface was almost exactly the same, and my productivity on the planets I controlled was still limited to the same old dispatch missions I'd been doing from the very beginning. As a result of this inherent time constriction, I never really felt like my power was growing as I captured planets. I suppose if you got really into The Last Federation's brand of back-seat diplomacy, it might be a refreshing change of pace to cut through the middle-man from time to time, but "betrayal" mode to me just feels like a vaguer, less satisfying version of a game I've played before.

"Invasion" mode is pretty good, though. A powerful alien has invaded one of the planets and you have to organize the other bickering 7 to drive them out, despite still having rivalries with each other and much inferior technology. It doesn't quite supplant the normal mode in my affections, but it does add a bit of urgency to the "shady mercenary uses underhanded political manipulation for peace" narrative. It would be even better if the Federation-forming mechanic were still in place and I had to occasionally sabotage a planet in order to save it, but that's nitpicking. It made me wrangle 7 fractious alien species behind the scenes and that was exactly what I wanted.

From here, I'll be going back to the base game, but I'll be upping the difficulty to normal. I may be able to get in two or more full games in my remaining time. If so, I may try a third one at hard difficulty. Here's hoping my Federation-building goes as planned.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Last Federation - 8/20 hours

I came so close. There are eight species in the world of The Last Federation and I managed to get seven of them on board with the idea of universal peace. The eighth, well they decided to blow up their whole planet rather than join the Federation. So, yeah.

The really interesting thing about The Last Federation is the way it goes through the trouble of building a world with all these interesting characters and then the essential mechanics of the game set you apart from all of that. It's probably no coincidence that you are a "Hydral." You linger in the background of the setting, working from the shadows, a many-headed beast who intervenes with both aid and sabotage to bring about your ultimate goal.

It's a nice merger of gameplay and story. After awhile you start to feel like you are a superior sort of being, surrounded by short-sighted idiots and that it's your right to meddle with them to your heart's content. Whether you want to completely crash their economy or elevate them to near-godhood with a massive donation of technology, it's all the same. The only factor for consideration is whether such acts will bring them closer to unity.

I enjoy it. Call it my rarely (hah!) expressed megalomaniacal side. I will wield ultimate power in the solar system! And the puppets will dance to my tune! Interplanetary peace shall be the timeless legacy of the Hydral! Glory until the stars run cold!

Um . . . or something.

I also played the tech race mode from the Lost Technologies DLC. It was pretty much a waste of time. Though it got a little hairy towards the end when the ravenous bug-people got enough momentum to spread beyond their homeworld and there was a real possibility that they would overwhelm the solar system, it was still mostly just a straight beeline to the end of the tech tree. It didn't require any of the subtle politicking that made the base game so intriguing. I don't think I'm going to bother playing that mode again.

Which means that the next part of my agenda is the Betrayed Hope DLC, which introduces two new game modes - one where you try and get revenge for the destruction of the Hydral homeworld and another where you have to take your completed Federation and fend off an invasion from another star.

I'm a little wary of these new modes because they both seem to eschew the big central idea that makes The Last Federation so unique - that success depends on the reconciliation of diverse points of view. I like that there is a game that treats peace-making as a worthwhile and narratively interesting goal in itself. It just feels fundamentally different than, say, Civilization's diplomatic victory. It's not just about strong-arming the AI into saying how great you are. You actually have to care about the individual species' history. You have to address their needs (or make them worse and then exploit their desperation) and resolve their differences. To replace that with a military scenario kind of misses the point about what makes the game so great.

It's possible, though, that these expansion modes will surprise me. They could take the game's other unique strength - the sensation of being at the center of a web of conspiracy - and run with it to create a new kind of war game. I do kind of like the idea of fighting a war from the shadows, manipulating the various forces towards destruction through the use of spies, bribes, and political influence.

We'll see how it turns out. Tense political thriller or retread of the same military-is-everything story that's been told in strategy games since the beginning of the genre? Either way, it should kill some time.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Last Federation - 2/20 hours

My first runthrough is a warm-up on the lowest difficulty and it's going moderately well. There is a lot of complexity to this game and it's taking me awhile to remember the nuances of how to play. Basically, you have to build up your reputation with the various alien species, but since they start out as rivals, actions that benefit one can aggrieve the others. 

Also, while you're focused on your own goals, all of the alien factions are focused on theirs, so there are difficult time-management decisions to be made, in addition to the complex political wrangling. Spending 10 months building a special diplomacy-enhancing building on an alien world might help you out in the long run, but while you are doing that, you are out of commission and thus unable to respond to a war or an outbreak of disease.

I've already got my basic Federation set up, thanks to the fact that three of the species are naturally peace-inclined and thus easy to ally with each other, but once that early hump is cleared, it becomes a much steeper climb to the top. The various species bring their rivalries and prejudices into the Federation and the enemy of one becomes the enemy of all.

I think I've got it basically figured out. Focus on one group at a time. Intervene in wars to prevent the non-Federation species from gaining too big a power base, and buff up my Federation planets so they don't have to worry about invasion. I'm pretty sure that at least one of the species is going to go extinct before all is said and done, but then again, this is easy mode, so maybe I'll manage to pull it off.

I'm looking forward to giving it a shot.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Last Federation - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Turn-based tactical combat, with up to 5 factions competing at once.

Extremely deep simulation of an entire solar system and its billions of inhabitants. Even just watching everything unfold in Observer mode is entertaining, as nations rise and fall.

New-player-friendly ramp-up of complexity as you play, which you can disable if you're already a veteran.

Eight races each have very distinct personalities and attributes. Each one even has its own completely unique political system.

Difficulty levels split between the grand strategy and turn-based combat portions of the game, both ranging from quite casual to incredibly hardcore.

Save and reload your game with ease any time, or tough it out in ironman mode.

Composer Pablo Vega's best soundtrack to date, featuring 54 minutes of music and the vocal finale "Lay Down Your Arms." 

More Details
Greetings, Hydral. I will be your computer for this "grand strategy campaign with turn-based tactical combat." I think that's code for "we're going to die."

Our solar system is vast and complicated, and I sense you are a little dimwitted -- so I tell you what, let's start with the simple stuff. Like escaping with this flagship you just hijacked from a bunch of angry robots. That seems important.

Please excuse my impertinence, but I believe you are the last of a murdered race, yes? My records note you Hydrals were the dictators of the solar system, so basically you had it coming. And by "it," I mean the moon that smacked into your homeworld. Hmm. So people really aren't going to like you until they get to know you. Well, only you can use the scattered remnants of advanced Hydral technology, so that's something.

Look, I'm not going to tell you what to do. My understanding is that you're trying to form the solar system's first-and-last unified federation, and that's noble enough. But right now nobody wants that except you, and you've got 8 very diverse, very angry races to either unify or exterminate. So... good luck with that. I'll help how I can.

Previous Playtime

26 hours 

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

The Last Federation was a pre-blog purchase for me, which means my motives were entirely down to interest in the game itself. I heard it mentioned in a forum post and its basic concept hooked me right away - it's a space strategy game where the goal is peace instead of absolute supremacy.  I was so intrigued that I didn't even wait for it to go on sale.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've already played this game quite a bit, which you might think would lead to burn-out, where I've already gotten all that I can out it and have nothing more to do but go through the motions in order to kill time. However, I don't think The Last Federation is one of those kind of games. If I recall, the starting setup was such that it was fairly easy to engineer a particular type of outcome (the "good" species ganging up on the "evil" species and making a Federation with 4 out of 8 of the original species), but that if you wanted anything different, it would require a vastly different approach. As a result of combinatorial explosion, the game has a huge number of possibilities to  explore, even though the setup is the same each time.

Or, at least, that's what I recall. I also seem to remember that it was a very menu-driven and abstract experience (at least, the non-spaceship combat portions were), so it might be that this will be a situation like Redshirt, where the fun, outdoorsy, physically active socialite is more or less the same as the obsessive holodeck nerd who plays chess every day and barely talks to anyone. I honestly don't remember.

The other wrinkle is that I bought a couple of DLCs in the years since I last played this game and they both seem like they make some pretty big changes, so it's entirely possible that even if I did remember the game, it could be far different.

On the other hand, I played this game for 26 hours and I never really got bored with it (as usual, I stopped playing because I was distracted by the new, shiny thing that came along . . . whatever it happened to be in this case), so I'm not really worried. My agenda going forward is to try and get a perfect game, where all 8 species survive and to check out the alternate game modes enabled by the DLC. That will probably easily carry me to 20 hours or beyond.

Star Wars Battlefront II - 20/20 hours

Running and shooting and killing things. Sometimes dying unceremoniously, sometimes going on an epic kill streak that turns the tide of battle. Flying a spaceship and being outclassed because the enemy used a sabotage special, but winning anyway because the AI doesn't know enough to focus-fire on mission objectives. Jumping into Yoda or Mace Windu or Jango Fett and dominating the battlefield for a brief period of time. Games of Capture the Flag rendered pointless by my superior human brain's ability to avoid areas of dense fighting.

Star Wars Battlefront II is basically just a series of impressions to me. I have a feeling, though, that I'm going to want to play this game again in another five years. Because the impressions I have shortly after getting through 20 hours of the game are more or less the exact same impressions I had prior to starting the game. You could look at it as being evidence that I didn't grow or learn during the entire experience, but I think it's more the case of the game being extremely straightforward about what it promises - Star Wars-themed action devoid of narrative context, but executed well and allowing you to play a wide cross-section of the setting's military characters.

I will confess to loving the Tantive IV mission. Regardless of what side you played, it felt like you were playing the movie. I suppose the Geonosis level was much the same, but it loses points because the movie wasn't as good. But my favorite part of the game was the inevitable Hoth level. It was a nice change of pace being inside the AT-AT instead of the snowspeeder, though from that perspective it becomes clear exactly how absurd that scene really is. I'm a massive, nigh-invulnerable engine of destruction and you're going to take me down with a freaking rope? Come on!

I went back and beat the campaign (the permanent defense boost I unlocked from all my battles in Galactic Conquest mode was just enough of an edge to get me past the hump). I don't like that it ended on a triumph note for the Empire. Maybe every long-running franchise experiences a flowering of maturity where people become interested in exploring edge-cases and new perspectives, but I think Star Wars is one place where I like my heroes to be heroes and my villains to be villains. Han Solo shooting first is about as far as I want to go with the whole "conflicted antihero" thing (maybe that was what was wrong with the prequels).

Overall, I'd say that Star Wars Battlefront II is a reliable workhorse of a game. At no point did it surprise or delight me and because single-player mode was just a slightly tweaked version of its core multiplayer gameplay, it lacked the over-the-top spectacle and violent excess that is, to me, the hallmark of a truly great action game. But what it does, it does well. And it is completely understandable why it has such a persistent online following (the third-party matchmaking software showed 13 active games, at 1:30am, on a Wednesday, 11 years after the game's release). Sometimes, all you want to do is blast Storm Troopers with 63 of your closest friends. And I can't think of a game that does this better.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Star Wars Battlefront II: 13/20 hours

I just finished Galactic Conquest mode, and I think I like it a lot more than Story mode. Going into a battle knowing the stakes in advance and with an understanding that the initial tactical situation is basically fair changes the complexion of the whole game. It makes me feel like the world exists independent of me, rather than purely for my benefit. It's an illusory feeling, obviously, because I'm playing single player, but then again perhaps this is what playing multiplayer is like - a world created for the benefit of multiple players instead of just one.

I doubt it, though. Mostly because my progress through Galactic Conquest seemed highly random. Assuming my troops were evenly matched with the enemy's, then surely my presence, as an individual soldier who can kill ten opponents before succumbing to death, would tip the balance in my favor every time. And while it's true that I won almost all the time, the outcomes were so swingy that I'm not sure how much of that was due to my influence. Sometimes, my forces would overwhelm the enemy and win with 50 or more surplus troops, other times it would be hard-fought with less than a half-dozen of my allies remaining. And I don't think it was a matter of my performance that determined these outcomes.

I mean, sometimes it was all down to me. On Yavin 4 I was the last of my army standing. More than 20 Imperial Soldiers still patrolled the woods. I had to use all my cunning to pick them off one at a time until I got down to the last four enemies and they were all in tanks. So I had to steal an Imperial Tank and then get in a massive vehicle battle and in the end, I won. A certain defeat was turned into a victory by my stubborn refusal to give up and I was inspired to waste a lot of time in future levels where the situation really was hopeless.

Star Wars Battlefront II (single-player mode) is at its best when it becomes a vehicle for emergent stories like that. Most of the time, it really just seems random, but sometimes you can impose order on the narrative and it becomes something magical. . . and then other times you fight your hardest and are defeated because 50 of your teammates simultaneously decided to shit the bed.

I wonder if the same holds in multiplayer? I kind of think than in this game, it might. The teams are so large that it's unlikely that they can develop into the sort of stable partnerships that allow complex tactics to be executed. I imagine that if you just play with a random group of strangers, the highs and the lows will cancel each other out and each match will essentially be a coin-flip. Does that make it less or more appealing, I wonder. I'm guessing that anything that gives people the sensation of being able to control the chaotic flux of the universe must be popular, even if it is nothing but the illusion of control.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into it and people just like shooting stuff in the Star Wars universe. That seems  . . . probable.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Star Wars Battlefront II - 9/20 hours

Been playing the campaign. According to online walkthroughs I'm on the second-to-last mission and boy, has it been kicking my ass. The computer's greatest weakness is that the AI is terrible. My greatest weakness as a player is that the AI is terrible.

Here's how it breaks down. You've got these AI teammates and they are absolutely useless. Sure, they'll take down the occasional enemy, but more often they stand right in front of you, clogging up narrow hallways and bridges or use explosives in close quarters, doing more damage to themselves than the enemy. I once saw one of my allies just run around in circles for no discernible reason. And needless to say, they are useless for pursuing mission objectives. You pretty much have to solo the whole enemy team.

Which is possible because the enemy AI isn't any better than your team AI. Even when you're vastly outnumbered you can make up for a lot by kiting, hit and run tactics, and using doors as cover (the AI never seems to figure out that just because a door closes, doesn't mean the thing that was attacking you has vanished).

Which is fine. I mean, it's not ideal, but there's a game there, about the elite commando who cuts their way through the battlefield and wrecks the enemy forces all out of proportion to his numerical significance. In fact, it's the plot of basically every military FPS ever made.

Where it becomes a problem for me is in campaign mode, where the mission balance out the fact of the human's relative god-like prowess by giving the enemies effectively unlimited resources. I guess that's not really a complaint, given that I am at the second-to-last level and it's probably supposed to be hard, but it has gotten under my skin a bit. I kind of feel like the game presents itself as one thing, but is actually another. Even though it turns out to be a lot like playing a more traditional shooter, you're doing so without checkpoints and with an essentially random number of lives, so you know, that's kind of a pain.

I did play a random map to compare. Like maybe I was being too sensitive and that's just what the game does to the unskilled. But the random mission was a cakewalk. I easily came out on top, with nearly 40 troops remaining (out of 150). Having a finite enemy was so much easier, psychologically, than a notionally endless one, it was like playing a different game.

I don't know what I'll do next. I should probably at least try to finish the campaign, but I may well skip it and give galactic conquest mode a shot. It may not be the thrilling challenge that the scripted missions are, but at least that way I won't have to play as the freaking Empire.