Sunday, July 23, 2017

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Republic Heroes - 15/20 hours

For the last few hours, I've been trying to collect all the platinum medals and artifacts from the levels I've already beaten. I may owe an apology to Republic Heroes' story. As bland and forgettable as it is, playing these levels with no story at all has been an exercise in endurance.

It's not even as if the game is notably bad, it's just an action-platformer that one can play on mental autopilot. Sometimes, as I button mash my way through hordes of enemies or make perfunctory button presses to leap from sticky platform to sticky platform, I feel as if the game is playing me.

I've almost come to love the times when the game's controls fail. It never leads to anything particularly disastrous, just the occasional swinging at air or leaping into a pit and then immediately respawning, but it does remind me that human input is still, technically, required (I'd say that it gives me a feeling of control, but the imprecise controls rarely mirror my intent).

I think the trick for finishing this game in a timely fashion is to just enter a trance-like state, where my mind is disconnected from hands and I can, I don't, contemplate the nature of the universe or some shit, while the game basically plays itself. It sounds easy, I just have to find the motivation to sit down and actually do it.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Republic Heroes - 10/20 hours

The best thing about this game is that it turned me on to the tv show. I'm really enjoying it. It doesn't exactly redeem the absurdity of the setting's premise, and it's rarely self-aware enough to give that absurdity a satisfying satirical bite, but it has its moments, and since I was a pre-existing Star Wars nerd, I'm willing to cut it a lot of slack.

As far as the game itself, though . . . I don't know. I don't really have a strong emotional reaction to it one way or the other. It's not painful to play, like some other games I could name. But it also doesn't particularly have anything that draws me in. If the controls were better, it would be a functional workhorse of a game, and if they were worse, it might be comically frustrating. As it is, most of the time, your characters do mostly what you want them to do, and when they don't, your nearest checkpoint is close enough that it's only a few seconds worth of setback. It's a game that's on slightly-wobbly rails.

Which is to say, it's not a game where I learn or face challenges, or have any particularly memorable experiences whatsoever. Even the story is just . . . there. Basically, there's this new super-weapon and both sides of the war want it, but then it's stolen by a bounty hunter, and then the bounty hunter loses it to the Separatists, and then the Jedi blow it up at the last minute before it destroys Naboo. Theoretically, there might be some excitement there, but it's really just Star Wars by the numbers. It also doesn't help that the later missions don't really build on the earlier missions. The gameplay and difficulty levels are exactly the same, and there's no real action set pieces to stick in your memory.

I did, however, figure out a workaround to the problem of Games For Windows Live logging me out when I start up the game - I just used the other account on my Xbox 360 hard drive. Since I can both watch the show and play the game at the same time, I expect the hours will fly by tomorrow. I'm just afraid I won't get 100% completion because one of the missions crashes the game whenever I try to replay it. Hopefully, starting a new campaign will allow me to keep my records and artifacts from my previous playthrough, so I can get the stuff by going the long way round.

Although, even if it doesn't, I'll probably be fine. This is not one of those games I'm going to feel bad about falling short in. There's simply not enough skill involved for my ego to be on the line.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Republic Heroes - 5/20 hours

My last post, I neglected to mention the indignity of having to sign up for Games for Windows Live. It was a significant annoyance, but I since it only took about 10 minutes to get installed, it was something I was willing to overlook. . .  until I tried to watch Netflix while playing the game and I discovered that GFWL will log you out of your Xbox live account while you're playing. It was irritating and completely unnecessary. So, Games for Windows Live, I'm glad you're dead. That your zombie is still causing problems four years later is an embarrassment, and if it weren't for the blog, your presence as part of a game wold cause me to seek an immediate refund.

Of course, why was I even trying to watch Netflix in the first place? It's because this game is based on a TV show and I was feeling a little lost when it came to the new characters and their relationships. I'd known about Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi from the movies, but I had no idea who Ahsoka or Plo Koon were.

I found watching the first few episodes of the show enlightening, but it wasn't really to the game's benefit. On the one hand, I have a new appreciation for how well the game managed to capture the look of the cartoon (and if I were a kid who enjoyed the show, I might well be delighted to see it come alive in this way), on the other hand, the show is a lot more interesting than the game. I feel like the game tries to capture some of the show's characteristic banter, but falls flat as it exaggerates and simplifies the show's relationships and themes.

But I'm not here to talk about the show, though I will get one more shot in because this observation applies equally to both the show and the game - it is weird how, during the Clone Wars era of the Star Wars universe, the people commanding an army of brainwashed clone slaves are the good guys. I've already covered this to some extent in one of my Republic Commando posts, so I won't go into it here, but I will say that I'm not optimistic about seeing a nuanced and subtle examination of the issue in the last half of the game.

I guess there's nothing to do but keep plugging on. There's a planet that needs to be conquered (or defended from being conquered, I'm actually kind of fuzzy about that) and the forgettable Sith villain lady from the show is stirring up trouble with some sort of captured super-weapon. I'll need to control several teams of Jedi or completely interchangeable clone troopers before this whole thing is wrapped up.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Republic Heroes - 2/10 hours

Two hours in and I've not quite got an emotional handle on this game. It's clearly for kids - even leaving aside its colorful presentation and light-hearted script, its mechanics make it a game for people who don't understand video games. At times it's a platformer and your jumps will be "sticky," allowing you to make a hair-raising series of jumps while basically on autopilot. Other times it will be a shooter and the aim assist will be both dramatic and obvious. And all throughout, there is no penalty for death. If you die, you pop up at the nearest checkpoint as if nothing had happened. No limited number of lives, no resetting of the challenges, and not even a loss of score.

But the strange thing is that, despite being a kids' game, it's a not very well put together kids' game. Most of the features that make it easy for little ones to stumble their way through also have some loopholes that don't add challenge so much as they make things randomly frustrating for no reason. You can override the stickiness of the platforms by jumping in the wrong direction or double-jumping when a single jump is needed, which is fine except when the camera angle makes it hard to judge direction and distance. And the shooter controls are some kind of perverse twin-stick nonsense that barely works when it's not auto-aiming.

So, on the one hand, Republic Heroes is not a particularly interesting or challenging game for an adult, and on the other hand, it's also not very good as a mindless brawler. You might think, then, that it's nothing but a chore to play . . . and yet . . .

It's all right. I'm making forward progress. Even when the controls screw me over, it's not that big a deal because there's a checkpoint every minute or so. All told, it's just a meaningless grind where I press buttons to make lights respond. And I'm okay with that.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Republic Heroes - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Star Wars The Clone Wars: Republic Heroes lets Star Wars fans young and old live out the sweeping galactic adventures of the Clone Wars. For the first time ever, players can fight as their favorite Jedi and Clone Troopers from the preeminent animated television series – from familiar faces like Anakin Skywalker to new heroes like Clone Captain Rex. A brand-new storyline, which bridges the gap between season one and two, takes the player on a multi-faceted adventure to stop a mysterious techno assassin’s destructive plot. Built around two-player cooperative action, the accessible controls and family-friendly gameplay bring Star Wars fans across generations together like never before to fight the evil Separatists and restore peace to the galaxy.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This was part of that mega Star Wars bundle I bought a while back. Honestly, it was a real ". . . and the rest" situation for me. If you ranked the bundle's games in order of how much they influenced my decision to purchase it, this one would probably be near the bottom of the list.

Expectations and Prior Experience 

I'd never even heard of this game prior to buying it and even then, I knew nothing about it until I started to entertain the idea to play it.  All I have to go on is the store page, and my feelings about that are . . . mixed.

On the one hand, the screenshots look pretty cool. Colorful and cartoony, with various characters from the movies doing exciting action-platforming things. It looks like the sort of game I could really enjoy.

On the other hand, the user reviews are pretty dire. It has a "recommended" rating of only 33%. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean anything. No Man's Sky, a game I personally love, has a lower rating, and Age of Wonders 2, a game I have no intention of ever playing again, is rated a lot higher. However, in situations like these, where the game is not particularly niche or controversial, I am inclined to trust the wisdom of the crowd.

Which means the next few days might be pretty rough for me. And that's fine. That's why I chose this game. Most of the rest of my games I'm excited (or at worst ambivalent) about playing, and there's only a couple that I'm actively pessimistic about. I figure if I get those out of the way now, it will be smooth sailing for the rest of the blog.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic - 20/20 hours

A long gap between posts, mostly because I didn't want to write another two posts that were variations of "I don't like this game, it's not fair that I have to play it, wah!" But once I came to the realization that I only wanted to do one more Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic post, I came up with a plan to retroactively justify it to myself - I would play my remaining 15 hours in one giant marathon session!

It didn't quite work out that way. I actually wound up playing it in two sessions, one of 11 hours and one of 4 hours, but I feel like I kept to the spirit of my initial plan. Certainly, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic has dominated nearly every waking hour of my weekend (less the time I spent reading, going to the store, and cooking, which I'll admit were activities I pursued a bit more leisurely than usual).

And I'm sad to report that I did not get the gaming equivalent of Stockholm syndrome. I was kind of hoping that by intensely focusing on a single thing, my viewpoint would narrow and I would start to judge the thing in the context of itself. But that didn't happen. I was mostly just counting the hours until it was over.

There were some things I liked about this game, though. I liked the different layers of the map. Building an underground empire as the dwarfs or an otherworldly empire as the shadow demons felt kind of cool. A game with a similar multi-world setup, but more robustly asymmetrical factions would have the potential to be amazing.

I also really liked the magic. Raising and lowering mountains, summoning dragons and angels, seizing distant power nodes to scry through. You definitely feel like a potent wizard when you start slinging around the high-level spells, even if the low-level ones are underwhelming and unreliable.

I think the problem I've had with all these Age of Wonders games is twofold. Firstly, I never really bought into their central premise - eternal war of all against all is not something I particularly want out of a fantasy game. Secondly, even within the confines of the wargame genre, the balance between map size, unit movement speed, and the size of your economy was such that it forced me into a form of strategy that I found deeply annoying. I never had enough units to play defense and except on small-sized maps, the enemy headquarters were always so far away that I had to plan my attacks way too far in advance.

If I'm being totally honest, I would like this game a lot more if I were better at it. If I could effectively control territory by deploying my forces in such a way as to screen out enemy scouts and the occasional neutral interlopers, advance my front gradually so I could make my strategic decisions while in sight range of enemy targets, and grow my economy so much that I had a superabundance of troops and magical resources, that would likely have solved most of my problems with the game. But I never got to that level. I was always struggling.

That's the tricky thing, though. If I were better at the game, I'd enjoy it more, but if I enjoyed it more, I'd put in the work to be better at it. I never found a way to get on the inside of that loop, so I wound up just gritting my teeth and being miserable most of the time (though, to be fair, I was only actually miserable when I was interacting with AI enemies - I enjoyed improving my cities and expanding my empire just fine).

I've still got one more game in the series. It's my hope that with an improved, more modern UI, and presumably a decade's worth of hindsight about what makes a strategy game enjoyable, Age of Wonders III will fulfill the promise of the first game and be a fantasy wargame that captures my imagination. I can, however, say that buying the older Age of Wonders games in a bundle was a big mistake.

I guess there had to be a balance, though. They can't all be the Fallout, Elder Scrolls, or Star Wars bundles.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic - 5/20 hours

I definitely have a mental block about this game. There are things I don't like about it, sure, but I've played other games with these same qualities and have not had quite the same aversion. Hell, some of them I even really enjoyed.

I'm not sure it's fruitful to try and get to the bottom of this phenomenon. There's no other way that could go than for me to make a long list of petty complaints and that would be dull as fuck to write about (let alone read).

Instead, I'm just going to try and focus on how good I'll feel when I'm finally done with this game. I've dreaded it for a long time now, perhaps unjustly, but not mistakenly. It really is as difficult to play as I imagined it would be. It would be reasonable to speculate that I created this trap for myself, and that my gloomy pessimism in fact made this critically well-received turn-based strategy game more of an emotional quagmire than its gameplay really warranted.

I'm open to the idea that I'm the one who's wrong here (although I don't know how anyone can stand the unit-movement UI, it is seriously terrible). However, even so, I have to accept the world that's presented to me as real, don't I? Within the limits of my bubble of subjective perception, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is a burden to play for 20 hours, even if 80% of the world disagrees.

That's just going to make the finish all the sweeter, though. I just have to keep reminding myself of that.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic - 2/20 hours

I'm still playing the tutorial, but I'm starting to get worried. It never showed me how to cancel an active spell, nor explained the relationship between gold income and city production. And it's still doing that thing from the previous Age of Wonders games where if you don't right click to deselect a unit, you may accidentally send it traipsing off in completely the wrong direction if you left click anywhere on the map.

It's frustrating, because I really want to like this game. It's just that it has a series of small flaws that would each be surmountable on its own, but together add up to an unpleasant play experience. I hate how most of your units' attacks miss, how there's no proper research queue and no reminders about unmoved units or empty build queues. And the thing with the accidentally clicking . . . grr, it's so annoying I had to mention it twice.

I'm going to try and calm myself and get past this, though. I know that there is an interesting game of turn-based fantasy strategy underneath it all, and that if I just tough it out, I'll be able to command a whole menagerie of interesting magical creatures.

Mostly, though, I hate being so negative. Believe it or not, I want to say only positive things about the games I play, but sometimes I'll just completely fail to "click" with a game, and it will be difficult to think of anything but complaints.

Sigh. It's probably predestined, though. This is still basically the same game as Age of Wonders 2, and by the end that had me on the ropes. I just have to hope I've learned a thing or two since then.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is the third entry in the award winning fantasy strategy series. This fan-favorite enhances the series' praised fusion of empire building, role-playing and tactical combat with the eerie Shadow World and battle with races never before seen, across new and diverse landscapes.

Combined with the option of creating a totally unique environment with the map generator and rewriting the history of this world through the enhanced campaign editor, you are ensured a constant stream of completely new game experiences.

Previous Playtime

 19 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Well, it was in a bundle with two other Age of Wonders games for 66% off, and my assessment, based on the store page, was that they were more like fantasy 4X games than they turned out to be.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Let me be real for a moment - I have been dreading this game. It is a standalone expansion for Age of Wonders 2 and that game made me miserable. I know, even now, that it is going to have a primitive, unpleasant UI and an excessive (for my tastes) focus on warfare. There's no escaping that.

My main (and perhaps only) hope is that the map design has gotten better from the base game, and I no longer have to worry about defending a huge front line from nuisance attacks by mostly-defeated enemies. If it solves the whack-a-mole problem, I can probably at least enjoy it as a strategic war game.

I'm not optimistic, though. I expect before these 20 hours are up that I'll wind up doing the same thing I did for Age of Wonders 2 and dick around with a hotseat game instead of facing AI opponents. That's not my plan, though. I really am going to give the campaign mode my best try. I'm just worried my best won't be good enough.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Evoland & Evoland 2 - Wrap-up

I bought Evoland 2 specifically because I was hoping its combined play time with Evoland would be more than 20 hours. I wound up playing it for 22 hours by itself. I should probably retroactively separate the two games and go back and play Evoland four more times. Maybe if I ever wind up having too much free time on my hands, though even then Portal is at the top of my list for such silliness.

I don't want to say too much about the end of Evoland 2. The plot kind of fell apart and the final boss had two side-scrolling shooter stages. The high point of my last six hours was the tactical-rpg section and the low point was the mandatory rhythm game boss battle. Overall, it continued to follow the pattern established by the previous sixteen hours - I wanted to give it an award for cleverness while simultaneously wringing its metaphorical neck for making do things I didn't particularly enjoy.

Taken as a whole, the Evoland games are the most idea-driven gaming experience I've had since Antechamber. And while I thought the first game didn't have enough space to let its ideas mature and develop, astoundingly, I thought the exact same thing about the second game, despite the fact that it was nearly six times longer. I mostly enjoyed myself playing these games, but it was at times a removed enjoyment - I appreciated the thought that went into them much more than the actual games themselves.

I don't think I'll ever play either one again, despite having 10-20% of the collectibles still left to find. For the first one, the story and world simply aren't distinctive enough to ever draw me back. For the second one, I'd be too worried about having to replay a stealth, shooter, or rhythm game section. Even so, I think the series was one of my better purchases. I feel like a more complete gamer for having experienced them.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Evoland 2 - 16 hours (20/20 hours)

At one point, Evoland 2 made me play Pong. I thought I understood the game's ambition before, but that was the moment it really sunk in - it really does intend to be every game. The Pong puzzle was just a simple match to five points, maybe a minute total in length, but it was eye-opening.

At first I was ambivalent about this variety-pack approach. I thought that the individual elements were too watered-down to really sustain a whole game in the long run - like, sure, there's a lot of stuff to do, but if it's all second-rate then all you're really doing is sitting through a second rate game for a couple dozen hours. However, I am now fully on-board with this project. I want it to go farther. Pull in more genres. When we found a new time portal, my demon companion, Menos, worried that it might take us to a hellish FPS world. And while I'm pretty sure it was a joke, I really do want Evoland 2 to go for it. It's triggered my hunger for excess now, and there's no way I'll be satisfied with less than everything.

Funnily enough, though, Evoland 2's best moments are when it's not imitating anything in particular. There was this forest dungeon where you had to solve puzzles by shifting between the game's three main time periods, with past, present, and future presenting different obstacles and resources (ie trees were smaller in the past, so you could get by them, but in the future certain enemies were dormant, etc). It's not something that would have felt out of place in a Legend of Zelda game, but it wasn't specifically referencing the series. Similarly, at one point, you fall into a temporal anomaly and there were puzzles where you got trapped in a time-loop and you and your duplicates had to hit switches to get out (and the solution to one of these puzzles was successively suiciding your time clones to "disarm" a series of deadly traps), and a couple of platforming sections where you had to rotate the stage 90 degrees from top-down to side-view, changing gravity in the process.

And as much as I've been enjoying Evoland 2's eclectic approach, I kind of want to play the game it might have been, if it were just a time-based, puzzle-driven adventure game. It's got these gimmicks of shifting art styles and a million and one gameplay references, but when it's not indulging them, it also has some flashes of genuine originality.

It's really confusing, to be honest. There's just so much to this game, and not all of it is "good," but even the less good parts contribute to the overall effect by being part of its over-the-top "let's throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach, but I also get the feeling that the game designers are talented enough that they could have made a more focused game and had it stand on its own, and do I even want a "gaming's greatest hits" anthology, and if I did, do I want it built around the skeleton of a game with its own promise, and heck, while I'm wishing for things, maybe the characters could be a little less bland, and . . . ARGH!

I don't know any more. Maybe Evoland 2 is a great game. Maybe it's a disjointed mess trying to get by on its sheer audacity (at one point, you see Mario, Link, and Bomberman waiting in line to talk to the game's oracle, which struck me as pretty cheeky). I don't, however, think the truth is somewhere in-between. Those are your two options.

Evoland 2 - 10 hours (14/20 total)

I may have to rethink my approach to Evoland 2. I'm really enjoying it, but I may have been under the misapprehension that it was game, instead of an unholy Frankenstein's monster made of stitched together pieces of games.

Don't get me wrong. This is Evoland 2's greatest strength. It is kind of delightful to go into a dungeon and not know in advance if it's going to be an homage to Legend of Zelda  or Super Mario Brothers, to face a boss and not know if it's going to be like Secret of Mana or Street Fighter. However this wild smorgasbord approach to game design does come with a downside. Sometimes, you'll have a long, unskippable section of the game based on a bullet hell shooter and your player will have little experience with the genre, making it a frustrating slog that nearly causes him to throw away his controller in despair.

I mean, I got through it eventually, but it was not a time in my life that I'm going to relish on my deathbed.

I will say this, though. That section of the game caused me to change my mind about the shallow rpg-homage that makes up the bulk of Evoland 2. It was then that I finally realized that the goal here was to quote as many of the classics as possible. Sure enough, just a little later, I ran into a dungeon inspired by Bomberman and a boss fight in the style of Mega Man.

So, of course this game is not going to be as good a time-traveling rpg as Chrono Trigger, in the same way it was not as good a fighting game as Street Fighter or as good a shooter as, hell if I know, because I mostly don't play shooters. Time spent deepening and perfecting mechanics is time that could be spent referencing another game.

With that in mind, it's impressive that Evoland 2 is as polished as it turned out to be. All of its most memorable moments may be cribbed from other games, but they work. The controls are smooth and accurate. The art looks great. And aside from a couple of hiccups, where it's unclear about where you're supposed to go next, the plot is perfectly functional.

Whether the whole can transcend the sum of its parts remains to be seen, but it's clear to me now that the "parts" aren't just an afterthought. They are, in fact, the essence of the game. That will make Evoland 2 an impressive achievement, even if it winds up falling apart in the final half.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Evoland 2 - 4 hours (8/20 total)

Evoland 2 owes a lot to Chrono Trigger. The mechanics of time travel, the overall shape of the "we must save the future" plot and the presentation of the worldmap are spot-on recreations. But you know what, it's all right. Time travel is really the best possible use of the Evoland series' characteristic multiple graphical styles. The present uses run-of-the-mill indie-rpg 2D sprites, the future is full on 3D, and the past has a greatly simplified presentation (I believe there's a fourth time period, farther in the past, that is Game-Boy-era monochrome, but I haven't reached it.)

If you've played Chrono Trigger, you already know the game's plot - the present is a peaceful time under the rule of a prosperous and benevolent kingdom, but a few generations ago the antecedents of that kingdom waged a brutal war against a race of occult creatures. The game begins when the main characters discover a particular location that has the strange property of connecting two different time periods. The party then travels to a distopian future where large numbers of people have been slaughtered by a mysterious "destroyer" and they resolve to figure out the secret of the time portals and use them to change the future.

It's probably impossible to write a time-travel-themed rpg and not at least reference Chrono Trigger, but man, there are so many callbacks - you get thrown in prison early on in the game, there's a corrupt rich guy you need to manipulate for a key item, the bridge between human and demon territory plays a prominent role in the plot, the food of the future is bland and unfulfilling. I don't know how many of these are deliberate references and how many are just coincidence, but I get a deep sense of familiarity playing this game.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The only problem is that Chrono Trigger is already the goofy, free-wheeling version of Chrono Trigger. Evoland 2 has its funny moments, but nothing as memorable and weird as "am I butterfly dreaming I'm a man or a bowling ball dreaming I'm a plate of sashimi?"

I don't mean to be a curmudgeon here. I get that the Evoland series is trying to be a casual-playing scrapbook of the history of the rpg genre. And when the idea works, it really works. I really liked the Diablo dungeon in the first game. However, at other times, the games' referrences are incredibly shallow. In the first game, you meet a guy named "Sid" who gives you an airship, during the second game's mandatory stealth sequence, you have to sneak around in a cardboard box, the main town in the second game is called "Genova." I'm certainly reminded of games I've loved in the past, but . . . then what?

Luckily, Evoland 2 is a fun game in its own right. It's a Zelda-esque adventure game with dungeon puzzles, collectible special abilities, and simple real-time combat. Games of that sort never really needed anything more than the barest skeleton of a plot. Just a series of excuses to go dungeons, solve puzzles, and fight monsters. For that purpose, a bunch of pop-culture references centered around some bland, but likable characters is good enough.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Evoland - 4/20 hours

I'm a little annoyed with this game. It wouldn't recognize my controller at first. So I searched online and found that to fix the problem, you've got to run the game in Windows 7 compatibility mode. Fair enough. However, upon doing so, I discovered that it stopped tracking my time in Steam. You'll just have to trust me when I say I've got a bit more than four hours into this game (it may even be as many as 5).

With that out of the way, I've beaten Evoland. Turns out all the trouble was the fault of this demon-looking guy named Zephyrous. Not that I found this out until the last dungeon, where he just came out of nowhere and claimed responsibility for the game' plot.

Taken on its own terms, Evoland's story was pretty weak overall. I'm not even going to summarize it. Suffice to say - bad stuff happens, you get an amulet, you take the amulet to a place, you fight a villain at the place, and then the bad stuff presumably stops (it never does say explicitly, though). However, I'm something like 95% sure that the weakness of the game's story was entirely intentional.

It doesn't quite rise to the point where game is winking at the player, saying "see, we did this shitty thing on purpose because it's funny." In fact, I'm not sure the plot is meant to be funny at all. I think that it was meant to simply give a broad-stroke impression of the genre as a whole. Much as the progression of graphics and mechanics was meant to evoke the history of rpgs, the story was meant to be the most rpg-est rpg story to ever be conceived.

Just as there was a dungeon that played like a low-fi version of Diablo and a dungeon that was a simplified version of Legend of Zelda and an overworld that was reminiscent of a scaled down Final Fantasy, so you also had story beats that felt like references to other games, stripped of their complexity and depth.

I can't say that I liked it, exactly. It was fine. A parody would have had more teeth. Plagiarism would have tried to capture more of the originals' context. Evoland tended to fall into the murky middle-ground in-between. Let's call its story a "slideshow of homages." Since I enjoyed the originals, I felt a certain degree of pleasure in the recognition, but I wish they'd done more with them.

I don't mean to be too down on the game, though. There were quite a few extraordinary moments, (mostly when the game was switching between technologies) and it's obvious that a lot of pride and care went into the making of the game. For me, it never rose above the level of a curiosity, but a well-done curiosity is something people will pay money to see. And Evoland is no exception. I'm glad I played it.

Evoland - 2/20 hours

Evoland is an easy game to play. It doesn't take up a lot of my headspace. There's not some great challenge to it. I don't have to wrack my brain to solve its puzzles or carefully hone my reflexes to survive its battles. It's just a simple slice of rpg-adventure gaming that is so thoroughly familiar I could play it on autopilot.

I will say, though, even for a genre send-up, the story is not very well constructed. It's self-aware about the fact that it is using The Basic RPG Plot - go to places, kill monsters, collect geegaws, thwart some nebulous evil - but it doesn't doesn't seem to want to do the work to establish the stakes, create memorable characters, or flesh out the world. It's as if it's relying purely on its evolving graphics gimmick to sustain the player's interest.

And to be fair, it's a pretty fun gimmick. All of your different graphics and gameplay upgrades are presented as treasure to be found in the world. You find a treasure chest, open it and BAM you go from black and white to color or from 2D to 3D. Seeing the world transform around you and returning to previous locations to see the same area rendered in different styles is damned cool. I probably would have preferred it if there was some story significance to the game's graphical evolution, but it's still pretty neat that the game gets prettier as time goes on.

I'm withholding judgement until I see the end of the story, but so far Evoland strikes me as one of the weaker comedy rpgs. I've been smiling a lot in the course of playing it, but I haven't laughed as much as I did in Half Minute Hero or Cthulhu Saves the World.

Those complaints are pretty much nitpicks, though. I'm enjoying the game, and that's enough.

Evoland & Evoland 2 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Evoland

Evoland is a journey through the history of action/adventure gaming, allowing you to unlock new technologies, gameplay systems and graphic upgrades as you progress through the game. Inspired by many cult series that have left their mark in the RPG video gaming culture, Evoland takes you from monochrome to full 3D graphics and from active time battles to real time boss fights, all with plenty of humor and references to many classic games.

Evoland 2

Evoland 2 graphics style is changing as you travel through time and its gameplay evolves as you move along the storyline. It is also a real RPG at heart, with a deep scenario based on time travel: explore different eras and change the history of the world. But are you sure that the consequences will not make things worse?

Full of humor and references to classic games, the aptly named Evoland 2, A Slight Case of Spacetime Continuum Disorder brings a truly epic and extraordinary adventure, unlike anything you’ve ever played before!

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

With the first Evoland, I thought the premise was pretty cute. As you advance in the game, the graphics style becomes more modern. Since I've been playing rpgs since the original Final Fantasy on the NES, it looked like a fun little romp through my childhood nostalgia.

My thought when buying Evoland 2 was, "oh shit, all these Evoland reviews have less than 6 hours, and I don't necessarily want to play the game four times in a row, oh, it has a sequel, maybe I could play the two games together and still keep a shred of my integrity . . ."

I always feel a little disingenuous when I bundle games together, as if I'm trying to skirt around the edges of my self-imposed goal. Then I remember that I played 20 hours of Sakura Spirit and give myself permission to fudge the numbers just a little bit. And seeing as how I explicitly bought Evoland 2 for no reason other than to bundle it with Evoland, it feels mostly legitimate to me.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I'm going in mostly blind, with only the store page screenshots to judge by, but it looks like I've played a lot of the sort of games Evoland is parodying and I've always enjoyed them. I don't think I'm going to have any problem getting to 20 hours on these two.

That being said, the expanded scope and ambition of Evoland 2 reminds me a bit of the Half Minute Hero series, where you had the first game with a fun original idea and then a second game that took itself way to seriously and lost track of what made the first game great. I have no reason to think Evoland 2 has fallen into that particular trap, but if I'm being pessimistic I have to acknowledge it as a possibility.

It will probably still be fun, though. It's possible to make a console-jrpg-inspired game that is a massive slog, but I feel like the flaws and pitfalls of the genre have been so thoroughly investigated over the years that you'd have to be deliberately oblivious to not design around them.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Sid Meier's Civilization VI - 20/20 hours

The civics tree in this game is, indeed, something I could write a whole meandering post about. It exemplifies the main flaw of the Civilization series, one so deeply baked into the game's design that it would be unrecognizable without - the notion that history is like an arrow pointing forward and that societies can be grouped based on how far "ahead" or "behind" they are of each other.

It's a blatant ideological assumption that is both made obvious and rendered absurd by splitting off the "social technologies" from the main tech tree. The last thing you can research on the civics tree is "Social Media." And given that the structure of the tree is such that you can't get to the end without first researching a bunch of interlocking prerequisites, it kind of implies that social media is the inevitable and culminating outcome of thousands of years of political and philosophical thought.

It's silly, really. Which is a shame because it's actually a good basic idea. A big problem with, say, Endless Space's four-directional tech tree or Fallen Enchantress's three separate tech trees is that though they allow players to potentially focus their research and become stronger in their areas of particular interest, all of the different directions compete for the same resource, and thus the most efficient path is almost always to spread out your research and only occasionally beeline for the more expensive techs when getting them early would give you a significant advantage. Civilization VI's culture system forestalls that by requiring significant separate infrastructure investments for each of your main branches of research. It would be interesting to see that sort of thing taken overboard and combined with a tech tree as complicates as Space Empires V's.

But I've said too much already. By now "Civilization presents itself as a simple board game but actually has some surprisingly sinister ideological assumptions behind its mechanics" is a quotidian observation. I'll just say that I love the series in spite of all that and have long since accepted its absurdities as the price I have to bay for all that sweet turn-based grid-filling action.

It's a little sad to move on from Civilization VI a mere three days after I started. I could easily play this game for another hundred hours at least. It's definitely starting to grow on me, despite the AI declaring wars that make no sense, the way certain tooltips inadvertently overlap to make some information virtually unreadable and a city-state system that's a step up from Civilization V, but still in need of a few tweaks to make it a truly compelling alternate avenue of power.

However, as much as I've enjoyed myself these last couple of days, I'm also aware of the fact that this is one of those games that's going to be dramatically improved five years from now. So much so that it was probably foolish of me to buy it so soon. However, I like to think that my purchase will be counted as a vote to make an expansion pack. The basic foundation of the game is really good, and I'm excited to see what the designers are going to do with it.

In the meantime, it's been good for my morale to have a game that I could clear in less than a week. My goal is to be done with the blog by June 21, 2018 and at the rate I've been going, I should just barely squeeze in under the wire. I'm hoping that I've got a few more games as addictive as Civilization VI to help me get ahead of the curve.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sid Meier's Civilization VI - 10/20 hours

Well, "Quick" speed is kind of a misnomer. After all this time, I've only finished a single game. Even at the fastest speed, on the easiest difficulty, it takes ten hours to go from start to finish. I suppose I could have gone for a quicker conquest victory, but I wanted to see the whole tech tree (also, I don't like doing that generally).

I enjoyed myself, but most of my enjoyment came from comparing numerous picayune details to the other games of the series. What do the different World Wonders do, and which ones got added and/or dropped since the last game? How do the different units compare to each other? What's their combat strength and which ones have interesting special abilities? Which leaders made the roster this time (and I think, after six tries, the Civilization series finally got it right by choosing Teddy Roosevelt as the leader of America - Lincoln and Washington may have been more vital to the formation of our country, but TR is the president who was most like a video game protagonist)?

And if I'm being perfectly honest, a lot of the stuff I think of as "big changes" are probably also tediously small details to anyone who's not already an obsessive fan of the genre. Like, you have to build important stuff in the tiles surrounding your city and not just in that nebulous "city interior" now. This makes a dramatic difference in the high-level strategy as you juggle adjacency bonuses, space limitations, local resources, and your society's needs in order to get the most out of your limited number of turns. However, it is also still just picking stuff out of a list in an order that will make various numbers go up most quickly. If you weren't a fan of the game before, nothing about the new system will make you change your mind.

Likewise with the change to city happiness (it makes building a specialized entertainment city profitable now) or social policies (they're now laid out like a second tech tree, which has some interesting philosophical implications that I may have to talk about in a second post because they're ideologically very complicated) or city-state relations (you can't bribe them with gold any more, which makes keeping them on your side a bigger challenge). If you're committed to the idea that "shuffling numbers around in various menus" is a big enough playground to house multiple, very different games, then the changes are enough to dramatically alter the way you approach the game. On the other hand, it's still just a Civilization game.

I can't even really say it's better than its predecessors. The base game feels more confident in its mechanics than Civilization IV or Civilization V did, pre-expansion, but there's no longer any circumstances where you'd play Civ4 without Beyond the Sword or Civ5 without Brave New World and Gods and Kings, so there's no call to judge the prior games as anything but the best versions of themselves.

The transition from Civilization IV to Civilization V was something of a lateral move. Both games had their flaws, and aside from super-long turns in the late game (something no 4X has ever solved), there's not much overlap. Neither game is a replacement for playing the other. And for now, that's true about Civilization VI as well. The geometrical puzzle of laying out your cities is fun in its own right, but no replacement for the compact, streamlined board game experience of Civ5 or the super-detailed, almost sim-like mechanics of Civ4. Who knows, maybe with a couple of expansions Civ6 will be the benchmark against which all other entries in the series will be judged, but for now, it's just another step sideways.

(Which, you know, is fine. I love the series, so "as good, but not noticeably better than what came before" is a very high recommendation in my book).

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sid Meier's Civilization VI - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Originally created by legendary game designer Sid Meier, Civilization is a turn-based strategy game in which you attempt to build an empire to stand the test of time. Become Ruler of the World by establishing and leading a civilization from the Stone Age to the Information Age. Wage war, conduct diplomacy, advance your culture, and go head-to-head with history’s greatest leaders as you attempt to build the greatest civilization the world has ever known.

Civilization VI offers new ways to engage with your world: cities now physically expand across the map, active research in technology and culture unlocks new potential, and competing leaders will pursue their own agendas based on their historical traits as you race for one of five ways to achieve victory in the game.

Previous Playtime

3 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I actually really wanted to buy this game back in October, when it first came out, but I couldn't afford it full-price. It went up to the top of my wishlist instead. So, when it went on sale for 40% off, about two weeks before my birthday, I decided to treat myself. It probably wasn't the wisest idea, considering my goal of finishing my entire list by this time next year, but what the hell, you only live once.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've already played 100 hours of the Civilization series for the blog (120, if you count Colonization), so I don't think I'm going to be surprised. Here's my prediction - I'll reach 20 hours before the end of the month, and by July 1st at the latest. That's just what experience has taught me. I go through Civilization games fast.

As for this game, specifically, I played the tutorial and about an hour of a regular game, and so far it looks interesting. I liked the districts and the eureka bonuses, but haven't quite gotten used to the game's expectations about expansion and luxury management. I expect that will be a major stumbling block for me, overcoming the habits I learned from Civilization V. However, even in the worst case scenario, it will still be a Civilization game. There are only so many way it can go wrong.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Interplanetary - 20/20 hours

My final assessment of this game is that a difficult-to-use interface does not a compelling gaming challenge make. Especially on a map with more than two factions, aiming your weapons is confounded by the need to zoom out and pan the map at quite extreme angles, just to be able to move your mouse in such a way that your weapon's trajectory line curves towards a distant target. At times, the very act of aiming was a frustrating challenge, let alone trying to compensate for the game's misleading shot previews.

I did enjoy playing multiplayer, though whether that's because the game feels more fair when you're on an even playing field or simply because I like hanging out with my friend, it's impossible to say. As far as the single-player is concerned, it was too much shooting and not enough tedious trade negotiations. Yes, I realize that I'm going against the very premise of the game, but what can I say, I like what I like.

Setting aside my increasingly jaded attitude towards war games, I liked setting up my planet's infrastructure, and I liked aiming my weapons on those occasions when the preview line wasn't complete bullshit. And the opportunity cost between attacking and building made for an interesting strategic consideration. Every turn felt important and I was constantly making life-and-death decisions. So I guess, as war games go, it was pretty successful. I had to strategize to win, and I'm pretty sure that's what the creators were going for.

I'll probably play this game again in multiplayer mode, because it's reasonably balanced while being moderately complex and matches only take a couple of hours, but I think I've gotten all that I'm going to get out of the game's single player. There's only so much simulated genocide I can take before I start to grow tired of it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Interplanetary - 15/20 hours

At one point I was trying to gain an achievement for completing the tech tree, and I had to stall for time, because the enemy had only one city left and I still had a half dozen techs still left to learn. So I started systematically destroying their power plants, and weapons, and then, eventually, their intelligence and mining buildings. They eventually reached a point where they could not recover, and were completely helpless before my attacks.

I felt like a monster, then.  As well I should. Over the course of the game, my megadeaths crept up into the hundreds, eventually becoming gigadeaths. I'd exhausted my own planet's mineral resources in pursuit of this vendetta, dooming my people to their own slow extinction, following the enemy's.

Why was I doing this? It was not for any sort of gain. There was no wealth or knowledge or territory being transferred from the loser to the winner. In fact, I doubt we could have even survived on each other's planets, despite our similar civilizations.

I turned to the in-game Codex for answers, but it was little help. It rarely talked about the past, but whenever it was mentioned, the War was capitalized. It was clearly a title with weight. It didn't need its own name because no one would ever confuse it with lesser wars. One of the entries even implied that it had been going on for at least forty years.

My guess is that no one knows. That the planets fight each other because that's what they've always done, and their leaders don't have the imagination for anything else. Maybe they thought it was safe, because their weapons could barely reach across the void of space . . . until someone invented the interplanetary rail gun and it all started to turn.

What sort of horror must have accompanied that first impact? The early railguns are crude, and in the early game are more likely to hit an empty desert than anything of strategic importance, but even that must have been terrifying. A "missed" shot that nonetheless screamed down from the sky to leave a hundred-mile scar across the earth.

Anyone who witnessed that kind of destruction would have to know that they've entered a new age. That to embrace that power is to attempt to harness the engine of your own extinction. Yet who has ever turned their back on that path, refused to wield the sword when it is offered to them, especially when they would be first?

Did they feel a grim satisfaction when the cities started to fall? There is a certain beauty in seeing a design come to fruition, even if it is being turned against you. If an invention was meant to kill, then you could take pride, even as it killed yourself.

Or maybe there was wailing and grief, a hypocritical fury at their foes for mirroring the diabolical architecture of their war machine.

I think, though, that it was mostly relief. Once these weapons were fired in anger, there could be no retreat. You could never forgive your enemies, and you could never ask them to forgive you. As soon as it was decided that the War would be fought with railguns and gamma ray lasers, its course was set. It could only end when one side or the other was utterly annihilated.

As far as my part goes, I think I have to be satisfied with that. Due to decisions made entirely without my input and consent, my planet has put itself on an unalterable course. I may think the War is madness, but a madness shared by the entire world is the very definition of sanity. It may be impossible for one man to change the destiny of a whole planet, but he has the choice to face that destiny as a patriot.

I can only hope that there is no such thing as hell. I wouldn't want to face the millions I've sent to it.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Interplanetary - 10/20 hours

I wish I could identify the X-factor that makes a game feel compelling to me. It would save me a lot of trouble. Because, at a certain level of abstraction, Interplanetary seems like exactly my sort of game. You build infrastructure and then you use that infrastructure for a purpose. Yet, the game has so far failed to capture my imagination.

I don't dislike it, exactly. It's just I've reached a point where I have a working mental model of how each match is going to play out, and there's rarely any version of these visions that particularly appeals to me. It's not that I've mastered the game, or am even especially good. I simply feel like I can already see the ladder of mastery, and it's not one that I especially want to climb.

It probably comes down to a fundamental ideological disconnect. The best case scenario is that I wreck my opponent's infrastructure so badly that they can't fight back. The worst case scenario is watching my planet get systematically dismantled as I fall behind and become unable to catch up. I mean, if you squint, the basic gameplay loop is similar to something like Civilization, where you research technologies and construct buildings to develop your economy and become more powerful. However, it's probably telling that for all the 300+ hours I have in Civilization V, you could count my number of conquest victories on the fingers of one hand.

Which is really just a personal hang-up, I know. I really just have to tough it out and learn to embrace the pointless cruelty. I guess it is kind of fun to try and guess where my railgun projectiles will go, as they pass through all the various interfering gravitational fields. There is a moment of anticipation and release as they approach a target planet and just barely miss, curving off into the great unknown or plunging down, into the sun. And when they hit, it's even better. I should probably look at the game less as a genocide simulator and more like a geometrical puzzle.

It doesn't help a lot, because the specific puzzle is poorly presented through an interface that actively lies to you, but I've played games with weaker premises.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Interplanetary - 5/20 hours

Having got a little more time in with this game, and having won it a total of two times by now, I have to say, I think I have this game figured out. Which is not quite the same as saying I'm good at it, but I think I understand the ways in which I am bad and the basic path I need to take to get better.

And the essence of the game, near as I can tell, is that it doesn't give you enough information to make good decisions. Or, more accurately, there's a tradeoff - the less information you have about your weapons effects, the more damage that weapon will do. Railguns give you no control over your attacks besides the initial trajectory, and thus do the most damage. Missiles are aimed much like railguns, but you can choose where they land if they connect, so they do middle damage, and lasers allow you to select your targets precisely and reliably, but do the least damage.

It's an interesting mechanic, especially considering that the game lies to you. When you plot the trajectory of your railguns and missiles, it draws a line on the map that is supposedly a preview of where the projectile will go when launched . . . except that the preview line bends according to the gravity of the planets at the moment of launch, rather than where they will be when the projectile passes through their orbit. So, if there is a planet between you and your target (and there usually is) and the preview line gives you a clear shot, it may turn out that orbit of the intermediary planet is such that it will move near the line of fire and deflect your projectile to god knows where.

Now, I know for a fact (mostly thanks to my time with Kerbal Space Program, but also because I still technically have a math degree) that it is possible to approximate these interactions to a reasonable degree of confidence (though, funnily enough, effectively impossible to calculate exactly, except for a limited number of precisely set up special cases). It's an open question, then, why the game insists on withholding that information from you.

The obvious answer is that it simply wants to challenge you. The designers of Interstellar knew that any sort of quick and dirty orbital mechanics would quickly turn into a chaotic nightmare and thus intended for the player's ability to intuit their way through the tangled mess of potential orbits to be the main avenue of skillful play. It makes sense, and in PvP contests, is a fair enough challenge. Except that you can also play against an AI opponent, which must certainly use the calculations the game refuses to show you to be able to hit anything at all.

This is kind of distressing, when I stop to think about it. It means that the AI must be purposefully flubbing attacks in order to make the game equitable. Presumably, the main difference between difficulty levels is how often it does so. And I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that.

I'm glad I'm able to play the game. I imagine it would be very frustrating to go up against an opponent that could effortlessly destroy me with robotic precision. On the other hand, I feel kind of like a doofus playing this, as if the game is patronizing my soft and squishy human brain by giving me a bunch of free charity shots.

The logical solution would be to play only against other humans, but since the only other person I know who plays the game is way better than me . . .

Maybe I'll just get used to accepting the computer's charity.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Interplanetary - 2/20 hours

Interplanetary has some very interesting mechanics, which present you with some genuinely difficult strategic choices. The only problem I have with it is that the strategy helps me accomplish a goal I would never choose for myself.

Why am I targeting interplanetary weapons of mass destruction at my celestial neighbors? What do I hope to gain? It all seems so senseless and wasteful.

I'll have to try not to focus on that, though. I just need to accept the situation as it is presented to me. Sometime before the start of the game, before the planets even have the infrastructure to fight each other, they decided to go to war, and whether I agree with the war or not, it is my task to see that my planet survives.

It is a narrower sort of strategy than I usually prefer, but I've played narrower. Certainly, it has never occurred to me to question the backstory of Chess (though now I'm thinking I probably should). I guess it's a situation where the more abstract the game, the less I try to root it in a particular setting. X-Com benefited from a lot of world-building and plot, but something like Go is almost a pure geometric challenge. Interplanetary, with its named cities and complex worlds seems like it should be more like the former, but in practice plays like it's trying to be the latter.

I'm hoping I'll get used to it. It feels a little depressing to be blowing up millions of virtual people for no reason, but I suppose it could be worse. The game could have a story that forced me to do it for a bad reason.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Interplanetary - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Interplanetary is a turn-based strategy artillery game based on a hard scifi setting. It offers players an interplanetary battlefield where they can develop their home planets and use massive artilleries to wage war.

It's an arms race of interplanetary scale, with each planet developing increasingly powerful weapons. Massive railgun batteries are the backbone of any interplanetary arsenal, but the cunning use of missiles and precision lasers may hold the key to victory. Strategic building patterns, upgrades and defense structures might keep your vital installations standing long enough to give you an edge, but it's only a matter of time until all but one must fall.

Sometimes, your greatest foe is the planetary system itself! Don't let the unpredictable gravitational changes get the better of you - observe your surroundings, use them to your advantage, and blast your enemies back to the stone age!

Previous Playtime

3 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

This game made it on to my wishlist because I'm a sucker for turn-based strategy and the idea of interplanetary projectiles being affected by gravity struck me as a fun and unique mechanic. Then, my friend Daniel bought the game for me and it turns out I'm really bad at it. We've played it online three or four times and I've never been able to get my eye in when it comes to leading my projectiles ahead of planets. After playing Kerbal Space Program, I was able to grasp the problem a bit better, but I still have trouble estimating how all the different factors will come together.

I anticipate a great many demoralizing losses over the next 20 hours. Hopefully, this will lead to me improving my skills and becoming more efficient at ruthlessly bombarding inhabited worlds into oblivion, but realistically, there's probably going to be quite a bit of pouting along the way (I promise, I'll try to keep things as dignified as possible).

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Jet Set Radio - 20/20 hours

It feels good to be vindicated. I watched the "making of" video in the game's bonus features, and the creators pretty much came out and directly confirmed the theory in my first post - Jet Set Radio was made by taking a lot of popular trends and just building a game around them. The result wasn't always the most coherent thing in the world, but it did have a certain amount of earnest charm.

I probably shouldn't have played it much past 10 hours, though. Once I finished the story missions, the only thing left to do was attempt the game's various challenge modes in an attempt to maximize my score. And while it was nice being able to explore the levels without being shot at by goons the entire time, I could never quite figure out the game's stunt system, and thus my point scores remained dismally low.

Overall, it wasn't a bad way to kill time, but I never really felt that fire for mastery that inspires a great performance. I wasn't really trying to get better. My goal was always to be moderately diverted until my time ran out. I mostly succeeded at that goal, though perhaps, in the process, I did not give Jet Set Radio the respect it deserved.

I don't think I'll play this game any more, though. I still have a long way to go before I hit the ceiling for mastery, but that's not the sort of challenge that appeals to me. It's all about precision, timing, and well-honed reflexes. Impressive, if you can do it, but frustrating if you can't. And I have little desire to push my way through the frustration just for some nebulous bragging rights.

That said, I did enjoy the game. I'm glad I played it. I liked its goofy, colorful world and rocking soundtrack. I liked unlocking new characters with a variety of bold 90s styles, but would have liked it even more if they had deeper characterization and individual side-stories. If they ever release the sequel on PC, I will definitely consider picking it up.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Jet Set Radio - 10/20 hours

In Jet Set Radio, while you're zooming around spraying graffiti, you are simultaneously being chased by a bunch of heavily armed goons who fire weapons at you and disrupt your painting. If you take enough hits, you'll run out of life and have to start the level over, but that's actually pretty rare. They mostly just annoy you and slow you down.

I'm not entirely sure what the point of this mechanic is. The closest I've come to a conclusion is that this overwhelming and disproportionate military response exists purely to make you miserable. I don't mean this as a complaint, or even as comic hyperbole. I mean literally.

See, it all has to do with the meaning of graffiti. At first, I thought it was just a silly thing. A narrative conceit where something rather frivolous in the real world is imbued with an awesome cultural power. Like, this is just a world where a variety of personal and political problems are solved with graffiti. It's a form of comedy I enjoy (and honestly, probably the best way to interpret the game's plot), but the more I thought about it, the more I entertained the idea that Jet Set Radio was using graffiti completely seriously.

In libertarian political theory, there is a concept known as "the homestead principle." The idea is that if you find something in nature that is in a raw and untouched state and you transform it with the application of labor into something that is personally useful to yourself, then in a real, moral sense, you come to own that thing. Mostly, this has to do with land and farms and houses and whatnot, but presumably, if you chopped down a tree and made a boat out of the wood, you would own the boat and someone else could come along and transform the stump and own that.

The purpose of the homestead principle is to establish an ethical basis for a society-wide private property regime. It posits an initially empty world, in which human beings spread out naturally and in spreading out, managed to carve out chunks of personal property without victimizing their neighbors. It is a vision of accumulation through ingenuity and industry, and it is the rhetorical keystone in the argument that redistributing, taxing, or regulating property is fundamentally unjust.

However, there are several major flaws with the homesteading principle. Some, like its anthropocentrism, or its indifference to common goods are beyond the scope of this post, but there is one that is especially relevant. Namely, what happens to homesteading when the world fill up?

And that's where graffiti comes in. Painting graffiti is an act of creation. It is taking something that exists in the world around you, and transforming it through ingenuity and industry. By the homestead principle, if you painted a rock in the middle of the woods, you would own that rock, so why is a wall in the middle of the city any different?

On the surface, it comes down to prior ownership. The rock is not already owned, but the wall is. Except, what if you're born into a world with no more rocks? What if you're born into a place and time where everything around you is already owned, and you have no opportunity to change that? If you start your life trapped in a cage of paper, where not even the space you physically occupy belongs to you?

Is it intrinsically wrong, then, to change the world around you? To alter the environment to be more to your liking? To, basically, homestead an urban space? To assert ownership of your first and natural home, even over the objections of those who have title and deed to the place where you live?

Because the moral basis of the capitalist property regime is a series of contracts with provenance tracing back to the original homesteading (and another criticism of the homesteading principle is that there are, more often than not, gaps between now and the "original" transformation, and these gaps, almost without exception, are filled with the most horrifying sort of violence), but put in such stark terms, it becomes apparent that there is an injustice in subjecting modern people to a contract they were not party to.

Especially when the original "improvement" might well have been as simple as sticking a few flags in the earth. And if the first owner built a shack and then sold the land to someone who tore down the shack to build a cottage. And then that person sold the land to someone who tore down the cottage to build a villa. And then later the villa was torn down to build a skyscraper, that's another avenue of unfairness.

A modern person can build a shack just as well as the original homesteader, but we've long since passed the time where a shack can be enough to claim the land, because the land is now worth as much as a skyscraper. But more perversely, some would find fault in these children born in exile, because they cannot, as individuals, acquire and save enough wealth or expertise to build a skyscraper on their own. Their lack of property is held as a strike against them, despite the fact that they never had the opportunity to build what a single person can build. Their exclusion is the justification for their exclusion.

Which brings us back to the violence. It makes a certain amount of emotional and moral sense that an alienated-from-birth city-dweller might assert ownership over their home through the medium of street art. It is a way of saying "this place is my place, I belong here, even if I don't have my name on a piece of paper." However, for property to exist in an ecosystem of contracts, that cannot be allowed. It is not merely extra-legal, it is criminal. The paper-owners don't have this sort of native possession, so they must resort to mobilizing the violence of the state to assert and defend their claims.

Seen in this light, graffiti is a radical act, one which threatens the very underpinnings of capitalist power, and one that understandably provokes a reflexive immune-response from the existing power structure. One might almost think that the contrast between the exuberant and playful pacifism of the player's gang and the over-the-top and disproportionate violence of the NPC enemies (seriously, it starts with a cop just flat-out trying to murder you with his service revolver and escalates from there to tanks and attack helicopters) is a deliberate attempt to critique the ways in which capitalist class relations are decidedly non-voluntary, except . . .

The start of the game features a very stern warning that graffiti is illegal almost everywhere, even while attempting, in that anodyne corporate way, to praise it as a culturally valuable form of self expression. Considering that the end of the game has you chasing after a supposedly magical record that is said to contain a means of selling your soul to the devil, and eventually takes you to the top of a sky-scraper that has been turned into a giant turntable where massive golden rhino statues breath fire at you until you stop them with graffiti somehow, it is more likely that this is just a silly game that was capitalizing on some popular 90s trends.

Which, you know, is fine. Jet Set Radio may not be the banner of a new revolution, but it is pretty fun . . . when those jetpack-wearing corporate security goons aren't knocking me off a roof for the fifteenth damned time in a row.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Jet Set Radio - 5/20 hours

The only part of this game that gives me trouble is the bit where you zoom around on roller blades and spray stuff with graffiti. Other than that, it's all good.

Okay, so sarcasm aside, this is a pretty tough game. I did get a few more finger cramps playing it, but more than that, my progress has been slowed by brain cramps. So much of the game requires you to act with such near-perfect precision that even when I'm doing well, there's this knot in my apprehension that needs a couple of hours to relax itself out.

The big culprit, I think, is the grinding rails. They're only a couple of pixels wide, and while I think there's a degree of stickiness to them that attracts your character on a near-miss, the miss has to be pretty damned near because there have dozens of times when I've completely whiffed a jump to or from those fucking things.

Although, even that wouldn't be so bad, if it weren't for the time constraints. Especially in the race missions, you have little ability to plan and virtually no ability to recover from a mistake. The narrowness of your victory conditions can be pretty stressful.

Which isn't to say that I dislike Jet Set Radio, just that it takes a lot out of me, mentally. It's been a long time since I swore at a game, but this is definitely a "swearing-at" sort of game. Although, to be fair, I'm probably really swearing at myself. Perhaps the game is overly demanding, but perhaps the problem is that I let my focus slip one time too many and turn the possible into the impossible.

It's a line any difficult game has to walk - its challenges must feel fundamentally fair, but they must also push the player to their limit. I can't yet say whether Jet Set Radio clears the bar (primarily because of its unruly camera), but I've been making steady progress, and I'm just vain enough to elide the difference between "fair" and "allowing me to win."

Friday, June 9, 2017

Jet Set Radio - 2/20 hours

Jet Set Radio was originally released in the year 2000. Having this much distance from its original historical context, I'm not entirely sure how I'm supposed to relate to it. The thing is, it's really, really "90s" and I'm not sure if it's meant to be an ironic 90s or if it's really an earnest 90s of the sort that I've long since forgotten.

What do I mean when I call this game "90s"? Part of it is a surface-level assessment - the colors, the fashion, the music, the in-line skates. Another part of it is baked into the very premise of the game - the protagonists are rebelling against an ill-defined authority with the power of graffiti and extreme sports. It's a science-fiction game that doesn't necessarily make any references to the real-world decade, but the whole of its presentation definitely roots it in a very specific time period.

It's interesting to compare it to Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, because that game attempted to emulate the feel of the remembered 80s, and subsequently wound up being more 80s than the 80s ever were. Jet Set Radio doesn't really have that issue. Yes, it's goofy at times, but it's the goofiness of something old and slightly embarrassing. It doesn't seem to undermine itself to speak to a self-aware audience.

Actually, the more I think about it, the less likely it seems that it's meant to be appreciated ironically. I feel like if this game were made today, as a "tribute" to the 90s, it would be faster and bolder and much more EXTREME. As it is, you get points for doing tricks on your skates, but the tricks themselves are relatively simple. In the ironic version of the game, you'd probably start by doing a 1080 and then work your way up from there. Also, you'd probably save the game with dial-up internet or something.

As it is, I'd describe it as "peak 90s" - the people who made it probably intended for it to be over-the-top with relentless cool, but it was not a cool out of time. They probably had no idea how well it might age.

And I don't want to say it's aged poorly. It's more that I've aged poorly. I was 18 when this game came out, so I'm firmly in its original target audience, but I no longer understand why the kids barrelling through crowded streets on rollerblades and spray-painting graffiti over every available surface are the heroes. I love the style and the sound of this game more than I'm entirely prepared to admit, but I've now got 17 years worth of bitter lessons about the true nature of power and authority, and subsequently can't think of the game's central conflict as anything but hopelessly naive.

Overall, I'm enjoying the game, despite the fact that I think it could stand to be about 1000% more woke, although I have run into a problem that may slow me down significantly - playing it for too long begins to hurt my hands. Not a lot. I'm not in agony or anything, but I have experienced a few trigger cramps. I'm probably just out of practice on account of not playing a controller-based action game since January, although it's also possible that since it requires such precision maneuvering I've been pulling the triggers too hard as a kind of stress reaction. I'll see how I'm feeling in a couple of hours. Hopefully the problem will clear up on its own.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Jet Set Radio - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Tag, grind, and trick to the beat in SEGA’s hit game Jet Set Radio!

Fight for control of Tokyo-to, mark your turf with graffiti, tag walls, billboards, and even rival gang members! Perform tricks and flips on magnetically driven in-line skates, but watch out for the local police force!

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Someone gave me a heads-up that this game and Golden Axe were free for a limited time (sorry, it was awhile ago, and I've forgotten who it was), and while I had my doubts, simply because of my already large backlog of games, I decided to ignore them. After all, you can't beat "free."

Expectations and Prior Experience

I'm coming into this game completely cold. I'd heard of its sequel Jet Set Radio Future, but even then, I know nothing about it. I didn't even realize it was a sequel. I certainly don't know what it's about or how it will play.

I'm optimistic, though. It seems to be well-regarded (though its sequel is moreso) and the screenshots from the Store page make it look like a colorful and fast-paced action game, which is something I like, in theory. I might get frustrated if it proves to be too difficult, but even then, if the story, setting, and characters are charming enough, I expect I will power through.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Spacebase DF-9 - 20/20 hours

I read a theory online that the "DF" in "Spacebase DF-9" is an homage to Dwarf Fortress. I can't say for sure, because I've never played Dwarf Fortress, but I've heard things, and I expect that if the theory is correct, it is more aspirational than a reflection of anything the game actually accomplished. Certainly it felt, at times, unfair, but that's more because some basic system wouldn't work properly than because it's a meticulously detailed simulation of a cold and pitiless world.

For example, I built a base that could withstand "the big one" with only minimal casualties. I'd researched all the different technologies and had a strong and stable economy. And then a randomly-generated ship docked with my colony and my people started wandering into it one by one. Since there were three raiders on that ship, I wound up losing half my colonists this way until I wised up and got my builders to tear a hole in its side. Although, by that time, all my technicians were gone, my various machines were in poor repair, and when meteors struck my main power generator, half my perimeter turrets went into shutdown. That allowed another group of raiders to get in and slaughter all my remaining colonists.

Once I got into the death spiral, it was near impossible to pull myself out. My population growth was purely drawn from passing space ships, and thus subject to the RNG. And my colony was physically so large it could not be sustained by a reduced population. Maybe if I were better at the game, I could have pulled it out, but since I couldn't directly order my colonists around (and they followed my indirect orders only casually and at their own pace), I have hard time seeing what I could have done differently.

I get what this game was going for -  you build something and then have the world test it, time and again until it either breaks or you're satisfied it can withstand anything. It's a methodology that encourages you to build something functional and strong. And it's an approach I've enjoyed in the past - Kerbal Space Program is basically the same idea. However, I think the difference between KSP and Spacebase DF-9 is that failure in KSP stemmed primarily from a failure to apprehend the proper design, whereas in this game, you could do everything right and still run into a streak of bad luck. Maybe it's possible to build something large and impregnable, but when your people will wait around a crowded pub for dinner and starve themselves rather than walk across the hall to the automatic food dispenser; when your technicians will fly into an occupied pirate ship in order to repair its damaged systems; when your security forces will continue to attack an unconscious body rather than take it to the brig; these things feel like they are entirely out of your control. If success and failure are not purely a consequence of design, that kind of takes some of the steam out of a game whose primary strategic challenge is, in fact, design.

Really though, my objections to Spacebase DF-9 are not quite so lofty. I didn't like seeing my stuff get wrecked. The fact that the main force wrecking my stuff was an NPC faction I could never defeat or even directly confront just exacerbated matters. It kind of felt like an injustice. Raiders could just show up and (especially in the early game) do damage to my base, and even if I stopped them quickly, I'd still have to clean up their mess. It's not really the biggest problem I've ever had with a game, but the existence of this permanent imbalance definitely had me thinking, on at least a couple of occasions, that the game hated me, personally.

Oh, and there are no graphs. I've said it before and I'll say it again, a building-type strategy game without generous data visualization aids is only half complete.

I probably won't ever play this game again. I liked it well enough, aside from the parts that where I died through no fault of my own, but everything I like about this game was done better in Startopia.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Spacebase DF-9 - 11/20 hours

So, it's going to be one of those types of games. I guess I let myself believe that the raiders were somehow incidental to the game. That with a big enough colony they would become nothing but a nuisance, to be cut down by my security forces before they even had a chance to cause trouble.

I realize now that the raiders are the entire point. They're coming to kill you and wreck all your stuff and it's not a matter of if, but when. There was a point where I thought for sure I had things under control. My station was large and prosperous. I had defensive turrets covering all the entrances. And yet, at around the time I got my twentieth resident, I triggered a random event called "the big one." Wave after wave of raiders swarmed my base. I lost track of how many there were, exactly, though when they'd slaughtered all of my people and blew up the last of my oxygen generators, I managed to inadvertently complete the Goal for killing 50 intruders.

The same pattern repeated with my next base, the first one I played with the unofficial patch. It wasn't the pirate mega-raid, but it was a similar string of misfortune. The raiders would get into their special ships that could fly under my base and subsequently pop up in my undefended interior areas. They'd get maybe 1-2 civilians before security finally took them down, but it was enough. I started losing people faster than they were getting replaced. I didn't reach final extinction, but I was faced with a base where every damned thing was broken because fucking raiders kept killing off my technicians.

Raiders who, incidentally, were able to slip past my exterior defenses because the game's baffling 3/4 perspective means my turrets can only point towards the bottom left or bottom right of my screen.

Needless to say, my initial optimism about this game has dried up.

Funnily enough, though, the cause is not what I thought it would be. Yes, there are aspects of the game that are clearly unfinished - the limitations on camera and building angles are actively hostile to the type of game it wants to be; even after 8 versions of the official patch, there are still path-finding bugs; as far as I can tell, 75% of your security options don't even work (certainly, I've never seen my security people successfully arrest someone and throw them in the brig, or even bring an unconscious person to the infirmary); and on top of all that, there's not enough interesting stuff to build, so much that if a person were not an obsessive builder, perfectly capable of tiling the map just for the pleasure of doing so, they might almost welcome the inevitable tide of destruction, just for the sake of having something novel to do.

I'm not sure what I want from this game any more. If I had to put it into words, I'd say "an infinite string of good luck, such that I never have to face the numerous time bombs built into the very structure of the game" and, failing that "a long-term bias towards events that add settlers to my population and away from events that take settlers out of my population" so that the general trend of my base is towards growth and expansion. And yet I have a feeling that even the more moderate second option is just a polite way of saying "I want it to be over."

My best bet is that knowledge and experience will allow me to simulate the second option. If my defense gets tight enough that losing settlers is rare, then maybe it will feel more like a cute colony-building game and less like a brutal fight for survival where the odds are stacked against you.

Why do games keep insisting on teaching me to embrace failure? Don't I get enough of that in my personal life?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Spacebase DF-9 - 6/20 hours

I don't know whether this game sucks or I do. Probably some combination of both. There was a point where the only thing left in my construction queue was a series of life-support modules. I was still under my residency cap, but I was planning for the future. Then, people kept coming onto my station and I went over my life-support capacity. But I didn't worry, because I'd had more life-support queue for quite a long time now and surely my builders would get around to it any second now because there was nothing else in their work queue. Long story short, two-thirds of my population died of asphyxiation before my oxygen levels stabilized. Then my surviving builder finished the extra life-support.

It was a perfect storm of bad risk assessment on my part and terrible pathfinding on the part of the game. I'm not even sure I'm mad (oh, who am I kidding) - it was so farcical that any emotion besides detached bemusement seems inappropriate. It also helped that I managed to survive the oxygen crisis with enough population to make a go at a rebound only to eventually get slaughtered by an endless stream of raiders.

Oh, yeah, there are raiders in this game. I'm not sure why, exactly, considering that there aren't any sort of complex tactical options and your security relies almost entirely on assigning colonists to the "security" job and hoping that somehow their pathfinding allows them to get to the raiders before they do too much damage. It's probably one of those systems that would have been fleshed out more, had the game not suddenly stopped development.

The net effect of things like raiders and space diseases and meteor storms is that life and death in Spacebase DF-9 is frightfully whimsical. I've had settlers run straight into armed raiders, security forces open fire on my own rowdy residents, and an outer-space miner die of asphyxiation right in front of the airlock because he simply would not return to base.

The main cause of death (aside from a single oxygen deprivation incident) has been raiders, though, and that puts me in a bind. You can choose a more isolated starting position to avoid attracting quite so much raider attention, but that means you also get far fewer new settlers coming in on friendly transports. My current base is plugging along, but it has the capacity to hold a lot more settlers, and is growing in size far faster than my population.

It's clear to me now that I have two main things I have to do - 1)install the unofficial patch, because there's no way that the settler AI  can get worse, and if there's even a slight chance it gets better, I have to take it; and 2) actually get good at the game, because a functional AI is going to mean nothing if I can't make good decisions.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Spacebase DF-9 - 2/20 hours

This game is exactly what I expected it to be, which is . . . good? Bad? Eh. . . It's going to take some time to figure out. The economy is dead simple and there's only one item of each type, so expansion is simply a matter of having enough of each thing to satisfy your entire population. There might be some twist coming up, but considering the game's truncated development, it's likely there isn't.

Which is fine. I am comfortable just building the biggest colony my map will support. I prefer to have complex production chains and a highly varied economy, but I can work with simple. The sheer pleasure of growth and expansion can be enough.

That said, there is an unofficial patch floating around that adds some new content, and I will probably install it sooner or later. I just want to hold off until I can a thorough feel for the base game as it stands.

What I need in the short-term is an agenda for the game, a goal I can fixate on to help make my building meaningful. Luckily, the game gives you a set of built-in "goals," which are a little like achievements, but not technically. Stuff like "have 50 settlers on your station" or "research all technologies." Those should keep me occupied for awhile, even if they aren't terribly sophisticated.


Saturday, May 27, 2017

Spacebase DF-9 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

In Spacebase DF-9, you'll build a home among the stars for a motley population of humans and aliens as they go about their daily lives. Mine asteroids, discover derelicts, and deal with the tribulations of galactic resettlement in Earth's distant future. Meteor impacts! Explosive decompression! Unbearable loneliness!

Previous Playtime

14 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I actually got this game for free and by accident. I bought Broken Age and Spacebase DF-9 showed up in my library at the same time (though it just now occurs to me that it might have been a coincidence and I just happened to overlook the gift message - if someone reading the blog was the one who sent it to me, drop me a line and I'll correct this.)

Because this wasn't a planned purchase, my only associated thought was after the fact. If I recall, it was something like "bonus!"

Expectations and Prior Experience

 I'm not sure I had any idea what this was before I got it. It's possible it was on my wishlist, because I will wishlist any game that even looks halfway interesting to me on the off-chance of picking it up for 90% off. I do remember playing it for a few minutes after my surprise acquisition, just to see what this extra thing was. It looked pretty promising to me at the time, though damn, those Steam reviews are pitiless.

I guess that's what worries me most. I like base building games with cartoony style, so ordinarily I'd be all over this, but if it's a particularly bad example of the breed, I could be stuck with something nearly unplayable.

Then again, No Man's Sky got Steam dogpiled too, and that's one of my favorite games. I guess I'll just have to trust that my taste is sufficiently different than the mob's. Or at least that my suffering is entertaining enough to make a train-wreck worth it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 20/20

Pacifism was actually working out fairly well - until the damned Europeans came. It was completely unfair. They declared a war of conquest on me, and my armies just melted before them. And I outnumbered them! They had just one province on the continent and I had ten. Twenty thousand troops to their 10k. But it didn't matter. My morale broke and the shattered remnants of my forces were quickly mopped up by Spain's native allies. I suppose I should be grateful. Becoming incandescent with rage really makes you feel alive.

I rounded out my time by continuing my United States game, but there's nothing to report. I was already rich and well-developed, and such a powerful presence in the western hemisphere that no one dared attack me (thus I didn't have to throw a tantrum and ragequit).

The lesson I learned from all of this is that if I want to enjoy this game (and I do), then I need to actually get good at it and learn how to pick my battles in such a way that I can eliminate (or at least discourage) my avaricious neighbors and never have anything genuinely important at stake in my inevitable wars. It's tricky, though, because the primary reason I'm so short-tempered at the game is that I know I lack the skill to recover from a major setback. I guess it's just one more reason for me to learn to control my emotions.

If I could change one thing about Europa Universalis IV, it would be to make it more educational. My favorite part of the game was looking at the map on the country-select screen. That's not even back-handed, I genuinely enjoyed it, especially when it came to tracking the changes to borders and place names over time. It was also fun to get country-specific pop-up events. They didn't quite make me feel like I was playing out a living history, but that's mostly because the basic game mechanics are so similar between cultures that you never really forget you're playing a strategy game with its own very specific priorities and biases.

I definitely think I will be drawn back to Europa Universalis IV. Despite not having the sort of robust building mechanics I ordinarily love in a strategy game, its rich historical setting is thoroughly compelling. I've griped a lot over the past few days, but those were more gripes about myself than gripes about the game. If I could somehow get good enough to thrive, I would probably love to play in this vast historical sandbox.

But that's a journey for a different time. For now I will say that I spent most of the last 20 hours feeling pretty frustrated, but I never lost interest in the game itself. That's a pretty decent accomplishment.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 15/20 hours

I've been jumping around from nation to nation for the last five hours. I played as the United States long enough to win the revolution (call it patriotism, if you must) and as the Yamana Daimyo in Japan long enough to lose what should have been an easy war (somehow, forts get me tangled up every time) and then Castille right up until I was betrayed by Aragon (I ran out of manpower after the Reconquista and got slammed at my most vulnerable moment).

I've come to a conclusion - I don't like losing. I know, a real shocking revelation, but that's the essence of it. I have a thing and then some enemy comes along and tries to take my thing away. And to a certain degree, the trying is acceptable, but only if its doomed to failure. Mostly because I don't want to lose my thing.

I know I should take the loading screen's advice and not simply give up just because I've suffered a defeat in war, but the thought of my enemies using my stuff against me, to steal more of my stuff, it fills me with resentment.

Of course, this is entirely hypocritical on my part. I'm not averse to using the territory of others to take over their remaining lands, but that's because I'm a human and they're the AI, so I'm more important than them . . . right? I'll admit, I do feel a little dirty for being disgruntled about the consequences of a war I started. Not so dirty that I'm going to learn to take defeat with equanimity, but that should go without saying.

My plan for the last five hours is to try and play a pacifist game. No starting wars at all, spreading through colonization, and keeping my fingers crossed that I can stay strong enough to not get attacked. I'll probably still bail and quit when an opportunistic neighbor tries to take a bite out of my territory, but at least I'll feel like my outrage is justified.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 10/20 hours

I think I'm starting to get a handle on the game, though I have yet to grow attached enough to a particular nation to see their story through to the end. I think it's because I keep making what must be beginner's mistakes. Every time I've had a major foreign war against a serious rival, I've wound up simultaneously having to deal with a domestic uprising. I'm sure that's not a coincidence, but damned if I know how to stop it.

I also think I'm starting to get a feel for the larger ethos of the game itself. It's not so much a "strategy game," or even a "simulation," so much as it is a "story generator." It's a bit like Crusader Kings II in that regard, except where Crusader Kings II generates these highly biographical tales of courtly intrigue, Europa Universalis IV seems more geared towards those dreary 19th century treatises with titles like "On the Destiny of the Race." It's not bad, in and of itself, but it is reminiscent of the bad habits of my own personal history education, and thus I feel like I have to approach it with a certain critical distance.

I want to tread carefully here, though, because I've only seen a fraction of the game and it's possible that the reason it seems so Eurocentric is because the bulk of my time has been spent in Europe (although, with a name like Europa Universalis . . . ), but all of this stuff with "alliances" and "rivals" and "causus beli" . . . Not to imply that African or Native American peoples didn't have diplomacy or inter-group friction or reasons for going to war, but it feels very "outdated high school world history textbook" to me.

Although, I suppose it's come full circle - Europa Universalis IV is a video game based on the sort of history education that makes history feel like a video game.

And I don't know if I'm necessarily okay with that. It's fascinating, taken on its own terms, but, you know, this whole "war is a continuation of politics by other means" thing is actually kind of depressing.

I think the sticking point for me is the way that the game puts its thumb on the scales in favor of Europe. I first noticed this the hard way. I was playing Castille on ironman, but I wasn't getting any achievements. When I loaded up my game, I noticed a tooltip that said achievements were disabled because I had set the "lucky nations" on "none" instead of "historical."  When I saw the setting in the first place, I had just assumed it was purely a flavor thing. Similarly, when I played briefly as Mali, I noticed I was getting a huge tech research penalty for not being sufficiently feudal.

The purpose of these mechanics is to make the game world develop in a similar way to the real world, but in doing so, they can't help but feel just a little bit ideological (or more than a little bit, if you read some of the online debates about the subject - yikes). It's like they're saying that way things played out in the real world was inevitable, but I'm sure that if you replayed human history 1000 times, starting in 1444, in 999 of those timelines, China would be the preeminent global power going into the 19th century. So why not let the game play out that way? Why pretend that the real world outcome is the likeliest or most plausible?

There probably isn't any kind of sinister agenda there, but I think tying the technological and social progress of non-European nations to European cultural markers like the Renaissance (or, for that matter, the calendar year) smacks of a kind of unexamined historical progressivism, perhaps one that puts civilizations on a ladder and judges "lower" civilizations for insufficiently emulating "higher" ones - and that is the sort of thinking that drove the worst excesses of European colonialism.

Which, I suppose, is what the game is actually about. So call this a big, mystified shoulder-shrug on my account. It makes sense for a game about a certain historical period to replicate that period's mindset, but when the period is one of the most shameful chapters in human history and the mindset is the sort of haughty racialist triumphalism that allowed unaccountable despots to despoil continents, is it really necessary, appropriate, or wise?

Part of this is my own personal hang-up, I know. The more strategy games I play, the more I yearn for a game that will decolonialize history. Now, what that would look like, I don't know. In fact, as near as I can reckon "decolonialized strategy game" is close to an oxymoron. Which isn't to say that historically colonized people were angels - they had wars, many every bit as awful as anything in Europe, and those wars surely involved strategy and definitely had the aim of seizing territory and resources. Rather, the very language of statecraft (borders, sovereignty, treaties, statecraft) is bound up in the perspectives and priorities of European aristocracy. And while there are many places (such as much of Asia) that track with that, there are plenty more (such as much of the pre-Columbian Americas) that don't.

And that's the thing, places that did not have large-scale, cohesive social structures were not, thereby terra nullius. The people who lived there weren't simply waiting to be colonized.

But, like I said earlier, I don't know how you make a strategy game out of that, so it's a bit unfair of me to judge Europa Universalis IV by that standard. Instead, I will just say that this game does a very good job at making you think like a villain, and I'm not yet sure whether I'll beat the game by becoming a superior villain or whether I will beat the game by resisting its manipulations to the end.