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?