Archive for February, 2010

Clear Sky – Things Fall Apart

Clear Sky takes place several months before the events of STALKER. This can be rather disorienting and is even poignant at times. Because the Zone as we find it in Clear Sky is not the ruin that you find in STALKER, and the future is a cloud that hangs over the entire game.

The sight that greeted me after a long night of killing

In the Cordon you meet a visionary stalker leader, Father Valerian, who has launched an uprising against the Army and the bandits. Sidorovich dismisses him and his followers as men who are playing at Robin Hood and His Merry Men. You find them set up on a farm north of the railroad embankment, and Valerian speaks of his plans for the future. More stalkers show up every day to join his forces. He has already forced the army out of the Cordon and collected some insurance against their retaking it. Everyone you meet is inspired by Valerian’s rallying cry: the Zone for the stalkers. Soon, he promises, they will begin expanding their control and make the Zone a safe place for honest stalkers.

But we know that when we come to the Cordon in STALKER, the army has a chokehold on the territory and Father Valerian’s fortress-farm is a decaying ruin overrun by wild animals. There will be no traces and no memories of Valerian’s rebellion.

Later, when you come to the Agroprom Research Institute, you find that the Duty faction has made the rambling Soviet structure into a powerful and efficient fortress. The motor pool is full of armored personnel carriers, and a Hind attack helicopter is fueled and ready on the helipad. On the other side of the Zone, in the Dark Valley, the rival Freedom faction has occupied an old maintenance center. Both are running massive, paramilitary operations out of secured strongholds. In STALKER, both these strongholds have become terrifying hell-holes. Agroprom is stripped bare and overrun with mutants when it isn’t being occupied by passing bandit gangs or Special Forces detachments. The Dark Valley is completely hostile, Freedom’s old base fallen into ruin and occupied by a bandit army. The rest of the territory is awash in mutants.

The best laid plans of mice and men...

The Zone in Clear Sky is hardly an Eden, but it is nonetheless headed for a Fall. Everywhere you look you see tomorrow’s ruins. The Clear Sky faction is working feverishly to head off some impending catastrophe. The Duty faction is slowly but surely being ground down by deadly mutant attacks, and Freedom has been ravaged by the work of a traitor in their midst. Valerian is treading close to hubris. Rumors abound of an elite stalker faction that has suddenly vanished. Clear Sky is deliciously full of portent.

Yet its thematic success works against the setting. In the original game, the Zone is a lonely and forbidding land. There are small pockets of relative safety. The rest of the world would prefer to shoot you or eat you. From the time you leave the Stalker village in Cordon until you reach the Duty outpost on the northern end of the garbage dump, you are in mortal danger with every step.

Clear Sky, by contrast, seems crowded, small, and noisy. Everywhere you go, there is a base full of friendly stalkers. Sometimes a base and a couple outposts. You can’t go ten feet without stumbling over a friendly patrol. The dissonance overwhelms the game. In the Dark Valley, you are given a dangerous mission to go kill a pseudodog that has been terrorizing the Freedom base. You go out the back entrance to the base, you walk about one hundred fifty yards, and you’re attacked by the pseudodog. If you turn around, you can still see the guards at the entrance, just standing there chatting while you’re flinging hand grenades and blasting away at spectral wolverines.

When you come down to it, the Zone was never really that big. STALKER seemed expansive because it made you feel small and alone. If safety is a kilometer away and there’s a dozen mortal threats between you and it, that kilometer will seem like the distance between here and the moon. But when GSC packed the Zone full of friendly NPCs in Clear Sky, they called attention to fact that you are playing on a relatively small stage.

To some extent it was inevitable that a second trip to the Zone would begin to feel a bit confined, especially as GSC re-purposed assets from the first game for use in this one. To explore the themes they wanted to in this game, and there are several interesting ones, they had to provide more opportunities to meet other characters and spend time soaking up the different vibes of friendly encampments. There simply are not that many places in this world where you could plausibly have those encounters, and I very much doubt GSC had the resources to create a lot of new, convincing spaces to explore. The Zone is their studio backlot, and sometimes it shows.

On the other hand, there is a lot of tedium in these early encounters. The entire Freedom section should have been scrapped. It brings the game to a screeching halt while the Freedom faction sends you on missions that are the STALKER equivalent of “Run into the gas station and get me some cigarettes.” The encounter with the pseudodog is startling, but everything else is just marking time. The early scenes in Garbage are likewise a waste. It’s not until you reach Agroprom that things start picking up.

Clear Sky has an absolute mess of an opening. The introduction is mishandled and, with the exception of the fighting in the Swamps, it never approaches STALKER for excitement and atmosphere. It seems like Clear Sky doesn’t really care whether or not you keep playing.

But it has a card up its sleeve: Lake Yantar, and a totally unexpected and utterly brilliant zombie apocalypse.

One Move Behind – Year One

Troy Goodfellow celebrated the anniversary of Three Moves Ahead with Episode 53 last night, and we spent an hour or so talking about the last year and our relationship to the podcast. My own anniversary with Three Moves Ahead will not arrive until Episode 94, but I have been listening since week one. And believe me, that first episode was not easy to listen to.

Long before I had even the inkling that I might be a panelist, Three Moves Ahead was one of my favorite gaming podcasts. It was different in style and content from the other podcasts I listened to, and I valued the contrast. After GFW Radio went silent, there was a dearth of intelligent, PC-oriented gaming discussion. Especially for someone who played as many strategy games as shooters and doesn’t give a damn about the Japanese game industry. Three Moves Ahead arrived in the nick of time.

More than the other podcasts I listened to, TMA was about ideas and understanding. At its best, the show is closer to a seminar than a gaming podcast. The panelists arrive with different areas of expertise and slightly different views on what strategy games should be, and each is legitimately interested in what the other has to say. I came away from most episodes feeling like I understood games a bit better than I had before.

Last night they talked about the Mark Walker interview / “debacle” (as Troy called it). But kidding aside, I’ve never understood why they felt that conversation took a wrong turn. It was an intense discussion about game design with a game designer, and they weren’t trashing his game so much as they were offering a strong critique and interrogating him about some of his core design decisions. It’s the kind of thing I wish I heard more of, not less. On a lesser podcast, with less informed and passionate people, an interview like that might have degenerated into rudeness. On Three Moves Ahead, it remained a spirited discussion from beginning to end. And by the time they signed off, I was intensely interested in Lock N Load, a title I had not cared about at all only an hour earlier.

If you asked me what I think separates Three Moves Ahead from its peers, aside from its strategy focus, I would have to say that it’s the panelists’ impatience for having their time wasted. Between their diverse interests and their often busy professional lives, they do not need games merely to stave off boredom and make the hours pass. They demand engaging and thought-provoking experiences.

As a listener and a fan, I think Troy and the other panelists have done a great job of holding Three Moves Ahead to that same standard. I am grateful that he gave me the chance to be a part of it, and to the listeners who helped him decide that I should remain a part of it. I look forward to Year Two.

Stalemate through Airpower

In case you still thought stupidity was in any way a disqualification from being printed on the New York Times op-ed page, let’s a take a look at this gem from Thursday’s paper. A piece from Lara Dadkhah, titled “Empty Skies over Afghanistan”, argues that the US forces have become far too cautious about using air power in the war against the Taliban.

It’s possible she’s right, of course, but her argument  seems naive of basic tenets of counterinsurgency warfare, political philosophy, and military history. You need only have opened a newspaper a few times a year in the last five to know that there are many fine reasons to reduce our dependence on air support. Somehow, Dadkhah and her editors didn’t feel the need to address any of them.

American and NATO military leaders — worried by Taliban propaganda claiming that air strikes have killed an inordinate number of civilians, and persuaded by “hearts and minds” enthusiasts that the key to winning the war is the Afghan population’s goodwill — have largely relinquished the strategic advantage of American air dominance. Last July, the commander of Western forces, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued a directive that air strikes (and long-range artillery fire) be authorized only under “very limited and prescribed conditions.”

So in a modern refashioning of the obvious — that war is harmful to civilian populations — the United States military has begun basing doctrine on the premise that dead civilians are harmful to the conduct of war. The trouble is, no past war has ever supplied compelling proof of that claim.

Astonishing, isn’t it? She dismisses in just a few words practically all of 20th century military history, and the work of countless officers and scholars who have contemplated counterinsurgency warfare. Her piece does not even acknowledge the possibility that she is wrong on this crucial point, and her editors apparently did not feel that an argument like this needed to bother with likely counterarguments. She does not even provide evidence in favor of her claim.

You might be able to make an argument that civilian casualties were irrelevant or even desirable to strategists of antiquity. But I’m not interested in those examples, really, because the rise of mass media in the 20th century has completely changed the importance of civilian casualties. As propaganda has increased in reach and effectiveness, civilian deaths have emerged as one of the most difficult problems a modern military can face.

You could make a strong case that Germany lost World War I because of civilian casualties. Germany’s reputation was irreversibly damaged by the campaign in Belgium, despite the fact that the German troops in Belgium were neither particularly inhumane nor particularly destructive by the standards of that war. Yet the saga of “Brave Little Belgium” cemented Germany’s identity as the vicious aggressor in the European melee.

Unrestricted submarine warfare would ultimately hand Woodrow Wilson the casus belli, partly on the grounds that submarine warfare was a uniquely immoral way to wage war. The innocent victims aboard civilian vessels like the Lusitania proved to be far more consequential than any war material within its hull.

We might also consider the role of civilian casualties in eroding domestic support for a war. It is important to remember that Americans did not turn on the Vietnam War solely because they objected to the draft. As the war dragged on and American firepower was increasingly employed indiscriminately, the war itself began to look less defensible. The US military came out of the war with its reputation a shambles in large part because its prosecution of that war struck many as monstrous.

Then we come to the specific type of war we are fighting right now. Dadkhah’s dismissive reference to “‘hearts and minds’ enthusiasts” is strange considering that the war in Afghanistan is almost universally considered a struggle for the support of the civilian population. In this kind of war, American air power is not a strategic advantage. It is, at best, a tactical advantage. And the tactical and strategic concerns do not always align.

Then she unleashes this statistical observation upon her readers:

While the number of American forces in Afghanistan has more than doubled since 2008, to nearly 70,000 today, the critical air support they get has not kept pace. According to my analysis of data compiled by the United States military, close air support sorties, which in Afghanistan are almost always unplanned and in aid of troops on the ground who are under intense fire, increased by just 27 percent during that same period.

The only way this is a problem is if you believe that the number of close air support sorties should be directly related to the number of troops in the the theater. So if 30,000 troops need 100 sorties a month, 60,000 troops must need 200.

But why should these numbers be locked to a fixed proportion? One of the many, many reasons to employ more troops in a counterinsurgency warfare is so that they are less dependent on supporting fire from air and artillery. An overstretched, undermanned occupation force is going to get into some tough scrapes in which airstrikes are going to be the only way to stave off disaster. A too-small patrol or outpost on the cusp of being overrun needs helicopters and jets to come to the rescue. But a stronger force has the luxury of using less destructive tactics. That’s one of the reasons we sent more troops: to have the luxury of flexibility.

Dadkhah is also sick of all this hand-wringing about civilian casualties, and the ridiculous confluence of moral and strategic concerns that led to tighter restrictions on airstrikes.

Perhaps the directive against civilian casualties could be justified if one could show that Afghan lives were truly being saved, but that’s not the case. According to the latest report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the number of civilian deaths caused by Western and Afghan government forces decreased to 596 in 2009, from 828 the year before. But the overall number of civilian deaths in the country increased by 14 percent, to 2,412, and the number killed by Taliban troops and other insurgents rose by 41 percent. For Afghan civilians who are dying in greater numbers, the fact that fewer deaths are caused by pro-government forces is cold comfort.

There is also little to indicate that the “hearts and minds” campaign has resulted in the population’s cooperation, especially in the all-important area of human intelligence. Afghans can be expected to cooperate with American forces only if they feel safe to do so — when we take permanent control of an area.

This is to willfully miss the point. For one thing, the goal is not to save more Afghan civilian lives but to prevent fewer of them being lost to NATO fire. For Dadkhah, this is an empty and fundamentally hypocritical gesture. If more Afghans are being killed overall, and there’s a chance they could be saved if NATO forces went after the Taliban with every available weapon, then the moral course is to use those weapons. A few more Afghans might die in NATO airstrikes, but more would be saved over all.

The problem is one of human nature. No one who just lost his family to a stray bomb or artillery shell is going to see the big picture that Dadkhah thinks she sees. Most of NATO’s victims would probably decide that NATO is their enemy, and the argument that more Afghans are being saved on the macro-scale is not going to cut it amidst the rubble and the dead. And since the worst mistake you can make in an counterinsurgency is to convince more people to fight you, or at least give tacit support to those fighting you, the planes should stay grounded.

I might also add that her impatience with the “hearts and minds” campaign is premature, to say the least. We botched the war in Afghanistan for 8 years, and among many crucial mistakes we made was an excessive reliance on air power to hit insurgents. The problem is that we frequently did not hit insurgents, just people who looked like insurgents, a group that includes the entire population of Afghanistan. While I personally feel that eight years of screwing up a war is quite enough, I will at least say this for McChrystal: he seems to have some understanding of why we were failing.

Dadkhah concludes with this sober reflection on war.

Of course, all this is not to say that we should be oblivious to civilian deaths, or wage “total” war in Afghanistan. Clearly, however, the pendulum has swung too far in favor of avoiding the death of innocents at all cost. General McChrystal’s directive was well intentioned, but the lofty ideal at its heart is a lie, and an immoral one at that, because it pretends that war can be fair or humane.

Wars are always ugly, and always monstrous, and best avoided. Once begun, however, the goal of even a “long war” should be victory in as short a time as possible, using every advantage you have.

I have no idea what she means by “victory” here. All she has demonstrated is that reducing the number of close air support missions has made tactical success more difficult. Body counts will not bring Afghanistan any closer to stability, and that’s all that airstrikes can give us.

Worse, however, is her dismissal of efforts to make war less monstrous and less ugly. It’s not hypocrisy to spare civilian populations as much suffering as possible. The real lie is to say that war is so inherently horrible that we should give up trying limit it.

(Since I wrote the above, this happened. This is my problem with airstrikes in general: no matter how carefully they are employed, they are fundamentally imprecise and subject to a number of variables. Not only do mistakes like this infuriate the families of the victims, but they also alienate the Afghan and international forces with whom we share an alliance.)

Owners

The real idea is that if you offer a game that is better when you buy it, then people will actually buy it. We wouldn’t have built it if we thought that it was really going to piss off our customers. – Ubisoft spokesperson, interview with PC Gamer UK

Let’s discuss Ubisoft’s aggressive new DRM system. I apologize if I’m a bit rambling and unclear, but my thoughts on this matter are a bit disorganized right now. For instance, I cannot decide whether Ubisoft should be an “it” or a “they”, and so you may find subject-verb disagreement and pronoun inconsistency throughout this post. Forgive me.

We all know that this is the worst-case DRM scenario, the one that firmly puts paid to any notion that PC gamers own their games or even enjoy the right to play them. It is the ultimate in “by our sufferance” customer relations, and there is a small part of me that finds Ubi’s high-handedness breathtaking. It’s one thing to simply pull your games from the PC, but to throw PC gamers out of their legally purchased copy the moment the copy protection can’t talk to Ubi’s servers? The only way Ubi could possibly improve on this is if Yves Guillemot comes to your house and stubs out his Gitane in your morning cereal.

The Scope of the Problem

We know that requiring a permanent online connection is not a happy point for a lot of PC gamers, but it is necessary for the system to work. – interview with PC Gamer UK

We can dispense with any “most users are always connected” nonsense right now. While true, most users probably do not enjoy 100% perfect connections. A couple times a week, the connection to one of my computers will drop for a couple minutes. Not a significant amount of time, but enough to plunge me out of any new Ubisoft game I might be playing at the time. Furthermore, I have been known to travel places with worse networks than the one I am on now, and sometimes I go to a Land Without Internet. At best Ubisoft’s games won’t launch for me. At worst, they’ll punt me in the middle of a game, erasing progress, breaking my rhythm, and exhausting my patience. That’s what $50 buys you now.

Which isn’t that bad, when you think about it. This is the kind of thing that would drive me crazy at the holidays (I don’t take games with me on vacation) and those rare moments when my connection drops in the middle of a game. Since I already play a lot online anyway, I can deal take abrupt exits or freezes with some equanimity. In terms of actual inconvenience, Ubi’s system is rather minimal to those of us with reliable broadband connections.

If you are not so privileged that you have reliable access to a fast, stable connection, Ubi’s new system should probably be a deal-breaker. The system assumes and demands continuous access.

But what Ubisoft do not understand is that this really has very little to do with the pros and cons of this one particular DRM. It’s about relationships.

The Real Issue

The system is made by guys who love PC games. They play PC games, they are your friends. - interview with PC Gamer UK

DRM almost always communicates distrust and indifference. You could say that the sheer number of pirated game copies is cause for distrust, but paying customers are never going to be interested in that logic. The guy walking out of Best Buy or making a purchase via Steam doesn’t care about the millions of pirated copies that are swapped among thieves. He cares about his copy. The one he paid for, and expects to be able to play with a minimum of hassle. You can put whatever the hell you want in the EULA. The user doesn’t care when he clicks “I agree.” From his point of view, it’s his game. He has a receipt to prove it.

When I look at my bookshelf packed with titles going back to 1995 (!), I feel the joy of ownership. My game collection, whether the physical one or the digital one, is a source of pride and reassurance. I can see myself in it, the same way I can see the story of my life in the books lining my walls.

When you create and publish something, audience members form a relationship with it. Silent Hunter III is not an object I keep in my home, but an experience that is a small part of who I am. Ubisoft published a submarine simulation, but it was in the act of playing it that it began to take on meaning. It opened a window into a lost world. I have memories of the game that are unique: nobody else has the exact same memories. But we have had experiences that we can share with one another.

With its new approach to DRM, Ubisoft is attempting to wrest the game and all that goes with it out of my hands. It won’t affect Silent Hunter III, true, but it will affect Silent Hunter V. It will affect Beyond Good & Evil 2 should that ever come out. It will affect all the interesting, oddball titles that Ubisoft, practically alone among the major publishers, still produces.

Grounds for Divorce

PCG: What happens if Ubisoft take the DRM servers offline for maintenance, or suffer a technical breakdown?

Ubisoft: In the case of a server failure their games will be taken offline, and you’ll be unable to play them. “The idea is to avoid that point as much as possible, but we have been clear from the beginning that the game does need an internet connection for you to play. So if it goes down for real for a little while, then yeah, you can’t play.

” – interview with PC Gamer UK

Ubisoft’s DRM methods say, emphatically and stridently, that these games are not mine. They are Ubisoft’s. I can’t play them when I want, I can play them when Ubisoft allows it. I can form whatever relationship I want with the game provided I accept that it is not, and never will be, mine. And that message will be part of the experience of every Ubisoft game going forward.

Even more destructive, perhaps, is the way Ubisoft’s relationship with PC gamers has become one of antagonism. If you were operating under any illusion that Ubisoft liked you or even cared about your preferences, Ubisoft have done their damndest to straighten you out. This is a heavy-handed solution imposed on a vocally unwilling audience, and they are gambling that you want their games enough to accept the poison pill.

That’s a shame, because I always considered Ubi one of the good guys. What other major publisher would throw its weight behind a game like Settlers VII, Dawn of Discovery, or Silent Hunter V? Ubi seemed like one of the few major publishers who still got what makes PC gamers tick. Now this.

Heir to the Throne Sale

I don’t normally post about particular sales, but this seems topical. EU3: Heir to the Throne is on sale for $10 at GamersGate. For what it ads to the game, this is a pretty great price. Since EU3 Complete itself goes on sale fairly often (Direct2Drive was selling it for $7.50 only last week), you can count on getting the whole package for less than $25. This is one of the all-time great bargains in strategy gaming, and it’s worth taking a chance on even if you’re unconvinced by the various love-letters I’ve written to Paradox lately.

Scene in an Elevator

Yesterday MK and I were in an elevator with three other people, heading up to our apartment for lunch. After the doors closed and it started moving, I turned to her.

“So… while we wait for lunch to arrive you wanna… you know. A little Sins?” I smiled and wiggled my eyebrows.

“YES,” she said.

Then I realized the other passengers were giving us disgusted looks. And it occurred to me that they probably thought we were talking about something else, and didn’t hear the italics in the words Sins.

I turned red and directed my attention back to the non-judgmental elevator doors.