Archive for September, 2010

The Dawn of a New Civilization

If you mosey over to GamePro.com, you will find that I recently wrote the first of a three-part series on Civilization V. GamePro has been evolving its approach to reviews and one of the areas it is innovating is in how it approaches open-ended games like MMO’s, sports sims, and now a grand strategy game like Civilization V.

Games like this are tough to review because it’s not a simple matter of completing a narrative or seeing how you feel about one or two new mechanics. These are experiences built to last over scores of hours, and much of their nuance only becomes apparent after you’ve spent a lot of time with them. So rather than simply have a reviewer go hog-wild on the game for a week or so, then pass a “final” verdict, Gamepro is having guys like me, who know these genres, play over a longer period of time.

My first piece consists mostly of first impressions. Over the next month, I’ll be playing more games, pushing it in new direction, and keeping an eye out for patches. Then I’ll write another piece that really digs into how Firaxis changed this game, and whether these changes add up to a successful strategy game. Sometime after that, I’ll have some valedictory thoughts on the game, and chisel my verdict into the granite of time.

Or at least, I’ll post them to the web.

RUSE Roundup

It’s funny to think how unenthusiastic I was about 2010′s strategy prospects when the year began. I was indifferent to Starcraft II, had no idea a new Civilization was in the making, and had never heard of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943. The only game that sounded interesting, and this was me really reaching for something to care about, was Ubisoft’s gimmicky-sounding RTS, R.U.S.E. But nothing beyond the deception mechanics sounded interesting, and the thought of a WWII RTS from a developer I’d never heard of was profoundly unappealing.

But here we are in the September of what has been a solid year of strategy gaming, and RUSE has proven to be one of the best entries so far, and an almost ideal cure for what ails the RTS genre. The beta showed that RUSE had a great interface and some good faction balance, and the final product confirms that Eugen Systems unexpected bridged the gap between wargamers and RTS gamers, and put the  casual gamer first.

My review is up at GameShark. It’s the highest score I’ve awarded a game yet, but I simply adore the genre blending at work in this design. I’m in good company. The gentlemen of Rock, Paper, Shotgun have said that, “It’s a game men should play.” And indeed they should.

However, my review would have been even more positive had Eugen Systems not created an utterly dreadful campaign. Almost against my will, I had to dock the game for making something so shoddy a part of this excellent package. Over at Gamers With Jobs, I explored some of the major sources of disappointment with this campaign, and some of the troubling things it, and other games, have revealed about the state of game development in France.

But really, there’s no limit to the nasty things one could say about this campaign. It’s sexism is utterly appalling, with a completely fictitious femme fatale introduced as a major player in shaping Allied strategy in WWII. Okay, we know that’s pretty much crap, women working for the War Dept. in the 1940s were more likely to be stuck in the typing pool than made an emissary to front-line generals, but we can roll with it. Except that the only reason this woman is a part of the story is to play the role of Lady Macbeth, using sex and manipulation to bring men to ruin and turn them against one another.

You know, like women always do.

But all of that is secondary to what RUSE is really about: multiplayer WWII combat. On those grounds, it’s a smashing success. Now go read my review and learn why.

Beyond Cooking

Harvard has a lecture series this autumn on the intersection between science and cooking, and they’ve booked over a half-dozen of some of the most elite chefs in the world. The opening talk featured Ferran Adria, whose restaurant is widely regarded as the best in the world. We didn’t manage to snag tickets for that one, but we did attend Joan Roca’s talk on his use of sous vide techniques. Roca’s El Celler de Can Roca has two Michelin stars, and is considered fourth-best restaurant in the world among critics and fans. Let’s not get into the somewhat tense relationship between Spanish haute cuisine and Michelin.

It was a slightly awkward lecture due to the fact that Roca had to speak through an interpreter, and the fact that the video program that showed his techniques kept crashing. I did my heart good to see a Mac chain-fail at playing a DVD. Still, everything was eventually ironed out and we learned a bit about what Roca does.

He and his two brothers, Jordi and Josep, use sous vide to preserve or obtain the right textures and flavors for their food, which is the entire point of sous vide. What really stunned me, however, was the degree to which they use candying and infusion to complicate the textural and aromas of their foods. For instance, one scallop dish celebrates the countryside surrounding the restaurant by heating and evaporating locally cultivated chablis and bit of local soil. The smoke is trapped at the top of a long coil of tubing, and then placed in a chamber beneath the scallop dish. A vent cut into the serving surface expels a bit of the smoke with every press of a spoon, so that a diner can smell the soil and the wine with each bite.

His brother Jordi seems like the most crazily inspired of the bunch. He  creates spun-sugar bulbs and fruits, and fills them with aromatic smoke or infused creams. His desserts appear to take hours and hours of painstaking work just to produce a few servings.

What I find so fascinating about the kind of work the Rocas are doing is the way they have moved beyond the preparation of food into the creation of complex sensory and mnemonic experiences. The dishes are not merely prepared, but designed and engineered to lead diners through corridors of memory and association. The methods they use are challenging enough to comprehend, but even more mysterious to me is the idea of telling someone a story through taste and smell.

Update: One Last Thing

There was a Q&A after this talk. This being America, the first question was, “If you’re cooking meats for extended periods at low temperatures, how will you kill the bacteria? How do you avoid making your customers sick?”

Donate to the Brian Wood Memorial Trust

Labor Day morning I saw a story making its way around Twitter that Brian R. Wood had been killed by a drugged and reckless driver. She was apparently high and driving a carload of similarly intoxicated friends around in her Blazer when she decided to take off her sweater, and asked her friend to hold the wheel. The friend sent the car into the oncoming lane and killed Brian, along with passengers in the back of the Blazer.

Brian’s pregnant wife, Erin, was in the car with him. A day later, it came out that Brian saw the collision was inevitable, and turned so that his Subaru Outback took the impact broadside rather than head-on. In other words, he put himself between that car and his nascent family. If his death was tragic, it was also rather heroic.

The death got a lot of attention in the gaming community because Brian had worked as a designer on the Company of Heroes series, probably one of the best and boldest RTS games released in the last decade, and was at the helm of the new Company of Heroes Online project. At 33, he had already done great work and was set to ascend to the top of his profession.

A day later, I found out that he was also a member of my fraternity, the Mu Chapter of Phi Kappa Tau at Lawrence University. He left a couple years before I started there. Lawerence is a small school and Mu Chapter is a pretty tight-knit group, with a long history of being a haven for some of the most intensely nerdy and talented young men at the school.

For all these reasons, I haven’t really been able to stop thinking about this tragedy. I didn’t know Brian, but he was a member of one of my extended families, and also a member of the community to which I belong. Doubly then, I feel he is one ours.

His friends and family started a fund to take care of his wife and their child. It would mean a great deal if you could donate. What happened should not have happened, and he died taking care of his family. If we can help, as brothers, schoolmates, colleagues, appreciative fans, or just people of compassion, then we should.

More details at the website for the Brian Wood Memorial Trust.

Sympathy for Elemental

Even before I received the game, I had an idea about how I was supposed to feel. The trouble with reviewing anything in this era is that you cannot avoid having your views contaminated by the instant Twitter reaction, and I’m not willing to sequester myself from any and every discussion of a new game I’m reviewing.

The early word on Elemental: War of Magic is that it was a disaster, and Brad Wardell, the game’s designer and the principal over at Stardock, had thrown fuel on the fire with some early defensiveness. The moment I installed the game, I had to install two patches. I took a deep breath and dived in.

King Flitcraft and The Beard: Co-rulers of Man

I played it from Friday to Wednesday before writing my review. It left me ice cold for a day or so, until I bailed on the campaign, abandoned my games, and re-started with a custom character. Then it clicked.

In my review, I go into a lot of detail about certain aspects of this game. Perhaps too much. But there is almost nothing macro-level about this game that’s worth discussing. Broadly, Elemental is a fantasy 4X strategy game. Crudely, it’s Magic Centauri. But the places where it lets you down, and the places where it surprises, are all in the details.

Note how the capital, Hightower, stretches laterally to snatch up resources, but steers clear of its neighbor.

This was my first time writing for a new site, Gameroni. Given some of the other writers listed as contributors, colleagues and writers I respect like Tom Chick, Lewis Denby, and Kyle Orland, I hope to write there some more and am honored to be in the first wave of freelancers writing there.

The score I gave Elemental might raise some eyebrows. Gameroni uses a coarse-grained review scale. A, B, C, D, F. No pluses, no minuses. No hedging. The bottom line is that I actually like Elemental, despite all the ways it disappoints. It really satisfies some quirks in my own taste, and to assign it a score different from the one I gave it would be a lie. It would represent a clinical, Consumer Reports-style inspection. Such a score might be easier to justify, but it would not reflect my feelings.

Head over and read the review, and please leave any comments on the review itself at Gameroni. Yeah, you have to make an account there to post, but it’s a 10-second process and I haven’t received any spam.

One Move Behind – Expanded Question Time

Right after we recorded the latest Three Moves Ahead, I realized Troy and I had over-discussed each question and under-answered many of them. I would have preferred to answer more questions and maybe do a little less pontificating, but I guess that ship sailed. But there were a couple good questions that I wanted to revisit a bit, and expand on my answers.

Why port Supreme Commander to 360 and not Demigod?

On the show I kind of slammed publishers for not knowing what they’re doing when they force developers to make games for the wrong platforms. My answer was a little glib for my liking, but its was born of my increasing frustration over the number of projects that are stillborn because they can’t meet arbitrary platform requirements. Other projects that are compromised to death for the sake of cross-platform release. I despise the idea of developers being forced to design for a platform that they didn’t intend.

As RTS gamers, though, we benefit from this. Being forced to develop with an eye toward console limitations means not relying on the mouse and keyboard to overcome design excesses.

With Demigod, I’d guess that Gas Powered Games ran into a couple issues. First, it was an odd concept that a lot of larger publishers probably didn’t want to touch. All Stardock cared about was the PC, so there was no incentive to ever explore a 360 version. And since the game ran into so much trouble, and Stardock still doesn’t care about consoles (with the Impulse service, console support is not in their interest), it’s just a good idea who time will likely never come.

Games Journalism 2020

Troy says the video is the future of games journalism. I just don’t see it. Until the line between the computer and the TV is erased, video content is just going to be too slow-paced. Short video reviews and game trailers are one thing, but even with those it’s hard to find the motivation to actually watch. The way I browse, 3 minutes is a lifetime to spend on one thing. 10 is an eternity. This is why podcasts are so great: they are a background activity. Video is foreground.

But I do suspect games journalism will be in a healthier place. The collapse of the print outlets was a disaster and wiped out some tremendous collections of talent. They allowed good people to higher-quality work rather than fixate on volume. The online space has not really caught up with that.

In 2020, I hope there will be more sites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun: writing collectives that take the pressure of individual bloggers and allow for higher editorial standards without sacrificing the personal, homey atmosphere of a blog. A site like Hellmode seems to be off to a great start, and that’s just two writers. I sometimes wonder whether the TMA panel could rule the strategy, wargaming, and boardgame space if the panelists collaborated, and if that could ever be made to pay.

I think we’ll see more outlets like Eurogamer and dear, departed Crispy Gamer. Toward the end, I’ll grant that the Crispy experiment was pretty much over: the site was leaning heavily on a half-dozen staffers, which made it a much less interesting site than it had been when it was a freelancer’s heaven. But the idea is sound: cherry pick the best ideas of a few dozen people, and foster an editorial environment where they are free to experiment and spend time polishing their copy. That’s also why print will still be alive.

An Aside on Getting Paid

There are writers who say you should never work for free. Many of those writers, however, came up in a different market. The bottom line is that I’ve worked for free, and it’s not always a bad thing to do. But it needs to be done with a goal in mind.

Gamers With Jobs does not pay, but there are other benefits to writing there. First, some of my best friends write there and I want to be a part of it. Second, the Gamers With Jobs writer’s room is worth money to me. If I can post my work there to receive feedback, I will emerge from the experience a better writer. A freelancer lives by skills, after all, and there aren’t many places that can help improve them.

There are other outlets that are worth doing a little work for free just so you get the clip in your file. But eventually you need to ask people to start paying, and quit if they don’t. By all means see if you can wedge the door open with free work. But don’t spend too long in the doorway waiting.

Seriously, though, working for free can be a disaster. Exchange of services for compensation is the foundation of professionalism. If that exchange is not taking place, it’s very hard to have a professional interaction. An editor needs to be able to make expectations and preferences clear, and that’s much easier when you’re paying someone money. That’s what nobody tells you about freebies: it actually makes the work more difficult, because the relationship is undefined.

I have major ethical concerns, however, about sites that rely on a community to generate most of their content, and compensate their writers with a bit of notoriety and hints that one day, the Editors will pluck a community member from that ranks and make him Staff. I don’t think that’s an effective avenue into the industry, and if writers are generating traffic for a website, they should be given more than a pat on the head for being a “featured writer.”

I hope that in 2020, those sites are gone, and community goes back to being something to nurture and enjoy, not strip-mine.