Archive for August, 2011

Happy Hour – August 20

When my time is evenly divided between reading, writing, gaming, and cooking / dining, I am happy and productive. You would not think that should be difficult, considering my occupation and how much I enjoy all of those activities. Still, it seems like every couple months I find myself in need of a mental tune-up, usually after struggling for a couple weeks.

I’m in the middle of that process right now, after a near-meltdown on Friday. I lost sight of the simple things that comprise my job and give me such pleasure. I always do, the moment I start to worry. Worry, self-doubt, and guilt are all old friends of mine, and like the dwarves at the start of The Hobbit, when the first knocks on the door, the rest are soon to follow.

But at least this time I headed things off. I cancelled a project, requested a deadline extension, and took the night off with some Bad Company 2 and Farscape. Today I finds me playing an awful lot of Combat Mission: Battle For Normandy as I wrap up a review for PC Gamer. I’m very happy to report that I’m enjoying the game a lot more now, after a very rocky start, than I ever thought I would.

Tonight we’ll be making some ratatouille and hopefully watching Fort Apache. Tomorrow I have a date with my D&D group, although I wonder if this is the right group for me. The group is very large, and our first session seem very combat-focused. I expect we’ll have fun tomorrow, as it is a terrific group of people, but I still hope for more of a narrative payoff in this session.

Next week, Deus Ex: Human Revolution comes out. I wish I could say I’ll be playing it on day one, but I think I’m going to start putting games off until after I make some upgrades to my PC. It’s still a fine gaming machine, and the aging PS3 and 360 ensure that it’s still capable of running modern games, but it’s not able to keep up with all the high-end options that games have today. I suspect after my upgrades, I’m going to have some catching-up to do in the fall and winter.

Cutting Room Floor – Age of Empires Online

My early review of Age of Empires Online went up at GamePro today, but there were a few things I didn’t have space to bring up in the main body. Here are a couple other moments from my review process.

“It Looks Like Fucking FarmVille!”

MK does not like the AoEO art style. She watched over my shoulder while I played it, and that’s when she delivered her verdict on what the graphics are communicating. I tend to agree. It’s too cute by half, all bright colors, and foreshortened models with adorably askew roof lines and frames. It’s so desperate to appear non-threatening that it’s grating.  It further underlines the WoW / FarmVille aesthetic to which AoEO is so slavishly devoted. Again, free-to-play is a business model, not a style, so why must the formerly resplendent AoEO dress-up like a casual browser game? It’s patronizing, it’s conventional, and it’s just kind of ugly.

Winning by Default

I finally started doing some serious PvP in my waning hours with the game before filing my review. I focused on other issues in the review, but I’m noticing major problems. I’ve beaten a number of people not by playing better than they have, but because I have siege weapons and they don’t.

It makes a huge difference. Taking down fortifications with infantry and cavalry takes forever, and in the meantime guard towers will slaughter the enemy in droves. The only practical way to deal with fortifications is to use siege weapons. That’s nothing new to AoEO and it’s part of good balance.

The problem is, siege weapons don’t become available until level 10, and not everyone picks them right away. So I have had a number of games where I was able to turtle up behind guard towers, and then go shatter the enemy base once he’d exhausted himself against my defenses. That’s not fair, and it’s not fun for either party. But that’s what happens when you take a holistically-designed RTS and chop it into a fine dice.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Because you only get to play with AoEO’s various pieces depending on your level, you would want to make sure that character are matched appropriately, right? Well, I’ve had a number of games where I’m fighting four levels down, which means my opponent is at a severe disadvantage.

The real kicker is, you only get XP for winning. So it’s a rich-get-richer situation, as high level players pound the daylights out of low-level players, then level up faster.

Community Spirit

The chat window in the lower left corner of the screen is full of the stupidest, most vile people I’ve ever encountered in a strategy game. There are new players who holler questions into the general chat, questions that could be answered with a few seconds of thought or experiment. There are trolls, who flood the chat with racist invective, or just random keystrokes, breaking up any conversation. There are veterans who endlessly complain about the new people who have showed up to play “their” game.

It’s a noise, unpleasant environment. Again, I think I would rather pay for a game that puts a wall between most of these people and me.

Happy Hour – August 5

Monday morning I will be 28 years old, and undeniably in my late 20s. I’m always a bit troubled by how quickly time is passing, and how much I wanted, and still want, from life. At the same time, things are going great and I’m feeling far more optimistic about the future than I was a year ago.

So what will I do with these waning days of my mid-20s? I will let them wane as all the others did, with videogames, cooking, and books.  I’ve been loving A Game of Thrones the last couple days, even if it is torture watching tragically flawed characters walking around with targets painted on their backs.

But I like, and even draw comfort from, the way one of the book’s themes is that misfortuneis inevitable, and the heroes are those who confront that head-on. I do not mean that they overcome adversity. That’s often another false hope, another lie we tell ourself. I mean that they accept that the fates are cruel, and so characters like Tyrion or Ned Stark aim for something that cannot be taken by force or fate: self-mastery.

Whether this really serves those around you, or whether it is in some way a selfish indulgence, is another question.

Outside of that, I will be playing some EYE: Divine Cybermancy for review, and at some point I must sneak in a viewing of Life with Father. Aside from that, I’ll be trying to get my Lotus to stop flying off the track at Silverstone in F1 2010, and perhaps destroying some cars in Burnout: Paradise when F1 gets frustrating.

That Crazy Right Wing

My father just emailed me about the debt-ceiling agreement and I wrote back about some of the feelings I’ve had today. Since I went on a bit, I thought I would put my thoughts up here:

My rep voted no, but it’s hard to avoid feeling like this was theater. The Republicans and Democrats each let enough members of their caucus off the hook that they could cast a phony protest vote when the outcome was not in doubt. Republicans should have been forced to get a majority from their own caucus, so the Tea Party couldn’t indulge in any fiction about this deal not being what they want. And if they really were so extreme they couldn’t pass it by themselves, that should have been Obama’s cue to say, “I can’t reason with these people,” and go the 14th Amendment route.

I have been discussing this online and reading reactions and I have reached the conclusion everyone, but particularly liberals, puts far too much emphasis on what people say and not enough on what they do. All last night I was hearing that this deal was better than a default, and the Democrats had no choice but to bargain with the hostage-takers. I could not disagree more.

The current GOP, like North Korea, derives much of its bargaining power from the belief that it is crazy enough to do anything, regardless of the cost to themselves or the country. From the rhetoric and symbolic maneuvers, yes, they do indeed seem crazy.

But deeds and outcomes tell the real story. The Republican Party has pushed the country to the brink repeatedly, and each time it extracts positive outcomes. It profits by its extremism so consistently that any argument that their actions are irrational is false on its face.

Note that the TARP went through under a Republican president with Republican votes in the House and Senate. Oh, they hate bailouts, but they only drew a line in the sand after the banks had received their money. When it came to mortgage relief or financial reform, they turned into radical anti-government insurrectionists.

They threated a budget shutdown in December, and walked away with the Bush tax cuts extended and major budget cuts. Then they say they are ready to see the country default, and get another massive round of cuts, and a commission that they already vow will not be permitted to mandate tax increases.

I believe someone is crazy when they do harm to themselves and their loved ones. Perhaps Tea Party foot-soldiers do burn with fanatical zeal. But as a movement, they have never known defeat. This does not happen by accident. It is a product of cold calculation, and they will continue making those calculations until the Democrats force them to either see their rhetoric through or acknowledge they have limits.

But we don’t have Democrats like that. Perhaps Pelosi. Certainly not our president.