Archive for the ‘ Gaming ’ Category

Closing out F1 2010

I spent my entire day doing Grands Prix in the 360 version of F1 2010 so that I can wrap up my review this week. I’ve had a good handle on the strengths and weaknesses of the PC version, but I’m glad I took some time with the 360 version. I definitely needed to explore the easier difficulty levels and there are some definite buyer beware issues when you try to play this with a gamepad.

I’ll explain more in the review, but the bottom line is that I don’t think the higher difficult levels are even usable with a gamepad. When 75 percent throttle takes you through a corner at high speed, and 80 percent sends you into the wall, you really don’t want to be relying on the trigger buttons.

But there’s no getting around how gruesome this game, or any game, can become when you’ve got to start powering through it to hit a deadline, or to test some game elements that have seemed problematic. When I took this review, my goal was to bring it up to the same standard as Bill Abner’s sports game reviews, and now I realize how much effort that requires. Especially because, unlike an EA Sports game, a racing game doesn’t let you simply sim a racing season while you check the stats against reality. You want to see how a season plays out in F1? You drive.

But it’s worth it to me. There aren’t a lot of legit racing sim reviewers who can approach these games from a perspective that’s useful to the people most interested in them, and I feel like this is one game where I can provide a uniquely strong and informed perspective.

Still, I’ll be glad when I’m finished. I hear engines and gearboxes all the time now, and the room seemed to be spinning for like a half hour after Monaco. Man, fuck Monaco.

My Life as a Hockey Star

Defense is where I feel the most comfortable. My passing and shooting skills leave a lot to be desired, and I can feel this entire Florida crowd holding its breath whenever I go charging across the blue line. Even I get jittery when my lane gets shut down and I have to dump the puck to one of my teammates. It’s a 50 / 50 chance of a turnover.

It makes sense. Offensive controls in EA’s NHL 11 are much more nuanced. Defense is all about positional play and reading the offense. I don’t have to be a master with the controls to break up a play, because I’m already ahead of it.

So on defense, I’m the guy who comes slicing across the ice to intercept a shot on goal, then destroys the poor wing that is stupid enough to try and recover the puck. There’s a tooth-rattling crunch as he’s blasted into the boards, and the crowd goes berserk as the Panthers go hurtling toward the goal with 3 on 2 while the Flames try to figure out what the hell just happened.

I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this game. Career mode is neat because you basically role-play as an NHL player, starting with the end of your semi-pro career and then transitioning to the big time. You gain experience points based on your performance, and you use those experience points to upgrade your player. My guy is becoming a little more physical, and little tougher, and is working on his puck control. But while he can be upgraded, I can’t.

Which is why I’m not really ready for the other parts of this game. I have no idea how to play the other positions, so the championship mode is totally beyond my skill. Every time a new player gets the puck, you get control of that guy. I can play left wing, but I can’t flip between the wing, the center, to the other wing in the space of five seconds.

Nor am I ready to tackle the challenge of being a GM, and that brings up my major problem with the EA sports games. They provide almost no assistance to the learner, as nearly as I can tell. You’ve either been with these series since the PlayStation 2, or you’re going to spend a lot of time floundering. The interface is anything but intuitive, and there is an awful lot of presumed knowledge both when it comes to position play and team management.

Admittedly, I should know the sport better. Were I a devoted hockey fan, NHL 11 is probably more self-explanatory. But there are some things I understand perfectly well that the game gives me no real opportunities to practice. I understand what I want to do on offense, but I’m having trouble connecting the action of the right thumbstick on my controller to what my on-screen player is doing with his stick. I need a better explanation, but neither NHL 11′s thin tutorials nor its pamphlet-sized manual provide much insight.

That said, something like career mode goes a long way to making up for the weak tutorial tools. Because I’m being forced to integrate myself into an offense, I’m learning how to help construct a play. When my player runs out of energy and goes to the bench, I watch from the sidelines as the computer players run the game. I pay attention to the kind of plays where I’m weak. Between the coach’s feedback (“Watch the turnovers” is a popular admonition) and the commentary, I am getting up to speed and having a great time doing it.

And that’s the key to getting people into a game, I think. There has to be a hook, something that establishes the game’s appeal without requiring that you necessarily grasp everything that contributes to it. Career mode in NHL does exactly that, by tapping into the most basic fantasy of anyone who watches a good hockey game: playing at the highest level with an elite group of pros, breaking and making the big plays.

Conference Calling

Nothing guarantees a spell of stagnation like a burst of creativity, and that’s about where I’ve been since the last time I wrote anything here. Following a series of deadlines and revisions, plus some heavy groundwork for other pieces, I was pretty much out of thing to say or even think. After I filed my Civilization piece for GamePro, I hopped in the car and lit out for Julian Murdoch’s. Even after I got back from that, I was still unable or unwilling to sit down and write.

But now that I’ve had a few days off, and played a lot of games, I’m ready to start talking again. In fact, I got a head start last weekend with the Gamers With Jobs Conference Call. Since I was going to be at Julian’s anyway, and he was slated to host, he just decided to have me on as a guest.

The Conference Call is a bit like being aboard a Star Destroyer after riding around in the Millenium Falcon that is Three Moves Ahead. I can actually see the other cast members, and everyone seems to have a high-end mike that keeps them from sounding washed out or distant. Julian has a mixing board to fine-tune what gets recorded to his machine. Then the producer, Jonathan Downing, swoops in and makes guys like me sound far more clever and less rambling.

Anyway, you should go give it a listen. The Conference Call was the third podcast I fell in love with, after the mighty and never-to-be-topped GFW Radio and 1UP Yours. It was a treat to appear on it with Sean, Rob, and Allen.

A couple nights ago, we also had GameShark’s Todd Brakke on Three Moves Ahead for some Civilization V talk, and I was surprised at how much fun we had talking about that game. I was worried that, as a topic, Civ V was something of a dead horse (it’s all anyone talked about for a week). But I think we managed to do some great stuff with it. It helps that Troy knows Civ like nobody’s business.

The Dawn of a New Civilization

If you mosey over to, 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 theĀ  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.

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.