Archive for the ‘ Gaming ’ Category

4 Characters

In the weeks leading up to the release of The Sacrifice episode for Left 4 Dead, Valve ran an excellent comic that went into the backstories of the original four survivors and explained the events we’d be seeing in the new episode. It went a long way to restoring my excitement for L4D, and reminded me of why I’d liked the original game so much.

Zoey, Bill, Louis, and Francis were endearing heroes, and their chemistry was fantastic. I remember cracking up when Francis turned to Louis and asked him why he was still wearing his tie. “You worried ya won’t be dressed right for your next board meeting?” he cackled. And of course he was right. Part of Louis’s character was denial that the zombie apocalypse was actually happening, and that there was never going to be a return to normality. It’s why he was always making optimistic predictions about what would be awaiting them over the next horizon, and why he was always so surprised when they came across yet another scene of disaster.

The Sacrifice comic offered a nice opportunity to revisit those characters, as well as say goodbye to Bill, the Vietnam vet who frequently seemed relieved to be fighting again, here at the end of his life. By the end of The Sacrifice, it was understood that Bill would go out in a blaze of glory to protect his makeshift family. But in the meantime, we would see what became of the four original survivors after their escape in the first game, and learn more about who they were before everything went wrong.

Zoey’s story, for instance, was a brilliant vignette. Divorced parents who sniped at each other endlessly, a cop father who taught her to love grindhouse movies but not responsibility, and a mother who clearly felt that good parenting meant reminding your child of all the opportunities she was wasting. And of course none of it can be resolved: Zoey’s last moments with her family are spent enduring yet another argument, and then she’s an orphan.

Like all good backstory, the comic didn’t invent a background for the characters, merely made it clearer. Everything we saw, especially from Louis and Zoey, seemed to confirm things we’d always known about them, but had never completely understood.

The Sacrifice had the unintended consequence of highlighting how indifferent I am toward the new cast of survivors introduced in Left 4 Dead 2. With the exception of the lovably garrulous bumpkin, Ellis, none of them seem to exhibit much in the way of character. I couldn’t tell you why. The incidental dialogue seems inconsequential and uninformative. Most of what I know about Coach and Nick, for instance, comes from their costumes. I still can’t tell you anything about Rochelle.

Seeing the original four survivors playing off one another only underscored the degree to which Left 4 Dead 2 was a narrative failure in spite of great level design and smart gameplay adjustments. Left 4 Dead was always surprising and charming; Left 4 Dead 2 was neither.

If I had to guess, it’s that Valve communicated other, subtler ideas with each of the original survivors. Louis was wearing the uniform of a low-level office worker, and I always had the sense that he was a guy who wasn’t getting much farther in life. After all, was there anyone else in the original cast who looked like they had a bright future? Bill was a run-down vet whose well-worn fatigues suggested an inability to readjust to civilian life, and perhaps even bouts of homelessness. Francis was a biker, a group that’s already associated with alienation. Zoey was a nerdy college kid whose clothes didn’t suggest wealth, and who frequently had an awkward demeanor. All we really knew about her is that she liked to watch horror movies, and she looked like the kind of person who was more likely to do that in her dorm room, alone, than with other people.

And in The Sacrifice, we learn that Louis is a sysadmin at a banking house who is trying to find a way to attract attention from his bosses by keeping the servers running. If the zombie flu hadn’t come, I suspect the only time Louis’s employer paid him any notice would be the day he was let go. Zoey was a film-school dropout from a blue-collar family who had just lost her scholarship. Francis was about to be sent to prison. And Bill was waiting to die in a VA hospital.

For a lot of reasons, I'd rather be part of the group on the bridge.

By contrast, the survivors of Left 4 Dead 2 never suggested an earlier life. Perhaps Valve just weren’t on comfortable ground in the Mississippi Delta. It was a good setting, but not one that Valve understood as well as the industrial North. The story of an old vet, a shy nerd, a token middle-class black man, and a surprisingly sweet biker was one they told with confidence. But in the South, the character’s voices are more vague. The new survivors cut across lines of race, class, and geography that are harder to grapple with, but to flesh them out, you’d have to. Instead, they remain silhouettes moving across scenery. Well-crafted scenery, but not a place that seems to have an existence beyond the confines of the level layout.

Man Down, Man Down!

Back in June I started playing Valkyria Chronicles, a turn-based, squad-level wargame for the PS3. I suspect many of its fans don’t actually know that’s what they’re playing: VC does a very clever job of not looking like a wargame. Characters are controlled from a third-person shooter perspective, and they behave mostly like shooter characters except for the way they have a limited number of movement points and a single action for each round. It also looks more like a good anime than a videogame. This distinguishes it from most other Japanese games, which largely take their aesthetic cues from trashy anime.

On the other hand, let’s not get carried away praising Valkyria Chronicles’ tasteful sensibilities: your second in command goes into combat wearing a miniskirt and blushing like the vaguely eroticized schoolgirl she is.

In fact, Alicia comes very close to ruining the game, especially if you play it in Japanese with English subtitles. The only thing worse about the way the typical Japanese game visually portrays women is the way it characterizes them: overwhelmingly shrill, perky, and prone to mood swings that make Naomi Campbell look like St. Francis. Or they’re painfully demure, barely able to speak or look someone in the eyes. Or they’re perpetually pissed off and speak in a freakishly deep voice. There’s hardly a convention that Valkyria Chronicles doesn’t drive into the ground.

Rosie, left, an unpleasant but useful member of the squad.

Thank God there’s an inoffensive English voice track.

Anyway, I recently went back to my save game, which was on hold at a point where the difficult was rapidly increasing. This is mostly a good thing: the early part of VC is so easy that the only real challenge is how quickly you can walk all over the opposition. However, since the AI is fairly poor in VC, the missions get more difficult through construction and event triggers, which takes it into more trial-and-error territory. In a wargame, that’s really not where you want to be.

One thing works brilliantly in this game, however: rescuing incapacitated teammates.

You can’t tell in the early missions, because it’s a rare event. However, in the mid-game you start having teammates get shot down, and that’s when the rescue mechanic comes into play.

When a teammate goes down, you have 3 turns to get another squad member to his position and summon a medic. The medic instantly transports the wounded squaddie from the battlefield, and he can actually be brought back into play on the following turn. However, if you don’t get there within three turns, your squad member is dead.

There’s a dark brilliance to this system. Chances are, your squadmate is bleeding out on a dangerous patch of turf, which means you really have to think about whether you want to send more teammates out to rescue him. You can easily fritter away the entire team trying to get one wounded trooper off the field. But if you don’t do it, the soldier is dead. Gone forever. And as annoying as some of these characters can be, they’re my annoying characters.

I saw this scenario play out in tragicomic fashion during my last mission. The enemy commander was taking his super-tank (basically a land-dreadnaught) on a rampage through our bases, and we had to cripple and then destroy it while avoiding its powerful main guns. Midway through that little endeavor, he received massive reinforcements along with an honest-to-God valkyrie. I was completely caught out, and thanks to the Valkyrie’s enchanted spear of death, I lost three troopers almost instantly.

Two of them were in positions where they could be rescued. But one of them, my lead assault trooper Rosie, was lying in a trench that the tank had already overrun, and the valkyrie (who is unkillable) was basically corpse-camping her.

Rosie is extra valuable because she provides an extra command point each turn, which basically means I get an extra move when she’s on the field. Still, with two anti-tank trooper and an engineer nearby, I thought we could get her out.

The medic, who scurries into any situation and rescues the wounded

The engineer made a last ammunition run through the squad, replenishing their stocks, then bolted for Rosie’s position. The valkyrie spotted him and hit him with the lance just as he made it to Rosie’s side and called in the medic. Then he  went down. He was slightly closer to the edge of the trench. Trouble was, the engineer is one of the fastest guys on the team. My AT gunners are better armored, but also lumbering and slow. Predictably, the next one I sent on a rescue run got shot down. Worse, he never even made it to the engineer.

So with one anti-tank Lancer remaining, and two soldiers bleeding out in dead ground, I was starting to panic. Rosie was saved, and she was more valuable than the rest of them, but I really didn’t want to lose anyone to this stupid, unfair valkyrie attack.

My solution was inelegant. I took my CO’s tank, drove it between my last lancer and the valkyrie, and used it as a moving shield. Her weapons damaged it steadily, but not enough to destroy it before it reached their position. My other lancer moved up behind the tank, rescuing my soldiers. She barely made it out of the trench before the valkyrie killed her.

I was stunned at the rush of relief I felt as we backed away from the lighting-touched lady with the glowing lance. We’d gotten everyone out alive, and now I was free to concentrate on the super-tank. But in the melee to get Rosie out of harm’s way, I’d completely forgotten about the larger mission, and was now in danger of losing it.

But that’s the point of this mechanic: it dangles the hope of preventing casualties in front of you, luring you into destructive decisions in the name of leaving no man behind.

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.