Archive for the ‘ Gaming ’ Category

Struggling with Victoria

To my astonishment and horror, Metacritic decided that my B- is a 67 / 100 for Victoria II. Personally I’d put the game in the neighborhood of 75 if I were grading on that scale.

It’s annoying, because Metacritic already weighs on my mind when I’m assigning a score. I had a hard time deciding whether Victoria II was a C+ or a B-, and I decided that Metacritic’s penchant for low-balling letter grades would be the tie breaker. I didn’t realize that it would still interpret a B as disdain. But if I weight Metacritic any more heavily, the scores I assign will be useless for GameShark readers.

However, the Metacritic score is emblematic of a problem I’m having when I talk about Victoria II: I keep coming across as more negative than I strictly want to be. I know why this is, of course. You can analyze and explain problems much more easily than you can express praise, and Victoria II’s best aspects are difficult to put into coherent thoughts. Zoom in on any part of Victoria II, and a lot of problems appear. Look at it more holistically, and it’s virtues are clearer.

The other week on Three Moves Ahead I brought up my concern that it’s harder to strike a middle-ground with reviewing games than it is with other media. For one thing, so much of the audience for games writing seem to interpret reviews and scores through a thumbs-up or thumbs-down lens. For another, games are kind of expensive and playing them takes a lot time, two factors that I think discourage risk-taking on the part consumers. When I write a review of a new game, I have this fear that for a lot of people the decision they make on launch day will be final. That they won’t remember what I or other reviewers said in 3 months when the game is on sale, just that the game didn’t sound like it was worth buying. Plus, anyone who follows the industry knows that publishers and developers live and die with early sales.

Maybe none of this should be my concern. But it’s hard to ignore.

Victoria II is a game that I would buy regardless of its problems. I wrote the opening of my review with myself in mind: someone who loves history and the Victorian Era. Someone whose daydreams are filled with Prussian armies, British ministers, and American progressives. Someone who mourns the world that was lost in the trenches, and the stolen future that might have been ours, if cooler heads and better angels had prevailed. Even though I ultimately shift gears and criticize Victoria II as a strategy game, I think it’s an important game for a certain kind of player. And I hope he’ll read my opening paragraphs and decide that’s enough for him.

Caught in Translation

My GameSetWatch column returns with a piece on DLC for Napoleon: Total War. I couldn’t resist checking out the “Peninsular Campaign” Creative Assembly released a month or so ago, because I could not for the life of me imagine how Creative Assembly were going to translate that fascinating, messy campaign to the highly conventional, orderly Napoleon: Total War campaign engine.

Now that I’ve spent a lot of time playing with it, I have to say “The Peninsular Campaign” is a minor masterpiece of scenario design and maybe the best campaign yet for Napoleon. I explain why over at GameSetWatch.

My interest with “Keys to the Kingdom” is one of translation. Games so often take their inspiration, their theme, from complicated real-world subjects. But it’s always interesting to see what designers choose to emphasize. Sometimes they do nothing more than take their appearance from history, as in Empire: Total War. That game had a great deal of 18th century flavoring, but very little of the gameplay bore any resemblance to what you might find in a history of the Seven Years’ War. It was a bad costume-drama without a shred of substance beneath it.

On the other hand, a flight of sci-fi fantasy like Sins of a Solar Empire made a valiant and partially successful effort to make players role-play their empires by introducing co-operative mechanics into an ultimately competitive game. “Frienemy” mechanics are familiar in board games, but unusual in an RTS.

When I write about something like the “Peninsular Campaign” DLC or Europa Universalis III, I try to make the reader see the connections that I see. That these design decisions don’t just come out of the ether, and they are not purely driven by a desire to create a good game. There are a lot of ways to reach that destination, but the choices along the way are often made with an eye toward something that happens in the real-world. The goal with games like this is not just to give the player a good time, but to make him face decisions that other people, in other times, also faced. Games like this are, in part, attempts to let you live the fantasy of being a desktop Wellington or Richelieu. Much of what makes them unique and interesting is owed to the negotiation between game design and the concepts being translated into design.

Anyway, go check out the new piece, and leave comments on it at GSW.

Making It Suntory Time

Last week, MK and I blew out of town to go hang out with Julian Murdoch for a few days, and the ensuing visit was like a G-rated Swingers: hard drinking, gaming to exhaustion, running around in a forest, playing games with Jen and Peter, dinner with Hasbro’s Rob Daviau and Lindsay Braun, and a surprise visit from the ATF.

OK, that last part isn’t strictly true. But it was pretty awesome nonetheless.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the board gaming strategy scene is far healthier than what we generally have on PC. It’s not that the games themselves are superior, but their variety and playability leaves me envious. So many board games can be fully understood by the end of the first or second turn, while I can play a game like Europa Universalis or Starcraft II for months without really grasping what’s happening underneath the hood. If strategy depends on understanding, then board games get players strategizing almost instantly. With PC games, there tends to be a long, perhaps endless, period of fumbling in the dark before the game becomes clear. Board games have a short run-up from Learning to Fun. PC games tend to play a more dangerous game, promising that more and deeper fun awaits if you’re just willing to play these half-dozen tutorials and wear out your “alt” and “tab” keys  flipping between the game and the PDF manual.

Different platforms, different markets, I know. But still, I love the straightforward trade-offs of Fresco and Agricola, with their cruelly limited number of actions per turn and scant resources. I was amazed at how Formula D, a board game about auto racing, so successfully translated the essence of racing onto a playing field of spaces, dice, and counters. Rob and Lindsay brought over a game, Catacombs, that involved little more than hurling little blocks across a board and stealing turns, but it managed to offer great team play and fast-changing tactics.

On the other hand, board games have it easy because the game’s community is right there in the room with you. Who cares how big the player base is, when all it takes to get a game going is one copy and a couple friends? Board games can court minimalism, and choose oddball themes, because they require so much less of an audience than do PC games.

Beyond that, I also learned valuable information such as: G’vine gin makes a brilliant martini, Suntory’s Yamazaki single-malt is a solid but indistinct scotch, and the new Sherlock is brilliant except for one little problem: the mysteries and plotting are actually not very clever at all, which leaves Moffat’s Holmes looking uncharacteristically dense and careless at times.

Final thought: I love the setting and the themes behind Bioshock Infinite, but I hate the Bioshock branding. More than that, however, I resent a gaming community that complains about branding and lack of “original IP” (a term which adopts the bloodless corporate term for what we used to call an idea) while doing nothing to create an environment that fosters risk-taking and originality.

Thank God, I Have Done My Duty

You may have heard something about me working on a review. The game was Making History 2, and the review just went up at GameShark.

This was a game I volunteered to review because I was interested in it, and I liked the guys making it. Had I known, going in, that I would dislike the game so much, I would never have volunteered for the assignment. With something like this, you go into it hoping you’ll have something to champion. Unfortunately, there’s always the chance that something you wanted to like will turn out to be a huge disappointment.

Starcraft II Round-Up

Longtime TMA listeners and readers know that I’ve been deeply skeptical of Starcraft II for quite awhile, and now that I’ve played it, I think my skepticism was well founded. However, I didn’t expect to like the direction Blizzard have gone nearly as much as I do.

But I don’t think it’s the towering achievement that it is so often portrayed to be. In fact, I think this is one of the toughest games to assess.

Last night, Tom Chick rejoined us on TMA, and ex-Gamasutra writer and future Irrational employee Chris Remo stopped by to share his thoughts. We had a fantastic discussion, and wrestled with the many problems Starcraft II poses for those trying to judge it. Go give it a listen.

However, I also penned some thoughts of my own for Gamers With Jobs, a site at which I will now be writing regularly. This is exciting. GWJ is probably my favorite gaming community, and I’m friends with just about everyone who writes there. In fact, my not writing there was starting to seem a bit odd. So they took me in, and I promptly picked a fight about Starcraft II.

Go read my first piece for the site, and enjoy the brisk discussion that follows.

Clearing the Rubble

Having a review assignment go spectacularly wrong feels a bit like being John Dortmunder. Dortmunder was the protagonist of Donald Westlake’s comic novels, a brilliant but hopelessly unlucky professional thief who always had the best plans for pulling down a huge score, but who always watched it all go wrong in slow-motion tragi-comedy. While the general arc of the stories was formulaic, the adventures themselves were not, and it was always a joy to watch the new and horrific ways it could all go wrong. But of course, to Dortmunder it was all deadly serious.

I went through a similar thing with this last review. I thought I’d identified a good job, something that would be quick and rewarding, and I sold a a few people on the idea. Then, once I got to work on the assignment, it started to turn on me. In the meantime, other work was sliding away from me because I was furiously trying to extricate myself from the debacle. Now I’ve managed to pull off my daring escape, and the review will go up sometime in the near future, but in the meantime it’s left me in some deep trouble with other assignments.

Still, there is a part of me that feels suffused with virtue. I knew, within an hour of starting my first game, that this game was in trouble. Not too much longer, I knew it was nothing I could ever enjoy or recommend. But I didn’t entirely understand why, which meant I hadn’t yet completed the review process. Anyone can tell you what he likes or doesn’t, but that reaction won’t help anyone unless the reviewer can explain where he’s coming from and why he had the reactions he did. So I continued my grim death-march toward understanding.

I suspect it’s probably a good thing to, every once in awhile, find yourself locked in a room with a bad game. Not because it helps us keep other games in perspective, but because it underlines the bromides and truisms that critics and designers like to throw around. Meier’s “series of interesting decisions” description of a game means a hell of a lot more once you’ve played a game that’s a series of pointless, illusory decisions. It’s easy to wonder why a game doesn’t have certain features that might make it more historically accurate or interesting, until you see how verisimilitude unbound from design discipline can send an entire game cartwheeling into an abyss of incoherence.

Still, it came at a cost. It’s Wednesday morning and I still feel like I’m shaking off a bender. There are sources that must be harassed, editors that must be appeased, stories that must be written, and games that must be played. And there’s not enough time for any of it.