Posts Tagged ‘ Gamers With Jobs

Happy Hour – September 9

OK, I lied. It’s actually the wee small hours of the 10th right now. I’m up late waiting for Windows 7 to install for a second time. The first time it didn’t clear away the hard drive, and I really didn’t feel like rooting out all the old files from the previous installation.

Tomorrow is likely to be grim, but hopefully I’ll be going into it with a vastly superior gaming rig. Some great friends spotted me a new power supply and a GTX 560 video card, and I just bought myself an ASUS 27-inch monitor, along with 8 gigs of RAM, and the 64-bit version of Windows 7. This should get me through to next year, at least. Longer, if consoles keep acting as an anchor on hardware requirements.

This is probably the only weekend where I could fit this in. For the rest of the month, I’m on reviews duty, with no end in sight. This upgrade needed to happen now or never, and it’s a load off my mind knowing I’ll be hitting the major releases with the great hardware. But before I get to reviews, I think I’ll have to install Crysis. Crysis, Sengoku, and Age of Empires Onlines should occupy my weekend quite nicely.

But what about my weeks? I haven’t done a great job of explaining what I’ve been up to lately, but the truth is I’ve kind of been everywhere of late. For instance, you can find me on the last couple Gamers With Jobs Conference Calls, talking about Deus Ex: Human Revolution and other things.

We’ve also been going great guns over on Three Moves Ahead, what with Soren Johnson killing some lazy summer days by spending time talking strategy games with us. It’s been impressive to see the spike in listeners. We do a good show over at 3MA, but a guy like Soren packs the house when he’s headlining. It’s great to count him among 3MA’s fans and recurring panelists.

I also made an appearance over at the mighty Rock, Paper, Shotgun, writing a review of the surprisingly good (yet still somewhat unfulfilling) Tropico 4. It’s thrilling to find myself writing at a place that was such a huge influence on me when I was starting out as a freelancer. To my relief, the RPS readership seems to think I fit in pretty well over there. Some of them didn’t even guess I was a Yank.

I’ll be popping up in some other unusual places over the coming weeks, and I’ve got some projects I’m really excited about. Hopefully tomorrow (today) I’ll be working on one of them with my pal JP Grant. Preferably with some brews in hand.

Friday Debrief

A few people have requested in comments and in emails that I provide blog entries and links when I have new work going up, a sensible point when considering RSS readers. So we’ll see how a Friday round-up goes.

This week, you can find my reaction to Enslaved over at Gamers With Jobs. I do worry I came down a little harshly on it: the first half is really excellent, and justified my purchase. But ultimately it’s not just a story, but a videogame, and not a very good one.

I was also on the GWJ Conference Call to talk about Valve and a few of my recent gaming obsessions with Cory Banks, Sean Sands, and Allen Cook. I don’t know what it is about the Conference Call, but it makes me more argumentative and ornery than usual. Maybe it’s because someone else is hosting, and so I delight in throwing out conversational hand grenades. Ironically, back when I just listened to the show, I hated Cory for playing this role. When he was the only guy who thought Flower was overrated, I thought he was just being a contrarian dick. Then I played Flower, and saw the value of being the guy who sets the Hyperbole Theater on fire.

If you head down to you local newsstand, you may find the June issue of PC Gamer. It contains a review of Portal 2, but we don’t care about that here. We care about me. So go pick up the June issue for a new Tactical Advantage column on the state of RTS communities in the age of Starcraft II, a review of the lame APOX, and the excellent Men of War: Assault Squad. In retrospect, I probably should have just asked for more space for Men of War, as the word count was a little crowded for the angle I took. Still, you have to try different things.

Finally, on Three Moves Ahead, we talked about the Panzer General series and got into a whole dust-up over whether it’s even a good wargame, and how that series introduced players to a classic genre conventions.

Bioshock 2 Closing Thoughts

Over at Gamers With Jobs, I just posted a piece breaking down the story that unfolds in the last half of Bioshock 2. It’s called “We Are Utopia” and you should look it over. It does contain plentiful spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing, but personally I enjoy reading analysis more than I care about preserving the secrecy of the plot.

The only thing I had to leave out is how great the gameplay is during the finale of Bioshock 2. From the midway point onward, Subject Delta has an incredible array of tools to use against his enemies, and the level design and enemy design creates a lot of different ways for encounters to go. In Fontaine Futuristics, with my health and ammo levels rapidly running down, I had to face off a Big Sister and save two Little Sisters with a scant amount of resources to use.

So I turned a couple of the rogue Alpha-series protectors against a Big Daddy, killing the Daddy, and then rescued the Little Sister. This brought the deadly Big Sister out of hiding, and I spent a minute frantically laying traps. Once I was ready, I hovered close to the remaining Big Daddy and waited for the Big Sister. Sure enough, in the course of our brawl she angered the Big Daddy, and they started going after each other. As the Daddy was ground down, another Alpha happened on the scene, and I fed him into the fray. The Big Daddy went down, and the Big Sister charged at the Alpha. While they were slugging it out, I scooped up the Little Sister and saved her. Only now did I turn and face the Big Sister, who was badly weakened by her battles.

It was a great sequence, because it was all about using a combination of my powers and enemy behavior to arrange a really intricate series of encounters. It was so different from the running battles and slugging matches that marked much of the rest of the game. The end of the game was full of similar creative destruction.

The strength of the gameplay let me power through to the finale, but it was still the characters of Bioshock 2 who won me over. When the credits finally rolled, all I could do was marvel at how gracefully Bioshock 2 told its story, and made it matter. That’s its major achievement, and that’s what I’m writing about over at GWJ.

Playing Optimally

My latest article is up at Gamers with Jobs. It’s about cover-based shooters and how cover mechanics push shooters in a lot of bad directions. I used Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption to illustrate how cover usually goes wrong. But what’s been interesting to me is how many people have come back with a variation on what I call the Hocking defense: “If you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring.”

I call it the Hocking defense because of a remark he made at a talk I attended. One criticism a lot of people directed at the otherwise excellent Far Cry 2 was that it was repetitive. You could play just about every mission using the same three weapons, and one random encounter or mission tended to look a lot like another. Hocking laughed and, admitting he was going to come across like a jerk, said, “I think if you find Far Cry 2 repetitive, then you’re probably repetitive.”

Hocking’s view was that he’d created a game where there were dozens and dozens of ways to approach the same problem. Players had access to different weapon combinations and weapon types, an incredible fire and physics model, and a beautiful open world in which every battle was likely to be different. If your reaction to all that freedom was to do the same thing over and over again, that was on you.

If that Krogan ever managed to get close, I would have been in mild danger.

In the case of Mass Effect 2, the problem isn’t with the game, but with the way I played it. The argument goes that it is my fault for, first, picking the soldier class. The soldier only has access to guns, and the only opportunities to use biotic and tech powers come from her AI squadmates. Had I played a different class, I would have been less tied to cover, and been able to adopt more variable tactics. Second, nobody made me play every encounter the same way. I could have tried different strategies than the “stand in cover and shoot” tactic that saw me through most of the game.

Now, in Mass Effect 2, there are several reasons why I suspect changing classes or approaches will still leave every battle in the game feeling generic and boring. But I’m more interested in the widespread assumption that because other options are available to players, they should use them. The existence of these other options apparently makes boredom or repetition the fault of the player.

The argument seems a little churlish to me, because I don’t generally consider it my responsibility as the player to locate the fun and variety in some aspect of a game. Besides, if a game is not fun or appealing while I am playing it, that makes me less inclined to try alternate approaches. The games that I experiment with are the ones I loved while playing in whatever was my natural style for that game. That’s what gives me confidence that experimentation will be rewarded. Great games invite you to consider other options, and they often show them to you.

Bioshock 2: where crazy stuff is always about to happen

But the argument is also naive about the powerful draw of optimal play styles. If the same tactics work again and again, players will use them again and again. Even if they don’t want to, because it is a guaranteed way to pass the next challenge. In fact, it becomes a vicious circle. The optimal tactic works everywhere so players use it too much, their overuse of the tactic makes the game boring, their boredom and frustration makes them want to rush through the boring parts, so they use the optimal tactic.

Second, if the same one of two tactics work in every situation, there is a problem with the game. Optimal tactics should be situational, not universal. Is the sniper rifle turning every encounter into a shooting gallery? Take away long lines of sight. Is the assault rifle slaughtering everyone from cover? Have enemies that can close quickly and deal massive close-range damage, before the rifle can whittle them down. Or simply deny the player cover and force him to close and assault. There are so many ways to introduce and force variety that it’s hard to forgive a game, even an RPG-shooter, that lets you coast through using the same tricks.

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.

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.