Posts Tagged ‘ Stardock

Sympathy for Elemental

Even before I received the game, I had an idea about how I was supposed to feel. The trouble with reviewing anything in this era is that you cannot avoid having your views contaminated by the instant Twitter reaction, and I’m not willing to sequester myself from any and every discussion of a new game I’m reviewing.

The early word on Elemental: War of Magic is that it was a disaster, and Brad Wardell, the game’s designer and the principal over at Stardock, had thrown fuel on the fire with some early defensiveness. The moment I installed the game, I had to install two patches. I took a deep breath and dived in.

King Flitcraft and The Beard: Co-rulers of Man

I played it from Friday to Wednesday before writing my review. It left me ice cold for a day or so, until I bailed on the campaign, abandoned my games, and re-started with a custom character. Then it clicked.

In my review, I go into a lot of detail about certain aspects of this game. Perhaps too much. But there is almost nothing macro-level about this game that’s worth discussing. Broadly, Elemental is a fantasy 4X strategy game. Crudely, it’s Magic Centauri. But the places where it lets you down, and the places where it surprises, are all in the details.

Note how the capital, Hightower, stretches laterally to snatch up resources, but steers clear of its neighbor.

This was my first time writing for a new site, Gameroni. Given some of the other writers listed as contributors, colleagues and writers I respect like Tom Chick, Lewis Denby, and Kyle Orland, I hope to write there some more and am honored to be in the first wave of freelancers writing there.

The score I gave Elemental might raise some eyebrows. Gameroni uses a coarse-grained review scale. A, B, C, D, F. No pluses, no minuses. No hedging. The bottom line is that I actually like Elemental, despite all the ways it disappoints. It really satisfies some quirks in my own taste, and to assign it a score different from the one I gave it would be a lie. It would represent a clinical, Consumer Reports-style inspection. Such a score might be easier to justify, but it would not reflect my feelings.

Head over and read the review, and please leave any comments on the review itself at Gameroni. Yeah, you have to make an account there to post, but it’s a 10-second process and I haven’t received any spam.

One Move Behind – Sins Diplomacy

For once, I don’t have too much to add beyond what I said during the podcast. I was a bit more nervous than usual during this recording because I don’t feel all that qualified to talk about Sins of a Solar Empire. As I pointed out during the episode, I didn’t come to this expansion with much Sins experience under my belt, and so I am still struggling to learn the game as a whole, much less the impact of one expansion.

This was one of those times that I really envied the other panelists’ abilities to see into the way strategy games work. I sort of felt like Charlie Brown in that one strip where he and Linus are lying on the hilltop, staring at the clouds. Charlie Brown asks Linus what he sees, and Linus describes this vivid, exciting scene that he perceives in the sky. Then Linus asks Charlie Brown what he sees. “I see a horsey,” he says.

Troy, Tom, and Julian seemed to get Diplomacy and understood the avenues of play that it opened up, while I basically did not. I have yet to decide whether that is my problem or the game’s. My own feeling right now is that Diplomacy runs on a parallel track to everything else I am doing. While I am fighting to stay competitive on the battlefield and keep a robust economy fueling my military, a diplomatic game is going on behind the scenes that allows players to do an end run around the core game. I can’t quite make out the connection between the diplomatic game and the rest of what is going on.

For example, my partner and I were playing a three-sided game and both of us were having serious problems with an AI player. It was overrunning the system and cutting off our avenues of expansion, and we were constantly skirmishing with it. It was an endless cycle of raid and counter-raid, and it was splendid fun. But when I looked at the “Relationships” window, I found that this aggressive AI was more than halfway to a diplomatic victory because of its good relations with other factions. According this readout, it was getting the most diplomatic points from MK and me! Excuse me, but I think if you’re going to be racing for a diplomatic victory, you should probably be penalized for pummeling the living crap out of certain players.

Update: A Discordant Note!

[Now fixed. See update below.] Since we recorded and I wrote the above, MK and I have played a great deal more Diplomacy and have discovered that the game is pretty broken for me. I basically can’t play multiplayer.

It’s insidious, because the game appears to be working. It isn’t until you and your playing partners start really communicating about what you see going on that your realize that you aren’t in the same game.

MK and I were two hours and fifteen minutes into a 2 v 2 v 2 multiplayer match when she asked if I could send a fleet to help her out at the planet Giada. Red had broken their ceasefire and was attacking. I said I could and gave the orders. Then I checked out what was happening in her part of the star system.

“Um, hon, red isn’t attacking you. They’re just hanging out at Giada.”

“What? No, I’m fighting them there right now.”

“I don’t even see any of your ships.”

She came over to my computer. “Wait, this isn’t right. I’m seeing something completely different over there. Does this game model delayed information due to the speed of light?”

I laughed. “No. That’d be awesome, but I don’t think it does. No.”

“Then this is all screwed up. I don’t even see you as owning that planet. I’m seeing that blue owns it.”

As we compared notes and looked at each other’s games, we realized that our games had diverged. In mine, she was at peace with red and I was aggressively expanding into blue’s holdings. In hers, red had just betrayed her and launched a massive attack at her frontier while I was pinned into a corner by an emerging blue superpower. In my game, the pirates were about to launch, while in hers there were 10 minutes left on the countdown timer. Later, going back through our save files, we found that the games had ceased to match after 1 hr 15 min.

It happens in every game we play together, regardless of setup. Now that we’ve started looking for it, we can see it happening as early as a half hour into the game. The pirate countdown de-syncs, and then we start looking for discontinuities. They’re easy to find: ships fighting in the center of an enemy system on my screen, the same fleet just dropping out of a jump on hers.

Depressingly, this appears to be a known issue with the game, and I’m not sure what progress there has been toward resolving it. But it is a total show-stopper if you want to play with friends. It was probably happening in the games I played with Tom and Rabbit, but the diplomatic victory brought the game to a close before anyone could notice.

Add the fact that the game will crash for me after two hours or so of play, and the future for me and Diplomacy starts to look awful stormy. Here’s hoping a patch fixes it soon.

Update II: Fixed

It does appear that the new patch for Diplomacy fixed the sync problem I’d been having. I haven’t had a chance to play more than 90 minutes of the patched version, but we didn’t run into any problems and the games still matched when we finally quit for the day.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more on this game soon.

Valve Is Not Your Enemy

Valve and Steam seem to be taking fire from a lot of quarters these days.

Last week, Direct2Drive, GamersGate (digital distributors hate using the space bar), and Impulse announced they would not be selling Modern Warfare 2 so long as it included a mandatory Steam installation in order to activate the game. In effect, you could buy the game from any number of sources, but you could only play it through Valve’s online service.

A few weeks earlier, Gearbox’s Randy Pitchford made a mostly incoherent attack on Valve and Steam, saying that while he trusted Valve, he did not trust Valve. You read that right. Apparently Randy Pitchford, regular guy, trusts Valve but Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox Software and “guy in this industry,” sees a dangerous conflict of interest. Valve is a developer in competition with other developers, but it is also a distributor that markets games from those competing developers.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Pitchford’s stance has more to do with resentment than with actual business conflicts. While Gearbox has enjoyed a lot of success and produced a number of excellent titles (and superb expansions, back when that was their business), it has produced no franchise that is even within shouting distance of the Half-Life series, or the Source-powered juggernauts of Left 4 Dead or Team Fortress 2. More obnoxiously, Valve is sitting on a gold mine with the Steam platform, and its former peers and competitors now rely on Valve to sell their games.

But when Pitchford argues that Valve’s position as a game developer poses a conflict of interest with its role as the owner / operator of Steam, I lose the thread. First, Valve is not in a position where it needs to sweat the competition from other developers. Second, it is still in Valve’s interest to see that other developer’s titles do well on the platform, and to ensure they get a good deal compared to other outlets.

Frankly, as someone who purchased Gearbox’s entire Brothers in Arms series through Steam, I think Pitchford underestimates just how symbiotic his relationship with Valve actually is. When Hell’s Highway stalled at retail amid mediocre reviews and WW2 shooter-fatigue, it was on Steam that the game got a new lease on life through heavy promotion as a featured discount deal. It’s on Steam where a company’s back catalogue stands the best chance of being noticed and purchased by consumers, because Steam is omnipresent on PC gamers’ computers. When you open the program, it notifies you about important deals, some of them on games several years old.

Furthermore, the number of independent developers who have come to Steam’s defense says quite a bit about how Valve treats the people with whom it does business. From generous and straightforward contracts through promotion to prompt payments, Steam offers developers a number of good deals. So what, exactly, is so broken that it needs to be fixed?

I’m similarly confused about what the other digital distributors are up to, because their given reasoning seems a bit disingenuous. My hope is that it’s a publicity move aimed at getting the attention of the PC gamers who have already written off Modern Warfare 2 due to Infinity Ward’s antagonism to the platform where the franchise originated. Even though their objections are completely different, the other services are casting themselves as consumer advocates sticking it to a game that’s already unpopular with many of those consumers. Superficially, it looks like the other distributors are joining PC gamers at the barricades. If those gamers started voting with their dollars and made an effort to support these newfound allies, it would be to the benefit of Direct2Drive, GamersGate, and Impulse.

Still, it’s important to note that these services are boycotting Modern Warfare 2 for one reason only: it forces gamers to use Steam. Infinity Ward and Activision don’t care about this so long as Steam also provides them with good, uncontroversial copy-protection. But the distrbutors resent the hell out of this, because it means that they are being forced to grant Valve access to their own customers. Where you have to actually navigate to and browse around GamersGate’s and D2D’s websites, Steam constantly runs in the background while you are using it, always ready to provide a helpful reminder about a sale. From the other distributors’ point of view, they are being forced to cut their own throats.

From this consumer’s point of view, however, their reasoning is small-minded and not a little hypocritical. For one thing, it was seeing how well Steam worked that I became comfortable enough with digital ownership that I started trying the other services. I heard about Paradox’s anniversary sale on Steam and that led me to the Paradox-owned GamersGate, where there were even more items on sale. I was put off by a lot of negative reports I heard about Direct2Drive back when it launched, but I only recently felt confident enough to buy from them. Prior to Steam, however, I was a die-hard “physical ownership” kind of guy. Steam hasn’t just created Steam customers. It has created digital customers.

More annoying, however, is the self-righteousness of this boycott. From Direct2Drive’s Modern Warfare 2 page:

Thanks for your interest in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 from Direct2Drive.

At Direct2Drive, we believe strongly that when you buy a game from us, you shouldn’t be forced to install and run a 3rd party software client to be able to play the game you purchased. Because COD MW 2 requires you, the consumer, to do that, we aren’t able to offer the game via Direct2Drive at this time.

I strongly believe that as well, Direct2Drive. But I’m not certain you do. Because I find you are still selling Dawn of War II, which requires the odious Games for Windows Live “service” for online play. It will load every time I run the game regardless of whether I’m actually playing online.

I can also buy Grand Theft Auto IV via D2D, despite the fact that that game requires me to install Rockstar Social Club in order to play it. RSC provides, as nearly as I can tell, no real service and is just another way that the developer retains control of its product. I suppose since it is Rockstar it is not really a 3rd-party program, but it is nevertheless astonishingly consumer-unfriendly.

Nor does Impulse seem like it is standing up for the little guy. The problem with Steam, from Impulse’s point of view, is that it got to PC gamers first and is now in the exact position Impulse would like to occupy. The chief difference between Impulse and Steam is that Impulse has never had a product as successful as Half-Life 2 with which to leverage itself. But what is to be expected from a company that routinely brags about its DRM-free approach to publishing while tying its games to an online authentication service / storefront?

As for conflicts of interest, who is kidding who? Impulse is an arm of Stardock, a game developer just like Valve. Direct2Drive is owned by IGN, which is in turn owned by News Corp. You might know IGN as a site that reviews the games that it is also involved in selling. GamersGate was created by Paradox, another developer / publisher.

My worry here is that forces are lining up to try and change the way Valve does business, and I don’t see that consumers stand to gain anything from such changes. Not only are Valve and Steam the devils I know, but I don’t see them as devils of any sort. I have far more reasons to be skeptical when I hear the envious and the ethically compromised taking a stand in the name of integrity and consumer protection.