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Moving Away From 4X

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 21:58
Crossposted from my blog at Rindis.com.

This was originally going to be a completely different essay, but I've realized it's past time to tighten up my definitions some, so I'm not continuing having to stop and figure out/explain pieces of my foundation just so I can say something coherent. This really should have been the first post in the 'game genre' series. Well, second would have been acceptable.

So, now to talk about what's been the elephant in the room, the 4X genre. Borrowing from Wikipedia:

The term "4X" originates from a 1993 preview of Master of Orion by Alan Emrich, in which he rated the game "XXXX" as a pun on the XXX rating for pornography. The four Xs were an abbreviation for "EXplore, EXpand, EXploit and EXterminate".

....

While many strategy games arguably contain a similar "explore, expand, exploit, exterminate" cycle, game journalists, developers and enthusiasts generally apply "4X" to a more specific class of games, and contrast 4X games with other strategy games such as Command & Conquer. Hence, writers have tried to show how 4X games are defined by more than just having each of the four Xs. Gaming sites have stated that 4X games are distinguished by their greater complexity and scale, and their intricate use of diplomacy beyond the standard "friend or foe" seen in other strategy games. Reviewers have also stated that 4X games feature a range of diplomatic options, and that they are well known for their large detailed empires and complex gameplay. In particular, 4X games offer detailed control over an empire's economy, while other strategy games simplify this in favor of combat-focused gameplay. The next thing to note is that I both agree with the fact that '4X' adequately describes the course of a wide range of strategy games, and that I tend to define it even more narrowly than the restrictive game journalists. Because of the initial definition of "4X" with MoO, I always associated it with space conquest games. Part of this is also from the fact that the standard 4X cycle is implicit in the nature of space-based wargames. The standard idea, from Stellar Conquest and StarWeb on, is to start with one planet in a big, unknown universe, explore it, claim and settle it, build your empire into a powerful economic force, with which you can eliminate the other players and win the game.

In fact, MoO itself subverted this already existing style with its diplomatic model, and the ability of the game to end without conquest (the Galactic Council vote). For me, 4X naturally already meant games that strongly relied on this cycle without fiddling around with 'greater complexity' or 'intricate diplomacy' as differentiators, and I would indeed say those don't make an adequate definition. Reach For the Stars is not that complex compared to many strategy games, and there is no in-game support for any diplomatic status other than 'war'. But it is a space 4X game.

The heart of the 4X game is the interplay of discovery (explore), colonization (expand), development (exploit), and warfare (exterminate). I've touched on the role of colonization in some strategy games already, and should probably tackle those subjects explicitly soon.

But for the overall definition of '4X': Command & Conquer (to use Wikipedia's example) has you explore the map, and Tiberium fields are one of the things you look for. Then you send units out to get the Tiberium, and get it to your base so you can build more units to kill the enemy with. Sounds fairly 4Xish. And it is. As Wikipedia then points out, it can get hard to say many typical combat-heavy games are not 4X games without a lot of hair-splitting and tightening of definitions.

But I would say the difference is the hair-splitting of scope and emphasis. In fact, it has to be, as everything we are talking about here belongs to the general category of 'games about being rude neighbors and wanting their stuff more than they do' (and 4X, no matter how defined, is a subset of that). My first rough breakdown, with the genre labels I tend to like using:

  • Wargame
  • (Base-building) RTS
  • Fantasy Conquest
  • (Space) 4X
  • Empire Management
  • Civilization


There's more, and overlap, and complications, but that's enough to be going on with. I've also arranged them in something of a sliding scale with games that have detailed combat and little else at the top, and games with simple combat a lots of other detailed systems at the bottom.

There's some strangely specific ideas mixed in with some very broad ones. Of course, these are meant to be... real genres—genres where there are a number of different games that center around similar ideas or mechanisms, even if that is a fairly lumpy distribution. The main standout from that viewpoint is wargames, which is a superset genre with a long and varied history in both board and computer games, and has plenty of sub genres, like hex-and-counter, CDG, area-impluse, and so on. The definition in this list says they are games with combat, and no real economic or diplomatic systems. Risk fits here as easily as War in the East, but Third Reich starts separating out and moving down the list. That will sound a bit strange to an old board wargamer, but helps with the more general discussion I hope to continue soon.
Categories: Blogs

Fantasy Conquest

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 17:28
Crossposted from my blog at Rindis.com.

Medieval-style fantasy has long had a strong hold on the imagination. It didn't take long for fantasy to become a popular genre in computer games either. As various board wargame-derivative designs evolved during the '80s, a fairly distinct genre that I call 'fantasy conquest' emerged.

These are related to the more general '4X' games, but don't always hew to all parts of that style, probably because the distinctive space 4X game emerged in parallel. (There's also some internal bias, as I generally only think of 'space 4X' games as '4X' games, with non-space borne games not being part of the genre even though some can be very mechanically similar.) They are a fairly cohesive group; for some reason, as soon as you say 'fantasy' you start seeing heroes and touches of RPG tropes appear in otherwise normal strategic games. There's a good number of board game antecedents, from LOTR-themed Diplomacy variants to The Warlord Game and Borderlands, but I'm just looking at the computer game side here.

Warlords (1989) seems to be the start of this genre. I'm sure there's other strategic fantasy games from around this period—I have dim memories of seeing a few, but don't remember titles, and have not seen anyone else mention them. It's not properly a 4X game, as the map is non-random and fully visible the entire time; also there's not much to be done to the map. New towers (defensive installations that I've never seen anyone use) can be built, and the defensive values of cities can be improved, but there's no eXploration, and very little eXploitation.

In many ways, it's a straightforward game. Start with a city, it produces military units. Use them to capture more cities, and they produce more units. Go forth and defeat the other seven factions on the map. And this is the enduring backbone of the genre: cities are always valuable strategic goals; they're a bit less valuable here, as they are more numerous and less detailed than in other titles. Also, there's no castles, or rather, the identities of castles and cities are muddled together, as all these 'cities' look like little four-tower castles.

The new thing here is the heroes. The idea of singular, highly capable units in fantasy games is an old one, and the existence of 'hero' and 'superhero' units in miniatures are the mainspring that powered the invention of RPGs, but they're not so much of a constant at this level of abstraction. The interesting part here is not only do they exist, but they can go looting ruins and visiting sages scattered around the map. The main bonuses from this is that the hero might recruit monster 'allies' (ghosts, demons, dragons...), or find artifacts that will increase the abilities of the hero. Heroes can also gain experience and 'level up', gaining combat power and movement speed.

The second game (Warlords II, 1993) was pretty close to the original, but did make one important change: what a city could produce could change. You could 'sack' cities when you take them, which would grant gold, but reduce the options for production there. Each city had up to four slots of possible units, and you could purchase new unit capabilities in empty slots. Also, there were multiple maps (and the ability to add in new, user created, ones in the Deluxe version), with standard explore-the-world vision rules, making it a full 4X game.

However, one of the charms of the world of Erathia in the original was the fact that the dwarves were in one region, the gryphons in a different, overlapping region... and the units might be different. There was one city with better light infantry. A set with tougher, but slower, heavy infantry than normal. A city that produced wolf riders faster than normal. The cities, and world, acquired character from all these little differences. But now every unit of the same type was exactly the same, so that they can be plugged into any city.

Master of Magic (1994) was Sim-Tex's combination of SidCiv and Master of Orion and Warlords. Just as MoO introduced tactical battles as an essential element of space 4X games, MoM introduced it to fantasy conquest games. Cities become complicated places like in Civilization, with plenty of buildings to construct, that control what units can be built there. An interesting thing is that each city has its own native race, and that determines the buildings and units that can be built. The tree for the building requirements are always the same, but not all buildings are available to all races.

Civilization and MoO are heavy into the colonization aspect of their respective games. While that also exists in MoM,there's also a large number of neutral cities scattered across the landscape at the beginning of the game. Taking a cue from Civilization, there are also engineer units that can build roads for faster movement.

While some space 4X games have allowed different populations to mix on a single planet, I have yet to see this occur in a fantasy conquest game, even though that would be physically easier. However, fantasy conquest games that have different powers for different races, and separate them out by city, always allow a player to control whatever he can take, whereas some space 4X games force you to kill off alien populations rather than let you take them over.

Combat was resolved as a small miniatures game. Most units have a number of 'figures', each with their own attack and defense, so their ability erodes as casualties are taken. More powerful units generally have fewer figures, with the most powerful being singular monsters. Units also have experience levels, with veterans being somewhat more effective in combat than their inexperienced counterparts. And then there are heroes.

In Warlords, heroes were just a bit more capable units, with the ability to go dungeon delving, although a large collection of artifacts could make them nearly unstoppable. Here, heroes are personalities, each with his or her own set of abilities which grow and develop as they level up. There's all sorts of lairs and ruins scattered around the landscape. Heroes aren't needed to fight the inhabitants and get the treasure, but they do often generate artifacts that require a hero to use.

Finally, MoM used a complex magic system in place of Civ's technology. You play as a wizard holed up in his tower, sending minions out to conquer the world while you research your next world-bending spell. These spells add to combat, as units can be enchanted with any of a variety of bonuses, or magical creatures summoned. Also spells that effect the entire world can be cast. All of this adds a lot of interesting choices and interactions to the game, especially as no player has access to more than a small subset of all the available spells.

The next year, long-time RPG series Might and Magic took a detour into the strategy game space with Heroes of Might and Magic (1995). It featured cities with buildings to build, armies that fought in separate tactical battles, heroes and lots of places on the main map to visit for bonuses, that came with a bit of text to add an RPG 'encounter' feel.

In many ways, HoMM is notably unusual in the genre, while following its main features. First, heroes are not separate units, but merely a leader who allows armies to move across the map, with normal military units being immobile (kind of like computer RPG parties?). Cities are extra large structures on the map, which is also choked with a large number of impassible objects: mountains, forests (which are usually just slow terrain), lakes, and more, with creatures holding 'choke points', that must be defeated to access the next area (they also are used to guard small areas that have treasure behind them, like many dungeon monsters; the more area-based ones can be considered akin to the more plot-driven 'roping off' of areas in many computer RPGs).

HoMM also had a campaign game, where you progress from scenario to scenario, facing challenges to get further in, as had become popular in RTS games of the early to mid-'90s (though the entire game is present from the start, just the challenges got harder). It was weak in the first one, but later versions of the game attempt actually tell a story in the vein of Epic Fantasy novels. It also points up a change in scale. The first two Warlords games feature large swathes of land, continents even; MoM is explicitly depicting an entire world like Civ (or, actually, two). HoMM is much more constrained in scale.

Like MoM, it has a complex magic system, but like everything else, it is more constrained in scale. Only (some) heroes cast spells, and while they can have a powerful effect on combat, they only have an effect on combat. There are few permanent enchantments, no spells of vast scale affecting the entire world.

The initial game had four different types of heroes (two each 'good' and 'evil' and 'might' (combat bonuses) and 'magic' (spell casting)), which were each associated with a type of city, with it's own structures and unit types to recruit, with no real differences between heroes of the same type. Later games introduced skills, which you could choose between as they leveled up, allowing heroes that started out similar to act very differently.

Combat was fairly simple, considering that it did have it's own mini-game. An army could have up to six unit types in them, which all move and fight as a single 'stack' (even when there's hundreds of them present), akin to how MoM's progenitor MoO worked, but in opposition to the detailed combat system of MoM.

Despite (or more likely, because) of all of these simplifications, while maintaining a game style much closer to MoM than Warlords, HoMM has been the most successful brand in the genre, with seven games so far, plus various expansions and the like (Master of Magic has never had a sequel, Warlords has only had four games plus expansions and a parallel release, and slightly later game Age of Wonders is just getting to its third major release). It has also come a long way from its roots, though I still need to get to the post-3DO games (V through VII). Heroes got to intervene personally in IV, at the same time that armies got to move without a leader, and the ability to transfer units directly from one point to another without the tediousness of manually moving them was added in (which makes the game feel more like Warlords...).

The genre continues to be a popular one, with not only new HoMM games (now titled Might & Magic Heroes), but other series, such as the Elemental games coming out. I haven't played any of the recent games in the genre (yet), but the unique genre structure of strategic conquest and heroes acting out RPG tropes seems to be perfectly intact.
Categories: Blogs

A New World

Thu, 09/25/2014 - 11:06
Crossposted from my blog at Rindis.com.

An approximate pattern for 4X games in general is to start out with a single base/settlement, move out, find valuable terrain and claim it with further bases, solidify borders to keep others away from the valuable bits you've found, and then go take their stuff.

Thus, these games generally start out as ones of colonization. Whether it's sending ships out into the galaxy, or settling the barbarian-infested wilderness, it's much the same. Colonizing the New World is a natural fit for the common strategy game desire of building up. But, other than a fad in the late-'80s to mid-'90s it has not been a popular subject. More interesting, they're a fairly disparate bunch.

Gold of the Americas (1989) from SSG is a favorite of mine, in part because it is so small. It covers three centuries at a rate of a decade per turn, and is playable in an afternoon. You play as the king's viceroy in the New World, in charge of colonizing and developing the new world so as to fill the King's coffers back in Europe. Europe itself only imposes itself in the game in the form of support from the King (if you paid your taxes...) and deciding who is at war or allied among the four powers. Slaves can be imported and exploited along with the native Indians, and at low development, colonies can die out.

Sid Meier's Colonization (1994) is a spin-off of Civilization, and it shows. However, it does a lot of things differently that give it a good colonial feel. Population, and units on the map are interchangeable, and can be shifted from city to city; in contrast, there is not a lot of population growth in the game; population generally comes from Europe. Population exists in several forms, from convicts and indentured servants (who are not as productive as normal 'free' population) to more productive specialists. Slavery does not show up, nor the dying off of the natives from disease, though they may 'convert' and come live in your settlements. Trade is important, with a need to send cargo back to Europe to sell to buy tools and weapons (until you can produce them yourself). And finally, the game is completely goal oriented: instead of just trying to build the best colonies you can in the time provided, you must declare independence and win the resulting Revolutionary War to beat the game.

Conquest of the New World (1996) is close in structure to Colonization, but with a lot of attention on the world environment. The terrain is done in a simple 3D style, with elevations shown. Exploration is explicitly rewarded with points awarded for the first player to explore the length of a river or a prominent mountaintop (and the ability to name the feature). Combat is more involved, using a simple mini-game that is well done. The influence of Europe is minimal, with further colonies having to be be built as settlers from existing one. Not only is independence not necessary for winning the game (but it does add to the victory point total), but you can play as the natives and attempt to 'federate' the other tribes and establish a powerful native nation to resist the colonials.

[Imperialism II (1999) isn't really a colonization game, but that is part of what it shows. The New World is important because it has materials that are needed to make your nation more productive, but victory is determined purely by the Old World. The Europa Universalis series (2000-2013) is also in this period, and features similar concerns though it is more oriented to colonizing the region rather than specific worries for particular trade goods.

All of these games feature exploration, but only Conquest tries to make it a goal sufficient unto itself (though Colonization also has 'goodie huts', of rewards scattered through through the world). Exploration is probably the most abused system in gaming. You either know what's there or not. On the scale of any of these games, exploration is not a binary proposition. Sure, there's hills over there, and mountains further off, but what's the place really like? How fertile? How many villages in the area? I'd love to see a system where you slowly progress from very general knowledge to more detailed, as you move from small expeditions moving through the area, to regular trade, to settlement.

One of the nice points of Colonization is the treatment of the natives. They are split up into a number of generalized tribes, that differ in how powerful they are (and how much loot they have), and will each have their own relations with different European powers. They can trade, and train people into specialists, and slowly get alarmed as European presence continues. They can gain horses and guns and become more dangerous. Only Imperialism II and Europa Universalis come close to this, but without as much interest. Conquest allows you to play as the 'high natives', but the representation of the various Indian tribes is shallow.

Overall, I am surprised that we haven't seen more games on the subject. I'm pretty sure Conquest was inspired by Colonization, but the chain stopped there. There is a new version of Colonization (on the Civ IV engine), but it is a very faithful re-release of the original, and not really a new game. Perhaps these games (and GotA and Colonization in particular) said most of what needed to be said, but I think there's room for a very interesting exploration-based game, if someone wants to tackle the challenges of partial knowledge.
Categories: Blogs

Reviewed: Hellsing Ultimate

Sun, 09/21/2014 - 01:41



Ready for some Halloween entertainment?

Hellsing Ultimate is now the third title to officially make it to my august list of anime suitable for viewing by adults. I really wasn't expecting it to make the list at all as, again, I am not a fan of anime, nor of horror, and especially not of vampire stories. Personally, I find the whole vampire craze to be as banal as the more recent zombie craze. Blood suckers don't terrify me in the same way meeting a werewolf would (this probably has something to do with being exposed to vampire schlock like Twilight for too many years). But Hellsing Ultimate is commendably different. In the same fashion that Guillermo del Toro is seeking to rehabilitate the vampire with his solid television series The Strain, Hellsing Ultimate is going back to vampires that don't sip as much as crunch (sorry about the large images! I am just too lazy to resize them for here :)):



Yeah, they are pretty nasty. Even the official webpage emphasizes this fact:


Remember when vampires had fangs? Remember when they were known as terrifying monsters that stalked the night, instead of moody teenagers that sparkle in daylight? It’s time to drive a stake through the lovesick heart of contemporary vampire nonsense. Satisfy your bloodlust with Hellsing Ultimate, the definitive action-horror anime. That is truth in advertising right there!

But here is the kicker: while this is what initially caused me to give Hellsing Ultimate a viewing, that is not what ultimately hooked me into the series. In an unexpected twist reminiscent of Girls und Panzer, Hellsing Ultimate ultimately snared me with its wonderful characters. Okay, they weren't necessarily "wonderful"in the lighthearted way of GuP's Ukari Akiyama or Mako Reizei, but more in the captivating way of a homicidal maniac. Take, for example, Sir Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing, the freaky chick who can be seen here:



I wasn't at all thrilled with the character when she was first introduced because of how we initially meet her: as a young, frightened girl being hunted by her uncle. As I watched her cower, all teary-eyed, from her father's insane brother - he sought to steal the lucrative family business of monster hunting away from her - I figured I knew how this was going to play out: that she would survive, of course, but be more forgiving for the experience. That she would bring a new compassion and feminine sensibility to the rough and tumble world of monster hunting.

Nope.

Much to my pleasure, Sir Integra Hellsing is actually revealed to have become a stone-cold killer because of that experience. She had morphed into a monster hunter of such singular purpose and dedication that her feminine side had actually become muted, hence the reason why she is referred to as SIR Hellsing rather than Lady Hellsing. And I, like her devoted employees, came to love her all the more for it. Nice trick!

And then there is police officer Seras Victoria (I love the names in this show!):



She inadvertently becomes the newest member of the Hellsing organization when a plague of vampires wipes out her police department. She does survive the attack but only as a newly minted, if reluctant, vampire. Her journey is a tragically fascinating one as the viewer gets to see her slowly morph from an innocent, country bumpkin police gal into a raging tool of vampiric vengeance.

And then we have this guy:



That would be Hellsing's secret weapon, her personal pit bull, the vampire king A La Carte...er, I mean Alucard (an obvious palindrome). To be honest, he turned out to be my least favorite character of the show because of his tendency to burst into completely inappropriate bouts of manical laughter, not to mention that fact that he is really, really OP. Regardless, I ultimately came to applaud the show for his presence because he represented a return to the hateful, spiteful, revolting vampires of old. Alucard is very reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter; a monster who relishes manipulation and killing (and feasting on his victims, of course) as a way of affirming his superiority. And he is very good at it.

Then there is perhaps the best anime character I have ever come across:


Meet Father Alexander Anderson, the "Bayonet Priest," the genetically engineered slayer of vampires and other evil, and the foremost soldier of the secretive Vatican Section XIII, the Iscariot Organization. If Alucard is a bat out of hell, Anderson is the man holding the net to catch him. Indeed, whenever these two men are in the same scene together, it is...divine. Remember that age old question about what happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force? Same thing going on here, and the resultant sparks and explosions are wonderful to watch. Besides being a great antagonist to Alucard, Father Alexander is just a wonderful character because of his zealotry. You just have to love a man who is inclined to say such things as "violence is never the right answer...unless used against heathens and monsters." LOL! Lord, how the world could use a man like him right about now!

These characters, and many more that populate the world of Hellsing Ultimate, really serve to elevate the show to a much higher level of engagement than one might initially expect from a show about vampire hunters. I was expecting something closer to a Scooby Doo mystery, but ultimately found a drama closer to a gritty Dick Wolf crime drama.

Of course, having great characters without a great plot would be a waste. No worries here, though! The ultimate plot for Hellsing Ultimate is one heck of a wild ride. Not knowing anything about this series prior to watching it, I figured it was going to be about Sir Hellsing and her exploits battling the creatures of the night. While the first episode does begin with such a simple premise, the show quickly spirals into wild territory that involves a new world war were a Nazi - yes, Nazi! - vampire army returns to conquer the world (albeit, the action is entirely focused on England). Of course, Hellsing's organization of "Protestant Knights" soon finds itself on the front lines of this renewed invasion. But before Hellsing and company can come to grips with this new situation, things quickly become even wilder when a rogue Vatican archbishop by the name Enrico Maxwell takes advantage of the chaos and launches his own Catholic "Reconquista" of England! Good times!


Vampire Nazis on the attack!
What results are some truly excellent carnage-filled scenes of battle that stretch from a carrier at sea, to the streets of London, and even to the halls of Hellsing's HQ itself. The battle for Hellsing's manor is particularly engrossing because it requires the shrinking violet Seras Victoria to step up and lead a die-hard band of French mercenaries, known as the Wild Geese (great movie, btw!), in vicious, last man standing combat. What results is something reminiscent of Stalingrad...but with, you know, vampires. And French soldiers. And magic. Moving on....


The Wild Geese before all heck breaks loose


Now, there are "vampires" and there are "VAMPIRES!" in Hellsing Ultimate. Rank and file vampires are rather unremarkable, but boss vampires are formidable creatures with unique powers. This is what makes them so terrifying. Alucard, for example, has powers that can best be described as demonic, something that makes him particularly vicious when provoked.


Alucard's ability to summon the hounds of hell
But other vampires have other "gifts." For example, the Nazi vampire Zorin Blitz is a master of illusion:



In Hellsing Ultimate, even non-vampires can have special, magical powers. Walter, for example, Hellsing's "butler" and former master vampire hunter, can summon lethal magical strings that cut opponents to pieces:



Now, you would probably think that having the ability to call up magical weaponry would probably be enough when fighting the creatures of the night, right? Nope. This isn't some lame fantasy tale where everyone is reduced to magic and swords! We're in the modern world here, and that means modern weaponry! Oh yes! Bring it on!

Check out Alucard's preferred sidearm, something that probably would qualify as a "hand cannon":


Or Seras Victoria's preferred undead slaying weapon, a recoilless rifle:


"Bitches love cannons"
This show is a NRA fantasy come true! As with Larry Correia's fantastic Monster Hunter International, the weaponry in this anime is given detailed attention, something that makes it all the more awesome when the viewer gets to see it used in battle. I also liked how the equipment often comes with Christian battle cry embellishments:



Cool, cool stuff.

Needless to say, when you have central characters wielding magic and sporting some awesome weaponry, the resulting fights can be downright epic. Really, the characters in Hellsing Ultimate have more in common with the superheroes of The Avengers than they do with your typical cast of mortal vampire slayers. When these guys engage in battle, it is like watching the gods of Olympus slugging it out. Again, the coolness factor goes way up in these moments.

[BTW: I am sorry to keep using that word, "cool," but it really does best describe Hellsing Ultimate. In many ways, this anime is to the vampire genre what The Matrix was to cyberpunk. It is just a really cool re-imagining of a stale genre.]

What else is there to praise about Hellsing Ultimate? I have to say that the artwork is darn good. I understand that Hellsing Ultimate is based upon a multi-part graphic novel, and it shows in a good way. This anime definitely tries to preserve that manga style, leading to some memorable scenes that really are quite stylish at times.

Lastly, the music often hits the right note (pun) at the right time. Maybe not Cowboy Bebop good, but good nonetheless.


So, What's not to Like?

First off, this is no Girls und Panzer. Unlike that charming bit of anime that is quite safe for youngsters, Hellsing Ultimate comes with a well-earned Mature rating. There is a lot of swearing, tons of gore, and almost non-stop violence. So be warned.

Secondly, this is one of those anime series where the original Japanese soundtrack is inferior to the dubbed English version. Hellsing Ultimate is a story with an international cast of characters that spans Brits, French, Italians, Germans, and Irish personalities. With that in mind, I was somewhat surprised to hear that the original Japanese cast didn't attempt to try to sound like the respective nationality of their particular character; everybody just sounded Japanese. With the English dubbing that noticeable problem isn't an issue. While the English cast did resort to cliched accents, it nonetheless made for a marked improvement to the acting and, hence, the immersion.

Lastly, this show suffers from that annoying anime tendency to resort to farcical humor at the most inopportune moments. Nothing ruins a tense moment as having something like this suddenly pop up in the anime:



I am sorry you needed to see this

It is almost as if the professional animator left the studio only to have a 13 year old boy sneak in and vandalize the show with his own scribblings and bizarre sense of humor! Yes, I understand that there is probably some sort of cultural thing going on here but that doesn't make it any easier to take! This is a particularly bad tragedy for this anime because most of this goofball stuff centers on Seras. As I wrote above, she is an interesting character to watch because of the terrible predicament she finds herself in, but stuff like this just reduced the girl to an annoying clown. Not funny, not entertaining. More like unwanted graffiti, especially when the rest of the show is so dark. Can we get a "director's cut" where this unwanted slop is excised from the series?

Lastly, this anime is a ten part series. Sadly, the final two episodes will not be made available in the US of A until October of this year. Seeing where episode 8 ended, this amounts to torture!


Concluding Thoughts

As with Girls und Panzer, I never expected to get much beyond the first episode or two; I really just called this show up on a YouTube lark. The fact that I ultimately found myself watching episode after episode, enjoying each one more than the last, says just how much this show really shines as an example of a fresh take on a tired subject. When I wrote my GuP review, I remarked how the tank battles in that piece of anime was far superior to anything I had seen come out of Hollywood in a long time. I rhetorically asked how badly was Hollywood doing its job for that to happen? I say the same thing here, except that this is actually a MORE embarrassing situation because Hollywood is constantly pumping out vampire flicks. Just how poorly is Hollywood performing again if this bit of Japanese anime is providing something more original and more engrossing than any vampire flick I have seen emerge from their army of writers and multi-million dollar budgets in a long time? It is at times like this I wish I was a producer who could get on the phone and acquire an IP such as Hellsing Ultimate. In the right hands, this anime would absolutely shine as a movie. Sadly, with movies like Dracula Untold on the horizon, it looks like Hollywood is still stuck in the same, tired slump. Do yourself a favor: skip that movie and watch this instead. Here, I'll even get you started:





SCORE: 4 OUT OF 5 STARS


PS: How do I get my eyeglass lenses to shine like that?!? :D
Categories: Blogs

Building Economy

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 15:29
Crossposted from Rindis.com

I've been playing a fair amount of the old city-builder game Pharoah: Gold recently. (Bought it on sale at GoG at the beginning of the month.) And I've been pondering why.

I have played SimCity. I have a copy of SimCity 2000 (bought for cheap after 3000 came out). I have spent time with OpenTTD.

I think they're all fine enough. But they don't hold my attention for long. A few hours fiddling around with them and I'm done.

I am, in general, a strategy gamer. Which is a computer game genre definition so broad as to be close to useless. (The excellent strategy game podcast Three Moves Ahead has had occasional side discussions on 'what is a strategy game?', with Tom Chick asserting that 'everything is', and even making an interesting argument for The Sims as a strategy game.) There is, of course, a large number of sub-genres (ranging from overly-broad to tiny niche), and I've been meaning to talk about some of the smaller ones I've observed.

But, anyway: city-builders. SimCity is kind of the genre definer, and is generally a pure sandbox simulation 'game' without a lot of goals, and limited interaction with the actual mechanics. Pure sandbox games generally don't do much for me; that's the common thread between the games that don't hold my interest that I mentioned earlier.

Caesar was a popular city-builder game, that spawned three sequels, and two spinnoffs based on the the Caesar III engine (Pharoah and Zeus). I enjoyed the Caesar III demo way back when (somewhat to my surprise, and that demo is why I bought Pharoah: Gold). I've now played Pharoah: Gold obsessively for over a week, which is now tailing off (I think).

The difference is that while the Caesar/Pharoah-model city-builders look a bit like SimCity, there is a decided difference in execution. As mentioned, SimCity is pretty much pure sim. You zone areas, lay out roads, and mix in essential services, and wait to see if the sims can put together a viable economy. Pharaoh is actually an economic engine game (who knew I had that much eurogamer in me?). You are placing specific industries to produce raw materials which are then taken to other industries to turn them into usable goods which are needed for other purposes (building weapons, improving living conditions, etc). It can be seen as a close-up of the 'exploit' part of 4X (a genre I regularly enjoy).

This brings me to another game that I discovered and enjoyed years ago that could be mistaken for a city-builder: The Settlers II: Gold Edition. It is fairly close to Pharoah/Caesar, but is easier to see as not related to SimCity. Settlers is a pure economic engine game. Every building has a cost in lumber and stone to build. So you need to cut down trees, convert it to lumber and quarry stone to get anything done. The full set of resources needed to get everything done is much more complicated (but mostly turns into providing food to miners to generate iron and coal for creating weapons and armor, and gold to pay/upgrade the resulting soldiers), but does not involve any hidden mechanisms.

Pharoah on the other hand still has the 'sim' aspect of the residents having wants and desires that are not entirely surfaced to the player. A basic building needs to be provided with water, so the residents do better and upgrade it; then they need a bazaar to get food from, then religion.... But there is also 'desirability'. Placing a storage yard (for example) too close to a residential area makes it a less desirable location, and the building can only climb so far up the scale of increasing wealth. While there are ways to look at this in the game, no real guidance is given. How far does this effect spread? Which buildings are the worst for desirability? There's also an 'overall' mood which can keep new immigrants from arriving when you open up new areas, but I have no idea what contributes to that....

There is a final, very important thing that Pharoah and Settlers share that SimCity does not: They both have campaigns, which have missions. I'm not set loose to just make my own city. I have goals. In Settlers II this is to take control of the gate that leads to the next island/mission (or just wipe everyone else off the map in the alternate campaign; both campaigns are quite challenging). Pharoah starts with a 'build these buildings' format common to a lot of early/tutorial RTS campaigns, but is looking like it is shifting over to 'hit these arbitrary metrics in a challenging situation'. That makes sense, but I have a feeling I'm going abandon the campaign if it continues down that road.

There's also a framing story around the main campaigns in both. Settlers II is the story of a Roman expedition that got shifted to some pocket universe, and is trying to find it's way back through a succession of gates, hoping that one will lead home. Pharoah is about the successive generations of a family of administrators serving Egypt; the transition I mentioned happens at the beginning of the Old Kingdom stage. The former is far more effective at keeping me playing, but the latter is nicely used for a loose presentation of the history of Egypt.
Categories: Blogs

HPS Games

Tue, 09/09/2014 - 19:23
Originally Posted by Old Dog Good Day,

I have a number of HPS Simulations that I have listed on Amazon. Prices are either the lowest listed, or match the lowest listed.

Thanks for your consideration.
Old Dog


Squad Battles

Advance of the Reich

Tour of Duty

Early American Wars

War of 1812

Naval Battles

Guadalcanal

Modern Air Power

War Over the MidEast

Civil War Campaigns

Chickamauga

Ozark

Napoleonic Battles

Austerlitz

Waterloo


Thanks again.
Categories: Blogs

HPS Games

Mon, 09/08/2014 - 12:13
Originally Posted by Old Dog Good Day,

I have a number of HPS Simulations that I have listed on Amazon. Prices are either the lowest listed, or match the lowest listed.

Thanks for your consideration.
Old Dog

Squad Battles

Advance of the Reich

Tour of Duty

Early American Wars

War of 1812

Naval Battles

Guadalcanal

Modern Air Power

War Over the MidEast

Civil War Campaigns

Chickamauga

Ozark

Napoleonic Battles

Austerlitz

Waterloo

Tactical Studies Series

Point of Attack 2


Thanks again.
Categories: Blogs

The Fate of EVE Online

Wed, 09/03/2014 - 11:05
Word has it that CCP, creators of EVE Online, are closing their SF office and laying off numerous support staff. How that will affect EVE over the long term is uncertain, but it got me thinking about the state of the game and where it's headed. And, sadly, from where I sit it doesn't look good.

CCP wants a dark, dangerous, dystopian universe where actions have consequences and risk really means something. But the truth is that CCP has no idea how to create such a dynamic. What they've created instead is a chaotic stew of half-cooked ideas.

CCP and the EVE community rant and rave about the failures and childish gameplay of MMOs like World of Warcraft, and rightly so. But despite all the effort to make the gameplay more challenging and more consequence driven, EVE has devolved into as much of a pointless grind as WoW ever was. It just takes you a hell of a lot more time and effort to discover it's all been kind of pointless.

But it wasn't always that way. Back in the day, EVE had a ton of problems but it also had some very cool adaptive gameplay and a ton of potential. But slowly, inexorably, the most militant players systematically exploited every possible aspect of the game, forcing CCP to constantly make significant changes in order to try to maintain balance and stamp out the worst of the exploits. Sadly, the end result is a game that's so "fair" that there's hardly any point in even investing in your character. CCP has fallen victim to its own logic, and has helped foster a culture where the only thing that means anything is raw currency. Everything has been reduced to money, and since you can now easily buy as much game currency as you need with real world money, what's the point of playing at all?

You don't really get more powerful in EVE, and it's essentially impossible to really do anything meaningful beyond trolling your fellow players. So EVE, pretty as it is, is really nothing more than a giant sandbox to troll other people you don't know by blowing up stuff they don't really care about anyway.

EVE's purported goal was to be a persistent universe where actions had consequences, and one where those consequences mean everything. Instead, EVE has become an incredibly tedious, time consuming game where nothing means anything, really.

It's not all bad. There have been many small changes that add up to a significant quantity of overall improvement in the game. And you can still have some cool PvP action if you go and look for it. But EVE's problems are fundamental structural problems, and CCP won't ever change those things because the problems are simply beyond the skill level of the developers. The folks at CCP are wonderful game developers and they deserve credit for that. But though their technical prowess as developers is undeniable, their shortcomings as game designers is equally manifest.
Categories: Blogs

HPS Games

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 15:14
Originally Posted by Old Dog Good Day,

I have a number of HPS Simulations that I have listed on Amazon. Prices are either the lowest listed, or match the lowest listed.

Thanks for your consideration.
Old Dog

Panzer Campatigns

Tobruk '41

Ancient Wars

Roman Civil Wars

Squad Battles

Advance of the Reich

Tour of Duty

Early American Wars

War of 1812

French and Indian War

Naval Battles

Guadalcanal

Midway

Modern Air Power

War Over the MidEast

Civil War Campaigns

Chickamauga

Ozark

Napoleonic Battles

Austerlitz

Waterloo

Wagram

Thanks again.
Categories: Blogs

HPS Games

Sun, 08/24/2014 - 20:03
Originally Posted by Old Dog Good Day,

I have a number of HPS Simulations that I have listed on Amazon. Prices are either the lowest listed, or match the lowest listed.

Thanks for your consideration.
Old Dog

Panzer Campatigns

Tobruk '41

Ancient Wars

Roman Civil Wars

Squad Battles

Advance of the Reich

Tour of Duty

Early American Wars

War of 1812

French and Indian War

Naval Battles

Guadalcanal

Midway

Modern Air Power

War Over the MidEast

Civil War Campaigns

Chickamauga

Ozark

Napoleonic Battles

Eckmuhl

Austerlitz

Waterloo

Thanks again.
Categories: Blogs

The Not-So-Secret Secret World

Sun, 08/24/2014 - 17:09


I think one the greatest events in any gamer's life is that magical moment when he knows that he has discovered an original game universe, one that he intuitively knows he will be exploring and enjoying for a great many years to come. Such moments are unfortunately rare. Gaming is no different than other media, be it books, television, or movies: works of true genius are exceedingly rare, so such magical movements are few and far between. For me, I've only had two such gaming moments: when I first discovered the fantastically grim military science fiction setting that is Warhammer 40K,and now that I have belatedly discovered the wonderful Shadowrun universe (thanks to Harebrained Schemes fantastic PC translation).

When I first heard about the Shadowrun setting I was not all that interested because it seemed like such a weird mash-up of differing genres....

Shadowrun initially seems like your classic cyberpunk setting: a near future, a high tech dystopian world where mega-corporations rule with an iron fist due to their vast wealth and power. What is more, it is world where trans-humanism has become the norm, where people replace entire body parts with cybernetic enhancements, and can "jack in" and experience virtual reality in the same way as Neo experienced The Matrix. And, of course, it wouldn't be a cyberpunk setting without the crucial element of small time hustlers who run missions - "shadowruns" - for corporations, missions that can involve everything from corporate espionage, to outright hits on competing executives. Needless to say, these seemingly simple missions usually go very wrong for the runners in classic noir form, leading to some entertaining and grim scrambling for all involved. Good stuff!

But where Shadowrun throws a curve is by introducing a healthy dose of Tolkien into the mix. In 2011 "the Awakening" occurs, where a portion of humanity slowly mutates into the archetype fantasy races of dwarves, trolls, elves, etc. However, unlike their somewhat trippy portrayal in fantasy media, in the world of Shadowrun these races basically blend back into society as would any other racial subculture (I particularly like how trolls often come across as goombah Italians. LOL!). In addition to the genetic mutations, magic has also started to come back into the world, something that makes for a fascinating contrast with the setting's cyberpunk high technology. Of course, if you have the reappearance of the fantasy races, and you have the return of magic and wizardry, well, you can count on the reappearance of dragons, ancient horrors, vampires, and even the confirmation of urban legends like the existence of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster.

Like I said: "a weird mash-up" that never seemed like it would work. Let me tell you: it DOES! And in a big, addictive fashion! The world of Shadowrun is one of of those things that is simply greater than the sum of its parts. By taking such disparate genres as science fiction and fantasy, and by putting them together into the same Petri dish, you get a mix that is absolutely volatile with fascinating potential!

And I am now a rabid fan.

Since discovering this wonderful setting I have since learned that its generic name is "urban fantasy", a catchall term that denotes a modern city-based story that contains the elements of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. It is, in short, a smorgasbord of imagination and escapism. I guess in retrospect it isn't a surprise why it has become so popular seeing how it spans so many genres. And popular it is. A quick search on Amazon reveals a growing library of urban fantasy titles (with a surprising number involving romances - I guess that is the Twilight phenom at work?). In fact, one of this year's Hugo Award winners is the urban fantasy title, Warbound: Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles, by conservative author Larry Correia of the famed Monster Hunters International series of urban fantasy.

It looks like urban fantasy is here to stay. Huzzah!

Well, as it often the case with me, I am never just content to have fun with a single game. No, I immediately become restless and demand "more, more, more!" (in internet speak: "MOAR, MOAR, MOAR!"). And that is how I stumbled upon Funcom's MMORPG, The Secret World.

Well, "stumbled upon" might not be the precise term because this game had snagged my attention from the moment it's first teaser was unveiled back in 2011. It is a good one:


Truth is, as soon as the "dark days are coming" tag line appeared I was hooked. That is, unfortunately, my gut feeling too concerning the state of the world. I mean, when Ivy League universities offer a satanism major, when bloodthirsty heresies are on the march, when professors of the dark arts encourage the slaughter of the innocents, and when cadavers walk the earth to instigate mayhem, happy days are most definitely not ahead of us. Dark days indeed....

Now, even though I was interested in this game from the start, I never actually bothered to check it out. The primary reason is that I just don't care for MMOs because I often find the premise to be sabotaged by the restrictive nature of a MMO design (more on that later). What is more, when The Secret World first launched, it was the standard MMO dealie of needing to purchase the base game followed by a reoccurring monthly membership fee. Not gonna happen. A game developer will get one out of me, but not both. So this game just dropped off my radar.

Now, however, things have changed. Fueled by my new found love of urban fantasy, I recalled this game and eagerly sought it out. Sure, it is not a cyberpunk-themed urban fantasy as is Shadowrun Returns (too bad), but it is definitely of the same vein what with its theme of a contemporary setting where "every myth, conspiracy theory and urban legend was true". Close enough for me! Even better, I discovered it has since gone down the Guild Wars route of ditching the monthly subscription. Great! Excited by the game's prospects, I requested a free three day pass from the community and off I went into The Secret World....

....And landed smack in a by-the-numbers MMORPG. Darn it.

The game starts off interestingly enough with a compelling cutscene where your custom designed character has a weird dream about being forced to chose a side in a coming conflict. Upon awakening, he discovers that he has acquired magical powers...powers he can barely control. Days pass and your character is seen mastering his new gifts. Eventually a knock on his apartment door is heard and depending upon which faction the player has chosen during the character creation process - the Templars, the Illuminati, or the Dragons - a messenger summons the player to the HQ of his specific faction where he is to be briefed on the new reality of monsters and magic becoming part of the world once again. All of this is executed very well. The cutscenes are nicely rendered, the dialogue is sharp, and the voice acting is quite excellent.

This solid introduction comes to an end and the player is off on his first assignment to combat "the Filth" (great term!) that is slowly corrupting the world. Tragically, it is here that I first felt my enthusiasm for the game slipping. In a bizarre move, The Secret World, a game that describes itself as being about vampires hunting "for mortal blood in London nightclubs" and about demons "lurking in the shadows of Seoul", incongruously decides to deposit the player in the decidedly un-urban Maine city of Kingsmouth, a classic small New England town that is thematically as far removed from an urban setting as possible. In fact, it isn't all that far removed from the typical medieval villages players usually encounter in a MMORPG, one of the cliched settings this game was supposedly going to buck. I really was dumbfounded by this choice. Now, that is not to say that the game doesn't do a good job of realizing this setting - Kingsmouth proves to be brought to life with vivid detail - but New York it is not.


This disappointment was quickly followed by another: the typically dull "gofer" (aka: "Fed-ex") missions that are part and parcel of the MMO genre - this is where you need to go someplace, collect a certain amount of something and bring it back to the mission giver. Boring. However, even here there is some nice chrome on hand as each story mission gets its own fully voiced cutscene, something that does serve to make these threadbare missions seem as something more important than just pointless grinds for XP...which is what they really are.

So my character sets out on his first gofer mission and discovers another tiring MMO convention: the large packs of monsters - in this case, trite zombies - roaming the countryside. Again, this is a failing of the core MMO design: if you are going to have potentially hundreds of people playing the game simultaneously, you need to make sure there are plenty of baddies hanging around so everyone gets a chance to play the part of the hero. Same thing here. Even worse, these packs usually respawn quite quickly, too, so as to further ensure no shortages of moving targets, a convention that I have always found counteracts any sense of progress in clearing out the bad guys. Sigh.

The triteness of packs of roving monsters is particularly bad in TSW due to the nature of the game itself, and here's why: the early part of the TSW goes to great lengths to try and convince the player that he is standing at the threshold of a new reality, one that the rest of the world is still largely oblivious to (albeit, a recent "terrorist attack" in the Tokyo subway system might change that). Fine. But judging by the massive amount of beasties roaming the Kingsmouth / Solomon Island locale, this isn't the beginning of a gradual infiltration by the Filth, but rather it is a full-on invasion that is anything but secret! I was really disappointed by this because I was hoping my character was going to be involved in an gradually escalating investigation into a paranormal presence - indeed, that is precisely how this initial mission was described. But upon entering Kingsmouth, it is clear that you are just another grunt in a battle for an entire town under open assault by paranormal forces! How is the "Secret World" remaining secret when entire towns are being overrun with otherworldly armies?!?

And then I came to the combat. Ugh. I hate MMO combat. I hate the button-mashing, I hate the stilted combat animations, and I hate the repetition. And it is all here. It did help a little that unlike fantasy-themed MMORPGS, The Secret World's modern setting permits the use of all sorts of firearms, from pistols to assault rifles. That is cool, but it would have been all the more "cooler" if the combat was skilled based, if the player could aim and fire the weapons himself like in a third-person shooter, instead of just hitting a button and watching the game roll some dice and produce a scripted combat animation. Still, being able to go into combat with duel pistols makes for a nice change of pace. Other weapons are available too, like bladed instruments, war hammers, and magic, of course, and players are free to mix and match as they see fit by using earned skill and attribute points to unlock new weapons and increase their deadliness. Again, nice...but still not the MMO revolution I was hoping TSW would deliver.

After an hour or two, I was quickly tiring of the stale MMO conventions that I had experienced in the game so far. The Secret World promised to be something different, but it wasn't. It was the same formulaic MMORPG I have played and abandoned many times before. If only this title was a single player RPG, something that would allow it to break free from the tired necessities of the MMO template! Then this setting could really shine as Shadowrun Return shines. Then we would truly have something special. But it wasn't, and we didn't. Sadly, I resolved to uninstall the game the next day.

But I didn't.

Instead, I found myself logging back in...for some reason I couldn't quite explain (witchcraft?). And once again I quickly found myself gritting my teeth as I suffered through the banal MMO conventions that littered this game. But why couldn't I stop playing it?

I decided that it was those darn missions. Those introductory cutscenes were really well done, and served as a preprandial treat to the actual meat of the quest. But more so that that, some of the quests were actually interesting in their own right. Sure, there were a bunch of those boring gofer quests, but even some of them were suitably spooky and fit in well with the "end days" theme of the game, leading me to actually looking forward to their final resolution. Not only that, but I eventually discovered that the game includes some nice artwork to compliment these quests. For example, when I uncovered a newspaper article relevant to a certain quest, instead of getting what I expected - a pop up window with a transcription of the article - I instead got an actual picture of the article. In another mission I located a cell phone and was treated to an actual in-game image of the phone with relevant text message. I was happy to discover that TSW didn't take the lazy route of just text, text, and more text, but incorporates the sort of art assets one usually encounters in an old school point and click adventure.

Now, in addition to these rather straight-forward gofer quests, I discovered two other types that did add some nice variety to the game. For example, The Secret World has some very interesting investigation missions. In these quests, the player is presented a mystery that he must solve. Now, solving these missions breaks with the linear nature of the gofer quests by usually requiring the player to go outside of the game and research topics on wikipedia, or even visiting some faux webpages created especialy for the game, to find the necessary bit of info that advances the story. Frankly, this is something I have wanted to see in a MMO for a very long time (I mean, the player is forced to be constantly online anyway, so why not make use of the internet in the game?). While I do think that these investigation missions can be ridiculously hard, largely because the game sort of dumps the player at a narrative dead end and expects him to pull his hair out until he finds the right course of action (thank the maker for the helpful wikis out there!), the mere existence of such puzzle quests really adds a sense of novelty, and mental challenge, to TSW.


Then there are the sabotage missions. Like the investigation missions, these made for a refreshing change of pace to the standard gofer missions. In fact, these missions are much closer to what I hoped would be the norm for The Secret World: quests that don't involve simplistic "kill this" or "fetch that" quest templates, but involve doing something much more suitably convert for a secret society operative, things such as infiltrating a facility, or needing to disable a security system, or even hacking a terminal. What is more, unlike the other quests, these missions involve isolated instances, something that slows the pace of the game and narrows the focus to just one player at a time - you! Because you are alone in these quests they are much more creepy, especially since they usually involve a boss monster of some type hiding in the shadows, awaiting its final battle. This is something that definitely adds to the "dark days are coming" paranormal feeling. Again, these sabotage missions are much closer to what I had hoped to find in TSW, something much more representative of a slow paced investigation into the paranormal rather than the open warfare, you-are-late-to-the-party nature of the main game world.

So I played a bunch of missions that second night and discovered some I really liked, many that were completely forgettable, and a handful that were just plain weird, but still concluded that The Secret World just wasn't my type of game. I would delete it after logging out.

But I didn't.

Instead I found myself logging in once again the following night. And I still didn't know why! What kept drawing me back?!?

This time I thought it was the oppressive nature of the setting of Kingsmouth - it really put its hooks into me. As I wrote earlier, this locale is something less than the exciting urban setting I was initially hoping for. Really, it is just a pastiche of the many small towns that have graced countless horror movies (particularly Antonio Island from The Fog - a deadly fog even haunts TSW's Solomon Island!). Be that as it may, Funcom has nonetheless managed to bring some real horror to this in-game setting. Despite the ridiculous amount of zombies and other creatures plaguing every nook and cranny of the town, not to mention the many cliched horror plot points borrowed by the various missions, the setting nevertheless becomes a very disturbing place after awhile. I didn't really appreciate this until I left Kingsmouth to return to my HQ back in London (I was in search of some cosmetic improvements - TSW seems very stingy with clothes and gear). While there, I found a local pub where I was able to listen in on a conversation between two long time Templars. As with much of the game, the writing was very good, and the tale they told was interesting as well as being informative of the game's backstory. But what really struck me was how I was relaxing for the first time in a long while. The background noise of happy patrons chattering away, not to mention the pleasure of not seeing a single filthy monster anywhere in sight really was a breath of fresh air after my time on Solomon Island. When it finally came time for me to depart this cosmopolitan slice of reality, I actually found myself dreading the return to the hellhole of Kingsmouth. It was then that I realized that The Secret World, despite all the limitations attendant to a MMO, actually had achieved something of what it promised to do: give us a chance to experience truly "dark days".

This realization of just what an unceasing horror show Kingsmouth actually was made me even more committed to following through on the quests to rid the town of its curse and restore some normalcy - despite the fact that my Templar supervisor warned me that my purpose was to investigate and not save; there are no conquering heroes when confronted with such evil. So I set out with gusto exploring Kingsmouth, now more determined than ever, but soon discovered something disconcerting: Kingsmouth is significantly bigger than I had first thought. While most of the initial missions take place within the reasonably sized town itself, the entire questing area of Solomon Island is at least three times bigger, with entire sections locked off until...who know when? This was going to take longer than I thought!

For the first time, I didn't log out of the game with the idea of deleting my account. Instead I planned to return the next night to uncover some more of the horror plaguing my first assignment.

But I never returned.

My trial had ran out.


Will I return to The Secret World? Incredibly, my answer is an unexpected "yes!" Even though this game suffers from all the frustrating shortcomings of the MMO genre, in the final analysis TSW managed to deliver on its (urban) fantasy premise in a very entertaining way. And let's be fair here: I've only sampled a handful of hours from the starting location of a game that has been under development for two years now. Having safely launched the game with boilerplate MMO content (this starting slice of TSW just screams safe game design), hopefully Funcom has since added material that is more daring. And even if they haven't taken that more adventurous step, I still have to say that what is in the game so far seems sufficient to keep me entertained for...well, certainly a few hours more, anyway.

Having said that, I should point out that I haven't actually purchased the game yet. Even though I am hankering to get back into The Secret World, I decided to put it on ice for a bit yet because, frankly, TSW is going to make for some fine Halloween gaming (especially seeing how Kingsmouth is decorated with jack-o-lanterns; apparently the dark days of the secret world arrived with the dark days of autumn). Of course, if a sale happens along I will not hesitate to jump on the game (TSW often sees 50% price cuts), but with that exception I will be content to wait until at least summer is officially over. The Secret World is so dark at times that I fear I will tear a hole in the universe and spill demons into our reality if I play the game in the sunlight of summer.

Well, that is the plan, anyway. When it comes to The Secret World, anything is possible. The game certainly made that clear.

[As usual, a better edited version of this article appears on my main blog: http://burkesjoystick.blogspot.com/2...et-world.html]
Categories: Blogs

Your Friendly Guide to DCGs

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 21:11

As I just blogged about, I am getting increasingly fatigued by modern gaming. Everything is "hurry, hurry, hurry!" Or, if not that, it is often about "second life" experiences. That is, it is about deep experiences where the player can invest hundreds and hundreds of hours immersing himself in a virtual world almost as tangible as his material reality (games likeSkyrim and Eve Online, come to mind). Now, I am a fan of such experiences - in fact, I think such games are what is best about modern gaming - but it can get all so tiring after awhile. Sometimes I just want to be able to sit down and quickly and easily invest myself into a game. You know, sort of like with a board game where you read the rules, set up the board, and off you go! No muss, no fuss.

Usually Chess is my go-to game in this regard. Despite its 21st Century online trappings, it remains first and foremost a classical board game in style and temperament. Indeed, it's these very same hoary characteristics that have proven so irresistible to me over the years. But as I suffer from "poor little rich girl" syndrome (but I suppose it would be with a 'guy' in there instead!) I can't help but to occasionally turn my back on this pearl and cast about for something new and different, something that not only has the endless stratagems of Chess, but also the inviting "pull up a chair and join in" gameplay as well.

And that is how I found myself in the world of digital card games.

Of course, I have heard of the grandmaster of such games - I speak of the world famous Magic: the Gathering, of course - but I have never actually tried it. Much like I was largely disinterested in the Dungeons and Dragons craze of the 1980s, I was never interested in the collectible card craze of the 1990s. That is, until now.

It would seem that the collectible - or is it 'tradable'? - card game craze has spread to PC gaming with all the virulence of a sub-Saharan Ebola breakout. I guess this is understandable as digital card games (DCGs), like their CCG/TCG paper counterparts, are designed to get the player in a collecting mood, hence it is perfect for an online translation with built-in "micro-transactions". For that reason alone there are now more DCGs than I can keep track of! I have to confess: after trying a bunch of them, I am now glad that this is a growing trend. A lot of these DCGs can be a lot of fun in a very Chess-like "easy to play, hard to master" kind of way.

With that in mind, I'd thought I would provide a quick synopsis of those DCGs I have tried and why you might want to as well. Just bear in mind that I really haven't had a chance to try any of these games too deeply yet, so I might be overlooking some great features, or even missing some flaws. The following isn't meant to be a review, just an overview of what I have discovered so far.

1) Scrolls by Majong



As soon as I saw this DCG's Chess-like battlefield, I knew I had to be an early adopter - something very unusual for me, especially when this game is still only in a v.1XX stage of development! But seeing how great it looked even at this early stage of development, not to mention having the legendary Minecraft dev studio, Mojang, behind it, I concluded this was a risk I was willing to take.

And I have not regretted that decision as Scrolls really does feel like Chess in a DCG world. Gameplay is simple: use your deck of cards (or "scrolls" in this game's terminology), currently divided into four armies - Growth, Order, Energy, and Decay - to call units onto the battlefield or to cast all sorts of spells, something only limited by the amount of resources you currently have available (resources are gained by sacrificing cards from your active hand). Once on the battlefield, your units attack after a specific countdown period ends (which, of course, can be influenced by the appropriate spell), eventually rushing across the board to hack away at anything in front of them, including the enemy's five idols that lay at the end of the board. Of course, your opponent is going to be doing everything he can to stop you from hacking away at his idols' fragile 10 hit points, including placing combat units and other obstacles in your path, to casting spells and other dirty tricks. Play continues in this fashion until one side loses three idols, signaling the end of the game. And that is pretty much all there is to this game!



But as with Chess, the simplistic gameplay hides a deep vein of strategy and tactics. Just putting together a deck that properly balances units, resources and spells is quite a game unto itself. Take that challenge, and add in the Chess-like battle board with its idols, lanes of attack, and units that can slide from attack lane to attack lane, and you have a lot on your plate to manage. And let me tell you: it all is a lot of fun. Oh, did I mention the crafting, as well? Yup, you can convert your duplicate cards into something better if you wish. So add that in there as well.

Of all the DCGs I have tried so far,Scrolls has the best art of the bunch. I know that doesn't sound like too much, but in a game genre where the cards are the primary focal point, the card's artwork is essential to getting the player immersed in the game's setting. Scrolls really knocked one out of the park here with all the art being really evocative of the fantasy world it seeks to create, one I hope we get to further explore with some sort of campaign.



Speaking about campaigns, there isn't one yet, but there are a bunch of "Challenges" where you can play against the AI for loot. And, of course, you can spar against the three levels of AI at any time, too. So there is sufficient gameplay for the loner who might not want to go online and compete against real people just yet.

The music in this game is also quite good, too. While it currently is limited, what is in the game also goes a long way to create an appropriate medieval atmosphere.

Another important point to mention: Scrolls, unlike the following DCGs, is NOT free-to-play, but requires an upfront purchase. This is something that I think might actually further its popularity as there is a degree of hostility to micro-transactions in the gaming world. So, once you buy the game, all the scrolls (cards) are yours to unlock!

It might still be in a very early stage of development, but I hope Scrolls makes it to a proper v1.0 because I think there is a lot of promise in this package already. The only downside to speak of is the small player base (about 1000 people online per 24 hour period). I suspect this will change once the game gets further along and closer to release.

2) Card Hunter by Blu Manchu


As Scrolls saw fit to step outside of traditional DCG design with its Chess-like board,Card Hunter has done the same by a) wrapping the experience in a very nostalgic Dungeons & Dragons wrapper, and b) making the player's cards into pieces of equipment for your questing party. This last point needs some explaining because it is so unique.

Unlike most other DCGs where the cards are the actual playing pieces, in Card Hunterthe cards represent the abilities that are integral to the equipment used by your party of card hunting adventurers. For example, in the following picture, you can see that my Elf warrior can equip a level 3 suit of "plain old armor" that comes with three types of armor cards that can be used to turn aside attacks:



It is this very clever use of incorporating cards that really sets Card Hunter apart from other DCGs. That, and the traditional RPGs elements of leveling up via XP, and collecting loot from fallen foes.

But there is also the nature of the gameplay itself. Really, Card Hunter is less a card game than it is a traditional turn-based game of tactics. Unlike your traditional card game where cards are placed this way and that on a flat surface, in Card Hunter the player is presented with something more closely resembling a match of D&D where figurines are used:



As you can see above (with my party heading into an ambush!), it really is a charming presentation. Also a well-thought out one as such things as line of sight, difficult terrain, other other aspects are displayed on the game board. Really, at times Card Hunter feels more like a tabletop wargame than it does a card game, especially seeing how your cards are just extensions of your gear. Gameplay even reinforces this notion as its tactical, "fire and movement" nature feels like anything but your typical game of cards (which makes me wonder why we haven't seen a WWII card game yet!). These little battles are actually quite challenging as the AI puts up a really good fight. I also love how the battles are linked together in a narrative framework along the lines of a proper D&D module:



All in all, Card Hunter is a wonderfully inventive package for the DCG enthusiast. Of all the DCGs I tried, I also think it is the most friendliest to those seeking an expansive single player experience as in addition to the MP battles, there are plenty of SP quests to go on, too. My only possible concern is that while Card Hunter is F2P, it can feel a bit pushy at times when it comes to getting you to open your wallet. While you can earn in-game currency from selling loot, this only seems to net you a few coins per adventure - something you'll burn through with all the equipment shops in this game! This means that you will probably have to buy more than a little "pizza", this game's premium currency, if you want to buy some decent gear in an expeditious manner. But I think what concerns me more is the fact that this game's "Basic Edition", which unlocks 11 Treasure Hunt adventures, 9 collectible figurines, 100 pizza slices and 1 month of premium club membership (which nets you extra loot), costs a pricey $25. And if you want the Attack of the Artifacts expansion that includes a similar line-up of goodies, that is another $15. All together that is $40, something that leaves the browser-based DCG (yes, CH is browser-based) genre behind and begins to approach the realm of a Play-to-Pay game. To be fair, I actually think I could see myself eventually springing for this package because Card Hunter is that good, but it still can lead to a bit of a price tag shock as far as I am concerned.

3) Duel of Champions by Ubisoft




When playing Duel of Champions, you definitely get the impression that some suit at Ubisoft was green with envy over the success of Wizards of the Coast's Magic: The Gathering and demanded: "What about our beloved fantasy franchise, Heroes of Might and Magic?!? Doesn't it deserve a DCG of its own?!?" Good question. And somebody at Ubisoft delivered a good answer with Duel of Champions.

Of all the DCGs I wrote about so far, Duel of Champions seems the closest to what I imagine a traditional CCG is, in that here the cards of your deck are the only stars of the show. No game boards, no RPG elements, just deck building and dueling. Fortunately, Duel of Champions makes this as interesting as possible.


In some ways, Duel of Champions is similar to Scrolls. Here, the name of the game is to whittle away the 20 hit points of the opposing champion who lies at the far end of the board, much like the opposing idols in Scrolls. And while there are no actual pieces as inScrolls, the player's unit cards behave in much the same way as the pieces in Scrolls in how they unleash attacks on opposing units, and can even slide from row to row in order to seek a less obstructed path to the enemy champion. Likewise, there are a variety of spells that you can cast to buff/debuff units on the field.

But where Duel of Champions differs from Scrolls, and just about every other DCG I've tried, is how this basic gameplay formula is given tremendous depth due to a slathering of other elements. For example, there are three different resources players need to manage in DoC - Might, Magic, and Destiny - and all are needed to make use of the different types of units/spells. Then, in addition to the actual unit and spell cards, you also have other types of cards to play, such as "Buildings" that provide location-specific benefits to units, or even "Event" cards that not only provide benefits to both players, but also manage to add a sense of a larger world to the game:



There are also Fortune cards to consider, cards that can fundamentally change the rules of the game. Finally, there are even "Ongoing Spell" cards last from turn to turn until disrupted by a counter-spell. Here is one of my favorites: Poisonous Bulbs:




Now you know why the game board has so many different slots for different types of cards! Add in the fact that there are SEVEN different armies that you can currently collect, and the player soon realizes that there is almost an infinite number of possible strategies/combinations that he will encounter while playing this game. This, I have since learned, is called the "meta-game". When it comes to Duel of Champions, the meta-game is as robust as they come, which explains why it is currently the most internationally popular DCG out there amongst dedicated CCG/TCG aficionados.

In addition to the requisite multiplayer battles, DoC features a decent SP campaign system where the player can fight against the AI in a linked series of thematic battles spread across multiple campaigns. Not only do these provide some much needed practice for the player to come to grips with the tremendous variety in this game, but it also will unlock some faction decks, as well as providing sizable gold rewards that the player can use to purchase more decks. In general, I have found DoC to be a very generous game when it comes to providing the player with gold for new cards. Not only can the player earn gold by playing in MP and SP games, but there are even daily rewards that provide increasing amounts of gold just for logging in on consecutive days!

So, what's not to like? Well, as with all DCGs, beware the ferocious community! Be prepared to lose a lot, perhaps even more so than in other DCGs because of this game's deep mechanics, and the fact that Ubisoft has done a great job of organizing regular tournaments for prizes, something that has fostered the creation of a very competitive and competent community.

Sadly, players must also beware another issue with DoC: the many gold farmers who are plaguing this game. DoC is an internationally popular game - and gamers know what that means: fanatical players who game the system to earn in-game currency as fast as possible. I suspect there is a lot of this going on in DoC because the vast majority of games I have played in DoC were against people with some random handle along the lines of "Johnny12345", something that is usually a dead giveaway for a person with multiple gold farming accounts. More to the point, the majority of these players also immediately take to the chat channel and demand that I play as fast as possible so they could get their bag of gold and be on their way to the next match (apparently the 2 minute game times is too long for them), or they outright ask if I could throw the match so they can unlock a deck / get some gold. Not good. It is so bad that I really wish Ubisoft would include a way to turn off the chat function because these deck/gold farmers are really hampering my enjoyment of the game. You've been warned.

Be that as it may, Duel of Champions is a very impressive F2P DCG, one I find myself coming back to time and again in a (vain) effort to comes to grip with the game's mechanics and win a few games.

Hearthstone by Blizzard Entertainment:




I have to confess: when I heard that even Blizzard, developers of the ultra-popular Starcraft and World of Warcraft games, were getting in on the DCG craze, I sort of rolled my eyes. Blizzard might be the kings of RTS and the MMORPG, but what did they know about DCGs? Wasn't this just a shameless attempt to cash in on their iconic fantasy universe yet again, but in a different gaming genre?

As Hearthstone has since reminded me, there is a reason why Blizzard is considered to be the Cadillac brand of game developers. Not only is this an enormously talented studio, but it is also a studio that never releases anything until they are 100% sure it is perfect as can be (I'll conveniently look the other way on that whole Diablo III auction house fiasco as it was a rare slip....). Hearthstone in living proof of this.

Remember how at the start of this game article (so long ago) I said I started exploring the world of DCGs because I was looking for that good "easy to learn, hard to master" board game feeling? Well, that is exactly what Hearthstone has in spades. Indeed, even the opening moments of the game reinforce this notion by showing you what appears to be a medieval-looking game box, one accompanied by an inviting host who starts the game with something along the lines of "a busy night, but there is always room for another!" Even the actual game board looks just like what it is: a compact game board of the sort you would expect questing rogues would take with them as a diversion for those moments when they were not clearing out a nasty dungeon:



The game design itself is pure genius. Blizzard clearly took a look at the state of DCGs (and, no doubt, their cardboard cousins) and distilled those games down to their gameplay essence. The result is that unlike games such as Duel of Champions where the formula was to add as much depth as possible via all sorts of gameplay chrome, Blizzard decided to follow Chess' example and stick with a formula that is built upon an "easy to learn" base, but allows for deep gameplay via all the possible combinations inherent in a randomly drawn card game. Like with Chess, what results is a fantastically addictive game that initially entices the player with its elegant and fun gameplay, but eventually ensnares them with the limitless strategic possibilities.

The gameplay itself is similar to Duel of Champions: the players choose one of ninepossible heroes and face off across a board where the name of the game is too, again, whittle away at the opposing heroes hit points (thirty, this time). Units and spells are called into battle via the games single resource, mana, that accumulates in a straightforward manner of one crystal per turn. Simple. From there gameplay continues in the fashion of the other DCGs in that cards are played to call units and spells into battle, but unlike DoC's decks that can contain over 200 cards(!), players are limited to choosing only 30 at a time - again, another nice simplification that keeps thing manageable. Units operate in similar fashion to DoC in that some block enemy attacks (but not physically as in DoC where one card needs to be in front of another to block it; inHearthstone a unit needs the "Taunt" attribute to actually stop an attack, otherwise the player can just ignore it and go for the enemy hero - an interesting twist), others can "charge" and attack immediately, and spells are popping everywhere to the benefit and detriment of units. The nine heroes themselves also come with unique special abilities - such as the Warlock's ability to harm himself for -2 HP in exchange for drawing a new card - something can that be decisive over the course of a game. Again, nothing radical here, rather a general simplification to the gameplay found in other DCGs. But that is what makes it so addictive as it serves to make everything more comprehensible, especially for players new to the genre, not to mention serving to keep the matches nice and short. This is the ongoing theme of Hearthstone: keep it simple, keep it fun.

Even the cards are nicely simplified:


None of that "+/- divide by zero and add the square root to all cards of a certain shade of gray" complexity that you would see in games such as DoC.

Blizzard even took steps to make the tournament system as painless as possible. In Hearthstone, whenever you play a ranked game - and really, why shouldn't you? - you are automatically placed in a competitive ladder that resets each month. In this way the casual player can compete over the course of a month without actually feeling the need to obligate himself to some lengthy process. Nice! And for those who prefer something a bit more intense, the player can even enter the "Arena" where he gets to pick from three randomly selected heroes, and then build a deck from randomly selected cards. A series of games are then played until the player wins 12 games or loses 3. Either way, prizes are awarded based on performance. It is a wonderfully fun mode, albeit it does cost 150 in-game gold, or $1.99 to participate.

Not surprisingly, Blizzard polish can be seen everywhere. While the other DCGs each have their own fair bit of polish, Blizzard has made sure this game absolutely shines. The board itself is often nicely animated - I particularly like the griffin who will begin following your mouse pointer with his gaze if you annoy him enough! - with the cards themselves having some nice vocalizations. The spells are also nicely realized with some cool special effects that serve to really bring them to life.



Blizzard even thoughtfully limited the in-game chat options to about eight or so generic utterances, such as "well played!" (much appreciated after the nonsense in Duel of Champions!). Blizzard even helps the player recognize he is out of gameplay options during the course of a turn with a belly-laugh inducing "Job's done!"

When it comes to a single player experience, Hearthstone is largely as limited as Scrolls. Until recently, players were reduced to sparring against generic normal and hard AI, but with Blizzard's launch of their first expansion, Curse of Naxxramas, now players can match decks and wits against challenging thematic AI opponents and have a chance at winning unique cards in the process. However, as with Card Hunters, I do think the expansion's price tag of $19 is a bit steep even if you can unlock it with in-game gold, as well.

All in all, Hearthstone is a thoroughly enjoyable DCG, one this is smartly designed to be easy to pick up by inexperience players, yet offer plenty of meta-game challenge for the more die-hard card game warriors (as seen by all the guides and videos popping up on the intertubes). In many ways, Hearthstone reminds me of the slot machine of DCGs, a game designed to be so addictive that you can but help to pull that handle one more time. In this regard, Blizzard has succeeded in their mission. But they have also succeeded in another mission: to create a game seemingly designed to be perfect for playing on dark and chilly nights, preferably by the (virtual) hearth in an (virtual) inviting inn. In this regard, Blizzard has also succeeded wonderfully.

Other Mentions

There are two other games that I have tried, but due to time limitations, I haven't been able to give sufficient time for a detailed mention here. So here is a quick summation:

Magic: 2014: This, of course, is the official PC conversion of Wizards of the Coast's world famous CCG. From what I experienced in the demo, the game reminded me ofDuel of Champions, but with an interesting land-based resource system. Unfortunately, before I could even finish the tutorial battles, Magic: 2015 was released. So I stopped playing 2014 with the idea of switching to 2015. However, seeing that Magic: 2015 costs $10, I haven't really had the urge to go back and try it as I am having a blast with these other free-to-play DCGs. Still, I did like what I saw and hope to give this title the time it deserves.

Infinity Wars: This is a DCG (or is it Digital TCG - I am so confused by this nomenclature!) that clearly is trying to innovate. As you might have noticed, all the DCGs I have covered have had a fantasy theme to them (no doubt due to the success of the fantasy-themed Magic: The Gathering). What a waste! While I enjoy fantasy themes as much as the next guy, I think this is so shortsighted, especially in light of how the DCG template could be utilized in a wide range of thematic settings. This is why Infinity Warsinitially caught my attention - it was the only DCG that I have encountered that incorporates some sci-fi units (the game's story involve multiple dimensions clashing, hence the sci-fi meets fantasy mash-up). But there are also other notable innovations to this game. For example, unlike all the other DCGs that have static card art, IW features animated art that can be quite nice at times. Also, IW has an interesting war theme going on where the player's cards are led by commanders (but the player is represented by a fortress that must be defended), and cards deploy to separate assault, defense, and support zones. There is even a morale system that makes it possible to lose a game by suffering too many (card) casualties! Currently in open beta, Infinity Wars is definitely a game I want to explore some more once it goes v1.0.

HEX: I don't have much to say about this because it is currently in close beta. I do, however, know that this is a game that was launched through one of the biggest crowd-sourced funding campaigns of all time, so there is that. Also, this game promises to marry the DCG with the MMO in a way never attempted before. In short: HEX has already created quite the buzz, but card game aficionados await the final verdict.


Final Thoughts

So there you go, some digital card games to get you started. Really, all the games I mentioned on this list are worthy of your time as they each have their charms. As of right now I would have to say that if forced to choose one, Hearthstone would be my favorite - I really enjoy its quick matches and elegant gameplay, but that is just me.

If you do decide to give this beguiling gameplay genre a try, I urge you to go into it with the idea of just having fun. Like Chess, this is a very competitive environment where experience pays a lot in dividends - not to mention giving you lots more cards and, hence, options. So, again, be prepared to LOSE A LOT OF GAMES at first! It is going to happen. But be patient, play your best, and enjoy each match just for the ride. And before you know it, you too will soon be winning your fair share of games.

Well, that is what they tell me, anyway....

[A better edited version of this article appears on my blog: Burke's Joystick :D] Attached Thumbnails
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